Personal Shopper – a review

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Kristen Stewart – watchable every minute she’s on the screen, which is every minute

My, my, two winners in one week; the surprise delight of the grisly horror show Get Out, this week the super-cool Kristen Stewart – among the most quicksilver of her generation’s performers – in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a shape-shifting, resolutely of-this-moment ghost story that features her in nearly every frame. She’s absolutely entrancing.

Though booed by some critics, the film won Best Director at last year’s Cannes Festival. The reason is, the film is mesmerising and perplexing, intelligent and silly.

My reviews like to pick and choose and in so doing bring your attention to interesting films, not just mainstream Hollywood fare which readers can assess for themselves from the massive publicity they generate. (I tend to avoid the leave-your-brains-at-home stuff.) Consequently this film is well worth a visit, the second collaboration between Stewart and Assayas. It follows Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), directed by the French auteur with whom the American star has most ingeniously raised her career.

In the earlier film, Stewart plays Valentine, the bespectacled personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) an internationally renowned 40-year-old star of stage and screen. In Personal Shopper she plays another assistant, one with a fat cheque book.

For a macho male such as I there’s a perverse thrill in watching Stewart so beautifully inhabit the role of a personal helpmate. The role – I’ve been that in earlier times to learn my trade – is part deferential, part gopher, and part smart organiser. There are moments you can challenge your mentor if you’ve the cojones and in their confidence.

All of us have had that sort of friendship where a pecking order is observed but broken respectfully because its based on trust, wary to let the first among equals have the last say!

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Shop until you drop

This is a decidedly odd story of luxury brands and ectoplasm. Here, Stewart’s character, Maureen Cartwright, is demoted to an even lowlier celebrity adjutant that in Assayas previous female-driven work.

Stewart plays an unwashed dishevelled American working in Paris, greasy hair, oversize pullovers, a look sported by Stewart herself seen in paparazzi shots. Maureen hopes to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared a paranormal gift. American television is full of this pseudo-spiritual guff but presented at a basic level.

When she’s not waiting to receive signals from the undead, or at least in limbo between the plasterboard walls and the outer stone, Maureen dashes from one high-end boutique to the next for the fashion-fascist celebutante boss she says she despises. The ire of her eye is Kyra nicely played by Nora von Waldstätten.

Just before boarding the Eurostar to London for yet another mad-dash haute couture errand, Maureen appears to receive a message from the beyond: the first in a string of texts from an unknown source. They are all menacing in tone. The plot device elevates a phone to co-star. The iPhone clutched by Maureen becomes Stewart’s most significant screen partner in Personal Shopper, countless moments where she is seen holding it to her ear perplexed, or staring at the wee screen tremulous.

Exactly like Get Out, the premise is ludicrous yet has us believing it soon into the plot.

I can’t think of another Stewart vehicle, (fans will correct me) not even any of the films from the Twilight saga, in which the actress appears in every scene, often alone or as an anonymous figure in a crowd, an horrendous mental and physical stress for any actor. Likewise, I can’t recall a single close up. I may be wrong, but I think Stewart is in wide shot, or head and shoulders only. Is Assayas trying to show us isolation?

Anyhow, even when not speaking, which is a lot of the time, Stewart is highly watchable merely biking from arrondissement to arrondissement on her Peugeot scooter. (Note the brand plug!) This is pretty well a one character film.

From what I’ve read of Assayas, he’s an inventive filmmaker. His sinister global thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) also pivot on absurd plot points to plumb 21st-century malaise and disorder. Assayas wrote Personal Shopper, (and his earlier Irma Vep) expressly for their respective female leads, so, he has a penchant for alighting on a suitable actor and modelling his work around their public persona. And that’s where I have a problem.

The issue I have is with Stewart’s fame as a public celebrity. Because of it my perception, my ability to get into the drama, kept waxing and waning. In this supernatural tale the real phantom looming largest keeps crossing your mind,  Stewart’s actual celebrity, the one we keep seeing on television commercials, a reflection made fast when Maureen surreptitiously tries on Kyra’s glassy-spangled Chanel dress – the very brand for which Stewart has been an ambassador for the past few years. Is this story about Maureen, or is it about Stewart?

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Oliver Assayas (middle) Legs, legs, legs – who has the best?

And the sex? Well, yes, it’s a French film, so unlike so many American films in which the flesh scene is dropped in as brash commercial bait, the sex is erotic rather than soft porn.

Dropping off some finery at Kyra’s empty dwelling, Maureen tries on another of her employer’s haute couture concoctions, one with a harness and transparent bodice. This charged, forbidden act is made lubricious when Maureen begins to masturbate in Kyra’s bed. The actress loses herself pretending to be, however briefly, someone she’s not – that is, by acting. In plot this is a film about intimacy and sensuality.

Throughout all this and other scenes, Maureen looks for signs, for visitations from her dead brother. Some seem strong and positive, some seem weak and vague, and could be interpreted for something else. Could the text be someone following her, not a sign from another world?

Personal Shopper tries to articulate the closeness between solitude and loss of control. Assayas takes on a complicated brief: he stages the desperate solitude of grief, the practical solitude of the artist, the incidental solitude of the long-distance relationship, the professional solitude of the freelance solo employee. Maureen’s utter dependence on signs from the dead is the antidote to her tethering as an employee to the orders of a capricious employer.

In a way, it’s like what we observe every day, people everywhere checking their iPhones, the modern day child’s ‘sooky’ blanket, the comforter, a friend who tells us we’ve friends.

