Biutiful Review

Biutiful is the latest installment in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ongoing campaign to prove life-is-hard-but-yet-we-are-all-connected.

His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel were branded ‘the death trilogy,’ and Biutiful is no departure. His humanist brand of filmmaking always has latent conflict at its core; conflict with our past, our bodies, our poverty-induced morality.

Here, his vessel is Javier Bardem’s Uxbal, a gentle, weary man trying to make ends meet in the labyrinthine backstreets of Barcelona. Uxbal has two small children, a bipolar wife and a scumbag of a brother. He tries, vainly, to provide street work for African immigrants facing deportation and is single handedly responsible for the fate of 24 Chinese blackmarket workers. He has no food and a rotting home and is forced to cremate his buried father for a few more Euros. Oh yeah, and he’s terminally ill with cancer.

Quite a lot to deal with for one bloke, but if anyone can shoulder it, Javier Bardem can. Bardem is known to most cinema-goers as the remorseless murderer with the dodgy bowl-cut in No Country For Old Men and Woody Allen’s fantasy avatar in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but prior to Hollywood he had a long and extensive career as Spain’s leading man, building a rep as an actor with serious character pedigree. He spent most of his time in a wheelchair in Pedro Almodovar’s acclaimed Live Flesh before gaining international recognition playing the rebellious Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and an impressionable detective in John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs.

As Live Flesh proved, Bardem has never possessed qualms about challenging his sex symbol status. He lost some serious weight for this film and, beyond sporting a ponytail, has to act in scenes when he repeatedly wets himself, urinates blood or, at one point, wears a nappy to show in unflinching detail the worst indignities of a cancer sufferer. He is in virtually every scene, many of them wordless, and carries the whole thing on his back. It is, by any standards, a heavyweight performance.

And thank God it is. Biutiful is Iñárritu’s first film that doesn’t involve his longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga after they suffered a very public falling out. Iñárritu has never possessed subtly, but Arriaga would add intrigue by weaving their films around one tragic event, elusively shifting timeframes and perspectives, and his absence here proves almost terminal. Biutiful has none of these kaleidoscope complexities. Instead, it’sa  painfully linear melodrama that begins to labour with a leaden monotony. The increasingly portentous sense of grandiosity never breaks or alleviates, and Iñárritu is forced to overcompensate. As such, the occasional flashes of brilliance that he is so abundantly capable of – like the opening scene, in which two hands slowly circle and lace, or the moment Uxbal hears his daughter’s heartbeat as he draws her close, or the overhead sequence when police chase street vendors who scatter like startled deer – are swallowed up, suffocated by overwrought overstatement.

The film is dedicated to Iñárritu’s father, and it seems he has become too close to what can justifiably be termed a passion project. We are all allowed our indulgences but, for the sake of cinema everywhere, let us hope he gives Arriaga a call, and gives peace a chance.

Advertisements

Catfish, the Khmer Rouge and Ethical Documentaries

This Friday sees the release of Enemies of the People and Catfish. Both are raw, digitalized documentaries that speak of the documentarian’s newfound portability. Both, in their own way, have at their core highly intimate and personal revelations. Both play out chronologically, as if they exist in time as it is experienced. But, in terms of their ethical attitudes and the questions they raise, they are poles apart.

One is a slightly dated but probing, highly accountable piece of videojournalism. The other is something entirely different – a film that eludes category altogether.

Enemies of the People, a collaboration between experienced BBC documentarian Rob Lemkin and senior reporter for the Phnom Penh Post Thet Sambath, traces the cautiously developed relationship between Sambath and Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s Brother Number Two and one of the chief architects of the Khmer Rouge. Sambath travels to the killing fields to meet and talk with the simple farmers asked to act as the executioners – mere cogs in the Khmer Rouge’s grand program. These men and women have lived with the stench of death – literally – for decades.

Rob Lemkin, who accompanied Sambath to the killing fields and documented the exorcising and visceral disclosures of violence from these kindly, giving people, said:

“The most important thing is that all times there was totally informed consent. That’s important with filmmaking of this nature. There must be a consensual nature where people could be unburdened and be feel free to talk about past crimes and past atrocities that they have been forced to live with. Informed consent for people who don’t have electricity in their houses, who don’t watch television, who don’t actually understand filmmaking, is quite complex. So at all times when we were filming I was showing the tape back and we were discussing constantly.

