The political and economic scenes in Britain are warming up nicely as the general election, due on 6 May, approaches. The leaders of both the main parties are working hard to establish the issue which they hope will determine how the electorate will vote. Labour focuses on the National Health Service, on which it is more generally trusted than the Conservatives. The Tories are busy fostering the false smear that Labour government spending caused the 2008 global financial crash and that if returned to office in May, Labour would wreck the economy again. In fact much the biggest issue at stake in the election is Britain’s future in the European Union, on which David Cameron is increasingly non-committal, having recklessly capitulated to the demands of his own back-bench Neanderthals and UKIP for an ‘in/out’ referendum, i.e. on whether Britain should remain in the EU or withdraw from it — ‘Brexit’, in the jargon, short for British exit. Almost all the literate political and economic pundits and most of the British financial and business communities acknowledge that Brexit would be a catastrophe for the UK in just about every sphere. Yet it looks increasingly as if in a Brexit referendum, promised by Cameron for 2017 if the Tories have an absolute majority in the house of commons after the May election, there might well be a majority for leaving the EU. Labour is unambiguously against a referendum and in favour of staying in the EU and working for its reform, with the UK’s European allies, from within. On any measurement the huge importance for Britain’s future of its relationship with the rest of Europe makes this issue eclipse all the other election issues put together. There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to replace Mr Cameron with Mr Miliband in No. 10 Downing Street, but the EU issue on its own should be enough to convince all thinking people, whatever their normal party allegiances, that a vote for the Conservatives (or UKIP), and thus for a serious risk of Brexit, would be deeply irresponsible.
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When the London Jubilee Line tube train pulls in to Green Park station on Piccadilly, next to the Ritz hotel, the electronic notice boards in each carriage flash up the announcement that “this is Green Park: alight here for Buckingham Palace,” advice that is then repeated over the train’s loudspeaker system. Apart from making one wonder how many foreign visitors to London know what the obsolete word ‘alight’ means, this splendid rubric conjures up an image of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, slumbering peacefully side by side on the tube, suddenly being woken up by the announcement about Green Park and Buckingham Palace. “Come on, dear,” says the Duke, nudging the Queen: “this is our stop.” And they gather up their Sainsbury’s shopping bags and umbrellas and woolly hats, hastily hopping down onto the platform just before the doors close and the train rattles off towards Bond Street.
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Why has Britain’s recovery from the recession been so slow and uncertain? Why are the limited fruits of the recovery, such as it is, so unfairly distributed between the richest and the poorest? Why have the Chancellor’s sadistic cuts in government spending so signally failed to bring down the budget deficit to the level that he had promised? Why is government borrowing so stubbornly resistant to the reductions promised by Osborne and Cameron? The answer to all these questions is available almost daily in the columns of the Financial Times, hardly a hotbed of socialist dogma, and in countless articles by the financial commentators elsewhere in the serious media. Capitalism is like riding a bicycle: it has to keep moving ahead and growing if it is not to collapse in a heap. Constant growth depends on constant consumer demand, reflected in economic activity by households, firms and government — especially by ordinary individual consumers. But for years the richest few in society — the bankers and financiers, the oligarchs, the shareholders, the company senior executives with their astronomical salaries and bonuses — have been seizing an ever increasing share of the national income, including an increasing share of its annual growth (if any), leaving a shrinking share for everyone else. A shrinking share for ordinary consumers means a steady reduction in their ability to consume: ever lower wages mean reduced spending, even when bolstered by increasingly expensive debts, themselves eventually a source of instability. As the prospects for a steady growth in spending fade, firms are increasingly reluctant to invest in new or up-dated plant or to recruit more labour, lacking confidence that ordinary consumers will be able to afford to buy their products. Lack of aggregate demand in the economy thus lies at the root of our failing economies, especially in the drowning eurozone but in Britain too.
There are various obvious remedies: put more money in the hands of those who can be relied on to spend every additional penny they receive, namely the poorest and weakest in society, e.g. by increasing welfare benefits and reducing taxes such as VAT which are a disproportionate burden on the poor and which reduce their ability to consume; use fiscal policy to reduce inequality in society, increasing taxes on those with the lowest propensity to spend marginal income (namely the already rich); greatly increase government spending on capital infrastructure projects, especially social housing (Roosevelt’s New Deal with its huge infrastructure projects was a vital ingredient in America’s recovery from the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s); encourage immigration by people of working age whose contributions to the economy will help to pay the pensions of Britain’s steadily ageing population and whose taxes will increase government revenue and so reduce the deficit; and pour money into education and training, research and development, vital investments for the future. It defies belief that on every single count the Conservative-led coalition has done the precise opposite of what’s plainly needed since it came into office in 2010, choking off the incipient recovery instigated by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and actually throttling aggregate demand in the economy by cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes on the poorest and cutting, instead of increasing, welfare benefits, thus shifting resources even further from the poorest to the richest. No wonder Mr Osborne has failed so miserably to hit any of his targets. Yet the Tories boast of their superior economic management skills and their success in bringing about Britain’s miracle (but mostly invisible) recovery. How do they get away with it?
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It’s strange that the scribbling classes (to which I suppose I belong, part-time) have such a problem with “whom”. Any parenthetical phrase coming between a “who” and the verb that “who” clearly governs is automatically taken to require “who” to be converted to “whom”: “This is a man whom many believe is the greatest living poet,” where no-one would dream of writing “whom is the greatest living poet”. Examples in almost any posh newspaper or magazine are numerous. Even the aristocratic Debretts is not immune, throwing in an inappropriate semi-colon for bad measure:
“Inclusion is by invitation only; with specialist panels selecting whom they believe is making an impression in Britain today.” – http://www.debretts.com/people/people-today-0#sthash.OKZmz5RC.dpuf
But I have to confess (or as the more self-consciously trendy scribes write these days, “fess up”) to an incurable blind spot when it comes to the difference between “which” and “that” at the beginning of a relative clause. My strict grammarian daughter, founder-owner of the wildly successful linguistic blog ‘Glossophilia“, has frequently explained the difference to me, and flinches every time I get it wrong, but five minutes after receiving her instructions in the matter I have forgotten the rules all over again.
