Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Belko Experiment

A seminal study of the actions of a group of left-leaning German cops despatched to Ukraine to take part in the Nazi genocide of its Jewish population revealed something both significant and consistent about human nature: in any reasonably well-defined peer group of ten individuals asked to do something morally repugnant, one will refuse, eight will go along with it, and one will not only go along with it, but instead try to enhance the levels of repugnance as much as possible. This finding has been repeated numerous times in more experimental situations. 

Each of us would like to imagine that in the most telling of circumstances we’d turn out to be the one positive exception, but sadly in my experience of the white collar life, the signs have been that most of us have the potential to be that other one too. The pattern remains unchanged, but the make-up of the individuals corresponding to it can be more flexible. 

In The Belko Experiment the set-up is slightly different: when a group of roughly eighty American office workers is shut inside a Bogotá tower block and encouraged to commence compulsory redundancies in the most brutal of fashions, we find that there is one conscientious objector, one open-minded free-thinker, several stoners, a small group of homicidal maniacs and roughly sixty sheep. Plus one girl who’s just clumsy enough to kill another person by accident given this precise scenario. 

As Robbie Collin pointed out in his 5 Live review, the experimental nature of the methodology is compromised by the fact that the sample all have mini-bombs in their heads which can be exploded as punishment for non-compliance. 

And other than a COO who declares an intention to 'circle back', the designated office perv and the aforementioned spliff-heads, the possibilities for stereotyping are seriously under-explored here. 

Battle Royale for example, might be said to have adequately addressed the various types and tensions that exist in the Japanese education system, satirising to the nth degree the relentless competition therein. 

Here we get a COO stating than he will 'circle back' and someone being clubbed to death with a sellotape holder — the executive equivalent of the staple gun in one of those DIY warehouse melées — but few other nods to the environment and its archetypes. In fact, the people charged with doing the posters seemed to have a bit more fun with the concept. (See below.) 

I was rooting for the open-minded character, especially as she was played by the daughter of the world's most famous Guatemalan, Adria Arjona, but sadly the last hurdle proved tricky for her...though I'd say she met her fate more uncompromised than the eventual 'winner'.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Day I Met El Chapo (2017)

Somewhat coincidentally we've seen a series of movies recently about someone doing something transparently — almost suicidally — dumb and then spending the rest of the running time attempting to survive the consequences. 

There's the aforementioned Jungle and 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain in which Josh Hartnett's character takes a load of class A drugs and then goes snowboarding in the middle of a monster storm. 

Netflix's new three part documentary The Day I Met El Chapo is cut from similar cloth. 

By the end of it Kate del Castillo has played the gender card, the oppressed Mexican citizen card and just about any other card available to her in this quest for 'closure', but viewers are left none the wiser really WTF she actually thought she was going to achieve in meeting Guzmán Loera face-to-face. 

Her friends express their consternation that 'Say-Anne' Penn came equipped with get-out-of-jail letters from Rolling Stone magazine for himself and the other males with him, but not for poor Kate. The trouble is that the previous episode had made it clear that the actress had no idea of Penn's private agenda (an interview) until they were all sitting around the table with the capo and his cronies. If her own intentions had been journalistic, she'd have thought about this, wouldn't she?

Penn clearly concluded that it was already too obvious what a dick he is, so there was no real need for the big Netflix exposé treatment. Without his participation, or that of any of the other men present, this film becomes something of a smokescreen for Del Castillo's already non-transparent decision-making process. A retired DEA-agent called Hector Berrellez (otherwise famed for revealing the role of the CIA in the murder of Kiki Camarena) becomes the loan voice of unqualified censure. 

I warmed to the concluding contribution of producer Epigmenio Ibarra who observed how important it is that this story should be told by Hispanics and not gringos, Kate's version, not the stereotypical Hollywood one, for only that way would all the nuances remain. 

And nuances there are a-plenty. A notable one for me is that Del Castillo seems blissfully unaware just how much she herself is as much an emblem of everything that's cockeyed in Mexican culture as El Chapo himself — the dynastic nature of celebrity, Televisa and its dubious relationship with truth and the consistent casting of hijas de papi from the elite as downtrodden, mixed-race characters from the underclass e.g. La Reina del Sur.

