Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy

•November 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Hullo there. Over the last few days I’ve been reading a book about Hollywood and how it reflects and bolsters US cultural and military hegemony. I reviewed it for the Morning Star, but I’m sure they won’t mind if I post the rambling, non-edited version here on my blog.

Reel Power – Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy
Matthew Alford

The villains came from outer space, rather than Russia or the Middle East. Their monument-destroying lasers act without compunction or mercy, quickly knocking out The White House, The Empire State Building, and Big Ben. The rest of the world acted as it is supposed to: it waits for America to come up with a solution; which it inevitably does, thanks to its heroic fighter-pilot President and brave citizens and military. Cue cheering, whooping, and, at the film’s conclusion, Independence Day being adopted by the entire world.

You can’t help but admire the chutzpah. Despite the bleatings of the American right over the alleged “liberal bias” of Hollywood, it is clear that most blockbusters are, as Alford suggests, “at ease with the spectacle of US high-tech violence against villainous foreigners”. Hollywood’s role in maintaining America’s ‘soft power’ – its cultural and ideological hegemony – is impossible to deny, regardless of the left-leaning nature of certain individual actors, screenwriters or directors.

The book’s revelations that the makers of the gung-ho likes of Top Gun, True Lies and the aforementioned Independence Day all colluded with the Department of Defense are unsurprising. Some of the details, however, are fascinating: The Pentagon suggested the makers of the latter “eliminate ‘any government connection’ to Roswell and Area 51”, which should send conspiracy theorists a-quiver.

More subtly, in the CIA thriller Clear and Present Danger’s original script, the President, despairing at Columbian drug lords, says: “Those sons-of-bitches… I swear, sometimes I would like to level that whole damn country – and Peru and Ecuador while we’re at it”. Thanks to Pentagon pressure the offending line was removed – but more importantly, as the author states, no version of the script ever mentioned the real-life web of weapons and money that underpin the US-Columbian relationship. In the movie, there are a few bad eggs, but the system will catch them. The system works.

Occasionally Alford falls into the trap of po-faced statements of the obvious. “Few would deny that the politics of the James Bond or Mission Impossible films are anything other than in the camp of Western government,” he notes. But few would deny that the films are anything other than pure camp either.

And he has a more general problem with irony. The beauty and satire of Team America: World Police, by the makers of South Park, lies in its mastery of the absurd. “Don’t worry, everything is bon”, says a member of the Team to stunned Parisians, who have just seen their city reduced to collateral rubble in the process of killing some Arab terrorists. Yet to Alford, the film’s closing “dicks fuck assholes” ‘justification’ speech for US military misadventures “ignores the fact… the US provides support to assholes… including Saudi Arabia, Angola, Chad, Colombia…”. But the makers of Team America revel in equal-opportunity profanity and offensiveness. They probably just found the speech funny.

The book is most convincing when it deals with films traditionally thought of as nuanced, or critical of US foreign policy, such as Three Kings or Hotel Rwanda; he highlights their adherence to the idea that US military intervention is generally correct, the problem being when and for how long to implement it. Also, the argument that only big budget films made by eccentric mavericks such as Paul Verhoeven (responsible for Total Recall’s futureworld of corporations owning the very air we breathe) are able to escape tacit censorship rings true.

Alford’s conclusions – that Hollywood wishes to entertain and not to upset the powers that be – are hardly earth-shattering, but his book is an engaging look at the innards of the dream factory process. It’s easy to see why a film like Independence Day was made, and why it received these words of recommendation from none other than former Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole: “We won, the end. Leadership. America. Good over evil. It’s a good movie. Bring your family, too.”


Trapped In A Richmond Pub

•November 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Prince Charles approved pseudo-Georgian Richmond* riverside floods at high tide from time to time. It did this Sunday, and I was cut off by the rising waters in the White Cross pub. This is a perfectly acceptable place to be marooned on a sunny autumnal afternoon, but in case you do wish to escape the pub has some wellington boots available if you wish to wade your way back to civilisation. We didn’t.

The last time I was in Richmond at a notably high tide, a guy had parked his posh sports car on the slipway, only to return to find it mostly underwater and surrounded by hundreds of revellers, waiting for him to come back so they could point and laugh at him. To the guy’s credit, he took it in good humour, even as he fetched his sodden top-of-the-range laptop from the back seat. He raised it above his head like a trophy, the crowd roared, and the insurers presumably paid up.

It was much quieter this time.

*Richmond-Upon-Thames, London. Not Richmond, Yorkshire, Richmond, Virginia, or Richmond, Kentucky.