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Two welcome developments over my book, What Diplomats Do, published last July — neither another diplomatic memoir, nor an academic textbook, nor a novel, but with elements of all three. First, the (American) publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, have agreed to extend to the end of July 2015 the deadline for individual, non-institutional UK and other non-American buyers of the book to get it for a discount (it had been due to expire at the end of 2014) if they use the revised order form on this website — simply download http://www.barder.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf. (They have also increased the discount to 30%, hardback version only.) The 30% discount for American buyers (pdf) is also still available for several more months. Secondly, there have recently been two more especially perceptive and illuminating reviews of What Diplomats Do. The first, by Dr Katharina Höne, of DiploFoundation and University of Aberystwyth, is published on the DiploFoundation website and reproduced in full along with many other reviews at http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do; and the second, by the distinguished former US diplomat Marshall P. Adair, published in the US Foreign Service Journal, can be read here (pdf). Both these reviews, among others, are well worth reading, especially if you haven’t yet decided whether to buy the book!
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One of the film’s “chapters” includes spoken extracts of notes on film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Another shows a silent dance, conceived by Mr Campbell and performed by Michael Clark Company, inspired by equations in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. [Financial Times, 2 December 2014]
Inspired by what?
It’s not often that a fascinating and important new book — in this case about an accomplished diplomat, journalist, whistle-blower, novelist, dissembler and controversial celebrity of Victorian times — is made available, totally free of charge, to anyone with a computer, internet access and Adobe software for downloading a book-length PDF file. This is what Professor Emeritus G R Berridge, prolific writer and author of the classic textbook Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, has done with his latest book, A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era: The Life and Writings of E. C. Grenville-Murray [pdf].
A quick web search reveals plenty of information about Eustace Grenville-Murray, including the texts of some of his writings and many references to him in the writings of others. But there has not hitherto been a full-length biography, and in his new book Professor Berridge describes some of the difficulties he has encountered in assembling the material for it:
First, his birth was illegitimate, so the records of his early life are either largely fictitious or non-existent. Second, because he was a whistleblower but relatively impecunious, he went to great lengths to cover his own literary tracks in order to safeguard his salaried income, so it is by no means easy to identify his writing, especially his newspaper articles. Third, because aristocrats both inside and outside the Foreign Office were desperate to contrive his downfall a whole raft of damaging myths was created about his official conduct and particular events in his life, and these have been constantly re-cycled – and inevitably embellished. … Finally, he left no personal collection of private papers – no private correspondence, no diaries, no unpublished memoirs…
Berridge closes his book with these words:
Grenville-Murray’s ultimate misfortune was that his two great patrons, Dickens and Palmerston, tugged him in opposite directions: the former to the literary exposure of social evils, the latter to the important work of diplomacy. He was no saint but it remains to his credit that, despite the tension between them and the strain that simultaneously plying these two trades imposed on his family, he made such a valuable contribution to both over such a long period. He deserves a better place in history than that pegged on the lazy re-cycling of the myths that he was a ‘scurrilous’ journalist deservedly ‘horsewhipped’ by a nobleman he had offended.
In the introduction to his book on his own website, Berridge sets out no fewer than 16 reasons for his decision to publish it as an ordinary PDF file on his website rather than submitting it to his publishers for publication as a book, whether in hard covers, as a paperback or as an e-book, or any combination of the three. All book publishers should take the precaution of thinking carefully about the professor’s 16 reasons, which have significant lessons for them. The downside seems to be the greater difficulty in spreading awareness of the existence of the book on a single semi-private website: very little chance of reviews in specialist or general interest journals or newspapers, no mentions in publishers’ lists or advertisements. It’s there, absolutely free and ready to be downloaded, but how many people know about it? It’s even quite easy to send it from one’s own computer to a Kindle, if you have a Kindle account, so that you can add it to your Kindle library to read on the train, or plane, or in your favourite Chinese restaurant when lunching or dining alone. So please heed this earnest plea: if you’re prompted by this to download and read A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era, and if you enjoy it as much as I did, spread the word about it, and send your friends and family without delay to http://grberridge.diplomacy.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/GrenvilleMurray.01.pdf.
Alan Mumford, leading collector of and expert on political cartoons, has produced another in his brilliant series of political cartoon biographies, this time of that always fascinating character David Lloyd George, the Welsh wizard (the one before Nye Bevan). Illustrated with numerous contemporary cartoons of the great but controversial man, some of them not previously published in modern times, the book’s text includes a highly readable potted biography of LG followed by an informative and lively commentary on the cartoons themselves, setting out their historical background and explaining political references in them with which the modern reader might be unfamiliar. Not all the cartoons are designed to be ‘funny’, but nearly all make an often sharp political or personal point with more impact in a smaller space than a paragraph of writing could hope to achieve.
Full disclosure: Professor Mumford and his wife Denise are among my own and my wife’s oldest (in both senses!) friends. Before Alan embarked on publishing his cartoon collection books, he had been the author and co-author of many authoritative and much esteemed books on management and management training. For details of all these you can do a search for ‘Alan Mumford’ on Amazon.
