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In memoriam Polly Higgins, lawyer who inspired Extinction Rebellion: never before published interview on Ecocide

22 Apr
Ecocide campaigner Polly Higgins, back in 2011

Ecocide campaigner Polly Higgins, back in 2011

Shockingly, the lawyer Polly Higgins has died at just 50. She devoted the last decade of her life to trying to pass a game-changing, planet-saving law on Ecocide. This law is one of the key demands of the current Extinction Rebellion movement — as well as paralysing central London, Extinction Rebellion protestors occupied the International Criminal Court in the Hague a week ago to demand the adoption of Ecocide as the fifth international crime. Below is an interview feature I did with her in 2011, when her Eradicating Ecocide movement was in its infancy, for an eco-magazine which, sadly, folded before publication.

“Of course the slave trade is justified. It’s only subjugating blacks and heathens; and besides, it’s vital to the economy.” It’s hard to believe that, just two centuries ago, this was the prevailing view. Who now could look back on it with anything but abhorrence?

Yet, according to the lawyer and campaigner Polly Higgins, our children and grandchildren will regard our own era with similar disbelief. Multinational corporations have been allowed to strip the Earth of natural resources that have taken millions of years to build up, while climate change threatens a global disaster of unguessable proportions. And these companies haven’t merely a licence to do so, but practically an obligation: a CEO will be voted out if he fails to make the most profit he legally can for his shareholders.

“In essence,” Higging sums up wryly, “the law says ‘go ye and destroy the planet if you can make a profit out of it’.”

The slave trade was abolished in large part due to the efforts of William Wilberforce, who saw that economic arguments would always favour slavery, and that businesses were incapable of self-regulation despite their promises. Instead, he argued the legal case for abolition on moral grounds. Put simply, the slave trade was just plain wrong.

Higgins has come to a similar realisation. The quantifying of environmental damage, and the international trade in carbon credits, leads only to a mindset in which anything is permitted to those with a big enough cheque-book. Fines are simply built into a company’s balance sheets. A recent UN-sponsored survey placed the global cost of environmental damage by business at $6.6 trillion in 2008, predicting that this figure would rise to $28.6 trillion by 2050. Yet the majority of this is down to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, an argument susceptible to endless counter-argument and speculation. Governments have been debating the point for decades, and show no signs of action.

Instead, like Wilberforce, Higgins proposes simply that environmental damage be termed a crime. Because it’s just plain wrong.  She is calling this crime “Ecocide”, and wants it enshrined in international law alongside Genocide – which, lest we forget, has itself been a crime only for the last half a century. And just as army generals and heads of state are accountable for crimes of Genocide, Higgins proposes that company directors be prosecuted directly for crimes of Ecocide. Only then, she argues, will they be forced to clean up their act.

Higgins has written a powerful manifesto, “Eradicating Ecocide”, which in July won the 2011 People’s Book Prize. Reader comments start at 10 on the dial — “inspiring… best book of the decade” — and go way past 11 to “probably the most important book in all history”.

Ecocide mock trial

She makes an unlikely eco-campaigner. There’s not a whiff of patchouli in her des res in Islington. Even the graffiti in this area is posh: a Banksy-style stencil of Wills and Kate adorns a nearby wall. Her mother was an artist, her father a scientist. It’s a winning genetic combination. There is a lot of woolly thinking around environmental issues, but she’s done her research.

Higgins has already pitched Ecocide as an international crime before the United Nations. And on September 30 the case will be debated in a mock trial in the UK’s Supreme Court. The trial has no legal standing, and the CEO in the dock will be fictional, but everything else about it will be real: some of Britain’s foremost lawyers and expert witnesses will present a real-world case – the Deepwater oil drilling disaster, perhaps, or the Alberta tar sands – before an impartial jury.

According to Simon Hamilton of the non-profit Hamilton Group, who is staging the trial, “This is very much not an event which is openly in favour of making Ecocide a crime. It’s to raise awareness of the issues, to have a debate.”

The event will be streamed live on the internet (including the deliberations of the jury), and Hamilton hopes also to make it the centrepiece of a bigger documentary. The event will cost £20,000 to stage, with half coming from corporate sponsors and half from individuals. A week before we spoke, he entered a plea for donations on the Crowdfunder website. With 44 days left to go to reach his target of £10,000, he had already raised £3,440.

It’s clear that the issue has captured the public imagination. And this, says Higgins, is vital. “Governments will not move unless public pressure gives them permission to move.”

She desperately wants this issue to build up a head of steam. Next June is the Rio Earth Summit: 194 delegates from around the world, most of them heads of state, will be debating issues such as Ecocide. It will be the 20th anniversary of the gathering in Rio where a whole raft of environmental legislation was on the agenda, but taken off again thanks to corporate lobbying.

