Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Layer 151 Drive Time, Flying Time and Movie Time.

I really want to be positive about England and Britain now that I’m back home, but I think it’s going to be quite difficult at times, as ever.

It’s a jet-lagged 2.30 in the morning and I’ve woken up to the sound of the television that’s stayed on through the night. I was watching something or other on BBC4 when I came to bed at 9.30 and promptly fell asleep. I’ve just spent 30 or 40 minutes listening to and watching a facile piece of shit called ‘Michael Smith’s Drive Time’ on BBC4, which is obviously masquerading as some kind of arty documentary series on cars, on driving and on being ‘on the road’.

Of course he had to slip in the obligatory reference to Jack Kerouac, whom he’s clearly trying to style himself on, as some sort modern-day chronicler of the delights and disappointments of travelling, in his self-conscious 21st-Century stubble-growing writing-on-a-laptop-in-the-back-of-the-BBC-car kind of ‘style’. But his would-be ‘poetic’ and ‘insightful’ musings do scant justice either to his subject(s) or to documentary making. Roads are overcrowded. Roads are boring. Roads are harmful. The countryside is nice, if you can find some. Hmmmm.

He eulogises about Loch Lomond, for instance, which is one of the most overrated places on the planet, with its bleakness and its water the colour of dark slate, usually found under a leaden sky. He’s just seen a flying swan and he’s absolutely thrilled.

He sees a smallish motor caravan that’s parked next to the loch and calls it a ‘Winnebago’, when it’s clearly a much smaller European brand of motor caravan - probably a Fiat or a Ford. ‘Winnebago’ is a much larger, much more luxurious and altogether more spacious and powerful American vehicle, and not a generic name for motor caravans generally. Unless of course you’re a doltish would-be arty writer and programme maker, and a hip and mock-humble pseudo-sensitive social commentator of this sort, who also happens to be familiar with the USA and its lumbering motor homes, so beloved of actors on location and travelling musicians.

“D’you want to come inside?” says the owner of the vehicle, oh-so-spontaneously. “I’ll put the kettle on.” “Oh yes, I could do with a brew!”, says Michael Smith, who I suspect is a Lancastrian lad with a preference for drinking lattes from stainless steel BBC vacuum flasks in the backs of limousines.

It seems that these days anybody can get a ride in someone’s car, point a video camera at the passing landscape, and proceed to ramble on about the joys or otherwise of the journey and the passing landscape. I’ve done it myself.

Young Mr Smith drones on as leadenly as the skies in Scotland about the joys of the open road in that strange country - so far away from the traffic-clogged roads further south, he’ll be bound.

My abiding recollection of the open road on my (one and only) trip to bonnie Scotland was of being stuck in long crocodiles of vehicles following towed caravans and underpowered motor bloody caravans (note - not hip V8 luxury Winnebagos) as they wend their way at 30mph or less along narrow winding roads (‘major’ roads - mind you) between cloud-covered mountains where overtaking is impossible. And that was over 30 years ago, when traffic was about half what it is now.

The myth is that Scottish roads (as opposed to English country roads) are empty and joyous. The reality is that there are fewer of them, they’re hemmed in by cloud-covered, windswept and treeless (and therefore very unpicturesque and bleak) mountains, and the volume of traffic on them is therefore actually higher per mile of available road than in many parts of England. They’re also full of bloody caravans of one sort or another.

Mr Smith’s fond of words like ‘myth’, ‘iconic’ and ‘poetic’. Clearly some young programme commissioner at the BBC thinks he’s an original and astute writer/savant, with important things to say about ‘modern Britain’. If only!

His Drive Time is a total waste of time. Drive you crazy time.


As a lover of high quality television, and a supporter of the BBC in spite of its obvious flaws, I didn’t expect to find myself saying this, but I haven’t missed watching television at all these past four weeks - Japanese TV being absolutely unwatchable, especially for a non-speaker of Japanese. From what I can see when I go there the vast majority of the programme content is idiotic game shows, shouty studio-based audience-participation shows, soap operas, kids programmes, cartoons, and cheapo ‘reality’ shows. Very much like Britain and America.

But it’s been wonderful - having watched no news, politics or current affairs programmes, which tend to increase the blood pressure and anger levels. Nor even any comedy shows or documentaries, which I’m quite addicted to in normal circumstances. Which is not good for one’s levels of ignorance and knowledge of the world and its affairs, to be sure, but very wonderful in terms of clearing the mind and for only letting into one’s mental spaces some good music and literature.


During the 28 hour (in total) journey home (via Dubai again) I managed to catch up on several movies that have passed me by at the cinema recently. Some very good ones too.

