Monday, March 23, 2009

The Removal Van has Left the Building

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

'Watchmen' Re-visited

Fig.1: The Point of the Film

Imagine a world in which a human being developed god-like powers and put them to military use. War might soon be a thing of the past - although a lot of people might die to prove it. Imagine this world also tolerating people who dress up in costumes to avenge crime, before, as worlds often do, turning its back on these vigilantes in search of another scapegoat on whom to project its hunger for violence. Imagine a world in which some people actually thought about the consequences of these things.

This is the world of ‘Watchmen’, one of the most serious and elegant graphic novels ever written. This is not the world of ‘Watchmen’, one of the most talked about movies ever made.

In the moral universe of the novel, co-created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as a meditation on power at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon is, in 1985, the apparently permanent President, celebrity and industry have struck a devil’s bargain with politics and militarism, the streets run dark red with the aftermath of the shattering of community bonds, and vigilantism is an inevitable outworking of society’s sickness. The costumed avengers, as they call themselves, have been banned from their activities, Nixon having made masks illegal (which gives you a sense of the knowing ironic tone of the book); most of them have retired, happy to be left alone, but quietly grieving a previous life so exciting that it can’t be compared to what they have now.

One of them is the god-like being – Dr Manhattan – who is introduced to the world with the headline: ‘The Superman exists and he is American’ (Later a colleague clarifies the intent, revising his statement thus: ‘God exists, and he is American’. He offers words of comfort to anyone who feels terrified by such a sentiment, saying that their fear is merely an indication that they haven’t lost their minds entirely.) This telegraphs the heart of the book: when power is treated as right rather than privilege, when violence is assumed to be the path to peace, when people define themselves primarily as nations rather than a global community, and when sexuality is wrapped up with force, you get perpetual war.

The book is utterly fascinating, bleak, and serious.

The film gets the second part right. It’s bleak. Bleak as hell. And I mean that as literally as I can. In the moral universe of the ‘Watchmen’ movie all reflective thought is banished in favor of an astonishing visual setup – one of the most stunning-look films ever made turns out to be also one of the biggest missed opportunities. Is violence inherent to human nature? Do people always default to selfishness? Does fame depend on the exploitation of others? In what sense does the love of money lead inexorably to the destruction of community? These, and many other questions are left quietly alone; allowing the movie to indulge its (admittedly talented) director’s taste for showcase thuggery. You’ve never seen blood flow like you do in this movie.

In spite of some good casting alongside the quite brilliant photography and art direction, the film is a far cry from the somber philosophical text on which it’s based. Moore has said that, among other things, he wanted to explore what ‘a Batman-type, driven, vengeance-fuelled psychopath would be like in the real world’. Clearly the authorial intent was to ask serious questions about how we allow violence to be done in our name. Yet the film presents this ‘Batman-type’ character in such a manner that at the first screening I saw, when he carried out an horrific act of violence, the audience applauded. I don’t think the film-makers were being ironic. When the story in the novel climaxes with a ‘kill a few to save a lot’ ending, we may be supposed to wonder if there might just be a better way to bring peace than to commit genocide. But the film doesn’t have enough heart to make us care about the future of humanity. It’s a color photocopy of the source novel – a clone without a soul. ‘Watchmen’ (the novel) aims to tell the truth about violence; but the film wants us to be excited by it. In a world with vengeance-fuelled superheroes running the show, people would be afraid to be afraid; but ‘Watchmen’ the movie made me feel afraid for how we often tell the story of human beings to each other these days. The book mourns how we so often see violence as a positive path. But the film celebrates it.

Fig.2: The Point of the Book

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Response to New Violence in Northern Ireland

UPDATE 10.45pm: It's been reported that a police officer has been shot dead in Craigavon. Whether this is connected to the murders in Antrim is unclear. But I feel even more strongly about everything I wrote earlier today. There has never been any justification for the use of violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland; and for at least the last decade there has been no intellectual logic to even pretending such justification.

On Saturday night, two young soldiers preparing to go to Afghanistan were murdered in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Four other people, including two men delivering pizzas, were injured. The people who carried out the attack — members of a group that split from the mainstream IRA in the late 1990s — claim they were doing so to bring about a free Ireland. They make the callous claim that the pizza delivery guys were collaborating with what they consider to be the British occupation forces in Ireland.

It’s hard to know what to say in response, but let’s begin with a reminder of the political context.

In short, from 1997 onwards, after 30 years of civil conflict in which our society saw illegal paramilitary groups and British security forces engage, nearly 4,000 people were killed, 43,000 physically injured: we negotiated with each other.

The vast majority of Irish people, North and South, voted in a free referendum over 10 years ago to endorse the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The government of the Irish Republic supports this agreement. So does the government of the U.K. And the European Parliament. And the U.S. government. And the United Nations.

