The Lowland

The Lowland

It’s often easiest and most enjoyable to read novels with some kind of anchor. Whether this is in genre, authorial style, time and place, or anything else, a writer can easily indulge a reader’s desire to be guided and comforted by something familiar. This certainly cannot be said of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It is a novel of sparse prose that resists the metronome of a predictable chronology, with the narrative jumping forward in leaps and starts, sometimes by weeks, sometimes by decades – and, at the close, jumping heartbreakingly back in time.

One is repeatedly tantalised by the prospect of a certain familiar genre – a campus novel, a novel of political ideas, an Indian family epic – only to have these refused again and again by the author. Perhaps most significantly, Lahiri resists the storytelling style of magical realism that defines Indian literature for many western readers – no overwhelming coincidences or figures of great symbolism can be found to offer signposts. It offers uncomfortable truths about emotions, motherhood, trauma, and familial obligations, and doesn’t give any easy resolutions. Instead, Lahiri takes us into an unsentimental yet emotional narrative of a handful of characters and how they deal with loss.

This is not to say this novel is a depressing one. Quite the opposite – it has moments of great joy (though admittedly these are most heavily concentrated in the opening fifty pages), as well as intellectually challenging passages, as characters contemplate various philosophical problems and concepts. But it does face up to reality in a way that is at once sad and exhilarating.

The Lowland tells the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash. They grow up together in a suburb of Calcutta, just as India becomes independent, and are inseparable. Gradually, however, they drift slightly apart – attending different colleges, developing differing political viewpoints, and eventually moving apart completely. Udayan becomes a committed Marxist and Maoist, outraged by police brutality and the gross inequality he sees in India. Subhash is far more inward looking, and travels to America to study in Rhode Island, to his brother’s dismay. It is not giving too much away to say that events turn traumatic, and the family is divided. Though Subhash returns to India for a time, he eventually moves back to Rhode Island once more, this time with his new, pregnant wife, Gauri.

Theirs isn’t a terribly contented marriage, and we witness their growing emotional distance at painfully close quarters. There are no volcanic arguments, plate-smashing or domestic violence. Instead, we are shown the far more delicate – and possibly more devastating – violence of domesticity without love. Affection cannot be forced or willed into being, a lesson Subhash and Gauri learn over the course of the novel.

Again, this isn’t a terribly comforting lesson that is revealed to the reader. It’d be more pleasurable, possibly, to read some celebration, via magical realism, of the overwhelming power love can hold, that it can break boundaries and conquer all. But Lahiri sees through this literary charade. This isn’t Love in the Time of Maoism, there are no star-crossed lovers, and there are absolutely no events that are weighted with inherent significance. Instead, the only significance any events hold are in the minds of the characters perceiving them – there is no charismatic narrator offering neat interpretations or poetic conclusions.

This was, for this reader, somewhat unexpected. After all, the novel initially toys with ideas of brotherhood and nationhood, coincidence and destiny. With the brothers’ trajectories rooted in India’s independence, there are (presumably deliberate) echoes of Midnight’s Children: as Nehru is giving his speech marking India’s liberation from colonialism, Udayan and Subhash both come down with a fever. If this was Rushdie, one feels sure this would offer some portentous sign of things to come, or tie in symbolically with the nation’s experience. But Lahiri has no interest in such literary neatness. There’s no mysterious connection between the brothers in the way that there is between Rushdie’s children of midnight. Reality, in all its bleakness, soon overwhelms the narrative. Events happen without clear cause or consequence, and trauma cannot be escaped through time or geography.

It is this legacy of trauma that really concerns Lahiri, and where her apparently sparse prose is so deceptive. It may seem simple, but devastation and loss leave their footprints across large swathes of the novel. As a young child, Udayan steps in wet concrete outside the family home, a cheeky, brief action that leaves an apparently permanent mark in his family’s life. Lahiri is incredibly perceptive of these marks that we carry with us, and knows in particular that lives cut short echo far louder. Reflecting on this, Lahiri provides us with a rare moment of overt literary symbolism (though necessarily filtered through the perceptions of Bela, Udayan’s daughter):

The following day she’d walked with her father to campus to see torn branches scattered on the quadrangle, streets green with leaves. They found a thick tree that had fallen, the tangled roots exposed. They saw the drenched ground that had given way. The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.

Without quite realising it, Bela thus gives a beautiful explanation of her own mother’s trauma. Gauri suffers a great loss in the novel, and it marks her for the rest of her life, most significantly in her inability to fully love or connect with her daughter. It is here that Lahiri is most devastatingly perceptive. We expect mothers to have an ingrained ability to look after their children, and to love them unconditionally, but this isn’t always the case. Gauri gradually realises she lacks this impulsive motherly connection, and the more she thinks about it, the worse it gets. To the reader, it seems akin to her lying awake, willing herself to go to sleep – the more she thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes.

To escape this, Gauri thinks instead of philosophy. She makes a literal and figurative retreat, into her private study (with its almost permanently closed door), and into her own mind. As she recognises her emotional numbness, she becomes more able to give herself over to intellectual activities. To this extent, perhaps, she and Subhash represent two possible archetypes: Gauri embodies the inward abstractions of the mind, while her husband represents more tactile, scientific pursuits. At one point, she develops a habit of leaving her daughter alone in the apartment for short periods of time, and treats it as a game in her head – how long can I stay away without Bela noticing? Eventually, though, Subhash discovers her regular absences, and it takes him – with his tactile, outward-looking nature – to make her see that she has done wrong.

This event, central to the novel, also embodies a key debate that runs as an undercurrent throughout: whether one should engage with the wider world – as Udayan does, travelling around India and embracing the lessons of Mao – or engage primarily with yourself – what might be termed the American way. Here we have something of a struggle between forms of collectivism and individualism: Gauri cannot engage with the wider world, because she has seen such engagement already end in trauma. Her neglect of others thus becomes entirely understandable, with a footprint of loss leaving its mark throughout her adult life. Indeed, Gauri recognises this distinction herself:

Her ideology was isolated from practice, neutered by its long tenure in the academy. Long ago she’d wanted her work to be in deference to Udayan, but by now it was a betrayal of everything he had believed in. All the ways he had influenced and inspired her, shrewdly cultivated for her own intellectual gain.