Though I started not with the good ones but by sampling the ones I thought were probably crap, but needed to be seen - in part, anyway. Sure enough, the first 30 minutes, which was all I could stand, of ‘Quantum of Solace’ (bloody pretentious title) was complete garbage - just flashy, hyper-melodramatic and not very good cinematography, mainly consisting of shots of the handsome Daniel Craig looking hyper cool and incredibly fit and competent as he sets about driving an Aston Martin at ridiculous speeds and chasing/killing bad guys at an unbelievable rate. He’s got a licence to kill, as I’m sure we all know already. And poor bloody Dame Judy, the sainted Judy Dench, taking fistfuls of dollars, no doubt, as her reward for immersing herself in this franchised pile of poo, again.

As my son said to me, there have been some very good Bond films, including the recent remake of Casino Royale, he reckons, also starring DC and JD - but Quantity of Shite is not one of them. It’s impossible to tell what’s supposedly going on in that first 30 minutes - but what the hell!: the story line is hardly the point. The point is that Bond is cool, Bond is invincible, Bond is British, and hooray for the Brits and their secret services who are ever-vigilant and save the world on a daily basis on behalf of us all.

The point is, mainly - vroom, vroom! ka-pow! Zap! Screech, scream, snog, shoot, blam!, bang!, wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and thank you James - you cunning, ruthless, fearless, sophisticated and sexy individual - on behalf of our grateful nation and the world in general.


And talking of Generals - Valkyrie - the story of the unsuccessful German plots against Hitler - ought to have been arresting and enthralling, but wasn’t. Or at least the first part of it wasn’t. Plodding and dull is what it is. And that wasn’t due to the lack of ‘action’, as such - just due to its hugely missed opportunity to tell an important story with any degree of interest, panache or imagination. And Tom Cruise with an eye patch is no more interesting than TC without one.

The start of the film had looked promising though - pointing out that Hitler was surrounded by Generals and other people who were “unwilling and unable to face the truth”. (Very much like NuLabour and its top brass.) Also that Hitler (and Nazism) were plainly not just the arch-enemies of mankind - he was also ‘the arch-enemy of Germany too’. A country with a long tradition of fine intellects but flawed by passionate belief in the superiority of the ‘Arian’ races, and also with a tradition of racism, elitism and susceptibility to ultra-nationalism.


And talking about the arch-enemies of mankind - the first film I managed to watch all through, near the start of the flight(s), which took off at 11.15 pm, was Oliver Stone’s “W”. I chose it on the basis that if I dozed off at all I could quickly pick up the story again since I knew it already. Which is what happened.

It’s still incredible to me that a nation like the USA, with all of its resources and educational capacity, could have twice elected a man like Dubya. But that fact speaks to us volumes about a nation that contains so much intelligence but also so much utter stupidity and ignorance, allied to massive vested interests and the enormous financial clout of those interests, with their power to monopolise the media and spew out huge amounts of propaganda and reactionary bullshit fit for the limited intellects of passionate nationalists. And what W did best was fulminating, aggrieved, self-righteous (and right-wing) passionate conservative nationalism. He was the perfect front man for the Project for the New American Century.


Clint Eastwood is often thought of as a bit of an old-fashioned and conservative (and probably reactionary) nationalist. He’s played the strong, silent tough guy, the vigilante and the no-nonsense revenge-getting gun-toting all-American good guy so many times. A real George W Bush template and archetype, if ever there was one.

Taking the law into their own hands Dirty Harry style was somehow second nature for guys seen as not overly fussy about protocols and proprieties, and prepared to use massive firepower, like Harry and Dirty George. Being ‘a man’ means ‘doing what a man has to do’ - yea even if it costs him his life. Or in W’s case, the lives of many other people.

Eastwood’s new film, Gran Torino, (the name of a classic 1960’s all-American “muscle car”), in which he plays the aging, old-fashioned, racist, bigoted, war-hero, the no-nonsense gun-toting tough guy, to perfection once more, is possibly his best ever. He drives a “truck” - the ubiquitous working-class open-backed pickup - and keeps his Gran Torino, his pride and joy (especially since the death of his beloved wife), in his garage.

He’s a veteran of the Korean War, and he hates the predominately Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours who live all around him, in what used to be a white working class neighbourhood, which he stubbornly refuses to leave. He flies the Stars and Stripes from his front porch. He calls the Asian people he encounters ‘gooks’, Chinks’ and ‘slopes’ without provocation or hesitation.

As a filmmaker and as an actor Eastwood seems to be producing his best-ever and most thoughtful work in what should be his twilight years - an amazing achievement. On the surface the film appears to be fairly straightforwardly about the old man’s gradual, unwitting and unconscious discovery of atonement, enlightenment and salvation, but it’s a lot more subtle and convoluted than you might expect from someone who likes to tell stories that are simple, moral and unpretentious. It also contains some very touching as well as some very funny moments.


Touching, humourous and moving moments also abound in the newest film from another of America’s cinematic and rapidly aging legends - Woody Allen. Like the Eastwood film, Vicky Christina Barcelona is also the work of a true artist and storyteller, and also contains subtleties and unexpected plot twists that reflect the mature wisdom of a lifelong filmmaker whose main concern is the human condition.

