Review – Kekee Manzil: House of Art

Kekee Manzil House of Art film poster show Kekoo Gandhy seated on a chair on Kekee Manzil, the family home

First Impression – Kekee Manzil

So, I watched an interesting film last night: Kekee Manzil, House of Art. It tells the true story of an Indian tobacco business owner’s son from an upper class family with a privileged background, loaded with money, being instrumental in creating the Indian Modern Art movement in Mumbai in order to help him sell picture frames.

This, I think, was not the narrative intended by its narrator, his daughter Behroze Gandhy, but it was the first impression the movie gave that I had to get beyond to really understand it.

The film is half a documentary about Kekoo Gandhy, a genuinely important figure in Indian art history, and half an homage to the man as the narrator-and-producer’s father, who lived in a rather plush house in Mumbai – the Kekee Manzil of the title.

Its problem is that it doesn’t work out which of these two things it is. At times, too, Behroze’s narration can feel like it is not quite conveying the message she is trying to make, partially, I think, because of her sense of propriety and modesty.

At other times she repeats herself. For example, I counted being told that the Artist’s Centre where much of the Progressive Arts community met was at Rampart Row, Bombay – 4 times. Weirdly, the last time she announced its location, her tone was one of surprise, as if she’d only just found out it was there.

But these are first impressions. And up to now, this review feels overly negative. Which doesn’t convey what I really want to say, either. So, mea culpa for also not getting my point across.

Kekee Manzil On Second Reflection

Screen capture from Kekee Manzil showing painting detail: Bapu at Rene block Gallery, New York-1974, by Atul Dodiya

Let’s be clear, throughout this movie a fascinating art movement in Bombay reveals itself to the viewer: extraordinary powerful images from a newly unleashed 1950s artists’ group producing brilliant works of art – and all underpinned and supported by Kekoo Gandhy’s entrepreneurialism and big-heartedness.

Kekoo himself was partly Oxford-educated, and fully Westernised, wearing a suit when he arrived home to Bombay in the summer of 1939, much to the amusement of his family. Trapped in Bombay by the outbreak of war and thus unable to return to his studies, he helps a Belgian businessman move his car that is stuck in the sand at Juhu Beach. A friendship and business relationship forms that leads Kekoo to the ownership of Chemould, and the founding of Asia’s only moulded picture-frame maker. Through other friendships he learns about art and meets a burgeoning community of artists, whom he promotes by selling their work through his picture framing business. His influence is very real as he and his wife, Khorshed support these artists. This is a genuinely interesting story.

That the world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor speaks so warmly of Kekoo certainly adds to the case for his importance, as does Salman Rushdie’s explanation that two characters in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh are inspired by this fascinating figure.

So, what to make of his influence and legacy? I would have loved to see more of the extraordinary art Kekoo supported in the ’50s. In fact, though plenty is shown, the context and stories around them are not filled out; nor are the stories of the artists themselves. In almost every case, the focus turns from the art to Kekoo. Observations of his eccentric behaviour, like picking flowers from neighbours’ gardens as an old man, or film of him smoking a whole cigarette in one breath, while amusing, aren’t enough in themselves to carry the film.

That said, it really does make a point about the direction of travel of India’s increased authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism, and the usual bigotry and violence you see from nationalist, racist movements. It is sobering to think that the country with the world’s largest population is heading towards nationalistic fascism, and that message definitely came across.

My Own Confusion And Ignorance

Kekee Manzil screen capture: Detail from painted by TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009) - "Mahishasura"

As a Westerner who likes to think of myself as liberal and who has thus noted with detached approval the name changes going on in India as it sloughs off its imperial past, it is sobering to be confronted with the notion that the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai is actually the product of an increasingly nationalistic consciousness under the BJP, India’s leading Hindu-nationalist party. How I square that with my own sense of what is right is something I haven’t yet decided. Thus the ambiguities of the modern world, which I think Bezohre herself navigates more deftly than I do.

As a British viewer with a fair amount of education, various assumptions about knowledge of Indian history did jar with me. I certainly do think anyone with a knowledge of colonial history should be aware of the horrors of Partition and the bloodletting that came with Britain’s botched withdrawal from the country. But there were times when the cultural distance between narrator and me as audience member felt very wide. For example, being told that an artist was “none other than Tayib Mehta” as if I should know him as a household name was confusing, as was being told of the effects of the 1975 Emergency in India, with absolutely no context as to what caused it.

This made me wonder who the intended audience was? It was filmed in English. Behroze now lives in England. She has worked in film production since 1982 and teamed up with long-standing professionals in the industry to produce this project. I wondered then, how much Kekee Manzil was designed to be a small, internal conversation among select Indian expats and how much a film telling the rest of the world about the importance of the Progressive Art Movement in Bombay and Kekoo’s role in it?

