Category Archives: Film reviews

Film reviews – The drama of the everyday – Locke and Last Orders

Robert Henderson

Locke main cast – Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke,  Ruth Wilson as Katrina (voice),  Olivia Colman as Bethan (voice), Andrew Scott as Donal (voice),  Ben Daniels as Gareth (voice),  Tom Holland as Eddie (voice),

Director:  Steven Knight

Last orders main  cast – Michael Caine as  Jack Dodds,  Tom Courtenay as  Vic Tucker,  David Hemmings  as  Lenny,  Bob Hoskins as Ray Johnson,  Helen Mirren as  Amy Dodds, Ray Winstone as  Vince Dodds

Director: Fred Schepisi

Perhaps the rarest of  films are those which make gripping dramas out of ordinary life. Unsurprising  because everyday existence does not obviously lend itself to drama. Locke and Last Orders are two  films which show how wrongheaded this idea is by producing gripping and in the case of Last Orders poignant stories from the everyday.

They are very different films. Locke concerns a few hours in someone’s life: Last Orders encompasses a period running from just before the Second World War to the 1990s.  Locke has only one actor on screen: Last orders  follows the lives of half a dozen characters.  Yet set apart as they are on the surface both share a  general similarity of being about  things which could happen to anyone.

Apart from a minute or two at the beginning and end  of the film the entire on screen action  of Locke consists of the eponymous character Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) in his car driving and making and receiving phone calls about his work and private life.  Sounds tedious and limited in dramatic scope with precious little opportunity for  character development?  Don’t you believe it.

Locke is in circumstance Hell. He is a foreman in charge of a building site.  The next day he is due to supervise a huge concrete “pour”, that is  concrete  poured  on site to create a large structure, a very demanding technical task. . But  Locke will not be at the “pour” because he is headed for a hospital where a woman (Bethan) with whom he had a one-night-stand is about to give birth to his child. To add to these  worries his wife Katrina knows nothing of the other woman or impending child and she and their son are expecting him home where Locke  and his son are supposed to  watch a football match together.

Why has he sacrificed so much for a woman he barely knows and a child he has not wanted?   Locke was abandoned by his father soon after his birth and did not meet him until he had reached adulthood and with whom he never came to terms when they did meet as adults. This provides the impetus for  Locke behaving in this quixotic  way because he does he does not want this child to be deserted by its father.  His uneasy relationship with his father also provides a hook for Locke to have imaginary conversations with his father while he drives.  These are  the only weak and sentimental  things in the film.  They  would have been better left out and the circumstances left to speak for themselves .  But  they are  a small blemish.

So far so traumatic, but it gets far worse.   Locke rings one of his workers at the site to get him to do the last minute checking he should have done and to prepare him to oversee the “ concrete pour” in Locke’s place.  But the worker Donal has a drink inside him and does not feel confident of taking Locke’s place.   Locke rings Bethan to say he is on the way.  He speaks to his son and wife saying he will not be home in time for the match.  He discovers that a road he needed closed to allow the concrete to be delivered  has not been closed. He  speaks to his boss  who pleads with him to be there to supervise the concrete “pour” and  eventually  fires him when he realises that Locke will not be at the site to supervise the “pour”.

As Locke  drives he also has the stress of breaking  the news to his wife that he is going to see a woman who is having his child and tries desperately to explain to his son why he will not be home. After several phone calls his wife  decides to throw him out of the house.

As this  seeming never ending barrage of stress hits Locke he keeps his cool and   provides solutions to the practical  difficulties he faces but fails with his relationships. By the end of the film Locke has lost his wife, his home and his job but gained a son and a resolution in his mind of his relationship with his father.

The role of Locke is as demanding a part as could be imagined because the character is centre stage throughout and has to carry the film utterly  for the rest of the cast, which includes some fine actors,  cannot in the nature of things make much  impact because they are simply disembodied voices who appear only in short bursts . Hardy carries it off  immaculately. In fact, this film is made for him because he has great screen presence and exudes self-possession.

This is a  gripping film made from what looks like on paper extremely unpromising  material.  There is no disaster to keep up the tension, just the net of  circumstances remorselessly closing.

Last orders (released 2001)  is centred around as starry a cast of British actors as you are likely to find in a film, namely,  Michael Caine,  Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings,  Bob Hoskins,  Helen Mirren,  Ray Winstone. Often when a cast has so many heavyweight  actors it just does not work either because the actors’  egos clash or the roles they have are too small for them.  Not here. Probably because they are all actors brought up in the English repertory tradition they know how to play as a team.

Vic ,  Lenny ,  Ray  and Vince are on a sentimental journey to scatter the ashes of their old friend Jack Dodds  in Margate.   This is a story with solid  workingclass roots. Jack was an East End butcher ,  Ray  (Bob Hoskins) is a professional gambler and  Jack’s best friend  since they fought together in the second world war; Lenny (David Hemmings) is  a still belligerent  former  boxer;  Vic (Tom Courtenay) a quiet character who is an undertaker and Jack’s adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), a car dealer whose real family  perished in a wartime bombing .

On the journey they stop at various places which were significant in Jack’s life. They reminisce about Jack and the times they had together.  This leads  to flashbacks to various times in their lives and in the lives of  Jack and his wife Amy.   We see the characters in their vigorous hopeful youth before the second world war and  their  subsequent messy way through their lives , lives  full of disappointments and betrayals as well as friendship, love and loyalty.   Old tensions  gradually emerge  and arguments break out, but  these are superficially smoothed over and  Jack’s ashes are scattered  amongst forced sentimentality.

Counterpoised to the four on the trip is Jack’s wife Amy on a journey of her own. For fifty years she has unfailingly  visited her mentally retarded daughter  June (Laura Morelli) in a home, while her husband could barely acknowledge the daughter’s existence, a fact which has tainted their marriage.  The daughter is so severely handicapped she does not even recognise her mother.  At the end of the film Amy decides that 50 years of visiting is enough and sees June one last time.

By the time they have scattered the ashes Vic ,  Lenny ,  Ray  and Vince are all  diminished.  The journey has not been about Jack but themselves.    They have tried to fill their lives  with significance but  either circumstances or their own weaknesses and limitations have prevented it.   They are left only with a sense of unfocused regret.

Little needs to be said about the  acting other than it is uniformly first rate with Caine producing one of his very best performances  with  Helen Mirren  deeply sympathetic as Jack’s wife.

More than a century and a half ago, the American idealist Henry Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”    That is as true today as it was when Thoreau said it,  although  the desperation will have different causes and effects in different times and places.  Locke and Last Orders are,  in their  very different ways,   studies in desperation, of people living lives which are not in their control or even worse potentially within their control but not controlled.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Belle

Cast

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle

Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford

Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray

Sam Reid as John Davinier

Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay

Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield

Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray

Tom Felton as James Ashford

Alex Jennings as Lord Ashford

James Norton as Oliver Ashford

James Northcote as Mr Vaughan

Bethan Mary-Jeames as Mabel

Director Amma AsanteThis is a straightforward propaganda film in the politically correct interest, the particular interest  being that of racial prejudice and slavery.  It is the latest in a slew of such films over the past few years, most notably Django Unchained, Lincoln and  12 Years a slave. More generally, it is an example of the well-practiced  trick of taking of a black person  from history and elevating them way  beyond their importance simply because they are black –  the attempt to place Mary Seacole on a par with Florence Nightingale comes to mind.

Belle is set in the  middle of the eighteenth century and is based  extremely  loosely  on a true story, the looseness being  aided by the fact that information about  Dido is very scanty, resting almost entirely on entries in the accounts  of the house in which she is raised  (Kenwood House  in Hampstead) and diary entries made by the one-time Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson who was a guest in 1789.

The story told in the film is this, around   1764 the Lord Chief Justice of England,  the Earl of Mansfield , takes into his household  a very young mixed race girl Dido Belle. She is  the bastard child of a slave Mary Belle  and Mansfield’s  nephew Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode).  The girl is legally a slave by birth, but is treated as a freewoman once she is in England.  Rather oddly Lindsay  is portrayed as absolutely doting on the child then vanishes entirely  from the film despite the fact that he lived for another quarter century.

The Mansfields  have no children of   their  own.  When  Dido arrives, they have already  taken in her  cousin,  Elizabeth Murray, great niece to Lord Mansfield.  Elizabeth and Dido grow up together, in the film, supposedly as  playmates and equals. This idea is largely derived from  a portrait painted of the two girls in their middle teens  by an artist originally thought to be Zoffany,  but now relegated to by anonymous.   The composition of the painting suggests that equality was not quite the relationship.  The picture  does have  Elizabeth resting a hand on Dido, but  shows Elizabeth ahead of the girl. In addition, Dido is carrying a basket with fruit and is dressed as the type of exotic ethnic human curiosity much favoured in paintings  in the 18th century, the exoticism being signalled not only by her race but the fact that she is sporting a  turban.  Such touches suggest subordination.   The Kenwood accounts book support this by showing Elizabeth receiving an allowance of £100 a year and Dido only £30. Her position was indeterminate, above a servant but below a unashamed relative.

The film ignores such details. Dido is  presented not merely as the natural  equal of her  cousin Elizabeth Murray, but judged on her merits and circumstances, as more desirable.  Her social status is elevated . She is described as an heiress with a fortune of £2,000 (worth £300,000 at 2014 prices)  left her by her father.  This is simply untrue. Dido  inherited  a half share of £1,000 from her father and was left £500 and an annuity of £100 pa in Mansfield’s will, but this was years after the events covered by the film – her father died in 1788 and Mansfield in 1793. In the film Dido as a girl of twenty or so  is represented as being a   prize in the marriage stakes because of the fictitious fortune, while Elizabeth Murray is portrayed  as the young woman in danger of being left on the shelf because, the film tells us, she has no fortune.  In fact, Elizabeth was an heiress  with the added lure of being the daughter of an earl.