The frisson of loneliness is multiplied as we watch Stewart – who, in real life, surely must always be on guard against stalkers and predators – portray someone who thrills at violating the rules and sanctum of her own VIP boss. A film within a film.

I have a dictum about French films: when they’re good they’re superb. When they’re bad they’re pretentious. Assayas’s psychological thriller is neither, in my view, nor does it convey the sensuality I think he was hoping to catch, but even taking into account Stewart’s almost expressionless face, it’s still absorbing and thoughtful, and Stewart is genuinely compelling.

  • Star rating: Three stars
  • Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
  • Director: Olivier Assayas
  • Writer: Olivier Assayas, Christelle Meaux
  • Cinematographer: Yorik Le Saux
  • Duration: 105 minutes
Posted in Film review | 1 Comment

Don’t Come To Scotland

 

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Readers who protested against the government’s bigoted, craven action to leave Europe and follow UKip to cast non-UK nationals out of English society, you have my respect. It gave in to the worst of England’s nature, a dislike of ‘Johnny Foreigner’. Some fools crowed it was the start of ‘Empire 2’. They’ll find neither seeds nor sustenance in that furrow, not in Scotland.

To those thinking of responding to Nicola Sturgeon’s clarion call to join us here in Scotland, I’m sure you’ll make a good choice for the best of reasons.

If you see Scotland with all its faults as I do, and still a place of honest, decent, sane values, you attracted by our progressive ideals and our social ambitions, I have some profound advice.

Please leave your political baggage in England. Our landfill tips are full of it.

TWELVE STEPS TO HAPPY INTEGRATION

Don’t come to Scotland because England isn’t to your liking anymore. You once ruled almost all of the green earth, and the seas too. Your nation grew rich on its resources, and off the backs of indigenous people that you ruled. You told those people they were British. But you didn’t mean British like you. Now riddled with vast debts and a corrupt parliament, you’re first obligation is to make your own nation a better place, to fight against  xenophobia, neo-imperialism, corporate greed, and the unreason England has embraced. Granted, it’s a difficult task, but not impossible. Youth will drive change if you can’t. They will rebel. And when they do you’d better be able to look them in the eye and say you did your best. Therefore, if motivated to secure a better life for your children in Scotland the obligation is upon you to respect Scotland, our past, our present, and our potential future, not for us to move aside to make room for you.

Don’t come to Scotland thinking no world is better than an English world. Don’t look for a Little England enclave where you can play cricket on the green, read the Times in an all-English pub decorated with Union Jacks, and talk warmly of Thatcher and the good old days. You’ll be seen resolutely an English Tory, determined to impose an alien ideology on Scottish life and culture, promoting the right-wing extremes you profess you wish to throw off. The Tory party in Scotland is small and anti-life, Labour a wishy-washy copy. Be advised you’ll be seen taking the benefit such as free prescriptions but giving nothing in return. Almost all Tory MSPs were rejected at the ballot box, only our cockamamie electoral system gave them a free ride. And don’t look for a substitute Tory in UKip. We want none here. To live in a red, white and blue bubble is anti-social, mean spirited, and cynical in the extreme.

Don’t come to Scotland looking for an idyllic, remote cottage in the Highlands to closet yourself away from the rest of us, or pretend you are English landed gentry, all tweeds and deer stalker hats, and then send photographs to relatives of wonderful sunsets over a loch lying at the end of your ‘estate’. It might assist our tourist board, but it does nothing for Scotland’s democratic progress. Incidentally, loch is not pronounced ‘lock’. Try and get it right. And we have burns here not brooks, and glens not dales.

Don’t come to Scotland to promote English cultural mores. That’s patronising. We need no colonials. Come to learn about Scotland’s history and culture, to get involved in it, Gaeldom too. Do not attempt to subjugate it, or portray it as inferior to your own heritage. Scots admire, indeed were educated on English culture and heroes. Please return the compliment. We’ve endured over three hundred years of cultural suppression – you even banned the wearing of Highland dress and tartan, our dominies instructed to teach us to speak English English, Scots deemed a ‘foreign’ language. We’re sick of being told we are non-English, sweaties, skirt wearers, a sub-sect of England’s Great Britain that dislikes eating vegetables. We want our culture to be promoted internationally, and we want to learn of their arts and traditions, not only yours. After all, European cultures have influenced our own in so many ways. We like Europeans.

Don’t come to Scotland hoping to mould our structures and institutions in the image of England. That way lies conformity and resentment. We’ve managed, just about, to resist invasion by stealth and still be a separate country. You’re here because you acknowledge we are different, England’s systems and politics pernicious and dysfunctional, at least ‘for a generation’ – if I can use that maligned phrase. Come here because you want to help us create a truly democratic society where people participate in the process as a right not a privilege. You come to Scotland by choice, by exercising free will, the very thing we in Scotland wish to harness again, and nurture as a political doctrine.

Don’t come to Scotland thinking you must become Scottish. We don’t ask that of you. In time your children will be, and their children too. Be your self, but remember you’re in another’s country. Treat us as you would wish to be treated. You will soon find many things different from your homeland, and done differently. Delight in the differences.

Don’t come to Scotland hoping to avoid Italian, Polish, Chinese, Indian, or Irish communities. They’ve been here for generations, Polish from as early as 1850. Those good people have contributed to Scotland’s intellectual thought and its economy in way we can never fully repay. We have an international outlook and proud of it. If you think England the greatest nation on the planet, that’s where you belong.