“The businesses said that they would self-regulate,” says Higgins, “that there was no need for laws. Well, that gave birth to climate negotiations, and the concept of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), and 20 years on we’re in an even worse position. Just like Wilberforce said, voluntary mechanisms do not work. So, they’ll be looking at all this again, and this is our chance.” Bolivia, she says, is very much on board, and swinging the rest of South America behind it.

All the same: she can’t really believe this could actually happen, can she? The Ecocide debate is a great way of raising public awareness, but the things she is calling for – jail terms for CEOs who flout the rules, potentially even for the bankers who fund them; an eventual end to the exploitation of non-renewable resources such as oil – are surely too radical ever to reach international agreement.

“Absolutely I believe it can happen,” she retorts. “But I can’t do it alone. It’s about finding the voice of the people, but I am also trying to find someone higher up who will take it to the next level.”

Again, she cites the slave trade. “Wilberforce had a friend, Charles Grant, the CEO of the East India Company – the Shell or Exxon Mobil of its day. It derived enormous profit from slavery. All the same, Wilberforce got Grant on board, and he eventually went public, saying: ‘This is adverse to my company’s interest but still we must stop it.’

‘Today, I’m looking for the Charles Grants of industry. Richard Branson perhaps – at the climate negotiations last year, Branson said, ‘give us the laws and we’ll work with them’. I’m like the Apache Indian, creating smoke signals. Others will get it, and pass it along. And then hopefully the cavalry will ride into town.”

Yes, and we all know what the cavalry would do to the Indians. It’s a rare slip in an otherwise impressive flow. In conversation, Higgins demonstrates a winning combination of passion and logic. Of the controversial surface mining of Alberta’s tar sands, she says: “Shell says that the tar sands deposits only affect 1.5% of Canada. They say that to minimise it, but that’s a huge territory. It’s kind of like saying, ‘We only killed 1.5% of humanity, and they’re Jews so it doesn’t matter.’ It does.”

When asked how we would replace fossil fuels, Higgins has an answer for that, too. Desertec is a non-profit foundation dedicated to harnessing solar power on a massive scale, using solar panels in the world’s deserts. “Within six hours,” points out research leader Gerhard Knies, “deserts receive more energy from the sun than humanity consumes within a year.” This means that concentrated solar plants covering just 0.5% of the world’s deserts could, theoretically, power the whole world’s energy needs.

As to the expense, Higgins points out that the fossil fuel industry currently receives $600 billion in subsidies. “It’s the last gasp of a dying dinosaur,” she says. Both literally and figuratively.

Climate change eureka moment

Higgins had her Eureka moment on stage during the climate change debates in Copenhagen in 2009, when someone in the audience commented that we need a whole new language to deal with environmental destruction. “The word ‘Ecocide’ came into my head,” she remembers. “I went home buzzing, immersed myself in the problem, and didn’t come up for air for three months. By then, I’d convinced myself the argument was water-tight.”

The ground covered by her resulting book is wide-ranging. Nuclear waste dumping is “one of the great unarticulated problems of the future”, and it’s estimated that the use of warheads tipped with depleted uranium during the first Gulf War will cause 500,000 additional cancers in Southern Iraq over the next ten years. Not for Higgins the argument that nuclear power can be green. Pesticides have helped deplete the mineral and vitamin content in fruit and vegetables by up to 75%, yet up to 31,000 tonnes of pesticides are used in the UK each year, filling food with poison which we then ingest.

How much of this would be covered by the crime of Ecocide would be open to legal argument, though her definition is simple enough: “Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.” There are existing precedents for defining terms such as “extensive” and “severely diminished”.

The key to deterrence is, she maintains, to prosecute individuals, not companies: to make CEOs personally liable for environmental destruction. Ignorance would be no defence. Witness the worst oil spill of recent times, the Deepwater disaster. In 2009, BP’s Environmental Impact Analysis stated that it was virtually impossible for an accident to occur. Yet occur it did, with catastrophic consequences. If Ecocide were a crime, BP chairman Tony Hayward would be in jail right now.

Not everyone’s heart will bleed for the fat cat on over £2 million a year who grumbled after the spill, “I want my life back” — but is it really fair to hold him personally accountable? Can you prosecute crime without intent? ”It’s completely fair,” Higgins shoots back. “Think of it as the difference between death by dangerous driving, and murder. If you’re driving too fast, you’ve still caused death. The sentence will be less, but you’re still going to jail.

“That said, I have no appetite for locking up CEOs; I have an appetite for changing what they are doing. These multinational companies have a colossal infrastructure, some great brains working for them. We need those leaders in the field. I want to turn the causes of the problem into the solution. BP at one time were genuinely going to go Beyond Petroleum, but they didn’t have the legislative framework to encourage them to do so.”

Her second book, which she has blocked out the whole of August to write, will deal with the practicalities of getting businesses onside, properly motivated and compensated. Like Wilberforce, Higgins is prepared to devote her life to this cause, though she is hoping that the internet age, with its ability to mobilise pressure groups, will speed things up. Just look at how quickly a simple Twitter campaign to pressurise the News of the World’s advertisers resulted in the closure of the paper and Rupert Murdoch being hauled up before the House of Commons.