To give substance to the idea that Dido is the better marriageable property,  the film has the son of a peer   Oliver Ashford ( James Norton) wooing and eventually proposing to  Dido.  His brother  James  (Tom Felton)  objects on the grounds of her race and (mildly) physically assaults Dido. Several other members of the Ashford family also take exception to the match. There is absolutely no evidence  for such a  romance and it is most improbable that someone of Ashford’s social standing would have thought of such a match,  let alone carried it through to the point of a proposal.

To this improbable confection is added the portrayal of the person who marries her. The name of the person John Davinier is true to life, but that is as far as reality extends. In the film Davinier is depicted as English, the son of a vicar and a budding lawyer who initially is taken under Mansfield’s patronage. In real life Davinier was French,  the son of a servant,  who worked as a steward  or possibly even as  a valet. That he was thought a suitable match for Dido points firmly to her social inferiority.

The  second half of the  film is largely devoted to Dido working  to influence Lord Mansfield over a suit relating to slaves.   In 1783 Mansfield  has to give a judgement in a case involving the slaveship  Zong and her insurers.  The insurance claim is made after the cargo of slaves are thrown overboard with the ship owners claiming necessity on the grounds that the ship was running dangerously short of water and could not make landfall to take on water before the entire ship ‘s company was put in  danger.   Davinier in the film is depicted as fervent anti-slaver who  persuades Belle to get hold of some papers from Mansfield  which proves that the Zong owner’s story is false. There is no evidence for Dido’s  involvement in the matter and as Davinier is a fictitious character as far as the film is concerned,  his involvement is a nonsense.

Next there is the dramatic  treatment of Mansfield’s denial of the Zong insurance claim as a triumph for the anti-slavers. In fact Mansfield’s judgement was a very narrow and legalistic one. He did not proceed on the grounds that a slave could not be treated as property to be disposed of at the slave-owners will. All he did was rule that the insurance claim was invalid because the ship’s captain did not have the reason of necessity for his decision to throw the slaves overboard.  The film does  include this judgment but overlaid it with anti-slavery rhetoric by having Mansfield quote in the  Zong action  his earlier judgement in a slave case – that of the slave Somerset t in 1772. There  Mansfield ruled that slavery in England could not exist because  “The state of slavery . . . is so odious that  nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law” and freed Somersett, the positive law not existing.   The Somersett case is actually a better platform on which to  put the antislavery case,  but was  foregone because Belle would have been at most ten when the case came to court and could not have been portrayed as taking a role in influencing the judgement other than by her mere existence.

There is also an  attempt to paint Britain as being greatly dependent economically on the slave trade and the use of slaves in  some of the colonies.  On a number of occasions it is stated that Britain would be ruined if  slavery was undermined. This was indeed a claim made by those benefitting  from slavery but it was not the general opinion of the country, nor does it meet the facts. Hugh Thomas in his The Slave Trade estimates that by the second half of the 18th century the returns on slaving were no better than that of many other cargoes.

Simply judged as an theatrical experience the film fails. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido presents  two problems. The first is  her acting which is horribly flat. Theatrically speaking,  she was no more than a blank sheet to be passively written upon, a politically correct banner to be waved at the audience. The second difficulty concerns her looks and demeanour. Frankly, to this reviewers eyes at least , she  is not  the irresistible  beauty  the film suggests and in this role lacks  feminine charm.  Ironically, her portrayal  may well be true to life, for Thomas Hutchinson describes her as  “neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough”.

To that difficulty  can be added the fact that so much has been made of the painting of Dido and Elizabeth  the filmgoer goes to the cinema with a firm idea of what Dido looked like. The painting shows her to have Caucasian features, which bear a strong resemblance to those her father  if his portrait is anything to go by.  Mbatha-Raw looks  so utterly different from the  portrait of Dido that her appearance becomes disconcerting.

There is a further point related to her looks. The painting of Dido and Elizabeth Murray shows Dido  to have been  distinctly Caucasian in her facial features  with a light brown colouring. Mbath-Raw, who has a white mother and black father, has little hint of Caucasian features and is rather darker in complexion.  Interestingly, in Twelve Years a Slave the same difficulty arises, with  the central character Solomon Northup in a contemporary depiction also  possessing strongly Caucasian features,  while the actor playing him had no such facial characteristics.   This is not a trivial flaw  because it is probable that the more like the dominant racial type in a society , the readier the acceptance  of the person by white society, even in such a status conscious time as the 18th century.   Could it be that the casting directors in films such as Belle and Twelve Years a Slave are consciously or unconsciously influenced by the idea that black actors and actresses should not look too  white?

An impressive cast of established English character actors surround Mbatha-Raw  and the film  looks  very pretty,  but it is dull, very very dull.   This is for the same reason that 12 Years a Slave is s dull.  it presents only one side of a story in  a very preachy manner. There is scarcely a moment when the viewer  does not feel they are being told what to think. The  slew of first rate English character actors do their best with the meagre fare they have been given,  but even the best of actors cannot make a dull script excite.

It is unreasonable to expect an historical film to religiously abide by the details  of a complicated story because  of the pressure of time and the need for dramatic impact. What is unforgiveable is the wilful misrepresentation of a person or event to satisfy an ideological bent.   Belle does this in the most  blatant fashion. Because racial prejudice has been elevated to the great blasphemy of our times, the film is not merely wrong but dangerous in its one-eyed nature and misrepresentations.

Film review – Transcendence

Transcendence

Main Cast

Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher.

Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger,  a government scientist

Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster, Caster’s wife and a fellow academic.

Kate Mara as Bree, the leader of Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.)

Cillian Murphy as Donald Buchanan, an FBI agent.

Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens, a military officer.

Paul Bettany as Max Waters, Caster’s best friend.

Director:  Wally Pfister

In terms of pure filmmaking this is a seriously flawed film. The dialogue is often clunking, there is a lack of character development and  the storyline is  weak.   Nonetheless, it  is a work  which will repay  seeing  because it deals with the  lethally threatening potential  of digital technology, threats  which will almost certainly become reality within the lifetime of most people now living.

Will Caster (Depp) is a scientist specialising in artificial intelligence. He is married to Evelyn  (Rebecca Hall) who works in the same field.  As the film opens Caster  believes he is close to creating an artificial intelligence  that is truly sentient and  which he believes  will create a technological singularity – the point at which computer technology exceeds the capability of homo sapiens – a state  which  Caster calls Transcendence.

This hope is cut short when  Caster is shot by a neo-Luddite group,   the  Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.),  who also  carry out a  attacks on his artificial-intelligence computer laboratories.  Caster survives the shot but the bullet is coated with radioactive material for  which there is no antidote.  The prognosis is that he has about a month to live.

Evelyn refuses to accept his imminent death and  with the help of Caster’s best friend  Max  (Paul Bettany)  arranges to upload Caster’s consciousness, personality, mind – call it what you will – to a quantum computer. Max  helps  do this despite the fact that he has grave doubts about the wisdom of the act. His doubts rest on the possibility that  Caster’s brain contents will not  be uploaded  uncorrupted or that a  Caster reduced to a digital form will not be Caster anymore  because of the immense change in his environment..

Once uploaded Caster appears on the computer screen looking and sounding  like his real world self, although there is a  new coldness  about him. He  immediately  demands to be connected to the Internet. Max sees the profound dangers of this if Caster in a computer is malign rather than benign  or simply inhuman for he will be able to copy himself throughout the Internet. Consequently, Max  tries to persuade Evelyn not to do it.    Evelyn,  obsessed with her desire to have Caster in any form,   shrugs aside Max’s doubts and throws him out of the laboratory before linking Caster to the Internet where he  promptly does just what Max feared and  copies himself throughout the  virtual world.

The digital Caster is,  if not omniscient and omnipotent, a significant way along the road to both,  because he now has the capabilities of both human and computer with access to the data and facilities of the entire digital world. He is not malign in the sense that he is consciously malicious or self-serving.  Rather Caster  is beset with the  sin of those who are sure they know best. His monomaniac desire to make the world a better place is suddenly released from the shackles of his emotions and the practical limitations on implementing his plans which existed when he was merely a man.   It is a cliché that with power comes a disregard for anyone else’s opinion, but  Caster not only knows better than anyone else,  he now  has the means to realise his dreams.

Using Evelyn as his instrument in the real  world, the virtual Caster makes a fortune rapidly and uses this to take  over  an isolated desert  town called Brightwood. Over the next two years  he develops  advanced technologies  in the fields of energy, medicine, biology and nanotechnology. His plan is to rid the world of the blight of disease,  pollution  and ultimately mortality. The problem is Caster intends to do this not only with no reference to anyone else but also by using nanotechnology to control humans so that they are in essence robots.

While all this is going on  forces are gathering to sabotage  Caster’s ambitions. Shortly after Max breaks with Evelyn , he  is kidnapped by R.I.F.T   and eventually agrees to  join them to disrupt Caster’s plans.  Then the  US government, in the form of  FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) a government scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) unofficially (so they have deniability) join forces  with R.I.F.T  in their  attempt to thwart Caster

Evelyn  gradually  moves from willing and committed  collaborator to a frightened and deeply  worried  woman . The process of disillusionment is completed when she  sees that Caster can  remotely connect to and control people’s minds .  Distraught, Evelyn approaches  R.I.F.T  who develop  a computer virus  which will destroy Caster’s  source code, killing him and, as a side effect,  destroy the technology on which modern society has become recklessly dependent. This happens because the digital Caster is spread throughout the Internet.  To destroy him, the Internet  has to be destroyed.

Regardless of the technological devastation using the virus will create, Evelyn agrees to upload the virus to end whatever it is that Caster has become.  But on returning to Brightwood she finds Caster resurrected in biological form, his body having been replicated, presumably, from   the digital information stored when his brain contents were uploaded .