Don’t come to Scotland thinking the standards of southern England are the standards by which all things must be judged. That really gets up our nose. London-centric is for Londoners, or wealthy Saudi Arabians and Russians buying gazillion pound properties with massive tax and rates exemptions. We judge our creative output by international standards, yes, even by French and German aesthetics – not what London critics and wealthy entrepreneurs feel is today’s taste or commercial value. And don’t tell us Russia is an evil empire, China waiting to annihilate us economically, and the USA our greatest ally. Scotland shall decide its own foreign policy.

Don’t come to Scotland set in your ways. You arrive at an exciting time in our history, in the middle of a renaissance in political and social thinking, a new enlightenment, if you like, a radical reassessment of  our constitutional rights, and the country we wish to shape for the future. By all means, contribute to the debate, but do not demean or denigrate it. Be better than British unionists, it’s not very hard.

Don’t treat Scotland as a dominion of England’s aristocracy. Dukes and lairds are not to be envied. You were schooled as an unequal person by a rigid class system. The duke’s great grandfather probably got a chunk of Scotland over a game of cards ‘validated’ by fake property deeds written by an alcoholic lawyer. Some here still like the Royal family, some put up with them, some wish they would get a real job. Yes, we have pecking orders in Scotland, but we detest the English class system and all its stands for.

Don’t come to Scotland to use its great glens and mountains as an adult play park for hunting, shooting, fishing and climbing, or to admire the scenery while littering the place with garbage, caravans, and fag ends. Don’t clogs our roads with metal, and our mountains with old trainers and plastic bottles. Don’t buy Highland property to make a quick killing and go south again. And don’t buy land and fence it off. Everywhere is a right of way except your home. Ultimately, we want the land back in the ownership of the state – us.

Don’t come to Scotland to tell us self-governance is a risky business. You plan to leave a nation that governs itself and has done for over three hundred years, though it has denied us and other nations that right in past times. Scotland wants interdependence with England to continue but on a healthier basis, on equal terms. The common aim of the Tory and Labour party is to reduce the power of our Parliament or abolish it altogether So, please don’t suggest we remain subservient or acquiescent to ensure a safe life. Be bold. Life is for living to the full. Each and every one of us has the right to develop our abilities to the full.

Come to Scotland ready and willing to help build a happy, thriving, exalted society that will endure. Scots see themselves first as a human being, then a Scot, and a citizen of the world. Know the grass roots momentum that is termed Scottish nationalism expresses those humane values. Come prepared to elevate what is good in human nature. Exercise an open mind; be curious and wise, able to contribute to our society in joyous, positive ways. Jettison the habit of comparison. Supress  envy, and train anger to right injustice, not to demoralise your neighbour. Be compassionate, good humoured, happy to be part of a new era in civic camaraderie and open government. Let your affection have free play.

Come to Scotland released of fear, celebrate the vigour that is our new Enlightenment.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 28 Comments

Trump Redacted

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Donald Trump has grown to realise that bluff and bluster are no match for the law and the American Constitution. Whether that  stops him talking nonsense is in doubt.

His attempts to turn the clock back on democratic progress keep getting tripped at the blocks. Duly frustrated, we should all expect extremist Republicans to make an assault on the US Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, in order to advance their cause of lining their pockets and that of their wealthy friends at the expense of the slow-witted who placed their trust in them as a force for change.

I don’t know about readers, but I’m in two frames of mind. I’m happy not to listen to Trumps boasting and drivel and get on with securing Scotland’s civil rights, but am on my guard should he announce World War III as a means of personal aggrandisement, the final solution exploited by every right-wing nutcase who talks up false patriotism when their ratings falter. In the meantime, and as an amusing diversion, I bring to reader’s attention some of his most recent gobbledygook.

Trump gave an interview to the Time magazine. The essence of it was ‘truth’, or as some satirists have come to call it, truthiness. The journalist Ellie Shechet took the interview and analysed every sentence in the full transcript published by Time. It’s a lesson in  irony.

Trump lies a lot, says a number of half-true things, does not admit he was incorrect to link Ted Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald, foists responsibility for his inaccuracies onto media reports that he misrepresents, says the word “Brexit” 11 times. He forms sentences like “Brussels, I said, Brussels is not Brussels.” Now and again Trump mumbles something that is verifiable as true.

Below is an extract showing everything redacted that is not one hundred per cent, cast iron verifiably true. What remains is everything the president said that is definitely true. And to nobody’s surprise, not much is left to read, except a few pleasantries.

I’ve enlarged the first page, and two more, one of which is enlarged. After that its more of the same; hardly worth reading because hardly a sentence remains intact.

We can laugh at Trump – a momentary release from his craziness – but don’t forget Farage and Ukip got over four million votes by spouting similar bigotry. They’re best pals now.

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And so it goes on, and on, and on…

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Get Out – a review

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Daniel Kaluuya in a typical pose of fear, sadness, and comedic shock

This is the surprise movie of the month, more accurately of the year, so far.

The poster isn’t very attractive, six fragmented images seen through the shattered prism of a glass mirror, or perhaps a window pane, the film’s title crammed into the bottom right-hand corner. The plot sounds like a junior remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? but without major star actors to seduce a £10 pound ticket out of your pocket for a ‘luxury’ seat. All in all, not a movie you’d go running to see over and above all the other fare on show. Well, it’s a wee corker.

Chris (black) and his girlfriend, Rose, (white) have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, a tricky situation all teenagers will have experienced, only it’s worse for Chris and Rose because of the interracial aspect. She invites him for a weekend getaway ‘upstate’ with parents Missy and Dean.

