Ascension Day

On Sunday I binge-watched two documentaries about “big wall” climbing in the Yosemite Valley. One appeared on my Netflix feed and I wondered if it was the one discussed on a recent Joe Rogan podcast; when I looked and it wasn’t, I decided I’d just watch them both.

The first was The Dawn Wall, which concerns the first free-climbing ascent of the so-named face of El Capitan which is basically 3,000 feet of smooth granite with almost nothing to hold on to. The reason nobody had done this before is because many thought it impossible, but a phenomenally gifted climber by the name of Tommy Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgeson attempted it in 2015, inadvertently becoming a media sensation in the process. There are certain elements which make the story great. One section of the ascent involves a lateral climb over a stretch of rock which is particularly barren in terms of places to stand and things to hold on to. At first glance it just looks like a smooth slab of rock the size of a city block but on closer inspection there are tiny protrusions about half a centimetre in size, which Caldwell shows is quite enough to hang off in a pinch. When he completes the section, veteran climbers can scarcely believe it. What makes it even more amazing is Caldwell is missing the index finger on his left hand thanks to a circular saw accident, something everyone thought would end his career as a professional climber. The trouble is, Jorgeson needs to complete the section as well and try as he might, he can’t. Caldwell waits but after several days – the two lived on the cliff for 19 days  – he decides his own quest is in jeopardy and so continues alone. He makes considerable progress and is only a few days from the top when he decides he doesn’t want to leave his partner, so goes back down and tells Jorgeson he’ll wait as long as he has to. I’ve got to say, when Jorgeson finally completes the section I was punching the air and yelling. Happily, the two reach the top and enter climbing folklore.

A fascinating episode of Caldwell’s life occurred in August 2000 when he was just 16. He was climbing in Kyrgyzstan with some other American youngsters (one of whom he would later marry) when they got kidnapped by Islamic militants at war with the government. They were marched aimlessly through the mountains for 6 days until their captors either dropped out or were killed in skirmishes by government troops, leaving just one left. They hatched a plan and when a chance came up, Caldwell crept up behind him and sent him headlong over a cliff. They then found their way to an army base and were rescued. This had a profound effect on Caldwell (as you’d expect) and his personality changed, driving him even harder towards climbing. Surprisingly, the bloke he shoved off the cliff survived. I’d never heard this story before, being wholly uninterested in Central Asia when it occurred, so found it intriguing.

The second documentary was called Free Solo, about the ascent of El Capitan by an astonishing young climber called Alex Honnold. Free solo climbing is when you climb with no ropes for protection, just you, a pair of shoes, and a chalk bag. Nobody had ever solo climbed El Capitan before because most people thought any attempt suicidal, but Honnold mans up and does it accompanied by an exceptionally talented film crew led by one Jimmy Chin. There are moments in the film which had me covering my eyes with my forearm and shouting “Get down off there man, get down!” I guarantee you’ll have sweaty palms right up until Honnold pops over the final ledge and walks up to the crowd waiting on top. The storyline of Free Solo isn’t as good as The Dawn Wall, but it’s probably a better spectacle.

If you’re into climbing, or like me you just like watching people doing extreme stuff in mountains, you should watch them both. I’ll never be a rock climber or a mountaineer but I do like hiking, and when I finally hauled myself off the sofa I looked out my window at La Tournette and thought it was high time I trudged up it. So that’s the plan once the snow melts. I doubt they’ll make a documentary about it, though.


A paucity of talent

From the BBC:

This year, we felt it was time to direct the spotlight away from Hollywood and celebrate the best cinema from around the world. We asked critics to vote for their favourite movies made primarily in a language other than English. The result is BBC Culture’s 100 greatest foreign-language films.

The problem with asking people what they think is they might give troubling answers, as the BBC has discovered:

If there’s anything disappointing about the final list, it’s the paucity of films directed or co-directed by women. There are just four out of 100. But we made sure to contact as many female critics as male ones; of those who responded, 94 (45 per cent) were women.

The obvious conclusion is women don’t make particularly good films, something even women critics agree with. However, the BBC devotes an entire, separate article telling us this isn’t so. So what is? Why, sexism, of course!

