Cynical Rot

This is a response to the torrid commentary in NZ media in general, and in particular to an opinion piece by Finlay Macdonald that was posted on RNZ on August 9. You can read his piece here.

Of all the disgusting articles posted about Metiria Turei’s resignation, Finlay Macdonald’s contribution is particularly mean-spirited. He argues, in short, that it wasn’t the offense at the centre of the controversy – lying to Work and Income – that was bad, it was Turei’s own handling of the affair. Further, he charges that it was absurd that she should resign on the basis that the public scrutiny of her family was unbearable, because, as he puts it:

“Having invited scrutiny of her private life… If it is not too blunt to ask, what the hell did she expect?” – Finlay Macdonald on Metiria Turei.

That sent a chill to my occipital lobe, perhaps because it is self-evidently victim blaming language. She was asking for it, she should have known what would happen, bad Turei! I say this is absolutely and stunningly wrong, not only in moral terms, but as a basic political analysis.

The layers of irony in Macdonald’s piece might be funny if they were not so overdrawn. I almost expect a disclaimer that the article is a clumsy satire on media commentators becoming so saturated in parliamentary politics that they are more hack than human. At least, they have either forgotten the human element, or simply deny that it exists.

This is deep cynicism, to actually convict Turei of the heresy of not being cynical. Of not acting as a cold and ruthless political machine. Of having the temerity to be hurt when her family is bullied and harassed for nearly a month by the media, and attacked online by political opponents, and troglodytes with nothing to say that isn’t intended to hurt.

The crux of Macdonald’s argument, and I think it encapsulates the thinking of many on the centre-left, is that the damage done to the Green Party, and the left in general, is the sole responsibility of the former co-leader. Here, I smell the sterile odor of a whitewash, the clean-up crew from the political centre heaping as much rubbish onto the most prominent Māori leader the left has. All to spare their dream of a gentle change of government from centre to centre. Nevermind that it is mere weeks since Labour was itself in turmoil, no, Turei might have spoiled it all.

Therefore, if the result of the September election is that Jacinda Ardern is not Prime Minister, fault can be dumped on Turei for fatally compromising the campaign. Forgive my cynicism, but I think it is distinctly less rotten because unlike Finlay Macdonald, I don’t expect or desire politicians to act cynically. I don’t think it is ever desirable to put the world-weary in command of even a slice of the world.

The truth might actually be that Metiria Turei didn’t know what speaking up about her experience on the DPB in the 1990s would do, but that she genuinely believed it worth taking the risk and standing up for the powerless.  Doing so is worth losing support today, even her own position, and maybe even the election. Is it worth changing the government if the price is shutting down such an important debate about dignity in the welfare system? I don’t think it is, frankly.

However, I’m glad to say that the debate isn’t going away. This particular elephant has been in the room a long time and Metiria Turei has turned us to face it. That she paid a heavy political, and personal price should not be thrown back in her face. The tragedy is that New Zealand politics is a little more cynical.

 

 

 

NZIFF: Final Portrait

Righto, not having written a blogpost in a while I will keep this fairly terse. The New Zealand International Film Festival is on in Wellington, and if you are in a position to attend a screening I strongly recommend that you do. In fact, don’t even check what you are about to see. Get a ticket for whatever and enjoy the surprise; independent cinema won’t hurt you. Now then, on to what I saw today:

Final Portrait (wri/dir: Stanley Tucci, starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer) is a character study of Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (b. 1901 – d.1966), set in Paris in 1964.

Giacometti, a draftsman and sculptor as well as a painter, is particularly known for his  style of rendering the human form in long, gaunt, monochromatic shapes. Coincidentally, my father showed me some of Giacometti’s work only a matter of weeks ago, and it was the first time that I actually took note of who he was. Therefore, seeing Final Portrait was, for me, a perfect elaboration from that introduction.

Geoffrey Rush is just as brilliant as I expected, playing irritable, chain-smoking, eccentrics is hardly a leap for him, but few could have done it better. Rush captures the look of Giacometti; the muttering bleakness of his spirit, and all the idiosyncrasies to be found in painters. I don’t have the knowledge to verify to accuracy of the portrayal, but to do so would be a mistake in my view. It would be beside the point. Let me explain.