“The film making process was actually quite a small part of a much bigger process. They had signed up with Sambath to tell the truth for the world and for their society and for their country. They were on that process when I met them. All the time, that was the primary process. On a personal basis, telling the truth would not only help them to deal with their own guilt and trauma but would also attempt to bring some light to the period and contribute to the social good in some kind of way. All times these people all felt that the film making was always just a kind of that bigger process.”

The other is Catfish, a collaborative film between brothers Nev and Rel Schulman and their friend Henry Joost. Catfish is filmed with pocket camcorders, documenting the unfolding romance between Nev and a mysterious girl called Megan – a Facebook friend who becomes something much more intimate. It has began to be recognised as a film that explores the consequences of social media. Equally, the consequences of documenting reality are exposed.

Catfish has received months of festival buzz. Conversations have centered, repeatedly, around what kind of film it is. Is it a documentary or a fiction? Is it scripted, or were the filmmakers skilful and committed enough to film a narrative which seemed to write itself? Or, is it an ornate hoax – a mockumentary of grotesque proportions?

As the New York Times critic A O Scott writes: “Judged by the usual standards, it is a wretched documentary: visually and narratively sloppy; coy about its motives; slipshod in its adherence to basic ethical norms. The filmmakers, who occasionally appear on camera, shoot and edit with at least minimal competence, but their approach to the potentially volatile and undeniably exploitive implications of their stumbled-upon story is muddled and defensive. Shame on them, if that would mean anything to them.

“But at the same time — precisely because of these lapses — Catfish is a fascinating document, at once glib, untrustworthy and strangely authentic.”

But the film’s purposefully unconstructed, almost brash familiarity has a lineage. Catfish recalls the masterful Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason, in which an aging, Afro-Caribbean hustler from the wrong side of New York is exhorted to tell to the camera his most intimate feelings and baring vulnerabilities. The difference is – Jason was filmed in one evening, Catfish over the course of a year. Inference asks how considered this path of discovery truly was.

On its reveal when Nev and Megan are finally united, the film as a whole shits a gear, gaining sensitivity and some sympathy; it has little choice but to. But nevertheless, the queasy sense of voyeurism when watching these scenes is almost over-powering.

“They weren’t aware we were shooting for the first 30 seconds,” says Henry Joost. “We said to them, we’ve been making a documentary up this point and we’d like to tell your point of the story. Is that ok?

“I felt, when we found out what was going on, that we had to really take a step back, and let this person tell their story, and be documentarians.”

We’re never shown this moment of consent, and this begs questions. Did the filmmakers have a right to document the reality they found? How much did they manipulate it with dramatic conventions like, for example, editing? The subjects who become key cogs in the film’s machinations were asked to sign release forms before the film could be released. They have been absent from public view since. Only one interview was granted (for the ABC programme 20/20), and the word ‘schizophrenia’ was used in the course of it. Should this reality have been redacted or, as with Claude Lanzmann’s //Shoah//, did the compelling nature of the truth revealed act as justification in itself?

As A O Scott writes: “Mr. Shulman and Mr. Joost will continue to enjoy the success and cachet of having made a pop culture conversation piece, which is a tribute to their good luck and nimble opportunism. But the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”

Hacking

“Hacking isn’t about breaking and entering,” Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has said. “It’s about being unafraid to break things in order to make them better.”

A computer, like capitalism, is based on the premise of systems, ownership and security. But security can be impinged, property trespassed, systems destroyed or reordered. Hacking may conjure an image of a geek in a basement. In reality, it is much more than that.

The hacker has become an emblem; a lone freedom fighter bathed in the grey-glow of a computer screen, fingers whizzing across a keyboard, determined to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed. Hackers are analysts, rebels, questioners and rejectionists, drawing back the iron curtain of authority, using their relationship with technology to beckon a better world. As journalist David Leigh says, hacking is “a distinct psychological genre.”

Think of the traditional and enduring images of the hacker in cinema: Keanu Reeve’s Neo bursting awake in his grimy bachelor pad and receiving a minidisc from the White Rabbit. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt high-wiring into the world’s most secure office to nab the NOC list. Wayne Knight’s Dennis taking down the mainframe and letting out the raptors in //Jurassic Park//. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith rewiring the alien craft to celebrate //Independence Day//. Hugh Jackman, Vinnie Jones on one side and a hospitable blonde on the other, given 60 seconds to break into “The Department of Defense” in //Swordfish//. Cinema has done a remarkably good job of depicting hacking in all its guises and quandaries, from the virtuous, to the ethically dubious, to the plain naughty, to the egocentric and deranged.

