Review – Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

freedom image
If you’re going on holiday anytime soon, I highly recommend you pack this book. As a reading experience it really delivers – all the elements are there: vivid, nuanced characters with whom you can identify, (but whose lives are dramatic enough to provide satisfactory escapism); some genuinely beautiful prose; a panoramic viewpoint spanning generations; the exploration of urgent issues of our time and a sense that the author is thoroughly informed on the subjects he opens up.
Most of all though, it has that magical addictive quality that makes you want to sink your head into the page and shut out the rest of the world – you love and understand the frustrated good guy Walter, the fascinatingly fucked up Patty, the strangely mesmeric Connie, the coolly ambitious Joey and the charismatic arsehole Richard.
The narrative follows Walter and Patty’s relationship from the time they meet in college, through their friendships, marriage, work and family life. It takes us deep into their psychologies, depicting each of their own upbringings and the lives of their parents and even grandparents. Walter and Patty’s personalities are so powerfully drawn that as their lives gradually slip out of control we have the feeling that it could have been no other way.
It’s the way you feel when you hear about people you knew at school and how their lives have turned out. The way you can somehow sense that certain people are cued up for success or heartache or mediocrity. Of course there are a few moments in Freedom when you’re aware of writerly devices, a couple of clunky parallels and unrealistic repetitions, but these can be forgiven because of the absolute sense of destiny which Franzen imbues in his story. It’s not external events or plot driving the characters, it is their inner make-up, their very souls (viewed from this perpective, the parallels and coincidences feel even more realistic, like truth being stranger than fiction). It’s for this reason that when Patty and Walter – and to a lesser extent the other characters – are redeemed at the end of the book, that it doesn’t feel forced.
Perhaps that is why this is such a satisfying read and is such an achievement as a piece of writing.Not for the story it tells, but for the larger truth about human relationships and personality that it points to; the metronome-like reactions that the generations provoke in each other, how and why they come about, their effects on lives stretching into the future.
If only we could see into our ancestors’ heads the way that Franzen sees into the heads of his characters we might all be better equipped to understand how we become the people we are and how and why we create the difficult situations of our lives. Alas, wisdom like that is not for mortals.

Not cool Katz

I can’t help feeling that Ian Katz, the new boy Editor at Newsnight, has more in common with the schoolchildren of the nation than with consumers of “the day’s important national and international news stories.”

Branding a guest “boring snoring”, discussing boy-bands and the tattooed arse of a pop starlet and calling on 90s yoof icon Terry Christian to talk about class, all smack of trying to impress the in-crowd on the first day of term and inadvertently tripping over your too-long trousers.

The second part of his accidentally revealing tweet regarding the MP Rachel Reeve reveals Katz’s glee at being in “tele” and how he thinks it “much better than snooooozepapers”. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to cover it.

It’s all too easy to imagine that last night’s much lauded OB from Beirut (and really what was the fuss about there?) was simply a desperate attempt on Paxo’s behalf to distance himself, physically and intellectually, from the level of debate on offer in the studio, where another near-fatal error was dodged when vacuous reality star Sophie Anderton was a no-show, despite being booked to join Christian in the class debate.

If Katz pulled her then perhaps a chink of self-awareness is now beginning to edge into his mind, but after that ludicrously self-referential end credit of ‘#fail’ next to Katz’s twitter handle, I am now even more convinced that this Editor of a supposedly intelligent news programme is more interested in self-promotion than world affairs.

Elistism in The Arts?

Radio 4 this morning ran quite a lengthy discussion about The Arts Council, beginning with John Maynard Keynes’s speech after the Second World War about how the government should support Arts for All and the effective beginning of the idea of The Arts Council. Has the Arts Council been a victim of its own success the presenter asked – supporting and enabling, as it has, world leading institutions such as The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and The Royal Ballet?

My main problem with this piece was that The Arts, according to Radio 4, seemed to comprise solely of Opera, Ballet and Classical Music – of which only 8% of the UK population pregularly partake. HELLO!!! Britian has a THRIVING arts scene – theatre, dance (too many forms to mention), popular music, poetry, literature, independent film makers, artists, sculptors etc. Why were these not mentioned? Perhaps because they’re not supported by the Arts Council to the extent that the ‘traditional’ elite art forms are?

Does the fact that only 8% of people regularly consume “high-art” mean that we should (nationally) give less money to these forms or more – in order to keep them going? I have can fully appreciate the beauty, power, depth and importance of ballet, opera and classical music in our culture but perhaps it’s time they stood on their own two feet and learnt to supprt themselves a little more and reach out to more people as other art forms have to?