Of next year’s Rio summit, she says: “Of course, all the campaigners can turn up and speak, and nothing happens. Everyone has a jolly good conference, everyone claps, and everyone goes home. Or we can give our leaders a mandate to act, by bringing pressure to bear, by the public, by the youth, by children having a voice and saying we want this.

“People can go on my site, sign on to the newsletter. We will have a tool kit up there soon to help pester politicians and heads of state, which can be very powerful. It’s about getting more and more people to use the language of Ecocide, about changing the emphasis to ‘I owe a duty of care’, not ‘I own’. Remember that children and wives used to be covered by Property Law. But now children are about trusteeship. Your child is not your property. If you abuse your child you can go to prison. It should be the same for the Earth.

“It all comes down to building a campaign. I have a year.”

She’ll need all the help she can get. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found on board a ship. As a result, some captains simply threw their slaves overboard to escape prosecution. No matter what the law says, big business will be slow to change its ways.

Further information about “Eradicating Ecocide” can be found at https://eradicatingecocide.com/

 

Solo: more Star Bores than Star Wars (spoiler-free)

25 May
A young Han Solo and an already ancient Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

A young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and an already ancient Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Oh dear. This is the origin story of one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history? One that Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote Solo as a duo, with his son) has had 40 years to prepare for?

It’s by no means a bad film, despite the ill omens of the original directors leaving due to “creative differences” to make way for the solid, dependable but seldom inspired Ron Howard. But it is the worst so far in the Disney-era Star Wars franchise. I can’t think of a single stand-out scene that would make me grab a friend by the lapels and say, “you gotta see that!” It also returns uncomfortably to a past action era of “no consequences” – when a character suffers a tragic loss, it’s all forgotten by the next scene.

If, like me, you’re a Star Wars die-hard, you’ll see it anyway, so I won’t detail any of the plot – not that there are too many surprises to spoil. But here’s a thing that strikes me as curious. It has been said for some time that actors can get cast to some degree for their social media presence. But the casting of Solo: A Star Wars Story takes brand synergies to a whole new level. Look at it this way:

–Woody Harrelson (typically good as a cynical, “trust no one” adventurer) brings in the Hunger Games crowd.

–Thandie Newton (magnificent, if underused, as his partner in crime) adds a dash of Westworld appeal.

–Emilia Clarke (Han Solo’s love interest) brings in the fanatical Game of Thrones fan base.

–Paul Bettany (the bad guy) adds a dash of mighty Marvel.

–And Phoebe Waller-Bridge (great as an independent-minded robot)… well, she’s no franchise star, but Fleabag made her the coolest and edgiest woman on screen since Lena Dunham, so she brings Solo a hip transplant.

–As does the multi-talented Donald Glover (as Lando Calrissian), currently tearing up social media with his new Childish Gambino video.

A recipe for success, then, you’d think. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Disney and diversity: Thandie Newton on the BFI trainees with Solo: A Star Wars Story

24 May
Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

With diversity the current buzzword in Hollywood, there is one major studio that is actually walking the walk. Disney, previously pilloried on social media for churning out pretty princesses who need saving and villains whose inner ugliness is telegraphed through physical deformity, has undergone a radical change of philosophy: making inclusive animations such as Moana, and even feature films with black leads such as Queen of Katwe and, having acquired Marvel Studios, Black Panther. These are the films which, watched by children now, will shape the global citizens of tomorrow. The importance of Disney using its enormous influence for social good can hardly be overstated.

The Star Wars franchise was desperately in need of such a makeover from its new parent company to banish the shuddering memory of Jar Jar Binks. The latest, Solo: A Star Wars Story, always had to feature Lando Calrissian (played by the multi-talented Donald Glover), since one of the few canonical pieces of Han Solo’s back story is that he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game. It also throws in the magnificent Thandie Newton as partner in crime to Woody Harrelson’s cynical, “trust no one” adventurer.

Even more impressively, Disney is also seeking to effect change behind the camera. At a special preview at BFI Southbank last night, Disney fielded an impressive panel composed of Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame, playing an independently minded robot) and producer Simon Emmanuel, together with the BFI’s Ben Roberts and Gaylene Gould. They were there to talk about the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme, which aims to counteract decades of under-representation by attracting trainees who might otherwise never have considered a career in film: 75% of their intake last year were women, 45% BAME, 68% from outside Greater London, and 36% from poor households that received free school meals.

“If you live in the North of England,” said BFI CEO Amanda Nevill in her opening speech, “the notion of working in the film industry is quite fantastical: in fact it’s far more than a galaxy far, far away.”