Yet many of these films exhibit a Cold War perspective of a world defined by the existence of a wall. Today the defining symbol of our interactions is not a wall, but a net.

The internet has filtered into every aspect of our society. As hackers like Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and Pirate Bay’s Gottfrid Svartholm and Fredrik Neij have become global icons, the significance of the hacker has changed, their identity corroded, their existence maybe even endangered.

It is now easier to find a sense of community online than at your doorstep. We share the minutia of our lives, we share art and culture, we comment on events as they unfold, we treat what used to be secrets with the same familiarity as our online status. Politicians, celebrities, generals and spies are discovering to their peril that privacy isn’t easily kept these days, and revenge is a dish best served cold. When friction creates a spark, it spreads like wild-fire.

Zuckerberg, 25, whose work on Facebook has provided a 24 billion dollar kitty, is a self-confessed hacker. Facebook started life as a drunken hack-job prank in the halls of Harvard. When he was still at school, Zuckerberg invented artificial intelligence software that predicted a user’s music tastes. Microsoft and AOL wanted to buy it for millions, but he uploaded it to the net for free and joined the Ivy League. Today, with over 500 million active users, he lives in a rented flat with his Chinese girlfriend (and learns Mandarin for a couple of hours before heading to work at 6am). Refusing to watch the biopic courtesy of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, Zuckerberg works like any other programmer at the Facebook offices and seems to have no real relationship with the fortune he has earned.

Zuckerberg’s creation has been the source of concern for a lot of existing hacking communities who accuse it of muddying the sacred waters of interaction. As possibly the most successful produce of a traditional hack, the social network is not welcomed with particular warmth.  McKensie Wark, the author of //The Hacker’s Manifesto//, is part of this chorus. His polemical book seems to view hacking as part of a re-tuning of Marxist social theory for the modern age. Wark defines hacking as:

“The gift of time and attention to a project that can be shared with and by others. That is, and perhaps always was, the vast, invisible part of how social formations get by.”

He talked to Little White Lies about Facebook, saying:

“For those of us in the overdeveloped world, the main game is the subtle overlap of hacking, working, playing and hustling. It is now not clear which is which. Is my Facebook time labour or play, or hustling? Am I working for Zuckerberg, am I playing with my friends, am I trying to build an audience to sell my next book? Or am I spending all my time there on Farmville? This ambiguity about social communication time is I think the big question our culture will face.”

Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Gates’ Microsoft, Jobs and Wozniak’s Apple and Richard Stallman’s GNU project are all products, and statements, born from the culture of hacking. Indeed, so is the world wide web itself. Tim Berners Lee, who made his first computer with a soldering iron, an M8600 processor and an old television and is now accredited with fathering the net, did so by hacking existing software and welding it together, discovering a way to communicate that is wholly unconcerned with time and space.

But these visionaries of information technology are just the tip of the iceberg. These are the hackers known in the game as White Hats; entrepreneurs concerned with conventional ethics who hack company software with the implicit desire to improve security through exposure, and to create rather than deconstruct. Most good hackers were tapped up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) or IBM as soon as their capabilities became clear – Agent Smiths looking to turn Neo into Mr Anderson.

Before Silicon Valley existed, the cutting edge of technological America was the railroad. The Tech Model Railway Club, a legendary club at M.I.T, built sophisticated train models and complex circuits that allowed the trains to pioneer further into America. Its members were amongst the first hackers because they insistently pushed the programs beyond what they were originally designed to do. So emerged the hacking ethic – a silent doctrine based in the premise of transparency and knowledge, in which a man’s relationship to his machine could lead to a better world.

Finding the “perfect hack” is the pinnacle at M.I.T, and the stories predate the computers. Back in the 50s, on a balmy summer’s night, a bunch of students left their halls and broke into Cambridge’s Kendall Square subway station where they set about greasing down the lines. The first train to enter the station the next morning hit the grease and slid through to the other side, before eventually coming to a stop in a darkened tunnel way down the other end. When the driver backed up, the train slid through in the opposite direction. Not many people using Kendall Square got to work on time that morning. For several generations of M.I.T. engineers, it went down as the ultimate hack. A simple practical joke, but executed with such finesse that it obtained a certain beauty.

It’s a competitive environment. Stories abounded at M.I.T of some of America’s brightest and most ambitious students going into ‘wrap-around;’ foregoing meals, sleep and any social activity as they buried deeper and deeper into their computerized worlds, purely for the challenge to find the holes in the system.