Painting feature in Kekee Manzil, Untitled (Woman at Work), 1958 by M.F. Husain.

During her in-person introduction before Kekee Manzil began, Bezohre said she does not intend to show the film at film festivals in India because it might inflame political sensibilities ready to ignite at any moment. So, what is the film’s purpose? To tell her personal story of her father to a tiny group? And at the same time to make passing mention of political problems in India to a converted audience that already agrees with her? Is this what it is, then? A kind of comfort blanket for a dwindling minority?

I feel the same ambivalence about the nostalgia Bezohre obviously feels for the vanished world of “old Bombay”. Bezohre is from a Parsi family, a group extremely useful to the administration of India under the British Empire which in return gained considerable mercantile, administrative and financial influence thanks to colonialism. One thus cannot help wondering if the embrace of Western values by the privileged family group the film features also colours Bezohre’s view of India today? To be frank, I don’t know enough about India to even come close to forming an opinion on that one, but the question seems a fair one to ask.

I did have the opportunity to meet Bezohre after the film, but my questions and thoughts hadn’t fully formed by then, and in my confusion I was concerned I would appear overly negative when actually I was trying to grapple with my ambivalence to a film that shines a light on a side of India many in the West will know nothing about. I respectfully bowed out – and I regret that, now.

To Finish

In all, Kekee Manzil – House of Art is worth watching. Yes, I found it occasionally frustrating and at times diffuse, but there is still much to learn. Its budget was an estimated £40,000, and if this extraordinarily low sum is correct, then it does give plenty of bang for its buck. If you see it showing near you, it’s worth a watch.

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – the Endless depths, the epic reach

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

As Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman tv series premieres on Netflix, Matt Wingett reflects on the sprawling comic books containing Neil Gaiman’s modern-day myth cycle, and the deep roots of Neil’s mythic story-telling.

The Absolute Sandman Number 1
one of many entry points for the committed reader

When I first showed The Sandman trailer to a friend a few days ago, he shrugged and told me: “I’ve had it with superhero movies…”

“But it isn’t a superhero movie,” I shot back. “Don’t let the comic book format fool you. This is something far stranger and more wonderful.”

The Sandman, Number 1, first published Jan 10th 1989

Perhaps my friend’s confusion came from knowing there was a DC Comics crime-fighting Sandman in the 1940s who was part of the Justice Society of America… but, as I told my friend, this is not that Sandman.

Neil’s Sandman is The Sandman: the mysterious otherworldly being who leaves dust in the eyes of the newly awake. Neil’s Sandman is richer, deeper and in many, many ways far scarier than even the darkest of superheroes – or supervillains, come to that – though it’s true that both genres have shared roots in the myths and legends of distant and not-so-distant past.

Neil’s stories are born from the night monsters and daytime horrors whispered to children to keep them in check; from the instructive folk wisdom told by forest mothers to protect their wards; from the awe-filled wonder of ancient humans when they first contemplated the nature of death and dreams and destiny; from the shuddering terror felt when encountering the deeply uncanny, from the shamanic trance and the psychoactive delirium of the visionary – and from the despair born of attempts to shed light on the dread unknown.

Gods meet – Morpheus and Bast

It is from this branch of storytelling born of ancient fears and awe at a world-beyond-reason that Gaiman’s Sandman derives. Also known as Dream or Morpheus among other names, The Sandman is the God-King who presides over unbridled imagination-set-free – and whose presence is at times morally ambiguous.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman cycle is not a conventional hero narrative. It is more a vast labyrinth chattering and rumbling with unknown yet half-familiar entities. Here, a human hero or superhero rising to a type of godhood is not the central business of the stories as per many other comics. Instead it is those eternal entities that were always gods, or who were always above and beyond the gods. Yes, human beings become embroiled in their business, but the focus is far different from the hero / superhero story.

Instead, what Neil Gaiman offers the explorer who enters his Sandman story-maze is a long walk through the myth-making potentials of the human psyche. It is a tour de force in different types and modes of storytelling, a journey through history, an epic collection of modern-made legends. It is deep and broad and profound.

The Sandman gives powerful insights into the human condition. It reawakens the superstitious dread that prehistoric humanity once felt at the uncanny nature of the real world and of imagination (which at the time were, and perhaps still are, the same thing). It speaks this truth loudly: the world we live in now is shaped not by rational people doing rational things, but by the creatures of the imagination who lurk in the shadowlands of fable and dream. Some are controlled by a reasoning mind, some wreak havoc in the world, unseen and unrecognised.

Not to overstate things (I hope) but what I found in The Sandman was an epic overview of humanity that I sometimes find in the great religious texts.

The Old Testament (that roughly patched-together mix of secret origin story, histories, supernatural horror, love poetry, tragedy, battles, laments and individual sufferings) is one comparison, though the myth cycle of The Old Testament has at its centre a bulldozing god-monoculture.

