High-Rise: Audacious Masterpiece or Underwhelming Mess? (some spoilers)

So I finally got to see Ben Wheatley's adaptation of High-Rise which I had been anticipating for some time (see blog of December 31). I have to say however, that I left the theatre in an state of ambivalence. In many ways the form in which Ballard's difficult novel has been translated to the screen should have really immersed and provoked me, yet I couldn't help feeling that the film was actually less than the sum of its parts.

On a positive note, one cannot help but be impressed by the visual audacity. Evoking a tone which amalgamated 70s kitsch, modernist brutalism and baroque fantasy, the beauty of the images, many of which are aesthetically mesmerising, imbues the social break-down with a ironic and sickening aura. Certain shots are slowed down almost to allow full contemplation of the beauty/horror, but this is counterposed with a lot of heavy editing between different scenes and characters. Wheatley plays with the visual metaphor of child's kaleidoscope both in specific framings and within the editing structure, which alludes to the drug fueled hedonism. There is a randomness to the collage of images, which on the one hand, reflects the chaos of societal disintegration, however for me it came at the expense of a build-up of any real tension.

As the film progressed, with all aspects of structural rule collapsing, the editing becomes more frenzied; and whereas one can see and understand that the director is fusing content with form here, the effect bordered on becoming incoherent and tiresome. Furthermore, obsession with individual images and overwrought editing led to an underdevelopment of the 'character' of the building itself; the brutalist architecture, the ultra-striated spaces, the cold uniformity of interiors, all could have been evoked much more centrally as the underpinning to the social hierarchy and, in turn, the cause of the social disintegration. The film's relentless cultivation of its form and style ended up getting in the way of a more allegorical exploration, which I was craving.

It is certainly the case that my familiarity with the book, and hence my preconceived expectations, were influencing me and perhaps in a negative way. The film doesn't attempt to answer obvious questions that I had when reading the book, i.e. why doesn't Laing just leave? Indeed, I think Wheatley's production design is aimed at offsetting such instrumental questions, and watching the film with a realist mindset is a non-starter. But that's fine. My memory of reading the text was of the nuanced yet prescient allusions to the influence of spatial organisation on behaviour, class distinctions, the inherent inequalities of capitalism, the narcissism of the modern subject, media and notion of spectacle, and the encroachment of technology on the human condition. Ballard was able to strike a balance between portentousness and satire, between intellectual substance and stylistic flair. This balance was, to me, somewhat uneven in the film. The social allegory was overwhelmed, rather than enhanced, by the film's aesthetics. Indeed, I wondered what those who hadn't read Ballard's novel would get this through the film. In the end I felt that, as with many adaptations, High-Rise might have worked better if it had taken the novel as a reference point rather than attempting to be so faithful.

My reaction to the cast, or perhaps more accurately the characterisation, added to my somewhat exasperated reaction. Tom Hiddlestone was very good as Laing showing a sense of uncertainty in negotiating the social mores of his new surroundings: how immersion within and detachment from the unfolding situation was a comment on human adaptability and survival. The problem was, both visually and in terms of his approach to the role, he seemed be in a different film from everyone else. All the other actors were embodying a louche 1970s sensibility that went way over the top at times. James Purefoy and Luke Evans was a particular offender in this regard, but in all fairness this was perhaps more of an issue overall direction and tone. The film occasionally falls into the campy territory of BBC nostalgia trip Life on Mars (even before Keely Hawes turns up).  

These moments undermined a sense of real darkness and savage political bite that I wanted the film to have. It is clear that High-Rise is very much indebted to A Clockwork Orange and the production design, soundtrack and cinematography also reminded me somewhat Nicolas Winding-Refn's Bronson. Visually, High-Rise can definitely compare but it is doesn't go as far as those films in terms of barbaric ruthlessness, cruel yet knowing humour or, particularly in terms of Kubrick classic, cultural pertinence.

The film has certainly had a polarising effect.  In reading other reviews there seems to be not much grey area between explicit praise and utter rejection. There were at least 6 walkouts in the screening I was in. I wonder whether this was anything to do with the postmortem face peeling, the dog roasting, the sexual violence, or whether they thought the film just didn't go anywhere,  all of which could be true. It's kind of how I felt.  My overarching sense, however, was of a film in which the obsession with surface and style choked the fundamental thematic and political underpinning. Because of this, it played as a visually stunning yet curiously dissatisfying retro mash-up which lacked the allegorical weight I really wanted it to possess.


In Anticipation of High-Rise


One of the positive outcomes of a bout of Christmas Eve manflu is that it affords the opportunity to lie in bed and tackle a novel from cover to cover. J.G. Ballard's dystopian science-fiction novel High-Rise sat on my 'to read' shelf expectantly for some time and I was determined get to the book before the release of Ben Wheatley's film adaptation in March this year. First published in 1975 High-Rise is a terse and brutal tale of the breakdown of social organisation within the confines of a huge, self-contained luxury apartment building. Rather than a singular sinister force enacting power through surveillance and control however, the book deconstructs the mechanisms of social propriety with the interior of the tower providing both a microcosm of ingrained yet precarious social hierarchies and an arena that frames and amplifies the resultant carnage.

As in most effective sci-fi, the ideas highlighted in the book have an allegorical prescience that still registers even though its tone and setting place it within the 1970s. Certainly there is a pointed critique of an alienated existence resulting from the functional architectural trends of the mid 20th century, along with prophetic allusions to the beginnings of a total saturation of image based culture. It is the interrelationship between physical space and social class that is perhaps the central concern. Ballard sets up the implicit habitus of the three protagonists through their differing positionings within the physical space of the building and, concomitantly, specific social groupings. There is somewhat of an inevitability of the familiar class distinction becoming aligned with the lower, middle and upper sections of the High-Rise. What I found particularly ingenious was the way even the mechanics of the class system disintegrate, firstly into feudally factions and then into a pure and savage individualism. Each apartment, corridor staircase and concorse become symbolic and material battlegrounds in a fight for personal survival. These thematic developments take on a blackly ironic prescience when one thinks of the seemingly inexorable force of neoliberal ideology today. 

There are many obvious comparisons with the dystopian fiction of Orwell, Huxley, Phillip K. Dick. The spectres of Joseph Conrad and William Golding are also apposite with the allusions to the precariousness of civil society and the latent primitivism of the human condition. Knowing a film adaptation has been completed and is shortly to be released, one is drawn into envisaging the cinematic possibilities. Certainly there is a Battle Royal/Hunger Games element to the gladiatorial violence and at times when reading the book one can envisage a more conspiracy/paranoia slant, a la The Conversation or The Parallax view, that plays with the incongruousness of 70s high-life chic with the rigid, utilitarian and oppressive aura of the high-rise tower. The production design possibilities even offer the promise of a more experimental visual approach, something that might be as uniquely memorable as A Clockwork Orange, Brazil, Gattaca or Snowpiercer.