M.I.T housed ethical hackers not unlike Zuckerberg. But the loose network of hackers is as nuanced, and their motivations as varied, as any community. Not every hacker hacks for capital gain or the sake of mankind. Infact, most don’t. For every straight-laced White Hat, there is a Puck-like Grey Hat or an Iago-like Black Hat.

Grey Hats are hackers unconcerned by rule of law if it stands in the way of their discoveries. Perhaps the most iconic hacker currently working is Julian Assange, the controversial face of Wikileaks. Assange, who rarely sleeps in the same bed twice, lives nocturnally, carries a desktop computer in a pack on his back and started his hacking career by heading up a group called ‘International Subversives,’ is a nailed-on Grey Hat.

By exposing in no uncertain terms the true cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, his work as a hacker is clearly servicing a thirst for a fact-based, transparent democracy and he has been applauded as a Robin Hood of the information age. But to achieve his ideals, Assange has broken every secrecy law ever passed, and has been accused of failing his sources. Bradley Manning, the US private charged with passing top secret Government files to Wikileaks under the online pseudonym Bradass87, is facing a life in jail for the theft of Government property, property that Assange eagerly published before joining the global lecture circuit. In an open letter to Assange, press freedom campaign group Reporters Without Borders accused Assange of “incredible irresponsibility” for publishing the Afghan war logs “indiscriminately.” Assange’s methods, they said, “reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility.” Spokesperson for The White House Robert Gates said Assange “had blood on his hands.”

Grey Hats are hackers whose intentions are shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Assange’s objectives are clearly rooted in a uncompromisingly moral world-view. Morals that, justifiably or not, allow him to break international law without recourse to any process of accountability. He said recently:

“There’s a question as to what sort of information is important in the world, what sort of information can achieve reform. And there’s a lot of information.“Information that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing, that’s a really good signal that when the information gets out, there’s a hope of it doing some good.”

Assange’s assertion that the presence of money compromises the pursuit of information is deeply embedded in the culture of hacking. Many hackers seem to regard themselves and their work as standing outside of, and rejecting, the worst excesses of capital democracy, with its accompanying trade-offs and equivocations. This is an age-old thing, as prevalent in the first stories of hacking as in the latest.

This may have been true throughout the baby-boomer generation. Their world was smaller, but most of it was still closed from view. Journalism investigated, but governmental departments and big business remained enshrined in their towers. Their economies were exploding, but they dealt in material worth.

But Generation Y live in a tertiary marketplace powered by creativity and freedom of information. We were given the internet and we showed them how to make it work. What does this mean for the hacking community? What role does it now have in this brave new world of venture capitalism?

“On the one hand, hacking has become a more widespread and self-aware cultural practice, and not just in computer related fields,” Wark says.  “Lots of people now think about themselves as members of communities that share information, make a gift of their labor, and achieve recognition from others for this. On the other hand, general social production has been more seamlessly integrated into internet-based media, from search engines to games and social networking. All of these portals extract a rent from ‘hosting’ such activity. I say ‘hosting’ because, in reality, they are the parasite – that which syphons off the surplus from its host, the host being social labor and creativity or, in other words, hacking.”

Hacking, in Wark’s world, is an extension to what the guys at the bottom of the pile have always done; adapt to survive. His manifesto places hacking as the only credible and justifiable response to pernicious authority and parasitical enterprise. He views the attempts to police it, or indeed choke it at source, as a classic exercise in wagon-circling self-preservation:

“Hacking is something that certain vested interests want to criminalize. It is exactly like the criminalizing of the pre-modern forms of economy that went with the rise of capitalism. For example, weavers used to always take some of the cloth in exchange for their work. The capitalist putting-out system criminalized this as ‘theft’. Likewise, culture has always worked by borrowing and adapting. Now the theft is of so-called intellectual property.”

Back in the day, Black Hat hackers (or self-termed “social engineers”) like Kevin Mitnick could manipulate the script and jump down the rabbit-hole. Gary McKinnon, a Glasgow-born systems administrator and Aspergers sufferer, is currently awaiting extradition to the US for what one prosecutor termed “the biggest hack of all time,” after he broke into 97 different US military and NASA computers. His online pseudonym, SOLO, reflects his working habits.

McKinnon’s motivations, and indeed his grasp of reality, remain unclear. He insists to this day he uncovered on those machines evidence of alien-life cover-ups, antigravity technology and the suppression of free-energy fuels. The American government have never commented on the veracity of these claims, but successive administrations continue to seek his extradition.