More information about this eminently collectable book is provided in the book’s flyer, including links to the page devoted to the book on the Lloyd George Society website and to the relevant page of the publishers’ website where you can order a copy of the book for the modest sum of £20 (+p&p). Please click on the picture below to see the full-size flyer and to access in it the web page for buying it.
PS: If you enjoyed the Mumford collection of Lloyd George cartoons, you’ll be sure to enjoy equally my own book describing “What Diplomats Do: the life and work of diplomats” — details and link to order form with generous discount here.
If you’re reading this, you’re entitled to a substantially discounted price if you order your copy of my new book, What Diplomats Do, using the order form on my website at http://www.barder.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf (for buyers in the UK, discount 20 per cent) or using WDD-Flyer-and-Order-Form-for-US (for buyers in the United States, with a whopping discount of 30 per cent off the list price).
For UK buyers the discount applies only to the hardback version of What Diplomats Do but not the e-book version, whether from the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield or from Amazon for your Kindle. For buyers in the US, the even bigger discount applies to both the hardback and the e-book (but not to Amazon and Kindle).
Please note that these order forms and discounts are only for individual buyers. Libraries, university departments and other institutional buyers wanting to buy or ask for inspection copies, and journals or other papers wanting a complimentary review copy, need to contact the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, using the relevant link in the left-hand panel of https://rowman.com/. Please also note the advice on the US order form: “Rowman & Littlefield offers special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact Nancy Hofmann in the Special Markets Department at  301-459-3366, ext. 5605.” I suggest that bulk buyers in the UK might use the contact addresses and other advice at http://www.nbninternational.com/Ordering/tabid/59/Default.aspx.
What Diplomats Do is not a memoir or autobiography. It aims to describe what working diplomats, not just ambassadors, actually do, day by day, in all the varied situations that they work in. It’s meant as a teaching tool for university (or school) teachers and students of international relations and diplomacy, but also as a guidebook for people contemplating a diplomatic career and above all as an entertaining and readable book for the general reader interested in current affairs. It has already won warm praise from eminent academic authorities in the field of diplomacy and also from equally eminent former ambassadors (see for example http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do). Although written from the viewpoint of a British diplomat (which I used to be), it’s equally valid as a description of the essence of what American and other European and indeed all diplomats do, although the terminologies and some of the procedures naturally vary.
If you want further information about the book, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by using the contact form at http://www.barder.com/contact, or by clicking ‘Contact me’ at the top of almost every page of my website, or by private email if you have my address.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading What Diplomats Do.
This information is for university teachers of diplomacy or international affairs, and for editors and book reviewers. It supplements the information about What Diplomats Do, Brian Barder’s new book, now available at the publishers’ (Rowman & Littlefield) website, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357; on my previous blog post at http://www.barder.com/4229; and in a new section on my website, starting at http://www.barder.com/wdd/.
University teachers who are considering whether to include What Diplomats Do in their students’ recommended or required course reading lists, or who have decided to do so, can request a free copy (“desk copy”, “inspection copy” or “exam copy”) from the publishers in order to assess it.
Similarly, editors of academic or general interest publications or their book review editors and reviewers may request a free review copy from the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield.
(University teachers and editors or reviewers may wish first to read the two sample chapters available in full online — see links at http://www.barder.com/wdd/.)
The following information about how to apply for free copies can be found on the publishers’ website:
For university teachers:
The first thing to do is to visit the Rowman & Littlefield website at https://rowman.com/RLPublishers. On the left-hand side, under “textbooks”, there is a tab with “Exam copies” and “desk copies” requests (https://rowman.com/Page/Professors).
Complimentary desk copies will be provided only when the book is assigned as a required purchase for your students.
We offer examination copies of our textbooks. Many of our titles are available as free examination copies or as e-exams. For titles that are not earmarked as a free exam, we will give careful consideration to each request. Please note that we allow a maximum of 3 titles to be examined.
Ordering printed exam copies:
To request a free exam copy, go to the individual book page and click on the Request a Free Exam Copy button. Printed exam copy orders are fulfilled within 7-10 business days.
Ordering printed exam copies not in our textbook program:
If the book you would like to review is not available as a free exam, click here [https://rowman.com/Request/Special] to make your request. We will contact you within the next business day.
Ordering desk copies:
If you have adopted a textbook for your course, click here to order your complimentary desk copy. Please allow 7-10 business days for delivery.
Other questions: If you have a specific question that does not pertain to a desk or exam copy request, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ordering e-exam copies:
We now offer e-exams of our textbooks which can be accessed within the next business day. Click here to preview our texts online or download an Adobe Reader or ePub file for a 60-day period. Another way to order an e-exam copy is to search for books on our website. You can then click on the e-exam button on individual book pages.
Review copies are available to genuine review editors and reviewers. Copies will be sent to relevant and recognized publications entirely at the publisher’s discretion. For any questions regarding review copies, please email email@example.com with your name, affiliation, and all contact information. [https://rowman.com/Page/ReviewCopyRequest]
Publicity Manager, Rowman & Littlefield
(301) 459-3366 ext. 5628
Publicity and Advertising, Rowman & Littlefield
(301) 459-3366 ext. 5619
nb: All this information comes from various pages on the Rowman & Littlefield website. If you need additional guidance, I suggest that you follow one of the web links or email one of the email addresses quoted. Good luck!
I lay no claim to expertise on the subject of opera, although there are several operas that I very much enjoy, notably those of Mozart and Richard Strauss, and of the latter Der Rosenkavalier most of all. I can’t afford to go and see, or hear, the current production of Rosenkavalier at Glyndbourne, but I’ve been fascinated by the fracas over the reviews in some of the UK broadsheet newspapers which have made unpleasantly personal remarks about the young Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, playing Octavian in Strauss’s masterpiece. All the critics have been full of praise for Ms Erraught’s beautiful voice and brilliant singing, but the praise has been marginalised by several distinguished critics’ ungentlemanly allusions to the her figure and stature (or lack of it), calling her “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” (The [London] Times) “dumpy” (The Independent) and with an “intractable physique” (The Daily Telegraph). Andrew Clark in the Financial Times wrote: “Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat.” The Guardian described her as “stocky”.