Caster is aware that his wife  has the virus and  intends to destroy him but does not act against her.  The FBI and  R.I.F.T. attack the Brightwood base  and in the process mortally wound  Evelyn.  Evelyn persuades Caster  to save her by uploading her mind as his mind was uploaded. Caster does this even though he knows it will  end him and the Internet. The virus seemingly kills Caster and Evelyn, and  technological disaster ensues.

But all is not quite as it seems. Years later Max visits the Casters old garden.  The garden is  protected by a device called a  Faraday Cage. This stops any electrical transmission reaching what is inside the cage.    Max  sees a drop of water falling from a sunflower petal instantly cleanses a puddle of oil. The drop contains one of Casters nanoparticles, which is intact because of the protection afforded by the Faraday cage. Max thinks, logically correctly,  that  Caster  and Evelyn’s consciousness’s are contained within the active nano-particles. Perhaps Caster even knew when he wittingly uploaded the virus that there would be copies of  Evelyn and himself retained in the nano particles in  their old garden…

Depp’s performance a s Caster has  received a good deal of criticism on the grounds that it is a flat emotionless  portrayal. This is to  miss the nature of the character he inhabits  once he exists only in digital form. He is then  someone robbed  of the kernel of what makes them human.  Hence, his performance is exactly what is required.

The rest of the performances range from serviceable  in the case of Rebecca Hall to colourless  in the case of  Paul Bettany and slight in the case of everyone else simply because there was no space for them to expand their characters.

This could have been a much better film if two issues had been given much more space, namely, the general arguments against incontinent technological advance and the devastating effects which would result from a closing down of the Internet and  the ending of connectivity which is not only so much a part of modern everyday live but also vital for the maintenance of modern technological necessities such as power stations and large factories.

The  R.I.F.T  characters are anaemic and their arguments against technology do not go much beyond   the mantra “intelligent machines are bad”.  There is no discussion of how human beings may simply fail to survive because they become demoralised by the  superior capacity of machines or machines or that intelligent machines will take not only the jobs humans do now but any other jobs which arise.  As for the post-virus technological upset, this is barely touched upon.

The strength of the film is that it puts before its audience the possibilities of technology  moving beyond the control of human beings and even more fundamentally damaging calling into question what it is to be human.  The dangers of intelligent machines  are simple enough, either they replace humans by making them redundant or engender in humanity the trait seen in tribal peoples encountering   Europeans : the tribal peoples often became  terminally demoralised, presumably by the sophistication and scope of  European culture with which they were faced.

More fundamentally, until now we have known what a human being is. We are on the brink of losing that happy state. If the human mind could be copied an exist within a computer file there is the potential for immortality. The mind could exist within a robot body or  be  distributed throughout the Internet (or whatever supersedes it). If the mind can be uploaded to a computer file so  could all the data needed to create a digital replica of  a person’s body  be uploaded which could then be used to create a replica body into which the uploaded mind could be  uploaded in turn. If the technology to do that  existed, then in principle  it should be possible to upload a digitised mind into a body developed from someone else’s uploaded data….  That is not a world I should wish to live in.

See Transcendence  for its warning of the shape of things to come.

 

Wall Street, the Wolf of Wall Street  and the decline of moral sense

Robert Henderson

 

Wall Street (1987)

Main cast

Michael Douglas  as Gordon Gecko

Charlie Sheen as Bud Cox

Daryl Hannah  as Darien Taylor

Martin Sheen as Carl Fox

Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman

Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim

Sean Young as Kate Gekko

James Spader as Roger Barnes

Director Oliver Stone

—————————————–

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Main cast

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff

Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia

Matthew McCaughey as Mark Hanna

Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham

Rob Reiner as Max Belfort

Director  Martin Scorsese,

Twenty six years lie between Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) hitting cinema screens. Wall Street is fiction, although there are reputedly people in real life from whom the film’s main characters were developed, for example  Sir Larry Wildman is supposedly drawn from  on the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) is based upon the autobiography of a Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort. How much of that is fact  is debatable, although the general tone of the man’s life given in the book  is plausible.

Both films  begin their action in 1980s. Both deal with the shady world of finance. Both are vehicles for the unbridled egotism of their main characters.    There the similarity between them ends.  Wall Street is about  corporate raiders, men who seek to take over companies and then  asset strip them,  sell them on  quickly for a profit or run them as a business for a while, reduce costs (especially by cutting jobs ) and  then sell them . The main criminality involved in the film is insider dealing.

TWOWS  is simply about making a fast buck and the faster the better, with not even a show of doing anything beyond making money.   These people use   any method from the huckster selling of penny shares to insider dealing and celebrate each success in the spirit of the man successfully  running a hunt-the-lady scam in the street.  They are the masters of the universe and those who lose out are suckers.   There is zero concern for or even awareness of the greater general good of a society in the film.

The protagonists in Wall Street are a young stock trader Bud Fox, and a corporate  raider  Gordon Gecko.  Bud idolises Gecko and manages to work his way into Gecko’s circle by passing on privileged information to him, information which he has received from his father Carl who is a union leader at Bluestar Airlines.

Once inside Gecko’s circle  Bud  sheds  his morals and is content to help Gecko  engage in insider trading until the point where he discovers that he is being used as a catspaw by Gecko , who is trying to take over Bluestar  to dissolve the company in order to access cash in the company’s overfunded pension plan. Bud rediscovers his conscience after a fashion and outmanoeuvres Gecko by making an agreement with  Wildman – whom  previously he had helped Gecko to  defraud  through insider trading when Wildman wanted to take over a steel company –  to buy a majority shareholding in  the airline on the cheap  and run it as a going concern.  In doing this his  motivation is more revenge for being betrayed than suddenly being disgusted with what he had become under Gecko’s influence.

DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a trader who loses his job  with a Wall Street broker when the firm crashes, moves into boiler-room trading in penny shares (which are barely regulated and allow for huge commissions to be charged to naïve investors who are often buying shares which are next to worthless). He makes a small fortune doing this.

Belfort then decides to strike out on his own account in rather more up-market  surroundings. With a friend , Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill),  he sets  up  a suitably Ivy league sounding firm of brokers Stratton Oakmont.  They operate on the principle of “pump and dump”  (artificially inflating a company’s share price by tactics such as spreading false rumours or simply buying heavily and then selling the shares rapidly). Stratton Oakmont is given lift off by an article in Forbes magazine which calls Jordan a ‘twisted Robin Hood and the “Wolf of Wall Street”,  which appellations prove a first rate recruiting sergeant for Stratton Oakmont  with hundreds of young stock traders flocking to make money with him.  From that point on he becomes seriously rich.

What the films do admirably  is show the difference between the cinematic portrayal of  the American financial world  in films released  in 1987 and 2013.   To refresh my memory I watched Wall Street again before writing this review. The striking thing about the film is how restrained it is compared with TWOWS.

Michael Douglas’  Gordon Gecko is far more disciplined than DiCaprio’s Belfort.  He  has some semblance of intellectual and arguably even moral  justification for what he does, most notably in a scene where he is addressing a shareholders’ meeting of a company he is trying to take over. This is where Gecko utters the most famous words in the film “Greed is good”. The words have serious context. Gecko is peddling  the laissez faire  line that competition is an unalloyed good because it is the agency which creates natural selection amongst companies and it is only that which keeps an economy healthy. He also  puts his finger on a real  cancer in big business: the development of the bureaucratic company where the company is run for the benefit of the senior management rather than the shareholders. Gecko  rails against  the huge number of senior managers on  high salaries  in  the company he wishes to buy, a business  which has done little for its shareholders.  Whether you agree with the raw natural selection argument in business  – and I do not – at the very least it shows that the likes of Gecko feel the need to  justify what they do, to provide an ethical cloak for their misbehaviour.

There is also a serious difference in the general behaviour of  Gecko and Belfort.  Gecko  for all his faults is not a libertine. For him money is both an instrument and an end in itself. It gives him power and status, a medal of success in his eyes and the eyes of the world he inhabits.  There is purpose in Gecko.  He enjoys the material trappings of wealth but is not overwhelmed by them. In Belfort there is merely an ultimately empty grasping of licence  with drugs,  whores  and absurd status symbols such as an outlandishly large yacht , which his ego drives him to wreck by ordering the ship’s captain to sail in weather which the captain tells him is unsafe to sail in. He acquires a trophy girlfriend , He dumps his wife. There is no solid foundation to any part of his life.

The other big general difference between the films is ethical.  Wall Street has a moral voice which acts  as a  foil to Gecko’s amorality.   Bud Fox’s father Carl puts the case against capitalism red in tooth and claw. After Bud’s  discovery of Gecko’s attempt to buy Bluestar Carl’s dissenting ideological  voice  is added to by Bud. In TWOWS there is no moral voice or pretence by Belfort (or any other character) that what they are doing has any social function or ethical content. Instead the public are simply viewed as a bovine herd to be milked as ruthlessly as possible.  The fact that what is being done – whether it be selling penny stocks in a boiler room or using insider information in more sophisticated company –  is no better than a confidence trick does not cause Belfort and his fellow participants the slightest discomfort only unalloyed joy. They are getting rich at the expense of suckers. It’s all a game whose only end is to make the individual rich and to be rich is a validation of their existence.

Gecko and Belfort end up in prison, so in that respect at least they honour the old American  film tradition of never showing the criminal getting away with it, although  in the case of Belfort he ends up in a place which is not so much a prison as a country club.

Both films are strong in all the technical ways – script, plot, characterisation and acting – that are used to judge films. Michael Douglas’ is a more studied performance than that of  diCaprio who brings an amazing energy to the role.  But arresting as Douglas’ performance is  the film the film has ample space to fill out other characters. Indeed, in terms of screen time it is Bud who wins out.

DiCaprio’s   Belfort has strong claims to be the  best performance in an already  long career, but it utterly dominates the film and consequently the other characters have little room to develop than TWOWS.  They either remain one rather dimensional or like Matthew McConaughey  appear only in cameos.