The agreement required serious and substantial compromise from each community; it was hard-won, and some of the costs of the agreement are still difficult to bear. It has brought about the release of all prisoners held for politically-motivated offenses; the reform of the police to the extent where a (U.S.) oversight commissioner pronounced it one of the most progressive police services in the world; the enactment of some of the most radical and humane equality and human rights legislation anywhere on the planet; and a power-sharing executive government whose very modus operandi includes neither Protestant/unionist nor Catholic/nationalist representatives from vetoing the other side.

Every community in Northern Ireland has had to compromise, and every community has gained. Our past is a broken one; we’re trying to fix it. The people who murdered the soldiers and seriously injured PIZZA DELIVERY GUYS on Saturday are motivated by a mixture of historical falsehood and the human tendency to blood lust, along with whatever personal stories may have forced them into thinking that violence is an acceptable path. They are wrong. And anyone who tries to justify this kind of act betrays the best of what it means to be Irish. I am left with feelings of deep offense alongside the sorrow I feel for the loved ones of those who have died, been wounded, and the rest of the people of my home, Northern Ireland, whose traumatic memories of the past have now been re-stirred. Including my own.

But angry rhetoric is not what we need right now. We need to assert something vital: that being northern Irish, or Irish, or simply human is never to be just ‘one thing.’ I am from Belfast, but you cannot easily put me in a political or religious box. Within the past two generations I have family ties to people from just about the widest demographic background possible in 20th century Ireland. Protestant. Catholic. Irish. British. Pro-state. Anti-state. Political. Apolitical. Bereaved. Suffering. Peacemaking. To those who would return to violence as a method for political action, I say: If you want to remove the British, you’d have to kill half of me. On the other hand, if you want to hurt the Irish, take the other half. If we’re honest, we may all find that our backgrounds grant us more in common with our supposed enemies than we usually think.

I am close to people who lived to see their loved ones murdered. The killing was done by Irish ‘rebels’ who believed they were trying to start a revolution, and by pro-British ‘loyalists’ telling themselves that they were trying to stop one. That’s over now. Or it’s supposed to be.

The people who killed two young men and shot four others on Saturday night may think they’re trying to get the revolution started again. They’re wrong. The revolution has already come. It came when our political representatives decided to forgo the right to revenge and negotiate a settlement in which nobody wins (except everybody) and nobody loses (except everybody). Because of this revolution, we can each have a stake in the future of our society; and the past can be addressed through nonviolent, non-punitive means. It has cost us a great deal. There can be no one who is totally satisfied with every aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process – I’ll gladly tell you what bothers me about it if you ask. But complaint, and much less revenge, won’t serve us – even as we are outraged at the weekend’s horror. For the larger truth is that while it has always been true that there has never been any justification for the use of violence for political ends in Ireland and Northern Ireland, today, and for at least the last decade, there can be no way of even pretending such a justification exists.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Hollywood Meets Tehran

When there’s an international crisis, I know I’d prefer to have Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard on my side – strong women with a reflective presence. I'm not kidding. So it’s good to see that they’ve gone one step further than just talking about peace or acting in movies that make people feel good about themselves. Right now, they’re actually in Iran, along with some other senior members of the Academy, as part of what might be considered one of the highest level cultural exchange programs since Ronnie and Mikhail went for a walk by the Ellioaa River.

You may think I’m joking, but I’m not: we’ve been so used over the past few years to being told that the way to be good citizens is to be suspicious of the rest of the world and go to the mall that the notion of an artistic exchange between Hollywood and Tehran seems nothing short of, well, nothing short of the kind of thing people who want to nurture the bonds that are formed through aesthetic experience would do.

Hopefully – and presumably – the Academy people realise that the exchange should work both ways - Iranian film-makers have produced some of the most indelible and humane cinematic images of the past twenty years – Makhmalbaf’s ‘Blackboards’ nurturing the parallels between vagabond teachers and the birds that swoop above them on their treacherous journey through the mountains (see the astonishing image above for a taster of why there's almost nothing more evocative you could choose to watch tonight), another teacher in ‘09/11/01’ drawing a circle in the dust to represent the clock that allows her pupils to take a minute’s silence in honour of the dead in the Twin Towers, the various attempts by the protagonist to make and receive cell phone calls in a place where they don’t belong in Kiarostami’s ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’.

Predictably, the nation’s cultural captains have used the visit as an opportunity to denounce what they see as the decadence of US movies – I suppose I can understand people taking offence at the portrayal of Iranian forebears as barbaric in ‘300’ – though I was offended by that film’s vision of humanity itself as nothing more than a warrior species, whose bloodlust is not just to be celebrated, but seen as the better part of strength. But those images did not begin (nor will they end) with '300' (despite the fact that the myth of redemptive violence may have first been written down in that part of the world - have a look at The Epic of Gilgamesh).

And, come on, guys, if you’re going to be offended by the ‘Ayatollah’ character in ‘The Wrestler’ first spare a thought for spandex wearers, peroxide tinters, and stapler afficianados everywhere: the film is riffing on what got US wrestling fans riled in the 80s: are you seriously suggesting that having a guy dress up as an Iranian religious figure who gets his flag broken in a toy fight is less disturbing than burning an effigy of a US President? Could we not just agree that we’re all in this satire game together; and sometimes it goes too far?