Other myth cycles and collections also find their echoes in The Sandman. The strange and wonderful Mabinogion, with its transformations and wild tales is one. The brooding beauty of the Kalevala with its epic of creation, the Greek myths, the Nordic sagas – echoes and memories of these story worlds swirl in the dark pages of Neil’s magical book.

Mythic family feuds are big in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman thus becomes a massive collection of different types of tale and writing, from fairytales in the style of the Arabian Nights, through revenge set-pieces, hero narratives, quests, whimsical alternative realities to much more beyond.

While the books include in early parts an eponymous god-hero on a quest to recover his lost helm and realm, it also includes ordinary people, their lives and deaths – sometimes pointless, sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic.

It’s when the focus shifts from the Endless and other supernatural entities to humanity that a central quality at the very heart of this collection of tales is revealed: compassion.

I admit when I first read The Sandman I did not know what to make of the taciturn Morpheus – a Robert Smith look-alike wandering the realm of the Unconscious delivering and managing the ever-shifting world of dreams. (And if that is not a metaphor for the author, then I don’t know what is.)

But as each story unfolded and took its own course, I was increasingly overawed by something else: by the massive God’s-eye-view of the author, and also by his fellow-feeling.

Stories are told of countless people mainstream society would have considered misfits when it was written: lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transexuals, black women seeking to make a living, a once-beautiful white woman inexplicably deformed, attendees at a sex party, travelling actors bewildered at why they are acting to a strange, fay audience.

Deeply human dilemmas play out in The Sandman

What is really noteworthy is this: rather than the caricatures the popular media at the time liked to make – screaming queens and diesel dykes, freaks and outsiders – in The Sandman, they are shown as exactly what they are: real people. There are homosexuals in loving, stable relationships, a lesbian couple muddling through dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, a transwoman rejected by her home community who (like Holly in Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side) “shaved her legs then he was a she” and moved to New York City, and so many others besides. This collection of tales is something far bigger than a comic book. Somehow, these dreams on the page reveal more about real life than the real life we see before our eyes.

From A Game of You in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman is an extraordinary, sprawling work, of which it is possible, perhaps, to say: “All of humanity is here.”

Some of the stories are uncomfortable. Some are nasty. Some are the experiments of a young man learning his craft. Sometimes you get the feeling that Neil read something about a character from history (e.g: an ancient Roman emperor) and in order to internalise what he read, he thought he would simply do a story about it. Sometimes a moment of inspiration, perhaps waking in the night to realise the extraordinary otherness of cats was enough to fire off a whimsical tale – but there is an overall pattern in the stories – a flow to the eccentric byeways and dead-ends, to the loops and reprises of characters and ideas that is genuinely monumental.

Indeed, the leather-style black bindings of my books are no less than that. 3,000 pages of coloured paper – each black slab standing as the doorway to countless possibilities, to infinite worlds.

The Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus. Had it been written 4000 years ago, Gaiman would be the visionary God-king of his own realm, adored by his worshippers who look on at him with that mixture of wonder and fear known as awe.

Or perhaps that isn’t then, but that’s what’s happening now.

Review: Patterns In Prehistory by Robert J Wenke

Patterns in Prehistory Cover, by Robert J Wenke

Patterns in Prehistory by Robert J Wenke is a wonderful book. I started reading it to find descriptions of earlier cultures as part of the research for a novel I’m writing, and I was not disappointed. It’s a masterpiece in explaining and exploring the development of human beings as they adapt to the environment, and what particular stages of development mean in terms of cultural practice, agriculture, population growth, and much more.

Wenke starts the book by asking the question “what is culture?”, among other things, and the answers are challenging. Wenke’s approach to the whole book is revealed in that first chapter. He is not there to promulgate his own definite theory of human development, but to do a survey across numerous experts in archaeology, palaeo-anthropology, palaeontology and much more besides. The breadth and detail and the sheer level of research is deeply impressive.

There are surprises along the way. One of the answers to that question about culture is to define it as a means of using energy more efficiently. That is: that when you learn how to do something (make pots, grow crops, build spaceships, etc), the next generation isn’t then forced to discover it again. They are taught how to do what the previous generation learned through culture. “On the shoulders of giants…” etc. That’s only one definition, but it shows you how you’re going to have to think around things and entertain fresh perspectives.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the fossil record of the earliest hominids, right back to australopithecus and earlier, then reconstructs the life of early humans through the findings of experts. This is not a speculative psychological book – it tells you what evidence has been found and what that points to. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely gripping to see human traits begin to reveal themselves early on, and to follow the development of a recognisable human life even among early hominid primates by studying the fossil record.

The survey is of the whole world, with Wenke looking at whatever archaeological evidence is available and comparing how different humans developed in Africa, China, Indonesia, Europe, the Americas and so on. This is the format for each section of the book.