The stand-out character in this tale turned out to be the kingpin's legal counsel Andrés Granados. Now, I am aware of an abogado here in these parts I tend to refer to as the 'Gunboat Lawyer'. 

Not the sort one would retain for everyday tramites, but rather for those slightly more serious litigious niggles where another party is being a bit obstreperous / brincón and could do with the legal equivalent of the Royal Navy showing up just off their shoreline. Like Granados, this man has that ex-cuque, seasoned perpetrator of atrocities aura about him. 

El Chapo's abogado appears arguably scarier in person than his most notorious client. Yet your standard Hollywood mobster-lawyer is usually a bit of a venal slimebag. Consider for example Pablo Escobar's man, Fernando Duque, as portrayed in Narcos

Jungle (2017)

This one belongs to both the not-so-bright thrill-seeker and Amazonian mis-adventure sub-genres.

Far superior examples of the latter being 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent and further back, Werner Herzog’s masterful Fitzcaraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

As for the former category, we saw recently with 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain just how difficult it can be to become fully invested in the survival prospects of an individual that so clearly has himself entirely to blame for his predicament.

I’m also consistently peeved with films supposedly set in South America which have not actually been shot anywhere near their stated locations. (The worst offender of recent times? Snatched.) Jungle for example, was largely filmed in Queensland with a few additional short scenes shot in towns just outside Bogotá i.e. not darkest Bolivia.

The movie opens with the promise of ‘This is a true story’; preferred to the more fingers-crossed-behind-back alternative of ‘Based on true events’. And the thing is that major elements of the story as presented have indeed been fictionalised, or at least carefully, though not always skillfully, distorted.

Radcliffe’s Ghinsberg is depicted as the hapless victim of a scam artist in La Paz, yet according to his Wikipedia bio he was obsessed with Henri Charrière’s Papillon long before arriving in South America and was actively seeking the ‘rainforest immersion experience’.

Still, the film has some poignant moments, mostly courtesy of Joel Jackson as Marcus and in particular of Alex Russell as Kevin. Not Daniel Radcliffe though, whose presence and cod Israeli accent I could generally have done without.

There were some nostalgia-inducing reminders of my own formative rainforest immersion experiences in the late 80s — such as the sense of being in a bit over one’s head and the constant overlay of the actual environment with one’s own fantastical interpretation of it. 

I also recalled that in these sort of expeditions it is very easy to become both manipulated by and manipulative of one's fellow travellers.

Monday, October 16, 2017

American Made

There's definitely a distinctive new genre in Hollywood, 'based on a true story'-type capers featuring loveable all-American rogues who are really not all that loveable, but as played by one of those adorable A-list men, we are given to understand that it is kind of hard to hate on them completely...

First we had Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, then in short order, Di Caprio as Jordan Belfort and Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells. Now we have Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in American Made. 

These men have their black souls cloaked in black comedy, which distracts us from the glaring absence of a moral compass, both personal and systemic.

In this film all the action is shot in a sort of nostalgic vintage instagram filter, suggesting period authenticity, but also disguising Cruise's puffy and wrinkled features (and thus the 25 or so year age gap with his leading lady.)

Anyway, here's one of the gags that may or may not be meta. Seal voices over a map-based explanation of his double-dealing of the cartels and contras and then admits he's mis-identified Nicaragua. 'No, wait a minute...that's El Salvador'. Except it isn't.

Movie Melancholy

We've watched a pair of flicks lately that immersed us in the movie melancholy of might-have-beens. 

First up, Blood Money, a modern B-movie retelling of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre set amidst the forests and 'gnarly' rapids of the State of Georgia. 

This one has an unusual, fairly nasty gender edge to it, that is under-explored, despite some last minute ramping up. 

And only John Cusack seems to sense the potential for dark humour here. The other male characters are weak. Perhaps that's part of the point, but I sense that the makers ducked out of delivering something with real bite. 

Then there's Atomic Blonde, one of those bad movies that contains enough fragments of goodness to set you wondering what a more competent director/screenwriter could have made of such material, not to mention the performance of Charlize Theron. (The presence of James McAvoy however is becoming a token of projects that have gone somewhat awry.) 

The failure to take full advantage of Berlin, a location that is just made for this sort of thing, was especially treasonous.

Misdirected Desire

One of Gregory Norminton's aphorisms goes 'There are few things less desirable than misdirected desire'. 