The fact that ticket prices are so high is inevitably the reason that these forms are not more popular. They are intrinsically out of reach for most people. I know I can’t afford to go to the ballet or the opera even though I would dearly love to, and to introduce my daughter to them.

But look at something like Birmingham Arts Fest, a 3 day mega Arts immersion in Britian’s second city – mostly free events – in which the community puts heart, soul and body and is rewarded by huge support. This is an exemplar of inclusivity, whilst I’m afraid to say that the 3 ‘elite’ art forms are the opposite.

The other grating question on the piece was a typically BBC earnest, politically correct whining about the problem of how to get more normal people to take up these intellectually rigorous art forms. But is that the right question? WHY, exactly should more people enjoy ballet, opera and classical music? Are these forms more deserving that others? More worthy? That’s the implication of the assertion. Why shouldn’t opera lovers be encouraged to experience street dance? 

Is it that simply becasue it costs more to go to the ballet/opera/classical concerts that they are viewed as ‘better’ pursuits? And the corresponding fact that fewer people attend them bolsters them this status (a club that not everyone can join has instant cachet)?

We all have our preferences and different tastes and that’s a good thing, to be celebrated and recognised. But the ‘high arts’ seem to be treated differently, favoured by the establishment. The insidious implication in the Radio 4 article that the more expensive – and therefore unattainable – art forms are somehow ‘better’ (in the sense of ‘more deserving’ and more enriching for the consumer) than others is simply offensive.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran – Review

Pubic Hair. Porn. Abortions. Sex. Periods. Lust. Fat. Botox. Boob jobs. It’s all in ‘How To Be A Woman’. Which totally surprised me, because although I was vaguely familiar with Caitlin Moran’s writing, the title of the book had me fooled. I expected witticisms on modern life in the style of ‘Grumpy Old Women’. I didn’t think for a second that it was actually going to be about the reality of what it is to be a woman… Revelation!! Caitlin Moran has the balls to say out loud what women, on a daily basis, brush under their Ikea rugs. If you’re a woman, you know what I mean. If you’re a man you might like to find out. No wonder Jonathan Ross found it so revealing.

How To Be A Woman has released feminism from its humourless, dungaree-wearing image and ushered in a new, emancipated version for the 21st Century. The book is a mixture of philosophical rant and hilarious memoir, following Moran’s life from a frumpy, friendless teen, through bookish rebellion to music and media industry success. Like the Emperor with no clothes, Moran’s literary nakedness melts away the unreality that advertising and the media work so hard to promote as ideal womanhood. The necessity of fashionable clothes, a beautiful home, a fuzz-free body and ‘having it all’ are so embedded in our cultural landscape as signifiers of femininity that it stops you short to see in print: “There are some women out there who are just going to look better with a moustache: that’s statistics.”

Brilliantly, Moran identifies the ‘Princess Paradigm’ as being responsible for almost all of her younger-self’s angst. As the mother of a 7 year old daughter I see the terrifying truth in this, and think that most of us including many men, have fallen victim to the Princess Paradigm. At the moment of her marriage (THE moment that all princesses live for) just as Moran is about to walk down the aisle, her dad, tears brimming in his eyes, takes his daughter’s arm: “This is where he tells me something of how he and mum have stayed together for 24 years and had 8 kids” Moran thinks to herself. He leans in and says “Darling Love. Remember you’re a Womble.” This book reminds us that rather than being Princesses, Goddesses or Earth Mothers, we are all Wombles of sorts.

Taking the Long View of Libya

I believe we are being lied to by our government regarding the military campaign in Libya, and that if you listen carefully to the Orwell-style double-speak employed by the BBC and other mainstream media, it is all too plain to see.

Just yesterday on the Today programme James Naughtie (I think it was) said these words; “We are bombing Libya for humanitarian reasons”. If it wasn’t so sickening it would be funny. Of course, this is the official reason as stated by the government, so the BBC must broadcast it, but I suspect Naughtie was well aware of the intrinsic irreconcileability of his statement.

Throughout the day there was much talk of how Gaddafi was “using human shields” and how the coalition forces had “called off an attack becuase civilians were identified in the area”. We have also heard how “killing Gaddafi is not the aim of the campaign.”

Now, I can report the same story in a totally different way:
“Supporters of Gaddafi have gathered at his residence. After an initial attack by coalition forces in which members of the public were killed, a second attack was decided against at the last minute, when foreign journalists were identified in the are.”