So it is that we follow human development through Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens Neanderthelensis to Homo Sapiens Sapiens. It’s not a straight line, though, as Wenke makes clear. There are overlaps in the species coexisting at times, with some interbreeding, or huge gaps in the fossil record. Yet there are startling moments when a completely different species shows itself to be recognisably like us. It’s brilliant.

Thus we go on through the development of hunter-gatherer cultures, fisherfolk and others of the Pliocene and Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, until suddenly, maybe 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there’s a step-change in culture as the great civilizations arise. Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, China – all apparently reliant on the new invention of agriculture which appears to have happened spontaneously across the world, leading to a rise in population and technology – and the building (in most cases) of massive monumental architecture. Or so one might think… but what is interesting is that the monumental architecture and rise in population occurs just before the agricultural innovations begin to show in the archaeological record… That, in itself, is a puzzle!

What’s also strange to contemplate is how humans took literally millions of years to get to that point, but from there to the modern day was only a few thousand years. It’s giddying to consider how the gallop of cultural development accelerated so fast in that brief time, that we are now able to destroy the world with the technology of our cultural “advances”. It’s quite a thought: that nuclear weapons are in the hands of people not so different in outlook and potentials from those who knapped stones in the Middle East and created the cultures of the New Stone Age.

This extraordinary book invites you to contemplate the roots of our humanity, to ask how the world we live in now grew from the minds of humans and pre-humans at the very dawn of consciousness – and sheds light on the very nature of being. Highly recommended.

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi – A Review


Piranesi… an extraordinary journey deep into the labyrinth…

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi offers us a scintillating glimpse into a world of strange magic, with its own rules and internal logic. From its outset it drips with mystery. What is this bewildering world which gives us no clues to its meaning? Is it a metaphor? Are we in some strange psychodrama? Is it simply the hallucination of a madman? And if not, what, exactly? The early sections of the book circumscribe what we know to the limited experience of the narrator, the strange hermit-like Piranesi who believes himself to be a child of the great sprawling and impossible mansion that is The House. And that enigma drives the reader on to find some sort of answer, following the central character’s methodical hunt for the truth about his world and himself.

The great enigma set up at the start of the book has two really strong resonances for me.

Firstly, it feels like the written counterpart to an immersive theatre production – something like the disorienting alternative world of The Drowned Man that sprawled through the massive Paddington Post Office sorting office in 2013 – a series of unexplained vistas and art installations with scenes unfolding that had their own internal logic from which explanation was withheld. As with The Drowned Man, in Clarke’s Piranesi, we strive toward a gestalt that will make the whole bewildering thing make sense.

The second resonance is far older. Symbolised by Clarke’s narrator when he is in the Hall of the Minotaurs, we too must follow a thread of logic and empirical observation to work out exactly what this enigma might signify. Clarke is calling back to the legend of Theseus on Minos, and we too must find our way out of the bewildering labyrinth as we explore it through the journals of Piranesi.

The eponymous narrator himself guides us methodically through his observations of The House, and as he does so, slowly the interactions he has, along with his own prior observations, begin to unfold what and where this place is. Along the way, we explore the history of human knowledge. From early burial rights and the prehistoric world view, through the Platonic cave whose inhabitants see images from the real world as shadows on a wall but never see the truth, via the Theseus story, Narnian dimension-hopping and Jungian myths of anima and animus, along with Colin Wilson and Outsider Theory, we experience an extraordinary, rich journey through a multitude of modes of thinking, all set against the background of the mysterious ruins of The House, which is clearly inspired by the evocative architectural art of 18th Century engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

The book is beautiful. There are moments within it when the imagery is so strong it is almost eidetic. I gasped at the sheer baroqueness of the visuals I was invited to enjoy. Vast echoing halls in the house are lined with thousands of statues, each an archetype of some sort, each representing in some way discarded or forgotten knowledge from the whole sweeping history of humanity, as well as symbols of growing self-consciousness. The place, then, is made of – or by – magic. This provides much of the wonder of the book, against which the story unfolds.

Along the way, questions of religion, of magic and of personal identity are subtly, delicately threaded and explored, at each turn leaving one unsure where the story will go next.

And all the while, the compelling and essentially simple story, which is at heart the solving of a mystery, adds deeper levels to the book. This story of life in The House mirrors another modern phenomenon: the Escape Room, in which the player must work out how to leave. Another comparison is that of the classic video games Myst and Riven, in which the player must gather pages of a book to solve a series of puzzles and divine where the truth lies, while wandering through a mysterious world whose origins are hidden from the player.

All these analogues are in themselves addictive. And it is no surprise that with Clarke’s brilliantly lucid and balanced prose, with her meticulous and exquisite descriptions that amaze, amuse and bewilder, the book is proving an instant classic.