From the short snippet of the film I have watched, along with the fantastic poster by Jay Shaw (right), the film looks to be part of what seems like the current cultural obsession with nostalgia and retro. It not only looks to be set in the 1970s but mimics the formal aesthetics of that cinematic era. I'm wondering as to whether this approach will yield anything more than a flat pastiche. On reading the novel I thought that a film adaptation could potentially be more reflective of present concerns about economics, technology, identitiy politics and cultural geography. The proof, as always will be in the watching. Ben Wheatley is undoubtedly a promising choice as director. His horror credentials - with Down Terrace and Kill List - demonstrate a skill for creating tension building scenarios and gut-churning outcomes and his latest feature A Field in England possesses visual narrative and flair. These creative elements all bode well in a turn to dystopian fiction and the hope for me is that High-Rise Joins Under the Skin and Ex_Machina as part of a highly accomplished cycle of British inflected, 'hard' Science-Fiction. 

On what a blockbuster should be: Mad Max: Fury Road

I don't like contemporary blockbusters. Or more accurately I don't like the contemporary blockbuster machine or the films it produces. The franchising of vapid, comic book worlds reliant on weightless CGI, overwrought with incomprehensible plotting and undramatic drama, and populated by superficial ciphers for the most egregious stereotypes. Perhaps most of all I hate the unquestioning fandom, not that fans don’t criticise (my word they do) but the belief that such opinions carry a weight that somehow transcends their economic obedience is, for me, at best naïve, at worst, cultural dupery in the extreme.  Fans, in investing in the trans-media universe, which may once have been considered the realm of geeky outsider, have helped entrench the new mainstream corporate hegemony. In this context ‘creativity’ has the patented framework of videogame repetition, ‘uniqueness’ is sandblasted by the laser precision of digital effects forging a ‘reality’ without any danger of the ‘real’. Critical judgement reflects this sanguine narrowness with the apologetically harmless 3 star review extolling the ‘great action sequences’ and bemoaning ‘lack of character development’. Thankfully, perhaps even accidentally within this environment, Mad Max: Fury Road restores faith in possibility that an overwhelming, viscerally cinematic experience is still possible.

But hold on isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road a remake/reboot of an existing franchise? Technically yes. But it’s a film that succeeds spectacularly by rejecting prevalent mantras that afflict the majority of its contemporaries. Firstly, it creates a world that is preposterous yet wholy believable in its own terms. It does this by almost entirely foregoing pseudo-technical exposition, which almost always creates gaping plot holes, and stripping the narrative to its minimalist requirements. Instead, intricate subtleties of visual storytelling create layers of meaning, which are not definitively explained but build an immersive, believable cinematic fabric. The post-apocalyptic milieu is beautifully grotesque reducing ‘civilisation’ to a barbaric, sickening totalitarian machine within which humanity is barely recognisable.  It is at once disturbingly alien and unerringly familiar but the film requires the viewer to work to actively bridge the gap. Mad Max is bursting with the quality most mainstream blockbusters lack: imagination.

The action is quite simply incredible. This is primarily because it retains the weight of live  filming while appropriately amalgamating CGI via the increasingly lost art of good editing. Unlike the obfuscatory visuals of many action films the frenetic pace does not hamper the ability so see what is going on. In a clear allusion to Mad Max 2 the action centres largely around the chase of huge truck which metaphorically becomes the lifeboat to freedom. A pursuing army of customised vehicles look like pieces of industrial artwork which come to life as monsters without any need to ‘transform’. The action thus treads the fine balance of being totally ridiculous while retaining believability in the boundaries of its own world. Furthermore, there is a self-awareness here, and welcome lack of pious, Nolanesque darkness. Case in point is the riotously over-the-top flame throwing guitar player, accompanied by a phalanx of drummers mounted of on the back of one of the trucks, who had the audience in uproar but actually served a purpose in inserting a diegetic sound accompaniment to the chase sequences.

In amongst the visual mayhem there is a full sense of cinematic subtlety and intellectual awareness. The film manages to simultaneously sit in linear progression with the previous Mad Max films, retaining certain stylistic and thematic motifs, while unashamedly rebooting for the uninitiated viewer. The film’s central section slows to allow a painterly depiction of the empty desert symbolising the human frailty and battle for survival. These sections are as mesmerising as any of the action sequences and serve to build camaraderie between the central protagonists and empathy in the audience. An underlying feminist sensibility emerges that actually takes one by surprise. There are cues of gendered spectatorship, which set up traditional representational expectations, but these are pointedly undercut in a way that sits coherently within the story. Central to this is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa whose represents the central journey of the film while Tom Hardy, the eponymous Max of the title, remains is a psychologically anchored in his own personal hell. Not to mention how the film reinvents motherhood as the underpinning to a violent action bad-assery. 

There are some of the problems seemingly inherent to the contemporary mainstream blockbuster. The action sequences (and therefore the film as a whole) goes on too long, the ending is the patented sentimental celebration with the potential for a sequel left open. Tom Hardy is stoically monosyllabic, which is fine, but when he does speak his accent is Russell Crowe level unfathomable. Yet the film epitomises what blockbuster cinema can and should be, using cinematic visual language to transport you to another world, but one which is self-contained in its own textual boundaries. Mad Max: Fury Road gives you the space and the credit to be able to actively engage with its aesthetics and themes and it does't assume you are a naive consumer or a cultural infant. 

100 sci-fi films better than Interstellar

I was recently challenged on twitter to name 100 Sci-Fi films better than Interstellar. Anyone who knows me will know that I think it is a hugely over-rated film in many ways. So here is the list, in no particular order: 

1.                             2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2.                             Solaris (1972)

3.                             Primer (2004)

4.                             Gattaca (1997)

5.                             Rollerball (1975)

6.                             Alien (1979)

7.                             Aliens (1986)

8.                             The Terminator (1984)

9.                             The Terminal Man (1974)

10.                          Contact (1997)

11.                          Her (2013)

12.                          Under the Skin (2013)

13.                          A Clockwork Orange (1971)

14.                          Alphaville (1965)

15.                          Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977)

16.                          Metropolis (1927)

17.                          Blade Runner (1982)

18.                          The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

19.                          The Thing (1982)

20.                          They Live (1988)

21.                          The Stepford Wives (1975)

22.                          Planet of the Apes (1968)

23.                          Destination Moon (1950)

24.                          The Black Hole (1979)

25.                          The Matrix (1999)

26.                          1984 (1984)

27.                          Silent Running (1971)

28.                          Westworld (1973)

29.                          Akira (1988)

30.                          Mad Max (1979)

31.                          Logan’s Run (1976)

32.                          Equilibrium (2002)

33.                          The Truman Show (1998)

34.                          Stalker (1979)

35.                          Existenz (1999)

36.                          Moon (2009)

37.                          La Jetee (1962)

38.                          Jurassic Park (1993)

39.                          Waking Life (2001)

40.                          Super 8  (2011)

41.                          Gravity (2013)

42.                          Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

43.                          Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

44.                          Soylent Green (1973)

45.                          Robocop (1987)

46.                          Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982

