Tom Slater
Propaganda: an exhibition that makes you think

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spiked plus30 May 2013

For an exhibition centred on a word that inspires nothing but concern, dread and vitriol when it’s bandied around in Western discourse today, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion – housed at the British Library – begins with a rather twee and innocuous exhibit.

As you walk down the steps into the labyrinthine space, you’re greeted with a 1930s US government film in which a slick and suited officer jovially schools a young novice in how to glean truth from illusion in tracts and political documents. The two crack smiles, some chirpy music plays over the titles, and you’re left a little bemused.

While the word propagandist was once a badge of honour, held proudly by some of the great dissidents and troublemakers of history, it has taken on a far darker colour in the years since this film was made. Walking around this formidable collection, it’s easy to see why.

The despicable Nazi-made ‘documentary’ The Eternal Jew, playing on a loop in the section that explores various regimes’ pernicious cultivation of national enemies, is a haunting reminder of the hatred spun by Goebbels’ ministry in the name of bolstering the state and the Führer’s authority. Further along, the blustery posters from the Allied side urging the young and able to fight for their country, in the section dedicated to war, seem tainted by the bloody fate many recurits met – far divorced from the unequivocal glory these images seemed to promise.

Around the world today, authoritarian regimes continue to deploy age-old tactics to try to keep their populations under their vicious yoke. Meanwhile, on the home front, many feel that insidious propaganda lives on with political and media puppets dancing to the tune of big business, skewing public debate and guiding policy in the nefarious interests of their masters.

Paradoxically, this obsession with big-business propaganda has narrowed public discourse. Any statement with supposedly dubious intent is dismissed from the debate as propaganda, and in turn more commonly accepted ideas are insulated from criticism. The sheer variety of the pieces on display here is refreshing, asking us to get beyond these narrow definitions and take nothing at face value.

The section dedicated to health makes some interesting parallels between the melodramatic turn-of-the-twentieth-century posters from a French Christian group extolling the horrors of alcohol, through to the recent ‘Change 4 Life’ campaign warning modern Brits not to let the drink sneak up on them through the medium most befitting such a patronising message – claymation. Yet more proof, if you ask me, that today’s health bodies are all latter-day zealots.

Other pieces provide a fascinating insight into how more oppressive states have cultivated an entire mythos underpinned by potent propagandist imagery. A poster, hailing back to the days of Mao’s China, advertises a made-for-movie ballet called The White Haired Girl. Based on an old legend, the caption denotes, it told the story of peasant girl who fights back against a despotic landlord. It’s a stunning image that at once marries Mao’s regime with a grand, mythic history – as well as the supposed spirit of the hardy proletariat. All the while, the immaculately painted figures – all smiling, looking to the horizon and bathed in a preternatural glow – speak to how heinously divorced this conception is from the penury Mao’s subjects were forced to endure.

From a listening booth of national anthems to a collage of newspaper responses to the lefty wet-dream that was the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, we’re shown that propaganda comes in myriad forms. The scale and scope of the exhibition is commendable, but it sometimes comes at the cost of focus. A display case full of miniature Eiffel Towers, aside examples of political monuments, is tangential filler, while a monstrous floor-to-ceiling visualisation of Twitter responses to Obama’s re-election makes for a cumbersome and ill-fitting closer.

Nevertheless, Propaganda makes for a fascinating few hours that insists upon the patron to question everything. That’s a maxim certainly worth propagating.

Mud: as sweet, and sickly, as barbecue chicken

spiked24 May 2013

Jeff Nichols’ first two films – Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter – announced the arrival one of the freshest and yet unassuming American directors for a generation. These slow-burn minor masterpieces were draped in a brooding atmosphere and bore a sumptuous visual eye reminiscent of a young Terrence Malick.

His latest, Mud, opens on two Arkansas teens, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), sailing out onto the mighty Mississippi in search of a small island where they’ve eyed a boat lodged miraculously up a tree. These opening scenes glow with his characteristically austere yet painterly aesthetic, but as soon as they arrive the film shores up in far cosier, sentimental climes than we’ve seen Nichols working in before.

Appearing, as if out of the ether, is our eponymous hero (Matthew McConaughey) – a loquacious drifter who’s been hiding out in their coveted vessel after a run in with the law and, more specifically, the abusive boyfriend of his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). In true Boy’s Own-tale fashion, the three strike up an unlikely friendship: Mud and the island give the boys a space where they can flout the rules of home, talk to a stranger and swear like longshoremen without the fear of a slap in the chops. They smuggle him food and pass messages to Juniper as Mud tries to get the boat seaworthy so the two lovers can hazard an escape.

This is a deeply romanticised vision of the South. It’s one of rustic, character-forging hard graft - ‘I work you hard because life is work’, quoth Ellis’ father, who sells fish door-to-door out of a cooler – but it’s also deeply mystical, lyrical and wild. Mud at the centre of it all is a parentless child born out of the landscape, the river and the dirt, speaking almost entirely in folksy one-liners: Juniper’s not merely pretty, ‘she’s a dream you don’t ever want to wake up from’.