“Diversity always has a huge impact,” said Waller-Bridge. “We instantly grow from a diversity of voices. It results in less stereotyping, better characters, and the truth can sing.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton brought her own personal experience to bear on the subject: “Growing up in Cornwall, I didn’t see other people like me anywhere. I grew up deeply insecure as a result. My sense of self-worth was crippled by not seeing other people like me, because the characters of films and television are our heroes, they are a way of feeling less alone.

“I have three children,” she continued, “and they’ve always played with dolls, and when they do it’s important they are exposed to diversity. I will go in with felt-tip pens and change the colour of characters’ skins in story books!”

There was an emotional moment when Newton mentioned Oola, “one of the few people of colour” in the original Star Wars trilogy: Oola was a Twi’lek slave who was killed by Jabba the Hutt when she resisted his advances. “She’s here in the audience!” someone shouted out. “I know,” Newton shot back. “I invited her!”

It transpired the actress, Femi Taylor, had also played Newton’s mother in her debut movie, Flirting. (Newton was so good in that 1991 Australian drama, incidentally, aged 16, that I insisted on running an interview feature with her in Time Out at the time).

But starry as the panel was, the greatest applause was reserved for two young trainees in the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme. Neither had known during their interviews, indeed not until they walked on to the set, that the film they would be working on was not some indie drama but the latest behemoth in the Star Wars franchise.

Nathan Lloyd, a black youth from Birmingham, was inspired at being put to work as a camera trainee for Bradley Young, only the second black cinematographer ever to win an Oscar, and has since worked on Sky One’s Bullet Proof and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light. Maria Moss, a half-Filipino girl from Manchester who said how surreal it was to take tea to “Chewbacca” and have him respond in a Liverpudlian accent, will be working as assistant director on the Wonder Woman sequel over the summer.

It was an inspiring evening. And following the success of the pilot scheme, in which 28 trainees were put to work on Solo, 30 more youths are to be given a new hope (see what I did there?) by working on the next main Star Wars film, Episode IX, from July.

Change won’t come about through talk and good intentions. It will come about through training a new generation with the necessary skills. Big up the BFI, and Disney, for starting the ball rolling.

The 10 films that changed my life

21 Apr

the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975I was asked to do this Facebook thing of “In no particular order, list 10 all time favourite films, which really made an impact on you. Post the poster and nominate a new person each day.” But a) I’ll only forget each day and b) I imagine it all started as a way to harvest data on sharing and friends. So here it is as a blog instead.

NOTE: this about impact, not objective quality. The dates are when I saw these films, not always when they were released. Inevitably, they are concentrated in my formative years. I have seen many brilliant films since, but nothing can rock your world and change your life like films you see in your youth.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). When I won a scholarship to Winchester, my dad said he would take me to London, where I could do or have anything I wanted. I chose to see this. I had never laughed as much. But mostly, it’s here for the father-son bonding thing. And the Black Knight. And the questions three. And the shrubbery. And the farting in your general direction.

Star Wars (1977). Blew my head clean off and made me swear to be involved with film in some way for the rest of my life (leading me to Time Out, and later to write shorts of my own).

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1979). My first art-house film in a rep cinema. Realised belatedly there was a whole world of film out there, which I spent my uni years devouring.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979). Any film you’ve seen 40+ times has got to be on this list. This was in the early days of call-and-response and dressing up at midnight screenings. I’ve shown it to people since, and they’re like, “Nice songs, quite fun, but what’s the big deal?” People forget, now, how liberating and transgressive and attitude-changing the film was at the time. I’ve since been sung to by both Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn (now Lady Stephens) 😊

Apocalypse now posterApocalypse Now (1980). I saw this loads of times at the Towne Cinema midnight screenings in Ottawa, with bongs being passed up and down the aisles. Epic sweep that never loses touch with the human drama; very much of the drug culture but with a coherent plot; horrifying and hilarious and equal measure.

Napoleon (1983). I saw the restored version at the Barbican with, if memory serves, triptych screens and a live orchestra. I’ve seen it in cinemas twice since, as well as on TV. I studied the French Revolution for my degree, but more than that, it is astonishingly modern for a film made in 1929 – and started me off on a whole silent movie kick.

Blue Velvet (1986): Because obviously. I mean, imagine seeing it on first release, with no expectations or preconceptions about what David Lynch was capable of. It was, to quote Colonel Kurtz above, “like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”

Akira (1988). My gateway to the astonishing world of anime.

The Lion King (1994). It amuses me that the plot is filched from Hamlet, but really this is here because it makes me think of my boys. I took Theo to the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square when he was seven months old! Start ‘em out young. He slept through much of it, but we watched it a gazillion times subsequently on DVD. My mum would take me to films when I was young, and I’ve extended this to the next generation. Sam’s even made two excellent shorts of his own, one a nominee for student film of the year.

animalcharm-posterAnimal Charm (2012). The idea for this 20-minute featurette came to me in a flash in the gym: a fading fur fashion designer kidnapped by animal rights activists, with a grand guignol horror twist ending. Sadie Frost and Sally Phillips starred, with Michael “Ugly Betty” Urie and Boy George in small roles. It was really good. Kate Moss came to the premiere the W Hotel and sat in the aisle as there were no seats left. Director Ben Charles Edwards (who also co-wrote) has since gone on to make two feature films, while I have gone back into paid journalism, but it was still the culmination of a life-long dream to see something of mine up on the big screen. Thanks, Ben. You’re an extraordinary film-maker.

