Twilight of capitalism: film review / Cosmopolis

 

(c) Alfama Films

 

Anybody who remembers what Canadian director David Cronenberg got up to in the 1970s and 1980s will find it ironic that, nowadays, he’s regarded as a rather sober and cerebral filmmaker.  Indeed, he has a reputation for being restrained – at least, restrained in a technical sense for, unlike many younger directors, he doesn’t go in for frantic running around with hand-held cameras and frenzied chop-chop-chop editing.  Rather, he has an old-fashioned but admirable tendency to park his camera in one place, point it in the direction of his actors and actresses and let them get on with things.  Also, he’s viewed these days as a director whom it’s okay for Serious Movie Critics to like.

 

Wow, how times change.

 

Once upon a time, Cronenberg made films like 1977’s Rabid (accident survivor Marilyn Chambers grows on her body a slimy phallic stinger, which infects half the population of Montreal and transforms them into slavering blood-crazed zombies); 1979’s The Brood (mad scientist Oliver Reed induces a psychotic Samantha Eggar to ‘externalise’ her rage by growing an outside womb, which in turn produces a horde of dwarf-child monsters with a fondness for bludgeoning their victims to death); Scanners (misguided scientist Patrick McGoohan sires a race of super-humans with telepathic and telekinetic powers whose party-piece is to make people’s heads explode); 1983’s Videodrome (TV station president James Woods becomes obsessed with a mysterious snuff / torture-porn pirate channel and hallucinates about having a gash down his abdomen into which he can insert video cassettes); and of course 1986’s The Fly (loopy but nice scientist Jeff Goldblum encounters a spot of bother with his matter-teleportation device and ends up metamorphosing into an acid-slobbering insectoid mutant whose human bits drop off one by one).

 

Cronenberg’s choice of subject matter didn’t endear him to mainstream film critics at the time.  He especially didn’t win himself many fans among those folk reviewing films in the British media in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a priggish bunch who didn’t understand why every new film made couldn’t be as uplifting and wholesome as Chariots of Fire.  I remember hearing on the BBC’s Film 79 programme a vitriolic review of The Brood by Barry Norman (back then the most famous film critic in Britain), who described Cronenberg as “the guru of the mentally insane”.  And even as late as 1996, the Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey and the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker were campaigning for a UK ban on the showing of Crash, Cronenberg’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name.  “A movie beyond the bounds of depravity,” thundered the bilious Walker.

 

Unpleasantness still occasionally rears its head in Cronenberg’s movies – most notably in 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises, although what gives the violent sequences in those films such explosive impact is the fact that, elsewhere, Cronenberg orchestrates proceedings in a relatively quiet and un-sensational manner, focusing on character rather than on action.  Generally, though, nobody who’s been following his career over the past four decades can disagree with the claim that Cronenberg the Elder is a less excitable beast than Cronenberg the Younger.

 

Indeed, it must be galling for long-term horror buffs with fond memories of the gruesome Cronenberg of yore, who believe their man has now sold out and become mainstream, safe and respectable.  (Perhaps in 2011 they got excited when they heard that he was making a Freudian movie called A Dangerous Method.  “At last!” they might’ve exclaimed.  “He’s gone back to making films about phallic sex parasites that slither out of vaginal orifices in people’s armpits!”  But no, Cronenberg’s Freudian film was actually a period drama set in central Europe before World War I and featured Sigmund Freud as a character.)

 

 

Age mellows most people, of course, but it’s worth noting that in the old days Cronenberg was a true auteur.  Like a punk Orson Welles, he dreamt up the original ideas for his films, then scripted them and directed them.  However, in the last 20 years, nearly all of his films have originated in places other than his own imagination.  They’ve been adapted from novels (Ballard’s Crash, William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch filmed in 1991, and Patrick McGrath’s Spider filmed in 2002), adapted from plays (David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly filmed in 1993, and Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, which was filmed as A Dangerous Method), adapted from graphic novels (John Wagner and Vincent Locke’s A History of Violence), and based on other people’s screenplays (Eastern Promises was written by Stephen Knight).  Maybe this distance from the source material has exerted a calming influence over the former guru of the mentally insane.

 

Only with 1999’s eXistenZ, a neglected science fiction thriller set in a future where gamers use synthetic umbilical cords and surgically-created sockets to attach the consoles to their own bodies and play the games whilst wandering across various planes of hallucinogenic virtual reality, did Cronenberg write a script from an original idea.  And actually, eXistenZ deserved more acclaim than it got because, in its low-budget way, it was very much a prototype for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Inception.

 

Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s latest, is again an adaptation of a novel, one authored by Don DeLillo, and again it won’t please those who hanker after the gory sci-fi horrors he made in his youth.  Tapping into a fashionable post-economic-meltdown / end-of-capitalism zeitgeist, it deals with events in one day in the life of a multi-billionaire mogul called Eric Packard, who is played by Robert Pattinson, best known for being Edward the vampire in the Twilight movies.  Packard is journeying across New York in a stretch limo that’s so massive it doubles as a hi-tech office.  Although he and his business subordinates talk and seemingly think in a machine-like language of corporate data – figures, trends, currencies, percentages, exchange rates – he is motivated today by an unusually human desire to visit and get a haircut at the old-fashioned barber shop that he went to as a kid, on the city’s far side.  However, the traffic in the streets is paralysed for various reasons – the US president is making a visit, a massive funeral is taking place and some Occupy-style protestors have kick-started an anti-corporate, anti-globalisation, anti-everything riot.  Thus, the road to Packard’s barber is strewn with obstacles that even his behemoth of a limousine will have trouble negotiating.

 

Meanwhile, there are suggestions that the writing is on the wall for Packard and his hugely lucrative company.  His business is suddenly haemorrhaging money at a terrifying rate, which has something to do with fluctuations in the value of the Chinese yuan.  And his security team have heard rumours that somebody, somewhere, is out to assassinate him.

 

Unlike James Joyce’s Ulysses, whose story also took place within a single day and whose setting was also the streets of a single, well-known city – but which gave its characters a heroic aura and invested its incidents with a mythic quality, thanks to its manifold references to The Odyssey – Packard’s quest in Cosmopolis feels low-key and claustrophobic.  Mainly this is because much of the film’s action takes place within that impressive but restrictive limousine.  During the day-long ride, it picks up a succession of employees and associates and, as each conducts his or her business with Packard, the film becomes a series of acting set-pieces staged within a very big car.

 

The scenes involving the female cast-members work well.  The episode with Emily Hampshire, who plays Packard’s chief of finance, gives the film some welcome humour.  (She visits the car at the same time as Packard’s doctor, and the billionaire insists on combining her briefing with his daily medical inspection.  Subsequently, he tries, and fails, to maintain a business-like demeanour with her whilst receiving a vigorous rectal examination.)  Meanwhile, a scene involving another advisor, played by Samantha Morton, where the two of them talk business inside the limo whilst seemingly oblivious to an anarchist riot raging on all sides of it, with one protestor even self-immolating, is perhaps the closest the film gets to old-school Cronenberg – in terms of bleak, apocalyptic atmosphere, if not visceral graphicness.  Juliette Binoche also turns up in the vehicle as Packard’s art advisor and, well, it’s just nice to see Juliette Binoche in anything.

 

Unfortunately, dramatically, the film is hit-and-miss.  A scene in which Packard discovers the identity of the person in the casket in the funeral cortege – a scene designed to reveal his emotional side – is strangely uninvolving.  Meanwhile, two key encounters that he has towards the end of the film don’t work either, largely because Cronenberg allows both scenes to go on too long.  Indeed, the scenes seem to stretch longer than Packard’s favoured mode of transport.  He may increasingly be an actors’ director these days, but Cronenberg really needed to show some ruthlessness with his cast here.  In the editing room, at least, he could have trimmed a few minutes off their performances to the film’s benefit.

 

One other criticism – Cosmopolis has a feeling of being set in a slightly different universe from our own one, a slightly more futuristic and cyberpunk universe, but that doesn’t give it carte blanche to make up its own laws of probability and coincidence.  On three different occasions during the marathon car journey across New York, Packard manages to bump into his recently-wed spouse (Sarah Gadon, who played Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method).  These three chance meetings bend credibility to snapping point.  Also, it seems ridiculous that the two locations necessary for tying up the plot at the film’s conclusion should turn out to be on the same street, facing one another.