At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship, but as the hours go by a series of disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth he never foresaw. Thinking about it, the story is bonkers but it works.

The plot and the pacing of it is good news for writer-director Jordan Peele. It’s vigorous, sharp, often razor-sharp in its observations, a trenchant story bar a few hiccups in mood  continuity, and, as it turns out, a terrific horror thriller. In places, the right places, it’s very funny, moments needed to release our tension. And there’s good satire too. There is also mischief and unsettling moments that challenge our preconceptions. This heady mixture is innovative and may account for the film garnering over $150 million at the box office so far, all on a small budget, not that mega-budgets guarantee excellence.

The story is simplicity itself, yet the seriousness of it gives it tremendous gravitas. A black man walking alone through white suburbs is in as much danger as any girl in a low-budget exploitative teenager slasher-flick. This is the reverse of the white guy story, car broken down, finding himself in an all-black ghetto, perhaps the deep South, or an all Mexican village filled with drug runners, eyes on his every move as he looks for the nearest bar.

Peele opens with that image, a long, tense, single take, a young man making his way down a sidewalk at night, studying the interchangeable homes for an address he’s looking for. A car eases up behind him, moving too slowly. This is a moment we’ve seen in countless gangster films and yet the atmosphere is so quickly planted in our minds that we find the situation terrifying.

The best way to describe this clever oddball is to remind how we tell a scary anecdote. I’m walking back to my car and all of a sudden this – here the speaker glances around – big scary man appears behind me, so I just kept walking faster and faster, but he speeds up too. I was crapping myself, scared witless. 

There are places in Scotland and England, inner city deprived areas, low-end of town, that many a middle-class wanderer will avoid. Conversely, I’ve seen a group of thugs looking to make trouble, stop when they reach a middle-class area, uncomfortable at the alien surroundings they can’t dominate. Like a dog at a gate barking loudly at passers-by, they turn around and disappear in another direction, again like a dog, unwilling to leave known territory for the unknown. Peele has dared a radical inversion, and he’s enlisted all the power of popular genre filmmaking to do it.

The first scene of Get Out casts the black man as the innocent victim, the car’s presumably white driver as the malevolent force, the suburban street as the space the force haunts. One minute in, this movie makes it viscerally clear it’s not black guys who are scary, it’s neighbourhoods packed with sheltered dopes who quake at the very thought of black guys.

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I said ‘take a left not a right, moron!

The courageous writer-director Peele is taking huge risks and playing with fire, playing in the best sense of the word. I must admit to knowing nothing about him before seeing the film. A quick e-mail to LA pals find’s Peele half of a comedy duo called Key & Peele, whose stock-in-trade is the conventional sketch based on some truth or other. Peele’s experience with raw gags that hang by the fingernails on horror is here put to great use, horror and comedy that work with fluidity.

The main protagonists are played with absolute conviction by Daniel Kaluuya, a young, black photographer, and Allison Williams as his white girlfriend. What he encounters, at first, could be a conventional television sketch about well-heeled, insular white liberals. Rose’s neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford) is a man who can’t resist telling Chris that he would have voted for Obama a third time and why.  Rose’s psychiatrist mother (the always reliable Catherine Keener) makes things more awkward every time she tries to put her black guest at his ease. And Rose’s brother tends to utter the kind of crass comments of awkward youth we’ve all met in new company at a party, the one struggling to time a joke or give his story a punch line.

Things at this stage move from the awkward to the surreal. Making things creepy is the wealthy family’s pair of oddly out-of-time dark-skinned servants both of whom beam as they work, regarding their white masters as if in a Thirties film where the colonial property owner boasts to his guests about how fairly he treats his servant slaves.

In a comedy, these incidents might get a giggle or two but in Get Out are handled with a deftness that gives them an unexpected reverberation. Peele is obviously an entertainer with highly tuned comic skills, and he uses them like a weapon.

There’s an incident, for example, where the antagonist brother of Chris’s girlfriend seizes Chris’s bicep and begins a sentence with, “You know, with your genetic makeup…” The gag is simultaneously a sendup of white cluelessness, an evocation of the humiliation of being viewed as a body, and a clue in the convoluted mystery of what’s really going on in Rose’s house and her suburb.

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Peele on the set of Get Out

And something is going on. Peele has counted the thrillers of Ira Levin (writer of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) among his inspirations, and most of Get Out finds our main character Chris uncertain whether he’s the victim in a horror plot – or whether everyone just acts bizarre around him. Things happen to Chris he can’t understand, and the more he explains his anxieties to Rose, and the more she makes light of his fears, the worse things get. And he’s convinced her mother has hypnotised him, an almost impossible assertion to prove to innocent ears let alone a police officer.

How to sum up this gem of a discovery? Get Out is smart satire, with scary and comic riffs on slavery and assimilation. It’s also a smashing crowd-pleaser of a horror film, complete with mad science, cult-like crazies and homage passages to Hitchcock. There are faults. One tearful monologue gets dropped into precisely the wrong spot, killing the momentum after the craziest of scenes, but it’s an impressive directorial debut just the same.

Get Out is a surprise in concept and craft, with the scares never coming just when you expect them, and the secrets more audacious than you might be guessing. There’s plenty of bloody violence from the third act onwards with the terror escalating scene by scene, so film fans should be warned. Rotten Tomatoes has the film score in the mid-nineties.