For the sake of the operatically challenged who are not familiar with Rosenkavalier, Octavian, the character being played by Tara Erraught at Glyndbourne, is a handsome youth (written for and played by a woman) who’s having an affair with an older woman — and who at a certain point in the action has to be disguised as (guess what) a girl. (The McGuffin of a girl playing the part of a boy who gets dressed up as a girl is of course familiar from Shakespeare through many other operas down to pantomime.) In modern times Octavian is generally played by a tall and athletic young woman singer who can reasonably plausibly pass herself off as a teen-age boy.
Other opera singers, mostly female, have sprung to Ms Erraught’s defence, denouncing her critics’ references to her physique as sexist, offensive, irrelevant to what they say should have been their sole concern (the quality of her singing), and on all these gounds illegitimate. One of the offending critics has apologised; others have rejected the charges against them on the grounds that the unsuitabilty of an actor (whether male or female, singer or not) for his or her role represents poor casting and thus a proper subject of discussion by professional critics.
Rarely without an opinion on current controversies, I expressed mine in my usual manner, namely a letter to the Guardian, which published it on 24 May:
Cruel aspersions cast by music critics on the physical appearance of an opera singer are contemptible, like any other cruelty (Disgust in opera world at ‘sexist’ criticisms of soprano star, 21 May). But some singers who have denounced the critics overstate their case, claiming for example that opera’s magic “is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature … It is all about the human voice … opera is all about the voice” (open letter by Alice Coote).
If that were so, there would be no point in training opera singers to act as well as sing, or in mounting productions in which not only the music and singing but also the acting, sets, costumes, lighting, and the audience’s ability to identify the performers with the characters they play, all contribute to the impact of the event. If those other ingredients really counted for nothing, an audio CD or a concert performance would be just as satisfying as a staged production, which they obviously are not.
All these ingredients are legitimate subjects of comment and criticism by music critics, provided that they express themselves in civil language not calculated to leave lasting scars on the object of their remarks. If the (fictitious) one-legged Dudley Moore had been successful in his famous audition for the part of Tarzan, his physical unsuitability for that part would surely have been a legitimate subject of comment, regardless of the film’s merits.
The controversy rages on. I wonder whether it is causing a spike or a slump in demand for tickets to Glyndbourne?
I’m still recovering from a blow to my emotional solar plexus delivered by a new movie, Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013) by the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche (born in Tunis, moved with his parents to Nice at the age of six).
Almost everyone knows two things about this film, one of them significant, the other not: that the film and both its leading actresses won the highest award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or (a prima facie indication of its quality): and that it depicts a Lesbian love affair which includes lengthy and startlingly detailed sex scenes enacted by the two leading ladies (not particularly significant, because the sex is essential and integral to the story, and the fact that it depicts sex between two women is almost, but not entirely, coincidental – the story would not be radically changed if it concerned a love affair between a man and a woman, or even between two men). It is emphatically not pornographic; the sex scenes are beautiful and erotic but not titillating. In contrast with the rest of the film, the sex is more stylised than realistic. Some critics have argued that this small but noticeable stylistic difference between the sex scenes and the remainder of the film shows that the sex is superfluous, interpolated for box office purposes. I don’t think anyone who watches all three hours of this film (yes, it’s long) at all attentively could agree, but that’s necessarily a subjective judgement.
There’s one other departure from realism in the film as a whole: both the leading actresses, one or both of whom are on screen for almost the entire film, are strikingly attractive, with and without their clothes: real head-turners both. They can perhaps be forgiven their good looks since both are consummate actresses, the intense emotional realism of their performances allegedly enhanced by obsessiveness, verging on bullying, on the part of the director during shooting. The two women are Léa Seydoux (Emma), playing the older and more sexually experienced of the two, and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle), French with a Greek grandfather, playing the younger character, a convincing 17 years old at the beginning of the saga. The start, development and climax of their affair are portrayed with exceptional tenderness; its effective termination is almost too violently terrible to watch, although life goes on beyond that point, if on a lower emotional level. The temptation to resort to melodrama is resolutely resisted. The ending is sad but wholly true to life.
An incidental charm is the location of the film in Lille, with many effective street scenes, one in the Grand’ Place, and another memorable sequence in the glorious swimming-pool art gallery, La Piscine Museum, at Roubaix, just outside Lille.
In addition to the Palme d’Or for the film and the two actresses at Cannes, the FIPRESCI Prize went to the director, Abdellatif Kechiche. The film has won a raft of other international prizes, awards and nominations: it will be astonishing if more are not on the way.
Only time will tell whether Blue Is the Warmest Colour deserves to be rated a great film. Whether or not it’s great, it’s certainly exceptional, and packs a tremendous punch. Don’t miss it.
 Enlightened modern usage is to describe actors of both genders as actors, and to shun the word actress as implicitly sexist. I have consciously disobeyed that rule in this post, because to describe the two leading players as actors looks hopelessly odd, when the fact of their femininity is such an important ingredient in the story, despite not being (in my perhaps eccentric view) absolutely central to it.