What do we see here? The coalition realised that as there were American journalists in the crowd outside Gaddafi’s home (or evil lair) they couldn’t get away with bombing it a second time. After reports of death and injury to civilians the first time it was attacked (which “could not be independently verified” ie. the coalition forces won’t admit to it) they daren’t risk their justification for action again. And what they thought was a carte-blanche justification for action has turned out to be a pistol shot to the foot. If the people of Libya actually support Gaddafi enough to do this, they have made themselves pretty impotent.

Just look at the pictures of the so-called “unwitting human shields” in today’s Daily Mail and tell me the UK media hasn’t mis-represented them.

Even in that newspaper, it is reported that Gaddafi’s own men (or henchmen as they are called by the DM) brought foreign journalists to survey the damage and see who and what the RAF was about to bomb to smithereens. And yet the headline “Mission Aborted on orders of SAS” and the subsequent paragraphs feasting on the detail of what damage our military could have done, implies how gracious and wisely restrained the RAF and SAS were in holding off from the attack in the face of Gaddafi’s cowardly use of his own people to protect him.

The reality is nothing of the sort, and any intelligent person can see it simply from that one article.

My knowledge CIA intervention is pretty thorough having researched many articles and documents over the last 10 years and worked with a Professor of American post-war foreign policy. CIA intervnetion has ranged from secret coup plans, assasination of foreign leaders and covert military & financial aid and training to the chosen “friendly” leader. In all of these cases (Iran, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Laos, Haiti, Indonesia, Ecuador, Congo and many many more) the result has been humanitarian disaster and corporate profit.

Tactics used have consistently included attacking “our own side” in order to paint the enemy leader who doesn’t comply, as a mad, evil villain. Native agents in the pay of the CIA are consistently used as mouthpieces for the USA agenda. You may hear a rebel on the radio saying that they need our military support and will turn against us if they don’t receive it – how do you verify that he isn’t in the pay of someone who’s agenda that is? And how does a journalist? How do we know that the CIA isn’t ultimately responsible for the attacks blamed on Gaddafi asfter his stated ceasefire?

I’m pointing all this out just to show how easy it is for us to sit here and listen to our radios, watch our TVs and assume that what we are being shown is the whole picture. Very often it is far, far from that. The job of the establishment media today is to portray the image that the government wants us to see, and therefore to CREATE public opinion, not to merely report it unbiasedly. I know many people (including journalists) will scream and shout that that’s not true but it’s time we all took several paces back and opened our eyes to how sophisticated propaganda techniques to win “hearts and minds” have become.

Do we really believe that killing Gaddafi and installing a more amenable leader (or dictator) is not the coalition’s real plan? At best this is a Civil War and at worst it’s a coup, fostered and created by US and other intelligence agencies.

I’m not defending Gaddafi or suggesting he hasn’t committed gross atrocities – I’m sure he has – but as Noam Chomsky so eloqunetly put it to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight a few weeks back: this is not our fight. If anyone is going to intervene it should be the neighbouring countries of Libya.

I would urge everyone to judge our involvement in Libya crisis on our government’s actions, not it’s (or the media’s) words.

Something a Little Bit Old Skool

I’m no authority on hip hop, but I know an authentic voice and a damn good sound when I hear one. This is a classic, and KRS-1 has something to say.

Blue Valentine – a Real Romance

Gosling & Williams as Dean and Cindy

The name Valentine, derived from ‘Valens’ meaning ‘worthy, strong, powerful’ is a good analogy for Derek Cainfrance’s film (using ‘worthy’ in its original meaning, not pertaining to reading The Big Issue or growing your own vegetables).

As a counter to all the stuffed toys, single roses in cellophane and dreadful set menus we all have to snog/marry/avoid tomorrow night, why don’t you get out to your local cinema and watch Blue Valentine.

Now, I like a good rom-com and a bunch of flowers, but I don’t like the prescriptive expectations of February 14th. Blue Valentine is the perfect counter-balance to the essential plasticality of this time of year.

First of all, a quick word about the much-discussed sex-scenes. They’re not: graphic; gratuitous or shocking; they are: realistic; un-glossy and superbly acted. Like the rest of the film, they are more inside your head than anything else.

Telling the story of a young couple’s relationship and the  highs and lows they – read: we all – go through in relationships, this is a film for the realists of love, not the starry-eyed lovelies who wait for Prince Charming. ie. It’s a film for grown-ups.