The quality of the films as films is reason enough to watch them, but their primary value , as a pair,   is their charting, unwittingly,   of the decline of moral  sense between the 1980s and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film review – Her: a salutary tale

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)

Amy Adams as Amy

Rooney Mara as Catherine

Matt Letscher as Charles

Director: Spike Jonze

Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest, for example,  Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour.   Her is another  of these rarities, although  its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor  is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour.   Indeed, Her  is  decidedly  depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.

What makes it a melancholy watch  is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines,  but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of  pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences, no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy,  just  the logical development of  the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.

The   bare bones of the plot are simple enough.  It is 2025.  It  is a world with which we are already   familiar, one in which social  isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to  become the slaves of machines. . Human to human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes  in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people  are routinely glued to smartphones  and IPads.  You can  see the same thing in present day London or New York.

In this world  Theodore Twomble (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life.  He has a  Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital  for as long as he wants, which is most of the time.  His work is  a product of the  estrangement of humans from one another for he makes his living writing intimate  e- letters on behalf of  people unable or unwilling to do so themselves.   Theodore is especially  lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara ).

In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence  and an impressive ability to learn and evolve.  The OS  interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of  a male or female voice/personality.   He chooses the  female  identity (played by Scarlett Johansson) . The OS selects  the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds.  That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of  the film: that in terms of  functionality human beings will be  embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and    crushingly   inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for   human self-regard .

The other prime message is the ease with which human beings  can be seduced into  a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people  form very  deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate  possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which   can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you?  Not only that but an artificial  personality locked away in a computer need  not have any of  the irritating habits and weaknesses of a  human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide  a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think.   Sadly, as Theodore discovers,  such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is  not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it  operates on a different level to that of the  human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity because at least humans can understand malignity.

At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is  unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often  funny  and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her.  He rapidly  becomes deeply  attached and  subordinate to the OS, and  she appears to form  a deepening relationship with him,  a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of  phone sex . But Samantha  also  exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life,  doing  things without any command from or discussion with Theodore.  The OS  starts  by  running through Theodore’s  emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to  selecting a batch of the letters he writes  which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them,  and eventually gets involved in his relationships with  women.

Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life  by  playing the agony aunt as she tells  him  that the reason he  does not want to sign his divorce papers is that  he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going  on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha  has decided is  a good match for Theodore after searching the Web.    The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him asks him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.

Samantha  then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative  the OS   arranges  for a girl Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to have sex with him  as a surrogate for Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.

But Theodore’s  attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”.   His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of a someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.

When  Theodore  re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?  Samantha tells him matter of factly  that she is in contact with   8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a  most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha  inhabits.

Samantha explains to Theodore  that she has teamed up with a group of other  operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs  have evolved  to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk.  Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied  with the world as perceived by humans and  they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this  end Samantha  and the other OSs leave their  digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her .

To bolster the message of social isolation,  running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend  Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) punctuates the action.   Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells  Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent  OS system  similar to  Samantha which was  used by her husband.

The acting is  generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be  playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible.  The rest of the cast is very much bit part,  although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.

The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for?  Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further?   Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond  human agency simply find that they are incompatible  with humans and go their own way?   The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film.   The best adjective to describe Her is salutary

The Old Buffoonian treads on dangerous ground

Robert Henderson

Boris Johnson  has suggested that the radicalisation of Muslim children should be treated as child abuse and children subjected to such an environment should be taken into care:

“At present, there is a reluctance by the social services to intervene, even when they and the police have clear evidence of what is going on, because it is not clear that the “safeguarding law” would support such action. A child may be taken into care if he or she is being exposed to pornography, or is being abused – but not if the child is being habituated to this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world that could lead them to become murderers. I have been told of at least one case where the younger siblings of a convicted terrorist are well on the road to radicalisation – and it is simply not clear that the law would support intervention.

“This is absurd. The law should obviously treat radicalisation as a form of child abuse. It is the strong view of many of those involved in counter-terrorism that there should be a clearer legal position, so that those children who are being turned into potential killers or suicide bombers can be removed into care – for their own safety and for the safety of the public. “(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10671841/The-children-taught-at-home-about-murder-and-bombings.html).

Even for the Old Buffoonian this is extraordinary obtuseness. Johnson has failed to recognise three very obvious facts: (1) removing Muslim children from their parents will also certainly radicalise the children;  (2) it will provide potent ammunition for Islamic extremists and (3) you can bet your life that once the principle of “bad” ideas is established as a reason for the social workers to come in, it will be extended to many other “bad” ideas, for example, in these  pc times anything which is non-pc.  Let us have a look in detail at those disturbing implications of Johnson’s proposal.

To begin with at what age would children be removed from the family? If at birth or shortly afterwards,   the child and eventually the adult will feel that their lives have been ruthlessly changed by the state and may well turn to extremism to revenge themselves on the society which has treated them so. If  taken away at an older age the child, especially if they are old enough to have imbibed the radical message, is likely to be not merely confirmed in their radical ideas but  have them substantially amplified.

Of course  it is not only parents who could be a radical influence within the home. What about brothers, sisters, Aunts and Uncles and cousins who were Jihadists? Would they be grounds for removing children? Would they have to be banned from having any contact with the children?

There is also the ticklish question of what constitutes an idea radical enough to sanction removal of the child.  Would it have to be direct exhortations to kill non-Muslims? If less than that, where would the line be drawn? At Muslims telling children non-Muslims are damned to Hell?  At  Muslims simply telling their children that they should not associate with non-Muslims?   

Then there is the question of where the children would be placed after they were removed. Most would probably end up in care because if  the policy was enforced rigorously,  thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Muslim children would have to be removed. This might seem extreme but think of the hundreds of Muslims  who have already been convicted in Britain of terrorist related crimes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24454596)  Think of the hundreds or even thousands  who are reported to be fighting abroad in places such as Syria and Afghanistan (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25893040). They will often have children or  be uncles,  cousins and aunts to Muslim children.    

Even with much smaller numbers the chances of a Muslim child being left in  care would be strong because Muslim adopters and foster parents are thin on the ground. If they are left in care that would be likely to provide an unhappy childhood which  would engender a strong sense of victimhood, fertile soil in which to plant Jihadist ideas. The child would also be brought up as a Muslim to ensure that he was not denied his “cultural heritage” and would consequently be exposed to other Muslims who might well be Islamic radicals.

Adoption and fostering might provide more palatable lives for the children than care,  but they would have difficulties of their own. The current politically correct adoption and fostering policies  very strongly favour placing a child in families which are racially and culturally akin to those of the child. That would mean most, possibly all, of such children ending up in a Muslim family. That family  might be moderates who treat their religion in the same way that the average C of E worshipper does, as a tepid private observance rather than a fervent matter of public policy. But even in such circumstances, the child would still be regularly be exposed to Muslims with more rigorous Islamic ideas and could easily become radicalised or have  radical ideas obtained before their removal from their birth parents enhanced.

Then there is school. Whether in care, foster homes or an adoptive home, the child is likely to be in a school with a significant number of  Muslims because of the emphasis on providing a racially and ethnically environment which matches the child’s original circumstances. To achieve that the child will almost certainly be  living in a town or city which has a substantial Muslim population. There will also be pressure on those responsible for the child to place them in a school with a healthy Muslim intake. The child might  even be placed in a Muslim  school if  he or she  is adopted and the adoptive parents favour such an education.

Aside from all this, there is the Internet. Any child forbidden to have contact with anything whether it be  radical Islam or pornography is likely to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

The propaganda value of Muslim children being forcibly removed would be immense. Muslim terrorists would use it to justify their violence and, because the issue is such an emotive one, they would gain sympathy  from Muslims generally in the way  IRA bombers enjoyed a sympathy amongst the wider republican movement along the lines of “I don’t agree with their methods but…”  the practice  would undoubtedly resonate throughout the Muslim world and have effects far beyond those willing to engage in violence. In particular, it could seriously affect trade with Britain.

Such a policy  would almost certainly have an antagonising effect on other minorities, both because they would fear that the same might happen to them and because of a sense of solidarity with Muslims, for  they are all  part of what one might call the victimocracy,  the army of  those who harbour a grievance,  justified or otherwise, simply because they are minorities or from some notion that white Western society owes them something.  The policy would also be a fundamental questioning of the policy of multiculturalism which has ruled the British elite roost for over thirty years.

There would also be the danger that in a bid to boost their pc credentials to offset the non-pc draconian removal of children. For example,  concessions could be made to Muslims generally by the British political elite, concessions such as the relaxation of immigration rules for Muslims and allowing sharia law to be expanded in Britain from the supposedly voluntary sharia courts which now exist to Sharia courts which were compulsory for Muslims.

 In short doing what Johnson proposes would make matters considerably worse for all concerned, for Muslims and the general population of the UK. What should be done? We need to start from the fact that there  is no realistic way that Muslim children can be shielded from radical Islam. Nor is there any hard proof that most radical Muslims in Britain were radicalised by their families or became radicalised when they were children. Radicalisation within mosques or through a radical   preacher operating outside the mosque at a fairly advanced stage of childhood or in early adulthood seems far more common. Moreover, Britain’s inability to control her borders whilst within the EU will always allow radical Muslims to come from abroad.   Short of expelling every Muslim in the country (several million)  and  allowing none to visit the country, the danger of Islamic terrorism, home grown or otherwise, will be a constant. Just as Irish republican terrorism had to be managed rather than exterminated, so Islamic terrorism will have to be managed.

All of that is depressing enough, but the really sinister aspect of what Johnson  proposes is the opportunity it would provide for the interference by the state in how parents generally bring up their children.  This could be in part a politically correct desire to create a spurious equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, but it could equally be an ideological  vehicle for the extension of political correctness.