 

 

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking, and what he teaches us about the little things rather than the big

14 Mar

Stephen_Hawking_picIt’s sad to hear of the death of Stephen Hawking, but how extraordinary that he lived to the age of 76: a testament to his strength of will. In 1963, when diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, he was given just a handful of years to live.

I met Stephen Hawking once, on the set of Errol Morris’s documentary about him. This was in 1991, when Eddie Redmayne, who would later win an Oscar for playing him in A Theory of Everything, was not yet 10. What struck me most was that however much Hawking’s mind was focused on the great mysteries of the universe, he still made time for the little things in life. Though he could “speak” only by laboriously tapping out the letters one by one by twitching one finger on a toggle of his wheelchair, he would still say “please” and “thank you” to the assistants who helped him. That’s more than can be said of many able-bodied stars I have seen on film sets.

No one who ponders such things can fail to reel in terror at the thought that the universe is so vast and its epochs so long, while we are but a mote in the blink of a cosmic eye. Hawking knew this better than anyone. But he knew, too, that the reaction to this should not be to despair at our unimportance and impermanence, but to seize every precious moment and savour the warmth of every human interaction as though it was your last. I found his example inspiring, then and now.

One thought haunted me for years after my encounter with Hawking. Here he was, wrestling within his planet-sized brain with the problem of uniting conventional physics with quantum physics – the Grand Unified Theory. What if his disease progressed, and he became unable to communicate at all? What if he discovered the ultimate secret of the universe but, unable to move or speak, trapped within a failing human husk, he could not communicate this to the outside world?

By the time of his death, the only muscle left in his body that he could consciously move was a tiny twitch in his cheek. It was still enough to send signals to his computer – but for how much longer?

So farewell and R.I.P., Stephen Hawking. And if the theory in the final chapters of his bestselling book A Brief History of Time prove correct, and the universe ends in a Big Crunch after which time winds backwards all the way back to the Big Bang again in an endlessly recurring cycle, then he and I will meet again, in a billion billion years.

Hawking will have blinked into life and consciousness as an old man in a wheelchair, trapped in a body which could twitch only one cheek muscle. He would then have slowly recovered the use of certain muscles until he could move his fingers; appeared (talking backwards) in episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Simpsons and Futurama; and then we would meet as he reversed his chair towards me on a film stage.

The next year he would start to live with the love of his life. The relationship would at first be fractious and bitter, but would grow more loving with time. Their children would get younger and cuter until they disappeared with a gurgle and a giggle back into their mother’s womb. And Hawking himself would get stronger and more mobile, eventually stepping up from his wheelchair to stand proudly at the altar with his bride.

The surprising link between Black Panther and X-Men

14 Feb
black-panther-reasons-watch-pic1

Welcome to Wakanda: the key cast of Black Panther

Black Panther has tapped into an audience normally uninterested in superhero blockbusters. It was striking how, at the first night’s screening at the Brixton Ritzy, the usually overwhelmingly white crowd was majority black.

For my part, I went with my young niece (actually first cousin once removed, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll just go with niece). She doesn’t know her Marvel from her DC, and thinks she might have seen Thor but on second thoughts maybe it was Troy, so you can safely say she’s not usually first in line for such films. Black Panther is different. Black Panther is a cultural event, the first mainstream, massive-budget superhero film to feature a largely black cast. As the joke circulating Facebook goes, the only other actors are Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who both featured in The Hobbit, which makes them the Tolkien white guys.

Does it work? As a film, not altogether. There are huge gobbets of exposition shoved into the first act, all of it daft – a crashed meteorite has left a deposit of “vibranium” in the small African nation of Wakanda, a metal which somehow accelerates technological development and even heals wounds, creating a highly advanced civilisation hidden from view of the wider world. The special effects are occasionally hokey. The filming feels excessively studio-based. The pace lags in parts, as origin stories tend to.

On the plus side, the performances are top-notch, notably Letitia Wright as Black Panther’s sassy scientist sister, and Michael B. Jordan as Black Panther’s rival – more on that in a second. The production design, too, is magnificent. Some of the set pieces and battles are thrilling. Four stars, if I were to reduce it to a score.

But as a seismic cultural event, it’s a very big deal. It shows (hopefully!) that a black cast can find a mass audience. It presents a futurised ideal of African culture, without any attempt to dilute it for a Western audience: from the superb music curated by Kendrick Lamarr, to the fighting styles based on African martial arts, to the set design, costumes, hair and accents. It even has strong (if a tad one-dimensional) female roles.

