Saturday 31 May 2008

Making it up as we go along

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull: could it ever be as good as we hoped? One theory says that the long, long wait gave Spielberg, Lucas and Co. time to really dazzle us; alternatively they were struggling to find something good. Sadly, it's more the latter than the former, although it's not a bad film as such. It's just a little...uninspired.

The problem is that they've looked through too many draft scripts. I read an interview with Harrison Ford at some point, where he revealed that he, Spielberg and Lucas have been disputing the merits of various treatments, each vetoing the other two on different points. It shows: for each scene, you can tick off which of the trio fought to include it. For the intro sequence (which is excellent, but sadly the best part of the film) it stacks up thus:

Humorous prairie dog: Lucas
50s joyriders: Spielberg
Indiana and chum fighting commies in warehouse, with the whip and the guns and the trucks oh yeah: Ford
Rocket chair: Spielberg
More bloody prairie dogs: Lucas

Lucas is now too rich and I would guess too stubborn to be corrected, but if someone were ever to have sat him down and explained why the Ewoks were a foul blot on ROTJ, we might have been spared not only the prairie dogs but also the monkey army, a little interlude which (again) sucks all the tension and joy out of the big chase scene half-way through the movie. There's a difference between appealing to children and treating them half-wits, but it's one which clearly eludes Lucas.

Ford, however, is excellent. He sells the action well, partly because it often clearly is him scrambling over crates or through the jungle and partly because, as in Raiders, it looks like Indy really gets hurt. But he also makes the most of the comedy moments, in an understated way, and handles the more saccharine moments of the script with a degree of grace.

On the other hand, executive input to the script helps him a lot. The rest of the cast were not so lucky, and struggle with roles that are either underwritten, paper-thin or completely dispensable. Ray Winstone, in particular, is landed with a character from some other draft, dropped into this one with little do but crank the plot onwards when required. Cate Blanchett clearly has a lot of fun with her fencing Ukrainian mentalist, but her character is given increasingly little to do and by the end is barely more menacing than her own henchmen. John Hurt plays the role of Sean Connery's diary from Crusade, spitting out cryptic clues as needed. We shall draw a veil over the characters of Mutt and his mother, a returning Marion from Raiders. Both actors try their best, and we can't ask more than that.

Spielberg, on the other hand, does know better. The movie struggles on, linked by scenes which were clearly quite cool in whichever script they first appeared in. (One of the casualties of this cut n paste job, incidentally is Indy's whip, which is used maybe three times in two hours, and once clearly forgotten about.) But when we reach the grand finale, the film finally falls over as Indy, the lead villain and assorted supporting characters hang around watching while the deus ex machina grinds through its operations. You can make the case that this merely recalls Indy's heroic eye-shutting at the end of Raiders, but that was at least quick. This version drags on for at least 15 minutes while whoever did the CGI pads their final bill, leaving our heroes with nothing more to do than run away after a while.

In Raiders, Indy's key appeal was defined with the throwaway line: "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go along". That attitude works well for heroic archeologists - film-makers need a coherent plan.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

The Quick and the Dead

So, it's pretty much been decided that Labour are done for. Brown is the new Major (hat-tip, Mr E), Crewe, London, 10p tax and the local election results are the various nails in the coffin. (The threatened hauliers protests don't look like being a PR bonus exactly, either.) Nothing to do then but wait out the next two years, bracing for the inevitable.