In some reviews, the writing has been described as experimental. When I read this, I prepared myself for broken sentences, rhyme, playing with form, fracturing of meaning and much more – but the description is misleading. The prose throughout is the friendly, thoughtful prose of a confiding and likeable writer of a journal. There is nothing experimental in the form, while the content is essentially that catch-all genre: weird fiction, one in which I’m very much at home.

I read it in just a few sittings, and I am by no means a fast reader. This is one of those books that is genuinely difficult to put down. When I did, I found myself lying awake wondering where the narrative might go next, and being genuinely concerned for the gentle narrator at its heart.

Be ready then, to explore a new world with this book. It is utterly delightful, deeply seductive, completely beguiling and will greet the reader with the enigmatic smile of the Sphinx.

Take a ball of wool and be ready to chalk the walls when you enter this magical realm.

Justice League: The Snyder Cut – Review

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a sucker for a great superhero movie, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about Zack Snyder. I loved the dark brooding of Watchmen, found it worked fairly well with Man Of Steel, but by the time we got to the bizarrely cut and overwrought Batman Versus Superman, I was very much in two minds about his films.

The counterpoint to that dark, brooding DC Universe of Snyder, and of the nihilistic and frankly depressing Batman trilogy was Wonder Woman, which pointed the whole franchise in a new direction. It succeeded in being a critical success and a box office hit, which the strangely cut deeply flawed Suicide Squad managed only half of.

Snyder has a habit of making grandiose gestures. His notes and techniques include the extreme macro lensed close-up shot, the focusing on the apparently inconsequential detail to stand for the whole scene, the dark and contrasty action sequence shot in slow motion and a few other trademarks which make parody of his style all too easy.

With this in mind – the grinding grimness of the DC franchise and the success of Wonder Woman, the executives at DC used personal tragedy in Snyder’s private life to take his final movie in the Superman trilogy away from him and hand it over to Joss Whedon to give it a more Avengersy, quirky sensibility.

Now I look back on it, I can see that the resulting 2017 Justice League was a disaster. My review at the time tried to be upbeat, because the film was at least an attempt at being upbeat – yet the fact that I focused less on the movie and more on people talking in the theatre is telling. Neither fish nor fowl, it doesn’t stand comparison with the Snyder Cut. The movie didn’t allow enough space or time for its characters to evolve and peppered the story with inappropriate notes – stupid petty arguments between Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne. The villain, Steppenwolf, was a 2D cipher whose motives and inner life were as solid as the CGI code he was obviously made from, and the resurrection of Superman was rushed and unconvincing. This knocked on to the final action sequence which was essentially the Avengers rehashed, but with less panache. Overall, the academically recognised word for it is Yeuk.

In fact, it was so far removed from the trailers, with nearly all the previewed key scenes absent that I nearly asked for my money back for misselling.

And so I had both high and low hopes for The Snyder Cut that fans had called for with their social media campaign #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Surely, it had to be better than the Whedon version… but really, that wasn’t saying much. And would it have the weird haste of BvS or the downbeat feel of Man Of Steel?

With this movie it’s clear that Snyder has been given free rein to do exactly what he wants and to realise his vision fully. And his vision is grand indeed.

Some have called the long slow build-up to this movie boring. And let’s face it, at 4 hours long, it could be a valid point. But that only comes from not committing to the movie in its entirety. When you settle in, knowing you’re getting a full four hours to unwind an emotionally rich and varied story, then it’s allowed to have moments of brooding.

And brooding it has in spades. But unlike the Snyder Cut’s predecessors, it also has great moments of humour. Barry Allen is a treat: whacky, brilliantly nerdy and at times hilarious. Occasional scenes between Gal Gadot’s Diana and Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne imply embarrassment at Bruce’s awkwardness – and humour at it. Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons is hilarious in his grim primness and his desire to control everything under his purview, down to the brewing of a cup of tea by the Themysciran goddess. Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman is genuinely funny in his ribbing of Wayne.

The reality is, the pace of the first section is the same sort of set-up you get in a film like The Longest Day (3 hours), as war preparations are made. And it is not short of action by any means – it’s simply that Snyder’s style uses the rhythm of the story-telling to allow the viewer to take breaths between action scenes and to build tension. It is most definitely not boring.

Some of my complaints about the Whedon Justice League are resolved in this movie. Observations that the Amazons are too weak against Steppenwolf are answered by a much extended Themyscira scene that sees the immortal women fighters putting up a much greater resistance to the alien encroachment. And but for the arrival of the cavalry three seconds too late, it literally could have gone either way. This is also true of Superman, who sits out most of this film, while the balance of powers between the heroes in the final sequence is much better done in this version.

The movie has its peculiarities. The oddest thing to get used to is the 4:3 aspect, which makes it reminiscent of old 1920s movies in some ways, or like watching an old 1970s tv show, rather than the widescreen one associates with these grand over-the-top, almost operatic films. It’s still something that seems strange – especially to someone who has gone to the bother of setting up a cinema in his office to get the full widescreen big sound experience.