However, none of these interpretations of characters and moments are key to the novel. Instead, Lahiri is concerned with her characters above all else. If they see symbolism or achieve some level of insight into events, then this is represented, but we can take no refuge in the author’s interpretation. To find meaning here, one must drill very deep indeed. Above this, on the surface, lies Lahiri’s deceptively simple writing. It is prose that eschews intellectual stylings in favour of emotional truths, which are perceived – or rather, felt – and then set down on the page with unwavering loyalty.

The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant


Oscar Wilde and scrap metal dealing might not appear to have much in common. Nonetheless, they’ve been united by writer/director Clio Barnard in her first non-documentary feature, The Selfish Giant.

Based very loosely on Wilde’s short story, the film follows two 12 year olds, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), as they skive off school and roam the bleaker parts of Bradford. By chance, they become involved in both the scrap metal trade and illicit horse racing with a gruff, dangerous local, Kitten (Sean Gilder), which offer both thrills and profits not found at school.

Though the narrative is shown through children’s eyes, there is nothing child-like on offer. Instead, we see subtle hierarchies and an entire micro-economy that encourages crime, with fatal consequences. The beautiful, unsentimental cinematography by Mike Eley both complements and emphasises the ugly reality that Barnard depicts.

She is working in a proud tradition of social realism, from Kes to This is England, and shares their visual poetry, though never at the expense of reality. The film avoids music in favour of stunning, bleak landscapes – pylons and all – and thoroughly believable performances from all involved. Chapman and Thomas are utterly convincing in their friendship and hardship, with Chapman’s Arbor being both repellant and sympathetic.

The film is something of a fable, yet there is nothing fabulist or fanciful onscreen. The political undertones are real and angry, as Barnard offers an uncompromising vision of modern poverty in Yorkshire, in all its beauty and bleakness.


Super Sad True Love Story – review

Super Sad True Love Story

It almost feels wrong to class Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010) as a dystopian novel. The near-future world he describes in such immersive detail is so familiar to today’s reader that it’s almost an effort to remember this stuff is made up. But in this familiarity lie both the novel’s successes, and its flaws. The society Shteyngart describes is extremely well-observed, and convincingly modelled on (while being a mutation of) our contemporary culture. Yet underneath all its fresh modernity, Love Story is a familiar tale about love and death, without much insight into either.

The eponymous tale centres on Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged Jewish schlub who seems entirely out of place in his shiny, hi-tech surroundings. He works for ‘Post Human Services’, a company that (under a more sinister parent company that seems to be pulling most of the world’s strings) aims to let incredibly rich clients live forever. Needless to say, this doesn’t do wonders for his own self-esteem, nor does it ease his traditional Jewish neuroses about illness and dying alone.

We are introduced to Lenny in Rome, where he meets a youthful, attractive US-Korean girl named Eunice Park. She’s a generation younger and extremely out of his league, yet they somehow end up together. Lenny returns to his apartment in New York, and Eunice soon follows him there. Their relationship is then charted from bloom to decay, as the city and the wider country fall completely apart.

Shteyngart’s vision, as I’ve said, is intensely immersive, and this is in large part due to the narrative technique. The chapters alternate between Lenny’s verbose, introspective and literary diary entries, and Eunice’s seemingly superficial conversations with various people over the ‘Globalteens’ network (complete with alternating fonts). As such, there is little exposition. Instead, Shteyngart trusts in how familiar all this will be to the reader, and knows he doesn’t need to explain what an ‘äppärät’ is – it’s enough for us to understand that everyone has them, they hang around your neck, and connect to the internet. Unlike the more distant societies of 1984 (1949) or Brave New World (1931), this novel seems to be happening just a few short years from now, in a very recognisable America.

This lends the novel a great deal of verisimilitude. People live-stream their own shows around the world via their äppäräti (one of Lenny’s friends presents the ‘Amy Greenberg Muffintop Hour’), London has become HSBC-London (along with HSBC Goldsmith’s College), and people are being judged mercilessly by their credit-rating. All this roots this futuristic world very much in today. Moreover, though Shteyngart never gives the reader a specific year, the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall are well within living memory for most of the characters. One is therefore left in no doubt that what we’re seeing may take place very soon indeed. It’s a bold move by the author, but he has enough insight into contemporary technology and societal behaviours that he just about pulls it off. However, one does have to wonder how clever his predictions will look a short decade from now.

In fact, strip away the contemporary references and witty predictions, and there’s not a great deal left behind. Shteyngart satirises our image-obsessed, anti-intellectual culture by taking it to absurd lengths, but he uncovers nothing new. In their uncomfortably modern surroundings, the characters fail to connect with one another – this could just as easily describe Howards End (1910), a novel published a century before this one. There is a familiar self-deception on display, which Larry sees in one of his closest friends: ‘I had always been unsure of his affection for Amy Greenberg, and now I had no reason to doubt. He didn’t love her. They were together for the obvious and timeless reason: it was slightly less painful than being alone.’

‘Obvious and timeless’ – a good summary of the novel’s subject. Behind all the superficially clever trappings of dystopia and technological lies Larry’s central fear of illness and death – again and again we are subjected to the protagonist’s almost intolerable sensitivity (he even cries when receiving a blowjob), to the extent that one almost wills Eunice to walk out on him from the start. He fears his own demise, and is terrified of being alone – but he offers no insight into his predicament. Moreover, he is perhaps a character incapable of doing so. After all, when Larry reads passages from Kundera to Eunice, he struggles to engage intellectually even with his own adolescent marginalia (‘EUROPEAN CYNICISM or VERY SCARY TRUTH???’). To the disgust of everyone around him, Larry keeps his old physical books, but he doesn’t know why. He reads War and Peace, but we never see him learning or improving from the practice. Essentially, he is too mediocre to break free of his oppressively superficial surroundings. This kind of mediocre protagonist has a proud tradition in literature, but because of the diary-style narrative, Shteyngart cannot provide the reader with any more insight than Larry is capable of – which is not a great deal.

