Thursday, 28 July 2016

Men! What are they like?

Jenny gives 4 laugh-out-loud, ego-bound stars to Athina Rachel Tsingare’s Chevalier

Some years ago I was part of a team facilitating a series of courses for a British organization that had become concerned about the somewhat lopsided behaviour of its most senior cohort. The top levels of this organization were populated by intellectually gifted people, mostly men, who had little idea about emotional intelligence or why it might matter. The organization felt that it needed to make a big cultural shift. The solution? Plonk these very senior people (fifteen at a time and for five days, no phones or emails allowed, no quitting) into a pleasant venue where their only task was to get on with each other. What invariably happened was a like a chamber-piece psychodrama since there was no escape. By the third day of every course, mayhem had broken out. Long-standing enemies vented their grudges, secrets were confessed, accusations hurled, there were tears, tantrums and threats, intense alliances and some love affairs. The masks slipped. It was impossible to prevent some aspect of the more vulnerable person becoming known, ideally to themselves, as well as to others. Our role was to keep all of this safe and to link it with what the organization needed.

Chevalier, an intriguing new Greek language film from Athina Rachel Tsangari, is in the long tradition of chamber-piece films, where you see what happens when there is no mechanism for keeping things safe, for instance Rope, Phone Booth, 12 Angry Men, Lord of the Flies, Moon – and Dogtooth, another unsettling Greek language film made by Tsingari’s friend and collaborator Yorgos Lanthinos.

Six middle aged men are on a comfortable yacht in the Aegean. It’s not the calm blue sea of the holiday websites but cool, grey and a little choppy. There are connections between them, some of which become clear, some remaining blurred. The yacht is owned by ‘The Doctor’, the oldest and apparently most powerful in the group. They have nothing to do but some sporadic fishing so they set up a game to decide ‘who is the best man in general’. The rules of this ‘game’ are never explained but each man has a little notebook into which his ratings of the others are silently entered. The tasks are wonderfully silly, for instance cleaning silver with toothpaste, assembling an IKEA bookcase, rating sleeping positions, snoring levels, skimming stones, dental hygiene, blood triglycerides and, naturally, penis size, all of these carried out with tremendous seriousness.

The veneer of courtesy is soon ripped away as the craziness of pointless bragging and unchecked male behaviour takes over.

Men, eh! Do they really get how strange they are? It would be easy for a woman director to mock these fragile egos but she does not. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when the character who has been teased and who worries about his potency finally achieves a splendid erection and hammers on the others’ doors to come and admire it – but it’s late at night and they are all sound asleep. As the film goes on, the relentless competition reveals secret worries: Are my thighs too big? Does it matter that I’m losing my hair? What about my wobbling belly? Is it my fault that my wife hasn’t had a baby? Does she really love me?

My own prize for best performance goes to Makis Papadimitrou who brings beautifully calibrated childish humour and ill-founded hope to Dimitris, a woefully tubby idiot savant, still living with his mother, afraid of the dark, brought along by his resentful brother and not allowed to go into the water. His naïve inability to compete, except on his own limited terms, throws the absurdity of the rest into relief.

The cinematography combines bleached out colour with multiply-reflecting, cramped shots of the yacht interior, frequently giving us slices of the middle aged male body seen when the camera slyly peeps around corners or with bulkheads in the way.

Is it a satire on Greece and its dying economy? Possibly, as in an exquisite double bluff in the final reel, we see the ship’s crew drawn into the same daft competitiveness. I did find that the film lacked narrative drive: there is no big climax at the end, it all just drifts away. It is a film about men made by a woman and with a degree of merciless, bone-dry wit, with no visible female characters, but with no malice. And for certain it is a wholly understated and sublime comedy.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A Tale of Two Weiners

Jenny gives Weiner 5 painful stars

Directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman open their film with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: ‘The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers’. When your name is also one of many slang words for the male member, what are you to do? Perhaps you are already doomed.

The well-researched theory of nominative determinism seems to apply here – that we can be drawn inexorably to behaviours or professions that resemble our name. I once knew a surgeon called Mr Hammer, a haulier called Mr Carter and a doctor called Dr Docktor, and the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales was Judge Judge. More pertinent to this film, in 2014 a Donald Popadick of Toronto was arraigned on a charge of indecent exposure.

So the title of this documentary film is already a joke. Its subject is Anthony Weiner, but the film is actually just as much about his penis and his inability to resist giving it a starring role in his life.

Congressman Weiner was forced to resign his seat in 2011 because he was exposed (sorry but I find myself inexorably drawn to the puns) for sexting DC groupies. He apologized in the usual way for the ‘hurt’ he had caused his wife, Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. Then a few years later he decided to run for Mayor of New York.

During the course of filming the documentary on his campaign, he is caught once more, sending pictures of his erect penis to a woman calling herself Sydney Leathers and having phone sex with her up to five times a day. Sydney has subsequently created a career for herself as a porn star but Anthony’s career has plummeted. He came bottom of the poll for Mayor and his subsequent career as a lobbyist/consultant seems to have been characterised by abrupt departures.

This film is painful to watch, painful in every way: painful to see the humiliation of his beautiful and gifted wife, painfully funny that a man caught in this way can worry more about his emerging bald spot than about his wife’s feelings, painful to see yet another example of the overwhelming narcissism of career politicians, painful to see a clever man sabotage himself so stupidly.