The nicest surprise is the film is showing in your local multiplex, not in an out-of-the-way art house. You’ve a good chance of catching it before it disappears. Some reviewers (not critics) have given the film 4 stars. I’m not surprised. It’s shot and edited with tremendous professionalism. I’d like to give it 4 but I’m not so convinced by the ending, although until the denouement the film is very good indeed.

If you leave the movie as I did having enjoyed the jokes there’s still that nagging feeling its message is deadly serious. Peele is a budding iconoclast.

  • Star rating: Three and a half stars
  • Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Katherine Keener
  • Director: Jordan Peele
  • Writer: Jordan Peele
  • Music: Michael Abels
  • Cinematography: Toby Oliver
  • Duration: 1 hour 44 minutes

NOTE:

Under 3 stars poor or truly awful. 3 stars average. 3.5 well above average, very good in most parts with some originality. 4 is excellent. 4.5 just misses greatness. 5 outstanding in all aspects, a classic.

Posted in Film review | Leave a comment

Colonialism is a Crime

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Molto grazie! An Italian newspaper devotes its front page to Scotland as “Europe’s Hope”

  • International law does not recognise the construct “Once in a generation”.
  • The British government, represented by their prime Minister Theresa May, her lickspittle lackey David Mundell, only Tory MP in Scotland, and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish wing, tried to frustrate the mandate of the people of Scotland.
  • Having rejected proposals from the Scottish Government for Scotland to remain in the single market, refused joint negotiations with Brussels – Scotland supposedly in a ‘Union’ with England – Scotland is now told to take a hike.
  • There is a name for ruling over people while preventing them from being part of the political process that governs their lives. It’s called colonialism.
  • In international law, it is a crime against humanity.
  • Describing a constitutional debate as “divisive” – the most recent propaganda ploy to silence the debate – has not worked. Let us be mature about this – in any discussion of radical political reform some people will have their sensibilities outraged. They should expect it, and more. Ploy defeated, the Tory bully boys turn to delay as a tool of oppression.
  • There is no principle in international law more fundamental than the right of all peoples to self-determination. This is universally accepted by the entire world, yet nearly 70 years after the signing of the UN Charter, the British Government continues to fight tooth and nail against this most basic human right.
  • Self-determination “denotes the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order,” according to the US Legal Information Institute.
  • I am sure May and her advisers are well aware of this. After all, the United Kingdom, together with its only friend, the United States, signed up to that declaration:  See contents of the UN Charter and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [More below] Coincidentally, both nations are trying to rid themselves of  non-whites.
  • Granted, May’s ultra-right wing administration is naturally unwilling to be seen as fascistic, brazenly anti-democratic in the eyes of the watching international press and media. She dare not denounce a plebiscite. She cannot attract accusations of subjugation. But that’s what she is doing. So she resorts to mock gravity and issues a generality – “now is not the right time”.
  • To a colonial administration faced with insurrection, no time is the right time to accede to civil rights. Therefore, logically, any time is the right time. In any event, the timing of a second Referendum on Scotland’s constitution is for the Scottish Government to choose, placed before its parliamentarians for discussion.
  • May has no jurisdiction over a referendum held in Scotland, or Wales or Northern Ireland, or Gibraltar, for that matter. Nevertheless, we can expect any number of fools to praise her for her mock-Thatcher stance, and for Scottish unionists to aver that they are terribly grateful to her for the kicking and the humiliation.
  • The British Tory party and its minions have no reservation about doing all they can to delay a legitimate plebiscite until after they have concluded their Brexit negotiations, by which time – and this is critical – they will have disenfranchised tens of thousands of EU nationals in Scotland from voting in its referendum.
  • It is pretty certain EU nationals living and working in Scotland will vote for their future, for Scotland to run its own affairs. Hence, May’s tactic has to be interpreted as an effort to remove voters from the register. The UK government has already approved  the  same fate for non-British nationals in England.
  • This is in effect an act of ethnic cleansing.
  • I have a feeling negotiators for the EU will dislike her attitude intensely. They are liable to present her and her advisers with steely obduracy if she asks for the  benefits of EU membership without the conditions of membership.
  • Scotland’s referendum is a justified reaction to the deceit of the UK government under David Cameron’s tenure.  Cameron, endorsed by the right-wing press, promised a No to self-determination  would guarantee membership of the European Union. It doesn’t matter if, like me, you hold to the belief the EU Bank and some internal bureaucracy needs democratising. (There is a Euro-wide movement already under way led by Yanis Varoufakis, and supported by many EU members of parliament.) Scotland was given a “cast iron, copper-bottomed” promise, a promise more tin foil than steel.
  • The inescapable fact is, a principle tenet of the UK’s inducement for Scotland to remain a member of the UK was that it guaranteed continued membership of, and benefits from, the European Union. That vow was a wretched lie.
  • The lie is theft of rights.
  • Now that the UK’s middle-England has taken itself out of the EU, Scotland stands to be a severe casualty, economically and culturally. You need only think of farming subsidies, research grants, and the Edinburgh International Arts Festival to gain a glimmer of the turmoil in store. Scotland has been cheated, not for the first time.
  • In essence we are witnessing the British government in full colonial mode. It refuses to give up its privileges. It refuses to pull back from its self-appointed authority.
  • Colonialism is illegal by international law.
  • Freedom to choose is a right enshrined in international law with its inclusion in the UN Charter in 1945. Article 1 of the Charter states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is:To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”
  • In the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, this was made even more explicit: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
  • The British Government is in violation of that law.
  • For people deprived of equal rights and political participation, self-determination can take many forms: independence, assimilation, sovereign association, or another form they choose for themselves.
  • It is generally accepted that any attempt to deny a human group its self-determination only intensifies its demand for sovereignty and enhances its collective identity. This renders May’s policy counter-productive.
  • Self-determination is not just a utopian ideal. It is a legal right.
  • It’s Scotland’s right to choose it socio-economic future, not the British government’s right. The Tory party seeks to retain empowerment over all peoples living in Scotland and the islands. Preserving their colonial domination over territory and people they have conquered is much more important to the British Government than having a legitimate claim to being a democratic state that values human rights.
  • Theresa May, the Tory party, and zealous British nationalists are shamefully on the wrong side of history.
© Grouse Beater – March 2017
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Posted in Uncategorized | 42 Comments