James Lord (played by Armie Hammer), was Giacometti’s biographer, and in the movie he is enduring sitting after sitting in the hope of getting a finished portrait of himself to take back to New York, where his fiancee is waiting for him. The days pass by, and progress is slow. Giacometti sits opposite Lord in the studio and watches him, getting him to move his body by miniscule amounts, stopping work frequently crying, “fuck!” Sometimes packing up having only added a few strokes to the picture. As the sessions wear on, Lord’s morale is worn thin, and he despairs that the painting will never be finished.

Giacometti also despairs. That he can’t finish anything. He says to Lord, “When I was young I thought I could do anything, when I grew up I realised I can do nothing.” This may not be mere fatalism, but an expression of the existentialist view that modernity is vacuous. That it is without meaning. In the face of that, Giacometti searches for meaning in his subjects – in James Lord.

The painting itself, and the act of painting it, is cathartic for both Giacometti and Lord. The film, with it’s wit, and its excellent supporting cast (Clémence Poésy (Caroline), Tony Shalhoub (Diego Giacometti), James Faulkner (Pierre Matisse), Sylvie Testud (Annette Arm), is a much easier watch than Mr. Turner was, which is the best film I can compare it with – in terms of being about an artist.

Unfortunately, I have exhausted my analytical ability, and to continue to slip on the keyboard would be a waste of my, and your time. For art lovers this is not a film to miss.

That’s all for now.

 

 

Alien Covenant: Sifting through the debris when movies collide

Ridley Scott, styled “The elderly Ridley Scott” by Red Letter Media in their YouTube review, attempted to resurrect his creative ability after the abominable Prometheus. The result is an ugly mosaic from the debris of two movies. One of them should have been made. (BTW spoiler alert, and I use links to explain certain concepts if you want more information).

That one, a sci-fi horror featuring an android obsessed with creation and a hatred of the humans who made him, entrapping the crew of a colonizing ship and conducting hideous genetic experiments on them. David, the android from Prometheus played by Michael Fassbender, is living on a planet he managed to fly to with Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) on board an Engineer spacecraft after the events of Prometheus. The Engineers are/were the sentient creators of humans, and it turns out that they created a black goo on one of their science planets that fuses with DNA to make monsters. This is the substance David plays with to eventually create the Xenomorphs.

This movie would have been brilliant. There would have been gnawing tension because we suspect David’s intentions, and Fassbender does a great job playing a composed ‘synthetic‘, and having crew members picked off one by one and then killed in slow, grissly experiments would have been a terrifying spectacle. No, it would not have been pleasant to watch, but it would have had a unified theme, and  have taken the series somewhere new. Lot’s more scenes with android David talking to android Walter, both played by Fassbender, which provided the best moments in the movie.

Alas, the second movie crashed into the first. This is a rehash of the original Alien, and it took place in the final 25 minutes. The iconic xenomorph is finally burst forth, and gets on board the ship that the last surviving crew manage to fly back to. Here Daniels “Dany” Branson (played by Katherine Waterston), the senior officer and wife of the late Captain Jacob “Jake” Branson — played by James Franco who is incinerated at the film opens — becomes Ripley-ish by luring the alien into the cargo bay and blasting it out of the airlock. A fine dose of nostalgia, but crammed into 25 minutes as it is deprives it of what is most effective about the original movie. THE PACE! It is slow, and like Jaws the monster isn’t really seen until the end. The imagination of the audience can conjour things that no amount of cgi can match. Turn out the lights and the imagination does the rest. That is why Alien is scary.

Alien Covenant needed to be either one of these movies. Either an Ex Machina – Human Centipede fusion that explores the meaning of creation and destruction, with a dash of human bravery, or a retro homage to 1979’s Alien. But trying to do both simply does not work. It is definitely better than Prometheus, by a big margin, but that raises the bar an inch off the ground.