This troubling result puts the current conversation about the dearth of women film-makers in a wider context: by being barred from the exercise of their craft in cinema, women run the risk of being excluded from its history.

So women were barred from being directors, eh? Then how come four films directed by women made it onto the list?

“It’s a matter of volume,” says producer Deborah Calla, Chair of the Diversity Committee of the Producers Guild of America, the West Coast Chair of Women’s Impact Network, and advisor to the Geena Davis Institute. “There are fewer films directed by women, and so there are fewer films directed by women winning awards or being picked by festivals. Women directors end up having a smaller footprint.”

I wouldn’t have thought it matters if only ten women were directing films if their output was good enough. Welshmen are not underrepresented in marathon running because not enough of them train.

Scarcity leads to invisibility, and invisibility leads to more scarcity – and thus the history of cinema comes to be written and taught with little or no women in it.

I’ve written about this before and asked why, if sexism prevents women prevailing in the arts, they have been so staggeringly successful in publishing. Are we to believe studios were hotbeds of patriarchal oppression while publishing houses were staffed by woke feminists?

As cinema progressed from novelty to business, however, women were pushed off sets and out of studios.

So despite their talents, women were kicked out of studios because of business interests? Is this a roundabout way of saying their output didn’t sell? After all, our aforementioned booksellers didn’t seem to mind Agatha Christie, did they?

“We are on the cusp of great change, not just in Hollywood and the West, but worldwide,” adds Kelly. “We are half the world and we need to tell at least half the stories because up until now we have been hugely outnumbered. The exclusion is systemic, and the change will not be easy, but it is happening. I look forward to a time when it isn’t an issue and a director doesn’t need the prefix ‘woman’ in front of that title.”

I have a feeling Kelly is going to remain disappointed, unless she’ll be satisfied with watching mediocre female directors being applauded by SJWs as they receive participation trophies for films nobody will watch. For I suspect what’s happening is being a director requires a certain technical ability, obsession with details, risk taking, and stubborn perseverance which are more commonly found in men than women. Simply put, most women aren’t interested in becoming directors and, when they are, they don’t do a particularly good job of it. There are some exceptions – Kathryn Bigelow and Sophia Coppola have made some good films, although it would be hard to deny they’ve benefited from close proximity to male masters of the same craft – but in general women don’t make very good films, and can’t compete with men in the way their sisters who write books can. The BBC may just as well have compiled a list of the 100 best rock drummers and complained only a handful of women were on that.


Idris Elba as James Bond

I’m a little late, but this is worth commenting on:

Idris Elba has posted a cryptic tweet suggesting he could be the next James Bond.

Days after reports that a producer of the franchise is tipping him to be 007, he posted: “My name’s Elba, Idris Elba”.

Fans are taking it as a big hint that he could be about to take on the role when Daniel Craig leaves next year.

There’ve been rumours linking Idris to the Bond role since 2014, which he’s neither confirmed nor denied.

Taken in isolation, this isn’t too bad an idea. Idris Elba is a decent actor (although he has turned in some awful performances), and like Daniel Craig he has both physical presence and suavity. Personally I think the James Bond franchise should have been binned once and for all after the godawful Spectre, but if they’re going to insist on flogging this dead horse you might as well cast Elba as anyone else. Sure he’s probably too old and many will wonder how MI6 ended up recruiting a Baltimore drug dealer as their top agent, but neither of these should count against him. Again, taken in isolation, nor should his being black. A black James Bond might seem a little odd and out of whack with the books, but that ship sailed a long time ago. So in itself, and as a comment on Elba’s suitability for the role, I don’t have a problem.