On the topic of Larry’s books, a pertinent quote comes to mind from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – a novel to which Shteyngart owes a great debt. By the end, I wanted to shake poor Larry out of his bewildered stupor and shout this at him:

You’re a hopeless romantic… It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlour families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Shteyngart should have stapled that quotation firmly above his desk when writing Love Story. Instead, he takes an easier path of cynicism and blunt satire. This by no means results in a bad book – on the contrary, there are several fantastic moments. In particular the obsession everyone feels with ranking their peers in various ways (including, but not limited to, the categories of ‘Fuckability’ and ‘Personality’) is an astute assessment of social networks and their insistence on categorisation, compartmentalisation, and implied competition. This initially feels insightful, though towards the novel’s close, Shteyngart unfortunately gives in to bad instincts and states his point too explicitly (thus eliminating any latent satire): when people’s äppäräti stop working, Larry notes how

four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppäräti. One wrote, quite eloquently, about how he “reached out to life,” but found there only “walls and thoughts and faces,” which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked to know his place in this world.

On occasions like this, Shteyngart needs to let the world speak for itself, rather than have Larry spell out its meanings and implications. That said, there are other moments when such explication works well. When a massacre takes place in Central Park, Shteyngart uses this moment to offer an uncomfortably truthful observation about the solipsism ingrained in modern society:

There’s eighteen people dead,” [Noah] said, as if he had surprised himself. “They shot eighteen.” And I wondered about the excitement in his voice: What if Noah was secretly pleased that all this was happening? What if we all were? What if the violence was actually channeling our collective fear into a kind of momentary clarity, the clarity of being alive during conclusive times, the joy of being historically important by association?

Unfortunately, though, this incisive analysis of our modern culture doesn’t happen as often as you’d like in the book. Mostly Shteyngart provides us with a less nuanced take – his world is one of shiny distractions, which will surely date extremely badly. Behind these lies a quite conservative and somewhat adolescent take on the world and its future. Though it might seem dazzlingly contemporary, Shteygart’s vision is at heart a wearily familiar one, driven by bibliophilia, nostalgia, and morbidity. 

On Greenwald and online journalism

On Halloween, Glenn Greenwald will leave his post at the Guardian to embark on a new journalistic venture with the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar. His future will no doubt be of great interest not only to consumers of news (as it is sure to have its fair share of scoops, given Greenwald’s ever growing fame and reputation), but also to producers of news. Heaven knows pretty much every news company in the world (particularly print) is scrabbling around, desperate to find a way to stop their declines in sales.* Are tablets the answer? Advertising? Sponsored content? Most likely it’s a mixture of these, and many other ingredients – yet Greenwald’s upcoming venture may prove that another factor could be crucial: quality journalism.

There’s little proof for this yet though. Regardless of whether you agree with its politics, the Guardian has invested heavily in its online presence with enormous results. Not monetary results, mind, but rather a huge growth in their global readership. With the Scott Trust behind them, Rusbridger et al have stormed ahead, opening a US bureau in 2011 and an Australian bureau in 2013. This was (accidentally, it seems) perfectly timed to coincide with Greenwald’s international NSA reporting, which has had such profound international reactions. Yet despite this explosion in readers, and one of the biggest scoops of the decade, the Guardian hasn’t yet managed to monetise its high profile. It has in the past declared it will never go behind a paywall (and as far as I can see, is still sticking to that promise) – though they’re clearly looking into other avenues large and small for additional money, including books, journalism courses, and coffee. Furthermore, it’s likely the money will soon run out if the Guardian’s ongoing losses aren’t significantly reduced, and there have been a fair number of voluntary redundancies and pay cuts amongst the staff, including a salary reduction for Rusbridger himself.

Guardian editor considers busking on the side?

Guardian editor considers busking on the side?

This is why it’ll be interesting to watch Greenwald’s new venture. He’ll no doubt get huge stories, high-profile writers, and a lot of publicity. But will this translate into financial viability? And does this matter? Are we now destined to have extremely rich men (and it does seem to be universally men doing this) bankrolling quality journalism? Are your only options as an editor to either: 1) be backed by an Omidyar, a Bezos, or two Lebedevs; or 2) to peddle tits and gossip (a winning formula used to great effect by Martin Clarke and his team at Mail Online)? There’s a limited supply of benevolent billionaires, and it’s a system open to great dangers, particularly if any of them have a desire to become the new Murdoch.

Online-only publications seem to be in slightly less tricky positions. The all-conquering Buzzfeed has found a successful niche that mixes community-driven content, entertaining gifs, and some genuinely serious reporting. Some slightly older online organs have also coped well. Slate, for instance, is thriving. Though its approach is far less scattergun than Buzzfeed’s, Slate’s editor David Plotz ensures the magazine hosts a huge variety of writers, topics and (crucially) blogs and podcasts. It’s enormously online friendly – the Dear Prudence agony aunt column gets them enormous traffic, their photo and history blogs are great portals of discovery, and their ubiquitous Gabfest podcasts are always directing listeners back to the site. In other words, Slate is onto something, and its its new tablet-friendly redesign shows it’s looking seriously into cementing its long-term future. But being online-only is no guarantee of viability. The Daily Beast was launched with great fanfare just a few years ago, but it recently let its founder Tina Brown go, and by all accounts is struggling. This is despite offering plenty of video content and other online friendly material, as well as producing a very impressive books section. Apparently this wasn’t enough.