McConaughey is clearly in his element and his silky southern charm flies right off the screen, inspiring in the audience the same man-love Ellis is so clearly struck by. Meanwhile, Nichols’ customary sour-faced leading man, the exquisite Michael Shannon, is bumped down the pecking order to a light-comic role as Neckbone’s lothario uncle, underlining the clear departure from the director’s characteristic restraint and naturalism.

Mud wears its influences very much on its sleeve. There’s a shade of Huckleberry Finn as the boys learn, through a friendship with a superstitious man-child, that doing the right thing often means doing the opposite of what grownups or the law tell you. And, beyond the obvious phonetic similarity, it’s also heavily indebted to Martin Ritt’s 1963 nouveau-western Hud, seen in the intergenerational sparring between Ellis and his father.

But, in truth, Mud is too light, too fluffy and of far less consequence than the tales it apes. This is neither a biting treatise on the amorality of lawful slavery nor a mournful study of the old ways of life being left in the dust by the march of modernity. This, in essence, is about the trials of adolescence, learning what love is and that it doesn’t always work out.

As Nichols gestures to these weathered southern-fried classics, Mud fails to measure up – feeling by comparison like a story envisaged by an effusive country singer. But while it is not nearly as biting or nuanced as his previous two films, it works well enough on its own syrupy terms; sliding pleasantly along with all the bitter-sweet charm of a lap-steel lick.

The Star Trek hype? It’s illogical, captain.

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spiked17 May 2013

In the ranks of the sci-fi fandom, Trekkies stand somewhat apart – a mysterious acne-ridden world unto their own.

While other franchises may attract their fair share of obsessives, Star Trek has managed to spawn a veritable, exclusive cult – complete with its sacred texts - aka Starfleet regulations - and even its own language, Klingon.

Across the original three series, the countless movie outings, sequels and resurrections, Star Trek painted a world that was aspirational and familiar. Set a few hundred years in the future, it regaled us with the voyages of the Enterprise, an inter-stellar starship manned by a multicultural, multi-species crew of explorers . While danger could still be found lurking behind each alien moon, the crew would always call on their powers of reasoning before reaching for their phasers – each encounter offering a chance to chew-out a philosophical quandary that often gestured toward some of our own earthbound issues.

Last week, in a delightfully absurd news story, Norwich a sci-fi convention was the setting for a violent clash between Doctor Who and Star Wars fans. This would never happen with Trekkies. At the first sign of trouble, they’d split off into study groups and debate the morality of a pre-emptive strike, quoting Spock as they go.

When JJ Abrams got his hands on the franchise for a 2009 reboot, it was already high-time for a shake-up. Admitting he’d always been turned-off by the overly talkie show as a kid, he took to the mythos with a decided lack of ceremony, while still paying homage to its inimitable charm.

By virtue of a parallel timeline (summat to do with a black hole), he effectively reset the whole chronology and served up a bevy of thrills, effects and set-pieces the stretched budgets of the previous batch of Star Trek movies could only have dreamed of. Still, it was far from unfaithful, drawing on the more light-hearted, rough and tumble of the original series that had been long forgotten during the po-faced, Picard-led Next Generation years. Chris Pine’s libidinous new Kirk saw the Captain back to brawling and romancing green honeys, while Zachary Quinto’s suitably effete Spock served as the fiercely logical, calculating foil, whose half-Vulcan-half-human identity crisis brought a little nuance and drama to proceedings.

The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, looked primed to dig deeper and truly re-establish the ailing franchise that in more recent incarnations only a geek could love. In typical, second-in-the-series style, it wades into much, er, darker territory. Returning to Earth from a spot of intergalactic japery, the crew of the Enterprise touch down on a world in turmoil – decimated and terror-stricken by a terrorist and seemingly super-human rogue Starfleet agent, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). When he flees to the Klingon homeworld after mounting an attack on Starfleet HQ, the Enterprise has away after him, charged by a shady admiral with blasting him off the face of the planet the second they get a clear shot. Harrison, the admiral reasons, is far too dangerous to stand trial.

Cue much soul-searching as Kirk wrestles with his conscience amid shuttle-craft slalom runs and choppy fight scenes that bring them to an audience with their booming voiced, and naturally British, nemesis. But these scant threads are left dangling, never resolved or explored as Into Darkness backslides into nothing more than a shallow - if stylish - romp.

The terrorism subtext is tired and uninspiring. Meanwhile, the action unfurls with banal predictability – a series of ‘ooh, will they make it?’ moments that are as laboured as Mr Chekov’s (Anton Yelchin) Russian accent.

A midway revelation about Harrison’s past will titillate the fans, but, borrowing heavily from an old Trek yarn, Abrams effectively spoils his own ending, while going right over the rest of the audience’s head and leaving them with just a cardboard black-clad bad guy.

As Abrams tries to steer the franchise away from all the trappings of fandom, he ends up with an anaemic popcorn flick with little between its pointy ears. Star Trek Into Darkness is likely to stir the ire of the Trekkie zealots while leaving newcomers wondering what all those dorks were making so much fuss about.