Throughout his tour of America’s most secure information, McKinnon would leave his detractors the occasional goading message:

“US foreign policy is akin to Government-sponsored terrorism these days … It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand down on September 11 last year … I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”

One thing is clear. However much we attempt to categorise hackers, however much we attempt to understand their motivations or their relationship to the state, however much we try and justify or condemn their actions or morality, one consistent thread remains. Hackers, despite their means, are looking for the one known as Morpheus – that most alluring and elusive of ideals, the thing they call truth. The road may be changing, but the pursuit stays the same.

The National – High Violet Review

The National are the quietly admired if unfettered alt-rock sons of Brooklyn. After five studio albums, an immediately distinctive sound and a decade together, their new release is inspiring serious anticipation.

High Violet is not a departure, but an arrival. An appeal, a catharsis and an evolution, they have perhaps arrived definitively.

The usual elements are present on opening track Terrible Love – the fastidious rhythms punctuated with unpredictable accents, the warm, small hour keys and thumbing bass, the guitars that seem to shift and swell from murky depths before breaking and crashing with unbridled glory.

As the album begins to move through its gears, it is clearly shaped with a clarity of purpose and production previously unrealised. Added to this are beautifully rendered choral harmonies, used sparingly on Sorrow then looped on Afraid of Everyone. The horns used on England, too, are signs of a band finding their natural voice.

Rarely is a band’s ambience so closely tied to the subject of its lyrics. Matt Berninger’s vocals, crooned in that soft, cavernous baritone, range from poetic to expressionistic to oblique. “Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy” he sings on Sorrow, whilst on the elegiac England he draws us with “You must be somewhere in London/ You must be lovin’ life in the rain.”

But Berninger’s confessions and his band’s tragi-epic melodies are not just personal reductions of angst, more a deep plea to a sense of shared existence. If not immediately placeable, they’re metaphors of genetic empathy.

Although not verifiably a political band, this is an album born of its times. Following on from Boxer’s Fake Empire, the anthem about liberal impotency in the face of neoconservatism which accompanied Obama on his presidential campaign, we are given Afraid of Everyone, which seems to re-imagine the dystopic aftermath of Katrina: “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anyone.” On Lemmonworld, he sings of foreign wars: “I gave my heart to the army, the only sentimental thing I can think of.”

Subtly possessed, unfeigned and gradually vivid, The National’s avant-garde envelopments are the antithesis to the layerings of enameled, apathetic cool hallmarked by those other Kings of New York, The Strokes.

High Violet is a baring invitation, an echo of existentialism that is absolutely universal. The National may be awaiting Godot, but they have invited you to sit beside.

Little Sister

I’d called to say I’d be late,

But she’d tried to stay awake.

She lay there dreaming on the sofa.

Afraid to scare, I gently woke her.

And despite the lines around her eyes,

I saw a childhood in her surprise,

It came to me as I leant to kiss her.

She has your smile, little sister,

And as I continue my journey,

I’ll swing this memory,

Like a beacon,

Against the cold.

Cloud Gate

Wait for me at Cloud Gate,

Just before the day breaks,

Before the fray come calling,

Before the rain starts falling,

At the place we used to stray,

Despite this state we’re in.

I won’t talk about mistakes,

As we trace the cityscape.

We’ll create a new view,

But only if you choose to,

Despite the state we’re in.

Staring up at Cloud Gate,

Waiting for the daybreak.

As dawn climbs the cityscape,

Cotton corals blind me,

And I see you stood beside me,

Where I knew you’d be.

You looked at me,

In the eye directly,

But you didn’t know me.

It was someone else entirely.

And if only for a moment,

I thought I’d find you there,

Waiting for me at Cloud Gate,

With a flower in your hair,

To retrace our origin,

Despite the state we’re in.

Ooooh Mrs Robinson.


My love of movies can be traced back to a juvenile series of transgressions. It was, in many ways, a serendipitous chance acquaintance motivated by an insatiable thirst to develop my recently discovered and all-consuming love of the opposite sex.

At impossible late hours like 11.30 (the Seymour family retires early) I used to painstakingly creep downstairs, spending minutes navigating the stairs and slowly opening wooden doors, impotently attempting to muffle every grind and creak. My 13 year-old self had an almost pathological fear of being caught by a somnambulist parent who would find me crouched, eyes-wide and pyjama-clad, bathed in the flickering grey halo of Television X’s 10 minute preview. Always wondered where the phrase red-handed originated.

There were tests and challenges along the way. If the cat managed to run between your legs as you entered the living room, she’d make a fee-line (get it?) for the comfort of my parent’s duvet. In this scenario, you would have to very quickly take one of two available options:

Option 1) chase the cat.