47.                          The Fly (1986)

48.                          Twelve Monkeys (1995)

49.                          Minority Report (2002)

50.                          Children of Men (2006)

51.                          District 9 (2009)

52.                          Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

53.                          Sleeper (1973)

54.                          Escape from New York (1981)

55.                          Sleep Dealer (2008)

56.                          Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

57.                          Inception (2010)

58.                          Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

59.                          Abre los Ojos (1997)

60.                          Scanners (1981)

61.                          Wall-E (2008)

62.                          Cosmopolis (2012)

63.                          Dark Star (1974)

64.                          Donnie Darko (2001)

65.                          Brazil (1985)

66.                          AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

67.                          Time After Time (1979)

68.                          Upstream Colour (2013)

69.                          Melancholia (2011)

70.                          Another Earth (2011)

71.                          THX-1138 (1971)

72.                          Starship Troopers (1997)

73.                          The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

74.                          Outland (1981)

75.                          Back to the Future (1986)

76.                          Starman (1984)

77.                          Seconds (1966)

78.                          City of Lost Children (1995)

79.                          La Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

80.                          Videodrome (1983)

81.                          Chronicle (2012)

82.                          Dreamscape (1984)

83.                          When Worlds Collide (1951)

84.                          Source Code (2011)

85.                          Battle Royale (2000)

86.                          Coherence (2013)

87.                          ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

88.                          Repo man (1984)

89.                          Ex Machina (2015)

90.                          Ghosts in the Shell (2006)

91.                          Snowpiercer (2013)

92.                          Timecrimes (2007)

93.                          The Abyss (1989)

94.                          Pi (1998)

95.                          War of the Worlds (1953)

96.                          Altered States (1980)

97.                          A Scanner Darkly (2006)

98.                          V for Vendetta (2005)

99.                          The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

100.                      The Omega Man (1971)

6 Días en Mexico

Día 6

My last entry of 6 Días in Mexico is being written on Día 7, on the train back to Cornwall from Heathrow airport. The flight back from Mexico City was very busy but thankfully shorter than the 13 hours it took to travel out. However, getting stuck at Plymouth because of a broken down train on the line somewhere in Cornwall meant I was put in a taxi to finish the trip. Another triumph for First Great Western.

Friday evening when I gave my talk at Kosmica things couldn’t have gone better. The final day took place in the Laboratorio Arte Alemeda which was a gallery with several spaces all being used by Kosmica. The main area had a stage set up in the corner with seating for about 150 people and a projector set up on the side for the presentations. Because of yesterday’s cancellation there was a full programme of short films, music, and academic talks. Once I got set up I was feeling pretty confident but was still a little concerned that my emphasis on the nuances of language and imagery to create gendered meaning might be a little esoteric. I need not have worried. The audience all seemed very engaged getting the underlying irony I attempt to assert. Some interesting questions were asked about how shifts in social context could affect identity politics in the future and various people came up afterwards to ask further questions and chat. In general everyone was in credibly generous and even thanked me just for turning up.

Going to Kosmica has only instilled my own interest in the necessity of academic public engagement and given me further inspiration and ideas about how I might do that in the future. I fancy cutting together a 20minute film on the history of Sci-Fi and narrating to it while it plays. The academic presentation is such a rigid structure a times and I think it can be utilised in a more creative way. Once my talk was done I could then relax and enjoy the rest of the evening. I had gotten to know some of the other speakers over the week and it was great to see such interesting and diverse work being discussed in one forum. I had no idea that there was such an intensely passionate space art community who are doing some extra-ordinary work that is actually integrated with both the American and Russian space programmes. I felt I had to apologise for the fact that all I know about space comes from films and books – however that was the point of my talk so it’s ok. At dinner afterwards I got a chance to speak with everyone properly as I had been somewhat anti-social in the previous days with the other work commitments I was focusing on. I was glad I got to know Nahum, the conference organiser, over the last few days. A talented and charismatic guy who has done some amazing work in the past as well as curating huge events all over the world. He would be great to get down to Falmouth for a guest lecture. The group were talking about holding Kosmica in Montreal next year – it would be really great to attend out in Canada and perhaps even try to indulge in some kind of artistically inspired talk.

Even though Saturday had been late I still got up early determined to have a full day before flying back in the evening. It was a beautiful morning and I walked out once again to Centro Historico but stopped off in the Jardin de Santiago and read some more of The Underdogs thinking that the tranquillity of the warm sunshine belied the revolutionary tale of Mexico and the protests that permeated the street only two days earlier. On a more superficial level it was nice to enjoy the weather before coming back to Blighty. I had lunch with Carrie Paterson who is an American artist and publisher who, the previous night, presented a paper on using scents to help astronauts cope psychologically with space travel. She had a really interesting background and I was flattered that she wanted me to contribute a piece to one of the magazines she publishes in the States. Such dialogues are often the most enjoyable parts of conferences – moving away from the structure of the conference itself and finding out what makes people tick. We had a long debate about the tension between the work one wants to do and the work one has to do. Both academics and artists have to trade off between the two and thinking about this made me realise that I am in a fortunate position right now where the trade off is working for me.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the liminal space between melancholia (from having to leave) and contentment (to be able to return home). Hotel lobbies and airport lounges somehow seem to psychologically amplify these feelings – they are spaces of transition where you are essentially killing time before moving on. The week has been really enlightening, enjoyable, particularly productive in terms of speaking in front of a different kind of audience at Kosmica and with the unforeseen diversion into Mexican politics. Hopefully, I will be back in Mexico at some point to further soak up the fascinating culture and society.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 5 - 4pm

Last day of the conference. Last night was cancelled because of the protests so all the talks have been moved to Friday in one marathon session. Luckily for me I am on early. Will be good to get it done and then relax for the rest of the evening. I am a little worried about the amount of text I have on my presentation. It’s a bit of a no no to try and make your audience read slides however I am talking about the gendered use of language so it is somewhat necessary. With most of the audience having English as a second language I'm also concerned that people won't really get the gist of. Ironic and subtly are somewhat difficult to translate I think. Hopefully the video and images will help.

I interviewed two students this morning Jorge and Gabriel about the protests. They both study journalism and were very erudite and interesting. It was somewhat depressing to hear them speak not only of a total lack of hope in politics but also in their own futures. In many ways they echoed concerns for so many young people around the world about how governments and corporations are serving their own interests and not providing a framework for future generations to thrive. Was interesting to hear them talk in such scathing terms about journalism and the media also. I tried to talk to them about the possibility of independent media and what it could offer but surprisingly they said they didn’t really know how to use social media and new platforms. I just hope their future is better than the one they envisage.

One thing that is immediately obvious about Mexico is the bizarre organisation of traffic. The city is as scary as Athens when it comes to mad drivers and I’ve already witnessed two actual accidents and countless other near misses. However, there is a completely insane system where the traffic police, and there are a lot of the them, directing traffic using extravagent arm gestures and whistle blasts but this is completely at odds with the traffic lights system which they seem to totally ignore. So it all makes for a kind of live action Death Race 2000 as a pedestrian you have absolutely no idea what is going on and have to hope you don't have a particularly high points value. In order to negotiate this I take my cues from other people as they cross that I’ve not selected someone with an overt deathwish.

