Saturday, December 23, 2006

Special (15)

Written and Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore Screening at FACT from 22nd-24th December 2006

Special is a parable for our medicated times, because the western world is in the grip of a great depression. It has recently been estimated that one in four people suffer from some kind of mental health problem in the UK each year. On Merseyside, the male suicide rate doubled in 2005. Governments aren't keen on looking deeply into the causes, because they know that while human genetics has not changed drastically since rates began climbing in the 1970s, society certainly has, and they like the changes. For them, it's better just to chuck pills at the problem, which is great for the profits of drug companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, or the British-based GlaxoSmithKline.

When we meet Les (Michael Rapaport), he is a traffic cop who feels unloved and unvalued by the world around him. He is given the chance to go on a drug trial for a major new anti-depressant being developed by the Special corporation. A comic book enthusiast, he is surprised and delighted to discover that the tablets give him special powers. When he thwarts an armed robbery at a convenience store by reading the gunman's mind, Les decides to hang up his uniform and ticket book, and become a superhero like in his comics.

Which is great, apart from the fact that obviously Les hasn't got any special powers, he can't fly, and his bloodied face is evidence that he certainly can't run through walls. So our delusional non-hero causes havoc in store after store, getting on a Crimewatch-style TV show and making the drug company whose logo he wears very worried indeed. To Les, this is just a conspiracy between the 'suits', the police, and maybe every single person he meets.

The writers handle the subject of mental distress with great sensitivity, and their sympathy is clearly with the victims of the 'mental health' system and the downtrodden people it feeds on. Even the laughs are sympathetic ones, because who hasn't believed they had super powers at one time or another?

Rapaport is sensationally believable in his first lead role, while the supporting cast of a puzzled doctor (Jack Kehler), drug company execs (Paul Blackthorne, Ian Bohen) and Les' comic store buddies (Josh Peck, Robert Baker).

Special is a subtly beautiful warning that chemical straitjackets may damage your health.

Read my interview with mental distress activist Amy Sanderson here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jungle Jam/The Black Moss

Chelpa Ferro and Juneau/projects
FACT Centre, Wood Street
8th December 2006 - 21st January 2007 (Tue-Sun 11am-6pm)

If you are reading this between 8th December 2006 and 21st January 2007, on any day Tuesday to Sunday after 11am and before 6pm, there is huge environmental damage being done at Gallery 1 of the FACT centre.

There, a computer is instructing motors to spin round in various patterns, whacking plastic bags against the walls. This is ‘Jungle Jam’ – the work of Brazilian artists Chelpa Ferro (‘old money’) – so this must be art. The bags – which are just like those you could buy in Home and Bargain – came all the way from South America, by plane presumably. The computer and motors create carbon emissions far in excess of any artistic merits. "Different bags make different sounds”, explained one of the trio. Quite.

In Gallery 2, Juneau/projects’ ‘The Black Moss’ is the far more interesting, and much less harmful to the planet 'I’m Going To Antler You’. Unless those animal skin rugs are real, in which case it’s a close run thing. At least the music – which comes from the hand-painted drum kit – is only triggered by someone being near enough to hear it. The songs come from young bands Ebony Angels and The Ambers, who were formed in two Birmingham youth groups. They designed their own logos and costumes, and the room has a nice kind of playfulness about it.

Then there’s this kind of retro eighties computer game called ‘Beneath the floorboards of the forest, empty space’, where a Stephen Hawking-alike voice reads poetic descriptions of nature and the gallerygoer’s mission – should they choose to accept it – is to escape from a forest by selecting north, south, east, west and other options like washing your face. In my twenty-five minutes I angered a blackbird and was stung by the ‘enormous barb’ of the same hornet on three separate occasions. Then I have to admit I gave up. An attendant told me it can be done, in about two days.

But the best part of this exhibition – perhaps the best part of any exhibition I’ve seen this year – is the misleadingly titled ‘Instincts are misleading (you shouldn't think what you're feeling)’. The Media Lounge has been made over into a kind of grotto, where mellow music plays, and visitors can make their own creatures out of pipe cleaners, glue and various bits and pieces. These creations are then photographed and placed on a ‘shrine’ to nature, and each creator takes home a complimentary cd. If the capital of culture year was that and nothing else, I’d be made up.