One of the site’s big draws had been Andrew Sullivan, the famous commentator/blogger. Yet early this year Sullivan left the bosom of the Beast to establish his own site, which essentially operated behind a ‘leaky’ paywall. It seems to have paid off so far, but this is because people want to listen to him. He’s gradually recruited a small team around him in the past decade, as he travelled to different sites that hosted his musings, and over time has built up a substantial and loyal following. This was through sheer quality of posts, as he tirelessly dug up interesting articles, offered thoughtful analysis, and generally gave an insightful digest of the news. Moreover, he included his followers in his articles, posting about feedback, curating fascinating threads on a huge variety of topics, and cultivated a community.

Some of the community may have just been trapped in his beard.

Some of the community may have just been trapped in his beard.

I think this offers a lesson for any journalist or editor. It’s about finding that audience who care about you and your material – and you have to show you care about them. This isn’t about PR guff promising interactivity, or tailored content, or even integrating every new piece of technology into your website (Flipboard can do all that, and make it prettier than most other things). Instead, it’s about creating genuine relationships with readers. Roger Ebert did it brilliantly: he read every single comment on his blog, and moderated them himself. This meant he spent hours and hours every day interacting with his readers, and it paid off. Not only did he write well (obviously an essential prerequisite), but he listened, and people knew he was listening.

This is why I wonder if Greenwald will really show us the way forward. As his sometime Twitter foe Joshua Foust has pointed out, Greenwald isn’t a journalist who generally takes criticism on board. He’s very good at responding to criticism, but only seems capable of loudly rebuffing it, occasionally eliding the truth in the process. He’s unshakeably certain of the essential goodness of his cause. Whether this is right or wrong isn’t really the point – it’s not a tactic that encourages a community to form. It’s not inclusive, it’s didactic, and if you’re not a sworn member of his group, it becomes alienating. (As Jemima Khan pointed out about Assange and his acolytes, there is an ironic echo of Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or against us’ doctrine.)

But then again, does his sort of journalism (and journalism in general) need interactivity? Is that even good for journalism? Maybe straight reporting would be undermined and corrupted by such an approach. Maybe we need some source of authority in order for commentators like Sullivan to thrive, and maybe forming a community only really works for commentators. But then Greenwald is arguably just as popular (if not more so) for his trenchant opinion pieces as for his actual reporting – indeed, these are occasionally tricky to separate – and if he’s leaving the Guardian, he may be taking a large readership with him. So is the fate of internet journalism to be found in small silos? Unless you embrace sweeping populism (in other words, tits and gossip), must you specialise to survive? I hope not, but it does seem to be the way the wind is blowing.


*Incidentally, this is the main reason why the Leveson report and its lengthy and ongoing aftermath seem fairly irrelevant to me. As Nick Cohen repeatedly insisted at a debate in January, ‘You’re regulating a corpse!’


Watching a Danny Boyle film is never advisable if you’ve got a headache. The director may be approaching 60, but he’s lost none of his on-screen energy and volume; his style is one of frantic, kinetic activity, as characters sprint around while the soundtrack throbs louder and louder. Think of Ewan McGregor running from security guards in Trainspotting, Cillian Murphy running from rage-infested monsters in 28 Days Later, or Cillian Murphy again running to blow up a nuclear bomb in Sunshine. Boyle’s films aren’t often terribly reflective affairs, preferring to stimulate more adrenaline than thought.

So it’s a little surprising that his new film is so concerned with the workings of the mind – not exactly a setting that screams visual energy. But by following the example of Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Inception, Boyle has at least succeeded in making the mind an exciting place for the audience to explore.

The plot revolves around an art heist gone wrong. Simon (James McAvoy) works at an auction house, and knows its security setup well. So when his gambling debts start piling up, he decides to help criminal boss Franck (Vincent Cassel) steal a painting, Goya’s Witches in the Air. Predictably, though, it doesn’t go according to plan. The painting disappears, Simon gets a nasty bump on the head, and he can’t remember where it’s gone. All this leads him to the door of Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist who tries to help Simon and Franck navigate the tricky corridors of memory.

On paper, this should be a perfect fit for the director. His most underrated (and I think his best) film is Sunshine, which brilliantly captures a crew’s collective psyche fracturing as they approach the sun. It’s both thrilling and emotional, as the plot races forward without looking to confuse or overtly impress. By contrast, Trance sets out to do both – without the same success.

In fact, perhaps the Nolan film this is closest to is The Prestige – both rely heavily on smoke and mirrors to conceal a plot that is, in the end, ludicrous. Run over the story in your mind afterwards, and it all becomes faintly ridiculous and unconvincing. The difference here is that while the presentation and flourish of The Prestige successfully distracted the audience from the less successful or convincing twists, Trance doesn’t pull off the same trick.

There are similar multiple reveals and revelations, but they never shock or surprise in the way they should. What should be subtle moments of foreshadowing are announced from a bullhorn – try not to notice, for example, Dawson’s constant touching of her throat. Boyle relies far too much on tricksy editing, dutch angles, and the requisite throbbing electronica from Underworld – all this in place of intelligent plotting, or genuine danger. One crucial failing is in the character of Franck. Though Cassel is charming and fairly compelling as the crime lord, his role is woefully undercooked: one minute he’s friendly, the next he’s supervising Simon having his fingernails pulled out. Yet this inconsistency doesn’t suggest an erratic or unstable criminal (like, say, Gary Oldman in Leon); instead, it just renders him fairly harmless. The audience doesn’t share Simon’s terror of Franck, and as a result, the tension is far too slack.

There are several MacGuffins littered throughout the film, each leading to the next thread in Simon’s mind, but they become progressively more ludicrous until the final, crucial one (and this is a mild spoiler): Rosario Dawson’s shaved vagina. Yes. The final third of this film revolves around a close-up of a Hollywood wax. Think of it as a MacMuffin.