Tinkering about with my presentation again now. Not sure how tonight is going to go but I feel prepared at least. Been a long week waiting to go on so will be nice to relax and enjoy the evening afterwards.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 4 – 9pm

Got up very early to do the podcast. Although I think my contribution had limited success due to the intermittent Internet. Our guest speaker on climate change new his stuff and the we really got into the details of the issue in the aftermath of Obama accord with the Chinese. Because I kept breaking up on Skype I don’t think my impressions of the political situation came over that well. Hopefully I can rectify that next week. Spent the rest of the morning working on my presentation for Kosmica’s final evening. Did a lot of tweaking but I think it’s finally looking like I want it to. Some more work required tomorrow but I'm not far off. It’s good enough that I will be able to relax tonight. Had dinner this evening with Nahum the organiser of the conference, Carrie, Rob and Nicola who are all speaking. Interesting evening in which discussion moved easily across subjects. The main topic of conversation, of course, which was happening as we ate. The police presence in Mexico City generally is very high but walking to the restaurant there were cops everywhere. I've seen more guns this wee than I have in my entire life. I went into a 7/11 to buy some water the other day and the security guard had a 3ft shot gun. It's not scary as such but unnerving when you're not used to seeing that.

Before dinner at 5pm I walked down to the paseo de la reforma to see the protests streaming past and it was an impressive sight. Very nosey and passionate but peaceful. 30,000 people walking from different parts were congregating on one of the main squares called the Zocalo. I felt somewhat uncomfortable however voyeuristically observing such an event in a passive detached way, like I was intruding on something that I lack the knowledge to fully comprehend. Dyan from the conference has put me in touch with two journalism students and I'm interviewing them tomorrow for the podcast so I’m hoping they can express in some way the importance for them of what is going. I’m kind of disappointed that I haven’t been able to do more exploring while I have been here but it just hasn’t been that kind of trip. But this to me is more enjoyable that simply sight-seeing.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 3 - 11:40 pm

A long but incredibly productive day. Lots going on here which I didn’t anticipate. Mexico is in the grip of political turmoil and there is a general strike and a mass student protest happen tomorrow. 43 student teachers were kidnapped in the South of the country and the public outcry has brought into focus the high levels of political corruption going with public officials being arrested for connections with drug cartels. The government still doesn’t know where the missing people are and the President of Mexico is under pressure to resign. This seemed like a great 'story' to cover while I’m here for the Three Muckrakers Podcast and UK progressive. One of the organisers of the conference has put me in touch with a university lecturer who is going to try and get some of the student protestors to give me an interview. I've spent the day setting that up as well as preparing for the podcast and for my conference talk. Turns out that the free wifi offered by the multitude of Starbucks in Mexico City has been a real saviour. Neoliberal, corporate capitalism has come to my rescue. In between bouts of writing I walked up to the Centro historical to look around. Kosmica tonight was a fun event, which took the form of an interactive history of drinking in space complete with several shots of vodka for the audience and an installation of vaporised whisky. At the end everyone was gearing up to go crazy, but with my 8 am call time for the podcast recording I made a feeble retreat back to the hotel. You know you’re a grown up when you take pleasure in the fact that work is a higher priority than fun.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 2 – 12:37am

Funny that the turbulence of the flight is somehow in keeping with my chosen movie: Master and Commander. An odd interrelationship of air and sea travel is creating something akin to a sensory, interactive experience. The wine might also be assisting.

4am (in London) / 10:00pm in Mexico City

According to the flight map we are flying over the wonderfully named Labrador City, Canada. Just put my watch back 6 hours to account for the time difference. That was the closest to time travel I will ever get. Still 5 ½ hours to go to Mexico City. Long haul is an appropriate phrase. At least the time lapse will give me a few more hours of sleep upon arrival.

5am - Mexico City Airport

The zombie hours. As far as 12-hour flights go that wasn’t too bad but I still feel like my brain is operating with a three second delay and my body is protesting in new and imaginative ways. It was pretty quiet going through immigration and I met a couple of people – Rob and Sam – also going to the conference so didn’t have to worry about finding out where to go. We were met by Miriam, one of the conference organisers, but before going off to the hotel we had try and find a way to get Sam’s industrial size chemical vaporiser into a old and uncooperative Renault. He is doing some kind of space-themed cocktail show, which better be bloody good. Doing the krypton factor at 5:30am was not on my agenda. However we managed to solve the puzzle and were soon off the Hotel. Upon arrival all three of us made a hasty exit to our rooms without much fanfare. Sleep time.


Couldn’t sleep so went down to breakfast. The Hotel Maria Cristina is a very old fashioned Mexican place with lots of wood panelling and semi-impressionist pictures of rural vistas and/or earnest farmers cultivating the land. There is a small terraced garden to the side, which at this moment is being cut into sections by columns of light created in the early morning sunshine. The hotel is populated by austere looking staff. Aged female cleaners look particularly aggrieved shuffling silently with their mops of doom.  Breakfast in the hotel is not great, soft toast and weak coffee. The waiter doesn’t respond well to my attempts at overt politeness. I’ll go out in future. My lethargy is going to prevent me doing any writing or prep for the conference so I’m going for a walk.


I bought a book: The Underdogs by Marino Azuela. It is described as the seminal text of the Mexican revolution. If I’m going to read about Mexico, may as go straight to the heart of its modern birth. Found it in a beautiful little book shop with a café situated on a raised section in the centre. Lot’s books in English, which had no discernable rhyme or reason as to why they were there. On the second floor there were many old Mexican tomes on law, politics and history. I get the feeling that this is something of an intellectual hangout – I may come back again to try and enact some cleverness. I proceeded to walk down the Paseo de la Reforma to the Parque Chapultepec some 30 minutes West. There I accidentally discover the Museo de Arte Moderno which I decide to enter after paying the spectacularly cheap fee of 26 pesos (£1.20). The museo has an entrance building, with cafe and gift shop, that leads to a garden of sculptures in many different styles. On the far side is the main building. Two large circular galleries with a connecting section between. This year is the museo’s 50th anniversary and there is a retrospective of the work of its founder and designer Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, a genius architect who is responsible for many of Mexicos contemporary buildings. There are also works by Diego Reviera, José Orozco and Frida Kahlo including The Two Fridas, one of her most famous and disturbing pieces. I hope to see some more of Mexico’s art before the week is out. Walking back I feel the tiredness catching up with me so after a quick and uneventful food stop I head back to the hotel to crash for a few hours before the first night of the conference.