Men and motors in American suburbia

spiked25 April 2013

As I sat, lapping up the opening scenes of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, I was struck by a peculiar sense of déjà vu.

A lengthy tracking shot begins proceedings, following behind ‘Handsome’ Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) as he plods through a fairground, puffing on a masticated cigarette, before climbing atop a motorbike and riding full-throttle into a spherical cage – performing death-defying feats for the ogling punters. After the show, he spots Romina (Eva Mendes), a fairweather fling from the last time the fair was in town. It turns out she’s since had his child, and our face-tatted hero decides to stick around and try to be the father he himself never had. He quits the stunt-bike game and finds a little work with Ben Mendelsohn’s affable rummy mechanic in his rag-end repair shop. But with a family to provide for and a new fella on the scene taking his place at the head of the table, he decides to deploy his unrivalled skills behind the handlebars to rob a string of banks.

Now, swap fag for matchstick, Eva Mendes for Carey Mulligan, and dirt bike for souped-up Impala, and you’ve essentially gotDrive – Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 smash neo-noir that proved Gosling was more than just a swoon-inducer. But while the similarities soon fade as this far grander, 16-year saga unfurls, there’s something about it that still feels strangely familiar.

Luke’s story is but the first chapter in this sprawling triptych. Suddenly – in a stark twist it’d be shameful to spoil – the focus shifts to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop whose rash actions in the line of duty cast him emotionally adrift from his own family. Next, the action darts forward an entire generation, looking in on the adolescent sons of the two men. As the infernal machine begins to whir and the sins of their fathers fall upon their greasy little heads, it puts one in mind of a Greek tragedy, one you can’t put your finger on, perhaps told to you on a dreary school day morning when you were still half asleep.

The near two-and-a-half-hour drama marches along with all the aplomb and self-assurance this epic form affords, while enthusing the story with a brusque Americana. Standing against the pine-ensconced backdrop of Schenectady, NY - seemingly trapped in perpetual magic hour - the characters are a mess of contradictions. Gosling’s Luke is the rough and ready wrong ‘un trying to do the right thing by nefarious means, while Avery is the idealistic college man who joins the force to make a difference but ends up doing something he’ll always regret. While Cooper’s comedic inflections still grin through and raise a smile where perhaps they shouldn’t, these are two stellar central performances. Meanwhile, after being kidnapped by a troll in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors last year, Mendes tosses the audience another curveball, ditching her usual steamy femme fatale shtick and playing the put-upon baby mother with disarming earnestness.

The film wrestles with some of American cinema’s most weathered themes – masculinity, freedom, and darkness at the heart of the suburbs – but never manages to slide fully into easy archetypes. Cianfrance’s unassuming style and penchant for casting non-actors in supporting roles injects ever more freshness and naturalism into the overarching melodrama of it all.

But, alas, this delicate balance is thrown off by the final act. Dane DeHaan’s weedy turn as Luke’s progeny, Jason, is bang-on, but Emory Cohen’s wise-guy Avery Junior (AJ to his pals) is a farcical misfire, swaggering about like the token tough in a half-baked teen drama. And while the denouement arrives with plenty of grit in its teeth, it eventually dissolves into cornball sentiment, as the two lads manage to, in their own stilted way, reconnect with their respectively estranged paters.

This makes for an unconvincing and unfortunate end to an otherwise enthralling drama that feels epic and homespun, familiar and mysterious, all at once.

Sex-crazed, drug-fuelled, gun-toting babes in bikinis

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spiked19 April 2013

Springing onto the scene at the tender age of 18 by penning Larry Clark’s divisive state-of-the-youth drama Kids, Harmony Korine emerged as Generation X’s filmmaking wunderkind. His proceeding multi-hyphenate career as writer-director-cum-novelist-painter carved him out as one of that generation’s most prominent voices, searching for meaning in the MTV-spellbound, artistic and moral miasma of the late 1990s.

Gummo, still held in high regard by greasy-haired stalwarts, went in search of the marginal, the ugly and the sinister. It was released in 1997, the same year asTitanic, and seemed knowingly to oppose all that big-budget behemoth represented. In place of banal, sentimental arcs, he offered a collage of fractured vignettes, and rather than taking his pick of the hunky, centre-parted dreamboats du jour, he scouted his male lead from a chatshow segment on white trash paint-sniffers.

What then are we to make of Spring Breakers, a film positively mired in the sort of puerile pop culture he once so decried?

Disney Channel princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez are cast alongside teen-drama star Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife Rachel, as four thrill-starved undergraduates who knock over a diner in order to fund their debauched spring-break vacation. It’s an odyssey of sex, drugs and dubstep, unfurling in a candy-coloured haze. Blunts are burned, handguns are felated, and lingering crotch shots abound of the four nubile characters, each seemingly named after strippers and never out of their skimpy bikinis.

