Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.

You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.
Continue reading “Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism”

Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Brexit: The Uncivil War is current, fascinating, terrifying and quite frankly absurd in equal measure.

It came as no surprise to find out a major consultant on this joint Channel Four and HBO drama was Tim Shipman, the author of All Out War, a comprehensive, forensic exposure of the battle central to Toby Haynes’ film: the Leave and Remain campaign’s divisive, controversial conflict to decide the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016, which very quickly became known as ‘Brexit’. For anyone in the UK, there is no word you are more likely to see, read or hear about politically right now than Brexit, save perhaps the surname Trump or the word Covid. It is all pervasive, all-consuming, and Shipman’s book places into clear context just how we ended up where we currently are.

The Uncivil War is, essentially, an adaptation of his non-fiction tale of events from both sides of the camp, though it is framed around, frankly, the far more interesting side of the divide: the Leave campaign. The campaign who won. The campaign with characters far less milquetoast than anyone who fought to Remain. The campaign who fought a dirty war of new frontiers and who the Remain organisation were, almost always, two steps behind. I say this as a firm Remainer—let’s get that pretty clear right off the bat—who thinks Brexit is the single greatest British catastrophe since appeasement.

Nevertheless, The Uncivil War attempts to show us the real story. The story behind all of the news reports, and the political briefings. The story you have heard on fringe websites or even via conspiracy theorists, or slanted from newspapers right and left. The story of how Brexit changed democracy and changed politics, in a way nobody in Britain, the EU or beyond, ever expected. All Out War is teeming with inside jobs, murky suggestions of dark political wizardry, and schemes upon schemes in a battle often outside the minds eye of the public.

What we actually end up with is Brexit: The Panto, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the veritable Peter Pan.

Continue reading “Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings”

Film, Writing

Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology

In a new, recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

One senses the frustrations of writer Upton Sinclair, erstwhile Democratic nominee for the Governorship of California in 1934 and open socialist, might not have featured so prominently had Mank been made, as planned, in the late 1990s.

The story of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed here in wonderfully shambolic form by Gary Oldman) as he furiously raced to complete the screenplay of Orson Welles’ future masterpiece Citizen Kane, was penned originally in the ‘90s by the late Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. His son, renowned auteur David Fincher, planned to make the film after 1997’s The Game with Kevin Spacey (remember him?) in the titular role, before Fincher’s own seminal masterpiece Fight Club beckoned, but the stars refused to align. Fincher, after a cinematic break of six years following his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, has finally—thanks to Netflix—provided viewers with his father’s legacy at the tail end of a year where audiences have been starved of prominent cinema.

Yet Mank, arriving at the end of 2020, has not just fallen in what we might dare to hope are the impending final months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also twelve months of sweeping social and cultural unrest.

This might well be the biopic of a long-dead man in a now near-mythic cinematic age, revolving around the creation of what many have considered for decades to be the greatest film ever made, but Mank’s politics feel heightened for modern audiences. Fincher, borrowing Citizen Kane’s then-revolutionary non-linear structure, flashes back in episodic fashion from 1940 to deeper back into the 1930s and sees his lead character unconsciously crafting the elements of his Oscar-winning script from powerful, influential figures, and political movements, of the previous decade.

Mank positions the brilliance of its protagonist, and the work of genius he creates, within the tussle of polarised political ideologies in a manner that, intentionally or not, reflects the America of 2020.
Continue reading “Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04 – Series Retrospective #4)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the fourth episode of the first series, I’ll Retire to Bedlam, which first aired on January 25, 1990…

The first season of One Foot in the Grave has been marked, thus far, on particular existential anxieties about British life for the aged and retired, and I’ll Retire to Bedlam continues Victor Meldrew’s slide into reactive frustration.

In another historical allusion to 19th century literature, David Renwick titles this episode after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the belief from perhaps the most iconic curmudgeon of them all, Ebernezer Scrooge, that the inmates at St Mary’s of Bethlehem hospital (known colloquially as ‘Bedlam’) were more sane compatriots than everyone else in London merrily celebrating Christmas. It would be easy to liken Victor to a Scrooge figure but it’s inaccurate, aside from their grumpy disposition. Scrooge actively hated the people around him until the ghosts of multiple eras showed him the error of his ways. Victor’s ire is for the continued degradation and decay of society, and that becomes more apparent as Renwick here commits him to hospital for stress.

There is, in Mr Brocklebank, the escaped mental patient who, believing he’s a nurse preparing him for surgery, Victor allows to shave his entire private parts (in what is arguably the funniest sequence in the episode, and perhaps the funniest in One Foot so far), an allusion to the idea of ‘Bedlam’, of the lunatics running the asylum; and indeed in the inclusion of the Monster Raving Loony Party as part of the story, Renwick provides an additional layer of fringe thinking, of society’s rejects or eccentrics intruding into the Meldrew’s life, but the chief anxiety of I’ll Retire to Bedlam is more generalised than fears of death or youth culture or corporate hegemony. Everything is getting to Victor in this episode. The less he has anything to focus on, the more he sees everything.

That’s quite a profound realisation One Foot is getting to during Series 1. I’ll Retire to Bedlam may be a little unfocused and unformed, structurally, but it gets to the nub of Victor Meldrew’s existential malady very well.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04 – Series Retrospective #4)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04)

The first season of One Foot in the Grave has been marked, thus far, on particular existential anxieties about British life for the aged and retired, and I’ll Retire to Bedlam continues Victor Meldrew’s slide into reactive frustration.

In another historical allusion to 19th century literature, David Renwick titles this episode after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the belief from perhaps the most iconic curmudgeon of them all, Ebernezer Scrooge, that the inmates at St Mary’s of Bethlehem hospital (known colloquially as ‘Bedlam’) were more sane compatriots than everyone else in London merrily celebrating Christmas. It would be easy to liken Victor to a Scrooge figure but it’s inaccurate, aside from their grumpy disposition. Scrooge actively hated the people around him until the ghosts of multiple eras showed him the error of his ways. Victor’s ire is for the continued degradation and decay of society, and that becomes more apparent as Renwick here commits him to hospital for stress.

There is, in Mr Brocklebank, the escaped mental patient who, believing he’s a nurse preparing him for surgery, Victor allows to shave his entire private parts (in what is arguably the funniest sequence in the episode, and perhaps the funniest in One Foot so far), an allusion to the idea of ‘Bedlam’, of the lunatics running the asylum; and indeed in the inclusion of the Monster Raving Loony Party as part of the story, Renwick provides an additional layer of fringe thinking, of society’s rejects or eccentrics intruding into the Meldrew’s life, but the chief anxiety of I’ll Retire to Bedlam is more generalised than fears of death or youth culture or corporate hegemony. Everything is getting to Victor in this episode. The less he has anything to focus on, the more he sees everything.

That’s quite a profound realisation One Foot is getting to during Series 1. I’ll Retire to Bedlam may be a little unfocused and unformed, structurally, but it gets to the nub of Victor Meldrew’s existential malady very well.

Continue reading “TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03 – Series Retrospective #3)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the third episode of the first series, The Valley of Fear, which first aired on January 18, 1990…

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03 – Series Retrospective #3)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03)

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

Continue reading “TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03)”

Essays, Film

Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

Dark Knight Rises

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity.

Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?

Continue reading “Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK and his Cinematic Ideology”