Kosmica is being held in the Centro de Cultura Digital which is set down under the main street and is marked by a towering monolith brightly lit with fluorescent gold and white. There are several art pieces set up around the main space and seating is at the far end facing a screen and in front is where speakers will sit. Tonights talks are about experimental films inspired by or directly about space, a particularly interesting one is called Afronauts by a filmmaker called Francis Bodomo. The fact that the event is in Spanish and English gives a very distinctive atmosphere and the audience seems to comprise of mainly Mexican students or artists. It makes me think that I should include some Spanish into my presentation, if only to try and get the audience on my side. I feel once again that my inability to speak Spanish is something that I really regret and walking back to the hotel afterward I resolve to change this starting with Friday's talk. 

6 Dias en Mexico

Dia 1 – 8:45pm

A couple of days ago I realised that I know absolutely nothing about Mexico, besides the elementary. Another depressing example of the monumental totality of what I don’t know. However, my invitation to the Kosmica conference - on the cultural and artistic evocations of space travel – has afforded me the opportunity to visit the country for the first time. Such occasions always inspire a renewal of the lifelong project of trying to make up for my lack of education but in a fashion that is integrated in the cultural experience of place. My first task in this endeavour is to buy a book by a Mexican author. Perhaps Carlos Fuentes who I have never read. The literary evocations of a nation, used as a canvas for a specific story, imbue a sense of the identity of a country and its people more than any travel guide could.  Nonsensically, I didn’t buy an appropriate book before the start of my trip and airport bookstores seem to exist solely for the purpose of furthering the readership Ken Follett and James Patterson, or offer the salacious ghost-written inanities of some celebrity or other.  I hope to get something suitable when I am there. Perhaps finding a book in Mexico is more in keeping with my aim of soaking up the aura, although my inexcusably lamentable Spanish prevents me from reading in the appropriate language. This will be the first task of día uno. In the meantime this is the first entry of what I intend as sporadic account of 6 días en Mexico. Writing as I am now during the dead time airport hours I’m not sure of the form this ‘diary’ will take. I will just write and see what comes out. Ok, Gate 7. Time to fly.

From Falmouth to Berlin: Insights from the Berlinale2014

Falmouth University’s student trip to Berlin felt like an escape from the apocalyptical weather that has been affecting the South West, especially when we arrived to blue skies and mild temperatures. After the long over night bus ride and the flight energy levels were low but travelling through the city from Berlin’s Schönefeld airport on the South East of the city rejuvenation borne of excitement was in the air. The prospect of four days of cinematic indulgence in one of Europe’s most historic and exciting capitals certainly assuaged any lingering tiredness. Shortly after our arrival we walked from our hotel past the Reichstag and the beautifully lit Brandenburg Gate, monuments to Germany’s imperial past, and onto Potsdamer Platz, central point of the festival and symbolic of the country’s contemporary economic power. The central streets were buzzing with activity. Throngs of people milled around the red carpet area at the front of the Berlinale Palast, hoping to get a glimpse of a celebrity, and the box office, located in a central shopping centre already boasted long queues. This, as it turned out was a forbearance of the problem that would beset all out students throughout the whole weekend: the quest for tickets.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

There are many adjectives to describe the Berlinale ticketing process: abstract, clandestine, chaotic, perhaps even anarchically democratic. Tickets are shared out between the online store, the centralized box offices and the individual cinemas for each specific screening. There seems, however, to be no rhyme or reason as to when or how the ticket allocation gets released for any given film. Questioning the proficiently polite tellers added to the mysticism of the process. “Are there tickets?”, “no”. “Will there be?”, “maybe”. “Any idea what time?”, “I don’t know”, was the kind of discourse repeated on many occasions. The difficulty can be attributed to having arrived ostensibly in the middle of the opening weekend screenings were intensely busy and therefore tickets, particularly for the big American and competition films, were hard to come by. All that could be done then was to embrace the British stereotype for stoic queuing and hope that fortune favoured the patiently diligent.


Berlinale Palast

Berlinale Palast

The ticketing dilemma struck me on the first night as I went directly to the Haus de Berliner Festspiele to try and see Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel – the film that opened the entire event. This proved to be wishful thinking as the screening was announced as full long before we got to the main entrance. The film was seen however by Oliver Graves who extolled on “Wes Anderson’s trademark idiosyncratic camera work”, which “dollied around geometrically like a castle on a chessboard”. He added, “the script and performances were delightful, especially the rapport between Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) along with the impeccable use of the colour and detail in the sets and costumes”.

Queueing for tickets

Queueing for tickets

Having failed in our first attempt to get into a screening my colleague Mark Douglas, along with Bristol Film Hub Coordinator Tiffany Holmes and I, engaged a back up plan, which was to walk a short distance to the fantastically named Zoo Palast to try and see what turned out to be a severe Chinese drama entitled Shadow Days (Zhao Dayong). This was a rather unevenly told story about forced abortions resulting from China’s one child policy. The serene and pictorial cinematography and poetic ghostliness clashed jarringly with the brutal social realism that depicted the scenes of state corruption and abuse. The film produced some arresting moments but overall was a rather cumbersome affair to watch, lacking a shocking outrage it seemed to be aiming for. Afterwards, the humbled director (this screening was the world premier) was beckoned to the stage for an atrociously hosted Q&A - another recurrent theme throughout the festival - which (translation problems accepted) gave little further insight into the relevant cultural politics.


Despite the obstacle of the ticketing over the weekend the students saw many of the festival’s highlights. Lauran Carter cited two films as standouts: 71 (Yann Demange) is set in Ireland during the height of the troubles and “deals with the conflict in a double edged manner, refraining from simple black and white assertions, and through a story which was “emotionally entangling”. But even more impressive was N - The Madness of Reason (Peter Krüger) a transnational film that depicts Frenchman’s Raymond Borremans’ obsession with African culture and the Ivory Coast: “The viewer is guided, with Borremans, by the spirit of Africa in a beautiful film with footage that offers a deeper insight into cultural difference and affiliation”.


Luigi Sibona particularly admired two films: Calvary is John McDonagh's follow up to his successful black comedy The Guard which “takes Brendan Gleeson's good priest character to disconcertingly darker avenues”. Framed as a whodunit, “Calvary explores the contemporary distrust of the clergy, and the meaning, or lack of, found in death. Crucially it never gets bogged down in its subtext, constantly delivering jet black humour and an utterly compelling, dense mystery thriller plot.” Luigi also sighted Concerning Violence (Göran Olsson) as “the most innovative and affecting non-fiction film of the last few years. Comprised of archive footage of Africa's liberation and readings from Frantz Fanon, Olsson creates shocking, poetic and deeply affecting piece of nonfiction cinema”. High praise indeed.


Representing a lighter mood Ashton Snow saw French fantasy animation Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (Mathias Malzieu, Stéphane Berla) based on an illustrated novel and concept album made by rock band Dionysos. The bittersweet tale set in 19th century Scotland left her “emotionally exhausted” after a “beautiful ending accompanied by peaceful yet haunting music which left the audience (which included many young children) in silence as the credits rolled”. Emma Graham points to the unsettling Thou was mild and Lovely (Josephine Decker) which “Left you unsure how to you feel” as a sweet love story “takes a shocking and bizarre plot twist. Visually there were some beautiful shots but too much transitioning in focus undermined this”. Emma’s final comment “I would have to watch twice to understand but it’s a film you can only watch once” perhaps sums up its enigmatic effect.