Guildford – Dorking: The North Downs Way

•November 1, 2010 • 7 Comments

On Saturday I finally did what I’d been threatening to for many moons, and got out of London and went on a bit of a walk. The idea I had was to walk part of the North Downs’ Way*, from Guildford to Dorking in Surrey. It’s the kind of thing that other people would do without much thought, but for me getting out of bed on a Saturday morning and getting out of the city is extremely difficult. London has a very strong gravity and if you stop to faff you find your plan has been reduced to popping to the local shops to buy some cheese. You need to achieve escape velocity.

This achieved, I met my companion at Waterloo station and stocked up on middle class walking foodstuffs such as samosas and stuffed vine leaves. He stuck to the more traditional chocolate bars. We were both wearing sensible footwear, but we hadn’t done anything so ostentatious as buying a map. Instead I had a print-out of the route in finest 1980s text based adventure game tradition: “You are in Guildford station. To your left are dragons. You move forward and find yourself surrounded by dwarves…”.

Oh alright, it wasn’t like that at all. But it was a set of instructions and not a map, so we were expecting to get lost, bewildered and possibly savaged by a bunch of stockbrokers who had ‘gone native’ in the Surrey Hills. It was nearly Halloween, after all.

Our first task was to leave Guildford without being lured into any pubs, and to find out way to the North Downs Way.We made it to the river Wey without incident, and followed it past an inviting pub, a lively collection of ducks, and some slightly confusing statues from Alice in Wonderland. After crossing the wrong bridge and going on an engaging diversion across a meadow, we finally made it to the first acorn-branded route sign that would be our reassuring companion for the rest of the journey.

Soon enough, we began to leave the middle class dwellings behind and instead were surrounded by confusing things like trees, fresh air, fields and horses, as this picture indicates. I took a big breath. The air tasted unusually clean. This was truly God’s own country. In the first outbreak of woodland, other James located himself a walking stick, which was large and knobbly and make him look like a wizard striding across middle earth. All he needed was the beard, enormous hat, and magical powers.

Moving on, we talked of this and that while Surrey revealed its secrets to us, like a shy maiden in the first flush of randy adventure. We found a thatched cottage that looked like the kind of place you’d find a retired rock star; We came across (but not upon – that would be sacrilegious) a wonderful old Norman church on a hill called St Martha’s, from which we gawped at the first gorgeous vista. I was going to sit down and eat my middle class snackfoods, but a threatening-looking cloud intervened. We pushed on. 

Next up was Albury Downs, and from there Newslands Corner, which was one of those ‘scenic viewpoint’ spots. You know the kind of thing – a car park, where you can sit and stare out at the view while eating your lunchtime sandwiches, a visitor centre, and a kiosk selling burgers and tea. There was a merry throng of car-bound old people, leathered-up bikers, lycra-ed-up cyclists, and families. It reminded me that England is a nation of hobbyists and day-trippers still.

We stopped for a cup of tea in a cafe across the road, where we enjoyed a local newsletter which was full of interesting things, such as an interview with an apparently-famous psychic (Princess Diana used her to tell her which Parisian underpasses to avoid) and an advert for a book about “The Wasps of Surrey”. We learnt that Surrey has many kinds of wasps; Surrey wasp honey is one of nature’s finest bounties.

Leaving the fine people of Surrey to their fry-ups and lasagnes, we headed onwards. The next bit of the journey was quite heavily wooded, and at one stage we passed a posh farm which comprised sports cars and spoilt ponies. We also passed a mysterious and sinister headlesss statue. We took a downhill detour to visit the silent pool, which is Surrey’s answer to the Spooky Caves.  It’s a beautiful spot, which wonderfully clear water due to (so the internet tells me) filtration through the Downs’ chalk bed. On the way down we passed the first of many pillboxes, which were defensive posts built as part of the ‘Stop’ line to repel the mooted Nazi invasion of Britain. It never happened, and the pill boxes still scatter the countryside, as sombre reminders of what might have been. It’s nice to climb inside them, and peer out over the rolling hills and imagine the German Army rolling towards you. And then shit yourself. These days they’re mainly used as dens by cider drinking local teens, and good luck to them.

The prettiest bit of the whole walk came next – Blatchford Down, which you can see looking awesome here. We took a bit of a wrong turn at this point, and I briefly lost my non-map, having to run back up a hill to find it. We went up a path and made it back to the friendly acorns of the North Downs Way, and carried on, past several more WW2 pillboxes.