Just as Eastwood started out, apparently, as a simple and straightforward cowboy character actor, Allen began his career in films as a straightforward though acerbic and anarchic comedy actor. Both have become genuine artists whose films are often multi-layered and satisfyingly full of undidactic wisdom and truth.

Allen’s lead actor, a Spanish heart-throb and the good-looking epitome of “cool”, whose name I’ve already forgotten, is just brilliant. He gives an amazing performance as Juan Antonio in what could have been a role that was easy to overplay and therefore easy to end up in looking cartoonish and unbelievable.

Early in the film, which takes place in Barcelona, one of his lines (written by Allen) is, “The trick is to enjoy life, accepting that it has no meaning whatsoever.” I thought that was a very interesting line, given what Oxzen recently said in Layer 149 - “Just because life is ultimately pointless and our pretensions and desires are absurd doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, providing we go about it in the right spirit. The right spirit involves generosity and compassion, and an enlightened attitude, as far as possible.” The right spirit also involves laughter and ‘non-attachment’.

Juan Antonio’s very first dialogue in the film has him inviting Vicky and Christina, whom who are enjoying an extended stay at the house of their married friends in Barcelona, and whom he spots in a restaurant, to go with him to a distant town, Aviedo, for the weekend, to enjoy art, and sunshine and making love. Vicky clearly thinks it’s a ludicrous suggestion, but Christina, who’s much more of a spontaneous and passionate risk-taker, and currently doesn’t have a man in her life, is positively up for it.

The Spanish guy’s young artist ex-wife (played superbly by Penelope Cruz) who is still somewhat in love with him, says later, “He’s carefree - to him nothing matters, and life has no purpose. But that’s not what’s in his heart and his head!”

Which is perhaps an expression of Zen. On the level of the body, the soul and the mind, someone sees that in cosmic terms we are small, irrelevant and meaningless clusters of atoms and molecules, whose existence tends to be relatively short, and in many cases nasty and brutish. On the level of the spirit, however, one cannot help oneself being compassionate, caring, loving and purposeful to the extent that one will, if necessary, sacrifice oneself for the benefit and wellbeing of those we care about, and those we love and feel close to - which in a bodhisattva’s case is everybody.

This was the lesson the misanthropic Eastwood character also learned, finally.

In the Allen film Juan Antonio allows back into his house his ex-wife (whom he once loved passionately) after she’s had a semi-breakdown, and has taken an overdose, in spite of the fact that he’s started living with the beautiful blond American, Christina, played by Scarlet Johannsen.

Meanwhile, he’s continuing to meet with the best friend of the Johannsen character, Vicky, who’s a young academic with a special interest in Catelonia, who also begins to find herself becoming obsessed with him in spite of the fact that she professes to dislike such ‘dangerous’ non-conformists as this Spanish artist. She’s agreed to marry her ultra-straight, down to earth, high-earning and materialistic American fiancée, but immediately realises it was a mistake. The fiancée is ‘serious’ and ‘responsible’, but he’s also boring and irritating, as she comes to appreciate, as her relationship with the artist develops, against her ‘better judgement’.

Somehow it all fits together and it all makes sense.


Seriousness, commitment, love, passion, responsibility, authenticity, self-discovery, sanity, madness, creativity, compassion, generosity, selfishness, materialism and spontaneity are also the themes of the other excellent American film I watched yesterday during my flying film binge high above the clouds.

I thought from watching its trailer at the cinema a while ago that Revolutionary Road would be a good film, but it turned out to be even better than expected. Its director, Sam Mendes, certainly had his moments of genius, and you can see from his work why he’s so missed by those who knew him and worked with him.

It’s a tough film to watch, though, in parts, and it certainly stirs up your emotions as you become drawn into the lives of the main characters, played by Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio with great skill and artistry. In places the film’s almost difficult to keep on watching as the plot develops with so many unexpected directions and developments.

The ecstasy of love and the misery of love gone wrong are incredibly well examined, as are suburban life (in the 1950’s but also now), the meaninglessness and the soul-destroying nature of office life, commuting, and conformist suburban life, the inevitability of unfaithfulness for passionate individuals, the impossibility of constant harmony and happiness for such people, and the dangers of neuroticism and madness when souls are constrained, undernourished and destroyed. There’s also a very serious examination of the issues of abortion and unwanted pregnancy, and their potentially devastating impact on people’s lives, even those who love one another deeply.


More quotes from the Woody Allen film:

“For us, playing music is the way to express real emotion.”
“Love is so transient, don’t you think?”
“The reason my father is so angry and won’t allow his poetry to be published or translated is that after thousands of years humans still haven’t learned how to love.”
“As an artist you hold in contempt our normal values.”
“It’s a question of free thinking versus America’s puritanical and materialistic soul.”
“So now you live with this Christina? Do you really think she’ll be enough for you?”

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