At one point we see a chat show journalist yell at him, ‘What’s wrong with you? What IS wrong with you?’ He can’t answer this, any more than he can answer the question put to him by the film-makers, ‘Why are you letting us film this?’ Maybe the answer is that his need to be in the limelight is overwhelming – we see him leaping about at Gay Pride, riding floats at carnivals, manically hugging strangers, losing his temper with hecklers, obsessively replaying his own interviews, even the ones where he comes off worst. During his sexting career he gave himself the name Carlos Danger. I had a sudden image of the toddler Anthony strutting about, as small boys sometimes do, with his little button penis hanging out, an aren’t-I-naughty expression on his face, looking for reactions, any reactions. How pleasing it can be to see shock, horror and amusement on the faces of the adults. Funny in a two year old, puzzling and silly for a man in his forties.

Weiner is a brilliant case study in hubris, in how our greatest strengths are virtually always the trigger to catastrophe when we overuse them. A gifted orator, a hard worker, a demanding boss, a fearless interrogator… all of these became disastrous handicaps for Anthony when they turned into a sense of entitlement, a reckless belief that he would not be caught when indulging in behaviour that he must have known to be morally dubious.

At the same time, part of him just doesn’t get it. As he says mournfully, nobody died; he didn’t have sexual relations with those women. He doesn’t even seem to notice the blank despair on his wife’s face. He can say the words about being responsible but they seem empty.

Above all this film is about the media and its rapacious need for extremes, for courting and creating celebrity and then glorying in its ruin. The film-makers admit that they themselves are part of it. But they must have been hugging their cameras at their luck. They couldn’t hold back any more than could the rest of the pack. And for us, the viewers of the debacle, we may be watching through our fingers, or in disbelief, or guiltily experiencing schadenfreude, but we are complicit too.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Norma and John and why they voted for Brexit

We don’t usually stray into politics at Angel & Elephant unless led there by a film or other cultural event, but these are unusual times, and Jenny has been moved to reflect on last week’s vote. 

Norma and John live in a small Norfolk village. They voted Leave without a moment’s hesitation. The only language spoken in their village is British English and every face is white. Some distance away, in the pleasant regional city of Norwich, the same is largely true although the university brings a smattering of foreigners, some with brown faces.

Norma and John are literal Baby Boomers since they were both born in 1946, the year after their dads returned from fighting in Africa and Europe. They benefitted from the massive British post war reforms to health and to secondary education. However, both failed the harsh sheep/goats process that was the Eleven Plus, the route into social mobility through a grammar school. Neither they nor their parents were troubled by this; it saved the money that expensive uniforms and games equipment would have cost. It spared them the unease of entering a world of middle class assumptions and posh people. It liberated them to leave school at fifteen to earn good money, Norma as a shop assistant in Norwich and John for a local farmer. They met at seventeen and an unexpected pregnancy meant early marriage because then it was unthinkable to seek an abortion or to be a single parent.

A small social housing estate had been built in their village and they were pleased to have a nice house with a proper bathroom and kitchen. Later, feeling prosperous in the Thatcher years, they exercised their right to buy and now they are mortgage free, still in the same house. They are close to their daughter who followed their pattern of early pregnancy and marriage and one of this daughter’s daughters has done the same. So they are now great grandparents.

When you talk to Norma and John they are angry and upset. They say things like ‘I want my country back’; ‘There are too many people here already; what’s going to happen to jobs for our kids and their kids?’ The fact is that they are right to be dismayed. John’s job vanished twenty five years ago when farming changed beyond recognition and hedgerows that had been there for a thousand years disappeared to make the giant fields that you now see everywhere in Norfolk. He got seasonal work in boatyards but found himself exhausted by its intensely physical nature. He tried setting up a handyman business but it never took off. Norma did part time bar shifts, but the pub closed twelve years ago. She worked as a carer for a few years until she damaged her back when turning an elderly client.

The truth is that Norma and John are poor. Yes they have an asset in their house but it is small and shabby and in any case this does not help with their bills. They need a car as the only public transport is a once a day bus. They have no savings to speak of and live off the state pension. They are worried about the future of their local hospital, the James Paget in Lowestoft. Both are overweight and have Type 2 diabetes. Norma has had a double mastectomy and John is on medication for depression as well as recovering from bowel surgery. Their youngest son, a late baby, escaped the Eleven Plus trap and benefitted from the introduction of comprehensive schooling. He is a well-paid PhD research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry and funds their car and holidays but he lives in Singapore.

Norma and John have always voted Tory but that is irrelevant, as is anything to do with the EU. Their vote for Leave was a cry of rage and disappointment. They believed the lies about money for the NHS. They half-thought that they could be invaded by a million Turks. It would be easy to say that as classic Left Behinds they are responsible for their own plight by failing to update their skills, broaden their perspectives or to consider getting out of a dying economy. But the thought has never crossed their minds. Rooted in their rural life, they are liked by their neighbours, most of their family live close by – why would they damage all of that?

I am connected to Norma and John though they are unaware of it. For three decades until 2011 I had a second home in a small Norfolk village. To people like them I was, for sure, an ‘Incomer’, a word often spoken in Norfolk with lurking resentment, people too smart and affluent for their own good, raising house prices, bringing fancy London ideas with them and, sometimes, though I hope this was never true of me, remaining aloof from the community. I, too, benefited from post-war social reform.

I also married young by today’s standards. The difference is that I grew up as an only child in an urban area with parents who were desperate for me to have the chances that they missed. I passed the Eleven Plus, thanks to their constant coaching and encouragement. It was taken for granted that they would make enormous financial sacrifices and that I would go to university, though no one in the family had ever done so. I entered the jobs market, a confident young graduate, at a time of full employment. Getting a job and a mortgage was easy. I have been able to live by my wits rather than by poorly paid, insecure manual labour. I have been lucky.

Now I, too, can experience the anguish and disappointment of being one of the Left Behinds, my ideas and deeply-held values rejected. It pains me grievously to know that Norma and John will suffer more than I will from Brexit. They are decent people. They have been forgotten, let down, fooled. No one was listening to them and maybe no one will now, but for sure they have had their moment.