Saturday, November 15, 2008

Oliver Stone's "W." Truth that's stranger than fiction...

It is said that every President of the United States has an idiot brother (think Roger Clinton) but with George W Bush he is the idiot brother. Oliver Stone, in his fine new biopic “W.”, has decided not to exaggerate the absurdities of America’s worst ever President – he doesn’t need to. The facts are far stranger than any fiction so what Stone does is hold a mirror up to the life of Dubya – it doesn’t need to be a distorting mirror either. We see, in flashback, the hard-drinking, womanising, and idle man that Bush was for most of the first forty years of his life. We see that his father “Poppy” (Ugh!) had constantly to bail him out when he got in trouble and to use his influence to try and get the wayward son advantages, including a place at Harvard. We see the positive influence that the saintly Laura (engagingly played by Elizabeth Banks) had on him and, crucially, the born again moment when he finds God and forsakes alcohol guided by an evangelical preacher. And we see in sharp relief what is perhaps the principal theme of the film – the uneasy father/son relationship between America’s 41st and 43rd Presidents. George H.W. Bush clearly, and understandably, had scant regard for his eldest son for the first three or four decades of the latter’s life. Indeed it is on record that the Bush political dynasty was not supposed to be furthered at all by the wayward Dubya but by the more stable and reliable younger brother Jeb. George W Bush knew this, of course, and the film credibly suggests that one of his prime motivations was to prove his father wrong – first by getting elected as Governor of Texas and then more improbably as President.

In sticking with the known facts about the life of Bush Oliver Stone has not just avoided any possible libel suits but has made an even more chilling film about this accidental President. He avoids showing the accident actually happen, no Florida count stalemate, hanging chads and Supreme Court deliberations are in the film. The fact that Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote in 2000, and almost certainly won Florida as well and should have been President, is ignored – and rightly so. This is a film about the personal inadequacies of Bush, but also about his extraordinary luck. His luck in having a rich and influential father. His luck in finding a calm and tolerant wife. And especially his luck in surrounding himself with clever people who not only got him to the White House but kept him there. The fact that these clever people were mostly evil and dysfunctional was in the end Bush’s downfall but more importantly it brought the world into turmoil and the Presidency into disrepute. That Bush will leave office without a word being said in favour of anything that he did in his malignant eight years is in part a fact of Bush’s weakness and lack of fitness for high office – but it is also directly a consequence of the disastrous choices he made for his cabinet.

The malign influence of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and the rest of this disreputable team is excellently shown in “W.”. Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Cheney is a masterpiece – an impersonation so accurate and so scary that it made me feel that we can only hold our breath and hope that nothing happens before President Obama’s inauguration on 20th January 2009. Don’t count on it with this malevolent man still around! Cheney’s call for a new American imperialism with the Stars and Stripes littered across the map of the Middle East and the Caspian region was shown vividly in the movie - as was his call for American control of the massive energy resources of this part of the world. If there were still any doubters around that the grab for oil and gas was a prime driver of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and of the so-called “war on terror” then Cheney’s chilling Power Point presentation on the subject in W. will have silenced any such doubts.

The portrayal in W. of two people at the two ends of the moral spectrum was crucial to the story – and to the unfolding of the disaster that was George Bush’s presidency. Early in his emerging career as a politician Dubya was spotted and adopted by the Machiavellian and ruthless and connivingly clever Karl Rove. Rove was as smart as Dubya was dumb and we see this both from the way that Rove gave Bush the words and the bullets and how Bush blustered and stuttered when Rove wasn’t around directly to pull the strings – most memorably in a press conference in April 2004. Bush is asked what lessons he had taken away from events since the Sept. 11 attacks. He shakes his head, looks quizzical and then says: “I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hasn’t yet.” Oliver Stone didn’t invent this – he didn’t need to. He just told it as it was – and the portrayal of Rove by the brilliant English actor Toby Jones is masterly.

The second of the two crucial characters, and in many ways the antithesis of the vile Rove, was Colin Powell who comes out of the movie with his reputation intact, except for his failure to stick to his obviously deep-felt (and right) view that the invasion or Iraq was both morally and militarily wrong. Powell knew that the justification for the war, the mythical “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, was specious. He also knew that whilst toppling Saddam would be a military cakewalk managing the post invasion world would be both dangerous and difficult. Unfortunately Powell acted not as the calming and intellectually robust Secretary of State that he could have been but as the über-loyal ex General that he was as well. Whilst he must have felt scant respect for the idiotic and ignorant gung-ho imperatives of his Commander-in Chief in the end his ingrained military loyalty made him hold his tongue. And the rest is history.

The damage that George W Bush has done to America’s reputation and the cataclysmic after-effects of his being in thrall to the neo-conservatives pulling his strings will probably not be banished for the first couple of years of Barack Obama’s presidency, but once again there is hope that a firm moral purpose will return to the governance of the United States of America. The Bush years will be seen as a malignant blot on the good name of America – and Oliver Stones’ excellent movie “W.” will help future generations understand why it all happened. Essential viewing for all.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The joy of the dance...

