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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

Protected: Erik & Suzanne’s house

December 27th, 2016

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On entitlement, and the consequences of picking the wrong candidate

October 22nd, 2016

One charge that Donald Trump has leveled against Hillary Clinton with some validity is that she is a Washington insider. Much as it galls me to agree with Trump — I feel the need to go and shower, and possibly clean my brain out with bleach — it is true that she has a sense of entitlement to the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton is the product of a political system that promotes from within its own elite. Here in New Zealand, I know people who have been members of Parliament. While I don’t think I necessarily would want to become one myself, I don’t believe it’s beyond the realms of possibility that, were I to set my sights on the Beehive, I could one day find myself in Parliament. It’s at the very least possible, if not terribly likely. But when I lived in America, I had no sense that politics could ever be open to me. Anyone can grow up to be president, American children are told, but this is of course utter bollocks. American politics is elitist, and more worryingly it’s dynastic. From the Adams family to the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, and more recently and disastrously the family Bush, père et deux fils, politics in America has been a family matter, and with the prospect of the first husband-and-wife tag-presidency, it’s looking more and more incestuous. I struggle to respect someone who only started seeking public office once she’d been married to the president, and then rather than working her way up the ranks parachuted herself straight into the US Senate and then got herself made up to Secretary of State. She’s by no means the first person to parlay her fame into an accelerated entry into politics: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura all stepped straight up to the top slots. Why pay dues when you have name recognition?

But there’s a more significant reason to be troubled by the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Think back to the Democratic primaries — cast your mind back to the energy, the buzz, the vitality surrounding the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Here was a man who had some genuinely interesting ideas, a man who was willing to be labelled a “socialist” (he was, of course, no such thing), a man who had something worthwhile to say. And he wasn’t really meant to be there. Clinton was the anointed candidate, the candidate the Democratic Party’s higher-ups had designated, the candidate favoured by the large majority of super delegates. There were, of course, other prospects — four, to be exact — but how many names can you remember of men (of course they were men) who put their hands up for the Democratic nomination? By the time the dust had settled after the first primary in New Hampshire, they’d all dropped out, leaving only Clinton, the Chosen One of the party, and Sanders, who clearly hadn’t read the memo and didn’t know that he was supposed to do the same.

And so Sanders campaigned against Hillary Clinton. And he energised young voters in a way that has rarely been seen before. My daughter, newly eligible and voting in her first election, was genuinely excited to vote for a candidate who meant something, who actually created passion for his campaign. Yes, Feel The Bern was a little trite, but there was some heat, some fire in his campaign, fire that was lacking in Clinton’s. I don’t recall hearing many voices filled with the same excitement at the thought of voting for Hillary Clinton But she won the nomination regardless, because she’s a political machine, and she’s run a very slick, very professional, very political campaign that’s been ruthlessly effective in building momentum and wiping the floor with the buffoon she’s challenging. But it’s hard, so very, very hard, to find any enthusiasm for her. Yes, Democrats and those Republicans who have evolved their way a little further up the food chain will vote for her, and yes, she’ll win. And yes, it’ll be a very big deal that the United States will have its first female president, but little will change.

Just imagine what things would look like had Sanders won. It’s likely that he lost the nomination to Clinton because a significant number of Democratic voters were tempted by him, but simply didn’t see him as a viable presidential candidate: yes, we’d vote for him, but we just don’t see him winning the general election, many seem to have thought, and so we’ll put Clinton up; better her than a Republican president. She wasn’t the better candidate; she was the more electable. But look at what the Republican Party have tossed up onto the podium. It’s hard to imagine a more crass, blundering, imbecilic, offensive, arrogant tosser of a candidate; Clinton’s probably already started packing for her move back into the White House. But beating Donald Trump won’t be the most resounding endorsement of her candidacy — I suspect even Biscuit, my Dog of Very Little Brain, would be able to beat Donald Trump in both a presidential debate and an election. She’d be eligible, too — she was born in the US, and she lived there long enough, in dog years. There’s absolutely no doubt that Bernie Sanders would have wiped the floor with Trump every bit as effectively as Clinton has been able to do.

So again, imagine what things would look like had Sanders won. Instead of yet another presidential dynasty, with Barack Obama’s two terms the only thing breaking up a six-term streak of Bushes and Clintons in the White House, we’d be looking at the possibility of real, meaningful change, of an actual, serious progressive presidency, instead of a president who, despite alleged left-leaning tendencies, wouldn’t be out of place in the soft-right wing of the British Conservative Party.

American politics has once again embraced the entitled, the political celebrity, the known name, when it had the chance to do something remarkable and historic. If — it could happen; it’s astonishingly unlikely, but it could happen — Trump somehow manages to get himself elected, America could well implode. That would be painful, but at least it might bring about the change that America so desperately needs. But he won’t. Hillary Clinton will be the next president. Being the first female president will be the one interesting thing about her. And a wonderful chance will have been squandered.

On bigotry, and the nastiness of American politics

October 21st, 2016

The vigour with which Hillary Clinton is being reviled and despised by much of the population of the United States is to say the least a little troubling. American elections are, as well they should be, fought energetically, but when has an American election been fought with such spite and venom?