Just why there was a weird collision of two different movies is unclear, but the answer probably rests on studio expectations — they paid for the iconic Alien so there must be the nostalgia soup at the end — but if Ridley Scott wanted to go in another direction he surely had the sway to do it.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good moments, and as I have mentioned the Fassbender scenes are great — particularly when he kisses himself — and the Kane and Abel theme between the two androids culminating in a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” The duality of the androids is the most interesting part, forget the Aliens — they are actually boring and anticlimactic in comparison.

David’s rooms on the planet where he has spent ten years doing his experiments to create the “perfect organism” which has wiped out all life on the planet, are like the abode of Leonardo da Vinci, with models, preserved specimens, and anatomical drawings on the walls. In here is the preserved corpse of Dr Shaw, her abdomen exploded out, suggesting he used her to create an early chestburster. In one of the better scenes in Prometheus she gives birth by caesarean to a kind of facehugger, so her character being a guinea pig for David, and the mother of the Xenomorph completes her character development. Early in Prometheus she laments her infertility. It is her most powerful character motivation.

Really, what would be interesting would be to take all the material from Prometheus and Covenant and cut them together into one film, The Tragedy of Elizabeth Shaw. As it is all we have is a field of confused debris from colliding movies and a filmmaker who forgot how to create.

Keeping the Flames

In a particularly beautiful part of the Netherlands, just outside the town of Sint-Oedenrode, a local teenager looked out the window to see American paratroopers drop into the field just outside the family house.

It was September 17th 1944,  and Martin (referred to as Opa to his family and so I shall too from hereon) was in the middle of the largest airborne operation ever attempted. An audacious assault meant to bypass the fortifications of the Maginot and Siegfried lines on the French and Belgian borders with Germany. The Netherlands had been under Nazi occupation since May 1940. Had Operation Market Garden succeeded the Dutch would have been liberated earlier, but also victory in Europe day could have been before Christmas 1944.

Martinus Alphonsus van Rooy, now 88, recounts the experience of having World War Two so close at such a pivotal age.  “I still don’t like the Germans,” he murmurs reflectively.  it was clear by 1944 that the Nazi war machine was slowly collapsing.  The initial surprise of Market Garden confused the enemy, so when they came after the paratroopers they thought they were after the British.  Even so the SS put Opa’s family against the wall of their house and demanded to know where the “tommies” were.  The SS left soon after empty-handed.

The Americans had asked for cans to hang on wires which would rattle and alert them to intruders at night.  They had dug in; coming out in the day and disappeared at night. Over the next week Opa and his family were strangely poised, living with World War Two happening out the window.  At one point an older SS man came to the house looking for somewhere to sleep. He slept in the kitchen. Opa’s sister took the man’s rifle and wouldn’t give it back.

The German morale was evidently poor, and they were spiritually a spent force.  “The Germans didn’t want to go to the Eastern Front. Oh no, they didn’t want to fight the Russians, they were scared [of them].” Opa recalls witnessing gunfights between the Allies and the Nazis, and got as close as to be in real danger when a hand grenade went off nearby. He remembers that the Germans were genuinely surprised, “They thought the British were above where they were.” The Allies had landed over such a wide area in order to create a corridor for ground forces in France to advance through. This did have the effect of surprise, but made the operation vulnerable to counterattack. The German Panzer divisions were able to defeat the operation, but it was to be their last victory of the war.

As the days passed the Operation became more and more futile. It depended on speed and surprise to seize the key roads and bridges forming a corridor from Eindhoven to Arnhem, which the British XXX Corps would use to bypass the fortifications of the Maginot and Sigfried lines (reinforcing the border between Germany, France, and Belgium). This was an audacious attempt to bring the war to a close before Christmas 1944.

Today, Operation Market Garden has disappeared from memory as the events of D-day and the Battle of the Bulge which burn more brightly have taken attention. They were gruelling, and devastating operations, but they were victories, and much more satisfactory stories for Hollywood to tell.

On this ANZAC day, I think it is worthwhile to seek out the lesser known tales from military history, not least because we are steadily losing those that can tell them first hand. Now in his late eighties, the teenage boy from Sint-Oedenrode who saw the flash of guns and felt the shock of a grenade, recalls his experience with a twinkle in his eye.

Trump’s list of broken promises

What is that crunching underfoot? The shards of Trump’s broken promises. The shattered dreams of those who voted for him, and are stuck between a bloviating moron and the hate of dejected democrats. 