Incredible acting from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in the leading roles, and a sound-track by Grizzly Bear that is so alive it’s a character in its own right, lift this film to a genuine work of art.

Cainfrance uses an obvious structure – two timelines, one in the disintegrating present, one flashing back to the beginning of the romance. He films the present day relationship – slowly haemorrhaging any last remains of empathy – in a cold blue on HD, and the gorgeous, melting, musical days of early love, on rose-coloured 16mm. The two timelines collide at the climax of the film, with the wedding scene and the moment where  the lovers finally admit to themselves that they are destroying each other. (How you interpret that last scene is up to you – like the rest of the film, its message is not black and white.)

The structure may be obvious, but it REALLY WORKS, delivering an emotional punch in the guts. Combined this with a poetic cinematography, Cainfrance has actually captured the way our memories – charged with desire, belief, deceit, guilt, masochism, hope and hopelessness – live inside our heads.

My only criticism is that Williams’s character is less developed than Gosling’s, and the film is most definitely told more from his point of view. This results in a wife who is an unwitting torturess to her devoted-beyond-the-call-of-duty, if slightly under-achieving husband, which would be OK if we had more of a justification for her actions. I don’t think that inbalance was intentional, and if it was corrected, this would have been a 10 out of 10 movie for me, rather than an 8.

So, if you want to keep it real this Valentine’s Day, this is my recommendation to you.



Somewhere – Sophia Coppola

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in 'Somewhere'

Where to start with the new Sophia Coppola movie, Somewhere. Sigh. OK, here’s what passes for the story: A famous, sexy movie star lives at ultra-hip celeb honey-pot hotel, the Chateau Marmont. His sensitive, bright, early-teen daughter spends some time hanging out with him in his life. Both of them have issues… and that’s it.

The opening scene of the film shows a Ferrari going round and round an empty race track. The camera is static and the car roars in and out of our view, the sound of the engine  alternately approaching and receding and  as it completes each circuit. And then it comes to a stop. That one scene is representative of the whole film.

The first time we meet the main character, Johnny Marco (played convincingly by Stephen Dorff) he is lying on his bed, absent-mindedly watching twin strippers jiggle and wiggle their way through a take-away pole-dancing routine. Johnny is bored. It’s empty-feeling.  Sad. Is there something deeper at the heart of his malaise? OK, I’m intrigued, let’s see what happens next.

Johnny’s world takes a slightly sinister turn when he begins receiving abusive text messages, calling him a selfish asshole among other things. There’s a suggestion that that he’s being followed, and that his car might be tampered with. Then he hangs out a bit with his reliable old mate and screws a few women. Then his daughter Cleo (played brilliantly by Elle Fanning) comes to stay, because Mom Has Things To Do.

Next Johnny has to go to a premiere in Italy, so Cleo comes too. He does all the boring premiere stuff and is herded from place to place like a pantomime donkey. But Cleo is proud of her famous dad, who is applauded wherever he goes. They have some fun hanging out together, then Johnny puts a downer on it all by bringing a woman back to their plush hotel suite who stays for breakfast and isn’t remotely sheepish about it.

Cleo is booked into a summer camp (seemingly for poor little rich kids whose parents don’t have enough time to spend with them). She and Johnny drive to a helipad in the Ferrari. On the way they almost have a decent conversation about how unhappy Cleo is. This is it you think – redemption! But no. She gets on the copter for a week of camp fires and team sports, and he drives off. And he keeps on driving. Until he stops. End of film.

“WHAT??? IS THAT IT????” you shout! Well, yes, I’m afraid it is. “But what about the stalker, and Cleo’s loneliness, and his depression, and their relationship?” “Oh, forget about all that”, says the film, “it just IS”.

It’s a beautiful movie to look at, for sure. Dreamy, atmospheric and with characters who have potential and an interesting situation that we’ve not explored before. But alas, these things cannot make up for a lack of plot. After Johnny’s total refusal to engage with his problems (or his daughter’s) you have absolutely no empathy left for him whatsoever.

Coppola has missed an opportunity here to make a film that connects with people (ironic, considering the theme of loneliness). Yes, it achieves its aim of telling us about the world she grew up in, that the Hollywood life can be all beauty and no meaning, but unfortunately, you cannot help but draw the same conclusion about this movie. I found it impossible to shake the sense that this film decided it was cool just because it was shot at the Chateau Marmont. It may be called Somewhere, but this movie  leads nowhere.