Not this kind.

Though I know it’s meant to make the film more sexy, edgy and dangerous, as well as providing yet another crucial twist, it struck me as both ridiculous and uncomfortably gratuitous. Until this reveal, Dawson works admirably to make her character a strong, intriguing figure at the film’s centre, but once her bald bits become the focus, the film goes off the rails completely. Characters are totally inverted without much forethought, the violence goes full throttle (with a defenceless penis being shot pretty much point blank), and Dawson is given the thankless task of playing Basil Exposition in the final ten minutes.

It’s a shame, really. Danny Boyle throws all of his loud and energetic tricks at the screen, but they’re not strong enough to hide what is, in the end, a weak script. As the plot unravels, so does the tension, and no amount of sex and violence can stitch it back together. The final shot clearly wants to emulate the irresolution of Inception, frustrating and delighting the audience in equal measure – but by the end, the characters and plot have changed direction so many times that it’s difficult to care. All of Boyle’s energy and pyrotechnics can’t conceal a script that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is – and Boyle himself ends up as uncomfortably exposed as his female star.

Louis CK

Louis CK, the O2, 20 March 2013

As the audience gradually filtered into the enormous arena of the O2, I overheard several groups saying how they didn’t realise how popular he was. To a lot of his fans, Louis CK still seems like a well-kept secret. In the US, he’s exploded, with his fantastic HBO show Louie and his tactic of selling tickets, videos, and any other content directly to fans, with no middle man. Here, though, he’s not quite so massive, though he still sold out the O2 without much effort.

The show began with a short bit of jazz trumpet, immediately reminding the audience of the comedian’s award winning, jazz-soaked TV show. But if this set the tone for anything introspective or overtly artistic, Louis himself quickly undid it when he walked onstage. Dressed in his standard issue black t-shirt (noting ‘this is as formal as I get’), Louis began with a paedophilia joke at the expense of said musician, and went on from there.

It’s an odd room for the Bostonian comic. Not in terms of status – there’s scarcely a bigger or more respected comedian in the world right now – but just in its vastness. There was an unavoidable lack of intimacy, and even Louis seemed a bit daunted by the whole thing. He laughed at the size of the stadium: ‘You’ll pretty much be watching me on TV’, he admitted, gesturing at the huge screens either side of the stage.

Fortunately, though, he commanded the huge arena effortlessly. Without descending into McIntyre-esque histrionics or hyperactivity, Louis stayed informal and friendly to the 12,000-strong crowd, even as waves of laughter spread a little too slowly across the arena. His is confidence that comes entirely from experience – he’s been doing stand-up since his teens, and he’s now forty five – and he didn’t let the arena throw him off.

The material was unsurprisingly strong, and very much in the same vein as all his recent specials. In fact, you could almost make a checklist:

  • standard brutal honesty about bodily functions (as he detailed how he’ll sometimes ‘need to wipe my ass. For no reason! I’m just sitting there, then “Oh, I need to wipe my ass”’);
  • a brutal attitude towards children, especially his own, and holding them to the same standards as adults (as he proclaimed that if murder were legal, we’d all be stepping over children’s corpses in supermarket aisles, which would then have to be placed in the appropriate recycling bag);

But although the rhythms and topics may have been predictable, this hardly mattered. No other comedian seems quite as comfortable onstage as Louis, introducing observations and incisive descriptions with seeming effortless spontaneity. He’s a master in the age-old comedy trick of defamiliarisation, as he describes something familiar in an entirely new way, thereby drawing attention to its inherent absurdity.

Of course, he wouldn’t describe his work in such a pompous fashion. For Louis, it’s all about the jokes, and simply whether something is funny. His material is always intelligent, but never forcefully so – you can analyse the stuff thoroughly (as in this great essay from the New Yorker), but equally you can just laugh like hell. And that’s kind of the point of Louis: if something’s funny, it’s funny. You don’t need to ask why. If you did, one of his favourite routines wouldn’t be a man with a guitar spoofing Curtis Mayfield by singing ‘Sitting on a Cock ’cos I’m Gay’.

It’s this no-bullshit approach that’s so refreshing, and has made him insanely popular in the past three years. He’s staggeringly talented and hard-working, having created, written, directed and starred in three seasons of Louie, while at the same time writing an entirely new stand-up set every year. But this discipline is all behind the scenes, and onstage, he seems as useless as all the rest of us. It’s this that’s key to his popularity: he makes what feels like a genuine connection with each audience member, through his brutal honesty and disdain for theatrics. Maybe that intimate connection is the real reason why so many people were surprised at the huge audience.

Despite his success, he still seems like a hidden gem, partly because he seems so disinterested and unfazed by the fame and money that has recently come his way. He’s been in the business for long enough to know there are more important things; near the end, he describes how a fifty year old bus driver will always be more interesting than a twenty year old with three PhDs. So long as he holds onto this integrity, with his boots on the ground, Louis will deservedly pack out stadiums for years to come.

Face it, Hollywood

I was wasting time on IMDb today, and it looked unusually repetitive. And then I noticed a weird phenomenon:

… in case it’s not vibratingly obvious, all the posters are straddled by two big faces. At least with After Earth, the Smiths have the goddamn courtesy to look at slack-jawed M Night fans and demand that they hand over their cold hard cash. Zach, Ken, Amy and Alexis are all too busy about to make out and/or fight to even bother looking at us.

This may be a good thing – it would be disturbing if Will Smith and his son looked at each other like they were about to make out and fight.

It seems like this is another trend in movie posters that is getting tired. Just like the ol’ orange-and-blue colour scheme seems to be the go-to solution for uninventive designers (and, more often than not, bad movies), the face-to-face technique gives some automatic tension and/or sexy vibe to any poster. At least it would, if it weren’t so ridiculously over-used.