 

Of Robert Pattinson’s performance, the best that can be said is that he is adequate for the requirements of the role.  That doesn’t mean, however, that he has to show much acting prowess.  Rather, he merely has to inhabit a blank and self-absorbed character whose default setting seems to be indifference – for a man suddenly being stalked by a potential killer and suddenly hurtling from obscene wealth to bankruptcy, Packard might be expected to display a little more anguish at the turn of events.  Also, it isn’t a role that requires much interaction with one’s fellow actors.  Clearly lacking in social skills, Packard spouts a steady stream of banalities / profundities without being much aware if his listeners are interested or not.

 

Packard, in fact, hardly seems to be of this world.  He skulks inside his limo like a vampire holed up during the hours of daylight inside its crypt.  Which, given his acting CV, may well be why Pattinson got the gig.

 

The best thing that can be said about Cosmopolis, then, is that it’s an interesting failure – and at least when Cronenberg fails, he usually does manage to remain interesting.  However, with this one, I find myself in agreement with those traditional horror-movie fans who wish the great man would go back to his old ways.  Yes, Cosmopolis would’ve been more fun if Cronenberg had thrown a few sex parasites, a few exploding heads and some acidic masticating fluid into the mix.

 

Tunisian Graffiti

 

I am currently enjoying a couple of days off work in Tunis, on account of it being the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha.  Yesterday, Friday, nearly every shop and business was closed in the city and most of the citizens were indoors – ready to feast on the sheep that, tradition dictates, they should buy during the run-up to the festival and then kill and cook, as a way of commemorating the sacrifice that Abraham was willing to make of his son, Ishmael, on God’s instructions.  (God finally sent Abraham a sheep to sacrifice instead.)

 

With no work commitments, and the Tunis streets suddenly free of traffic, yesterday seemed like a good time to do something I haven’t done in a while – to go for a walk and take a few photos.

 

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of my flat was the sudden and disconcerting absence of sheep bleating.  The previous day, the households in my neighbourhood had contained so many recently-purchased and still-breathing sheep that the street sounded like a farmyard.  Well, those sheep had just been put to the blade.  There were a few tell-tale signs of this, for example, the odd, lately-removed sheep-fleece placed discreetly on the pavement alongside the other domestic refuse.

 

Also, in a side-street, I noticed that this pool of water lying alongside the kerb had taken on an unsettling hue.

 

 

Now I’m not complaining about any of this.  I’m not some lily-livered animal-loving Westerner moaning about the Tunisians being beastly to their sheep.  I grew up on a farm and I think it’s good that people, if they’re going to eat meat, get an occasional reminder of where that meat really comes from.  It doesn’t just turn up on the supermarket shelves as anonymous ready-to-cook strips inside cling-filmed packets.  So the Eid al-Adha custom of buying and slaughtering your own sheep and preparing it for the oven is an excellent way of reconnecting yourself with your food source.

 

Anyway, the main place I wanted to look at during my walk was Habib Bourguiba Avenue between Place du Janvier 14 2011 (where the famous clock tower stands) and the Tunis terminal for the TGM railway line – where the avenue passes below the concrete flyover of the Trans-African Highway.  From what I’d seen of this area whenever I’d passed through it on a taxi, it was clearly becoming a popular spot for the practice of an art-form that has flourished since the 2011 revolution, when dictator Zine El Abadine Ben Ali was driven out and the brutal grip of his police force was loosened.  Though not necessarily an art-form that even the most ardent revolutionaries among the Tunisian population would approve of – graffiti.

 

There’s a wall running along an old factory site on the eastern side of the highway, which I knew had been used as part of a street-art project run by a French-Tunisian group calling itself KIF KIF International.  Sure enough, I found the wall decked out in the standard graffiti fonts (‘street soul’, ‘graffonti’, ‘subway’), plus the usual colours and images that you’d find on a graffiti-ed wall in any big European city.

 

 

I knew some of the concrete supports holding up the flyover had become canvases for Tunisian graffiti artists too – and some of them, from what I’d seen out of the taxi windows, had looked quite elaborate and colourful.  However, I’d expected most of the graffiti on those supports to be brief and brutalist, as it was on this pair.

 

 

Who are Black Bloc 13, by the way?  Are they any relation to the gang in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13?  And do they really f*** blood?

 

But I was surprised at how many of the flyover supports had been extensively, imaginatively and – yes – artistically worked on.  In fact, there were so many mini-murals there that the area was in effect an open-air gallery.  This may have been part of the KIF KIF International project too, although the variety of themes and styles on the supports suggests a very different set of artists from those responsible for the standard urban-graffiti artwork on the wall.  Here is a selection of what I found.

 

 

 

 

 

Street art seems to flourish in times of political uncertainty and tension.  During the worst years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where I come from, you were guaranteed to find some amazing murals adorning the street-ends in towns like Belfast and Derry / Londonderry – almost 2000 such murals have been documented in the province since the 1970s.  However, I hope that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary wave of street art doesn’t go entirely down the Northern Irish route and end up, for a large part, commemorating a lot of sectarian strife and glorifying a bunch of terrorists. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murals_in_Northern_Ireland)

 

Robert and Rachid – friends again

 

Straight after my last blog entry about Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s main governing party Ennahdha, comes news that Britain’s Independent newspaper has apologised to him for publishing an interview with Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, who cast aspersions over Ennahdha’s funding.  He claimed that the Emir of Qatar had pumped money into Ennahdha prior to last October’s Tunisian elections.  Ghannouchi was incensed that the Independent printed Muallem’s claims – for one thing, had they been true, Ennahdha would have broken funding laws for political parties in Tunisia.  (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/corrections/rachid-ghannouchi-8203500.html)

 

What surprised me was that, so soon after this apology, the Independent should publish an interview with Ghannouchi: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/rached-ghannouchi-says-he-doesnt-want-an-islamic-state-in-tunisia-can-he-prove-his-critics-wrong-8225092.html.  What surprised me even more was that the interviewer was the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, who’d conducted the interview with Walid Muallem that’d caused all the bother in the first place.  When he announced that he was suing the Independent, Ghannouchi had made a point of describing Fisk as an ‘honourable man’, but even so – I’d assumed that Fisk would be off Ghannouchi’s Eid al-Adha greetings-card list for a while.

 

Perhaps mindful of the bad blood that just passed between his newspaper and Ghannouchi, Fisk went easy on his interviewee and allowed him to do most of the talking.  However, I would like to have seen a little more debate and argument from Fisk (which he is capable of providing).  Ghannouchi claims that the attack on the American Embassy and International School on September 14th was carried out by common criminals and not by religious-extremist Salafists blaming all things American for the anti-Islam movie Innocence of Muslims.  However, this goes against what I read in one eyewitness report at the time – and the eyewitness was a pretty convincing one, the American School’s principal, who was on his premises trying to ward off the attackers.  (The kids, thankfully, were not in classes just then.)

 

According to the principal, the attackers came in two waves – first, religious extremists, who broke into the school grounds and made a point of setting fire to the school library, and then a shower of opportunist looters who ran in and helped themselves to computers and other school equipment.  Given the Salafists’ track record of attacking TV stations, art galleries and theatrical performances, it sounds wholly in keeping with their character that they should burn a roomful of books.

 

The principal’s story appeared in a news article on the site Tunisia Live Net.  Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I find it a little suspicious that the article has recently vanished off their website, so that it can no longer be used to contradict Ghannouchi’s claims.

 

Ghannouchi’s defence of the Salafists on September 14th is based on the following logic: “There is footage of people looting the contents of the US school and the embassy, including the canteen that sells alcohol in the embassy, and many of the attackers helped themselves to the alcohol. I don’t think these were Salafis.”  But just because there is evidence that one group – the ordinary criminals – was present, behaving unlawfully, it doesn’t mean that the other group wasn’t there and wasn’t breaking the law too.  In fact, the principal’s account describes how both Salafists and ordinary criminals broke into his school at different moments and did damage.  And indeed, Tunisia has just sent Salafist leader Abu Ayub to prison for inciting the embassy attack – which suggests the Tunisian judiciary disagrees with Ghannouchi’s belief that the Salafists were innocent bystanders.  (http://gulfnews.com/news/region/tunisia/tunisia-jails-salafist-leader-1.1093819)

 

Elsewhere, Ghannouchi peddles his usual line about why it’s necessary to take a softly-softly approach with the Salafists, to reason with them rather than penalise them for bad behaviour: “We understand democracy not just as a tool of government but also of education. I was in Paris in ’68 and these were revolutionary times.  But one of its leaders, Cohn-Bendit is now in the European parliament.…  There were examples of so-called extremists in Europe, the Red Army and Action Directe and through democracy they were able to be tamed and re-educated.  So why can’t we imagine that we also can tame our violent actors?  Through democracy, they will be slowly part of this democracy, rather than destroying it.  I always tell some of our friends in Europe that through democracy they were able to tame the beasts – so why don’t you give us time to do the same with ours?”