When Banks Were Banks

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The imposing edifice of the Bank of Scotland on the Mound, Edinburgh

Not hogging the limelight

A sliver of news slipped under the media’s radar this week, they far more interested in the Tory party’s spring budget, than bringing the nefarious activities of bank crime to heel.

Charlotte Hogg is an economist. Last month she was made deputy governor, markets and banking, of the Bank of England, you know, the one that actually belongs to the UK, not England, the one that said they were able to make sharing the pound a reality. Anyhow, Hogg forgot to declare an awkward conflict of interest. Her brother, Quintin Hogg, is a director of group strategy at Barclays, which the Bank of England regulates.

Hogg has, I understand, apologised, but that can’t be the end of the matter. Her judgement is tarnished. She has to relinquish her promotion. At first Hogg claimed to the Treasury Committee that she had done the right thing back in 2013, when she joined that august body of robber barons. This was an ‘untruth’. Nor did she declare an interest during yearly compliance checks. Funnily enough she forgot to declare it when helping to write the bank’s code of conduct – stop guffawing at the back – and was absent-minded again when she applied for her new job.

[Hogg resigned three days after publication of this essay. GB]

Hogg has friends in high places. Her mother is Sarah Hogg, journalist, now ensconced in the House of Lords at £300 a day back pocket money. (Gie’s a job! I can do that!) Older readers will remember her father, the third Viscount Hailsham, served in John Major’s government. His career as an MP ended when he was discovered making us pay for his home improvements by charging his moat cleaning to the state.

Other news of other banks went by barely noticed: RBS will retain massive debts until the Earth is hit by a meteor, Lloyds is setting aside more billions to pay back customers it’s cheated, and HSBC, a bank hoping we’ve all forgotten it’s money laundering services, threatens to take itself abroad when the UK leaves Europe.

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The magnificent dome of the Royal Bank of Scotland, St Andrew’s Square

The good old days

Our local branches are closing down everywhere. The few remaining open twice a week when we’re not looking, and are selling the furniture fast as they can. Find a Tesco wall teller or be damned. I refuse to use online banking. If someone’s got my money I want to see their face, I want them to know I know they have it.

Before the 1970s, banks were banks. By that I mean, they were places you could leave your hard-earned money and know it would be their next month, safe. You entered their carved stone portals, and approached their stout mahogany counters to be greeted by pleasant people who added interest to your savings the longer you left them in their good hands.

They did what banks were supposed to do in a state capitalist economy: they took unused funds from your bank account and, for example, transferred them to some potentially useful purpose like helping you buy a home, or sending your son or daughter to university, or technical college. Try securing a mortgage today – you need to be a Saudi prince.

An ominous rumble

Across the pond, the USA’s banking supremo Alan Greenspan decided deregulation was the way we could all get richer. He told banks to throw off restrictions on how they handled ours savings and our pensions, and go forth and multiply. This they did, by using our savings to treble their salaries and bonuses.

Until then banks were solid, reliable places that helped our economy grow. That changed dramatically in the late 1970s. There had been no financial crises since America’s Great Depression, and no disaster in the United Kingdom since the USA loaned us billions in the 1950s to stave off bankruptcy and restart prosperity days after the war. (Interestingly, Scotland has never been bankrupt, not even after the Darien Schemes failed. Indeed, there was a time its GDP was twice as high as England, but never since the 1707 Treaty.)

The 1950s and 1960s saw a period of enormous growth, maybe in economic history, certainly in the life time of many pensioners if endless artificial austerity is to continue as  banksters and their bought politicians make us pay again for their sins.

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Pound stores for us, Harvey Nichols for them

Egalitarian was once a fine term

Growth in the UK was egalitarian. As economists described it: the lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Lots of people moved up the social ladder to a better lifestyle. Sociologists called it “working class to middle class”

All sorts of political groups emerged for all sorts of political causes. Growing wealth civilised the country in lots of ways that are permanent. But American neo-conservatives were planning a new doctrine – ‘greed is good’. They saw it partly as a way of taming nations whose politics they disliked, or resources they coveted. It soon became a way of keeping  their own population docile.

A good book on the history of those decades will explain detail, but in essence ne-liberalism, as it was mistitled, began to gain acceptance, first under Thatcher’s regime and then Blair’s: de-industrialization, the off-shoring of production, and the shift to financial institutions, which grew enormously.

To add to that expansion of moving wealth and ownership to the top of society we got the high-tech economy: computers, the Internet, and the IT Revolution burgeoning in the state sector. It was a vicious circle. It led to the concentration of wealth increasingly in the hands of the financial sector. On our patch it was RBS’s CEO, Fred the Shred hero of the hour, the man to emulate, until we discovered too late he was incompetent and vain. In the UK endemic corruption in English banks, finance houses, and long-established insurance companies helped gather wealth into the top 10% of the population.