However, any decision to cast a black actor as James Bond cannot be separated from the culture war which is raging around us. It would be nice if people could adopt the same attitude to Elba as rugby league fans did to Ellery Hanley when he became captain of Great Britain in 1988, or damned near everyone did when Daley Thompson cleaned up in 1984. I understand this era was pretty awful for black or mixed-race kids at school or on the street, but nobody in those days was trumpeting the achievements of a talented black person as being a victory over whitey. People cheered for Frank Bruno, Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah, Nigel Benn, and Chris Eubank as well as the numerous black performers and musicians in Britain’s cultural scene without resorting to zero-sum race war score-keeping. But we live in a different era, one where we’re told that a black person taking a nominally white position is hugely important in itself, a redressing of the balance currently tipped in favour of “white privilege”. And unfortunately, after a decade of poisonous identity politics, they are right: Idris Elba playing James Bond would be important in itself, and not in a good way.

Something the ZMan has pointed out is that minority groups are increasingly acting as though they’ve won the decisive battle in a war. Pulling down the symbols and statues of one’s enemy is the act of a conquering army, and that’s precisely what’s happening in the UK, US, and Canada. Meanwhile, within mere weeks of the Supreme Court ruling in his favour over his refusal to make a cake for a gay wedding, the Colorado baker is back in court after a transgender woman filed a discrimination suit against him. When someone decided to remake Ghostbusters in 2016 with an all-female cast, it was presented by culture warriors as a victory for feminism. When it tanked, misogyny was blamed. The forces behind identity politics spare no efforts in seeking opportunities to capture ground, celebrate a victory, and in it rub the noses of those they see as their enemies, i.e. ordinary white men and their families. Indeed, New Labour’s entire immigration strategy seems to have been created purely to spite the native British population by shoving “diversity” in their faces and calling anyone who complains a racist. Within minutes of the rumours of Elba playing Bond hitting social media it was full of SJW’s delighted by how much this would upset “racists”, by which they mean anyone getting a little fed up of identity politics being rammed down their throats twenty-four-seven. For instance:

There is plenty of this sentiment echoed on Twitter, and they might have a point if the only people who have mixed feelings about the idea are racists who don’t like blacks. But what I suspect is bothering many people is that Elba cast as Bond will deepen the wounds of the ongoing culture war. We’ll have endless Guardian articles telling us on the one hand that a black James Bond shows how wonderfully multi-cutural and diverse Britain is, while on the other it’s still steeped in racism and unable to move on from its colonial past. Anyone who objects to such extrapolations from a single casting will be denounced as racist and, probably, banned from Twitter – along with anyone who gives the actual film a less-than glowing review. And if there was not at least one article in a mainstream media outlet demanding a transgender James Bond, I’d be astounded.

As the Zman said, the SJWs and militant minorities believe they’ve won and are enjoying what they think are victory parades. In reality, the war has barely got started and all we’ve seen so far are small, opening battles which is shaping up to be a long and bloody campaign which can only have one winner. Given where we are now, compared to even five years ago, I’d hazard a guess a lot of people uncomfortable about Elba playing Bond are less concerned with the colour of his skin than how it will be used by sections of the left to further and deepen the ongoing culture war. It was not the racist right that created identity politics but the woke left; ordinary people have been fervently wishing this war would end but, with no prospect of that in sight, increasing numbers have decided enough is enough and started to push back. Unfortunately, this means fighting on the ground the left have chosen, and in this case it’s Idris Elba playing James Bond. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but sadly it is. It’s a shame because Elba seems like a good sort and I’m sure he didn’t ask for this, but as Trotsky didn’t quite say, culture war is interested in you.

I don’t think there’s anything to the rumours of Elba playing Bond – they’ve been circulating for years – but if the producers move ahead with it, they should prepare themselves for an shitstorm that may render the film unmarketable. It won’t be a question of right wingers objecting to Elba’s casting per se, but of its inevitable weaponisation by those who want to see them eradicated, or at least cowed into silence. Nobody batted an eyelid back in 2006 when Felix was played by a black man in Casino Royale, and I doubt a black Bond would have done much other than raise a few eyebrows and cause some muttering. Alas, that was a long time ago. We’re now neck-deep in a nasty, vicious culture war which is taking no prisoners, and until recently has been heavily one-sided. But now the other side is turning up, the rules are about to change. Depressingly, this probably means a black James Bond is a near impossibility – at least for a while.