Cubix Cinema

Cubix Cinema

One of the most pleasurable aspects of going to the Berlinale is dashing to different parts of the city to see films in different cinemas. Many of the filmpalasts we visited representative of the changing architectural styles in different time periods, but and are also symbolic of Berlin’s politically divided past. Yes, there are many generic multiplexes carbon copied throughout the world. But grandly named edifices like The International and The Colosseum are huge monuments of utilitarian modernist design, which attempted to imbue a futuristic ambiance but now, from 2014, seem very dated. But this is no criticism. Entering these buildings to watch a film one gets a greater sense of the cultural value of cinema. Perhaps it is nostalgia for a past that only exists in the romantic imaginary but these arenas suggest a time before the soulless corporate revenue stream culture of contemporary cinema exhibition. Their magnitude and sumptuousness, along with design idiosyncrasies, adds a real sense of place, and therefore occasion, to a film screening.


The viewing highlight for me was Michael Gondry’s beautifully crafted documentary about the academic and political commentator Noam Chomsky Is the man who is tall happy? Gondry’s films always venture in some way into the realm of human consciousness and here the director actually sets out an epistemological reasoning for using animation at the start of the film. The areas that his conversations with Chomsky broach – the nature of reality as it is perceived by the human mind - undermined the possibility of using live action is it assumes notions of ‘truth’ in a manipulative way. Gondry wanted to remind the viewer that they are watching a construct, and allied to this, the animation allowed the director to visually assist in explaining the complex conceptual ideas that are the hallmark of Chomsky’s work. The film succeeded therefore in creating a form of accessibility into some very difficult ideas.

Michel (not Michael) Gondry Q&A session

Michel (not Michael) Gondry Q&A session

 Michel Gondry was at the screening for an audience Q&A and I was looking forward to hearing him discuss the film. This was, however, another example of a rather badly run session, if also somewhat amusing. Firstly a rather austere and disinterested man introduced him as “Michael” Gondry, which drew laughs from the audience. The director took this in good humour. However, during the Q&A after the film – which was again monopolised by the host – the same man who had announced his name incorrectly interrupted Gondry in full flow and said in a thick, monotone German accent “you must stop now.” Gondry replied on the mic “you are a very rude man. You didn’t know my name when you announced me and now you stop me from answering the audience’s questions.” This statement drew a round of applause from the audience and the clearly unhappy French director and festival judge put the microphone down and walked out.

Some in depth film discussion

Some in depth film discussion

Travelling back home and talking to the students they all seemed to enjoy the weekend, equally for the cultural experience of Berlin as much as the film festival. Lauren Carter stated that the “forums and Q&As with directors/writers/producers gives extra insight into the films. Having a chance to speak to people directly from the industry is priceless for film students. Also the independence and self-confidence this trip has given me is irreplaceable and I gained courage form having independent time within the city.” I think this sentiment epitomises the value of the trip in that it lies beyond instrumental outcomes and is more about developing one’s independence and confidence. I, and I’m sure many others, are already looking forward to next year.

On Christopher Hitchens

Anything I could say about Christopher Hitchens would be completely inadequate compared to the outpouring of grief, affection and admiration that has come from all quarters since his passing away on the 16th of December 2011. Like most people I only knew him through his writing, and through reading about him, both avenues indelibly confirmed his reputation a giant of the written word and of the lived life. I first heard ‘Hitch’ on Youtube. As an increasingly vociferous atheist I came upon the many debates and lectures that, thankfully, are posted online and was immediately a fan. I became hooked  on both his ardently secular philosophy but also on the simultaneously mesmerising yet daunting scope of his intellectual delivery. He had the uncanny ability to be both forensic and poetic at the same time. His uncompromisingly oppositional and combative stances on so many issues often left you in no doubt where you stood, whether it be in agreement or disagreement, with regards to his position. At the risk of an inadequate metaphor, a commentator once described another genius, the racing driver Ayrton Senna as, “often leaving you to decide whether or not you would have an accident with him”. This aptly described Hitchens’ writing and oratory, its clear and sharply incisive rhetoric that, while not deliberately designed to offend, made no apologies if it did so.

Reading Hitchens could be a somewhat belittling experience. The depth of his knowledge and the range of references, that gave his writing such weight in an era of sound-bite superficiality, required a required a regular retreat to the Internet to look up a source. I know reading Hitchens has improved my own knowledge; reading Why Orwell Matters was an education in itself. But engaging which such an mind and a talent through his work reinforced my own political beliefs about the inequalities of education that are ingrained in Britain but also globally – the subject is discussed at length in Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22. His influence on me has been tangible in terms of a commitment to dialectical thought, critical enquiry and the discipline of production. Further than this reading Hitchens affords the realisation that such worthy aims are made more relevant when imbued with a certain joie de vivre. It leaves one with note of caution however that latter may have contributed to his far to early death. Perhaps this is an unintended lesson that Hitch leaves behind. I had often thought about writing to him over past few years particularly in the light of his illness. Work, laziness a sense of my own inadequacy meant I never did so. In one of his final interviews, with Jeremy Paxman, Hitchens said “if you ever wonder whether to write to anyone, always do...I regret not doing it more myself”. Upon hearing this I deeply felt such regret, that I had not taken up the pen to give some small indication of how much Christopher Hitchens, as a writer and person, had influenced me.

A Conspiracy of Mutual Interest

The public debate and interrogation of the ‘hackgate’ scandal is so copious that one hardly knows where to start. However, an aspect of the story that strikes me as prescient, yet largely ignored, is how the affair has exposed the overlapping networks of power that form a nexus of controlling elites in our capitalist democracy. The seemingly endless revelations highlight how the political/media/corporate complex is intricately linked through matrices of friendships, acquaintances, business partnerships, familial ties, abstract loyalties and social debts. Well this is no big deal right? We all knew that. But what recent events have crystallised is how these interconnections form a socio-cultural hegemony based almost entirely on elites knowing and serving each others interests in order to maintain, on a micro level their own position of power, and on a macro level, the overarching hierarchies of the social system.

Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci used the term hegemony to define how a society’s dominant class configures the processes, and creates the discourses, that effect mass social control. Such social control is maintained no only through coercive means (laws, police, judiciary) but also ideological conformity has to be affirmed through cultural avenues such as education and the mass media. These conduits of information persuade the subordinated classes to spontaneously consent to the rules and values of the political and intellectual elite. This serves to negate the possibility or even the need for dissent, because the organisational apparatus enforces the inevitability of lived experience within the, already apparent, social structure. Any instances of dissent against the dominant classes are represented as pathological and are thus summarily punished, through legally sanctioned punitive measures, but also symbolically, via the strident critique of the media propaganda machine. The hegemonic organisation of society is so pervasively ingrained into culture that it is more or less wholly accepted by the masses as the civilising, didactic role of the elite.