A flick through my Facebook feed, including as it does a decent number of Americans of, roughly, my age reveals a quite astonishing animus towards Clinton. The simple, most obvious, reason, is that she is, as you may have noticed, a woman, but there’s a lot more to the bile and hatred directed her way than simple misogyny.

It’s hard to deny that a large part of the hatred directed toward Clinton is, indeed, good old-fashioned sexism. Bigotry has long been the undercurrent that drives much of American society, and it has long taken many forms, but we’ve only really seen it speak its name in the last decade or two. The normalisation of American bigotry started when the Democrats began the process of anointing Barack Obama, and that simply wouldn’t do — the presidency, let’s face it, is the property, the manifestly destined right, of good, God-fearing Christian white men. And then along comes one of them there negroes, thinking he’s going into the White House? That simply wouldn’t do, but then, neither would the out-and-out racism that bubbles under the surface of much of American discourse but which usually has the courtesy, or at least the common sense, to keep quiet. So rather than have the decency to admit that they couldn’t stand the thought of a black president, many Americans started to question another pillar of their expectations for a president — the “God-fearing Christian” bit — and, setting aside the fact that Obama has been a church-goer much of his life, painted him as a Muslim. Because while racist bigots know to keep their mouths shut, while polite American society knows to condemn racial bigotry, religious bigotry is still tolerable in America — them terrrrrists are all Mohammedans, after all, ain’t they, which means, ipso facto, that them Mohammedans ain’t to be trusted now, are they, ‘cos they’re all terrrrists, ain’t they? Toss in some bullshit about him being ineligible for the presidency because he was born in Kenya (wrong on a whole Internet’s worth of levels, starting with the fact that he wasn’t born in Kenya and then moving through the fact that, even had he been, he’d still have been more eligible for the presidency than John McCain, but that’s a whole and entire other story…), and you’ve got a nice little way of discrediting the black man without ever actually having to point out that the reason you don’t like him is simply that you’re a racist. And now that we’ve got bigotry firmly established as a guiding force in politics (hardly new — how the hell did a Catholic ever get elected?), it’s not a huge surprise that sexist bigotry is making a disappointing number of people detest a major-party candidate simply because of one of her twenty-third chromosomes.

But that’s only part of what’s profoundly broken in the discourse surrounding the current electoral fiasco. Much of the rest of the blame has to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the orange-faced gibbon opposing Clinton. Donald Trump, the bizarre, petulant, ignorant manchild that somehow Republican voters thought should be their nominee for president, has lowered the tone of discourse surrounding this election so far down into the gutter that it’s starting to terrify the clowns that usually live in the sewers. He’s a hateful little man, a frustrated little bundle of anger and hatred with very little about which to be angry. A born winner of life’s lottery in many ways, he has one toy he’s still not been given, and he wants it so terribly badly, so he’s willing to fight a very ugly fight to get it, and woe betide any poor bugger who gets in his way. He’s lived a life as charmed as any until now, getting away with, well, not murder as far as we’re aware but a catalogue of other sins. He’s clearly a despicable businessman, and the details of his personal life that are revealing themselves of late show us that his reprehensibility  extends far beyond the boardroom. What should be, and what has been in previous years, a civil and civilised process in which grown-ups challenge each other’s conflicting views in a grown-up way has been turned by a presence so toxic that even his hair looks like it has to be cemented to his head to stop it from escaping. Trump has so lowered the level of the discourse that “I simply can’t agree with Clinton’s policies and I cannot accept that she is the right person for the presidency” has become “I hate Crooked Hilary.” What’s terrifying about this, of course, is not so much that Trump’s rhetoric is both infantile and offensive, and more that he’s managed to set the tone of the national conversation about his opponent at this level.

I have little love for Hillary Clinton. She’s the latest in a long line of entitled famous people and part of yet another American political dynasty. But the campaign that Donald Trump has run lacks even the most basic, fudamental rudiments of polite intercourse. It’s fine to disagree with Clinton, but the profound ugliness of Trump’s rhetoric is less than she deserves, and the spiteful nastiness of his campaign has denied Americans the opportunity to have an intelligent debate about the future of the country. And, having allowed Trump to drag the national debate down to his infantile level, America has embarrassed itself in front of the rest of the world, and it should be thoroughly ashamed of itself.

On Legend, and truly funny violence

September 2nd, 2015

Legend is not a nice film — no film that tells the story of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, could ever reasonably hope to be.



Instead, what Legend manages to be is both brutally violent and extraordinarily entertaining at the same time. Tom Hardy is outstanding as both Reggie and Ronnie, finding depth in the differences between the brothers. Ronnie, the truly insane twin, a mouth-breathing paranoid schizophrenic who, in Hardy’s portrayal, seems to find joy and release in his violence, is depicted as a man-child, a thoroughly dangerous individual who fails fully to understand the enormity of his acts. Reggie, on the other hand, is played by Hardy as a more straightforward sociopath, a truly nasty man who will hurt whomever he needs to in the cause of advancing his own interests. It’s a truly fantastic performance, one that’s likely to see Tom Hardy wearing a dinner suit in Hollywood in January waiting to hear his name called.