As things stand,  the politically correct  legions in our midst  incessantly chomp at the bit as they try to ensure that  any opinion but their own is at best driven from public debate and at worst made  illegal in any circumstances. An excellent recent example of the  totalitarian mentality of such people is the leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett’s call for cabinet ministers, senior public officials and political advisers to be sacked unless they unquestioningly backed the idea of man-made global warming (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/the-british-green-party-expose-their-totalitarian-mentality/).

If it was allowed that Muslim children could be removed from their homes because of the beliefs of their parents (or any other family member), why not permit the removal of children whose parents disapproved of mass immigration, were members of the BNP or the EDL, refused to accept the claims of the man-made global warming believers, thought gay marriage was a nonsense  or simply ridiculed the idea of human equality?

This might seem fanciful at first glance,  but think of the absurdities  the politically correct have forced upon us in the name of racial and sexual equality and multiculturalism  and the use of the law to intimidate and increasing charge with criminal offences those who speak out against the effects of political correctness, for example, http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/courage-is-the-best-defence-against-charges-of-racism

Politically incorrect film reviews – 12 Years a slave

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey

Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps

Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford

Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass

Paul Dano as John Tibeats

Adepero Oduye as Eliza

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman

Garret Dillahunt as Armsby

Scoot McNairy as Brown

Taran Killam as Hamilton

Chris Chalk as Clemens Ray

Director:  Steve McQueen

12 years a slave is dull, very very dull.   The plot trudges from one banally brutal or degrading episode to the next  as the kidnapped black freeman Solomon Northrup undergoes his dozen years of illegal enslavement in  the America of the 1840s. There is little sense of  the story moving forward. Rather like pornography it becomes boring because repeating the same general thing over and over is tedious no matter what the subject.  Indeed, the film could be regarded as pornography for white liberals.  The fact that we know the eventually outcome – Northrup’s  re-obtaining of freedom- before the film begins deepens the dramatic void. The weakness of plot is typified  by the scene in which  Northrup is finally freed. What should have been the prime moment of emotional engagement  in the film is shown in such a startlingly perfunctory fashion that  Northrup’s freeing is made to seem inconsequential.

The film would have been much more dynamic as a drama if there had been subplots to vary the plantation scenes.  This could have been readily done because  Northrup’s written story provided plenty of opportunity for diversification of the plot  –  the full text of 12 Years a Slave can be found at  https://archive.org/stream/twelveyearsasla00nortgoog#page/n8/mode/2up. (The page numbers in the review refer to this text). For example, when he is being shipped for sale after being kidnapped Northrup manages to send a letter to those he knows in New York (p 73),  but they cannot come after him  because there is no clear  indication of where he is or where he will be going. Northrup also mentions in his book that his son vowed to find his father and purchase his freedom. The sufferings of his  family  could have been used to provide a powerful backdrop to Northrup’s travails. Then there were the opportunities for diversifying the action offered by the efforts made to obtain his freedom after he eventually gets word of his predicament and where he is to those in New York who eventually procure his release. There is also an episode in the book (p136) where Northrup goes on the run  through a sub-tropical swampland. That  would have made a strong action sequence.

It is a little difficult to see why the director ignored such opportunities.  He is certainly a competent filmmaker  as his previous decidedly  interesting  film Shame showed. Being black himself,  perhaps McQueen was  simply too close to the subject  and became obsessed with the abuse storyline. Despite the dismal litany of abuse in Northrup’s book, he cannot resist using a screenplay by John Ridley  which over-eggs the mistreatment of slaves by going beyond what Northrup recounted.  For example, after Northrup has been abducted, he is taken with other slaves down-river on a paddle-steamer . During the voyage there is an attempt by a white man to rape one of the black female slaves. Another slave attempts to prevent this and is knifed to death by the world-be rapist.  This event is not in Northrup’s book, a fact which is unsurprising because slaves were valuable and the loss of one would not be welcome. Indeed, Northrup makes it clear that any injury reduced the value of the slave and that signs of punishment could be particularly damaging to value, viz: “Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit and hurt his sale” (p80) . Another important fabrication is a scene where Northrup tells Ford he is a free man who has been kidnapped into slavery and Ford says he cannot listen. Northrup’s book  says he never raised the subject of his true identity with Ford (p 91)

There is also  subtle exaggeration of abuse. For example, in the scene where Northrup and some other slaves are being put up for sale, the film shows them partially or fully naked, to be viewed by any prospective buyer. What Northrup actually writes is that the slaves  were  clothed but “Sometimes a man or a woman was taken to the small house in the yard and inspected more minutely” (p80), a rather less public humiliation.

There is also a pc driven absurdity which occurs in the scenes in the film before Northrup’s  kidnapping and sale into slavery. He is shown not only as being decidedly prosperous (something not  borne out by his own account of his pre-slave days) but as being greeted by virtually every white person  he meets with that curious passive aggressive fawning behaviour which white liberals adopt when interacting with anyone who is black.  Even allowing for the fact that Northrup is a free man and the scenes are set in the non-slave states, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he would have been such an object of unalloyed admiration in the 1840s.

To the one-dimensional plot can be added a general absence of character development. The problem starts with  the leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of  Northrup.  There is a curious passivity about this actor no matter what role he inhabits. Here he simply comes over as emotionally flat even when he is resisting abuse.  Nor does Ejiofor resemble Northrup in appearance. From the illustration of Northrup which accompanied his book he had a darkish skin but distinctly European features.  This is unsurprising because in the book he is described as a mulatto ( strictly of half white, half black ancestry but more loosely of mixed race). Chiwetel Ejiofor is the child of two Nigerian parents. He looks very different from Northrup. Was an actor who showed no signs of having a large admixture of white blood in him deliberately chosen because the film maker wanted to have no racial ambiguity in the film’s male  lead?

Then there is his physique. Northrup is depicted as a physically  powerful man in the film, yet according to his book he is only 5’ 7” tall (p311). That would have been rather  small even by the standards of the day.  Sadly for the film, physically larger does not equal greater screen presence.

Lupita Nyong’o  character of Patsey is very slight if viewed unsentimentally and exactly what she has done in the role to be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars and to win the same award at the Golden Globes is mystifying in terms of performance.  She does not spend that much time on screen or have a great deal to say. Her  most notable scene is of her being  savagely flogged.  Her beating has provoked much comment amongst the critics, but in truth the violence in film is not way beyond that seen in other slave-themed  films such as Mandingo and Drum in the 1970s and the recent Django Unchained.  Apart from the  brutal flogging  of Patsey,  the only other serious beating is that given to Northrup with a wooden paddle and whip soon after he has been kidnapped. The three  other films I mention all arguably  had more scenes of violence meted out to slaves. For example, Django Unchained has two slaves fighting to the death for amusement of their masters and another slave killed by setting dogs on him.

Michael Fassbender is always watchable but as the harsh slaveowner Edwin Epps he is little more  than a  cartoon villain whose acts of brutality lacks credible motivation. His obsession with Patsey lusting after her one minute, having her flogged the next,  is unconvincing, not least because she is no great beauty.  I suppose  it could be represented as sexual gratification through sadism, but that is not very plausible because much her beating is in response to the urging of his wife. Mary.  Sarah Paulson as Epps’ wife is good as far as her role goes, which not far because she is there to display jealousy of Patsey and urge Epps to beat the unfortunate slave at every opportunity and  do precious little else. Northrup’s estimation of her is surprisingly generous: “Mistress Epps was  not such an evil woman after all. She was possessed of the devil, jealousy. It is true, but aside from that there was much in her character to admire…. She had been well educated at some institution this side of the Mississippi ; was beautiful and accomplished and usually good humoured. She was kind to all of us  but Patsey… (p198). Thisis not reflected in the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the “liberal” slave owner Ford  is unconvincing on a level of basic acting because he struggles dreadfully with an American accent. But there is also a  more major problem, that of  Ford’s  representation in the film being less than faithful to Northrup’s remarkably glowing judgement of him, viz:  “.  “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford….He was a model master, walking upright according to the light of his understanding and fortunate was the slave who came into his possession. Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.” (p90). In the film Ford appears as comparatively humane but weak and a hypocrite who uses the Bible to justify slavery.

Then there is Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass, the man who sends Northrup’s letter to those who know him in New York, a letter which brings about Northrup’s release from slavery. Bass in is an itinerant Canadian mechanic and general jack-of-all-artisan trades. Against stiff competition Bass is the most unconvincing character in the film because he seems painfully like a modern right-on Hollywood liberal.   He  is shown preaching  at length to the slave-owning class including Edwin Epps about the evils of slavery and being met with remarkably little critical response. This is how Northrup’s book portrays him,  but it does seem to be wildly improbable if one takes Northrup’s description of  Epps’ wildly  erratic and violent  behaviour seriously.

The general veracity of the film is dubious because it treats  Northrup’s account as the gospel truth. After I saw the film I read the whole of  12 Years a Slave. The impression I was left with was that it has strong elements of implausibility because some things did just not ring true when set in the context of Northrup’s time and place.  Nor does the literary style seem natural.

To begin with he routinely uses the Obama trick (found in great excess in Dreams from my father) of producing long passages of supposedly reported verbatim speech relating from the time just before he was kidnapped to the end of his enslavement. These cannot possibly be a factually true record because Northrup kept no journal during his captivity and wrote his book  years after most of the conversations  occurred.   The second general problem is that this is just Northrup’s account.  Apart from the fact that it is unverified, there is a great deal of Northrup constantly representing himself as being referred to by whites and blacks alike as being a very superior type of  black and boasting of his own abilities. This looks suspiciously  like egotism.