Has the angry young man become a dirty - and money-grubbing - old one, willing to cash in on a decadent youth culture and give horny teenage lads ringside seats to these starlets’ attempt at breaking their squeaky-clean typecast? Perhaps. Spring Breakers has already made more at the box office than all of his other features combined.  But there’s something enticing - enthralling even - about this movie that goes beyond the lascivious.

Korine sews video-game hyper-violence, thug materialism and synthetic dance music into a plot that unfurls with the logic of a high-end music video – all melodrama and glistening torsos. Facing jail after being caught with cocaine at a party, the girls are bailed by Riff Raff-resembling gangster Alien (James Franco). This braided, gold-toothed mystic – wont to rhapsodise on his ill-gotten gains and declare himself the American dream incarnate – brings the girls into his operation, conscripting them as his concubines and soldiers in a gang war against an old rival who’s out for his blood.

In part, it’s a send-up of suburban America’s worst, child-rearing anxieties. A world in which good girls go bad, burst into fits of video game-inspired violence and shirk Bible study (in the case of Gomez’s erstwhile goody-goody, Faith)  and instead find quasi-spiritual fulfilment in cocaine and casual sex. However, this is no satire; that would suggest that Spring Breakers has at least one stiletto heel in reality. Indeed, it’s superficial by design, but no less thrilling for it: a woozy symphony of trash, intertwining Skrillex-accompanied scenes of hedonism with a lurid yet expressive cinematography in which pink and yellow sunsets light-up the screen like a dayglo take on the vistas of Days of Heaven.

Korine repackages the absurdities of popular culture into something evocative, funny and strangely beautiful. In one standout scene, Alien sits at his poolside white grand piano and performs Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime’ for his gun-toting, pink balaclava-wearing ladies. Soon it melts away into the original, accompanying a montage of their slow-mo exploits; the girls pistol-whipping assailants, Franco shaking his braids maniacally.

Embraced by the hipster community and much-trumpeted by its irreverent bible, ViceSpring Breakers taps into something at the heart of modern ‘counterculture’. Generation Y has proved willing to embrace the vapid and the throwaway, as long as it can crack an ironic smile. This is a time in which the word ‘ridiculous’, when coming from a twentysomething, will nine times out of ten be intended as a compliment, and club nights in London’s trendily down-at-heel district of Dalston devoted to the putrid pop tunes of past and present have begun to rival the standard, po-faced, genre-bending contingent.

Referential, superficial, crass and fiendishly entertaining, this is a film very much of its moment and Korine proves he still has his finger very much on the pulse.

PS. I was delighted to see a part of this review reprinted in last Saturday’s (20/04/14) edition of The Independent's 'i' paper:

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A positive view of humanity hasn’t died out

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spiked plus, 18 April 2013

Daring, challenging, rebellious: not three words readily associated with London’s Natural History Museum.

Indeed, it’s a building that oozes cosy conservatism. Its stately Romanesque surrounds, scattered with statues of our nation’s trailblazing naturalists, imbue the exhibits with a very British nostalgia – as if velociraptors were native only to the Home Counties and the Lake District is the sole preserve of the mighty blue whale. 

In turn, it’s become a sort of temple to some of modern society’s most conservative of concerns. Displaying the past and present fruits of Mother Nature’s bounty, it trumpets the conservationist and environmentalist cause, calling on us to curb our blitzkrieg on the climate and biodiversity. Presided over by its great patron, BBC wildlife doyen David Attenborough – immortalised with his Attenborough Studio and wont to refer to our species as a ‘plague on Earth’ – it seems to preach one of the most frightening of modern precepts: that humanity is little more than an overbred, oil-guzzling blight on Gaia. 

This makes Extinction: Not the end of the world?, a small but much-promoted exhibition tucked away in the museum’s Jerwood Gallery, feel all the more jarring. Indeed, drain-circling species are commonly held up as that most immediate and heartstring-plucking victims of the human plague. We need think only of the polar bear, often seen in TV ads clinging helplessly to a chunk of ice dislodged by the noxious fumes of human excess, to be reminded of our heinous crimes. From the outside, this modest exhibition looks every bit a sacrilege.

On first appearances, mind, you wouldn’t have thought so. As you walk in, you’re promptly greeted by a roll call of creatures cut down by man’s grubby-fingered meddling. There’s the Aloatra Grebe, a small, fuzzy, water-dwelling bird blighted by the cats, rats and dogs explorers introduced to the Madagascar eco-system. And then there’s the Potosi Pupfish, now barely sustained in cosseted captivity , since its Mexican lake habitat was drained to make way for farmland. But as you continue through, the standard positions in the extinction debate are duly called into question.

Beneath the cranium of a long-dead dinosaur, a caption reminds us that extinction – namely the ‘mass extinction’ that wiped out half of the planet’s species 65million years ago – is the reason we, and the myriad of species we now coo over, are here today. In this vein, the exhibition continues to tease out the nuances which are all too often overlooked in what has become a highly politicised corner of natural science.