Centralisation of ownership in a pervasive media environment is a key tool with which hegemony is affirmed. Of course, in a totalitarian regime the state directly controls the media and is therefore able to disseminate its ideologies directly. In democracies, where ‘free speech’ and an open media market are lauded as vital components of open debate and informed citizenship, the managing of information has to be much more sophisticated. In this regard the construction of particular discourses, which become naturalised as ‘truth’ (particularly through the populist tabloid strands of the media), is imperative. For example, tabloid culture creates demonised ‘others’ that the - presumably - law (and moral) abiding silent masses should be afraid of. The almost forensic focus on immigrants, minorities, gays, single mothers, activists, unionists, students, the unemployed, public sector workers etc etc etc, draws attention to the perceived threats of individuals and groups who, in actuality, have very little power. This obfuscates critique and interrogation of those at the very top of society who really affect the social conditions of the masses on a direct basis, whether it is economically, politically or culturally. Because most of us actually belong to one or more of these categories the real genius of media manipulation is how it places such groups in opposition to one another, rather than highlighting their common struggle.

Furthermore, in order to help us deal with the fear and uncertainly of these inferred external dangers we are fed a constant diet of inane celebrity culture, reality television and premiership football – in other words highly elaborate means of escapism that make no difference in our lives but somehow, probably through some kind of vicarious false consciousness, inspire us to maintain a monumental level of consumption and bury our critical heads in the sand. In many ways we are complicit in this. There is some truth to the notion that the public gets what it wants and we all have the choice to turn off. There is, for me, a fundamental hypocrisy in a public that doesn’t mind if Sienna Miller, Prince Harry or Gordon Brown have their privacy violated but is suddenly outraged when it is Milly Dowler or victims of 7/7. Of course there is a difference, but what are we really outraged about? Hacking itself, or just that the right people at the right time are being hacked? Can rabid journalists break the law when the target is deemed inconsequential? The popularity of the News of the World encourages a sensationalist news culture in which the “interest of the public” (i.e. what will sell) far outweighs a more political understanding of “public interest”.

But how much choice do we really have? The huge, centralised media monopolies like News Corp create a mainstream news agenda that dissolves serious interrogation into spectacle and superficiality. Whether illegal hacking is involved or not it is tabloid culture more generally that sets an agenda that is almost inescapable and inescapably banal. Media conglomerates make it largely impossible to circumvent tabloid culture even if one wants to. Murdoch’s vast network of media outlets affords him an incredible autonomy over what the world sees and hears. It has been commented that Murdoch has no ideology or political motivation beyond an endless desire for money and power, but that is an ideology which undoubtedly underpins the kind of media we receive. One that is fundamentally beholden to markets thus invariably commodified, highly populist, simplistic and unable (or unwilling) to truly hold the elites to account. Until hackgate, Murdoch’s acquisition of total ownership in BskyB was proceeding almost without question (once Vince Cable was removed), which would have enabled him an even firmer control over the apparatus of information dissemination. The corporatisation and centralisation of the media is still continuing despite a supposedly more open, diverse and interactive communications age.

The building of this kind of power requires political acquiescence. Politicians, Corporate owners and Media moguls are not interested in informing the citizenry or helping to create a nation of critical thinkers because that could lead to a much more rigorous questioning of not just the individuals in power but the way system works to keep them there. What the hackgate scandal exposes is just how much the interests of the different branches of the dominant classes are interconnected, not just on an overtly political level, but on a social level too. It is easy to produce a rather archaic working-class assault on the Old Etonian front bench, the chipping Norton set and the jobs for the boys (and girls) culture, as the foundation of an old fashioned class system. However, cultural hegemony spans across the political divide of left and right. Gordon Brown rose recently in parliament, an unusual step for a former Prime Minister, to berate News Corp and tabloid culture. In an interview with the BBC he went onto discuss how he cried when he learned that the details of his son’s medial condition were to be splashed on the front page by the ‘sewer rats’ at the News of the World. One pertinent question is why didn’t his government, or previous governments ever do anything about tabloid culture or what many have suggested was the excessive influence of Murdoch. The answer is they form part of the Political/Media/Corporate complex and they know, perhaps even only on a subconscious level (but for many it is on a pragmatic level too) that their power is inextricably linked. There may have been no “specific” discussion but make no mistake, Andy Coulson was hired by David Cameron not despite his relationship to the News of the World, but because of it.

When the term conspiracy arises, what comes to mind is darkened boardrooms, secret meetings, intricate plots and faceless couriers doing the bidding of shadowy ‘organisation’ men. Films revel in such narratives, and the modern imagination seems to desire buried “truths” behind iconic historical events such as 9/11, the moon landings and the Kennedy assassination. Occasionally the entire façade of organised corruption is revealed, Watergate being the most obvious example. Hackgate is being touted, by some, as the British version of the affair that claimed the Nixon presidency, and maybe it will cause a realignment of the individual power dynamics.What it will not do is destroy the overarching structure. Murdoch, Brooks and Cameron may be displaced -  in most conspiracies ‘a few bad apples’ get the blame - but the essential mechanisms of hegemony will, most likely, be left firmly in tact. Think about the huge reorganisation of the financial system which was “inevitable” in the wake of the financial crisis….what ever happened to that? If we deign to call modern society conspiratorial it is a far more sophisticated concept than a room full of shady power brokers hatching diabolical plots. It is a conspiracy that doesn’t require definitive plans or specific goals, just a recognition of the mutual interests of those at the top and the decisions that need to be made to preserve the status quo.

Political Debate Actually

Watching last night’s Question Time was fascinating for many reasons but, for me, ultimately showed the bankruptcy of our current political discourse. Almost the entire programme was, quite rightly, taken up by the News of the World phone hacking scandal with Rupert Murdoch shutting down the title, laying off over two hundred staff, but failing to sack its editor at the time, and current CEO of News Corp, Rebekah Brooks. The political aspect of the story revolves around the arrest, again, of Andy Coulson, who resigned from the News of the World in 2007, and then went on to become the Conservative party’s press secretary. David Cameron is facing tough questions concerning his judgement in appointing Coulson, not to mention the closeness of his relationship with Brooks and Murdoch himself. Having failed to call for Brooks’ resignation when pressed by Ed Miliband at PMQs, the ambiguity and awkwardness of Cameron’s position was obvious. All of this is framed by News Corps’ attempt to fully take over BskyB and the leaking of information to News of the World journalists by the Metropolitan Police.

Discussing all of these issues on Question Time were three representatives of the main political parties: Chris Grayling (Conservative), Douglas Alexander (Labour) and Shirley Williams (Liberal Democrat). Joining them, and this provided the most intriguing part of the discussion, were right-wing shock-jock and former Sun columnist Jon Gaunt, and (not so) floppy-haired charmer (and former “Prime Minister” ) Hugh Grant. Grant’s inclusion on the panel derives from his public antipathy toward tabloid culture, he is an ardent supporter of injunctions against the press having had his own phone hacked. The first time I heard him speak on the issue however was on Radio 5 live when he came across as articulate, knowledgeable and, above all, direct. When I saw he was a guest on Question Time I wondered how he would fair against well-briefed and seasoned political debaters.