Before the film, my niece pondered the irony that Hollywood, the biggest propaganda machine for the Western capitalist system, now seemed to be selling revolution. But notwithstanding Black Panther’s huge cultural impact, it seems to me to have a much less radical message.

The central conflict in the film turns out not to be between Black Panther and Andy Serkis’s pantomime villain with a plasma gun for a hand, but instead with a figure from Wakanda’s past who challenges Black Panther for the throne. Black Panther wants peaceful rule, perhaps opening up his kingdom slightly in order to help the poor and the oppressed in the outside world. His rival wants to smash the system, arming the disenfranchised with Wakandan technology to slay and overthrow their rulers across the world. The film clearly presents this as A Bad Idea, and a benevolent, non-democratically-elected king as A Good Idea – so not so revolutionary after all.

As my niece said, one is effectively Martin Luther King, while the other is effectively Malcolm X – which, intriguingly, is the same dynamic that powers all the X-Men films, by pitting Professor Xavier against Magneto.

 

Beauty in the beast: Guillermo del Toro on The Shape of Water

13 Feb
screen-shot-2017-09-14-at-9-49-54-am1

Sally Hawkins, as the mute cleaner in a military facility, makes contact with a creature from the deep in The Shape of Water

Pan’s Labyrinth was so exceptional, so unique, you’d think Guillermo del Toro could never again make a film that was its equal. You’d be wrong. The Shape of Water is every bit as beautiful, strange and idiosyncratic, but in tone shows the mellowness of del Toro’s middle age. While Pan’s Labyrinth was primarily about the monstrousness of men, The Shape of Water is more concerned with the humanity in monsters.

I saw the film at a BAFTA screening a few months ago, capped off by a Q&A with del Toro. He said that when he was young, he had terrible waking nightmares in which he would lie frozen in his own bed, seemingly conscious, watching monstrous hands clawing at his bedclothes. He made a pact with those monsters: if they didn’t hurt him, he’d be their friend for life. It’s a relationship he has been investigating throughout his film-making career.

With The Shape of Water specifically, he said the inspiration came from watching Creature From the Black Lagoon as a boy: he loved both monster and damsel in distress, and was heart-broken when they didn’t end up together. The Shape of Water is his attempt to rewrite that history.

As such, it’s not merely about the beauty in the beast, but also a love letter to old Hollywood: that’s one reason why the Academy, which notoriously loves films about itself, has given it 13 Oscar nominations – wildly unusual for a genre film. Sally Hawkins’s character, who is as mute as a silent film star, even lives above an old cinema. There are scenes which nod to old Hollywood song and dance, without quite breaking into outright musical, and its bright colour palette could have been filmed in Technicolor.

As the mute Elisa Esposito, who cleans in a top-secret military facility of the early ‘60s which takes possession of a monster from the deeps, Sally Hawkins is extraordinary. She says more with gesture and look than most actresses manage from screeds of dialogue. In any other year she’d be Oscar’s hottest contender, but Frances McDormand, surely, will take the highest honour for Three Billboards.

The creature is beautifully realised, Richard Giles provides touching support as Esposito’s best friend, Octavia Spencer provides energy and comic relief, and Michael Shannon gives this essentially feelgood tale a heart of darkness as the xenophobic military man obsessed with the Red Menace, his severed fingers rotting along with his soul. But it’s del Toro’s film, and he will surely win best director.

The crew with del Toro at the Q&A clearly loved him: they say he is obsessively knowledgeable about every area of film-making, from cinematography to production design, giving them fully formed ideas which then allow them to concentrate on the extra 10% that would transform a film from great to genius. He even came up with a long-forgotten method for simulating underwater movement which would require no CGI or fancy effects.

Released in the UK on Valentine’s Day, The Shape of Water makes the perfect date movie – because if your partner doesn’t love it, you’ll know they’re probably not the one for you!

A ‘Big Night’ for food and film with Bompas & Parr

30 Jan
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Bompas & Parr’s inaugural London Food Film Festival opened with Big Night, starring (left to right) Minnie Driver, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub and Isabella Rossellini

Bompas & Parr are the Willie Wonkas of London. For ten years now they have been staging elaborate food- and drink-related events for any brand that cares – or should that be dares? – to commission them. You want a cityscape made of jelly? A lake of Courvoisier punch large enough for people to row across? Or perhaps you merely want to launch some coffee beans into the stratosphere to create the world’s “Space Coffee”? You know who you’re gonna call.

Already this year Bompas & Parr have created a Cryptozoological Haggis Workshop for Burns Night, a Seismic Sound Bath in Christie’s Gallery, and, now, this week, the first annual London Food Film Festival at the Curzon Mondrian cinema on the South Bank. I went to the opening night last night: a screening of Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996) chosen and hosted by Evening Standard food critic Grace Dent.