The exhibition reflects upon how difficult it is to record species numbers accurately, how much of it is largely semi-informed guesswork and that many presumed-to-be-dead ‘Lazarus species’ have re-emerged years after being declared officially extinct. What’s more, it stresses the great efforts man has made to bring creatures back from the brink, reminding us that we’re as much a guardian angel as we are the angel of death. No more is this evident than in the case of the pyrenean ibex, a long-extinct species of wild goat that was successfully cloned in 2000. Certainly, the sight of a stuffed tiger and matching fur coat – apparently seized in a London raid – smacks of irredeemable decadence, but overall, the exhibition spins a refreshingly humanist narrative.

Indeed, far from a sign of humanity’s hubris and disregard of the life cycle on which we ourselves still ultimately depend, it is the drive to transform our surroundings that truly sets us apart from all of earth’s creatures. Conversely, even recent efforts to preserve diminishing species seems to stem from the selfsame desire to reshape the world in a way best pleasing to us: we save the most beautiful specimens so that they’ll forever be around for us to marvel at and tellingly care little for the less cute and cuddly contingents. As one caption wryly asks, given our supposed dedication to preserving biodiversity, should we save a virus from extinction, too?

Inevitably, the final few exhibits turn the morbid gaze on us. Displaying a skull of our long-dead relative, the Neanderthal, alongside one of our own, Homo sapiensis painted as the lucky one that made it. Inevitably, the exhibition suggests, we will become ‘homo-extinctus’ and wonders if we’ll have a hand in our own undoing. A chilling thought, no doubt, but given the great history of humanity’s ingenuity and transformative power that this exhibition evokes, we seem to be in good stead to take on all challengers, be they climate change, a deadly contagion, or an asteroid with our species’ name on it.

All in all, the exhibition’s provocative title belies a safely played affair, that’s incidentally rather lacking in any big-ticket specimens. But while it may not topple any orthodoxies, it does ask some difficult questions – helping, in its own small way, to make sure that serious and balanced debate surrounding extinction, the environment and humanity’s place in the world doesn’t go the way of the dodo.

In the House: the author, revisited

spiked, 5 April 2013

François Ozon is a filmmaker with incurably itchy feet. Over a prolific, 25-year career, he’s taken on everything from campy Seventies comedy (Potiche) to slow-burn, cerebral drama (Under the Sand). Nevertheless, some lingering concerns emerge in his otherwise ambling oeuvre. Class and sexual values have been duly interrogated in his films, but he seems most implacably obsessed with the creative process itself, and how it can permeate, enliven and, quite often, derail an otherwise tidy life.

The figure of the writer has been a character Ozon has returned to time and time again. There’s the shrewd Sarah from his breakthrough, 2003 thriller Swimming Pool, a crime novelist who retreats the country to stake new artistic ground only to find herself lured into the very sort of murder mystery she’s grown tired of penning. Or the eponymous romance writer from his 2007, Blighty-set period piece Angel, who wants nothing more than to live the giddy, sumptuous life her heroines enjoy.

By contrast, the character at the centre of In the House is an aging hack rather than a troubled artiste, but one whose humdrum existence breeds an ever more insidious reliance on the fanciful world of fiction.

Germain (played with charming pomposity by Fabrice Luchini) has long since decided to spare the world his generic literary misfires and, as is tradition, has resigned himself to a life of embittered pedagogy. Teaching creative writing to a gaggle of hopeless teens at a swanky comprehensive, he exacts what little pleasure he can from looking down his erudite nose at the little philistines. But while whining to his long-suffering wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), that this year’s class are even worse than the last, he comes across an assignment that shows all the flair and promise he himself could never quite muster.

It’s the work of Claude (Ernst Umhauer, electric) an under-the-radar kind of student with a thousand-yard stare and a strange fixation on the wholesome, picket-fence family life of an affable, well-off classmate. His pithy, vivid prose details his infiltration of the homestead, caustically deriding the blokey patriarch and his wife Esther (Emanuelle Seigner), a décor-obsessed housewife he snidely dubs ‘the most bored woman in the world’.

Taking it upon himself to mould the young talent, Germain urges Claude away from mere caricature and insists that, like his beloved Flaubert, he must explore rather than simply judge his characters. Claude delves deeper, but as the story grows and mutates, the line between fiction and fact becomes increasingly blurred. Germain even begins to appear in the scenes, looking over Claude’s shoulder as they unfurl in the young author’s mind and berating him for the odd bum line or lapse into cliché.

Germain pores over each weekly instalment, blithely ignoring the increasingly sinister undertones, while his neglected wife looks on dumbfounded. On one level, In the House is a pop-philosophical treatise about the intersection between reality and fiction, as well as the tragedy of those who fail to discern between the two, but it remains lighthearted and riotously funny. Cut-aways to Jeanne’s haughty, faux-subversive art gallery full of sex-dolls adorned with the faces of history’s most loathed dictators sees Ozon flaunt his eye for satire, while the zesty script, full of immaculate, dry one-liners, counterweight the story’s darker and more perplexing refrains.

But as Claude’s story heads down some strange avenues, the plot begins to unravel. Constantly led to second-guess all we see, we’re left with more questions than answers as the film screeches to a confounding halt.