Whatever one thinks of Hugh Grant, or his films (and I can take or leave either) the clarity of his points from the outset cut to the heart of the matter and the audience seemed largely in agreement with what he was saying. Undoubtedly his demeanour and delivery demonstrated a person used to public speech and I think his arguments were aided by an extra dollop of charm and star performance. His persona contrasted greatly with that of Jon Gaunt whose blustering, shouty soap-boxing and cringe-worthy winks to David Dimbleby were, frankly, pretty annoying. However, Gaunt was also clear, decisive and reasoned with his opinions and the two of them agreed at times and clashed others but, in essence, provided a clear debate (apart from when Gaunt couldn’t resist a cheap shot at Grant for his arrest with Hollywood prostitute Devine Brown).

What struck me however was the ineptitude of the politicians at being able to articulate directly their points without mitigating clauses or deliberate obfuscation. When Chris Grayling was asked whether a judicial enquiry should be called he gave the classic political evasion. Hugh Grant then turned to the audience and summarised definitively (and with a hint of sarcasm) why Graying could not answer the question: his boss David Cameron doesn’t want to fully cut Murdoch loose. Grant’s statement: “it’s scary you can’t answer that” deconstructed the compromised link between the political elite and the corporate media. Douglas Alexander was not allowed to escape to the position of oppositional safety as both Grant and Gaunt repeatedly pointed to Labour’s wooing of the Murdoch press in the era of Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair. Indeed, the revelation that politicians of all stripes were quaffing champagne at a recent Murdoch party, and the fact that ministers have continually backed away from investigations into News Corp shows the how the government relates to Murdoch with an equal measure fear and awe.

There are huge issues concerning media influence and ownership, privacy laws and what constitutes public interest and the regulation of the press, and the police, that were touched on by the programme. However, it was the fact that Hugh Grant and Jon Gaunt provided the lion’s share of the discursive analysis and political debate that stood out for me. Maybe politicians feel that they cannot be straight, the machinery of government doesn’t allow them to be straight or the media sensationalises everything to the point where a clear and direct argument cannot be had. Maybe Grayling and Alexander were simply star struck. However, last night’s Question Time led me to wonder what has our democratic system become when it is a Hollywood actor and a radio DJ that articulate the ins and outs of an important political issue leaving the politicians stuck in ambivalent semantics. Following on twitter there were numerous lines suggesting “Hugh Grant for PM”. Sadly, I think the irony of this reflects the state of our current political debate and exemplifies the low regard in which our democratic representatives are held.

The Philosophy of Hypocrisy

Across the Middle East historic uprisings show the power that ordinary people can still wield. But what these tumultuous events have also brought into sharp focus is the sheer hypocrisy of Western governments, in both their policies concerning specific dictatorships, and the doublespeak used to mitigate those relationships. For years the West propped up Egypt’s President Mubarak, a despot who oppressed his own people. The recent revolution, however, was roundly applauded and, in the end, diplomatically supported by the international community. This immediately reveals the morally questionable discourse of the West which supposes that a dictator is palatable as long as he (it’s always a man) is ‘our’ dictator. Such a policy remains intact until that situation becomes politically untenable (a point made by Noam Chomsky in his interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight 08/03/2011). The old chestnut of regional stability is usually the reason given for the West’s support of an autocratic ruler; such an argument can be critiqued in itself as evidence of a Eurocentric, racist mindset. But any altruistic notions of promoting stability through diplomacy are, in reality, about trade, and usually a specific type of trade: arms and oil. A dictator’s human rights record can suddenly seem quite hazy when these two commodities are on the bargaining table. The question of how a dictator wants to use said arms, and the backhanders on offer for a reasonable crude price, is a question the West rarely asks. If the price is right, morality disappears.

Yet, when the citizens of Egypt unceremoniously ejected Mubarak from his position it was billed as a triumph of democracy. Barak Obama said, “the people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same”. Obviously Egyptian voices were much quieter when the United States was helping to maintain the Mubarak regime. David Cameron also jumped on the freedom and democracy bandwagon: “Egypt now has a really precious moment of opportunity to have a government that can bring the country together. As a friend of Egypt, and the Egyptian people, we stand ready to help in any way we can”. Cameron, eager to show ‘solidarity’ with the newly ‘free’ Egyptians, was the first to arrive in the region to bask in the reflected glory of this ‘liberated’ state, or as he put it, offer Britain’s help in creating the “building blocks of democracy”. That fact that he was accompanied by a delegation of arms and aerospace contractors was, on the one hand, a public relations disaster, but on the other, laid bare the unadulterated hypocrisy of protestations of support for the Egyptian people’s democracy. How many of Mubarak’s tear gas canisters had ‘Made in England’ written on them?

Hypocrisy reaches epic proportions in the context of Libya. Gadaffi goes from evil dictator to internationally rehabilitated moderate, back to brutish despot, depending how Western governments determine his political usefulness. Since the start of the revolt in Libya there has been almost total condemnation of Gadaffi, which may be totally justified in and of itself, but coming from Western leaders it is fundamentally duplicitous and shows a convenient loss of collective memory. Gadaffi’s promise to stop supporting terrorism and suspend nuclear weapons programs led to a phalanx of Western leaders (a grinning Tony Blair included) parading themselves with the redeemed Libyan leader in front of his tented village. This was defined as victory against terrorism and a triumph of diplomacy yet in the background, again, was a range of arms deals and oil contracts. The complexity of Britain’s ties to Libya also incorporates the decision to release Lockerbie bomber Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, and continues to be revealed through details about a nepotistic relationship with the London School of Economics.

All this without even mentioning the West’s association with Saudi Arabia.

Back home, in the midst of the financial crisis, hypocrisy has Premier League credentials, perhaps summed up by the mantra “we’re all in this together”. This phrase has been preprogrammed as the default response of every coalition MP and, by and large, it seems to have been swallowed. It seems that not only every politician but every media commentator, economist, corporate CEO, indeed anyone with a public voice accepts this dictum as fact. The tokenistic attempts at financial regulation set out by George Osbourne are wrapped around the rhetoric of fairness. However, at the same time the boss of RBS takes home a £6 million bonus for presiding over a £1 billion pound loss in an institution that the taxpayer had to bail out and now owns. Juxtaposed next to the massive cuts in front line services across the board, clearly, we are not all in this together. The possibility of simply taxing corporations and the rich more is never even mooted. “Common sense” economic maxims are masking real ideological manipulation here. “We’re all in this together” is classic Orwellian doublespeak.

Yes there are uprisings of dissent over the cuts but it seems that the level of anger over what the public is told it now has to deal with is, in actuality, quite paltry. The philosophy of hypocrisy, it seems, is working well. Egyptians and Libyans (along with other North African and Middle Eastern peoples) are fighting and dying for the possibility of a democratic voice. We supposedly have that voice, but maybe we need some advice from them in how to use it.