Yes, the movie is dark. But it isn’t oppressive and portentous in the way Man of Steel was. And the back story of Ray Fisher’s Cyborg and the time the film takes to unwind it makes it clear how pivotal he is to the entire story, something entirely missed in the Whedon version.

The film is occasionally unintentionally funny. Steppenwolf does not come across as menacing, rather he is a bit of a sad case with a lisp. The framing of his face in his armour makes him look a little bit nerdy and hypersensitive – something of a failure – and not quite the evil supervillain one expects him to be.

My only real complaint is the tedious Epilogue scene, which speaks of a much longer project with all of Snyder’s problems as a director seeming to be concentrated in its grim post-Apocalyptic and drawn-out dialogue between Batman and The Joker. For anyone now calling to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, that tedious scene should be enough on its own to waylay any thoughts of that happening. In many ways the triumph of the Snyder Cut is exactly why we should not #RestoreTheSnyderVerse. It’s done. It’s over. Get used to it.

But these are minor quibbles. The Snyder Cut is more than a simple improvement on the 2017 Whedon Justice League – it is a fully realised artistic vision, and as such, it makes me appreciate that actually, Snyder is a visionary involved in the same struggle so many artists are in: fighting market expectations to deliver what is in his heart. Here, with his Justice League, he gets closer to doing that than ever before.

Revisiting Songs from the Big Chair – A Cold War Vision?

Tears For Fears - Songs from the big chair

I think one of the big emotions I didn’t consciously notice in 1980s music which I’ve only really just started to appreciate on relistening, is an incredible sense of melancholy and anxiety.

Today, for example, I’ve been listening to the Tears for Fears album Songs From The Big Chair, and there is a lot of sadness and foreboding right through it – not just in the lyrics, which are often about confusion at being alive or being in the grip of events beyond your control – but also a sadness in the very structure of the melodies.

Even that classic tune Everybody Wants To Rule The World is essentially a warning to a newborn or newly conscious person about the madness s/he is about to encounter and the transient and ever-changing nature of existence.

If you consider the period it was written, the world was in the grip of a nuclear arms build-up, lyrics such as:

Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

take on a dark meaning.

And do these lines below echo the run for the nuclear shelter…

There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you
So glad we’ve almost made it
So sad they had to fade it
Everybody wants to rule the world

…or are they about escaping to a new freedom from a dark space where the confining walls are at last knocked down? If so, is there an Orphean resonance? Is the singer’s attempt to save Eurydice who says she is right behind you doomed to failure?

The fact is, the lyrics are vague enough to be ambiguous, and for this reason there remains something in them that is deeply unsettling. It is a far cry from a love song, or even a song of grief or joy. It’s something else, darker and more confusing, despite its assured and steady, if not eaxctly upbeat tune.

For me, this is one of the realities of much of the popular music from this era. Beneath the surface there is much that is unsettled, uncertain and lost.

The album Songs From The Big Chair viewed in its entirety contains more of that uncertainty. From the experimental sampling tracks such as The Big Chair, with its child’s voice and what sounds like a knife being whetted or a sword drawn, to tunes with titles such as Broken, Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule the World and Empire Building, the whole album is far more unsettling than you might expect from what is usually regarded as a pop album.

Now I consider it anew, Songs From The Big Chair is a lightning rod for the fears and indeed tears that for me were always bubbling below the surface as a teen growing up in the 1980s.

It’s taken me this long to realise.

Wonder Woman 1984: a biting Trumpian satire

Wonder Woman 19984

In the wake of the storming of the Capitol by Trump Insurrectionists, Wonder Woman 1984 seems extraordinarily prescient, and here’s why.


When I first watched the latest offering from Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and the DC Universe, I admit there was something I didn’t get. Though its opening scenes featured the soaring golden sunlight of Themyscira, and Lily Aspel reprising her role as the young Diana in a gripping action sequence, it then came to 1984 Washington DC. On first viewing I couldn’t work out why.

Get your copy here

The hoodlums the Themysciran Goddess wipes the floor of a glitzy shopping mall with in the establishing action sequence seemed slight in contrast to the sombre trench warfare horrors of her first cinematic outing. But I soon realised the flat shadowless colour register straight out of ET, Trading Places and even Superman III revealed subtler horrors – and more urgent one in the context of the modern day.

The very first shots in the mall sequence show a consumer chomping down on a fat greasy burger, while older men exchange glances at the imagined invitation presented by the lycra-pinched posteriors of dancers sacrificing dignity to sell product. That Mall is no coincidence – because this film is all about consumerism, greed, desire and what happens when you ignore the consequences of wanting something to be true so hard you ignore reality.