This is true of both genders I think, but for a host of different reasons it is more likely to be a man doing the misdirecting, at least in modern western society. 

However, the story that is seeping through the cracks of the Weinstein scandal is that of the numerous women who might have elected to sign up for Harvey's Faustian pact, presumably to advance their careers. One of the victims has even been dropping hints on twitter about her fellow actresses. 

Certain individuals take misdirected desire more as opportunity than threat. This is true of both genders, yet for a host of different reasons, I'd offer in this instance that it is more likely to be a woman doing the taking, at least in modern western society.

Both ends of this analysis can of course be explained in part by the prevailing inequalities between the sexes. 

But you have to ask yourself whether the phenomenon itself  and the unevenness I have pinpointed —  would vanish completely if this were removed? 

Personally I think more women would tend to abuse this more even spread of power, just not quite to the same extent that men have done their less even share of it up to now. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Anti-semitic bias on the Left

Back in the 80s I’d have to try to talk down some seriously self-righteous European lefty types who’d adopted such an absurdly high and mighty position on the situation in Ulster that they seemed in danger of getting a nosebleed. 

These same individuals tended to have a perspective on Palestine casted from the same mold. (Jeremy Corbyn’s career has taken in both forms of partisan jaundice, and the Labour leader apparently remains committed to the second it would seem.)

No matter that more people were displaced  and indeed brutally murdered  amidst the formation of nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, Israel is invariably regarded as ground zero for historic injustice by a certain kind of self-consciously progressive person. 

If one steps back however, taking a broader view of the last century and those moments when new states were formed or borders shifted, the fate of the Palestinians — which fell short of an actual genocide (of which there were many in the period) — is not what one might refer to as an outlier. 

So there is a unmistakeable bias  a disproportionate concern for one set of unfortunate circumstances  that any historian would surely want to explain. 

And in my view it will be hard to provide such an explanation for this without addressing the likelihood of anti-semitic prejudice. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Men Apart

These zealots of self-determination always seem to be possessed of a certain nerdishness veering towards creepiness. 

Farage and Salmond had some of it, but Puigdemont is a true poster boy of the phenomenon. 

And in the past, so too the likes of José Martí and Ho Chi Minh.

Ghandi? Let's not go there...

Social Media, The Enemy Within?

Professor Niall Ferguson is rather obviously working this Spectator article into a promo piece for the conceit of his new book — an age-old historical see-sawing between networks and hierarches, the market and the tower.  

Strictly speaking however this particular modern predicament is more about how the ways people are connected online, knowingly and unknowingly, present a threat to the shared fictions that organise their lives when they believe themselves to be 'offline': e.g a variety of inter-network contention. 

A couple of days ago I wrote a post here about the ostensibly Janus-faced nature of 'Brand USA'. Patriotism, combined with the world's greatest military capability, makes the USA an insuperable power in the external, internationally arena. 

Yet the internal divisions or sections that have always existed within American society mean that internally at least, patriotism acts as a rather shrill voice of social control, papering over the cracks. 

And it has been largely successful up to now. But when the Internet was first developed by the country's finest military minds, few would have imagined that it would provide America's enemies with the almost perfect tool for attacking it on the inside

For this is where the true vulnerabilities in the American edifice lie, where the underlying disconnect between the ideal and the actual really matters and is currently only masked by the flimsiest of credos. These divisions were there long before the arrival of more empowered digital networks. 

This is a nation that is peculiarly tribal at the formative level, as anyone who has watched a High School movie can attest. The Internet only facilitates the extension of this playground mentality into the adult sphere. 

I'd suggest that this is one reason why Americans tend to articulate their most cherished positions in such a shrieky fashion  because they intuitively realise that without such a turbo-boost, few of these ideologies can really cope with the reasoned voice of reality. Radicalisation does not require persecution, unless one finds truth oppressive in itself. 

On a slightly separate note I think Ferguson over-eggs the left-leaning tendency of 'Big Tech', which actually tends to lean libertarian. As a historian he should be well aware that the contemporary American association between liberal ideas and socialist ones is largely factitious as almost none of the monolithic socialist regimes of the twentieth century were liberal in any meaningful sense.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Oxymorons in Washington

Most of us who are not-American can intuitively grasp that the USA is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of place. 