Darkness was threatening to gather, and the other James cursed his forgetting to bring a torch. The existence of torches hadn’t even occured to me. He recently walked from Canterbury to Dover, and darkness fell as he was walking along the cliffs. Fortunately he found his way without going for an accidental bungee jump without the cord. Our route didn’t contain such perils, but the woods were becoming increasingly spooky. Our first sighting of Dorking came just before dusk, and our first sighting of bats came soon after. We had a chance to leave the route and head down into Dorking for our much-deserved pint, but we felt we needed to do things properly so continued on our way through a Blair Witch forest. The darkness was upon us now, and it was a relief to exit the wood at the other side and witness Dorking’s lights twinkling below us. In front of us was Box Hill, looming in the gloom, our original target but long since abandoned for Dorking’s pubs.

We went through a gate and found ourselves in an enormous vineyard – Denbies Wine Estate –  which I’ve since discovered is the largest in England, responsible for a good 10% of the stuff that we dare to call wine. Walking between the vines, in England, in October was a very odd experience. It was like being in a Pork Pie factory in the south of France on midsummer’s eve.

Finally we made it to the first street lamp of civilisation, and other James’ stick was symbolically abandoned at its base. We wandered into town, and stopped in the first civilised-looking pub – appropriately enough, named the Surrey Yeoman. We drank our ale, and from our armchairs we could see the local Wimpy winking at us from across the road.

*Which goes all the way from Farnham in Surrey to Dover in Kent. It’s been used by pilgrims and travellers who can’t be arsed driving for thousands of years

A day in journeys

•October 27, 2010 • 3 Comments

Yesterday I cycled from Stroud Green to King’s Cross, did some work, then cycled back to Stroud Green. The latter journey involved being rained on quite a bit. I forgot that cycling involves being rained on sometimes. My trousers aren’t really fit for purpose.

Later as the skies darkened I cycled to Hackney to play Communist football. I’d never cycled to Hackney before, but knew the way to Stokie Newington then divined it from there. It only took twenty minutes, despite my getting a bit lost on the way. I went through Clapton, where the 38 ends. I expected it to be a graveyard of bendy buses, all quietly rusting in the moonlight. It wasn’t.

When I arrived at the sports hall a man reading a book told me the match had been cancelled due to a leaky roof. Our team were drinking stout in the Irish pub next door, which is a bit like playing football. A bit.

I stayed for one then cycled in the direction of Holborn, because MJ Hibbett was doing his Totally Acoustic night at the Lamb on Lamb Conduit Street. Again I got a bit lost but discovered the backstreets of Hoxton contain many trendy pubs populated by young men in old men’s hats.

As I approached the West End I felt a HANKERING FOR CHIPS, so I went to the ace Fryer’s Delight on Theobald’s Road.. I shared my booth with a couple of Welshmen, who commented on how well Arsenal were playing. I explained:

“I don’t know anything about Premier League Football, because I’m a Forest fan”
“Ah, no, you wouldn’t then”.

When I got to the pub Hibbett’s set was over, but Winston Echo was on, and he was funny and endearing and honest and bearded*.

Post Winston, I talked to aforementioned popstar’s other half about how she hates Wimpy and navigates the London underground by compass.

Later, Pete Green did a set of songs which all seemed to have been written in autumn. He did a song on ukulele, which made me extremely jealous but also determined to be brave and perform at an open mic night sometime soon. Downstairs after the show, Hibbett gave me some great performing tips** which, thinking about it in the cold strip light of day, were actually pretty terrible. Also I owe him a pint.

After a few beers and a chat with the best Canadian, I cycled back to Stroud Green, ate some crisps, and went to bed.


*The show was recorded for a podcast which is now up on the Totally Acoustic site, so you can have a listen and see if you agree. Not with the bearded part, I mean. It’s impossible to tell if people have beards from the way they sound, with the obvious exception of Brian Blessed

**Half-remembered example: “Don’t imagine everyone is naked. Just imagine that everyone in the audience is a cunt”

Kamikaze Cyclist

•October 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Cycling in to work this morning I saw a kamikaze cyclist – in his forties, on a little fold-up bike, whizzing down the inside of traffic, whooshing through red lights, and generally acting like a drunken bluebottle. You always get these cyclists on a morning commute, and it’s always the same: you overtake them, then get to the next set of lights. They go past you. The lights change, you overtake them, you get to the next set of lights. They go past you. He was dressed in high-vis and had a helmet on, but was in much more danger than me, because he’s shit at cycling.