 

Well, there might be something in what he says, though drawing a parallel with Germany’s Red Army is unfortunate.  The main players in that particular group didn’t gradually mend their ways by virtue of being citizens in a democratic society.  They were punished, severely, and some of them didn’t live to see the end of their punishments.  Ulrike Meinhof, Holger Meins, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan Carl Raspe were arrested in the early 1970s: Meinhof hung herself in her cell in 1976, Meins died on hunger strike in 1974 and the remaining three apparently committed suicide at Stammheim Prison in 1977 (though inevitably conspiracy theories about state executions abound).  Among the survivors, Christian Klar spent 26 years in prison and only got out in 2008, Brigitte Mohnhaupt did 24 years until her release in 2007, and Eva Haule was incarcerated from 1986 to 2007.  Horst Mahler spent a comparatively brief ten years in prison until 1984, but some would dispute his rehabilitation – he is now a far-right Holocaust denier, has described Adolf Hitler as ‘the saviour of the German people’ and was imprisoned again for eleven years in 2009.  None of this suggests ‘re-education’ and ‘taming’ through the miracle that is modern democracy.

 

And more to the point, even if the far future does contain a moment of magical enlightenment when Tunisia’s Salafists will start to be reasonable and stop behaving like intolerant, ignorant bullies – how many more ordinary Tunisians will have to suffer until then?  How many more women, academics, journalists, artists, foreigners and Sufis will have to put up with their antics while the Tunisian government treats them gently in the meantime?  And, while stories of Salafist violence continue to emerge from Tunisia, how many more tourists will elect to go elsewhere for their holidays, how many more foreign investors will decide not to risk their money in Tunisian business ventures, and much more will the Tunisian economy suffer?

 

In a democracy, any elected political party should be able to guarantee its citizens, all of them, that it will protect them from violence and intimidation in the here and now.  If Rachid Ghannouchi’s party is unwilling or unable to guarantee that, it isn’t fit to govern.

 

Was this Ghannouchi’s Romney moment?

 

And on the Salafists’ shit-list in Tunisia this week were… the Sufis.  After targeting TV stations, university campuses, theatre performers, artists, pub and hotel-owners, Americans and children attending Tunis’s American school, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later the bearded, scowling ones in gowns and sneakers would get round to directing their wrath against those adherents to the more mystical and esoteric aspects of Islam.  On Monday night, Salafists broke into the Sufist Saida Manoubia mausoleum in western Tunis, drenched it with petrol and set it alight.

 

Sufis have suffered other incidents of Salafist vandalism in Tunisia lately.  On September 14th, when the local and international media were preoccupied with the violence being directed at the American Embassy and American International School in Tunis, Salafists also trashed a Sufi lodge on the Cap Bon peninsula (http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=54891).  And I suppose it was inevitable that all this would happen in Tunisia, as there has been a recent pattern of violence against Sufis by Salafists and other Islamic hardliners in the northern half of Africa – in Libya (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19380083), in Egypt (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/11/salafis-attack-sufi-mosques) and of course, courtesy of the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group, in northern Mali (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/06/2012630101748795606.html).

 

Last December, I wandered into a photographic exhibition in a small gallery in La Marsa that was displaying big, framed colour and black-and-white pictures from the Tunisian revolution in late 2010 and early 2011, which of course heralded the Arab Spring — still happening in a drawn-out and bloody way in Syria.  One photograph showed a protestor holding up a placard emblazoned with the word TOLERANCE.  The placard spelt TOLERANCE with a Christian cross as the T, a CND symbol as the O, a Jewish Star of David as the A and a Muslim crescent and star as the C.  Unfortunately, thanks to the Salafists, tolerance in post-revolutionary Tunisia seems more and more like a pipe dream.

 

By an unhappy coincidence, on the night that the Saida Manoubia mausoleum was being razed, I was attempting to chill out in my apartment by listening to an album called the Rough Guide to Sufi Music.  Here’s an example of the mellow but hypnotic Sufi music that I was listening to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1uZr7abbLY.

 

(c) Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

 

***

 

Meanwhile, in other Tunisian news, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the supposedly moderate Islamic Ennahdha party that dominates Tunisia’s current government, has been subjected to some embarrassment Mitt Romney-style.  A while back, you’ll remember, secretly-filmed footage of Romney emerged that showed him making a speech to a well-heeled audience and dismissing nearly half of the American electorate – i.e. the half likely to vote Democrat – as state-supported, tax-avoiding spongers who, frankly, weren’t worth his attention.  The footage captured one of those rare but precious moments when a politician dropped his phoney public-relations bullshit for once and said exactly what he thought.

 

With Ghannouchi, a video has been doing the rounds on social media where he talks about gradually Islamising Tunisian society, so that eventually Sharia law would be implemented and undesirable things like alcohol would be banned.  This goes against all the moderate, live-and-let-live language that Ghannouchi, for most of the time at least, has been spouting in public to reassure Tunisian secularists and liberals.  Is this, then, another moment of truth where we get, Mitt Romney-style, to see into the head of a politician and see the opinions that really lurk there, the opinions not judged fit for public consumption?  (http://news.yahoo.com/questions-rise-over-tunisian-partys-moderateness-094539943.html)

 

Well, Ghannouchi has gone down an awful lot in my estimation in the last year and a half, but there are a few things to be said in his (possible) defence.  Firstly, Ennahdha spokespeople have argued that in the video he was directing his comments at the country’s Salafists, in an attempt to mollify them.  By holding up the prospect of a more Islamic Tunisia, he was encouraging them to work towards achieving their goals in a sensible, gradualist way, rather than merely ostracising them and driving them into the arms of Al-Qaeda.  However, plenty of Tunisians would argue that, by being over-tolerant of the Salafists and turning a blind eye to much of the trouble they’ve caused recently, Ennahdha has actually done as much damage to the country as a few Salafist terrorist cells would ever manage.  The steady drip of news stories about Salafist protests, riots and rowdiness during 2011 and 2012 have scared away tourists, made foreign investors think twice about putting money in the economy and given Tunisia an increasing reputation for instability.

 

There is also a Tunisian tradition, stretching back into the bad old days of Ben Ali, of discrediting one’s political opponents by taking their comments out of context and editing them to make them sound far more extreme than they actually were.  And to be fair to Ghannouchi, the video does show evidence of tampering (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/10/11/secret-video-reveals-ghannouchis-vision-for-islam-in-tunisia/).  So perhaps this was a case of Ghannouchi being stitched up by his political enemies.

 

Finally, should we feel shocked that a politician in a supposed democracy has a long-term agenda, which even some of the people who voted for him or her on a short-term basis may be uncomfortable with?  It’s a common criticism of democracy that it only encourages politicians to think for the short-term, i.e. only as far as the next election.  But in fact, any politician worth his or her salt will think about how to change people’s values, beliefs and sympathies in a major way over the long term, and about how to effect those changes by bringing in new policies.  In other words, you subtly carry out some social engineering in order to create an electorate who will keep on voting you back into power.  Margaret Thatcher was just one example of this.  In the 1980s, she started to sell municipal housing off to the working-class people who’d formerly rented it from their local councils, and she sold to the general public shares in large utility companies that’d moved from government to private ownership, calculating that she’d eventually end up with a home-owning, shareholding electorate who’d be more inclined to vote for her brand of conservativism.

 

Of course Ghannouchi would like to have a more Islamic Tunisia (though probably not Islamic to Salafist levels of adherence) because such a country would be less sympathetic to secular parties and more sympathetic to his own one.  As a politician who can only wield power with the approval of a majority of his public – i.e. a democratic one – he would be daft not to want that.

