Friday, November 28, 2008

Fury as Wirral Council Slashes Public Facilities

Protesters showed their anger at a Wirral Council meeting last night, as the cabinet approved massive cuts to local library and recreation services.

Wirral's 'Strategic Asset Review' has been pushed by Council leader Steve Foulkes and Chief Executive Steve Maddox, to 'support regeneration' - code for focussing on the needs of business in the Borough. The Review promises an initial investment of £20 million, to provide eleven new buildings, alongside the closure of twelve libraries (including Birkenhead Central Library, pictured), two leisure centres, Pacific Road Theatre and the Wirral Museum at Birkenhead Town Hall.

A crowd of hundreds reportedly gathered to protest the cuts, and as the cabinet meeting got underway, Foulkes was interrupted by shouts. Placards were displayed, reading 'Wirral Council’s contribution to National Year of Reading – close the libraries', and 'The leisure peninsula? Oh yeah.'

Foulkes claims that changes will result in "better but fewer" buildings, and that “doing nothing is not an option”, because the "old, energy inefficient buildings" are "no longer fit for purpose". However, this idea does not stand up to scrutiny. It would certainly cost less than the £20 million initial outlay to refurbish buildings where they are needed, and indeed when the Review was launched, the stated rationale was to make £9 million worth of "savings". The aim is to cut services that are not considered profitable, and the true cost of this will be borne by the working class people who depend on them.

Local Conservative leader Jeff Green is positioning his party as opponents of the cuts, which are being imposed by the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. However, it would be foolish to trust the Conservatives, as they would face similar pressures should they come to power. The cuts - and cuts like them around Britain and the world - could only be stopped by united and determined organisation by council workers and others, who would have the overwhelming support of the people who use these essential services.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Waltz With Bashir (18)

Written and directed by Ari Folman
Screening at FACT from 21st November 2008

Ari Folman's cinematic journey deep into the recesses of his memory is a visually beautiful investigation of his life, his motivations, and human psychology. In the process, he perhaps points a way forward for film and art in general, away from its current staleness and towards a genuine coming to terms with the nature of existence.

As a young conscript to the Israeli Defense Forces, Folman took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The war killed an estimated 18,000 people, but particularly troubling for Folman was his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias were - with the approval and support of the Israeli state - allowed into Palestinian refugee camps, where they slaughtered thousands of civilians. This would be distressing enough for anyone to have on their mind, except for the fact that Folman literally couldn't remember anything about the event until the last few years. “That’s not stored in my system,” he said. Actually it was, but retrieving it was another matter.

Folman's attempt to grasp the reality of his time in Lebanon is the foundation of this film. He conducted a series of interviews with his fellow conscripts, drawing on the fragments of their memories to piece together his own story. This subtitled Hebrew dialogue was then animated, with the hallucinatory cartoons giving an air of unreality to the all-too-real events described.

The overall effect of this is intensely humanitarian. Folman is haunted by the small but significant part he played in Palestinian deaths, and for many years he has buried his memories deep, the better to get on with his life. More recent events - perhaps the Iraq war or the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon - have caused him to seek explanations, to put things into context. By coming to terms with Israel's complicity with the Phalangists, he can begin to forgive himself for not intervening to save the lives of the refugees.

Perhaps even more importantly than that, this kind of reckoning holds lessons for anyone who cares to take notice. "This makes you wonder", Folman speculated in an interview, "maybe I am doing all this for my sons. When they grow up and watch the film, it might help them make the right decisions, meaning not to take part in any war, whatsoever."

Memories, by definition, can never be exact replicas of the original events. They are coloured and shaped by the experiences that follow. However, this is a strength, not a weakness, allowing for personal and collective growth. As the global crisis intensifies, more buried memories will no doubt be unearthed by people examining the beliefs and ideas which once guided their lives. What else is stored in our systems?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hunger (15)

Written and directed by Steve McQueen
Screening at FACT from 14th November 2008

Steve McQueen's take on the final days of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands is a lyrical and beautifully shot - though unintentionally pessimistic - first feature for the director.