But as Tom Freeman points out at the end of this excellent post, two years is a long time. (Not "in politics", it's just a long time. Really. You know how bored you get waiting for photos to upload to facebook? It's way longer than that.) So what's going to happen before the next election? As I'm not a crowd, I don't know. But here are some options that, variously, would either be good to see, or are quite likely, or maybe both:
  • Labour works out what people actually want from government
Schools, houses, lawnordah, green, security, freedom, low-tax, cheap fuel? What does the nation cry out for? Not just looking for quick fixes but actually finding (say) three areas where it can make a positive change in two years, then doing it.
  • The Conservatives come under more scrutiny
As the presumptive government, the questions being asked of them should start to get harder, challenging for coherence, costing, consistency. Being "not-Labour" shouldn't be good enough.
  • Labour get some gumption
Nothing more depressing than two years of steady, Major-ite decline, stumbling from one crisis to the next. Finding some self-belief, blowing the trumpet a bit, and not going gently into that good night
  • Call an election before 2010.
Lacking gumption, there's no point in clinging to power for the sake of it. If Labour really believe their bolt's been shot, and that there's nothing for it but a recuperative spell in Opposition - bite the bullet. (The one they kept when they shot their bolt, presumably). I submit this is both unlikely and defeatist, but a loss now cannot be any worse than the loss after two years of shambling decay.

Whether Brown is taken out and shot, knifed in a dark alley, or left in his office with a double whisky and a revolver, Labour need to decide now how they're going to get the best possible result in the next election. Then they need to stop cringing and do it.

Monday 26 May 2008

Land of the free...

...firearm. What could be more American, in these uncertain times of rising oil prices and looming environmental chaos, than going out to buy a new truck? I'll tell you what - going out to buy a new truck and getting a free handgun with it. Yippee-kay-ay, melon-farmer*. Of course, in the land of the free you don't need to justify this, but dealership owner Max Muller kindly had a stab anyhow:

"We're just damn glad to live in a free country where you can have a gun if you want to."

Actually, there's more to it than that. This is a sophisticated piece of political rhetoric. Seems that snooty wise-ass Obama opined a while back that rural whites clung to God and guns because they were bitter. Bitter at the slow demise of their lifestyle and the rising power of jumped-up city-slickers with their fancy book-larnin' an' all.

So, in order to crushingly refute the thesis that a) rural whites are obsessed with guns and b) this is a reaction to percieved slights from the urban elite, Max Muller started offering free guns** to people, just so they could express their anger at this very thesis. It's quadrupled his sales. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, smart-ass!

*So I watched the edited for TV version of Die Hard. Bite me, airheads.

**Easier than a free God, presumably.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

The real E. coli scare

As soon as we hit the year 2000, no small number of stand-up comics, chat-show hosts, weekly columnists and other contributors to society started to complain about the lack of flying cars, robot butlers etc. "I thought we were meant to be living the future!" they cried plaintively. Well, look around:
  • We all carry around Star-Trek communicators, that don't just let us talk but watch videos and play games with strangers
  • Disembodied voices guide us to our destinations, using info beamed to them from satellites in orbit
  • There are robots which vacuum your house and mow your lawn
  • We're this close to a universal jukebox which will let us listen to or watch any goddam thing we like, at any time we like
  • We're totally meddling with the human genome to create monsters!
For my money, that's pretty damn sci-fi. But if you were in any doubt, comes now news that scientists (well, who else?) have created the first living computer.

If anyone from the year 4250 is reading this, I'd just like to say sorry. We didn't know what we were meddling with, and it all got a little out of hand. For your own sakes, don't make the same mistake we did. Abacuses are fine, but anything else is taking a chance. Trust me.

Monday 19 May 2008

The other downside of ignoring the lessons of history

Over to the US now, for an object lesson in the pitfalls of sloganeering. Following a Bush speech in Israel, Republicans took the line that Obama would, if elected President, appease America's enemies - just like Neville Chamberlain. The basis for this attack is that Obama has said he would talk with e.g. Hamas.

Watch what happens (about 4 minutes in) when the shouty gentleman is asked to expand on the historical parallels:

Speaking as a former history student, I would just like to say, "Get in!"

A violation of the natural order

Even before tonight's vote allowing human/animal hybrids (not as cool as it sounds, alas), it seems that Britain's scientists were wreaking havoc with nature. Deep in a lab somewhere beneath Westminster, a terrifying new organism has emerged from its swollen pupa. It looks like Gordon Brown, but someone appears to have implanted a spine.