Maxwell Lord against a gold background.
Trump is often portrayed against a gold background

The villain of this story is Maxwell Lord, portrayed here as a wannabe billionaire willing to offer the masses whatever they want so he can get ahead. The film is awash with parody of phoney self-help products, selfishness, greed and dishonesty – to oneself and others. Lord himself is associated with images of gold and wealth from the very start…

Farage and Trump in a gold lift
Maxwell Lord and far right amphibian super-villain Nigel Fartage against a gold background.

Sound familiar? Those themes are exactly the themes that have blighted America in the last four years – and if you still doubt this is its intention, the film is pretty explicit about which modernday swindler it is targeting.

The dialogue is revealing. When a disgruntled investor calls Maxwell Lord a conman, Lord defines exactly who he thinks he is: “I am not a conman! I am a television personality and a respected businessman…” And just in case you missed the reference, he says this from beneath a mass of bouffoned hair with just a hint of gold, while striding around in an ’80s powersuit.

One of Trump’s favourite insults is spoken through Maxwell Lord’s mouth. When the same investor calls Lord a loser in front of his son, he turns to his boy and tells him, “I am not a loser. He’s a loser!” Anyone who has seen Trump’s tweets knows that one well enough, and they will also recognise his accusation that anyone criticising him is in a conspiracy driven by jealousy – another straight lift from real life.

More of Trump’s false dreams and promises appear as the movie goes on. Take, for example, the sudden appearance in the Middle East of a wall that comes from nowhere at the behest of a fanatical Egyptian royal who wants to reinstate his ancestral realm.

The emir wishes “for all the heathens that have trod upon it to be kept out forever so that its glory may be renewed.” – Really?!? A MEGA movement to Make Egypt Great Again!?! One which excludes foreigners and anyone not from the “in” group? How apt!

In response to this wish of a nationalistic dreamer, a giant wall is created around the lands, described by a reporter’s voice/over as: “A bizarre phenomenon… called the Divine Wall. it’s an unexplainable event that now sees Egypt’s poorest communities entirely cut off from their only supply of fresh water…”

As well as making a wider point about the obviously divisive nature of wall building, one can’t help asking: is this wall a mirror image of the notorious Israeli separation wall that keeps Palestinians penned in with restricted water supply? Or is this an echo of those who died of dehydration crossing the Mexico-US border?

In the DC Universe the tyrant actually gets the wall he dreams of, and nobody pays for it. Except the whole world. But that’s later.

President Trump giving the thumbs up to President Kim
Psychopathic dictator President Kim gets the thumbs up from failed businessman Maxwell Lord.

Such Trumpian echoes, and, for example, the thumbs-ups from Lord, occur throughout the movie. Seen in this way the allegory of the Trumpian wannabe dictator who breaks all the rules is absolutely clear. Just before the film enters its third act, Lord arrives in the Whitehouse and discovers that POTUS wants “more” – in this case, more nuclear weapons. His wish is granted.

Still from Wonder Woman 1984 with Maxwell Lord giving the thumbs up.
Donald Trump giving the thumbs up in Wonder Woman 1984

In return, Lord steals the powers and command of POTUS: “You know what I’d like? I would want all of your power, influence, authority, all the respect you command – and the command everyone must respect! I mean what else is there?”

And then, for all those who have accused Trump of collusion with Russia and other foreign powers, another telling line: “Now, tell your people I would appreciate absolutely no interference whatsoever. No taxes, no rule of law, no limits. Treat me like a foreign nation, with absolute autonomy.”

And so, the Whitehouse is taken over by a businessman whose only interest is to serve himself.

In amongst all of this, the co-supervillain, Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah begins her own descent into cruelty and selfishness due to the corrupting influence of the Wish Stone. Initially a meek and mousey woman, she becomes a ruthless psychotic cat-creature by the end of the movie.

Picture of Kirsten Wiig in Wonder Woman 1984
Kayleigh McEnany: a semi human predator devoid of a conscience?

Let’s face it: a sweet-looking blonde bombshell who is actually a brawler and bruiser willing to do anything to protect her impostor leader seems eerily familiar to anyone who has seen Kayleigh McEnany, Kelly-Anne Conway or Hope Hicks at work spreading lies and misinformation.

Kayleigh McEnany, Whitehouse Press Office
Barbara Minerva – AKA Cheetah (Cheater?) is played by Kristen Wiig

The movie’s final scenes had a shocking resonance after the horrors of the Capitol Insurrection. In Wonder Woman 1984, the streets of not only America, but the world descend into chaos as the utter selfishness Lord unleashes with no regard for reality.

The Capitol Insurrection
Not Wonder Woman 1984

But this is not the only way in which Wonder Woman 1984 captures the nuances of the disastrous Trump administration. Placing the film in the 80s points directly at the roots of consumerism and greed, of aspiration without an acknowledgement of responsibility and a divorce from the cause and effect that relentless selfishness and shortsightedness has on society today. In fact, the very era when Trump first rose to major prominence.