Of Politics and Money

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power. And concentration of political power gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle. The legislation, essentially bipartisan, drives new fiscal policies and tax changes, as well as the rules of corporate governance and deregulation.

Alongside this began a sharp rise in the costs of elections, which drove the political parties even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector.

We see it today in Westminster’s cruel and callous fiscal policies: the  withdrawal of the welfare state, the reduction in pensions, a diminution of workers rights, people working longer hours for less pay, pensions delayed till the elderly are in their seventies, house prices moved way out of the pockets of most ordinary people. These  changes are much greater in the UK than countries such as Japan, or some countries in Europe.

Remarkably, with billions in Scotland’s North Sea oil to play with, the British government has made the UK a poorer place – an accomplishment surely on par with Mussolini’s Italy. The British monetary system has been driven deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector and increasingly the financial sector.

Companies moved their goods up-market to cater exclusively for the mobile rich, the rest of us left to get by as best we can. The masses are people who live a precarious existence, the just getting by people (JGB) – the ‘precariat’.

This substantial reduction in people’s living standards and hope for a better future for their children is perfectly exemplified in the cost of a pair of ‘designer’ jeans sold for what used to be a deposit on a car. The jeans have a slightly different design from the ordinary, rubbed hard to look as if used, probably some tears in them, plus a design house fashion label but cost ten times as much. They are made in sweat shops in India, Korea, or Mexico.

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Gale Porter sells the Big Issue in Glasgow telling how she was homeless

The SNP and the Precariat

We are divided into them and us. Indeed, you could argue the entire world is thus divided.

Westminster holds on to Saint Greenspan’s fantasy economic philosophy. He said a lot of the USA’s success was based on what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If working people are insecure, if they’re part of the ‘precariat’, living precarious existences, they’re not going to make demands, they’re not going to try to get better wages, they won’t get improved benefits. We can kick ’em out, if we don’t need ’em.

That’s what’s called a “healthy” economy today. Greenspan was highly praised for his ideas and greatly admired. The Tory party of England receives the same nod from its adherents, and too many delusional Scottish unionists. Though they may not know it, they too are liable to join the precariat.

The SNP is a bulwark against this sweep of wealth away from people and communities to the power elite. It is using its annual allowance from the UK Treasury to fill the gaps in money circulation, to fill the poverty gaps caused brutal policies of the English parliament. That in itself is a sizeable resistance if not yet a revolution.

It is almost as if we are back in 1707 when the UK Treasury raised taxes in Scotland to pay for the loan it had given the few to refill their bank accounts, the rest to take their chances – the precariat of their day. There is nothing progressive about regression.

Carpe diem!

But if Scotland does not sieze back its right of self-determination, keep what it earns and spend it as it thinks will benefit the common good, the historic reversal that began in the 1970s could become irreversible.

A nation has to form the structures that will be sustained, that will go on through hard times. The SNP is trying to do that now on a limited budget. An autonomous Scotland could envisage handing back ownership of industries to the workers who run them, institute partnerships such as John Lewis has with its staff, in other words, create structures that cannot be overturned, to make Scotland a truly democratic society.

The SNP are the only political party in Scotland holding fast to that doctrine. The others are lickspittle messengers for neo-liberal power. But the SNP won’t manage to resist attacks from Westminster for much longer. We’ve reached the stage where we’re marking time before we are free to move forward.

A second referendum cannot arrive fast enough. The rumblings at House of Gothic Horrors – siphoning billions to pay for the refurbishment of its parliament, Buckingham Palace and a new yacht for the Queen, warn us they plan to withdraw powers from Scotland just as they did when we signed the Act of Union. Westminster will take us back to the times they keep asking us to forget.

Hope, striving for something better means we go forward, not backwards.

Poste script

Waiting to collect a relative from Edinburgh’s Waverley station, parked late at night under the flood light illuminating the Bank of Scotland’s old headquarters on the Mound, I suddenly realise it’s no longer a bank  It is now a museum.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Kong: Skull Island – a review

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Some package holidays suck

There’s a lot of psychological distance between the amazing indelible image of television’s supreme naturalist David Attenborough getting his hair messed around by a family of affectionate, curious gorillas and a thirty foot specimen rampaging through New York, before falling off the Empire State. Indeed, it’s a sign of mankind’s contradictory nature when a magnificent hominid primate is safer captive in a zoo enclosure as an exhibit than living wild in its Cameroon habitat.

Thinking of our ability to kill anything that moves and breathes makes light of a major character’s death discovered when a giant lizard vomits out his skull. Kong: Skull Island is an acceptable breezy affair. The giant gorilla with a heart and no genitals stands as a symbol of our selves, good and evil, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde, Dr Shipman easing the pain of the elderly, Blair demanding we wipe out Iraqi civilisation for humanitarian reasons.

Watching an inherently cruel story of death and destruction we’re able to keep at the forefront of our mind the film is a lot of rubbish – piffle is a good old-world description.

Having recently seen The Great Wall, apparently built to keep out hordes of murderous mythical beasts, their agent has managed to get them more work in yet another reprise of a movie starring King Kong, the gorilla with a death wish and the ability to hide on a very small island, and in a warehouse in Universal’s theme park.