With heavy nods to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the final scene sees the teacher and his protégé sit in view of a block of flats, concocting stories, motivations and situations around the people they catch glimpses of through the glass. In much the same way, the competing revisions and interpretations of the story we’ve seen unfurl are left to fester in the mind of the viewer. Never are we allowed to know what exactly happened; a conclusion as fitting as it is patently unsatisfying.

That said, it remains an eminently entertaining revisiting of Ozon’s most intriguing themes that have managed to survive his ever-shortening stylistic attention span. Bolstered by some barnstorming performances, In the House is a real page-turner.

Compliance: Abu Ghraib in a fast-food joint

spiked, 2 April 2013

Milgram and Zimbardo: two names that have successfully fired-up generations of bored sixth-formers and launched a thousand psychology degrees.

Their equally infamous experiments - Milgram’s in 1961 and Zimbardo’s 10 years later - raised tantalising questions about the limits of our humanity. More specifically, they suggested that authority and power can strip us of that humanity in a heartbeat. In Milgram’s experiment, the vast majority of subjects proved willing – albeit hesitantly – to administer 450 volts to another human being so long as a man in a white coat told us to. Zimbardo’sStanford Prison experiment showed that all it takes is some reflective aviator shades and a guard uniform to turn nice college boys into sadistic slave drivers, bent on breaking and humiliating the ‘prisoners’ who, just a few days before, they would have been enjoying a drink with in the union bar.

These were studies haunted by the Holocaust. Milgram’s took place the year in which Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel for sending innumerable Jews to the ghettos and then death camps of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Eichmann’s defence? ‘I was only following orders.’ The young researcher wanted to see if the average American Joe would do the same, while his former school chum Zimbardo would later wonder what hellish acts his participants could commit when given their own taste of authority.

Milgram and Zimbardo’s conclusions saw real-life expression in the photos surfacing from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where soldiers sexually humiliated battered detainees. But for my money, it’s a lesser-known incident, unfurling in an unremarkable suburb in the southern USA, that really sends a shiver down the spine - if nothing for else for the irrepressible normalcy of the players involved.

It is this bizarre and horrific day in the life of a bog-standard fast-food joint in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004 that Craig Zobel takes for the subject of Compliance, a film that has had Sundance patrons storming out of screenings and this intrepid reviewer left with a lasting, swirling sensation of existential dread.

It all begins in a cosily banal universe: one in which the mumsy, jobsworth manager of the ludicrously named ChickWich restaurant (Ann Dowd), is being berated by a disgruntled higher-up for letting a month’s supply of bacon and pickles spoil on her watch. She passes on the anger to her gaggle of employees – complete with greasy adolescents and a feisty ethnic – before starting the day as usual. But dark forces are about to sneak into this familiar world, and leave behind an irrevocable stain.

Someone’s off sick, the restaurant is low on supplies and the lunchtime rush will soon be upon them. It is then that the office phone rings. Someone calling themselves Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, chilling) is on the other end of the line. In a familiarly pompous and beleaguered tone, he says there’s been a report that one of her staff – a vaguely described ‘young blonde’ – has been stealing from customers. Happy to play deputy, Sandra fetches Becky (Dreama Walker), a petulant, flirtatious teen who works the cash register.

Confined to the pokey back-room office and playing out in claustrophobic near real-time, we see the scene go from the strange to absurd to downright nasty.

While Becky and various dragged-in co-workers protest, Sandra blithely obliges the policeman when he suggests that an on-the-spot strip search will make things easier for everyone. As Sandra, again ‘only following orders’, leaves Becky’s clothes in her unlocked car – supposedly ready for inspection when Daniels arrives – things almost descend into farce. However, this is more than a prank gone too far. In one stomach-turning utterance, the caller refers to his helpless nubile victim as ‘sweetie’, belying the perverted, by-proxy jollies he’s extracting from the scene.

With Zobel’s engrossing script sticking unremittingly to the real events, Sandra invites her seemingly good-natured, doughboy fiancé Van (Bill Camp) to watch the captive so she can get back to work. You’d be right to think this doesn’t bode well.

Compliance catches you rather off guard, so much so it’s hard to work out its intentions. At times it feels merely exploitative, us getting our kicks alongside the anonymous caller, but there’s a reconciling raw naturalism to it, too, and the image of humanity it holds up to scrutiny is not quite as lowly as first appearances suggest.

While it may be an unwavering glance into our often hellishly blasé regard for one another in the presence of a perceived authority, it’s as much a detailing of a bizarre, one-off feat of misdirection and mind-control – the caller playing all the right angles and pushing the right buttons like a sadistic Derren Brown. This in turn saves Compliance from being a headshaking exercise in shaming some dumb, feral hicks, taking steps to show us the unique happenstance conditions and expert manipulation that produced this horrific incident.

As was later revealed, while Milgram may have found that over 80 per cent of his guinea pigs were willing to turn the voltage dial into the red, the real-life Kentucky fast-food incident was only one out of hundreds of presumed-to-be connected incidents that got this far. But ending as it begins, with a strong sense of the banal, Compliance leaves us with a most unsettling notion: given the right conditions, this could have happened to anyone.