It was a lovely film, only slightly marred by the eccentric decision to show it with Malay (I think) subtitles: the Italian sections of dialogue were expressive enough that you got the sense of them anyway! About a struggling restaurateur whose chef brother refuses to compromise his art for the philistine clientele, Big Night was funny and not a little heartbreaking. As Dent said, “Restaurants are giant money pits and they will take you under, both financially and emotionally. In this film we see the struggle between authenticity in cuisine and being profitable.”

I feel Bompas & Parr may have missed a trick by not combining food with the film: after watching the great Italian feast that dominates the final act of the film, we hungrily repaired afterwards to the nearest Italian restaurant, the Gourmet Pizza on South Bank – as did at least one other table of diners. A few years ago, by contrast, I went to a terrific event in the basement of Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Café which combined a screening of GoodFellas with Italian dishes and cocktails appropriate to the action. Ah well, maybe next year.

Before the screening, Sam Bompas explained how the festival was all part of their attempts to put together a Museum of Food: “Four years ago we were trudging around the Design Museum thinking, who gets excited about chairs? But everyone gets excited about food. So we went to lots of brands, to government bodies, and said we need a British Food Museum. And they all told us to get lost. So we thought we’d do it anyway.”

Their first attempt took the form of a three-month pop-up at Borough Market in 2015. “We had this interactive exhibition called ‘Be the Bolus’ in which you become a bit of food being eaten. You sit on a modified massage chair that vibrates and expands around you like you’re going down a digestive tract.”

The London Food Film Festival, too, falls under the Museum of Food umbrella. “We’re on the verge of a permanent home in London,” he says tantalisingly, “and in February we will release a programme, but this is the first thing we’re doing.”

At time of writing there were still tickets for the rest of the festival. Tonight (Tuesday) writer and Psychogourmet Geoff Nicholson presents La Grande Bouffe and Jiro Dreams of Sushi; on Wednesday, director Jamie Jay Johnson and comedian Seb Cardinal present “A culinary ramble through the very best in Food and Film” (excerpts from their favourite food moments on screen) and Tampopo; and on Thursday, Sam Bompas himself takes over the reins. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“I was worried we’d run out of great food films for next year,” he confessed, “so I thought I would look at cannibalism in cinema [of course, as you would!], and show The Descent.

“I did want people to taste human flesh in some way,” he continued, “but I got an email from the human tissue organisation saying ‘stop what you are doing, it’s incredibly illegal’. But we will have a skull to drink from.” So that’s all right, then.

Bompas & Parr, you crazy geniuses, we salute you. Of course there should be a Food Museum. And as long as they’re behind it, I’ll be first in line

 

TalentBanq: the new home of live music takes wing

28 Jan
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Who says the devil has all the best tunes? Coffeepot Drive rock the launch of TalentBanq at 229 The Venue. Photo by Brown Eyed Girl

What a night! This week saw the launch of a new live music company devoted to, as CEO Ray Jones enthusiastically put it from the stage, “discovering, nurturing, promoting and paying new and unsigned talent”. The company is called TalentBanq, and they have 50 artists on their roster already.

Some of the best were showcased at 229 The Venue in central London, and they ranged from excellent to ridiculously good. Definitely in the latter camp is Liverpudlian solo artist Joe Slater, whom I wrote about in December. The Oasis-tinged tunes were as mighty as the first time I saw him, and this time I could concentrate more on the lyrics. “Singing for my sorrow, drinking for my pain/ Close the blinds in sunshine, walk around in the rain” was one couplet from Slow Down I scribbled in my notes.

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Joe Slater at TalentBanq: destined for stardom. Photo by PJ Photography

With his raspy voice, perfect pitch and soulful delivery, Slater is unquestionably destined for stardom, though he fared a little less well in the second half of the night, when we were ushered from an intimate venue into a much larger space. He was still magnificent, but a portion of the audience wouldn’t know it – those at the back kept talking through the performance, and Joe hasn’t yet developed the stage presence to get them to shut the f*** up. Would acquiring two more musicians help him transition to the larger venues he’ll soon command?

Another favourite from the December gig closed the night: Coffeepot Drive, still with their guitarists’ angel wings – one pair black, one pair white – and again getting the whole audience moving. When the keyboards were foregrounded they sounded a little like Deep Purple – if Deep Purple had a frontwoman with a gospel-powered voice, afro hair and knee-high boots, and swung as much to funk as to rock. You can imagine them wowing every festival in the UK come summer.

Some other shout-outs: Hollie Rogers has an unusually low-pitched and warm voice, giving real depth and emotion to her songs. I also bloody loved Anavae, a three-piece that had no problem filling the huge space. Their intro was pure showmanship: the lights came up on three drummers, one seated at a kit, the other two – a man and an elfin woman – standing bashing at drums to make a wall of sound like those Japanese drummer monks. After a minute or so, the two broke off into their natural roles – her singing, him at the guitar – but by then the spell was cast: the audience were hooked.