 

***

 

Ironically, though I’ve just compared Ghannouchi to Mitt Romney, it’s perhaps another US presidential candidate whom he ought to be emulating – the youthful Bill Clinton in 1992, who successfully ran against incumbent president George Bush Senior with the memorable campaign slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’  The past weeks have seen strikes and unrest in Tunisia’s hard-pressed regions – Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid – that are worst stricken with unemployment (up to half of the eligible working population in some places).  In Sidi Bouzid, the security forces even had to escort the governor away from his office for his own safety (http://tap.info.tn/en/index.php/regions/1256-protesters-force-governor-of-sidi-bouzid-to-leave).  Ghannouchi and Ennahdha may come to rue their preoccupation with religion, because at the end of the day it’s not religion that puts bread on people’s tables.  It’s the economy — stupid.

 

Things have been made more complicated by the death during recent clashes in the town of Tataouine of Lofti Naqdh, the Secretary General of the Regional Union of Agriculture and Fisheries.  Naqdh was also a local co-ordinator for the opposition party Nida Tounes (Tunisia’s Call), which has been enjoying growing support in the current economic and political uncertainty.  Involved in these clashes was the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction with close links to Ennahdha, and Nida Tounes supporters accuse them of being responsible for Naqdh’s death.  (In an announcement that suggests the possession of psychic powers, the Ministry of the Interior declared that Naqdh had died of a heart attack, even before an autopsy had been performed on his body.)  Needless to say, in social-media-savvy Tunisia, Naqdh’s demise is currently all over Facebook.  (http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politic/1745-lotfi-naqdh-s-family-requests-new-autopsy)

 

The timing of this economic and political controversy is unfortunate, because this coming Tuesday, October 23rd, sees the first anniversary of Tunisia’s post-revolution general election.  Technically, the current government’s mandate should also end on Tuesday – but the new constitution that should have been delivered by now hasn’t been, and fresh elections are only being promised for June 2013, still eight months away.  Tuesday, then, is going to be a contentious date and protests, riots, civil unrest and general mayhem have been forecast.  And, once again, the hard-pressed people of Tunisia – ill-served by their political leaders – are battening down the hatches.

 

Two more articles of interest.  The first suggests that even if Ennahdha gets the biggest share of the vote in the next election – which polls suggest it might, though with a majority reduced from last time – Nida Tounes may be able to sneak into power through coalition with the smaller parties.  And, craftily, it’s been courting those small parties assiduously.

http://www.northafricapost.com/927-tunisia-managing-the-next-phase.html

http://www.demdigest.net/blog/2012/10/tunisia-on-the-brink-opposition-activist-killed-in-first-political-assassination-since-revolution/

 

The best and worst Bond themes

 

I don’t approve of lists.  Indeed, lists were the reason why I gave up reading Q and Empire magazines in the late 1990s, because they seemed to have run out of ideas for interesting features and instead were devoting too many pages to lazy ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ inventories – the 100 best rock stars, the 50 worst albums, the 20 greatest crime movies, the 100 evilest cinematic villains and so on.

 

However, Skyfall – the song sung by Adele (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HKoqNJtMTQ) that accompanies the titles of the upcoming James Bond film of the same name – has recently topped the iTunes chart.  And as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a serious James Bond buff.  So I’ll take this opportunity to indulge in some lazy listing of my own.  Here are my nominations for the ten best Bond-movie theme songs and the five worst ones.  To make it a little more interesting, I’ll talk wherever possible about notable cover versions of those songs too.

 

Without further ado, I give you, in reverse order, what I think are the ten best.

 

10. Nobody does it better, sung by Carly Simon.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNA7DcVppEs)

 

Performed by Simon but composed by Marvin Hamlisch, who unfortunately died in August this year, Nobody Does It Better appears at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me, the best of Roger Moore’s 007 films (though to be honest the competition isn’t great).  It started a trend for Bond themes to veer off into power-ballad territory, but unlike what came later, this at least has a recognisable tune.  On the 1997 collection Shaken and Stirred: the David Arnold James Bond Project, David Arnold (who in the 1990s took over from John Barry as the Bond movies’ composer-in-chief) persuaded various pop and rock artists of the 1980s and 1990s to cover some of the themes from the series’ earlier films – and Aimee Mann was assigned the job of singing Nobody Does It Better (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=finaXhHQw_I).  The result, though, was a bit ordinary.

 

(c) East West

 

For a weirder version – weird in the way that Thom Yorke singing any Bond song would sound weird – try the one that Radiohead occasionally like to trot out at their concerts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efXbcfxiDnM.  Also, I like the deliberately bad version that turns up in Sophie Coppola’s Japan-set movie Lost in Translation, sung by Anna Faris’s gormless Hollywood actress in a Tokyo hotel-bar.

 

9. Thunderball, sung by Tom Jones.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sT0x7QiJI1g)

 

Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh…  Nuuur-nuuur!  By the time of Thunderball, fourth in the series, the Bond movies were getting a tad overwrought – the plots were starting to strain while the filmmakers tried to squeeze in more and more car chases, speedboat chases, frogman battles, killer sharks and scenes with vertical take-off devices.  Tom Jones, the musical personification of overwrought-ness, was therefore an appropriate choice to sing this theme-song, though at least he did it before he tipped over completely into Las Vegas-style bluster.  For the version on Shaken and Stirred, David Arnold had the smart idea of employing Martin Fry – Fry had been the guy wearing the gold-lame suit in 1980s pop band ABC and was thus as (knowingly) ridiculous as Jones was in his heyday.  However, I find the Fry version a little underwhelming: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vimRnv9wMKk.

 

Here’s my one, tiny claim to Bond-related fame.  I was in the same high-school class as the daughter of the late Greek-Cypriot actor Paul Stassino, who in Thunderball plays the henchman helping SPECTRE to steal the plane with the nuclear warheads on board.  You really needed to know that, didn’t you?

 

8. The Living Daylights, performed by A-ha.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9p0FJnk2vM)

 

Never, ever did I imagine that I would one day compile a top ten of anything that contained the warbling 1980s teenybop sensation A-ha.  However, having spent decades thinking that this, the theme for Timothy Dalton’s first outing as Bond, was rubbish, I listened to it again the other week and realised that it was actually quite good.  It has a wistfulness, even a bleakness that sounds almost Nordic – appropriately enough, considering that Morton Harket and company came from Oslo.  The film attempted to give Bond a more human edge and featured a relationship between Dalton and heroine Maryam D’Abo that was monogamous and a little more sincere-seeming than the norm.  As such, The Living Daylights was a more likeable Bond movie than usual (especially after its predecessor, A View to a Kill, which had seen Roger Moore dragging his paunch around in lecherous pursuit of Tanya Roberts, Grace Jones and Fiona Fullerton).  D’Abo was a more likeable heroine than usual too, and this plaintive, stripped-down pop song fitted the bill rather nicely.

 

7. You Only Live Twice, sung by Nancy Sinatra.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aufH98vkyg)

 

This lovely, languid ballad would figure higher up my list, if it weren’t for two things.  (1) It doesn’t match the tone of the accompanying movie, an over-the-top tale wherein Donald Pleasance tries to start World War III by stealing American and Soviet spacecraft from earth’s orbit and stowing them in his giant base, which is a converted Japanese volcano; and (2) part of the song was sampled by a certain ex-member of Take That in the late 1990s and inserted into a hugely irritating song called Millennium, which ruins my memories of You Only Live Twice now.

 

If you must, here’s footage of Idiot Boy singing Millennium on Top of the Pops: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQOQpt9Ermg.  You’ll note that he’s wearing a gold-sequinned dress, in a whacky and obvious tribute to Shirley Bassey.  The song was sung by Nancy Sinatra, you stupid c***.

 

Now for a digression.  When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I had an American friend called Bill Conway, who prior to moving to Japan had played drums in an indie-garage rock band in Wisconsin called the Weeds.  Among the songs on their 1992 album King Crow was one that I really liked called Nancy Sinatra.  Thanks to the technological marvel that is the worldwide web, I can now listen to Nancy Sinatra by the Weeds again – here is a link to it: https://www.box.com/shared/c7b2yz9gps.  I recall Bill telling me that the album was released by Boat Records, a Madison-based label whose founders included a musician, studio-producer and mate of his called Butch Vig.  After producing Nevermind for Nirvana, Vig founded the internationally-successful electro pop / rock band Garbage.  Which brings me nicely to…

 

6. The World is not Enough, performed by Garbage.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8C5NLfYdZaE)

 

Most Bond themes of the last two decades – like Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name in Casino Royale (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nfc9GLxlhEw) and Jack White and Alicia Keys’ Another Way to Die in Quantum of Solace (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUHD0cdQmko&feature=related) – haven’t been that bad.  Their problem is that they’ve just been forgettable.  Garbage’s song for the third of Pearce Brosnan’s Bond appearances, The World is not Enough, is definitely the best of the latter-day themes.  The link I’ve inserted is not for the movie’s title sequence but for the song’s official video, which is surprisingly bleak – a nihilistic miniature sci-fi thriller that makes good use of the disconcerting, doll-like prettiness of the band’s singer, flame-haired Scot Shirley Manson (who in the 1980s was a member of the great Edinburgh Goth band Goodbye Mr Mackenzie).