Sands was an Irish Republican Army volunteer, joining at the age of just eighteen in 1972, following years of attacks from loyalists. Upon his second conviction for possession of firearms, he was sentenced to a fourteen year stretch in the notorious Maze prison.

It is here that the film begins, though it is a while before Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) makes an appearance. Instead, we see new IRA prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan) arriving, and refusing to wear the uniform. For this, he is labelled 'uncooperative'. As an otherwise naked Davey goes 'on the blanket', he is shown to his cell, which Gerry (Liam McMahon) has smeared with shit from floor to ceiling. This is all a protest at the officers' treatment of the prisoners, and especially the government's removal of 'political status' from IRA inmates.

Aside from the cinematography - which is the work of a skilled artistic eye - McQueen deserves much praise for his unflinching depiction of the institutionalised brutality at the heart of a previous 'war on terror', in a Lisburn Abu Ghraib overseen by the draconian but very plausible Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham). We witness the systematic degradation of prisoners, and gain some level of appreciation that they truly were living in a hell on earth. This is important, at a time when the United Kingdom government is deepening its attacks on 'democratic rights' which have long been taken for granted by many people.

Ironically, problems with the film become clear when the Sands character is introduced. From this point onwards, it is very much his story in isolation, about his martyrdom, to the exclusion of everything else. In a twenty-plus minute scene, featuring perhaps the longest single shot in cinema history, McQueen has Sands tell a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his plans to die, as part of a campaign for political status. After much backwards and forwards banter between the two men, the priest gets down to brass tacks and asks Sands why he wants to take this drastic step. The answer he gets is something about fields of waving barley.

By setting the film almost entirely within the Maze, McQueen has neglected almost everything that made Bobby Sands the person he was - someone willing to die for a political cause he passionately believed in. Though biopics are inevitably centred on one person, it is impossible to understand the person in isolation, without looking at the social forces that shaped that life, and the circumstances in which it is lived. From McQueen's individualistic perspective, it looks as though the hunger strikers have brought all their suffering upon themselves.

Similarly, as we watch Sands die in agony, little context is provided. Although McQueen no doubt wanted his film to be inspiring, it is this omission which makes it depressing. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking the Thatcher government and the prison regime were all-powerful, as their fervent opponent literally self-destructs. In real life, as the strikes wore on and men started dying, massive public support put great pressure on the already unpopular British state - which eventually conceded two of the 'Five Demands' - and Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on his prison death bed.

This was the beginning of the IRA's 'armalite and ballot box strategy', which saw Sinn Féin become a force in electoral politics. Arguably, what makes the death of self-described socialist Bobby Sands all the more tragic is the sight of his former comrades administering capitalism in the six counties of northern Ireland, alongside bigoted upholders of the Crown.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Airborne Toxic Event/Misery Guts/Scuba Steve and the Life Aquatics

Carling Academy, Hotham Street (12th November 2008)

Three bands of newcomers took to the stage at the Liverpool Carling Academy. All showed flashes of talent that could lead to success, but none of them could quite bring it all together on Wednesday night to ignite the crowd.

First up were Scuba Steve and the Life Aquatics, the kind of people who would sort of name themselves after a decentish 2004 Bill Murray film. That doesn't give much of a clue as to their music though, which sounds like things that were created long, long before these irritatingly young people were born. Influences diverse as The Velvet Underground and Ray Charles vie for attention here, though unfortunately it's quite easy to discern which parts are Velvet Underground-esque and which are Ray Charles bits. However, these lads only started making music together this year, and they certainly know their way around their instruments.