I’d struggle to describe or define their sound, which means it’s original enough not to be easily pigeonholed into a genre. But let’s try this: If Björk were to do heavy rock, it might sound a bit like this. The guitarist/singer duo, Jamie Finch and Rebecca Need-Menear, have been making music since 2011, and their experience shows. But whoever the drummer is they had with them on the night, he’s great – and I speak as the father of a talented drummer. I’d happily go see again.

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Ray Jones, CEO of TalentBanq. Photo by PJ Photography

All in all, if this selection is indicative of the quality of artists on the TalentBanq roster, they’ll soon be supplying original live talent to every conceivable venue from pubs and coffee shops through corporate gigs to massive festivals. The talent behind the scenes is impressive, too. As well as CEO Ray Jones, who brings a surprising energy to the role of compere – like David Rodigan, he looks like an accountant, but can get a vast room hanging on every word – the chief investor is Sir Mervyn Davies, Chairman of the Royal Academy of Arts Board of Trustees and also of Corsair Capital. He joked: “I love fine food, fine wine, and great music, and I invest in all three – luckily two of those make money.”

TalentBanq’s Chairman is Pablo Ettinger, one of the founders of Caffè Nero and the man responsible for its promotion of live music. And TalentBanq’s Creative Director is the irrepressible Laura Westcott, a classically trained singer with a great ear for talent of whom I’ve previously written when she launched Soundcheque and then Music for Mental Wealth. She’s achieved amazing things since leaving The Times (where I have recently gone back to work), especially given her unusual handicap: she cannot recognise certain common words, namely “can’t”, “no”, and “impossible”.  🙂

Holy s***: a Catholic take on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

16 Jan
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Frances McDormand’s grieving, angry mother faces down Sam Rockwell’s incompetent police officer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The defining moment of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as good as any film we’ll see this year or next, comes, as it should, in the first few minutes. Frances McDormand stalks into a local advertising firm and demands to know: “What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say ‘fuck’, ‘piss’ or ‘cunt’. That right?”

It’s her first line. Quite the introduction to our no-shits-given, no-shit-taken protagonist. But the key moment is not that. It’s this: moments later, she spots a cockroach waggling its legs upside-down on the window sill. We expect her to squash it. Instead, almost tenderly, she pokes it upright with one finger. It’s an insect variation on Blake Snyder’s famous “Save The Cat” advice for rendering a flawed hero likeable, but it’s also the crux of the film.

Three Billboards may appear to be all about aggression and violence, especially from the trailer, but really it’s all about forgiveness, compassion, redemption. And not the bullshit, two-bit redemption of Hollywood’s debased currency – “his daughter died so now he’ll save this other girl and that’ll make it right” – but redemption like Christ on the Cross, flogged and pierced with a lance and crowned with thorns, nails driven through his flesh into the unyielding wood, and still saying “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do”. A silent adjunct to the opening scene is that the young advertising guy is reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find when McDormand enters – a story in which a crotchety grandmother finally finds grace moments before being violently murdered.

I’ve been getting Biblical on your ass here because McDonagh so clearly is. Not overtly, not at all: in fact, there’s a wonderful scene in which Frances McDormand’s Mildred comes home to find the local priest in her kitchen, and rips the sanctimonious so-and-so a new one over the church’s condoning of “altarboy-fucking” of which, since he’s “a member of that club”, he is guilty by association. It would not surprise me if this reflected McDonagh’s own views. But lapsed or not, you can’t take the Catholic out of a boy so easily. I should know.

Any redemption in Three Billboards is Biblically hard won: through being disgraced, sacked, burned and pummelled in the face; through losing your daughter and being abused by your husband and still resisting the urge to smash his head in; through a dozen tiny acts of compassion (one of the greatest, and you’ll understand the heft of it when you see the film, is simply handing a badly injured man a straw) that in the end trump revenge.

I’ve been told that actors will riffle through a putative script looking for their “Oscar moment”. In Three Billboards Francis McDormand is given one, or else creates one, with every single scene. But my favourite is just the look she gives when the police chief (Woody Harrelson), whom she blames for not properly investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, inadvertently coughs blood into her face. Her face registers surprise, shock – but also sudden and helpless compassion.

There is a Christ figure in the film, too, if you want to read it that way (and I do), who through the sacrifice of his willing death sets troubled souls on the path to forgiving, and being forgiven. It’s a typically McDonaghesque reversal that that death should be through suicide, perhaps the greatest sin of all in the eyes of the official Church.

Three Billboards is an astonishing film: sacred and profane; tragic and laugh-out-loud hilarious. I want to see it again. After a year of election upsets, they say there are no certainties. But if Frances McDormand does not follow her Golden Globe with an Oscar it will be stranger than seeing Trump in the White House; and if Martin McDonagh does not pick up at least Best Screenplay, I predict a riot. And I’ll be handing out the Molotov cocktails.