Monday, December 18, 2006

T&GWU Negotiates Defeat For Liverpool Cabbies

In another setback for workers on Merseyside, the Transport and General Workers Union has negotiated a defeat for its taxi driving members and taxi users at Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

Though the union are claiming victory, it seems cab drivers at the airport will have to pay £1 every time they want to use the taxi rank, starting in February.

Last week, the TGWU announced that more than 500 of its members would take part in a ‘drive-slow’ around Speke on Friday 15th December, in protest at £7 per day fees demanded by Peel Holdings, who own John Lennon Airport.

At the time, union leaders accused airport owners Peel Holdings of "greedy profiteering" and called the fees "arbitrary, unfair and unrealistic".

The airport had threatened to bring in private hire vehicles - effectively strikebreakers - to run the service if the taxi drivers refused to pay the fee.

JLA insisted it was one of the only airports in the country that did not charge, and needed to find ways of plugging the losses it suffers. But here they were clearly using the word 'losses' to mean additional profits they were missing out on. Last year, Peel Holdings bought Mersey Docks for £780 million, then sold a 49% stake in that company for £750 million - a huge markup. Their 2005 earnings were £100 million.

The drive-slow was called off at the last minute after the new plan to introduce a £1 a time card-operated barrier to the taxi rank was agreed.

Kevin Maguire, the Transport and General Workers Union's representative who liaised with the airport, said: "The details of how the barrier system is going to work and be implemented is still under negotiation. A number of meetings are planned for the new year to discuss the best way forward. We thought a permit system was unfair and restrictive as it would only have allowed a small number of hackneys. With a barrier, any hackney driver will be able to apply for a swipe card. It is likely that most drivers will pass the charge on to the customer."

So there we have it. If a driver picks up eight customers from the airport in one day, they will have to pay more than the £7 a day originally threatened. Extra costs will be passed onto the customers, who will in effect be putting their money into the pockets of Peel shareholders. Meanwhile, cabbies will have to put up with the nuisance of carrying the swipe cards.

This is yet another illustration of how the traditional trade union strategies are unable to meet the needs of workers. At best, leaders take the edge of attacks, negotiating bosses down slightly from their opening bids. At worst, they openly collude with business to earn knighthoods, seats in the House of Lords, or on corporate boards. Revolutionary workers’ organisations are needed, with the aim of abolishing the profit system and the vampiric boss class.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Imagine Cabbies on 'Drive-Slow' at John Lennon Airport

Liverpool cab drivers are taking part in a 'drive-slow' in Speke on Friday, in protest against £7 per day fees demanded by John Lennon Airport.

More than 500 taxis are scheduled to block Speke roads, after the drivers were told they will have to pay a new annual fee of £2,500 to pick up passengers flying to the city.

Last night union leaders accused airport owner Peel Holdings of "greedy profiteering" and called the fees "arbitrary, unfair and unrealistic". Negotiations broke down last week when drivers said they refused to accept a reduced offer of £1,920. They were then given until today to change their minds.

The airport claim the money will be used to improve facilities for drivers, and will cover a 'free' course on being an 'a Liverpool ambassador' during Capital of Culture year in 2008.

This is clearly ridiculous, for two reasons. Firstly, if you have to pay for a course, it is clearly not free! Secondly, no-one knows Liverpool better than cabbies, so they do not need any training in showing people round the city.

The airport has threatened to bring in private hire vehicles - effectively strike-breakers - to run the service if the taxi drivers refuse to pay the fee.

JLA insists it is one of the only airports in the country that does not charge, and needed to find ways of plugging the losses it suffers. But here they are clearly using the word 'losses' to mean additional profits. Last year, Peel Holdings bought Mersey Docks for £780 million, then sold a 49% stake in that company for £750 million - a huge markup. Their 2005 earnings were £100 million.

Tommy McIntyre, T&G convener for hackney cab drivers, said: "They have just plucked this figure out of thin air. They cannot give us a breakdown of what it covers. At Manchester Airport, the drivers pay a fee but it is only £260. They have threatened to bring in private-hire drivers but that means people will have to book them in advance. Also, they don't have the same wheelchair facilities. And they would only have to put up their fees to cover the charges so it would be the passengers losing out. There is no way we can recoup the money because our fares are fixed by the council. This will put a lot of people on the dole. In the run-up to 2008, this is the last thing the airport should be doing."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The U.S. vs John Lennon (12A)

Written and Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld
Screening at FACT and Cineworld from 9th December 2006

Living on Merseyside, and being subjected to Beatles cash-ins around every corner, it is easy to forget that the band were once more than just the brand. In fact, one of the ‘fab four’, John Winston Lennon, went on to become a protest singer who hung out with some of the most famous 1970s American radicals. But it was his anti-war work which annoyed authorities the most, and his determination to get US forces out of Vietnam was matched only by Richard Nixon’s keep them in, and deport Lennon back to Britain. This documentary tells the story of the battle between the United States political establishment and the Liverpool lad who really did shake the world.