Secondly, we had the kind of people who would name themselves Misery Guts. Although this suggested suicidal black metal to me (though it would), they actually delivered some well-crafted folky acoustic numbers. Again, this was one of their first gigs, but it hardly showed, as the wistful intricacies of songs like Are You Ready? and Trying To Be The Sun demonstrated their high levels of technical skill. Despite not having a drummer, they seemed to fit perfectly together, and even when vocalist David Hirst admitted that they'd played one song too fast, they hadn't seemed lost at any stage. Their music didn't get many people going, and perhaps they would be more suited to acoustic nights, but they already have a number one fan. I know this because just as I was thinking 'that guy's their number one fan', he yelled "I'm your number one fan" at them. They may well pick up more devotees soon.

Following these two local bands, Los Angeles-based The Airborne Toxic Event (above) wrapped things up with an hour-long set. They are the kind of people who would name themselves after a chemical spill that makes people consider their mortality in postmodern author Don DeLillo's White Noise. This is entirely appropriate. Their music is often disjointed, and there are crunching gear changes which don't really fit. Sometimes they sound like an emo Franz Ferdinand, if you can imagine such a thing. But everything comes together when Anna Bulbrook steps forward with her violin, and Mikkel Jollet's impassioned vocals soar over the mixture. Jollet's lyrics were inspired by one calamitous week in 2006, and he clearly means every single word.

The Airborne Toxic Event are getting lots of publicity from the NME as they play a gig per night in November on their knackering UK tour, promoting their self-titled debut album. Where any of the bands will go from here remains to be seen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget...

With all the talk of 'sacrifice' (currently Obama's favourite word) and 'honour', it's easy to forget that most of the soldiers wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else, and they didn't 'give' their lives so much as have them taken away by the war machine and the drive of capitalist 'great powers' to dominate Europe.

Here's Wilfred Owen's take on it:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Antidote To The Ghastly Turner Prize

The Stuckists
View Two gallery, Mathew Street (6th-29th November 2008, Thu & Fri 12-4pm, Sat 12-5pm)

As artists throughout the centuries have discovered, expressing what you think and feel about the world can be a dangerous business. Istanbul-based Stuckist Michael Dickinson found this out to his cost, when he was arrested, detained for ten days, and charged with insulting the Turkish Prime Minister's dignity. His Best In Show collage (left) portrays Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a dog, and George Bush awarding him a rosette for his Iraq war support.

Postmodern conceptual artists don't have to worry about that sort of thing. They inhabit a world where nothing means anything; there are no opinions, only sensationalism and shock value. People such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are often controversial, but in only in the sense of 'pushing the boundaries' - a substitute for holding a mirror up to the world, or even looking themselves in the mirror. The establishment courts them and handsomely rewards them for their efforts.

The Stuckists define themselves in opposition to the multi-million pound industry art has become, and they fight for 'remodernism' - the "quest for authenticity", as the original Stuckists Billy Childish and Charles Thomson described it in their 1999 manifesto.

Having said all that, I found this selection the least impressive of the three Stuckist shows I have seen in Liverpool. By the standards of many exhibitions in the city, it is a delight, and it certainly one of the most interesting shows at this year's Biennial. But that isn't saying very much.

Perhaps I can put this feeling down to the enormity of the unfolding economic collapse. In the current context, it seems that what's on show at View Two - frank depictions of sex acts and more denunciations of celebrity culture - doesn't quite cut it. Even Michael Dickinson's politically praiseworthy work appears slightly dated, considering faction fights within the Turkish state, and new emperor Obama's plans for an intensification of the Afghanistan bloodbath.

By definition, culture lags behind the society it represents. But history seems to be speeding up, so even dedicated artists like the Stuckists will be forced to take a long, hard look at themselves and how they relate to the global situation if they want to be authentic, and 'edgy' in a good way. At least they're not afraid of being just that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

W. (15)

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Screening at FACT from 7th November 2008

As George Walker Bush slumps out of office almost universally hated, with much of the American electorate believing they have just rejected everything he ever stood for in electing the much loved but little understood Barack Obama, we get the first Dubya biopic. So how has Hollywood liberal Oliver Stone portrayed the most despised man on the planet? Well, apparently he’s a basically well-meaning goofball kinda guy who’s had a really difficult job and sometimes feels that’s it’s all a bit too much. Cue tinkling piano and heart-rending pillow talk with Laura. Cry me a river.

