Monday, 9 May 2016

Michael Moore hits his target

Joe enjoys Where to Invade Next for its dark undercurrents as well as its sunny surface

In this rose-tinted travelogue, Michael Moore goes in search of ideas he can steal and take back home to America. He visits half a dozen European countries, plus Tunisia, intending “to pick the flowers, not the weeds”. I watched a special screening at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During the discussion afterwards, an angry walk-out by one member of the audience and some audible groaning from another suggested that, in spite of its sunny demeanour, this is a film capable of raising passions.

Moore starts with the observation that, since World War Two, America’s foreign adventures have been uniformly disastrous. Called in by the Joint Chiefs of Staff desperate for his advice, he sets off on a one-man mission to invade some countries and purloin their best policies for American use.

On his travels, he discovers practices that, from an American perspective, look hopelessly utopian. He meets an idyllically happy working class couple in Italy who enjoy 8 weeks paid holiday a year and leisurely 2-hour lunchbreaks at home. French primary school children gather round tables, family-style, to share tasty and nutritious meals. University education in Slovenia is free. In Portugal possession of drugs for personal use hasn’t been a crime for 15 years. Finnish prisoners are treated with kindness and respect. And in Sweden 21 years is the longest sentence even for mass murderers. All this enlightenment increases productivity, reduces recidivism and makes people happy.

Skilful cutting and an artful soundtrack, together with Moore’s act of naïve bemusement, made me laugh out loud at some of these revelations – at least half the intended effect. The other half, I assume, is to provoke outrage that the richest nation in the world treats its own people so badly in comparison.   

Just when a visit to a model pencil factory in Nuremberg made me want to protest that this is all very nice, but Europe too has had its dark side, Moore tells us that the idea he wants to take home from Germany is that nations should confront their past crimes. For America, that would mean actively remembering its history of genocide and slavery (a lesson Britain could learn too, incidentally, where Nazi Germany looms far larger on the typical school curriculum than the slave trade or colonialism).  
Where to Invade Next showtimes and tickets
In a final feminist turn, Tunisia is revealed as a country where women have overcome the resistance of a conservative Islamic administration to pass advanced equal rights laws, and Iceland’s female leaders are credited with rebuilding the economy from ruin after a world recession brought on by an excess of testosterone. 

After the UCSB screening, a student who identified herself as Swedish complained that the film whitewashed countries, including her own, where neo-fascism is on the rise and borders are even now being closed to refugees. A mild expression of sympathy for Europe’s predicament, from the sociology professor chairing the discussion, prompted the Swedish student’s friend (an Iranian, I learnt when I caught up with him in the foyer) to stage his sudden exit. The groaner, an American woman of working class origins and impeccably progressive credentials, confided in me that she was bothered by the anti-American tenor of the film and even more distressed at the patronising tone of the discussion afterwards, with its focus on “stupid Americans”. So in this small audience, Moore managed to alienate people from three different continents.

I can see how the film might be offensive to Americans resistant to the idea that other countries manage things better, though Bernie Sanders has won substantial support with this very message. I also know that Europe is no utopia. But I felt that the two students had missed the point. This isn’t really a film about Italy or Finland or Tunisia. We see people in foreign countries benefitting from humane approaches to employment and education and law enforcement and these sunny images evoke the shadow, which is Moore’s true subject. America occupies only a fraction of his time, but in this fresh context the footage of police violence and the brutalitizing of prison inmates has a huge impact. A combination of savage sentencing, profit-driven prisons and a war on drugs that targets black America, Moore argues, has created a new slave class out of the descendants of the old. Meanwhile ordinary Americans, holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet, have been induced to accept their exploited condition as inevitable.

The film reminds us that there are better and worse ways of doing things and that it’s worth pushing for the better options. Its optimistic message made me want to cheer. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What's so hilarious about humiliation?

Jenny gives Florence Foster Jenkins a queasy 3 stars

Is there currently a more reliable director of expertly-told stories than Stephen Frears? If so I can’t think of one: The Queen, Philomena, The Program, all movies I have enjoyed even while thinking the first two somewhat sentimental. As a director he seems to like looking at the not-so-attractive lives of people who, for whatever reason, position themselves as celebrities. The scripts are invariably well written, the casting is always spot on, the acting convincing, the production design faultless, the resulting film entertaining.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of a wealthy woman who can’t sing yet who hires the Carnegie Hall in 1944 to give a recital. Her records, recklessly made because she believed so firmly in her own talent, became best sellers, but for all the wrong reasons. Her personal and business partner, a former actor, St. Clair Bayfield, had been able to keep the proper critics away up until that point through a mixture of persuasion, bribery and threat, but this became impossible with a public concert in such an enormous place. Professional critics demolished her performance and she died shortly afterwards.

Technically everything about this film is wonderful. Meryl Streep does one of her usual immaculate impersonations as Florence, including finely judged bad singing. The real surprise is Hugh Grant who is just perfect as her kind-of husband, showing us that he is certainly in it for the money, including the flat for which Florence pays and which houses his girlfriend, yet he also loves Florence deeply and tenderly. His graceful and expertly nuanced performance is the best thing he has done for years. Maybe it is true that he was born 50 years too late for the handsome Cary Grant-style British schmoozer he plays so well in this film; trust his twinkly charm folks, but not too much.

But I watched this film in dismay. It is billed as a ‘comedy drama’ and the actors have repeatedly described it in interviews as ‘hilarious’. But how, exactly is it ‘hilarious’? Is it hilarious to laugh at the allegedly comical delusions of a very rich woman who could afford to hire weasely singing coaches tell her she was brilliant but ‘it needs a little more work’, and who is then exposed to the terrible humiliation of an audience at the Carnegie Hall (The Hammersmith Apollo filling in perfectly) literally falling about laughing as she screeches her way through arias that are way beyond her ability?

Self-delusion is one of the essential themes of comedy. It’s why we laugh at Malvolio in Twelfth Night, it’s why David Brent was excruciatingly funny in The Office. It’s why Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is genuinely ‘hilarious’. These are ludicrous people who at some level know that who they are and who they purport to be are at odds.

What is wrong with this film is how clearly it shows that Florence Foster Jenkins does not know this. Her costumes are ridiculous and ugly. She is overweight. She is too old to prance about on a stage. She wears a wig to hide her baldness. She is a naïve, vulnerable woman, padded by money, damaged by poor health and by the sycophancy, cowardice and the well-meaning or corrupt care of those around her, who, for whatever reason, refuse to tell her the blunt truth: she can’t sing. Watching this film we are made complicit in this.

I did not like the moral dilemma this created for me. I did not find the film funny, though I did find it absorbing. Her death is horrible. This was a real woman who really did die in these circumstances. I heard no laughter around me in the Islington Vue. People stayed quietly to the end, watching the credits and then filed out silently. There was no feel-good chattery buzz or smiling. I left along with everyone else and plodded home. I had watched a tragedy not a comedy. I felt manipulated: not a good experience.