The new Norma Percy production in the Brook Lapping series of contemporary history documentaries is “The Iraq War”, showing on three successive Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2, starting this Wednesday, 29 May. Norma Percy and Brook Lapping have won numerous awards for their documentaries on, for example, Iran and the West, The Death of Yugoslavia, the Second Russian Revolution and The End-game in Ireland. Their special feature is an uncanny ability to persuade the leading protagonists in each of the crises they have covered to take part in the programme and tell their own sides of the story, sometimes with startling frankness — everyone from Gorbachev to Milosevic. The new programme on the Iraq war should be well worth watching, if Norma Percy’s past productions are anything to go by. It ought to be a good curtain-raiswer for the long delayed report of the Chilcot Inquiry.
Full disclosure: I have no financial or other stake in Brook Lapping except that Brian Lapping, Norma Percy’s Executive Producer, is an old friend from university days and an outstanding television producer. There’s more about Norma Percy at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norma_Percy. I think it’s safe to say that Brian Lapping the television producer is not related to the Brian Lapping of Brian Lapping Massage, Bloomington, Illinois.
BB: Just back from Q Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, which (despite mostly horrendous reviews in the UK media) is actually splendid, but only if you enjoy Tarantino’s unique brand – sprightly horror comics with deliberate anachronisms and numerous jokes and cinema references, some obscure, but with an underlying moral purpose. Always beautifully photographed, accurately and wittily scripted and superbly directed and acted. The buckets of gore in the many shoot-outs are so over the top that they are clearly designed to be seen as symbolic, and the story is a concocted Western that’s also not meant to be taken seriously in itself: it’s simply not presented as a realistic documentary-type movie. The reviews in the Sunday Times Culture magazine and (more surprisingly) in the New Statesman are especially obtuse (one of them even complains that Tarantino’s script talks of people being ‘hung’ instead of ‘hanged’, which is too ludicrous a comment to be believed). The vague Wagnerian/Norse parallel, solemnly discussed (one of the characters is actually called a corruption of Brünnhilde!) is a typical Tarantino tease. Delicious.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea by any means (J wisely didn’t go) and those disturbed by even the most artificially exaggerated depiction of fake violence on the screen clearly need to stay away, but anyone who enjoyed Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill will love this one. Brilliant music too, a reliable pointer to the intended mood throughout, highlighting satire, comedy, narrative, pathos, etc. And a terrific cast, mostly used in uncharacteristic roles. Tarantino has a small but flavoury bit part.
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MH: I’ve not been a great fan of Quentin Tarantino — but then it’s also true that I’ve only seen one of his films, Reservoir Dogs, which I failed to see the point of, despite the critical praise heaped on it. For my taste too much gratuitous revelling in gore and extreme violence for its own sake, not (for me) made more palatable by its being depicted in a highly stylised manner. I agree that he’s a skilful cinematographer. In view of your encomium, and in a spirit of open-mindedness, perhaps it is time to put my anti-QT prejudice to the test. C and I have been to see Quartet, which we much enjoyed despite its somewhat schmaltzy optimism about coming terms with old age (on second thoughts perhaps that’s why we liked it!). What’s known, I think, as a “feel-good” film. Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln looks to be worth seeing.
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BB: Thanks, MH. If that’s how you felt about Reservoir Dogs, I wouldn’t recommend that you visit Django Unchained. The point, to my mind, is that the violence in both films (and some others by Quentin Tarantino, though not all) is not ‘gratuitous’ at all, it’s central to what the films are about; that it’s always deliberately stylised, partly by deliberate exaggeration, so that there’s no danger of it seeming designed to exploit unhealthy appetites or to be disturbing – it’s in the tradition of certain kinds of wham-bang comics and other kinds of film and literature. The films are (among other things) about the reasons why people behave violently (rather a serious issue, especially in the US, where the issue of justified and unjustified violence is of course central to the national legend because it arose in such stark form during the conquest and settlement of the west) and the likely eventual consequences of violence, both criminally and idealistically motivated. The skill with which QT deploys humour, satire, cinematic references and jokes, music especially, discussions of moral and philosophical issues in deliberately anachronistic sophisticated language between unsophisticated characters, outstanding actors usually cast counter-intuitively and out of character, other anachronisms and social inconsistencies to relate the issues in the film to the experience of its audiences (Django when in his gunslinger cowboy role wears sinister sunglasses, for example, despite the antebellum setting), and abrupt, almost shocking, changes of mood and style, all to reinforce the points he’s making, seems to me outstanding, and I relish it.
Incidentally I saw Django Unchained at a downmarket cinema in a shopping centre in the early afternoon when cinemas are generally nine-tenths empty. On this occasion it was 90% full, and the audience watched all 165 minutes in rapt silence, forgetting their huge bags of noisy pop-corn and bags of sweets wrapped in crackling cellophane. It was almost literally stunning.
Before you dismiss Django Unchained as cynical exploitation, please read the review of the movie in the New York Times, here, (including the second page) which I think casts useful light on it especially in the context of American cultural forms on which Tarantino deliberately draws.
I should add that J entirely agrees with your comments on R Dogs (and on QT generally), is convinced that the depiction of violence in movies and on TV is sick (she won’t say whether this applies also to the eye-gouging in King Lear or the other violence, incest, etc., in the Oresteia) and that anyone, including especially me, who pretends to enjoy it or who makes excuses for it is sick, too. Another battle in Thurber’s War between the Sexes, I’m afraid.
Yes, Lincoln’s clearly a must-see. You’ll notice, if you read it, that the NY Times review of Django draws attention to the fact that Django U. and Lincoln are about the same issues at the same period (slavery and its cruelties, race relations and the costs of challenging institutional separatism, the effects of slavery on both slave-masters and slaves, the corrupting effect of slavery on some black people who come to identify their interests with those of their white masters, the way these issues remain relevant today, and so on).