Determined to prove my point, he went through some lights just outside our office on York Way, just as a large truck turned in to him off Goodsway. He blinked at it in surprise, and continued on his way.

I wrote a piece on city cycling for the guardian’s bike blog last week, and as always the comment section descended into the ‘cyclists go through the lights’ debate. It’s inevitable, like how any thread on fascism will descend into ‘well Hitler was actually a socialist’, or how any debate on Obama ends up being about whether he’s really a Muslim Marxist from Kenya*.

My take on it is complicated: not every cyclist that goes through red lights is as shit as the gentleman outlined above; some of them are experienced cyclists who know what they’re doing, and will only pass through when it’s clearly safe to do so. I personally don’t, partly because junctions and intersections in this city are confusing, and I’m never comfortable enough to know where exactly the traffic is coming from; partly because I can feel the seething rage of the drivers of the white vans that surround; and partly because it doesn’t really save much time and seems pretty pointless, and anyway I’m a decent law-abiding type. There’s a decent argument to allow cyclists to turn left at red lights, though I worry this would add to the fury felt from pedestrians and motorists alike. The introduction of the Boris Bikes have added to the chaos – they are generally directed by people unfamiliar with the dangers of London roads, but bumble around merrily enough, making us all feel safety in numbers.

What I’m trying to say is, things are getting better, despite the odd loon.


* For what it’s worth, I think the Nazis were definitely socialists. How could they not be? They called themselves “National Socialists” after all. Oh, and Obama is clearlyy a Marxist Muslim. The beard gives it away.

The Water Magician

•October 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I did something dead cultural yesterday – I saw a Japanese film called The Water Magician*

The film came out in the dying days of the silent era**, and was shown with live koto accompaniment and was accompanied by a benshi narrator, as it would have been when it was shown almost eighty years ago.

The benshi was essentially a live narrator, who explained the story, read out or interpreted the dialogue, and was a star in his or her own right. Crowds would flock to see a specific benshi, the way people today go see a movie if Tom Cruise is in it, or if it is directed by Michael Bay.

Ours was performed in English (thankfully) by Tomoko Komura, and within five minutes the novelty of having a nimble footed Japanese woman in a kimono performing all the voices and narration had already worn of, and I’d accepted it as an integral and normal part of the cinematic experience. I was able to concentrate simply on the story, which was the usual tale of circus performer meets coach driver, falls in love, sends him money so he can study to be a laywer, then runs into debt due to a series of unfortunate events, with tragic results. The lead actress – Takako Irie – also produced the film, which is pretty right-on for 1933***. She’s a wonderful, playful presence, contrasting nicely with the grim-faced honour of Tokihiko Okada (who sadly died only a year after the film was made).

Also the film is interesting from a purely historical perspective. It contrasts a dying traditional Japan – all the lower classes still wear traditional dress – with the Western suit-wearing elite class.

It was pretty jarring to exit this disappeared world only to emerge, blinking, into the foyer the Barbican Centre, with its 70s retro-futurism aesthetic.

If any of this appeals, you’re in luck – they’re showing it again on Sunday 23rd January 2011.

* Actually Taki no shiraito, which more accurately translates as something like White Threads Of The Waterfall
** Though they held out quite a while because – hurrah! – the benshi were strongly unionised
*** This  is the second film in a row I’ve seen that came out in 1933, after Duck Soup. That would make for a confusing double bill.


•October 25, 2010 • 6 Comments

Much to the amusement / dismay of my other half I’ve decided to write a novel in November. Inspired by antonvowl, the idea appeals to me, mainly because I find November one of the most pointless months. Frankly I’m amazed it survived the Tories’ Comprehensive Spending Review.

The way it works is you sign up to this website and pledge to complete a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. This works out to 1,667 words per day, which sounds easy enough. You can update your wordcount as you go, and post excerpts if you’re that way inclined. Presumably there are people out there willing to read them.

There are also meet-ups taking place all over the world, where you can awkwardly meet other aspirant writers in public places and write your novel near them. I might be up for this. I’ve been meeting strangers off the internet since 1997.

In a stunning break with tradition, my plan for the novel is to not have any plan. I’m going to try not to think about it at all, and then to simply start writing on Monday 1st November and see what happens. I’m slightly scared: will the process unlock subconscious yearnings? Will it turn out I’m really shit at writing? Will Geoff be involved in the plot somehow? At the moment I don’t know and I don’t want to know, but come the start of next month it will all flood out and form itself into a carefully plotted and well paced page-turner just in time for the Christmas market.

My profile is here.

Who’s with me?