Seriously, the Hangover III poster is a deliberate spoof of this Harry Potter 7.2 poster, which tells you a little bit about how repetitive this thing is getting. When the Hangover guys are identifying a cultural trend, that should be an emergency alarm to tired poster artists and designers to get another bag of tricks.

The technique isn’t exactly new. But with certain other movies, it worked. The very titles of Face to Face and Face/Off practically begged for this kind of composition.

Face to Face poster

Classy stuff. Kind of like The Master poster, but less ugly.

Face/Off poster

The different eye shapes have always annoyed me though.

So there are your two basic options: Human 1 and Human 2 (or in Bergman’s case, Human 1a and 1b) look at each other intensely, strongly suggesting that they will fight and/or have sex, or; Human 1 and Human 2 look together at the audience with almost mirrored faces, with a slightly less strong suggestion that they will fight and/or have sex.

Anyway, the more you look for these kinds of posters, the more you see it EVERYWHERE. The basic message this design sends is ‘FIGHTING AND/OR SEX WILL HAPPEN BETWEEN THESE PEOPLE.’ And yes, this includes Seth Rogan and Barbra Streisand, Pi and the Tiger, and Jeremy Irvine and his horse.

(Aaron Eckhart: Repeat Offender)

I've never heard of this film either, but it combines BOTH techniques, so must have twice as much fighting/sexing.

So yes. That’s a thing I’ve noticed. Not that it’s new.

So this is a technique that’s stretched from The Big Hangover to The Hangover Part III. And I wouldn’t take any lessons from The Big Hangover, personally. After all, that starred Van Johnson, and he was also in this:

Just… wow. ‘When is a Miss “Too Young to Kiss”‘?

SO. Conclusion: two big faces on a poster is massively over-used, frequently looks terrible, and often promotes an even worse film. Hollywood, STOP IT.

Interview: Dominic Crossley

Over the past week, I’ve been writing a report on Leveson’s recommendations for my course. In the process, a few concerns struck me about certain aspects, and I found a few questions brewing. By chance, I came into contact with Dominic Crossley, a lawyer who has represented many of the hacking victims, and also represented Max Mosley in his bid a few years ago to make newspapers notify the subject of a story prior to publication. He was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions I had, and since the essay I’m writing doesn’t have enough space for the complete responses, I thought I’d publish them here.

He’s keen to praise Leveson’s findings, and calls for them to be implemented in full. My own opinion is that I’m a little more cautious about this – Britain’s record on free speech has been extraordinarily poor, with the possibility that wearing a certain t-shirt or burning a poppy could make you a criminal. As such, I’m receptive to warnings that free speech would be further threatened by these reforms. That said, Leveson does propose enshrining press freedom for the first time in law – though with caveats that seem too broad for my liking. Mr Crossley draws a comparison with the caveats in the European Convention on Human Rights – though these are far more specific. Anyway, all this and more is discussed below…

1.)    Do you feel the Leveson report addressed all your clients’ concerns adequately?

Given that I acted for over 50 individuals it is impossible for me to generalise.  Certainly some clients have expressed the view that Leveson’s recommendations are the least of what could be expected under the circumstances.  My personal feeling is that the Leveson Report is an extremely well constructed document that recognises the impact that unlawful and unethical conduct has on the individuals concerned.  I think that the report demonstrates the overwhelming need for an effective independent regulator and his recommendations put forward a proposal intended to meet that need without inhibiting good investigative journalism or risking unwarranted state interference.

2.)    What would be the ideal outcome of the ongoing negotiations over press regulation?

The Leveson recommendations should be implemented in full. Any different outcome or compromise that derives from private negotiations or compromise will be met with scepticism.  The public are able to trust the Leveson report because it is the product of a public and transparent inquiry undertaken by an independent judge who is not subject to the same pressures and temptations as politicians or newspaper executives.

3.) The draft bill, published by Hacked Off, claims to protect and enshrine freedom of the press, yet in section 1(3), caveats to this freedom are included:

‘Interference with the activities of the media by Ministers of the Crown and public officials shall be unlawful unless it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society‘.

These caveats seem extremely broad, and open to considerable exploitation by politicians (especially given the willingness Maria Miller’s office showed in attempting to suppress the Telegraph’s report on her expenses in December – a charge she denies). Will this loophole be closed, and if not, how would you justify language that is so open to interpretation?

I do not represent Hacked Off and should not speak on its behalf.  I do however think that they are doing a good job in trying to maintain the voice of the victims in the debate and despite the enormously powerful voice and influence of the press lobby. Their draft bill is the first genuine attempt to be true to Leveson’s recommendations. The clause you identify is taken directly from the report (vol 4 p 1780). In suggesting that clause Leveson is relying heavily on the s3 of the Constitutional Reform Act.  It should not be considered a loophole: Leveson recommended a clause placing a duty on the Government to uphold the freedom of the press because there is no current legislation to that effect.  Of course, particularly given what he heard during the inquiry, the obligation he proposes to prevent interference with the press cannot be absolute.  Judges, for example, are public officials and they are called upon, as is necessary,  to place restrictions on the press and/or censure them in libel and privacy cases. If there was no such caveat, the press would be entirely immune from prosecution or regulation.   Similar caveats appear elsewhere in legislation – see by way of example Article 10  of the European Convention on Human Rights – which protects freedom of expression and is subject to Article 10 (2):

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

In response to your example of Maria Miller allegedly attempting to suppress an article concerning her expenses, I do not know the truth of that allegation.  Should it have been true and Hacked Off’s bill have been in force the Telegraph could have relied upon it, as such conduct is unlikely to be considered interference for a “legitimate purpose”.

3.)    In an ideal world, would your clients wish to see all news-related internet content in England and Wales accountable to the regulatory body?