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BB submitted the following letter to the Guardian Review (it was not published):
Violence in Tarantino films
Adam Mars-Jones (Roads to Revenge, Guardian Review, 26 January 2013) interprets Schultz’s unconvincing reassurance to Django in Django Unchained (that it’s all right for the latter to shoot a man peacefully ploughing with his son) as Tarantino’s endorsement of the reassurance: “the voice of enlightened common sense”. I read it quite differently. Surely the film’s theme is the moral corruption involved in unnecessary killing and other violence, whatever the motives of the killers and regardless of its nominal legality. Tarantino is suggesting a degree of moral equivalence between the slave-owners who casually kill their slaves on impulse, and the bounty-hunters who kill wanted criminals for money, even though both are acting within the law of the time. This is a theme that seems to me to run through many of his films. Mr Mars-Jones’s comparison with the Oresteia of Aeschylus is very apt. Schultz’s obviously flimsy reassurance, so far from representing “the voice of enlightened common sense”, is designed to remind us of the moral unacceptability of what he and Django are doing, entirely comparable with that of the slave-owners’ treatment of their slaves. The same point is made equally clearly in other conversations between Schultz and Django.
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MH: I enjoyed your letter on Mars-Jones’s review of Django Unchained and agree with its main point. Tarantino also presumably intends us to see some sort of redemption for Schultz when he shoots DiCaprio’s slave-owning plantation-owner in what might be seen as an act of altruistic violence, inspired by an instinctive upsurge of moral revulsion, in which he knowingly sacrifices his own life, thereby (if you like) disregarding the “voice of enlightened common sense”. (I liked QT’s touch in giving DiCaprio horribly stained teeth as the symptom of his inner moral decay. There is, after all, in the American canon no more avoidable or inexcusable defect than bad teeth. Is the generally poor quality of British dentistry, which Americans so often comment upon, one of the reasons why Hollywood so often chooses British actors to play villains, I wonder?) But what is QT saying, if anything, about the avenging violence used by Django, particularly at the end of the film, as a response to slavery? The depiction of violence – throughout the film, but particularly at this point – is so cartoonish (“sanguinary panto”, Mars-Jones nicely calls it) as to deprive it of any power to shock and to trivialise, and even negate, any more serious point either for or against it that QT is trying to make. Similar questions arise in relation to the Monty Pythonesque scene – extremely funny in itself – where the Klu Klux Klan posse fall out among themselves over the poor design of the eye-holes in their hoods. Ridicule is, of course, an excellent way of attacking great evil in men or institutions but more effective when the evil is still rampant (as, for example, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator); less so when it has become a safe and easy target. So, for all the brilliance of the cinematography, the uniform excellence of the performances and the first-rate and often very funny script, I still came out of the cinema asking slightly bemusedly: Why? without being able to come up with any very cogent answer.
I see that Mars-Jones also has reservations about Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I don’t share. I’ll be interested to hear what you and J think.
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BB: I may be seeing Tarantino through rose tinted spectacle lenses, but I do think that there’s an often subtle purpose in everything he does, including the most unexpected and unconventional things. For example, I’m pretty sure that the violence in several of his films (which is what they are mainly about) is deliberately stylised (a) so that there’s no danger of it being pornographic, and (b) so that it will make a powerful impact but won’t be disturbing or overwhelming, and (c) to signal that the film doesn’t seek or pretend to be ‘realistic’, a sort of Brechtian message. I think that (c) also explains the startling and unexpected changes of mood (e.g. the pre-Ku Klux Klan gang whingeing about not being able to see through their hoods, which I thought was marvellously funny as well as making the rather humane point that some of the most brutal killers may actually be moral idiots or buffoons rather than deliberately evil malefactors); and (c) also explains the conscious anachronisms in some of the dialogue and also on the screen (Django’s shades being the most obvious example). The anachronisms serve to remind us that the action has sharp contemporary relevance (contrary to your own complaint – we haven’t exactly succeeded in eliminating non-state violence from our modern world!) even though set in a very different past: we’re not allowed to dismiss it all smugly as down to now discredited moral codes and the ignorance of the ancients. Some of the professional film critics have made themselves look obtuse by complaining about the anachronisms, as if they were careless mistakes.
A lot of the critics also seem to have missed the point I tried to make in my letter to the Guardian Review about the killings by the bounty hunters being very clearly depicted as almost as morally objectionable as the slave-owners’ killings and mistreatment of their slaves, despite both having been ‘legal’ at the time. This is fully consistent with your interesting suggestion that Schultz’s killing of the Leonardo DiCaprio character, which will obviously result in Schulz’s own death, is a kind of act of expiation and redemption. The fact that these are the commonest themes of traditional Westerns (Shane, High Noon, etc. etc.) simply explains why Tarantino chooses to portray the action as a Western, including some breathtaking sequences of riders silhouetted against the skyline, the Western costumes almost verging on parody, all saved by his obvious love of the tradition.
As for the revenge killings carried out by Django, they are surely part of the thesis about the (im)moral correspondence of bounty-hunter killings with slave-owners’ killing of slaves (aka “blacks” or “n*****s” in the film), but also about the philosophical ethics of all acts of revenge, a theme of drama going back to the Oresteia of Aeschylus (mentioned by Mars-Jones in his Guardian Review article but without Mars-Jones apparently recognising the implications of that acute observation as applied to Tarantino movies). As in the Oresteia, Tarantino discusses killings to avenge other killings, and certain kinds of private killings apparently in the public interest and within the law where the law is rudimentary, in a situation where there are effectively no state organs (police, courts, systematic law-based justice on behalf of society) to substitute for private action; action which by its nature leads to a never-ending cycle of violence and more violence, a kind of Omertà but where no systematic social alternative is available. Tarantino demonstrates the inevitable consequence of semi-licensed private killing (in revenge or “in the public interest”) by mounting the almost comically stylised scene of Götterdämmerung towards the end in which not only the main characters on both sides eliminate each other in a final murderous shoot-out, but also the whole building in which much of the action has taken place is blown sky-high, not a bad metaphor for total social breakdown in the absence of the rule of law.