Option 2) as silently as possible, leg it.

Secret option number three, which I tried only once, was to hide outside in the winter’s air until the cat had been redeposited. Unfortunately, the sound of me coming in again through the front door justifiably led my progenitors to believe they were the recipients of a break in. On that occasion, I was at a loss.

Within this youthful journey of discovery, I accidently exposed myself to a lot of dreadful films (thankyou Channel 5) and a few very good films (mostly Channel 4). I also gained a more detailed knowledge of the numerous plot-lines in Sex and the City than a 13 year-old should because, to put it bluntly, it had the word ‘sex’ in the title. I was experiencing more tension than a G20 rally and we only had five channels, so try not to judge me.

On one of my midnight journeys, this time with rogue cat safely pacified, I became ensconced in what I now know to be The Graduate, the 1967 cult movie that launched Dustin Hoffman’s unlikely career as a sex symbol.

“Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… aren’t you?” mutters young college graduate Benjamin to middle-aged Mrs Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft, only six years older than Hoffman in real life). Unwittingly, I was witness to one of the most famous seduction scenes in the movies. A recent child of juvenile and confused sexuality, I did not know what to do with myself.


I love it when art seems to aline with reality, so the sad news of Peter Robinson’s demise as Northern Ireland’s first minister was for me tainted by a little tit-bit of comedy. Thanks to Mrs Robinson’s midnight discoveries, I’m assuming a young, ruddy-faced Dustin Hoffman won’t be appearing on RTE’s channels anytime soon.


The Road: Review

“The Frailty of Everything Revealed at Last.”

The Road is a mosaic of a nameless Man’s devotion to his innocent son as they travel together across America, struggling constantly with the rigours of survival in a squandered world plagued by the dark heart of humanity in the death throes of extinction.

In crystal-clear clarity, director John Hillcoat has successfully managed to harness the underlying human narrative at the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel.

As such, the film’s immense, moving power derives from its ability to focus unflinchingly on the immediate; the pressing search for food and warmth, the “great fear” of succumbing to cannibalism, the ruthless, indifferent crucible of nature.

The past, and with it the causes of the present, remain shrouded in ambiguity, glimpsed only in half-caught dreams and recollections too harrowing to pursue.

In this harsh lexicon of bare survival, The journey of the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads to numerous encounters with equally nameless characters whom are neatly polarised as “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Each of these are archetypal in their Americanisms; from Michael K Williams’ victimised, black loner, to Guy Pearce’s gruff, soulful huntsmen, to the sallow, nightmarishly violent gangs of redneck bandits.

But the film and novel as a whole is equally steeped in the nation’s cinematic and literary traditions. The Road possesses tropes of the pioneering Western canon whilst inversing its basic premise; the Man and the Boy are heading East on a road already trod by a people now passed.

As such, The Road can undoubtably be regarded as one of the noughties’ truly masterful portrayals of Americana.

But parallels can be drawn from further afield. The Road expresses the American sensibility as Children of Men expressed that of the British – both dystopias are sculpted by their residual societal traits.

The narrative of Children of Men is sustained through Clive Owen’s  journey from pacified resignation to proactive protector. In The Road, the Man’s commitment to a better future is never in question. As such, the film is given a freer licence to explore the  theological aspects of an anarchy born of near apocalypse.

Talking of his Boy, the Man says:

“If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”

This theistic proclamation is refuted by Robert Duvall’s old man, who mistook the boy for an angelic bringer of death.

“God has left us,” he tells the Man in the darkness of night.

The scene recalls Primo Levi’s dismissal of his fellow prisoner’s prayers in the depths of Auschwitz after a round of selections for the gas chamber. As he writes in If This Is a Man:

“If I were God, I would spit on his prayers.”

This is not to say The Road is without fault. In a quest to adequately dramatize McCarthy’s  elegiac prose, director John Hillcoat does at times allow the film to stray too far from the source material. Some vignettes linger longer than they should, whilst others conclude prematurely.

Joe Penhall has also chosen to create Viggo Mortensen’s voice-over narration, only lifting occasional lines directly from the novel. A literal retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s original prose would have elevated the film to a more poetical plain. But Penhall’s transparent adaption at times belies a guilty appeasement of the populist ethic.

In a similar vein, Nick Cave’s musical score imposes itself a little needily on occasion, and the sometimes syrupy melodies that punctuate The Road seem to be an overcompensation for the scoring of The Assassination of Jesse James, which verged on the oblique and the alienating.