 

5. We have all the time in the world, sung by Louis Armstrong.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJsPoI2w6-A)

 

Jazz trumpeter and gravelly singer Louis Armstrong sang this schmaltzy but lovely ballad as an accompaniment for the scenes where George Lazenby romances Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the song has an added poignancy if you already know how the film is going to end.  Other singers have flocked to the song ever since to perform covers of it, including Iggy Pop on Shaken and Stirred (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJNwZxY3h2Q) and the Fun Lovin’ Criminals (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lypG-5Bpzuw).  For my money, though, the spookiest rendition by far comes courtesy of the mighty Irish shoegazers My Bloody Valentine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fajvqa50Jc.

 

4. Goldfinger, sung by Shirley Bassey.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy_PJODH3p0)

 

Duhhh-nuhhh!  Goooo-old…fin-gaaaaah!  Yes, you probably know this one, which established Ms Bassey as the Bond singer par excellence.  Such was the song’s influence that 25 years later the theme-song for Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film, Licenced to Kill, which was sung by Gladys Knight, borrowed its brassy, crashing chords (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ju_by-sC79c).  I like Gladys Knight, and I quite like her Bond theme, but there is something very frustrating about it.  Hearing those chords, you keep expecting Licensed to Kill to soar off into Goldfinger, which it doesn’t do.  So you’re constantly being reminded that you’re listening to a different (and inevitably lesser) song.

 

Incidentally – another digression – the best Bond-type song ever recorded that didn’t actually appear in a Bond film is, in my opinion, the gloriously slinky 1996 song 6 Underground by the Sneaker Pimps.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eBZqmL8ehg)  This uses a sample from the movie Goldfinger, though not from Bassey’s epic title song.  The sample, a simple but haunting harp sequence, appears on the John Barry-written tune Golden Girl, which plays during the scene where Sean Connery discovers Shirley Eaton’s body covered in gold paint (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOfW9xw6yJ0).

 

(c) Columbia

 

3. Diamonds are Forever, sung by Shirley Bassey.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPeSPB68i2c&feature=g-vrec)

 

And here we have Shirley Bassey’s second go at a Bond theme – a song whose greatness is such that it seems wasted on the accompanying film, a baggy and rather tacky 1970s epic, packed with opulence, vulgarity and political incorrectness (see Jill St John playing Tiffany Case, the most airheaded Bond heroine of all time, and camp, hand-holding assassins Mr Kidd and Mr Wint).  At the risk of committing heresy, I have to admit that I almost prefer the version of the song that is sung by the eerie-voiced David McAlmont, appears on Shaken and Stirred and can be listened to here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0TbM8ER4pg.

 

2. Live and Let Die, performed by Wings.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sn8alMYSu44)

 

I was never much of a Beatles fan, although the Beatles’ musical output is vastly better than what Paul McCartney produced subsequently, either with Wings, by himself or in collaboration with the likes of Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson.  (Think of McCartney epics such as Mull of Kintyre, The Frog Chorus, Press to Play, Ebony and Ivory, The Girl is Mine…  Are you screaming, “Stop!  Stop!  Make it stop!” yet?)  But this barnstormer, which in 1974 ushered in Roger Moore’s lengthy tenure as Bond, is for me the best thing the ex-Beatle has ever done.  Even those customary bits of goofiness that McCartney seems so fond of in his song-writing (“You used to say, live and let live…  You know you did, you know you did, you know you did!”) work here, somehow.

 

The cover on Shaken and Stirred (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t98bsf9kRW4) by Chrissie Hynde, whose band the Pretenders had already contributed a song to The Living Daylights soundtrack, is rather average, I’m afraid.  The best version of Live and Let Die, of course, is the one performed by Guns n’ Roses on their 1991 album Use Your Illusion I.  Obviously, Slash, Axel Rose and the gang murder the song, but at least they murder it beautifully (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6D9vAItORgE).

 

1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, composed and conducted by John Barry.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=z0OQAxT1LR4&feature=endscreen)

 

Because it featured a miscast George Lazenby in his one and only appearance as 007, the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was for many years neglected by aficionados and critics.  Nowadays, however, despite Lazenby’s presence, many regard it as one of the best in the series, if not the best.  The masterful music accompanying the opening titles is instrumental only – which is fitting, as for once we aren’t distracted by whatever big-band diva or chart-topping rock or pop group is doing the singing or performing duties, and we get to listen to the undiluted genius of the 007 music-maestro himself, John Barry.  For Shaken and Stirred, David Arnold got the Propellerheads to do a jived up, electronica version of the OHMSS theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFjQXkEfz2c), which is fair enough.  But to be honest, nothing compares with the soaring trumpets and breathless tempo of Barry’s original.

 

(c) Liberty

 

Of course, the best piece of Bond music of all time (as opposed to a song or tune gracing one particular film) is the James Bond theme, written by Monty Norman and arranged by James Barry.  Many artists have covered it, and over the years famous studio boffins like Moby (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMDTgaEIi-Q), L.T.J. Bukem (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3lKB7qQk8o) and David Holmes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQuD-v6N4JU&feature=related) have enjoyed remixing, deconstructing and generally mucking around with it; but the original theme is still the best (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ii1tc493bZM).  During any film, as soon as it strikes up, the hairs automatically rise on the backs of the audience’s necks, even if what is happening on the screen at the time isn’t particularly sensible.  (Roger Moore attempts to escape from some villains in a pedal-boat, which he cunningly transforms into a nuclear-powered miniature submarine at the press of a button – that sort of thing.)

 

(c) Mute Records UK 

 

However, having explored the peaks of James Bond music heaven, it is now time for us to descend through the levels of James Bond music hell.  Here are my nominees for the five worst Bond themes of all time – songs that have done nothing but sully the musical reputation of the franchise.

 

5. The Man with the Golden Gun, sung by Lulu.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK75xQR19jE)

 

He has a powerful weaaa-ponnn!  He charges a million a shhh-ot!  An assassin that’s second to none – the man with the golden guuu-huuun!”  Yes, it’s feisty Glaswegian singer Lulu – who else could it be?  To be fair, I don’t mind Lulu, but her trademark cheesy histrionics and lack of Bassey-style gravity made her the wrong person to sing a Bond theme.  Some might argue that the song is actually fitting, as The Man with the Golden Gun the movie is almost entirely a 1970s cheese-fest anyway – what with Roger Moore, Roger Moore’s wardrobe, Britt Ekland, Herve Villechaize from Fantasy Island, Clifton James’s comedy redneck police officer, the flying car, etc.  (Only Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain, Scaramanga, gives the film some dignity.)  But I don’t agree.  This song is just annoying.

 

4. For Your Eyes Only, sung by Sheena Easton.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGrptJTswNg)

 

Her work with Prince has boosted her credibility somewhat in the intervening years, but back at the start of the 1980s, Bellshill-born Sheena Easton was seen as merely another starlet of dubious talent who’d managed to make it into the charts by virtue of appearing in a reality TV show.  The 1980 documentary programme The Big Time followed her around while, as an unknown, she tried to find success in the pop world.  (Of course, just by the exposure she got on the show, she was able to find a market for her first two singles Modern Girl and 9 to 5 and they rose high in the UK charts.)  By the following year, she’d been lined up to sing the theme for Roger Moore’s fifth Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.  It’s a limp, dreary affair – rather like Easton’s aforementioned singles – and is notable only because it’s the one Bond song to date where the singer appears amid the opening titles.

 

On the evidence of Easton’s For Your Eyes Only and Lulu’s The Man with the Golden Gun, diminutive Scottish songstresses should be kept well away from James Bond themes.  (Unless, of course, if the name is Mansshhon…  Sshhirley Mansshhon.)