Let no-one get away with saying that at least Trump is doing what he said he would do if elected. It simply isn’t so.

Trump’s promises before and after the election – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-37982000

Vile Maxims 

Adam Smith wrote that the ‘masters of mankind,’ who at the time were the manufacturing owners in England, pursue their vile maxim: “everything for ourselves and nothing for other people.”

Noam Chomsky has written at great length about how this is as true today as it was when Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. I cannot possibly improve on the case the great professor makes in a mere essay, but simply draw out a few strands and hold them closer to the light.

There’s something very wrong about the world we live in. People tell me that the problem is deeply rooted in human nature. That we cannot possibly change it, that greed and self interest are as much a part of what makes us human as our opposable thumbs and brain size. Greed makes people abuse welfare. Greed makes people steal and use drugs. And greed makes massive financial institutions wreak havoc on the world economy behind their responsibility and demand (and get) a bailout from the taxpayer. The first two cases in which greed informs behaviour are harshly punished. The latter is not.

This is not news to anyone. Even the most reptilian neo-liberal accepts that corporate greed is negative (or perhaps they don’t, I am not particularly interested in knowing). If only because it makes the corporate interests lobby governments to pervert the free market to their own ends. But the masters of mankind have us tied up in the belief that Human Nature cannot be changed. If greed is not good then at least it is ineradicable. That way the masters can continue their plunder of the world while the rest of us toil for less and less.

I don’t think greed is necessarily a part of human nature. In fact empirical evidence taken from the myriad forms of human society demonstrates the weakness of the human nature claim. Pre-european Māori tribes engaged in inter-tribal warfare (that increased dramatically after Europeans brought the musket), but Māori society was remarkably stable, and quite immune from the pressures we like to worry about. Like individual property rights.

Our society is built to be greedy. That is capitalist nature, not human. We built the society, and we can fix it. How do we do it? A violent Revolution? I am not at all sure that storming the proverbial Bastille is the way to go. Instead, I want to look at the ails of society, which is what Marx and Engels were concerned with in the very first place. Deny and disagree with their conclusions if you wish, but their analysis of industrialization was deadly accurate. You don’t have to answer for Stalin if you invoke Marxist theories, just as supporters of Bernie Sanders do not have to answer for Trump. I say that as a throat clearing for any vocal critics.

What needs to happen now is the lower 90% of people who would have been known once as the proletariat, has to reclaim the power they once had as factory workers to unionize and agitate against the bourgeoisie. Over the years the means of production have been outsourced and the working class thereby disempowered. A sweatshop worker in China cannot hold Nike to account, multi-nationals assume the privileged of being neo-states in all but landmass. Financial regulation and deregulation espoused by the frightful hack Alan Greenspan established the new proletariat dubbed the ‘precariat’ because the working class is now characterized by insecurity. Zero-hour contracts, no health insurance, fire at will policies, the erosion of welfare so that the worker who predictably loses their job cannot pay their rent or their bills. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, the vile maxim sits at the heart of this filthy Society.

But it is based on a lie. This is not a zero sum world. Advances for some people are not necessarily imply detraction for others. If you are fortunate to be thriving in this Society I do not want to injure you or harm your prospects. I want to meet Society work for more people, like trans and non-binary people. The poor, the ill, those abandoned by Society and kept in cages. The first step is to listen to these people, the second is to make concessions. In order to get to that place it needs to be accepted that workers have rights and must be able to agitate for better conditions. They can continue to represent themselves better than any demagogue hoisting the red flag.

Lastly, security needs to be attained in all its complexity, not just in physical terms when considering domestic and international terrorism. The American Dream was about individual security. A family sustaining itself without government interference. That dream is dead as long as workers are precarious on the edge of oblivion. So be cautious when dubious and smug politicians talk about the economy. The word they actually mean to say is plutonomy, and growth for 0.1% does not strengthen the economy overall. But it does invite them to lavish parties on expensive yachts and stroke them in just the right way.

Instead of citing particular pages, much of this essay is based on Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World. Additional reading from The Meaning of Marxism by Paul D’Amato.