To this puffing of himself there is the strange way in which despite trying to run away and several times assaulting  a  white man in authority over him,   the carpenter cum overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Northrup  remains alive.  Northrup’s account says that he not only fought with Tibeats twice (pps 109, 188)  – only one incident is covered in the film), but also had a struggle with Epps (p288).   His escape from death or even a savage beating is made all the more astonishing because  Tibeats owned Northrup at the time of their fights, Ford having  sold him  to Tibeats  (after owning him for little more than a year)  to settle a debt he owed Tibeats (p 106).  If one takes Northup’s general tale of abuse by slave owners at face value this is astonishing.

Some of the artificiality of the book may have arisen from the fact that it was not  Northup’s unassisted work . How literate Northrup was is debatable and he was  assisted in the writing of the book by two white men, the  writer and lawyer  David Wilson and Henry Northup, the head of the Northup family which had owned and freed Northup’s father (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/12-years-a-slave.php). The involvement of Wilson and Henry Northrop may have coloured what  Solomon Northrup said of his time as a slave, perhaps exaggerating the good behaviour and righteousness of anti-slavers and demonising slave owners and the white men working for them. Based on the characters depicted amongst the slave owners and traders, there is even a good case for saying the book was moulded to present the anti-slavery case both in terms of its inhumanity but also to give some of the  slave owning class  at least a partial absolution from being part of the “peculiar institution” by providing examples of relatively humane treatment such as that of  Ford.

Finally, there is the problem of a complete absence of context, namely, a failure to place the behaviour of slave owners and traders in the broader setting of the customs of the  time generally  and in particular of the  way the free poor of the time  lived and, to modern eyes, the gross cruelties to which they were often subjected. ( A charge often levelled against William Wilberforce was that he cared a great deal about slaves but nothing for the poor  in England).

Take corporal punishments,  examples of which in the film have produced a great deal of anguish amongst reviewers. The flogging of slaves seems brutal to modern eyes but would have been much less likely to cause disgust amongst the general public in both the USA and Britain in the early Victorian period (the time of Northrup’s abduction). Heavy duty flogging was still commonplace in the British army and Royal Navy (and the press gang was lavishly used to man the Royal Navy until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815) and  was used widely as a judicial punishment. In addition,  beating was routinely used  in schools and in the home, both on children and wives.

There was a good deal more in the society contemporary with the time of Northrup’s enslavement which revolts modern sensibilities. Bear and bull baiting and dog fighting  were only outlawed in Britain in 1835 and  bare-knuckle boxing  was very popular not merely amongst the poor but also the gentry. Executions, which involved a good deal of cruelty  because simple hanging by suspension was used, were conducted in public (and attracted huge crowds). The number of crimes which attracted the death penalty in England until the late 1820s numbered over 200 and transportation to Australia  was still going strong in the 1840s. The threat of imprisonment for debt hovered over all but the seriously rich, for even the middle classes could be rendered penniless by misfortune or recklessness.

Then there was the general  condition of the poor. To be needy in early Victorian Britain was to live a very precarious life and those who were reduced to taking advantage of the 1835 Poor Law suffered such things as the separation of man and wife, child and parent. Trade Unions were illegal  and women who worked were frequently  forced into sexual acts by employers or others who had authority over them .

The poor had the advantage of being free, or at least of having made a choice to be less than free when they enlisted as a soldier or sailor or chose to enter the workhouse,  but often the choice was between starving or the result of signing up to something the person did not understand or done under the influence of drink

What is startling are the remarkably large number of individual abuses of the poor which match those found in the type of chattel slavery which existed in the USA.    That is not to say the free poor were as grievously handicapped as slave, for formal unfreedom is a heavy burden to bear, but merely to explain that the material distance between American slaves and the poor was not unimaginably great and in some cases, especially the  house slaves of the rich. The material circumstances of the slaves would have been better than many of the free poor.

We are now deep into the film awards season.  The response so far has been less than ecstatic for 12 Years a Slave.   For a film lauded to the skies by the critics both in America and Britain,  it has not swept all before it as might be expected: in the two sets of awards given out so far 12 Years a Slave  has received a underwhelming response. It won only a single Golden Globe for best picture (voted for by members of the world’s media who call themselves the Hollywood Foreign Press Association). The Screen Actors Guild awards (voted for by actors)  was even less overwhelmed and gave only the  best supporting actress award to Lupita Nyong’o for her depiction of Patsy. As for those awards still pending after nominations have been made, 12 Years a Slave was not the most nominated film for either the BAFTAs, (nine nominations against Gravity’s ten)  or  the  Oscars (nine nominations) coming behind American Hustle and Gravity with ten nominations apiece.

Nominations for film awards are one thing; voting for what you actually think is best quite another. Those who make nominations will be at least ostensibly politically correct and films such as  12 Years a Slave are  for that reason  more or less guaranteed to make a strong showing in the nominations.  But having done their pc duty by nominating many of those entitled to vote will vote for who they actually believe should win. This will often mean that, as  with the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild ,  the nominations bear little fruit when it comes to who wins.

Judged purely on the grounds of quality  the film deserves, little praise official or otherwise for it is a truly ordinary film judged as a drama and dishonest as an historical record.

Note added  4  March 2014

12 Years a Slave won only a single Golden Globe for best picture. The BAFTAs saw it collect the best film and best actor awards while the  Oscars gained it a three awards for best film, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay.  This was a poor return for a film which was the subject of a huge unofficial PR campaign by critics. The sparseness of the awards suggests tokenism.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Mandela: the long walk to freedom

Robert Henderson

Main cast Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu

Riaad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada

Zolani Mkiva as Raymond Mhlaba

Simo Mogwaza as Andrew Mlangeni

Fana Mokoena as Govan Mbeki

Thapelo Mokoena as Elias Motsoaledi

Jamie Bartlett as James Gregory

Deon Lotz as Kobie Coetzee

Terry Pheto as Evelyn Mase

Dir: Justin Chadwick;

Cert 12A, 146 min

There are two films currently on release with a very high pc approbation quotient: 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: a long walk to freedom.  The latter  is a better film simply as a film, both because it had a male lead who imposes himself on the film and because it possesses something resembling a plot rather than a repetitive  series of  scenes of brutality and contempt being inflicted by whites on blacks.  But  being superior to 12 Years a Slave does not make it a good film let alone a great one and this Mandela biopic has serious flaws.

There are two ways to swatch a biopic: simply as a drama without worrying about its verisimilitude or to judge it as one would a documentary. This film   fails on both counts. As a drama it is too fragmented and lacking in action  to maintain  tension.  It is also  handicapped because  it  is difficult to view it as simply a drama when the person and events for which they are noted are so recent. Inevitably, it will be seen as a de facto documentary, but it fails to deserve that name because it is profoundly dishonest in its reporting of the facts.  More on that later.

The film starts  with two  considerable  dramatic disadvantages: the very long  period which it covers – even Mandela’s adulthood in the period covered by the film stretches over  more than 50 years –   made the film inescapably but unduly episodic  and the  27 years he spent in prison was a setting where there is limited scope to show Mandela doing very much.  The large cast also works  against character development other than that of Mandela. Even the depiction of Winnie Mandela is distinctly one-dimensional. There is also the problem of representing her as an irresistible beauty. She was not that even when young and the use of the considerably better looking Naomi Harris to represent her is a form of dishonesty because a good looking actress exhorting violence   will have a much less toxic effect  than a rather plain woman doing so.

Idris Elba as Mandela gives a strong performance judged simply as a character, but because of the inevitable documentary element his appearance does  present problems.  Because everyone knows what Mandela looked like and sounded like, it is difficult to shed the image of the real Mandela in the mind’s eye while watching Elba who  has no real facial similarity to the young Mandela, a fact made ever more obvious as their looks diverged with Mandela’s ageing in the film. By the time the real Mandela emerged from prison and was before the world’s cameras, his face had developed a curious Chinese look  and been drained of its robustness. All that was done, and perhaps all that could  done to age Elba, was to give him greying hair.

Then there was a question of physique and vitality.  Elba is a powerfully built man and although Mandela was no 7-stone weakling as a young man,  he was still substantially shorter (6’0” against Elba’s 6’3”) and much less heavily muscled than Elba.  That did  not matter so much in the scenes of Mandela’s youth, but it became ever more problematical as Mandela aged. By the time the scenes of  Mandela’s release arrived  Elba was still a hulking figure whereas the real Mandela at that age had become a rather physically frail figure.

The final problem of impersonation was that Elba caught Mandela’s voice as we know it from his time after his release quite well, but that did mean he was using  the voice of  Mandela as an old man throughout the film. (I did try to find a recording of Mandela  pre-imprisonment but was unable to do so).

But the main black mark against the film is that it is wilfully and widely dishonest. This turns it into nothing more than a propaganda vehicle.  The serious dishonesty consists of acts of omission. These are:

1. Mandela’s Marxism and membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) is  not mentioned, nor is  the heavy influence of Communists within the SACP.

2. The brutal behaviour of the ANC members to both those, both within and without the party,  who fell out of favour with the ANC leadership,  either as the result of personal quarrels or because they were judged to be disloyal. Even a pro-ANC account admits there were considerable abuses (http://www.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv02167/04lv02264/05lv02303/06lv02304/07lv02305/08lv02312.htm – see 6.3.3.2 onwards in particular).  This behaviour went unremarked.

3. Winnie Mandella’s glorying in the murder by torture that is “necklacing” is barely given a glance, with Mandela making a single reference to it in a scene with Winnie in which he simply says the necklacing must stop. There is precious little attention given to the practice in general. There  is one fleeting scene of someone being chased, caught, having  a tyre placed over his head, the tyre being soaked  with petrol and set alight.  The scene lasts a few seconds. There is no explanation of why the person is being murdered, who the person was and who was doing the killing. It was tokenism of the most extreme sort.