 

3. All Time High, sung by Rita Coolidge.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md8uNCYX_Nc)

 

Has anyone ever been able to identify a tune in this interminable, meandering and flavourless 1980s power ballad that opened 1982’s Octopussy?  (At least it was paired with a movie that was as wretched as it was.)  On its release as a single, it became the lowest-charting Bond theme ever in the British charts – it managed number 75 – which suggests the British record-buying public have more sense than we sometimes give them credit for.  On Shaken and Stirred, Britpop legends Pulp had a go at covering the thing, but even the witty Jarvis Cocker couldn’t do much with it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maeELHysFPE).

 

2. Die Another Day, sung by Madonna.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JBzxKLs-dY)

 

A ghastly song and, unfortunately, a ghastly movie too.  Coming forty years after the release of the first Bond film, Dr No, 2002’s Die Another Day was supposed to be a glorious celebration of the franchise, stuffed with everything that made the movies great.  Unfortunately, it ended up as an over-indulgent, self-congratulatory mess.  The one-liners were crass and schoolboy-ish, there were moments of ridiculousness that even Roger Moore might have baulked at (the invisible car, the virtual reality device that allows Miss Moneypenny to have her evil way with 007 at last) and, least forgivably, its action sequences made heavy and visible use of computer-generated-imagery – a betrayal of the earlier films, which had always been famed for the quality of their stuntwork.

 

In fact, there’s something smugly Tony Blair and Cool-Britannia-esque about Die Another Day, which is probably why Madonna was invited on board, both as an actress and as the singer of the theme song – at the time, she was going through her Mrs Guy Ritchie / honorary Brit / aristocratic lady-of-the-manor phase, which seemed to flatter UK egos.  The title song whines and burps along – “Bloop…  die…  bloop…  another…  bloop…  day!” – while accompanied by images of Pierce Brosnan being tortured by his North Korean captors.  But it was almost as much torture for cinema audiences sitting through (and listening to) the bloody thing.

 

1. A View to a Kill, performed by Duran Duran.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp4CR2HcHLQ)

 

In 1985, the Bond producers decided it was finally time to drag the 1970s-esque Roger Moore into the 1980s by putting him in a movie, A View to a Kill, whose theme-song was performed by a (then) young, fashionable and ultra-popular band.  So they hired the New Romantic group that all old punks love to hate, Duran Duran.  (Needless to say, the lame funk-guitar licks, the dinky-sounding drums and the hollow studio-production sound, as well as the New Romantic hairdos, clothes and make-up that appear in the A View to a Kill video, make the song seem every bit as dated now as what Lulu was belting out ten years earlier.)  And even by Duran Duran’s standards, this is pretty poor – it has a clunking tune, the lyrics still induce a migraine (“Dance into the fire!  A fatal kiss is all we need!”) and Simon Le Bon struggles with his vocal duties.  “Bellowing like a wounded elk,” was how Q magazine cruelly but accurately described his singing here.

 

(c) Liberty

 

As for what I thought of the song Skyfall…  Well, I’m not a big fan of Adele, but I liked it in its traditional, lush-and-grandiose Bond-sounding way.  I just hope the old-fashioned style of the song, and certain crowd-pleasing elements that appear in the film itself (such as the return of Q*) don’t mean the filmmakers have lost their nerve, abandoned the grittier approach of the last two movies with Daniel Craig, and steered this one back to the opulent silliness of past decades.

 

* I’m no longer talking about Q the music magazine.  I’m talking Q who’s Bond’s quartermaster.

 

Dubai? Goodbye

 

Dubai – the main city in the emirate of the same name that, with six others, comprises the United Arab Emirates – is remarkable in many ways.  It has taken the city just over a century to grow from a population of 10,000 to a population, in 2005, of more than 1,200,000; and that figure is almost double what it was only a decade before.  Oil kick-started its prosperity, of course, but now the city has become a major hub in the financial world and it doesn’t do badly out of real estate or tourism either.

 

Dubai’s name is synonymous with massive and massively-ambitious construction projects, and it’s home to such architectural wonders as the Burj al Arab, a 60-storey, $1000-a-night (minimum) and allegedly ‘seven-star’ hotel that stands on its own artificial island and resembles a cross between a truncated accordion and a sunken G clef; and the crooked needle that is the Burj Khalifa, which supplanted the Taipei 101 as the world’s tallest building in 2010.  (Though no doubt billionaires in Beijing, Hong Kong, Rio and Moscow have architects working this very moment on plans to build something even taller, as part of the never-ending global contest of architectural penis envy).

 

Despite being a Disneyland of corporate deal-making, financing, shopping and building, Dubai has no shortage of critics.  Many claim that it isn’t necessarily a nice place to live or work in, especially if you’re not a UAE national or a Western expatriate.  Perhaps the most comprehensively damning piece of journalism written about it was a feature called The Dark Side of Dubai, published in Britain’s Independent newspaper in April 2009 (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html), which focused on various groups who have suffered grievously from the city’s culture of rapacious capitalism or otherwise have an axe to grind about it: the legions of Asian construction workers who toil in pitiable conditions and for pitiable wages building the place, the Filipino and Ethiopian maids and nannies working 24 / 7 to look after the children of wealthy Western expats, the environmentalists alarmed that the authorities in one of the most water-stressed parts of the world should be attempting projects like the construction of a giant ski-slope with real snow, and even some Western expats who once flew high there but then fell back to earth with terrifying bumps.  (In Dubai, if you go bankrupt and can’t pay your debts, you go to jail.  End of story.)

 

I should say that the feature was written by a journalist called Johann Hari, much of whose work has since been discredited.  In 2011 Hari confessed to serial plagiarism, especially with regard to borrowing his interviewees’ quotes from other sources and embellishing them (http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2011/09/unethical-journalism).  However, the other week, I visited Dubai for a couple of days to attend a managerial meeting and I have to say that I saw little to contradict the general thrust of Hari’s article.  In particular, his description of the city as ‘a motorway punctuated by shopping centres’ chimed depressingly with my own impressions of it.

 

I’ve visited some bland spots before, but Dubai was something else.  It was the first city I’ve been in where the airport terminal, the hotel I was staying in and everything between and around those two places seemed to constitute a single, uniform entity – as if the city had been replicated endlessly from the same, simple scraps of architectural DNA.  It presented a soulless urban landscape of lobbies, malls, overpriced restaurants, personality-free ‘theme’ bars and acres of concrete, asphalt and glass.  In fact, I could have spent my couple of days there without leaving the airport and had pretty much the same intellectual and aesthetic experience.

 

I had some inkling of what to expect, I suppose, as prior to travelling I’d consulted Dubai Time Out’s website and done a little research.  In particular, I’d checked the website’s recommendations about the best pubs in the city, since (as readers of this blog will know) I have a tendency to assess cities by the quality of their pubs.  On Dubai Time Out’s list of the eight best Dubai pubs, three were Irish chain pubs with names along the lines of Kneecapper O’Shea’s; and three more were English chain pubs with names that sounded like The Radish and Cowpat.  When three-quarters of a city’s top pubs are franchise ones pushing tired national stereotypes, I fear that city is in trouble.

 

As it turned out, I ended up in one of the pubs on the list – the Irish Village – one night when I arranged to meet some ex-colleagues who were in Dubai temporarily, running a training course.  Looking at some of the Westerners drinking around us, I had a feeling of déjà vu.  Those beefy guys with shaven heads, their muscle beginning to run to fat, their thick necks oozing over the collars of their rugby shirts…  Those cackling and rather porky women padding around the premises in flip-flops, their dyed-blonde hair scraped back into ponytails…  Where had I seen them before?  Eventually, I realised I’d been mentally transported back in time to a typical expat pub in Hong Kong during the 1990s.  At the time, Hong Kong was overrun with a type of Westerner that was infamously known as the F.I.L.T.H. – an acronym for Failed In London, Try Hong-Kong.  Yes, like Hong Kong twenty years ago, Dubai gave me the impression that, no matter how mediocre your talents, if you possessed the right passport, the right skin-colour and the right connections, you could make very large sums of money indeed for yourself.