I hope I’m not inventing these interpretations of what Tarantino is up to (J is unshakeably convinced that I am). I think it’s all there if you’re willing to see it – unlike those critics who complain that the characters are all (literally as well as metaphorically) black-and-white heroes or villains, that the violence is “gratuitous”, that the film glorifies it and never recognises its immorality, that it’s full of ridiculous anachronisms, that the symbolisms are simply down to incompetence, that it pronounces no moral judgement, even by inference, other than the insultingly obvious condemnation of slavery and racial prejudice (duh!), and that much of it is “unrealistic”! The last point at least is correct, but then so are Cézanne landscapes and Picasso still life paintings, plays by Oscar Wilde and Michael Frayn, musicals, pantomimes, operas and ballet. And Greek tragedy and comedy, come to that.
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VB: I loved it.
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MH: I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about Quentin Tarantino and Django Unchained. There’s no dispute between us, I think, that he’s a supremely skilful film-maker, I just remain to be convinced that the subtleties and multiple levels of meaning that you find in this film are really there. Film buff friends tell me that I cannot form a proper judgement of QT’s work until I’ve seen Pulp Fiction – something of a cult movie for QT fans, it seems. I must try and repair that gap in my cinematographic knowledge at some point.
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BB: I agree that you need to see Pulp Fiction (especially), both ‘volumes’ of Kill Bill (of which I bought both volumes on DVD today for £5 from poor bankrupt HMV) and Jackie Brown before reaching any final conclusions about Tarantino. Everything he does has at least one purpose, often more than one, and it’s sometimes only afterwards that you realise what he was up to.
We saw Lincoln this afternoon. We thought Day-Lewis’s performance obviously masterly and the film had the gravitas that comes from dealing with events of huge significance and resonance, but without Day-Lewis (with whose half-brother I was at school, incidentally) it would really have been a pretty run-of-the-mill historical costume drama which had quite long periods that were frankly dull. I found myself yearning for some Tarantino fireworks, some technical dazzle and some intellectual challenge. Of course talking of Lincoln without Day-Lewis is like discussing Hamlet without the prince, but it’s perhaps fair to note that “apart from that, Mrs Lincoln”, there wasn’t a lot to it. It adequately explored the moral quandary – was Abe right to prolong the bloody civil war in order to get his abolition of slavery amendment through before permitting a peace settlement? – and Spielberg can’t be blamed for failing to suggest an answer (because there obviously isn’t one, which is why it’s not a terribly interesting moral problem). Lincoln discussed the relative merits of two obviously good but (arguably although not necessarily) incompatible causes, while Django Unchained discussed, much more subtly and far more entertainingly, the counter-intuitive moral equivalence of two bad types of violence, one of which laid unconvincing claims to virtue. All the other actors in Lincoln were perfectly competent – Tommy Lee Jones terrific as Thaddeus Stevens, I thought – but the whole thing came to life only when D D-L was on the screen and speaking. I thought it was a great mistake to include the assassination, which was dealt with so perfunctorily and which needs a film to itself to be done at all satisfactorily. In short, I agree this time with Adam Mars-Jones’s serious reservations about Lincoln despite recalling that you didn’t. In particular I agreed with A M-J about the unnecessarily portentous music of Lincoln. But it’s clearly a must-see movie mainly because of D D-L’s fantastic performance (surely a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar?) but also because it’s by Spielberg, whatever its shortcomings. Django was much the better and more interesting film, IMFFHO. We must just agree to disagree, at any rate until you’ve seen some more movies of QT.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3910, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it, but probably no illustrations or comments by others, unless what you want to say is purely personal. (Anyway, I’m away overseas for the next few weeks with only limited internet access, so I’m quite likely not to see your email comment if you send it as an email.) Thanks. Now read on….
MH: Thanks for the feedback on Lincoln. I’m glad that you shared my admiration for Day-Lewis’s mesmerising performance, as well as that of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, but sorry that the rest of the film left you underwhelmed. I agree that it was a tad too long, but I found it gripping none the less and certainly far from being a “a run-of-the-mill historical costume drama”. It was courageous of Spielberg to eschew (except in the powerful opening battle sequence) the action-packed fireworks that are his usual stock-in-trade and focus instead on the nitty-gritty of the political infighting in the months leading up to the passage of the 13th amendment. (In this respect it reminded me a little of Borgen).
It is true that appreciation of the film is enhanced by some detailed knowledge of the historical background, and of the contemporary party-political forces at play, and this may be a drawback for British audiences. I wish that I myself had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book before seeing the film. It is true that we cannot know what would have happened if Abe L had listened to those of his advisers who wanted him to give priority to ending the civil war, rather than to securing the abolition of slavery first, but this doesn’t seem to me to diminish the potency of the moral trade-off confronting him: the certainty of more deaths on the battlefield against the early ending of the vast injustice of slavery. Intuitively, I feel that Lincoln was right to think that abolition would have taken far longer to achieve had he chosen the alternative course some wished upon him, but of course that can only be speculation.