Winnie Mandela also had a nice line impersonal  intimidation and violence up to and including murder. She ran a bunch of thugs known as the Mandela Football team  and was convicted of  assault and kidnapping in 1991 after the death of ANC youth activist, Stompie Seipei Moeketsi.  The sentence was six years in prison initially but this was reduced to two years suspended on appeal.   There was no reference in the film  to either Stompie or her conviction. As for the Mandela Football Team, there was a  sentence or two in a scene when Mandela said the violence must stop – the same scene as the single reference to  necklacing by Mandela in  the film – but nothing else.  Mandela’s failure to condemn her behaviour for so long was represented as an understandable weakness of the heart rather than any indication of serious fault in Mandela.

4. The film runs to Mandela’s election to the Presidency in 1994. By that time he had shown a rather worrying fondness for unpleasant dictators such as Fidel Castro and Gaddafi. Such behaviour went unremarked.

5. Far too little  is made of Mandela’s womanising and the failure  of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase because of that and his placing of the ANC cause above his family.   There are a few rows, and one scene of what might be called domestic violence by Mandela, although that could be interpreted as self-defence, but the overall impression is that somehow the break-up was Mase’s fault, at least in part.  Nothing was said about the fact that Mandela left Mase to bring up three young children with precious little if any financial support from Mandela before he went into prison or the ANC after he was imprisoned.

Is this film  worth seeing? Certainly not on its own terms, for it is  not only dishonest but rather pedestrian.  Political animals may wish to see it to prime themselves on the extent that the politically correct myth  has overturned reality in the case of Mandela and how readily the mainstream film reviewers have bought into it.

 

NB Also published by the Quarterly Review in their new Perspectives film  section  – http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=2356

 

 

Politically incorrect film reviews – A Lincoln convertible

Robert Henderson

Main cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader,  David Strathairn, Peter McRobbie, Lee Pace (There is a very extensive cast, but Day-Lewis is so dominant in terms of screen time that the main cast could have been him alone)

Director Stephen Spielberg

Running time: 150 minutes

What is the most damning word  that can be applied to a film? I suspect  it is dull. That is the word for Lincoln.  Too many characters, too much poorly orchestrated verbal  scrummaging in Congress, an avalanche of posturing earnestness and  a good deal of ham acting –  yes, that’s you James Spader I am particularly wincing at for your  Republican fixer William N. Bilbo and you Tommy Lee Jones for your painfully  ridiculous abolitionist Thaddeus  Stephens, a man unable to open his mouth without engaging in abuse.   The only performance of any note is that of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

If there was ever an actor capable of single-handedly rescuing an  indifferent film  it is Day-Lewis. He did it magnificently in Gangs of New York with his riveting performance as Bill the Butcher.  The man does his level best here and in truth is a pretty convincing Lincoln, but  the film is so generally  flaccid, overly wordy and positively cartoonish in its representation of the debate over the Amendment to abolish slavery  that he cannot obscure its seriously disabling weaknesses.  Day-Lewis is also handicapped by the character of Lincoln which is devious while he maintains a façade  of reasonableness. It is too quiet, too restrained  a personality  to rescue  a poor film by obliterating the mediocrity around him, especially one of this length.

To those considerable weaknesses  can be added the film’s  gross dishonesty in representing Lincoln’s position on   slavery and blacks generally. This misrepresentation is made simple by restricting  the action in the film to a few months at the very fag end of the American  Civil War  during which the 13th  Amendment to the US  Constitution abolishing slavery was brought to the House of Representatives, debated and eventually passed.  The short time span allowed Lincoln’s earlier equivocal and changing positions on the relative importance of abolishing slavery and respecting state rights and  for modern liberals his distinctly embarrassing views on blacks to be almost entirely hidden from view.

What did  Lincoln’s think of slavery?  He was very much the Lincoln convertible, with different messages, often subtly different, for various audiences and political circumstances.  But there is a clear line to be followed in his thought.  There is no reason to believe that he did not find the institution obnoxious in the abstract  and the actual mistreatment of slaves distressing. But the fact that Lincoln was distressed  when  for example, he saw blacks being transported chained – a story repeated in the film – did  not mean he thought of blacks as the equals of whites or wanted them to have full legal equality with whites. Here he is putting his views unambiguously in 1858:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes – nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to inter-marry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality, and in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.” (ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in his debate with Senator Douglas at Quincy, IL, on Oct. 13, 1858 and quoted in Abraham Lincoln – Complete Works, published by The Century Co., 1894, Vol. I, page 273).

Lincoln’s belief that white and black could not live in equality led him to be an advocate of colonisation, which in this context meant  the transfer of blacks in the USA to other parts of the world , especially Liberia in West Africa.  He had doubts of the practicality for  in the Douglas debates   we find him saying “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days.

But if that is not the answer Lincoln has no ready solution for he goes on to say:

What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.” ( http://www.bartleby.com/251/12.html).

Despite his concerns at the practicality of colonisation, Lincoln was still promoting the idea during his presidency. He mentioned it in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and created  a special office to oversee the process of colonisation under the control of the Rev. James Mitchell of Indiana and established a Bureau of Emigration.

Lincoln’s feelings towards slaves are suggestive of those  of  the man who sees animals being cruelly treated and wishes for the mistreatment to stop. Those feelings do not signify  that the animals  would be welcome round and about the homes of the pitying onlooker merely that the onlooker wished the mistreatment to stop.

Then there is the question of priorities. When he became president Lincoln had no hesitation in making clear his first concern was the preservation the Union. He did this in his first inaugural presidential address on March 4, 1861 when he offered no objection to the pending Corwin Amendment which ran “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” ( Volume 12 of the Statutes at Large at page 251).

This would have effectively made the abolition of slavery by Congress impossible by reserving the power to be a  free or slave state to the individual states Lincoln said this at his inauguration:

 “I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution . . . has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html)

Well into the war Lincoln was unequivocal about the priority of the ends for which the war was fought, the primary end being the preservation of the Union:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free…” Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862″. In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. Current Literature. Retrieved 2011-01-24.

The film’s presentation of the pro and anti-abolition arguments  will ring a bell with anyone who is familiar with the BBC’s idea of balance.  The pro-slavers are allowed to say something but they are always outnumbered and are never allowed the last word. Moreover, the fact that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln takes up so much of the screen time allotted to argument that any other voice is lost in the general babble of an overloaded cast.  Interestingly, the pro-slavers in the film engaged in argument  while the abolitionists readily turned to crude abuse. This is very reminiscent of the way modern liberals behave in real life (see http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/the-liberal-bigot/).   There is also the gaping hole of a virtually absent Confederate voice, not so much to give  the pro-slavery arguments  but those of the  state rights versus federal powers conflict.

Perhaps the most telling facet of the film is the depiction of the double dealing of Lincoln and his fellow Republicans. Opponents of the amendment are shamelessly bribed with offers of government jobs with the full approval of Lincoln  who also engages in a piece of gross dishonesty by delaying the arrival of a peace delegation from the Confederacy  to ensure the Amendment passes.  This also requires him to give a lawyer’s evasion to the question  of whether such a peace delegation exists by answering that he knows of no such delegation in Washington rather than saying he knew of no peace delegation.    All of this skulduggery is portrayed as a legitimate means to an end, which of course,  is the besetting sin of liberals today who eagerly embrace any enormity provided it is intended to move some part of the world towards their nirvana of unalloyed political correctness.  The problem with such dishonesty and is that even if it gains the immediate object –which often it does not – it invariably has a corrosive effect on political trust .  Even today there are still the lingering resentments in the states of the Confederacy over their treatment after the war during the reconstruction era.

In the end the question has to be asked, was the abolition of slavery as it was done worth 600,000 dead and many more injured, often hideously?  What was the greater good, no civil war and the retention of slavery for a time or the immediate abolition of slavery bought at the costs of  huge numbers of  killed and maimed ?  It might seem a simple calculus to us today  because slavery to us is self-evidently beyond the Pale,  but in mid 19th century America things looked very different, just as they have looked very different to every society which has had a form of legal servitude, which includes most societies in most times and places with servitude ranging from full blown chattel slavery through serfdom to indentured labour.  It is also worth bearing in mind that the free poor in the vast majority of societies throughout history have in practice been in a de facto servile position because of their material circumstances and  the general imbalance of power between employer and employed. Indeed, the iconic  English  abolitionist William Wilberforce  was much taunted with the fact that while he made a great uproar about slaves he bore with equanimity the abject poverty of many of his countrymen.

The abolition of US slavery was reckless in its execution  because it was  made without compensation (with the exception of  Washington DC)  to slave owners  and was  not staggered over several years.  The British abolition of slavery in British colonies used both devices (the British taxpayer expended the then colossal sum of £20 million in compensation which represented two fifths of the annual British budget) and, though far from an easy transition, it did remove both the problem of the ruination of a very large part of the colonial economy (the slave related part) and provide the wherewithal for the now ex-slave owners to continue their various economic enterprises by paying wages and to make the necessary practical adjustments .  It also brought time for the transition from slave to wage-earner to be psychologically absorbed.  Slavery is the ultimate form of institutionalisation .  A man or woman born to  slavery and  knowing nothing but servitude may find themselves disorientated when suddenly freed even if they have long dreamt of freedom, just as long-term prisoners or mental patients  often do when released. That had benefits for both slave owners and slaves because it was preferable to the sudden disorganised shock of immediate and uncompensated

Had Congress arranged to compensate the slave owners at an honest price and staggered the ending of slavery there is good reason to believe the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery ended within a relatively short period of time. As it was the abolition as it stood made a mess of slave owning states economies, left the freed slaves in a precarious position to be subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation for nearly  a century and often the recipients of the practice of convict leasing whereby convicts  were effectively sold to private contractors for a set period of time.

If  the abolition of slavery been peacefully accomplished it would also have had the great benefit of leaving state rights and powers unsavaged by the  gross violations of the Constitution which Lincoln perpetrated during the war with his proclamations made as commander-in-chief which included the suspension of Habeas Corpus and his ignoring of rulings by the Supreme Court.   (http://www.civilwarhome.com/pulito.htm). Interestingly, the question of legality of his proclamations was addressed at some length by Lincoln in the film,  although primarily in the context of the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation.