But travelling home tonight, with the road covered in week-old slush hardening with the arctic temperatures of nightfall, it became clear how poignantly relevant this film is, and how abundant and transient our shared existence is.

It is the embers of civilisation that the Man and his Boy carry with them and hold so dear, the same civilisation with which we so restlessly immerse ourselves, and which acts as such a pacifying prozac.

Who knows which way our road will lead, or what decisions we will have to make, but at this current juncture we still possess a choice so nakedly stripped of the inhabitants of McCarthy’s apocalypse.

In this sense, The Road may not be an abstract illustration or a hypothetical illusion, but a secular presage.

Equally evocative of an eternal Americana, Robert Frost writes the following:

“…long I stood, and looked down a road as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth…I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence…”

Mitch Mitchell – a tribute.

I first heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the playing field of my secondary school in Sheffield. I was 12, the year I discovered music. An older guy I admired handed me one of the earphones of his portable cassette player and asked me what I thought

I listened to the first few chords of Hey Joe, followed by Mitch Mitchell’s introductory roll and the conversational croon of Jimi’s voice and was immediately hooked. Nodding my head in approval, he fast forwarded the tape to the opening riff of Purple Haze. For a shy kid raised on a diet of Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder, it can only be described as a moment of clarity.

I listened to every song Jimi, Mitch and Chas ever recorded over the next year of my life, slowly collating their albums and bootlegs with the money I earned through my paper round. I learnt every fill and role, every break, every unexpected double pluck or hammer on from Jimi’s guitar, every inflex of his vocals. They are as much childhood memories as rhythms and melodies.

It was around this time I bought my first and only drum-kit. Within a few weeks of earnest and futile attempts at replication, I came to the realisation that Mitch Mitchell’s ability to fill a transitional gap between phrases with a flurry of snare and cymbal is a skill I will never possess, as is his ability to solo for most of a tune in a ¾ signature, or occupy large sections of track completely unaccompanied

Although it was maddening to learn he was entirely self-taught, as I was determined to be, it also added to the myth, raising Mitchell’s pedestal as a unique and visionary percussionist in a unique and visionary band.

Now I know more about music, have listened to Mitchell’s influences, understand the heritage of blues, blues-rock and jazz, and have a grasp of what terms like ‘fusion’ and ‘triplets’ mean. I appreciate he wasn’t infallible, and was prone to over-complicate. But this has not altered the way I feel about his drumming, as Mitch Mitchell served as the origin for my insatiable thirst for new sounds, new beats, new ways of making music.

You can hear the serendipity in Hey Joe, the harmony of free spirits. It is a meeting process that is, for me, as personal as it flamboyant, as humble as it is ego-driven. Mitch Mitchell redefined drumming, and I will always be thankful for being introduced to his beats from such a young and tender age.

Madras – a short story

I reckon I’d been doing the job for a month or so before Jim invited Kate and I over for some food. Just some grub and a couple of jars, he’d said. Nothing fancy. Bring your lass over she can meet Nicol. We lay the boy down ‘bout six, so come over after and we’ll have ourselves a good time. Our Nicol, she makes some lovely puddings. We’d love to have you.

He was like that, old Jim, thought he had to take care of me, show me how it works up here. He’d made a show of taking me down the Cat after my first day, bought me a pint of ale and scratchings and got the landlord to tell me that story. Then he’d jabbered on about that boy of his. George his name was, eighteen months, smile like the sun. He’s the reason I get outta bed in the morning, he kept on saying. I’d stumbled home to Kate drunk as a skunk and smelling of kebab. He was alright, old Jim.

Do you reckon we should take anything round? I’d said to Kate. Dunno she’d said. Bottle of wine, box of chocolates? She wasn’t bothered about going out, she didn’t care. She’d flashed me a look. Why do we need anyone else, she was saying with that look. We’ve got each other, we’ve got this flat in Shalesmoor, we’ve got the car. Why do we need anyone else?

Come here pug-face, I’d said to her. Come give me a cuddle.

But she’d agreed to go, and there we were, Saturday night at seven, driving down Chesterfield Road in the drizzle. You’re buying him Pale Rider? she’d said when we stopped at Swiggies. He’s turning you turning into a Northerner.

Shut it pug-face, I’d said.

Jim was stood outside his house, beaming away. Hello, hello, hello, come in, come in, come in he was saying as we climbed out of the car. He shook my hand before leaning over and planting a kiss on Kate’s cheek. Great to meet you finally, he was saying as he ushered her down the drive. Birmingham Dave’s told us all about you. That’s what the work lads call him-Birmingham Dave. It’s because he’s called Dave and he’s from Birmingham.