Again, I cannot answer for my clients and the following is my own view.  I think there are enormous challenges relating to the internet which must be overcome.  The first challenge is requiring internet based companies who trade in the UK to abide by the rule of law in this jurisdiction.  As to regulation, it would appear to me to be of great benefit for legitimate news providers on the internet to have the benefits of regulation including access to the arbitration system for complaints.  At the moment there is no significant alternative to dealing with disputes other than by way of enormously expensive court proceedings, which is inhibiting for both the complainant and the publisher.  A cheap and specialist arbitration system has to be better.

4.)    Many editors and commentators have argued that since the inquiry began, it has had a huge impact, making newspapers extremely cautious about publishing certain stories. They have claimed that many stories haven’t been published that are perfectly newsworthy – will implementing Leveson’s proposals entrench (or even exacerbate) this suppression?

I don’t see why they would have supressed such stories nor why they should do so in the future.  Newspapers have a tendency to report such fears because it suits them to do so.  Leveson repeatedly stated how he did not want to inhibit legitimate journalism and heard and lauded examples of great investigations.  I would have thought that it remains in the newspapers’ interests to publish good stories now, as it ever has been and will be should Leveson’s recommendations be implemented.  If unlawful stories of no genuine public interest concerning the private lives of sportsmen or celebrities have been supressed, good.

5.)    Related to the above question, Chris Blackhurst has argued on The Media Show in November, ‘There’s one story in particular that if Leveson was followed through to the letter would not have appeared, which is the hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone’. Do you accept that Leveson’s reforms could silence good stories that are irrefutably in the public interest?

I have not seen the full quote of what Chris Blackhurst said, but as I understand it he objected to the whole inquiry.  Like many newspaper executives, he may prefer that the press had less constraints than they currently have notwithstanding the way journalists have been shown to behave. He is entitled to his view, but I cannot see how his analysis that Leveson’s recommendations would have prevented the Millie Dowler story can possibly be correct.  I would like to hear his explanation and then hear whether Nick Davies of the Guardian (who was responsible for the story) agrees with him.

6.)    Ian Hislop has complained that though his magazine was not found to have done anything wrong, Private Eye would be unduly affected by the proposals – the incentives for joining the proposed regulator are so strong that the magazine must either sign up, or be accountable to Ofcom. With Leveson’s proposed ‘exemplary damages’ in particular, some have argued there’s a serious possibility that such small publications could cease to exist in their current form. Given this, could implementing Leveson’s recommendations ironically end up bolstering larger conglomerates such as News Corp?

It is easy to sympathise with Private Eye and enjoy its anti-establishment approach.  What Ian Hislop is ignoring is the benefits of what Leveson proposed.  Private Eye did not participate in the PCC partly because it was run by the very newspaper figures who he was writing about so irreverently.  Under Leveson’s recommendations that would not apply.

Additionally Hislop has criticised the wealthy using the libel courts to bully publishers by virtue of the threat of enormous costs associated with Court proceedings. Under Leveson’s recommendations publishers would be protected from such tactics.

I don’t expect Hislop to welcome the recommendations but it may be that he ignores the benefits and over-emphasises the concerns.  On the latter point, you identify his concern regarding exemplary damages. Exemplary damages will only apply in the most serious cases and it already applies to libel and harassment cases. It is a moot point whether it applies to privacy/breach of confidence (it was argued in the phone hacking litigation that it should apply, but dropped.  In Mosley’s case it was also argued and found that it should not apply but the judge recognised that it is a point that may need to be considered by a higher court).

‘The consequences are quite profound’ – Lillian Ladele and the question of tolerance

Today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the cases of four Christians who argued they had been discriminated against by their employers due to their religious beliefs. The case that’s been dominating the headlines has been that of Nadia Eweida, whom the court ruled had suffered discrimination when British Airways said the cross around her neck broke their uniform policy.

However, the other three cases were unsuccessful, including that of Lillian Ladele. She had been a registrar at Islington council, and refused to officiate over civil partnerships. Initially, the council accommodated this, giving her different shifts – but when some of her fellow employees complained, the issue was revisited, and she was disciplined and eventually left.

Back in October, I spoke to lawyer Jon Holbrook, who has spoken out in defence of Ms Ladele. He feared that her case would be unsuccessful, and today he was proved right.

As such, his thoughts seem relevant today, and I have dug out the transcript for anyone who’s interested. What strikes me about his position is that he urges tolerance over what appear to be fairly intolerant beliefs – to tolerate intolerance, in other words.

We began by talking about why Islington council changed its mind over allowing her to avoid officiating civil partnerships.

Jon Holbrook: I think the difficulty of these cases is that if you look at the law, you can readily understand why the courts dismissed her case, and the other cases, in the way that they did. And equally I can understand why Islington, by applying the law in the way it wanted to apply it, reached the conclusion that it reached.

But having said that, I think it’s important to recognise that Islington didn’t have to act the way it did. It could have continued to allow her to avoid these civil partnership services.

What are her chances of winning her case?

JH: Well, I think it’s going to be difficult. The reason why I think it’s going to be difficult is that the court in Strasbourg has considered these sorts of issues before. There was a case a few years ago where two owners of a pharmacy refused to… dispense contraceptives on the grounds of their religious beliefs. It wasn’t, by the way, that they discriminated against anyone in particular – it was that they refused to stock any contraceptives at all. And the Strasbourg court gave their argument short shrift. And it did so mainly because it rather took the view – as indeed our own Court of Appeal has done – that the freedom to practice religious beliefs can always be practiced away from the workplace. And indeed in the Strasbourg court the government’s argument was that these four individuals could always have resigned, and had they resigned then their ability to practice their religious beliefs would not have been affected.


If they do rule in favour of Islington council, what would your reaction be to that?


JH: I think it would be a very unfortunate decision. Indeed, I think the decisions taken by our own courts have been most unfortunate already. The reason why I say that is not because of any religious conviction that I have – indeed, I personally am an atheist – but I do think it’s very important that we live in a tolerant society, and that means we should all accept the right of certain people to do and not do certain things on the grounds of their religious beliefs. And I think the Islington case is a good example here, because it was shown that for many months, Islington was quite able to accommodate to her religious beliefs; and I think it is unfortunate that we do seem to be becoming a rather intolerant society, and we ought to be respecting genuinely held beliefs that certain people have, whether they are religious beliefs or not. I think tolerance is a very important principle which we’re in danger of losing sight of.