The Death of Stalin

I’d heard a lot of positive talk about the film The Death of Stalin when it first came out. It’s a satire taking place during Stalin’s death and the immediate aftermath as his closest aides run around in confusion trying to figure out what to do now the vozhd has expired, and I thought it would be something I’d either love or hate. I got a chance to watch it on the flight out to Thailand, and loved it.

Now I’ve read two very good books which cover Stalin’s inner circle – Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar and William Taubman’s Khrushchev: The Man And His Era – and I was somewhat chuffed to have identified the main characters before their names were displayed on the screen. I knew who each man was, what their background was, and what became of them which I believe made me enjoy the film all the more because I wasn’t confused over who was who. There were plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, many of which ought not to have been because of the deadly serious subject matter. Far from detracting from the horrors Stalin and his men visited on the Soviet Union, the film does a splendid job of letting the audience know how callously brutal they were and what a horrific era it was for people, even those with connections. There are scenes, and sometimes a mere phrase, which will make your blood run cold, and it’s a testament to the skill of the writers that a minute later you’re laughing again. This is black comedy at it’s finest, but anyone who thinks this film downplays the horrors of Stalin’s rule is sorely mistaken.

The time frame in which the main events take place has been shortened considerably from reality in order to make the film work and there are probably several other liberties taken by the writers which I’ve not spotted. However, there are other things which suggest the writers know their history and any deviations are deliberate rather than a result of ignorance. In the early scenes we learn that Vyacheslav Molotov’s wife has been arrested and he himself is shortly to be arrested and probably executed: this is true, and his life was almost certainly saved by Stalin’s sudden death. There is also a scene in which a KGB (strictly speaking, MGB) guard hands a man and woman a bunch of flowers outside the gates of the ministry: this too is accurate, but I’ll let you watch the film to understand its significance.

Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia, in part because they believed Marshall Zhukov was portrayed as an idiot. I suspect his portrayal was inaccurate, but I didn’t see him as an idiot in the slightest: his arrival in the plot is hilarious and his presence one of the highlights of the whole film. In hindsight, it is surprising it’s taken this long to make a satire of Stalin’s inner court because there is no shortage of surreal elements. The film captures several of these, but the two books I mention contain dozens more. One I remember is Stalin’s habit of forcing everyone to eat huge quantities of food late at night, then make them dance immediately afterwards. Nikita Khrushchev, being nominally Ukrainian, was often required to dance a hopak: being a portly fellow in his late 60s and full of food and drink, it was a bizarre spectacle which Stalin, and no doubt others too, found highly amusing. These ritual humiliations of the USSR’s most feared and powerful men were a regular feature of Stalin’s regime hence the film has no need to exaggerate, even if a viewer unfamiliar with the period might think it so.

The acting is superb, and most actors look like the historical figures they’re portraying. Steve Buscemi is probably a little tall and thin for Khrushchev but his performance allows you to overlook that with ease; Michael Palin is also a bit too slim to play Molotov, and I thought his character was too nervous and indecisive, but these are mere quibbles. In summary, I can highly recommend it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I might watch it again shortly.


R Lee Ermey

I was sad to hear this news:

Actor R Lee Ermey, known for his role as foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket, has died aged 74.

The former US Marine turned award-winning actor played a host of military men during his career.

Ermey’s manager, posting to the actor’s Twitter account, said he died from “complications of pneumonia”.

“He will be greatly missed by all of us,” the message read. “Semper Fi, Gunny. Godspeed.”

Born in 1944 in Kansas, Ermey was a staff sergeant in the marine corps in the 1960s and early 1970s, serving tours in Japan and Vietnam. He also served as a real-life drill instructor.

Ermey later drew on his military experience for his breakout role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, winning a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a hardened drill instructor putting young marine corps recruits through basic training.

I must have watched the opening 20-30 minutes of Full Metal Jacket dozens of times, and I still don’t get bored of it, yet I’ve only watched the full film perhaps two or three times. Ermey’s performance is by far the best thing in the whole film, and it’s worth watching just for that.

One popular story about Ermey is that he was initially hired as a technical advisor, but Kubrick was so impressed with his demonstration of a drill instructor’s role that he was offered the part.