Kate cut me a look whilst Jim laughed at himself. I’ll shut up, he said. Come on, come inside.

Nicol love, he shouted, stop cookin’ love, they’re here now.

Kate was doing that thing she did when she’d start trying to tuck some non-existent hairs behind her ear. She was hanging back, waiting for me to take the lead. This was stressing her out. I gave her a squeeze.

Nicol greeted us with flushed cheeks and hot hands. We were having pork chops and mash potato. She hoped that would be ok. We sat round their kitchen table while she bustled about the kitchen and Jim told the story I knew he’d tell. Kate had already heard it, but from me not him.

So, our fat bastard boss is makin’ a nuisance of himself, he said, leaning over the table towards Kate, and your lad ‘ere wanders through the front door ten minutes late. And the boss goes, ‘Ere, you, new lad, where’s tha’ bin? And Dave looks at him like he’s got a screw loose. And he goes, what do you mean?

And the boss goes, I said, where’s tha’ bin? And Dave’s still lookin’ at him like his loopy, so he points to the corner of the office and he says, It’s over their boss, under the desk, where it’s always been.

I shrugged and started to laugh at the story. It’s the accent, I say. Can’t deal with it.  Kate was laughing too. She laughed properly, in that nice way she does, and she let Jim refill her glass and I sat back and thought yeah, this is going well. She’s alright, this is good.

So Nicol sets down plates of food, and we all started eating. This is lovely, Kate said, and it was. And we talked about how we were finding the city and Kate made them laugh by talking about how confusing the word breadcake was.

And then, just as we were finishing off our treacle sponge, Kate dropped her spoon and let out a scream.

What the hell’s wrong? I say.

She points at the patio doors. There’s something in your garden, and it’s looking at me, she said in a high-pitched voice.

I looked across and, sure enough, a big furry thing with pointy ears and big round eyes was stood at the patio doors, watching us eat. Jesus Christ, I said.

Jim twisted around in his seat to see what she was pointing at that.

Oh don’t be scared, he said. That’s Madras. He’s our pet llama. Sorry, should have warned you. He’ll be wanting his tea. Loves treacle sponge.

Come now, Nicol interjected. He’s not a llama. He’s more of an Alpaca.

You have a pet llama? Kate asked, a little strained.

An Alpaca, said Nicol.

Aye well, either way he lives in the garden. He’s as soft as a brush. They’re great with kids so we got him when Nicol had George.

Kate’s mouth was wide open. She wan’t a fan of big hairy things.

You’re joking, I said to Jim.

No no I’m serious, Jim said. George loves him, rides around on him all over. You should hear him giggle when he’s riding around on on Madras.

I didn’t know what to say, neither did Kate, so we sat there and didn’t say anything.

I’ll tell y’what Birm…Dave, Jim said, breaking the silence. Let’s head to the Sheaf and we’ll hitch up Madras and take George down too. No no, I won’t hear another word about it. Nicol, wake the baby, I’m going to fetch him in.

Nicol stood up and hurried upstairs whilst Jim marched over to the patio doors. The llama, seemingly aware of the impending trip, started to do a little jig of excitement.

But what do you we do with…Madras when we get to the pub? Kate asked.

Are you kidding? Jim said with his barrel laugh. He’s the life and soul. He comes to the bar with us and everything, absolutely loves Pale Rider.

Before we knew it, Jim had led the llama into the kitchen, his hooves clip-clopping on the wooden floor. Come and say hello, Jim said to Kate. Kate, her eyes firmly on me, reached out and slowly started to pet the llama. There there, she said, stroking its neck. Haven’t you got lovely fur? she said.

Jim let out another of his rolling laughs and swallowed down the rest of his pint. Hey, tell you what, if you’re really lucky, after the pub, I’ll show you why we call him Madras.

The llama started to nuzzle against Kate. I must warn you though, he said solemnly, he can get a little frisky after one too many.

Kate stopped stroking Madras and started to hide behind me. We are out of our comfort zone, I thought.

Jim starts to bellow up the stairs. Nicol, we’re saddled up, what’re you playin’ at?

We’re comin’, she called back, and we listened, the four of us, as she descended the stairs, talking to her gurgling baby in a singsong voice.

Who wants to ride a llama? Nicol sang. George wants to ride a llama. Yes he does. Yes. He. Does.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.