This time the carnage is layered with a wartime backstory. After a brief prologue set in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, the story zips us into the last days of the Vietnam war, a time when Americans were warned Commies were coming. If Vietnam ‘went Commie’ every country from there to Ireland and then the USA would fall like a pack of dominoes under the murderous spell of those baby eating monsters.

In fact, the Vietnam ‘war’ that dropped ten times more bombs on a beautiful country than were dropped in the whole of the Second World War, was yet another illegal invasion by the west, sold to us as the “the domino theory,” replete with false newspaper stories of US ships attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, and innocent civilians tortured.

And so in Skull Island if there’s one monster there has to be many, all coming at us. And there’s lots and lots of ways of killing folk.

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There’s only three rifles, two hot babes, and a film crew between us and Kong

Following King Kong tradition, and US imperialist spirit, it’s an American explorer-businessman Bill Randa, (John Goodman) who attempts to convince his government superiors to let him take a reconnoitre to a skull-shaped island that’s been isolated for centuries by a ring of all-powerful storms. Those dark storm clouds never seem to appear on the island, only around the island. We call it fog. Randa deems this “the land where God did not finish creation … the place where myth and science meet.”

Stupidly given the green light, maybe in the hope he’ll gets lost and die, Randa goes off to build a team of clueless cartographers, wacky scientists, and a helicopter brigade led by hard-ass, bull-headed, big-mouth sergeant Preston Packard, (Samuel L. Jackson).

Heading his motley crew is a roughneck -Etonian educated? – limey tracker named James Conrad, (Tom Hiddleston), an actor with eyes too close together, and a twenty inch forehead. Lead love interest? – strictly for women who like posh totty.

Toughing along as ballsy eye candy is photojournalist Mason Weaver, (Brie Larson), who smartly  deducts Randa’s “mapping exercise” is a ruse for something darker.

As soon as the helicopters approach the island, however, they’re biffed, banged and swatted out of the sky by cinema’s favourite giant primate. Crashing on different parts of the island, what remains of the team struggles to survive, reconnect and escape. If only Randa had chosen to bag a Munro instead. And so, in time honoured fashion, the hunters become the hunted.

As tradition demands, military automaton Packard and his shoot ’em dead philosophy comes into head-on conflict with the noble Conrad and the compassionate Weaver – especially after they run into Hank Marlow, (John C. Reilly), a stranded, nutty WWII pilot surely there for comic relief. I half-expected him to wear a red nose.

Bearded Marlow – neatly clipped yet not a razor or scissors in sight, has lived on the island for decades a Robinson Crusoe clone. He informs them that Kong is, in fact, the good guy. Turns out Kong protects the island’s natives, unlike his original who ate them on a kebab stick whenever he could get his giant hands on one. Kong keeps everybody, fearsome monsters and all, in check. Kong is the power of Mother Nature.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team conjure enough wonder, menace and suspense to keep us watching: it’s that old attraction again, the pornography of violence.

People die in creatively graphic ways, and the spectacle of brawling beasts is beautiful. You get a glimpse into what audiences must have felt when first setting eyes on the original – and probably always the best – 1933 version, when audiences first gaped at Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong and a screaming Fay Wray.

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Must be lunch time again

Sadly, like every Kong movie since – and Godzilla too, there’s something cold and soulless about the whole enterprise. In order to keep us happy the studio dishes up the same fare as last time but better cooked and with some garnish, the filmmakers striving for greater resonance and meaning. There’s even an attempt to work a theme of fathers and sons into the narrative, a good Christian ethic.

Marlow yearns to see his son, who was born right before he crashed; Conrad talks about his own long-lost father; soldiers write home to their kids; and Packard, for all his gung-ho attitude, is a father figure to his troops. It’s the American goo that sticks that nation together. This is sugar sweetener as sprinkling. You think you’re getting character study but it’s only icing without the cake. The again, if you watch it in 3-D dodging and diving busy avoiding imaginary objects and half-chewed bodies flying at you, you might not realise the film is straining for intelligence.

There’s some additional business about how Kong lost his parents, but repetition doesn’t give us exploration. In the struggle between sober subtext and monster-movie antics, the silliness mostly wins. I’m guessing, but I could be right, a lot of the cast were more keen on a visit to Queensland, Australia, where the film was shot, than on the screenplay.

Vogt-Roberts’ previous feature was the disappointing independent comedy The Kings of Summer, which for all its shallowness displayed moments of interesting stylization. In Skull Island he shows himself to be a hard working journeyman. You don’t get anything innovative but it’s a job well done. The visual aspects are Grade A, the script B-movie, an action adventure in which to lose two hours.

At least Kong: Skull Island isn’t bedraggled with false perspective leant by swooping camera shots and vertiginous Avatar free falls, or nauseas circular angles around and around, and around talking heads again, (the student filmmaker’s fall back) to keep us interested. There’s no slow-motion boredom, a technique invented by the great master Akira Kurosawa to elevate dignity in death and energy on screen. Like The Great Wall, it’s the effects that keep us seated. And if that’s what you like, then that’s what you’ll like.

Critics are divided between defining it as an exhilerting action movie, and an old fashioned creature feature. They’re all correct. But in the end, Kong: Skull Island is just a lot of monkey business, a remake for a new generation, same as every Star Wars movie since the first one. The Saturday afternoon matinee film has become the week’s main blockbuster, and we all the dumber for it.

  • Star Rating: 3 stars
  • Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson
  • Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
  • Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
  • Music: Henry Jackman
  • Cinematography: Larry Fong
  • Duration: Two hours
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