But this is all bluster when compared to what I’d most like to see come out of the LA tourists’ visit to Iran: just as there is more to US cinema than cutting and burning, there's more to Iranian culture than the images evoked by President Ahmadenijad's public pronouncements. There’s a profound humanity to cinematic work that has emerged from Iran – whatever else happens as a result of Hollywood plus Tehran, hopefully some more of it will be seen.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Radio discussion on theology and homosexuality

Interesting story on BBC Radio's Sunday Sequence this week - two guys talking about being gay, 'ex-gay', 'ex-ex-gay' and generally challenging how the Christian churches have treated them. The discussion will be available to listen to on-line til this Sunday.

Jeremy Marks, a man I've met and who is kind and gracious used to run a ministry called 'Courage', that believed it could offer gay Christians the opportunity to change their sexual orientation. Over time, he came to believe that this paradigm was unbiblical, bigoted, and contributed to the reasons why the rate of suicide attempts among young gay men is significantly higher than among men who aren't gay. In 2001 he made a public apology, and now offers 'Courage' as a space for 'gay and lesbian Christians who are seeking a safe place of friendship in which to reconcile their faith and sexuality and grow towards Christian maturity'. It's a remarkable shift - and Jeremy Marks is a remarkable man.

Michael Davidson, another man I've met, and who is also kind and gracious, has just established a ministry in Belfast called 'CORE' that appears to run on the same terms that Courage used to - offering space for gay and lesbian Christians who consider their same-sex attraction 'unwanted'.

Jeremy and Michael discussed their differing perspectives on the BBC; and what was extraordinary was how generous they were with each other. I disagree with Michael's theological perspective on sexuality, and it needs to be said that 're-orientation therapy' has been subject to sustained criticism from psychologists and others; but his genuine desire to reduce the volume of this too often fractious debate, and to not condemn people who disagree with him is moving and offers a contrast to the way these questions are often handled.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Rewarding the faithful.

I've said before that the main value of awards ceremonies is that they allow for the possibility that some good films will get a new audience; and everybody likes prizes. The decadence and indulgence that seems to accompany the show - who cares who designed your dress? why are you dating so-and-so? is it anyone's business - I can do without; but it's hard to care about the movies without caring about the movie industry.

So, for anyone in the UK who's up late, anyone in the US who wants another commentary on the show on top of what they'll get on ABC, or in any other time zone with nothing better to do, Jett Loe and I will be live blogging the OSCARs over at

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What We Owe Jade Goody

Two years ago, when the UK reality TV star Jade Goody was being scapegoated for all British racism, historic and contemporary, I wrote the following:

“I wonder if our society will ever be ready to treat public figures as human beings. A 25 year old woman with a difficult family background, whose public persona, lest we forget, was carefully nurtured by the huge corporation responsible for ‘Big Brother’, made reference to the ethnicity of someone she was mocking on television, possibly because she is not mature enough to hide what others in the public eye might. She became therefore the target of violent threats, and eventually physically collapsed under the stress of being made to pay for the un-acknowledged guilt of a nation. There has been little or no serious discussion of the meaning of racism in our culture, nor what we might together do to address our own bigotry. One has to wonder if the hugely disproportionate reaction does not reveal more about repressed post-colonial self-loathing on the part of the British people, perhaps especially that held by its tabloid editors. If you have not have heard of her medical distress, it may be worth asking why some sections of the media were happy to report her public mistakes, but not her personal tragedy. We seem caught in a cultural paradox, where certain kinds of public vulnerability are not only welcome, but seen as a path to credibility; while other forms of honesty appear to prove Seamus Heaney’s adage that ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’”

Now, with the announcement of her terminal cancer, there seems to be nothing left to report but her tragedy. There’s a sense, as the news of Jade’s sorrow is absorbed by the public (and the media mavens who made her first a figure of fun, then hatred), of a quiet guilt descending. The sort that a bully might feel after seeing the impact of their actions, realising the fact that no matter what they might have previously thought, the power dynamics in which they were involved have produced immutable proof of something ancient but almost always true: that two wrongs don’t make a right.

I wonder if it’s too much to ask that we might see this woman, Jade Goody, as something more than a figure of fun, or of accusation, or even of pity. Could we instead ask ourselves if the dehumanization of our culture might finally have exhausted any right to sustain itself? That instead of trivializing her further, we might let our sister Jade Goody have some peace to be with her loved ones; and instead of using her illness as a reason to feel some kind of emotional catharsis, we might consider ourselves privileged to have the chance, the space, and the health to reflect on how we ourselves (and I mean to start with me) will respond to the questions of humiliation, finger-pointing, prejudice (not only the racism she was accused of, but the bigotry she faced because it was convenient to label her ‘stupid’), and the human brokenness that her sad story evokes?