Sometimes the doc is in charge, sometimes the plain old mister, but this internal conflict and resulting pattern of periodic political alternation has never really been a permanent put-off. 

For we understand that this nation is rather obviously a hybrid: between Old World and New World conditions and values, not quite a proper First World country like Japan or Germany, nor yet a full-on Third World clusterfuck either. 

In contrast with other notable hybrids — Italy or indeed China, say   to the casual visitor the United States can come across as somewhat neither here nor there, for it lacks the profounder allure of a deeper history. 

It all began rather more recently and oxymoronically as the 'Empire of Liberty', a phrase coined by slave-owning Jefferson, and has continued in much the same vein ever since. 

There are always so many things for outsiders to admire, yet while Americans might think their 'brand' is the ideal, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the manner with which the self-image is often out of step with the actual has always been very much part of the package.  

And this, somewhat counter-intuitively, makes global brand USA relatively immune to the sort of permanent trashing one could imagine it might now be receiving at the hands of the moron in the White House. (Even though it has to be noted that the paired down ideal, as currently expressed by the GOP in particular, is becoming less and less uplifting in the international arena.) 

However, extend what you mean by 'other people' to your internal audience - non-white people for instance  and therein you do have a bit of a problem, for Brand USA is much less able to cope with flagrant off-message hypocrisy when it comes to its own citizens, which is why it imposes the signs, symbols and platitudes of patriotism so rigorously at home. 

Kneeling NFL players do seem have found just the right contemporary spot in this old wound to insert and wriggle the finger. Nevertheless their protest is a mild one compared to some of the stuff witnessed in ante-bellum America: such as the public burning of the Constitution (a 'covenant with death') on July 4 by William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. 

One has to wonder what Vice President Pence would have made of THAT. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

De-centralisation, aka Anarchy

Post-2008 populist insurgencies have been piggy-backing onto a pre-existing bent in European politics: separatist, anti-establishment sentiment along with the compulsion to push back against globalisation by re-isolating.

In recent times the referendum in Scotland and then in the wider UK when the Conservatives offered a plebiscite over EU membership, the turbo-charging effect of populism has been clear - especially as this form of decision making appears both more popular and more democratic than it actually is.

But England and Scotland were both fully-formed nation states at the start of the modern era. Spain was always going to present a thornier set of problems to an established order confronted by devolving and decentralising tendencies.

This nation has always been more of an amalgamation: of kingdoms, of cultures, of peoples, of languages and dialects, of antiquated legitimacies. Even the modern monarchy sits on a mesh of mutually-reinforcing regional tiles, each with its own form of sovereignty.

The Inquisition and, more recently, the Franco dictatorship provide testimony to just how hard 'conservatives' have had to work to contain Spain's inner contradictions.

Mariano Rajoy was only (barely) able to form a government in Madrid after a second popular consultation. In the form of Podemos the populists are undermining the old status quo from within as well.

I guess I've found Rajoy unpalatable as a politician ever since his abortive attempt to pin the blame for the 2004 atrocities on the Basques - which cost him the premiership and condemned him to looking surly for seven years. In his own mind he is probably a Lincoln-like figure, standing up for the union and the rule of constitutional law, perhaps comforting himself that Abe used a lot more than boots, batons and pepper spray on the secessionist scumbags. If he wins, he might be reckoning, history will give him the same sort of uncomplicated thumbs up, while the would-be breakaways will be remembered as traitors.

For now other EU leaders will support his take on the letter of the Spanish constitution  that sovereignty belong to all — because it rather obviously suits them. But with any further escalation, who knows?

It strikes me that the genre of science fiction reveals that many liberal westerners tend to imagine our collective political future as one of ever larger structures, one of federations, if not empires. For deep down we surely recognise that nationalism is a rather base instinct, and thus anticipate that it will eventually be dissipated by the sort of diversity we witness on the bridge of the starship Enterprise — with only the Klingons literally clinging on to the urges embodied by the likes of Nigel Farage.

Yet let us not forget that Catalunya was the wellspring of the anarchist disposition on the Iberian peninsula prior to the Civil War, and thus one should remember that the alternative utopian path to one big happy human family has always been one of radical de-centralisation.

(A snap I took in Euskadi, 2004)