He’s helped, of course, by a quite superb supporting cast. Underused — criminally — is Christopher Eccleston as Nipper Read, the copper who doggedly followed the Krays and eventually put them away. But more remarkable is Emily Blunt as Frances Shae, Reggie’s wife (or, possibly, his beard — Ronnie is quite forthright in his preference for boys), who narrates the story.

The story, of course, is shabby and squalid and nasty and ugly, telling as it does of the rise of two violent, thuggish men who terrorised the East End of London for much of the 196os while maintaining a veneer of respectability through their establishment connections. But it’s a story that’s told with style by Brian Helgeland, offering us a glimpse of what little human side the Krays managed to maintain as they descended into violence and brutality.

There are, indeed, moments of wonderful humour, funny and dark and shocking at once — Ronnie’s disappointment, complete with spittle-flying rage, at the thought of missing out on a shootout “like a western” is so sharply drawn that you’ll still be laughing as he shatters a man’s kneecaps with a pair of hammers. That’s not an easy trick for a director to pull off. But Helgeland, a director whose CV includes films as stylish and entertaining as LA Confidential and the wonderful A Knight’s Tale, manages to find humour — genuinely funny, properly laugh-out-loud-between-winces humour — in scenes of men having electric shocks administered to their nipples while being strung up by their ankles.

Almost as much of a star in Legend is London itself, the backdrop to the story of Ronnie and Reggie. London of the 1960s is, typically, Carnaby Street, all primary colours and pretty young things enjoying the release that the 60s offered. But Legend offers a different perspective — the East End, grey and grim and grindingly suffocating. Set against that background, the attraction of the life that Reggie offers Frances — his Frankie — is easier to comprehend.

Helgeland and Hardy portray the Krays as human beings, deeply flawed men with little to redeem them, but at the same time they manage to find humanity in their subjects. Reggie’s deteriorating relationship with Frankie is played with finesse and nuance, Browning more than equal to the task of working alongside Tom Hardy’s quite remarkable performance.

This is, as has been mentioned, not a pleasant film. It’s a brutally violent story of two very unpleasant men. But it’s also a very, very funny, film, a story of two men whose story needed to be told. And, oh yes, it’s very good.

On Straight Outta Compton, and a whitewashing

August 31st, 2015

NWA were, if Straight Outta Compton is any indication, a three-piece outfit. The film, then, is clearly not the most reliable of witnesses.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of NWA’s dramatic rise to fame with the release of their first album, from which the film takes its title, in 1988. It focuses — not entirely surprisingly; Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are credited as producers — on Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E, largely glossing over MC Ren’s, DJ Yella’s, Arabian Prince’s and The D.O.C.’s contributions to the band. And, given the inevitably hagiographic tone, the story itself is disappointingly lifeless — Eazy E is befriended by record distributor Jerry Heller, Straight Outta Compton is recorded and becomes astonishingly successful, fame ensues and then it all goes pear-shaped.

The story is, of course, well known, so this isn’t so much an exercise in narrating the dramatic ascent of an important band. Instead, it serves, it would seem, to rehabilitate the reputations of its three leads. Ice Cube, played here by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, is an innocent schoolboy who’s swept along into something much bigger than him; Dr. Dre is a musical genius behind the production of NWA’s output. Eazy E’s drug dealing is addressed head-on, an easier task given that Eric Lynn Wright died of AIDS in 1995, but Dr. Dre’s well-documented violence against women is entirely avoided.

While failing as a piece of history, revealing as it does little about the genesis of NWA and serving largely to remind us what heroes its members were and what utter shits the likes of Heller and Suge Knight, Dr. Dre’s colloborator in the establishment of Death Row Records, were, Straight Outta Compton isn’t an entirely bad watch. Paul Giamatti is, as ever, superb, portraying the slime and sleaze of a man who clearly had his own interests closest to his heart. Corey Hawkins, of the three leads the most experienced actor, plays Dr. Dre with depth, depicting a conflicted individual who is trying to make sense of his sudden rise. Less successful is F. Gary Gray’s filmmaking — the film is well over two hours long, much longer than it needs to be, and drags more than a film like this really should. Gray shoots his set-piece concert footage excellently, capturing deftly the energy and anger of an NWA performance. But the film’s treatment of the women in NWA’s world is disappointing, at best — for the first half of the film, more lines are delivered by naked women than by clothed ones, and the only women who make any meaningful contribution to the film are a mother and two wives. Perhaps Gray is trying to reflect the misogyny inherent in the musical genre he’s depicting; at any rate, women, with rare exceptions, have two roles in this world — if they’re not hos, then they’re bitches. This is underlined by a screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, which would seem to reflect less how black men really speak, and more how middle-class white folk imagine they probably speak.

I had very low expectations of this film when I went in. I’m not a fan of rap music; little of what I saw made me want to try listening to rap further. If you’re a fan of the band and their music, you might find Straight Outta Compton to be worth a look. It’s not a film I’ll want to see again.