Coming out, publicly, on one side of a divisive issue? What manner of beast is this, that walks like the PM yet falleth not between two stools? Next thing you know he'll stop dismissing expert advice in the hope it'll win votes from Mail readers. Hell, he might even start acting like he believes in his government's achievements over the past 10 years.

Monday 12 May 2008

Everyone gets a vote

A letter in the Guardian magazine, shattering that tedious stereotype about its woolly-minded readers:

"Why do some women want to look like rubber dolls? Is it because some plastic surgeons are male?"

Why do some people want to lose weight? Is it because dieticians are thin?

Thursday 8 May 2008

For grown-ups

I wrote some nonsense about political reporting as story-telling earlier. Hopi Sen has a much better piece on it here.

It's something that's playing out in the American Democratic primaries. We all love a contest, so "Clinton wins the state" is a better story than "net gain of 3 delegates". Each effectively meaningless marginal victory in Ohio and Pennsylvania etc. has allowed Clinton (and the media) to tell the dramatic tale of a close-fought contest/resurgent underdog.

Now things have changed again. Obama "beat expectations" in North Carolina (bigger win) and Indiana (smaller loss/near upset). So the story changes again! Obama has overcome his demons, Clinton has failed to capitalise and now the media have declared the race over. All of which completely ignores the main point - Obama has been practically unbeatable since Super Tuesday back at the beginning of Feb.

What this shows is that:
  • the narrative doesn't have to relate too closely to the facts
  • once a narrative takes hold, it takes a major event to change it
  • the media's interest doesn't necessarily overlap with the public interest
  • people lap this stuff up

For UK examples, consider Brown's trajectory - initially riding a wave of support, until he over-reached with speculation about an election. This gave Cameron a media-friendly moment when he gave his highly predictable "bring it on" speech: now the story was about a fight, and Brown backing out of it. Whether it was actually a good time to call an election was a moot point. Since then, the narrative has been about timorous Brown and dashing Dave. The media could be placing the Opposition under scrutiny - Don Paskini and Freemania find holes to pick on a fairly regular basis - but it's more interesting to have a strong Opposition and a weak Government right now, so those are the stories we get. And, of course, we love it. The Hague/IDS/Howard Tories were good for a laugh, but after 11 years we're a bit bored, a bit fed-up and we want some excitment in our lives. Punch and Judy politics is at least watchable, after all.

This is where Hopi gets too optimistic, in my view. He thinks that there's room for a clash of political philosophies, a battle of ideas raging across leader columns, Question Time and the Today Programme. I honestly doubt if we can support that: it's too easy to turn from ideas to personalities - too easy for us punters, too easy for the media and much too easy for politicians, who otherwise would have to: a) come up with a coherent political programme and b) condense it into soundbites and anecdotes without losing the thread. Whereas painting your opponent as a bottler, or a upper-class twit, is less work, and goes over more easily.

Wednesday 7 May 2008


As predicted, Gordon Brown is re-classifying cannabis as a class B drug. It's a slightly odd decision, given that when he asked the experts for advice, they told him not to. But it's not as perverse as it looks,for two reasons:

First, the committee was asked only about the effects of the drug on individual users, not about wider policy concerns such as the effect on policing and crime or on the message re-classification sends. These are perfectly legitimate factors for the government to consider.

Secondly, all scientific advice comes hedged with probabilities and caveats, and it's fair enough to make a decision about levels of risk. This apparently is the main reason for the re-classification - the government is applying the precautionary principle, not wanting to find out twenty years down the line that it stood by while people melted their own brains.

All well and good. But the popular suspicion is that these are not the reasons for the change in policy. It is whispered that this is a political calculation - an attempt to look tough to law'n'order voters, notably Daily Mail readers. If so, then Brown is simply choosing between two sets of experts - the medical and the political. While the appearance of such a choice can give rise to a certain cynicism, let's bear one thing in mind: it's listening to his political experts that got Brown where he is today.