On a slow afternoon some years ago I looked up a series of interviews about Ermey and his role in Full Metal Jacket and learned that, as the paragraph above says, he’d initially been hired as a technical adviser. However, he was very disappointed by the portrayal of the drill instructor who was some sadistic brute who just wanted to torture recruits, and he tried to persuade Kubrick to let him take over the role. In order to demonstrate his skills, he made a video of him being pelted with oranges and tennis balls for fifteen minutes while delivering a monologue of insults and abuse without flinching, pausing, or repeating himself. Suitably impressed, Kubrick gave him the role (the actor playing the original drill instructor appears in the film as a door gunner).

So the reason Ermey is so convincing is because he is less acting than simply doing his job, and demonstrates the process of breaking civilians and remoulding them as Marines brilliantly. Incredibly, Kubrick – who had a reputation as a control freak – allowed Ermey to ad-lib his own lines, something he barely allowed even Jack Nicholson to do. Most of Ermey’s dialogue is his own, which lead to Kubrick calling “cut” when he heard the term “reach around”. He asked Ermey to explain, which he did. Kubrick smiled, and said “carry on”. There are some brilliant, hilarious one-liners in those opening few scenes, probably more than any other passage of film of similar length, possibly of any length. Without Ermey the film would have been nothing, but his inclusion guaranteed it classic status. Each time I watch his performance, I always wish there was more of it.

Rest in peace, R Lee Ermey.


Oprah, where art thou?

In the Coen brothers’ magnificent Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? long-time incumbent Mississippi governor Pappy O’Daniel is lagging in the polls to a newcomer named Homer Stokes in the run up to an election. Stokes’ campaign is centered around the theme of “sweeping the state clean” and on his tour around the towns and villages he brings with him a midget who carries a broom.

Later on, with O’Daniel facing certain defeat just days from the vote, one of his campaign staff makes a suggestion:

“We could hire us a little fella even smaller than Stokes'”

I was reminded of this film when I read this:

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globeson Sunday night prompted wishful calls for the star to run for president — and two of the TV icon’s close friends told CNN that Winfrey is “actively thinking” about seeking the Oval Office in 2020.
Why not? President Donald Trump proved that a celebrity with no political experience could run for the highest office in the land and win.

True, Donald Trump is a TV celebrity who won the presidency but his election was an aberration, a protest vote against what people saw as a corrupt and self-serving political establishment which was taking them for granted. It wasn’t a result of some desire among Americans that they wish to be governed by TV celebrities from now on, even if some clearly do.

The Democrats are probably too dim to work this out, though. So far their response to Trump has matched that of the Republicans for denial-based stupidity, pushing the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harries up a list headed by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (who will be 79 on election day in 2020). Like Pappy O’Daniels advisers, they may just be daft enough to think copying the opposition’s gimmick is the way to win the presidency. I’m hoping they are.


Nocturnal Animals

Last night I watched Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. If you haven’t seen it and wish to, you might want to skip this post because SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The film concerns the owner of an art gallery (Adams) who’s made a right hash of her life. Severe Mummy and Daddy issues drove her as a young graduate to marry her childhood friend (Gyllenhaal) who’s a budding author but seems to be hopelessly naive about what that entails. For example, he complains his wife criticises his work, into which he’s poured his heart and soul. Well, wait until it hits the shelves pal, then you’ll know what criticism is. After two years of marriage she bins the author for some hot-shot Adonis she works with. The film takes place 19 years later when the Adonis is cheating on her with a younger, prettier woman and her gallery is failing. Cue lots of shots of her sitting in the dark, alone and weeping. The only thing missing was her securing an order for half a dozen cats down at the local pet shop.

I think the lesson we’re supposed to take away is that you should always follow your heart and stand by your first true love no matter what. The lesson I actually took away was that spoiled brat women in their twenties acting like stroppy teenagers in dealing with their parents are likely to make catastrophic decisions which will leave them alone and miserable later in life. That’s not really the point of this post, though.