 

On another occasion, somebody I was drinking with made the point that no matter how bland or materialist it was, Dubai was at least ‘a great place to bring up kids in’.  Well, no doubt.  When your kids are toddlers, you can give them to that hard-pressed but underpaid Filipino or Ethiopian nanny to look after.  And when your kids reach teenager-hood, you can release them into the shopping malls, where they’ll spend many contented hours shambling around like the zombies in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

 

When surveying the concrete, asphalt, glass and logo-laden façade of Dubai, I did occasionally feel a moment where good, old-fashioned humanity seemed to break through.  Mostly, those moments came courtesy of the city’s army of Indian workers, who lubricate the giant cogs of the city’s economy by manning the reception desks, carrying the luggage, driving the taxis and so on.  On my first evening, the hotel bar was for a time packed with Indian cricket fans cheering their country on in a televised cricket game against Pakistan.  The bar’s atmosphere was as noisy and raucous as anything I’ve ever experienced during a football match.  And I observed a nice detail on the morning of my departure, barely after the crack of dawn, while I was being driven to the airport – a handful of Indian guys could be seen getting in some cricketing practice on a grassy square by the roadside, surrounded on its three other sides by hulking concrete buildings.  In another hour, I imagined, they’d be starting their daily shifts as receptionists, concierges or drivers.

 

I’m reluctant to damn a city on the strength of having been there for a very short time.  I’ll always remember what American writer Paul Theroux said in his travel book The Kingdom by the Sea about the city of Aberdeen, which he visited for a couple of days but which I lived in, generally very happily, for five years of my life.  Theroux did not enjoy his visit – he was especially nonplussed about being denied entrance to a country-and-western night at the Happy Valley nightclub because he was wearing jeans.  (“I could be Willie Nelson for all you know!” Theroux protested.  “Ye’re no Willie Nelson,” replied the Happy Valley’s bouncer.  “Now piss off.”)  Thereafter, he wrote that “the average Aberdonian is someone who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth.”  And that, I thought, was a damning statement based on wildly insufficient evidence.  Two or three days are not enough time to make an accurate assessment of an entire city, write it up and stick it in a book.

 

With Dubai, however, I felt that the place was not endowed with shades or tones, depths or details, nuances or stories, which required a visitor to do months of research before he or she could describe the place accurately.  What you immediately saw was pretty much what you got – and I didn’t like most of what I saw.  (My apologies to Dubai-lovers if I have got anything wrong or have missed anything out.  Feel free to email and correct me.)

 

It wasn’t until I was in Dubai Airport again, about to leave, that I saw something that reminded me I had a camera with me and inspired me for the first time during my visit to take a photograph.  It was a creepy life-sized hologram-lady instructing travellers on how to prepare themselves as they approached the passport desks and security checks.  An elegantly dressed and groomed lady instructing you on what to do in impeccably polite English – but a lady with a disturbing aura of unreality about her, a lady whom, when you looked at her up-close, you discovered to be artificial and two-dimensional.  Yes, she seemed to symbolise Dubai perfectly.

 

 

So now I’m back in Tunis, with its leaky buildings, smelly drains, feral cats, King Kong-sized cockroaches, bags of uncollected rubbish and grumpy old guys sitting smoking shishas and cluttering up the pavements.  It feels wonderful to be someplace human again.

 

Game not yet over: film review / Prometheus

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Following the previous entry on this blog, I’d like to continue the space theme by giving my thoughts on Ridley Scott’s recent science fiction movie Prometheus, which was released on DVD in the United Kingdom this week and is a prequel to the series of Alien films – the first of which was famously directed by Scott back in 1979.

 

I’d have liked to begin this review with a quote from Hamlet.  The film comes laden with child-parent themes – there’s the relationship that Michael Fassbender’s android character has with his creator, and the dreams experienced by Noomi Rapace’s archaeologist where she recalls her childhood with her father, and a late-on revelation that provides a parental motive for the behaviour of the glacially unpleasant company executive played by Charlie Theron, and the fact that the film takes place in the same universe as the Alien movies, which feature the worst parenting experiences in the history of the cinema – and a few lines from Shakespeare’s play about the father-haunted, mother-fixated Dane would surely be appropriate.  However, it’s actually a quote from another Shakespearean work, Macbeth, which bests sums up certain aspects of Prometheus: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

 

That’s not to say that the film’s basic premise isn’t sound.  It begins with a scene set in the earth’s distant past that suggests life on our planet was the result of alien tampering.  Subsequently, in the late 21st century, evidence of these aliens – who are nicknamed ‘the Engineers’ – and the planet they may have come from is uncovered by archaeologists and a mega-billionaire called Charles Weyland (Guy Pearce) is sufficiently inspired to launch a spaceship containing a team of cryogenically-frozen scientists towards the distant planet.

 

Arriving a couple of years later at their destination – having been looked after en route by an android called David (Fassbender) – the team thaw out and soon discover on the planet’s surface what appear to be the remains of a giant genetic laboratory once run by the Engineers.  However, when David gets the lab’s holographic CCTV system operating again, it reveals ghostly footage of the Engineers in terrified flight from something they’d created.  And as ghastly things begin to stir in the shadowy, cave-like tunnels of the abandoned lab, it becomes clear that the Engineers – no longer the benevolent species they were when they visited earth – were working on making genetic weapons here, weapons that are still, horribly, active.

 

In the original, Scott-directed Alien, the life-cycle of the hideous title star was fairly straightforward.  It started off inside an egg, emerged as a claw-like face-hugger, incubated inside John Hurt, reappeared explosively as the phallic chest-burster and finally grew into the nightmarish, acid-blooded, adult alien that’d been designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger.  The cycle was tweaked with but not dramatically altered in later films – James Cameron’s Aliens brought in the egg-laying alien queen, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection introduced the half-alien, half-human new-born (which unfortunately looked like it was about to burst into tears and ruined the film’s finale).  Prometheus avoids the easy option of using the aliens we’ve been familiar with since 1979 as the biological weapons lurking in the Engineers’ laboratory.  Instead, we get some new but equally unpleasant life-forms that might’ve been developed in parallel with the aliens, or developed as prototypes to them.

 

Unfortunately, the rules governing the life-cycle of the thingies in Prometheus are all over the place.  (It doesn’t help that a couple of the humans are attacked too on a cellular level – they get infected by something viral and gruesome.)  During the latter stages of the film, while horribleness piled on top of horribleness, I was asking myself an array of troubling questions.  Where did that come from?  Is that thing related to that other thing from half-an-hour ago or is it something new?  And if it’s something new, what happened to the other thing from half-an-hour ago?  Why did that happen to him when it didn’t happen to the other bloke?  Why did he react that way when the last guy reacted a different way?  Oh, what the f*** is going on?!!  At a number of moments, such was the illogical sound and fury of Prometheus that it did indeed seem like a tale told by an idiot.  (The script is by Damon Lindelof, who isn’t actually an idiot, but he’s perhaps the next worst thing: he’s a writer on the TV show Lost.)

 

However, having got that major gripe out of the way, I can say there was much in Prometheus that I enjoyed.  The early stages of the film have a lovely 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe to them and it’s refreshing to encounter a science fiction movie that isn’t afraid to engage with big questions such as where we come from and what we’re doing here – which the genre should do more of, but doesn’t (cinematically, at least).  It also makes a change to have an Alien movie where the main characters are scientists and specialists who have some idea of what they’re getting themselves into (even if they’re not sure what exactly), as opposed to the hapless blue-collar and low-life characters who populated the earlier films: space-truckers in Alien, space-marines in Aliens, space-convicts in Alien 3 and space-mercenaries in Alien Resurrection.  (That said, during the scene where the spaceship prepared to land on the Engineers’ planet, I was half-hoping that Bill Paxton would pop up and exclaim: “Stop your grinnin’, and drop your linen!”)

 

The cast are also good value, especially Noomi Rapace who, in the best Sigourney Weaver / Ripley tradition, becomes tougher and more proactive as her fellow crew-members are gradually whittled away around her; and Michael Fassbender as David, who’s an intriguing creation.  Driven by a curiosity that’s sometimes child-like and sometimes ruthless, he’s morally positioned halfway between Ash, Ian Holm’s out-and-out bastard of an android in the original Alien, and Bishop, Lance Henrikson’s noble android in Aliens (who helped to save the day even after the alien queen had ripped him in half).  The other actors and actresses do well too, although they have to cope with some wildly expository dialogue – it’s just a pity that the dialogue hadn’t been more expository when explaining what, precisely, was going on in the Engineers’ laboratory.  The script also demands they do some very stupid things that only characters in horror films, and Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, are capable of doing.  An alien life-form rears up in front of you…  And how do you respond?  You reach out and touch it.  Duh.