Hardly anything important rings true. The major players – Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice are all here – behave exactly the same in private White House conversation as they do on the world stage, as if there’s no such thing as a ‘public face’ for politicians. It seems that Josh Brolin (as the President), Elizabeth Banks (as his First Lady), and especially Thandie Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) spent many hours getting impressions of their respective characters’ nuances and mannerisms down pat, without ever thinking about motivation. Toby Jones (as the man known as “Bush’s Brain”, the noxious Karl Rove), and Richard Dreyfuss (who seems to have been playing Dick Cheney all his life), fare better, but they are working with a dead script. Political junkies might notice that someone – presumably Stanley Weiser – has copied memorable quotes from the various politicians' speeches and crowbarred them into conversation. Is this all a joke, or are we trying to establish why major figures do the things they do?

But I forget; Oliver Stone has his reason why George done a bad thing. He was haunted by the long shadow of his ex-President father, and wanted to gain his respect, or outdo him, or both. But this isn’t anywhere near enough. And even by his own standards, Stone has failed. Speaking to the Guardian, the director summed up his film by asking "How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?" Unfortunately, W. leaves this question far from answered, because he has almost entirely ignored social forces. Rewind eight years and we don’t see Bush – or rather the people behind him – stealing an election, though they actually did and it was really important and stuff. Those people clearly had their own agendas, and thought that they had found the perfect ”folksy”, “compassionate conservative” empty vessel to manipulate in their power games. Still, Bush can’t be understood as an innocent out of his depth. In his clumsy, bumbling way, he has played his part in the killing of hundreds of thousands, the impoverishment of millions more, and the virtual shredding of the United States Constitution, amongst countless other outrages against humanity and the environment. He is – and is set to remain – an obscenely wealthy man.

Sensing the US empire needs serious corporate rebranding, many of the same powers who backed Bush have placed their trust in calmly eloquent newcomer and now President-elect Obama. Meanwhile, a sadistic, murderous gangster exits stage right, leaving a trail of blood behind. But then again, poor thing, isn’t he just a bit of a drunk who has issues with his “papa”? History will surely judge him more critically.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Of Time and the City (12A)

Written and directed by Terence Davies
Screening at FACT from 31st October – 6th November 2008

Terence Davies’ love song to Liverpool - or his “chanson d’amour” as he has it in his often flowery style - is a remarkable documentary in so many ways. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t fall into the all-too-common trap of playing up supposedly ‘unique’ characteristics of the subject area, at the expense of making a genuinely human experience that people all around the world will be able to relate to on some level. Of course, the iconic buildings, monuments and statues appear, but only as part of the backdrop for real life flesh and blood characters acting out their own dramas. The result is a very personal yet socially perceptive work, which is full of warmth.

By invoking Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias near the beginning, Davies makes it clear that Of Time and the City is very much a study of change, of death and rebirth. Implicitly, through his sparse yet poetic narrative, we are asked how things have altered in our own lives, for better and worse. He clearly regrets many of the alterations Liverpool has undergone since he was born into a large Catholic family in 1945, even going so far as to say he now feels like “an alien in his own land”. But he certainly doesn’t romanticise the past or its traditions, decrying the poverty that the city has still not escaped, and pouring scorn on how the monarchy were held up almost as demi-gods in the post-war period. Neither does Davies despair of the future: images of lively young people at play in the city centre provide a half echo of the pleasures he enjoyed and felt guilty about in his youth.

Consciously or unconsciously, Davies is nostalgic for the relatively uncommercialised working class way of life that marked the Liverpool he once knew. The neoliberal Capital of Culture illusion is that individualism and pursuit of the credit-bought commodity have submerged this sense of community and solidarity under layers of car parks, consumer cathedrals, and trademarked Scouse-ness. And yet it lives on, in flashes here and there, a sleeping beauty stirring. As someone born eight years after Davies' 1973 departure for a career in film, I left the cinema even more in love with my people than before.

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