The reincarnation of Snoop Dogg

spiked22 March 2013

The occasional name change is far from uncommon in the hip-hop world. Any list of the greats abound with footnoted AKAs, whether it’s Puff Daddy’s minimalist evolution into P Diddy, and now simply Diddy, or Wu Tang luminary Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s smidge-more drastic metamorphosis into Big Baby Jesus in his later, drug-addled years. All the same, G-funk legend Snoop Dogg’s (née Snoop Doggy Dogg) recent moniker switch has had many a dumbfounded fan spitting out their gin and juice.

Directed by Andy Capper, global editor of Vice and in-house camera jockey for its emerging film company, Reincarnated documents Snoop’s transformation from hip-hop superstar to reggae upstart; from gangbanging thug to peace-loving Rasta; from Snoop Dogg to Snoop Lion.

Part smoke-along weed movie, part overgrown behind-the-music Vevo exclusive, we follow the fortysomething’s recent travels to Jamaica. He heads out hoping to soak-up the culture and cut an album enthused with the guttural punch of the Wailers and the effortless grooves of Gregory Isaacs, but after meeting the people, trekking through the mountains and partaking in the local ‘produce’, Snoop has an epiphany and embraces a new spiritual path.

Soon enough, he’s exclaiming ‘Jah, Rastafari!’, donning green, red and yellow string vests and proclaiming himself the reincarnation of Bob Marley. But as ludicrous as it sounds, there’s something more to this film then a mid-life crisis, a weed-induced delirium or – as most critics have dubbed it – a cynical marketing ploy, pillaging the culture to rake in some more Babylonian dollars. Something, dare I say it, inspiring.

It all begins with a pivotal and devastating time in the rapper’s life – the death of his childhood friend and former 213 bandmate, Nate Dogg, in 2011, due to complications following a stroke. In some of the most candid interviews he’s ever given, Snoop details their rise to prominence in the mean streets of early-90s Los Angeles, both eventually ditching the drug dealing and gang colours when Death Row Records came calling.

But the lifestyle he left behind continued to cast a long shadow, even as he left Long Beach for the Hollywood Hills. He narrowly avoided being sent down on a murder charge in 1996 and the Mafioso stylings of Death Row boss Suge Knight embroiled Snoop in yet more conflict, culminating in the mysterious shooting of label mate and the west coast’s favourite son, Tupac Shakur.

Fast forward to the present. Literally stopping traffic as he takes a tour through Trench Town, where Bob Marley and Peter Tosh came of age, you see how far Snoop has come. Not only is he the ghetto child made good, but his formidable aura, once defined by brash bravado, seems to have faded away. When an enraged resident squares up to him for some unknown grievance, Snoop diffuses the situation with a laid-back, effortless charm. Well, that and the offer of some of his extra-potent ‘California kush’.

In the studio, the tunes are forged in the same chilled-out haze. Assembling American producer Diplo and a gaggle of songwriters, Snoop lays down the law on day one - telling them to forget all his self-perpetuating trappings and create something that represents the peace, love and pacifism he’s come to embrace. In place of nihilistic gangster anthems and misogynistic odysseys are tracks about smoking up for peace, and tender father-daughter collaborations. While what results is more in keeping with the dancehall pop of the Vybz Kartel than reggae proper, the tracks still bounce merrily along with Snoop’s laconic, patois-inflected lines. Getting to see a unique project play out in such sumptuous locale is really a joy to see.

Snoop’s persona was always a carefully struck balance between that of the formidable thug and the French-braided jester: deadly serious one minute; playful and knowingly ridiculous the next. Reincarnated displays a similar dichotomy. One moment, he’s in raptures as he takes part in a fascinating, twilight ceremony at a Nyabinghi nestled in the Jamaican hills, vowing to uphold the teachings of the Rastafari. The next, he’s merrily pranking around with his cousin – who is wont to turn around to the camera and utter such gems as ‘I’m rolling a blunt in the jungle!’ – partaking only in the religions more immediately appealing practices.

As such, Snoop’s motives have been brought under much scrutiny. Bunny Wailer, the last surviving member of Bob Marley’s legendary band, and the man in the film who bestows the rapper with his new name – reasoning the newly beatific Snoop is a Dogg no more – has since hit out against the star for his ‘fradulent’ appropriation of the culture. Similarly, the Rasta Millennium Council have lambasted the rapper stating: ‘Smoking weed and loving Bob Marley and reggae music is not what defines the Rastafari.’

They have a point. As ragga-poet Benjamin Zephaniahpointed out in a recent article, many modern Rastafarians forego reggae and reefer, especially now droves of Western twentysomethings have been systematically humiliating the culture by returning from their Caribbean ‘gap yahs’ dreadlocked and exclaiming ‘I and I’ as they cack-handedly roll one up. Others, however, have been more forgiving – the Marley family, among others, voicing support.