 

Among the supporting cast, I particularly liked Sean Harris and Rafe Spall as a bickering geologist and biologist – although when the moment comes that they stop sniping and decide they actually like each other, you know that Something Bad Is Going To Happen.

 

The real star of the film, however, is Ridley Scott.  His direction, coupled with the photography, set design and special effects, ensure that, visually, the films packs as much of a punch as any of his best movies did in the past.  And it just feels good to have him making a film again that’s set in the Alien universe, the universe that he played a major role in creating 33 years ago.  Prometheus doesn’t have the narrative thrust or the freshness of the first two films in the series, but it’s certainly superior to the third and fourth ones (although, directed by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet respectively, neither Alien 3 nor Alien Resurrection are without merit).  So – welcome back, Ridley.

 

(You’ll notice that in the above review I have not mentioned the Alien vs Predator movies.  I have no wish to.  In fact, anyone who tries to argue with me that Alien vs Predator I and II are part of the canon deserves to have acidic alien blood dribbled over his or her head.)

 

I blame Neil Armstrong (…and Gerry Anderson… and Arthur C. Clarke)

 

August saw the death of Neil Armstrong, the first-ever human being to set foot on an alien world.  All right, it was only the moon, which is hardly in the same league as Krypton, Tatooine or the fancy three-dimensional planet in Avatar, but for a wee species that only evolved out of the Homo genus about 200,000 years ago, that first step of his in 1969 was still pretty impressive.

 

Armstrong’s passing got me thinking about an uncomfortable question.  How come the future has turned out to be so rubbish?

 

Even I am a little too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf 43 years ago, but I can just about recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure of what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a tiny black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which only picked up one channel, the BBC.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Irish Free State, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some dangerous-looking twiddling.)  All I could make out on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a fuzzy dark-grey background.  However, my Dad assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took his word for it.

 

It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap that was almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  The cause of this were two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered – a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the top of the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight.  Until then, I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill our sideboard.

 

I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement – if they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some quaint words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which inevitably had my classmates at primary school tearing the piss out of me.

 

One feature of these encyclopaedias that really rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  It’s hard to believe today, now that one of the two main American political parties is infested with right-wing religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was built in six days flat a few thousand years ago (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/republican-congressman-evolution-lies-straight-pit-hell), but there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools in converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up – even those assertions in the encyclopaedias that, with the benefit of hindsight, were a bit over-optimistic.

 

For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed a bit suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin can left littering a lunar crater.

 

Anyway, I assumed this was what I could expect by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.

 

My expectations were buoyed further when in the mid-1970s my parents finally got round to buying a new TV set that got three channels, the BBC, RTE and ITV – Independent Television.  Although ITV had (and still has) a reputation for cheap and lowbrow programming in comparison with that made by the BBC, it did broadcast at the time various action / adventure series made by a subsidiary called ITC entertainment, run by the cigar-smoking Jewish-Ukrainian impresario Lord Lew Grade.  Aimed at international markets and at the American market in particular, ITC’s shows commanded higher-than-average budgets and looked quite glossy by the standards of 1960s and 1970s British TV.  They included The Prisoner, The Persuaders, Department S and a host of science-fiction shows made by the remarkable Gerry Anderson.  These I was suddenly able to watch for the first time.

 

Gerry Anderson, of course, is best-known today for his ‘Supermarionation’ sci-fi series, which were populated by puppets and featured special effects that, for the time, looked impressively cinematic: Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Joe 90…  Not to mention the surprisingly grim Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, each episode of which began with the rumbling, terrifying Voice of the Mysterons transmitting from Mars and threatening to wreak havoc somewhere on earth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV8YbLvGrb0&feature=related).  But it was seeing repeats of Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi show, UFO, made in 1970 and starring Ed Bishop, George Sewell, Michael Billington, Peter Gordeno, Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum) and Gabrielle Drake (Nick Drake’s sister), that convinced me that the future was going to be absolutely brilliant.

 

For UFO, Anderson’s production team envisioned the shape of things to come through a prism of gaudy late-1960s design and fashion, with a smidgeon too of then-fashionable psychedelia.  It didn’t just feature spaceships and moonbases, but also sleek super-cars, talking computers with hallucinogenic panels of flashing lights, giant submarines with detachable nose-modules that turned into aircraft when they reached the ocean surface, guys in groovy-looking suits that didn’t have lapels, and a lot of sexy ladies wearing silver miniskirts and sporting purple hairdos.  (Here’s UFO’s famous title sequence, by the way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb4nMFHXxro).  So, I thought, I’d be living on a moonbase, watching spaceships streak past towards Mars, and Gabrielle Drake would be shimmying around me looking fetching in silver and purple.  The future seemed better than ever.

 

Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that little futuristic stuff was happening any more.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, not much occurred after the Skylab project – yes, there was the space shuttle, but that didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit.  Meanwhile, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars but, alas, found nothing interesting.  There were no aliens, Martian canals or three-legged war machines shooting out death-rays – just some boring geological formations that had once been river valleys.  And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.

 

I still held out hope, though.  In the mobile library that came to our village every week, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic late-1960s sci-fi movie he’d co-written with director Stanley Kubrick.  It was reassuring to read Clarke’s sober, matter-of-fact account of a journey from the earth to the moon and then on to Saturn.  (In Kubrick’s film, the final destination was changed to Jupiter because the job of convincingly depicting Saturn’s rings was too much for his special effects team.)  By then I was well-versed in astronomy and space travel and the book seemed to reinforce everything I knew already about the subjects.  It also made the idea that humanity would be out exploring more of space in the early 21st century seem feasible and, indeed, logical.

 

When I finally saw 2001 the movie, however, it was the early 1980s and even I had to concede that it’d become a bit of a museum piece.  In some ways it possessed an admirable, almost documentary-like realism – for instance, I was impressed by the fact that, unlike the spaceships in every other sci-fi movie I’d seen, Kubrick’s spaceships didn’t make any noise (because sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space) – but it struck me as a historical artefact nonetheless because it was clearly rooted in a past time and in past conceptions of what lay ahead.  It offered a late-1960s view of the future, one that just wasn’t plausible any longer in 1981 or 1982.

 

(By then, the Mad Max movies had started to do the rounds and, after the oil shortages of the 1970s, they presented an unfortunately more credible vision of what the 21st century might be like.  It was also telling that a couple of years earlier, in 1978, Lord Grade’s ITC Entertainment, which had once stimulated my space-age fantasies with the Gerry Anderson shows, had produced the movie Capricorn One – a cynical sci-fi thriller about a NASA expedition to Mars that is actually a hoax, with the supposed landing on the Martian surface being filmed in a TV studio in the American desert.)

 

And now in 2012 I find myself inhabiting a world far removed from the visions that Neil Armstrong, Gerry Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke inspired in me during my childhood.  An international space station has been in low earth orbit for the past dozen years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station) but, still, little else is happening on the manned space-travel front – I doubt very much if people will get to Mars in my lifetime and I’m beginning to wonder if they will get there at all, ever.  Okay, I spend my working days squinting into the screen and poking at the keyboard of a computer, but it doesn’t seem like a proper computer.  After all, when a proper computer developed a fault, it would surely – like HAL in 2001 – start singing ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…’  Mine just mutely informs me that it has encountered a problem and is going to shut down.

 

In fact, the only thing that anyone back then got right about the future was the scenario in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet.  For many years, up until recently, we did cower as the Voice of the Mysterons, at regular intervals, threatened to wreak havoc in our lives – though to be fair, it wasn’t the Voice of the Mysterons broadcasting from Mars, but the Voice of Osama Bin Laden broadcasting via smuggled-out video cassettes from a compound in Pakistan.  (I often wonder if the ten-year-old Osama watched that show on television in late-1960s Riyadh and borrowed a few ideas from it.)

 

Armstrong departed from this world – again, and this time for good – on August 25th.  Clarke died back in 2008 (whereas poor old Kubrick didn’t even live to see 2001).  And Gerry Anderson, I was saddened to read recently, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-18614483).

 

And that’s ironic in a way, for I sometimes feel I am suffering from a reverse form of Alzheimer’s – not one that erases my memories of the past through neuro-degeneration, but one that erases my fanciful memories of the future through on-going exposure to dull, disillusioning reality.