It would have been difficult to have made no reference to the assassination as that is probably the best-known fact about Lincoln’s life. Actually, the assassination itself is not depicted. Instead, we see Lincoln’s son at a theatre where the performance is interrupted when the curtain is brought down and a flustered manager comes on to announce that the president has been shot at another theatre elsewhere in town. I thought this was a rather subtle and economically oblique way of covering the assassination in a way that did not divert attention from what I took to be the main theme of the film: that in a democracy the political pursuit of even the noblest of causes – and there could hardly be a more unimpeachably moral crusade than the abolition of slavery – sometimes, perhaps more often than not, requires a great deal of less than edifying wheeler-dealing, cajoling, bribing, arm-twisting, threats, subterfuge and deceit plus a degree of ruthlessness to ensure success.
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This is a very rough transcript of how I remember Andrew Marr interviewing the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, on the revealingly named “Andrew Marr Show”, BBC1 television, Sunday 30 September 2012. I can’t of course vouch for its accuracy. But for those who missed it, or switched it off after the first three minutes, this may help to give the flavour.
Andrew Marr: I’m joined now by Ed Miliband as he comes to Manchester for his party conference, at which he’ll have to expect to be judged by not only his party but by the whole country on his claim to be the country’s next prime minister. He’s widely regarded as a weird pointy-headed nerdy figure, more at home in the university lecture-room discussing ideas than convincing the man in the pub that he’d be better off under a Miliband Labour Government. Ed Miliband, welcome to the Andrew Marr Show.
Ed Miliband: Thank you, Andrew. Look, I–
AM: So this is your opportunity, Ed, to reveal the closely guarded secrets of what specific policies we may expect a Miliband government to pursue, if you succeed in the elections in 2015. We really have no information so far about what you would do about public spending, for example. Would you cancel the coalition government’s cuts and repeat the familiar Labour policy of reckless spending?
EM: Well, Andrew, obviously where the coalition’s cuts are failing in their objective of reducing the deficit–
AM: So you would increase government spending. I think it’s the first time you’ve admitted that. It means the deficit would also actually increase, doesn’t it?
EM: No, I’m not saying that at all. The deficit is actually increasing as a result of the coalition’s cuts, because –
AM: You still haven’t told us which coalition cuts you would reverse or where the money would come from for all the additional spending. How can you expect to win the trust of the British people when you won’t come clean about your spending plans?
EM: Look, it’s still 2-1/2 years until the general election, and it’s impossible at this stage to–
AM: All right, so we still don’t know. Now, will you at least tell us whether you would work with the LibDems if there’s a hung parliament after the next elections and Labour is the biggest party? How can you ask voters to support Labour if you won’t even tell us honestly what you would do if you fail to win an overall majority? Isn’t that rather arrogant?
EM: Look, our aim is clear: it’s to win the next election outright, that’s what we’re working for. Of course if–
AM: So you won’t answer my question. Let me put this to you: will it be a condition of a Miliband government working with the LibDems that Nick Clegg is no longer their leader? I think we’re entitled to know that at least.
EM: I don’t think it’s for me to tell another party who their–
AM: Let’s talk about the condition of the Labour party. It’s widely believed that you and the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, have a difficult relationship. Have you really forgotten the harm that was done to Labour by the terrible relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? If so, you must have a very short memory.
EM: Ed Balls and I work very well and amicably together. Take the issue of banking reform, which I would really like to tell you–
AM: We’ll come on to that in a minute. Just now I want to ask you about another thing which you have been very secretive about – the role in the Labour party of your brother, David, who is older than you and more experienced: how does he feel now about the way you wrecked his hopes of becoming party leader, your own brother?
EM: Well, you’ll have to ask him how he feels. He knows that I welcome the active role he–
AM: You’re generally thought to be indecisive. You were certainly decisive when you decided to run against your own brother for the leadership! Can you think of any other clear-cut decisions on policy matters that you have taken since you went into politics?
EM: As leader of the party and Leader of the Opposition, I’m having to make major decisions all–
AM: So you can’t think of a single one?
EM: Andrew, I was trying to tell you that–
AM: All right. Let’s talk a bit about your private life. People have been ridiculing you for having yourself photographed with your wife and two small children, arriving in Manchester yesterday for the conference. Is that what we have to expect now from you: all folksy family schmaltz and no policies?
EM: Not at all. I’m determined that at this conference we’ll be talking in very specific terms about the issues that are making life so difficult at the moment for hard-working–
AM: So you still haven’t told me in concrete terms what you would like to do about relations with the EU, or Afghanistan, or the trade deficit, or how you would get on with Mitt Romney if he wins the US elections, or really anything at all about international affairs. For example, now is your chance to tell me in detail how you would propose to bring the violence in Syria to an end if you were prime minister now.
EM: I’ll be very glad to tell you my position on all those matters, if you’ll give me a chance. On the crisis in the EU, for example, and especially in the Eurozone, we would give strong support to –
AM: We’ll come on to that in a moment. I want to ask you about the banks. You’ve been quoted as saying that you would point a gun at the head of the banks and threaten to nationalise them if they don’t obey your order to separate their international investment operations, or casino banking as I think you call it, from their ordinary high street banking operations. Presumably you don’t mind that this would drive all our banks to close down their UK banking operations and move to the United States where they would be more welcome to make a profit and provide badly needed services to the whole financial system?
EM: That’s a parody of what I have proposed for reform of the banks. I certainly think that a clear separation–
AM: That’s exactly what I said you were saying. How can you–
EM: Can I finish my point? A clear separation of investment–
AM: No, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for. Thank you very much for coming in, although I don’t think you have really shed much light in this interview on what to expect from an Ed Miliband administration in the unlikely event of anyone who looks like you winning an election. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party. Now –
EM: But I –
AM: [Turning away from EM to face another camera; EM now out of shot] Now we’re going to be played out by listening to a very attractive young lady whose recent hit single is currently at No. 788 in the charts and rising fast. What brought you into your amazingly successful singing career, my dear? ….