One of the extraordinary appeals of dance is that it is, by definition, non verbal – it transcends language in a way that is unique. Some music does this as well, of course, but whilst a Symphony concert can be ravishing to the ears dance appeals to all of the senses in a deeply emotional way. I remember, at a time of some stress, how the work of the wonderful Nederlands Dans Theatre in The Hague under their brilliant choreographer Jiří Kylián was an inspiration to me. I was struggling with learning the Dutch language at the time (don’t ask!) and to be in an environment where everything was communicated through movement rather than verbally was a blessed release!
In the last couple of weeks I have since dance at two ends of the dance continuum from classical to modern. The new production of Jerome Robbins groundbreaking dance musical West Side Story has been on in London – and very fine it is as well. The music and the book of this great American musical are so powerful that it is sometimes easy to overlook that the main originator was actually Robbins, a choreographer of exceptional originality and quality, and that dance is central to the piece. West Side Story is of course a narrative and the dance carries the narrative along just as much as the songs and the other action. Robbins choreography is hard to categorise. Unlike the ballet sequences in, say, Carousel or Oklahoma which, fine though they can be, are really incidental to the plot in West Side Story the dance is central. It is largely ensemble dance with quite strong balletic influences, although unequivocally modern. Wonderful!

My second recent dance experience was at London's Royal Ballet where a three act programme in which two George Balanchine ballets to Tchaikovsky sandwich the extraordinary “L’Invitation au voyage” by Michael Corder to music by Henri Duparc. The impressive thing about Corder’s work, which was first seen in 1982 and has been revived for this programme, is that the dance is to a song cycle – wonderfully performed by the Mezzo-Soprano Harriet Williams. The staging is superb – I found the costumes and sets almost surreal and Daliesque. The two Balanchine pieces are just ravishing in every way – the music, the costumes and the richness of the movement are sublime. They are also, I though, quite passionate and arousing pieces - even though there is no real semblance of a storyline. As Havelock Ellis (who knew a thing or two about arousal) said "Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself"

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Upper Middle classes at play...

This is a hugely impressive debut by writer/director Joanna Hogg. It is an uncomfortably realistic film in that you feel at times that you are being a voyeur and eavesdropper at real events. That the characters are so realistic is a tribute to Hogg’s skills and to the quality of the actors. In that respect I was reminded of Mike Leigh who also makes movies that really do seem to intrude upon and depict the real world. In a sense, of course, not all of us go to see movies to see life at its most real and (in this case) in the raw. There is nothing escapist or improbable about the unfolding of events in Unrelated nor are any of the characters unlikely depictions either. More’s the pity for a more ghastly bunch of arrogant, insular, selfish sons and daughters of privilege it would be hard to find. Not too hard actually in honesty for this type of English man and woman is all too commonly seen in the leafy suburbs and the Tory Blue counties. Here they are summering in Tuscany with a holiday lifestyle as empty as it is privileged. So empty that they resort to infantile games to pass the time between meals and indulge in banter that suggests that they have libraries in inverse proportion to their wealth – which is considerable.

There are two main themes. First the battle between the “olds” the forty-something adults and the younger set in their late teens. Key conflict is that between George, a prosperous prat with a high regard for himself and a low regard for his son Oakley with whom he has an alpha-male contest. The second theme is that of the lonely, confused and menopausal visitor Anna and how she relates as something of an outsider to the rest of the party. She is going through a crisis with her husband who was supposed to accompany her to Italy but who in the end stays at home. Does she want to leave him, he her or do they both want a new start or to “try again”? The unfolding of this happens as we listen in to one side, Anna’s, of a series of stressed mobile phone conversations. Anna is clearly something of a “poor relation” to the main characters who are wealthier and for self-assured than she is – albeit in a repulsively conceited way. This applies especially to Oakley who is attractive in a pre-Raphaelite sort of way and for whom Anna quite soon has urges – not withstanding the full generation gap in age between them. There is a trip to Sienna during which Anna certainly flirts self-consciously with Oakley and maybe he with her – we cannot be sure of his motives, until later.

Joanna Hogg films the whole story in a cleverly under-stated way. Even the lovely Tuscany countryside and the beauties of Sienna are toned down by the use of a gentle filter – at no time are we in a travelogue in “Unrelated”. The climax of the film is an event which could have been serious, but actually wasn’t. When George works out what happened in this event he blows his top in an overemotional way with Oakley who he blames for what occurred. It is a pretty nasty scene which we hear but do not see - a very clever device that further enhances the verisimilitude.

Is “Unrelated” a film with a “cause” to promote? Probably not unless it is to confirm that at its most supercilious and uncaring man’s nature is pretty malicious. We know that before we see the film of course, but what the film succeeds in doing is to show that a group of people who would probably regard themselves as being educated and enlightened are in fact hypocritical, selfish and irredeemably self-centred – especially in their treatment of their visitor who is subjected to the minimum of courtesy and the maximum of patronising contempt. Anna is the only character we care about and we do feel sorry for her – and there is some satisfaction that at the end of the film it is she, after the revelation about what has caused her current melancholy, looks to have some resolution in her life. And the rest of the party move on, no doubt unaware of Anna’s turmoil, and back to a world at home in leafy England where they can parade and pomp about how “heavenly” Tuscany was again.