The counter argument is of course that some see her beliefs as themselves intolerant – do you think it’s the responsibility of governments and employers to tolerate certain levels of intolerance?


JH: Yes – [but] I don’t tend to see it that way. My view of looking at this is to say that we should generally be tolerant. Now, if that means that some people hold views that we don’t all support, and indeed think are wrong, then so be it. I think there is a way of dealing with that which is by having public debate about those issues. But at the end of the day, I think the coercive power which is being used here – which is really the power of the state to ultimately say to someone, ‘Look, you either do as your employer says, or you resign, or are sacked’ – I think that is wrong, and that it demonstrates a degree of intolerance which we could do without.

Just to say about that, I mean I do realise that these cases are always to an extent an issue of fact and degree. It may well have been if Ms Ladelle was a registrar in a village or a small town then it wouldn’t have been possible for her employers to have accommodated her beliefs, and then I would have well understood what the employers had done – but that clearly wasn’t the problem that we had here. And that shows to my mind that it was a decision that was taken on the basis of not recognising – as the employers should have done – the importance of tolerance.


If the court does rule in favour of Islington, what do you think will be the consequences?


JH: Well I think the consequences are quite profound here. It’s no surprise at all that there were these four cases that already made their way to the European Court. You may be aware as well of another recent case where the owners of a bed and breakfast hotel refused to allow a gay couple to stay in their premises, and they have lost their court case on the grounds of discrimination against gay people.

I mean, the Equality Act 2010 imposes a number of obligations on people in terms of protected characteristics, which include sexual orientation, race and gender, and so on. And I think that the difficulty is that where these principles are applied in the circumstances that we have seen, then there is potential scope for a great many employers to be waving the big stick at their employees – and indeed for service providers to be challenged if they don’t abide by what is seen to be some uniformally good set of standards that everybody must comply with.

And as I say, regardless of what we all think about how good those standards are, I do think that as a society we ought to accept that some people for religious or other reasons will always think differently.


Recently there’s been quite a lot of debate over problems of free speech, with people being arrested and found guilty for things they’ve put on a t-shirt or on Twitter – do you see these as linked, favouring people’s right to be offended over people’s right to free expression?


JH: Yes, I think there is a similarity of approach there. I think they’re all expressions of a certain degree of intolerance, and I think what we need to get back to is a society that accepts the right – well, when it comes to speech I think that should always be an unfettered right; when it comes to actual actions then I think that can’t be unfettered, but to restrict it we have to be able to show that there is some serious harm that is being caused. And that is not what’s happening in the current cases.

Yes, I think the examples you’ve given about free speech are very troubling, because they show that we’re not even prepared to let people say what they think. No matter whether we think those statements are right or wrong, I think people should be free to say them because those statements clearly do not cause any harm – and indeed I can’t see how any statements of speech can cause harm, which is why I am a firm believer in an unfettered right of free speech.


Do you think then that the direction we should be taking is that the law takes a step back in these cases, and that it becomes less intrusive?


JH: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. I think if we go back historically then you can see how the law has actually, in previous centuries, been used to promote religious tolerance. Obviously societies of old were quite intolerant of other people’s religions, but then you can see in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries how laws were actually used to liberalise our approach towards different views.

The problem now is that the law is being used not to liberate people – it’s actually being used to restrict people, it’s being used to allow employers and others to impose fairly coercive codes of behaviour, and I do find that troubling. I think if the law were to butt out of these issues, then these issues could be properly debated in the workplace, and indeed within civil society as a whole. And I actually think that we would be able to make much more sensible decisions, and indeed decisions which I think a great many people would then feel able to uphold.


Regardless of all the hoo-ha surrounding Django Unchained, I’m very excited to see it. Unlike, it seems, a lot of its critics, who have angrily condemned it without having watched it. Now this is ridiculous, as a lot of people have pointed out. You cannot, cannot, judge a work of art without having seen it. To judge a film from the trailer, from other people’s reactions, from summaries, or even from reading the script, is absurd and presumptuous.

Now, it may be that in the case of Spike Lee, he is subscribing (as he often does) to identity politics – that be the very fact of Tarantino not being black, he’s not allowed to comment on slavery or offer his version of history. This is, in my opinion, ridiculous. It’s like when men get shut out of the feminist debate entirely. The result you get from the genetic lottery, whether absurdly lucky (like Tarantino, or me) or horribly unfair, should never determine what you can talk about. To restrict discussions to certain communities, and not openly debating controversies and difficult issues, does a huge amount of harm to education, free thought, and free expression. So when Spike Lee tries to keep all discussions over slavery to the African American community, he is doing his cause a great disservice.

To this extent, Tarantino is right when he told Channel 4 News this week that he was creating a useful and open debate – that has to be a good thing.

What is less good is his rampant egoism and tone, which almost sounds like, ‘You’re welcome, black people.’

It’s the same with the debate over movie violence. I understand that he’s sick of facing these questions, but it’s a fact of the publicity tour that you have to spout certain lines repeatedly, and revisit old ground endlessly. To refuse KGM’s questions isn’t only somewhat discourteous, it makes it seem as if QT has no defence for movie violence. Worse still, it again shuts down debate, just as Spike Lee has tried to do over the slavery issue. Tarantino shouldn’t assume that he is right, and he should really be willing to engage in the debate. Either that, or he could have excused himself from it by asserting his right not to have to explain his work – that’s a legitimate artistic defence. But instead, he comes across as petulant and egotistical for not having this ‘commercial’ go his way.

Plus, he’s beginning to look eerily like Richard Kiel.

Follow me!