John Lennon first came to the attention of the FBI in 1971, when he performed at a benefit concert for jailed MC5 manager and Detroit activist John Sinclair, sharing a stage with Black Panther Bobby Seale and Yippiee Jerry Rubin. There was talk of a tour encouraging young people to vote for anti-war presidential candidates, but this was stopped by Nixon’s deportation orders, which were served on the ridiculous basis that Lennon had been done for marijuana possession in Britain.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon features archive footage interspersed with talking head interviews. Unfortunately, it focuses too much on the mechanics of the case, giving little idea of the wider anti-war movement. The choice of interviewees – or possibly of which comments are screened – is woefully uninspired. Many of the former radicals – such as Seale and Stew Albert (who died shortly after the film was shot) – gave up their activism decades ago, and offer nothing exciting here. Contributors from the FBI from the Nixon White House fail to deviate from their party line, even thirty-five years on. The only comment worth repeating comes from writer Gore Vidal, who links the slaughter in Vietnam to the one currently unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan: “John Lennon represented life; Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush represent death.”

Vidal’s remark begs the question, what would happen if a John Lennon figure was on the scene today, with twenty first century media technology and an even bigger chasm dividing rich and poor? There are quite a few anti-capitalist rock stars based in the United States, but only one – Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello – has taken his fight onto the streets. Celebrities don’t stop wars or make revolutions, but they can help ignite the spark of rebellion in the minds of a generation.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tug Workers To Block The Docks?

The port of Liverpool could be shut down by a series of tug strikes, bringing back memories of the dockers’ dispute in the 1990s. Workers are angry that they are currently registered in the Channel Islands, and therefore lose their 12.5% National Insurance payments.

Tug workers employed at the Liverpool port - as well as those in Hull and Immingham, Gravesend and the Medway, Felixstowe, and Southampton - could be balloted over strike action if their employers refuse to register them ‘on-shore’.

Adsteam are currently negotiating a merger with their main rival Svitzer, which is owned by shipping conglomerate Maersk.

Tug operators are essential workers in the UK ports. If they do vote to strike, it could mean the main ports in the UK coming to a standstill.

The Transport and General Workers Union accuse Adsteam of “trousering” savings on National Insurance made by registering the tug workers in Guernsey for the last three years. Richard Crease, the T&G chair of the Adsteam national shop stewards committee, said the proposed takeover of Adsteam by Svitzer had brought the dispute into focus.

“We have never felt happy with Adsteam moving our employment registration ‘off-shore’ and believe the time is right to restore us to the mainland.

“Adsteam seem adamant that it is not their responsibility and prefer to pass the buck to Svitzer. We don’t agree and that’s why we have a dispute which is now likely to go to a strike ballot.”

Adsteam’s chief executive Europe, Stephen Eastwood replied that “Adsteam have been considering for some time the return of employees from Guernsey to the UK.

“The transfer to Guernsey was originally made in April 2003 to take advantage of rules relating to offshore manning of British flagged vessels, which resulted in a saving in National Insurance Contributions.

“Following a change in UK Legislation, offshore manning finished in October 2003. Since that time Adsteam employees and the payroll centre have remained in Guernsey. The transfer back to the UK has some potential complications in terms of employment contracts, which need to be resolved. In principle the company has no objection to the change because it would have no benefit or detriment to either company or employees.”

Eastwood’s answer is mealy-mouthed politician-speak. Adsteam don’t want to register on the mainland because it would cost them the 12.5% National Insurance payments. A strike - which would deprive the company of profits - is the best way of making them sit up and take notice.

However, tug workers should remember the TGWU’s role in the 1995-98 Liverpool dockers’ strike, and make sure their leadership doesn’t sell them out for a knighthood and a seat in the House of Lords.

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