10 o’clock Dead or Alive?

A harmonious quartet?

Well, it was quite a valiant attempt wasn’t it? David Mitchell, Jimmy Carr, Lauren Laverne and Charlie Brooker’s new entertainment news show with a live studio audience launched on Channel 4 last night, at, er 10 o’clock.

The show opened with a cheering audience, reminiscent of 90s cult show The Word, with the presenters sitting around what looked like a dining room table, ignoring the wild hoopla behind them. After an intro from Lauren, who took on the role of presenter and officiator, we were straight into the first segment, a typically sharp and polished topical monologue from Jimmy. It was a good start. Then over to David at the table for a discussion about banking, which he chaired with wit and a sure-handed authority. After a decidedly un-live VT from Charlie on Sarah Palin (an easy target if there was one) the first ad break hit us like an alarm clock on a Monday morning.

So far, so… OK. There were a few topical laughs and a bit of light grilling, but nothing to really grab us. And 10 o’clock live continued in much the same way for another 40 minutes or so (and 2 further ad breaks). There was a lot about Tunisa, but nothing on the phone-hacking story or the Chilcot enquiry, which, as the incendiary subject of discussion over on BBC Question Time, poached a lot of viewers. I am still devastated that I missed George Galloway accuse Alastair Campbell of being “implicit in the death of Dr David Kelley”

Mitchell’s segment “Listen to Mitchell”, a pater-familias type monologue set in Victorian-looking set (although with a modern bar stool for him to sit on) worked well, but Lauren’s only segment, a spoof-style USA topical news report was cringily bad. It meant to be ironic, but failing to succeed, simply came across as poor quality.

Overall, the show suffered from trying to do too much. If it cuts out the unsuccessful segments and expands the decent ones, giving guests more time to discuss issues, Mitchell more opportunity to wield his intelligence, use Jimmy as the slick front man, gives Lauren the one-to-one interview and keeps Charlie away from the unscripted stuff I think it get there.

10 o’clock Live was somewhat savaged on Twitter, but it was only the first ever show. Given a little more time and confidence, it could become a worthwhile mid-week stop-off.

“I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all the game.” (Review, The Wire)

Omar and Bunk have a little chat

One word to describe The Wire: Addictive. I finished watching the box-set a few weeks ago and I am still in mourning. This HBO drama  takes root in your mind and lingers there long after the final roll of the end credits. The characters, the themes and the oft-discussed Baltimore dialect have become part of my life (I now often find myself thinking “shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” and putting a ‘yo’ at the end of statements – in my head of course, I’m not that sad).

Words most often associated with The Wire are “gritty” and “novel-like” – both of which are correct, but give it an innacurate air of humourlessness. True, the portrayal of life in the deprived areas of Baltimore, where drugs and hustling rule the street did very occasionally feel like it was trying to educate rather than entertain, but for 99% of the time, while you’re watching it, that aspect of the show slips in under your nose, like one of Freamon’s wire-taps on a 2 day old burner.

With such beautifully flawed characters as Stringer Bell (the intellectual, ruthless gangster who educates himself and steps into the world of property tycoons before he’s learnt to leave the street behind him) and Jimmy McNulty (the uncomrimising cop who refuses to play the career-climbing game, but ends up on severely dodgy moral ground trying to beat the system his own way) how can you not be utterly pulled in?

It’s only after the gripping machiavellian power struggles and shockingly unvarnished violence of an episode, that you realise you totally understand the viewpoints of people who see the po-lice as the enemy, the local gang leader as a father figure, think that going to school is pointless and that drugs are the only way to escape. Most importantly, The Wire shows us how and why these situations became a reality. The answer, in one word, is corruption.

The central, Shakespearean theme of The Wire – that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, leaves us in no doubt that all of these characters are the victims of a broken system. Whether its kids, cops, teachers, gangsters, parents, politicians or journalists, everyone has a price to pay as they walk along the path of life. The Wire’s characters represent our universal struggles – they have to make choices, they suffer, they care, they give up. But the merry-go-round continues.

While the series has been hailed a masterpiece, and “one of the great achievements in television artistry” its critics say it is hard to follow, the language is difficult and its slow pace tests all but the most determined of viewers. In my mind all of these things are signs of the show’s enormous integrity.

Like relationships with real people, watching The Wire is a complex but rewarding undertaking. You learn a little about yourself, a little about the world and when it’s all over, just by having had that experience, you have grown a bit. That’s powerful TV.