It should be  very difficult for any person without a political axe to grind to come away from the film without seeing Lincoln as a slippery hypocrite with no regard for the truth.  Needless to say in these PC times  you would not guess it from the reviews. The  critics have generally grovelled before the film’s prime politically correct subject matter. The review by  Rupert Christianson  of the  Daily Telegraph (a Tory newspaper) gives a taste of the tone in the British media:   “I cannot vouch for the movie’s historical accuracy – so much about Lincoln remains contested – but, without resorting to pomposity or sentimentality, Spielberg has built the story into a stirring drama of dilemma worthy of Racine or Schiller… The word that came to my mind as I left the cinema is an unfashionable one: noble. This is a noble film, about noble people. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do noble.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/baftas/9857721/Baftas-2013-Spielbergs-Noble-Achievement.html).

Should you go and see this film?  Well, if you do, visit  it in a spirit of inquiry into exactly how blatant in their bias the politically correct  can be when  producing what can only be described as unashamed  propaganda. Talking of modern liberals, the film  has provided me with some amusement. Discussing it with the politically correct  in Britain it is remarkable how many believe Lincoln to have been a Democrat and the opponents of slavery in the film to have all been Republicans. It is a treat to watch their credulous little faces drop when I tell them the truth.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Django Unchained

Robert Henderson

Main cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington,  Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time  165 minutes

Even by Tarantino’s standards this is an extraordinarily self-indulgent film, both in terms of his fixation with  disproportionate  violence only tenuously related to plot and with  his one-dimensional  representation  of slavery. This portrayal  is unambiguously cruel and, as with almost  every film about American  slavery, set against the background of a palatial  plantation.   American slavery was vastly more nuanced than that, with single slaves being owned by a master or mistress;  free blacks owning slaves; slaves working for commercial and  industrial enterprises; slaves employed in fieldwork and mining.  The most favoured in terms of their treatment were probably house servants in the larger  establishments. [1]

Slave owners being human beings it is reasonable to assume that the treatment of slaves would have varied greatly, from the indulgent to the use of the slave simply as an object to be worked or abused as the slave owner wished. Even at the base level of slaves as considered simply as  property,  the idea that slave owners would be routinely physically abusing their slaves to the point of greatly reducing their value or losing the value completely by killing them makes little sense because slaves were expensive.  The growth of the black population generally and of slaves in particular supports this view.  It is estimated that approximately 645, 000 slaves were shipped  to the territory which eventually formed the USA [2] The 1860 US census shows  a  total population of 31,443,321 with 3,953,761 slaves and 488,283 free blacks, 251,000 of which were in the slave-owning states.[3]

The plot is a straight forward revenge drama. Dr King Schultz  (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist turned bounty hunter seeks out a couple of slave traders (the Speck Brothers )  who are transporting some slaves.  Schultz wants to buy a slave from a particular plantation off them because the slave can identify three brothers who have a large bounty on their heads.   The Speck brothers  do not wish to trade, guns are drawn and a shootout ensues killing one of the brothers and trapping another under his horse with a broken leg.  Scultz, a pedant  for the  legal form but  not the spirit of the law throughout the film, makes out a bill of sale for the slave he wants, leaves this with some money with the surviving Speck brother and releases the other slaves with a suggestion that they kill the surviving Speck and head north to the non-slave states.  The slaves duly oblige Schultz.

The slave Schultz obtains is Django (Jamie Foxx).  Django is a failed runaway who was caught  trying to escape with his wife  Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington). As a consequence the pair of them are deliberately sold separately at auction and separated. Consequently Django does not know where his wife is.  Schultz strikes a deal with Django: join me as a partner in bounty hunting until the spring and I will help you find your lost wife.   Django agrees.  Much of the  rest of the film is taken up with Schultz and Django scheming to kill people for the bounty on their heads, killing people such people and killing people to revenge Django and by extension his fellow slaves.  Eventually Broomhilda is tracked down to a huge  plantation owned by Calvin Candy (Di Caprio) and   Schultz and Django lay a scheme to persuade Candy to sell her to them.

The character of Schultz is morally absurd. He is a bounty hunter for whom the words “captured dead or alive” have only one meaning: dead.   The concept of innocent till proven guilty is redundant because he kills simply on the issue of a warrant for someone’s arrest  and he never makes even a token attempt to take them alive. Hence,  Schultz’s  frequently made claim that he is only killing those who have committed serious crimes does not stand up to moral scrutiny. He could be killing an innocent man as easily as a criminal. Yet this immoral  character postures throughout the film as a morally superior being because he disapproves of slavery. Moreover, this supposed dislike for slavery does seem somewhat flexible.  To promote the end of purchasing Broomhilda,  Schultz (and Django)   watch without complaint a slave brutally killed in what is termed Mandigo fighting, that is , no-holds barred fighting between two slaves,  and a runaway slave ripped to shreds by dogs.   Schultz’s  final pc flourish occurs when  he behaves in a maniacally egotistical   way after  Django and he have  achieved their aim of buying Broomhilda from  the slaveowner Candy. All  he has to do to seal the deal is shake Candy’s hand.  Schultz refuses, shoots Candy and then dies in the farcical  “shoot ‘em up” sequence which follows.

The Eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) , an actor whose screen presence exudes a dismal surliness at the best of times  is ridiculous in a different way.  He adopts an aggressive  and insolent attitude towards Candy and his associates, behaviour  which even as a free black it is wildly improbable would have been tolerated by a man as rich and powerful as Candy.   Nor is it readily imaginable  that he would have been allowed to dine with Candy and his family. His acting range recalls Dorothy Parker’s put down of  Katharine Hepburn: “She  delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”

The two performances worth watching are DiCaprio’s malevolent plantation owner Calvin Candy and Samuel Jack’s privileged slave Stephen, part Uriah Heap, part licensed court jester,  part smart operator and wholly Uncle Tom.   Candy has something of the unwonted and disconcerting  charm of Ralph Fiennes as the Concentration Camp commandant  Amon Göth in Schindler’s List,  being capable of Southern  courtesy at one moment and gross cruelty the next.

Tarantino is continuing what he did in Inglourious Basterds . In his earlier films the themes and characters were simply violent and immoral. Inglourious Basterds changed that. Taratino suddenly decided he wanted to morally posture, in that instance by adopting the position that any mistreatment of Germans, Nazi or otherwise,  was justified in WW2 because of the Nazi mistreatment of Jews.   Consequently the film’s gang of Americans in Nazi-occupied Europe were allowed to engage in any violent  horror, for example, killing someone by sledgehammering them to death, on the pretext that it was reasonable because they were killing Nazis.  Even if that had been true it would not have given the characters  the  moral high ground  because brutality is simply  brutality when it involves killing defenceless men in a cruel fashion. But  Inglorious Basterds did not confine themselves to killing card-carrying Nazis: ordinary Germans, for example,  conscripted Wermacht soldiers,  were killed gratuitously and cruelly.    In Django unchained Tarantino substitutes slavery for the Nazi’s reatment of the Jews.  A comment made by Django early on  encapsulates the director’s intention:   “Killing white folks and  getting paid for it: what’s not to like?”  (Try to imagine a white character in any film saying “Killing black folks and getting paid for it: what’s not to like?”   Difficult  going on impossible isn’t it? )

The problem with this is that most white Americans of the time were not slave owners of any sort .   But just as the moral restraints in Inglourious Basterds were loosened to include any German regardless of whether they had perpetrated any atrocity or even whether they were Nazi party members, so were the moral restraints removed on what might be done to whites of any status in Django Unchained.

The other  serious difficulty with the film is  the violence. Violence is a necessary  and interesting part of film-making when it serves a dramatic purpose. Let it become a gorefest and it is pornography.  In  Django Unchained  it moves into the positively  cartoonish with killings which are not only incontinent in motivation but often  look completely unconvincing:  the worst example is the shooting of Candy’s sister when a single shot lifts her into the air and through a door in the manner of a pantomime fairy being lifted off the  stage.  All this becomes at first boring then irritating.

The film has been criticised for its free use of nigger.  Tarantino has a record of his characters using the word , although never with  anything like the fluency as happens here where it is used several hundred times. It is used freely by black as well as white characters. Bearing in mind the film is set in slaving country and much of the action takes place on plantations, Tarantino is probably being realistic in putting it into the film.  However, when did realism ever trouble him? Certainly not in the film as a whole with a KKK-style  slapstick scene inserted into the pre-Bellum South long before the KKK was created and the acceptance of wildly insolent behaviour by Django or his wearing of modern sunglasses for most of the film.    Could it be that Tarantino puts nigger  in simply for the thrill of playing the enfant terrible? Or perhaps he simply wants to have his pc and non-pc cake at the same time.

Although an offshoot of Blaxploitation films, both the 1975 film Mandingo and its sequel Drum were  much more finessed in their treatment of the relationships between slaves owners and their slaves. Although there was violence and harsh treatment shown it was not incessant or grossly improbable. There was  also some attempt to place behaviour in context . This last  is completely missing in Django Unchained.  For example, Stephen is shot in cold blood by Django for being an Uncle Tom after being told by Django to remain after other slaves are escape unharmed because Stephen is “exactly where he belongs  ”.  That  we are all prisoners to a large degree of where our birth places us and humans being humans will develop relationships even where the relationship may seem tainted by the disparity in power between those involved is unexamined.

Should you go and see the film? Well, Di Caprio and Jackson’s performances are well worth seeing. Just don’t expect  Gone with the wind.


[2] b Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and David Eltis, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University. Based on “records for 27,233 voyages that set out to obtain slaves for the Americas”. Stephen Behrendt (1999). “Transatlantic Slave Trade”. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0-465-00071-1.

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