What truly grates is that among those most fervently trashing Snoop’s transformation, the vast majority are atheistic critics and columnists. Just as the commentariat has seen fit to wade in on the spiritual affairs of the Church of England of late, so too have its members have lined up to tell Snoop he’s not really the Rasta he thinks he is.

This reeks of double standards, especially given the ten-a-penny phoney Buddhist Tinseltowners who are fawned over by the entertainment press. Indeed, what underlines such spite is the assumption that Snoop, the gangster caricature and venal fiend, isn’t capable of having a change of heart. Instead, it’s a trick, a ploy, a joke, at least. It’s rather telling that, as the documentary shows, his foray into pimping in the late 90s was, if anything, more embraced by the media –a feather-capped Snoop even gracing the cover of Rolling Stonewith the caption ‘America’s Most Loveable Pimp’.

But as he opens up about his chequered past, visits programmes aimed to put instruments in the hands of at-risk kids, and setting up Jamaican-based charities in the name of his new religion, Snoop comes across as really rather sincere.

Reincarnated may be self-indulgent and, perhaps really only one for the fans, but it does have at its centre an entertaining and effortlessly charismatic subject, who, given his vibrant two-decade career and innumerable achievements, shouldn’t be so readily dismissed.

Stoker: an almost accidental work of genius

spiked, 15 March 2013

When it comes to crossing-over into the English-language market, international filmmakers have had a rocky time of late.

The end of last year saw Spanish filmmaker and purveyor of chilling, cerebral ghost tales, Juan Antonio Bayona, blanch his artistic palate with a saccharine, soft-focus, all-Brit drama about the Boxing Day tsunami, The Impossible. More recently, South Korean genre-hopping wunderkind Kim Ji-woon teamed up with Arnold Schwarzanegger for the governator’s inane, Johnny Knoxville-attendant comeback romp, The Last Stand. And now, seemingly primed to prove that filmmakers’ credibility always dies in threes, comes Chan-wook Park’s Stoker, which sees him follow in the footsteps of countryman Kim and hook-up with another muscle-bound franchise face – Wentworth Miller, star of Prison Break – for his English-language debut.

Miller, in his first foray into screenwriting, penned the script. With smacks of ‘please, take me seriously!’, the former pin-up has produced a paint-by-numbers pulp thriller with a highly derivative plot lifted from Hitchcock. But while this hardly seems a worthy project for the director who gave the world the fiendishly inventive Oldboy, the mediation between the fledgling novice and the esteemed master produces a work of almost accidental brilliance.

While this isn’t, as the title may lead you to believe, anything to do with the seminal Dracula author, the story is mired in Gothic convention. Stoker here refers to a wealthy family who live in modern day Tennessee, yet are somehow caught in an old-world time warp. At the beginning of the film, their weathered mansion, ensconced in thorny, overgrown grounds, plays host to the wake of the family patriarch (Dermot Mulrooney), killed in a suspicious car crash on the eighteenth birthday of his daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska).

With heavy nods to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up after the funeral. Handsome and attentive, he soon salves the wounds of his bereft sister-in-law (Nicole Kidman), making up both for the husband she’s lost and the intimacy their long estrangement had denied her. He soon moves into the house and takes his place at the head of the table.

Going into a stern, self-imposed period of mourning – complete with grey Victorian ‘mourning attire’ – India is revolted, but finds it hard to resist Charlie’s gravitational charm. People begin to disappear, Charlie’s prim, proper, pastel-clad presence seeming to unleash a family curse that will soon bring about the fall of the house of Stoker. As the body count rises, India sets out to unravel the mystery of her Uncle only to uncover a terrifying secret of her own.

Heavily stylised, the film’s look goes far beyond Park’s usual macabre aesthetic into something almost cartoonish, borderline Wes Anderson. Kidman is the prickly, fading beauty, whose hair isn’t just blonde but actually yellow, while Wasikowska appears as a teenage Morticia Addams. Delivering so-so dialogue with stony faces and a knowing sense of artifice, the cast seem almost to be cocking a wry smile at the hackneyed story they’ve found themselves in. Each expected turn becomes unexpected, as we’re constantly waiting for a twist befitting this ironic tone, something that is hinted at but doesn’t ever arrive.

Accomplice in the doublethink is the cinematography. Enlisting his long-serving director of photography, Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s imagery casts a potent spell. A comb passing through Kidman’s hair seamlessly blends into long grass blowing in the wind; a trip through the basement turns into a labyrinthine adventure comprising a rich, hypnotic aesthetic that lulls us the viewer into a state of uncertainty.

Even as things get gory, the tone remains unsettlingly sumptuous, luring us into a sexed-up, sociopathic world. It’s all rather surface – the turned-up melodrama cleansing the scenes of anything too stinging and leaving us emotionally removed from the characters – but that’s beside the point. Amid the abounding faux-Freudian visual metaphors, there’s plenty to try and pick apart, but its best left as an unadulterated, visceral experience.

On these terms alone, Stoker is a work of near-genius. Park manages to turn an unimaginative script from a green screenwriter into a gloriously nasty, formidable and unpredictable entry into English-language film.