Instead I’m going to talk about lazy plot devices. Early on in the film Adam’s character receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, who she’s not seen in decades, and reads it. The film then becomes a story within a story, and we see the tale in the manuscript being played out. The idea is that the author’s new novel is so brilliant that his ex-wife will see she made a mistake in dumping him all those years ago.

The problem is the novel doesn’t seem very good or original. It concerns a man who is run off the road by rednecks (of course) in Texas after which his wife and teenage daughter are raped and murdered. The man survives and seeks revenge. This story has been done a million times already, so I wasn’t persuaded it could induce a change of heart in his ex-wife. What they needed was a really clever story, not a by-the-numbers rape-revenge yarn, but I guess if they came up with one they’d probably just make a film of that rather than use it as a sub-plot in a film about a lonely, ageing woman.

But my main issue is with what this tweet complains about:

I’m not alone in finding rape increasingly being used as a plot device, and not liking it. I’ve complained before about bad guys in movies and TV series being made into cartoons, and the audience battered over the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to ensure we’re left in no doubt who is good and who is bad. Making the bad guy a rapist appears to have become the default way of going about it, and I find it lazy. Rape may induce feelings of disgust and hatred, and make for intense scenes the audience won’t forget, but it’s akin to the shots of emaciated African kids with flies around their face you see in TV adverts begging for money – it’s cheap, emotional blackmail. Some years ago my sister noticed the frequency with which rape is used as a plot device when writing for the F-Word:

James Patterson’s 1996 bestseller Kiss the Girls features two male serial killers who keep beautiful, intelligent young women in a basement and sexually abuse, torture and kill them.

Before Patterson there was Dean Koontz, another immensely popular US thriller writer, whose 1986 book Night Chills features a string of graphic rape scenes alongside a female lead character who outsmarts a male military officer at every turn.

In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.

The Spectator’s Gary Dexter is in no doubt about the reason for Patterson’s appeal: “Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death. So do his readers. Who doesn’t? It has been estimated that Patterson’s lifetime sales of thrillers have now topped 150 million, and that one in every 15 hardbacks bought in the world in 2007 was a Patterson novel, which means that we must all like rape, torture, mutilation and death, perhaps with extra rape on the side, and then some child rape, child torture, child mutilation and child death, then some more rape, more death and more rape, and finally some rape, death, rape and death.”

Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth was another bestseller which had the bad guy raping women with such frequency I’d roll my eyes wondering why the editor didn’t point out he’d used this scene already.

It may be necessary to include a rape scene in a film or novel – The Accused would hardly work without it, nor would I Spit on Your Grave – but in most cases it is necessary only because the writer lacks the skill or imagination to come up with anything else. You might forgive the writers of Game of Thrones frequently throwing in rape scenes because that particular series relies heavily on torture-porn, but others don’t have that excuse.

Prompted by a friend, I recently watched the pilot of the TV series The Americans. Sure enough, the female lead gets raped by her superior in a flashback, just to make sure the audience knows that this guy is evil and deserves everything that’s coming to him. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter: the important thing is we get to see a woman being raped, thus ensuring we all talk about how serious, edgy, and thought-provoking the series is. For me, it simply showed the writers are so lacking imagination the script might as well have been created by a piece of software.

Nocturnal Animals wasn’t a bad film, and I liked the ending, but lazy writing using rape-revenge as a plot device let it down badly. I look forward to the day when authors and scriptwriters quit doing it. It’s probably one of the few subjects on which I agree with the feminists.


Gone with the Wind

It was only a matter of time:

‘Gone With The Wind’ has been pulled from a Memphis theater after patrons complained the 1939 Civil War classic is racially insensitive.

Okay, this is only one theatre and it is in Memphis, so perhaps the film won’t be subject to a nationwide ban just yet. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see the book being noisily removed from syllabuses and libraries across the US before too long. It is not just that the main characters are pro-slavery, it’s that they are not anti-slavery. Were the book written today it would never have been published, and nor would any story about the Civil War that wasn’t a lengthy harangue about the evils of slavery. I fear it’s going to be a subject that will soon be impossible to discuss sensibly, at least in public.