Scene of anarchy at the Capitol in Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984

The story accelerates toward the end, as we see Lord, the presidential interloper using television to get his message across to the whole world. He promises people whatever they want throughout, while his own power grows and grows as he takes something away from each person trapped by their unrecognised Faustian pact. The metaphor of a charismatic despot feeding on power stolen through abuse of the media is a stark and biting attack on the Trump regime. It is a story exactly of now.

The Capitol Insurrection
Also not Wonder Woman 1984

Each person within the movie is forced to face one painful truth – you can’t have whatever you want without paying for it in some way. When as a viewer I discovered that the supervillain behind this is none other than Wonder Woman’s Golden Age nemesis, the Duke of Deception, the extreme topicality of the movie hit home – it comes now, in the real world, after four years of being told that truth is lies, and that journalistic reports sounding the alarm against tyranny are fake news.

Toward the end of the film, as the world descends into anarchy and I looked at it through eyes that have also seen the Capitol insurrection, I found it eerily prescient – to such an extent that I got shivers down my spine.

We all knew what Trump was capable of but never thought he would achieve… but the sheer collapse of law and order that Jenkins captures in this script is near clairvoyant.

– How did she know? – I asked myself, as the credits began to roll. Perhaps more importantly, how did so many who voted for him not know?

The answer: because they were deceived – and that, in the end is what this film is about.

A Round-Up of Netflix’s Christmas Movies, 2020

Every year, Jackie and I watch cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. Many of them are medium ranking attempts at feelgood movies, some of which succeed and others of which fail. Some are actually great movies. And others are just the pits, with actors delivering lines from a wooden script, and looking like they would rather be anywhere else, or, are actually clueless as to how to make a scene come to life.

So, some of our faves:

Klaus. This is is absolutely brilliant. A great piece of animation, funny, wry, unexpected and stylish. A brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed alternative origin story for Santa Claus, its central message is exactly right for Christmas Enjoy.

Christmas with the Coopers. A surprisingly good cast, with John Goodman and Amanda Seyfried, Alan Arkin, Diane Keaton and Olivia Wilde is a classic “dysfunctional family gets together at Christmas” comedy. Slightly hit-and-miss, it has a good heart and some real wit to it, bolstered by strong performances.

The Christmas Chronicles and The Christmas Chronicles 2 is lifted by a fun performance by sexy Santa Kurt Russell, alongside Goldie Hawn playing an equally sexy older matriarch. While the first is a screwball comedy in parts, the second goes for full fantasy adventure, and both are endearing thanks largely to the heart displayed by Russell. Fun.

Holidate has a surprisingly tight and witty script which lifts it above the ersatz, while not quite escaping the well-worn made-for-tv holiday romance genre. It scores with its comedy moments more often than not, and that’s largely due to the performance of Emma Roberts, who is really likeable as the goofy girl who just can’t get a relationship to work.

Home for Christmas is a series rather than a movie, Norwegian with subtitles. There is genuine plot tension in this series (now running to two Christmas seasons) and one can’t help feeling a lot of empathy for the hapless but kindhearted nurse Johanne who is at the centre of a tangled web of relationship.

The Grinch is the latest CGI version of the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. As often happens with modern remakes, for some reason it is a little melancholy, focussing on the psychology of why the Grinch became so grinchy – but the high production values and funny script really help it out.
I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, but these stuck with me.

Now, for the middle rankers:

Not on Netflix, but Disneyplus is Christopher Robin. Not directly a Christmas movie, but certainly a holiday season type of a show. Unfortunately, this one struggles with a layer of melancholy that slows it down and brings down the holiday mood. Personally, I find Ewan MacGregor to be wooden in every role I’ve seen him play, and this is no exception, but the real issue is the rather downbeat Pooh bear, who is too introspective and sad to be likeable. It feels as if the scriptwriters were embarrassed that they had written a show with talking toys in, so took a long time making the drives “real” by doing a load of digging in childhood trauma. Tbh, it’s a show with talking toys in it. They should have got over themselves with that realisation.

Jingle Jangle. This is a near miss for me. Visually it’s stunning, using a kind of Steampunk aesthetic to present an alternative Victorian England fantasy in which the main roles are all taken by black actors, which is refreshing and not often seen in “traditional” Christmas movies.

The show is lavish, beautiful and with some great dance routines and singing. There is the right balance of adventure and some sterling performances from Madalen Mills and Lisa Davina Phillip – the latter being a revelation. She is funny, her comic timing superb and her singing and movement generally just fantastic. She really lets go in her character as Ms Johnston the postwoman, and the result is joyous indeed. I hope to see her again. Less impressive was the mumbling inwardness of Forest Whitaker, and the ineptitude of Kieron L Dyer as Edison. For this reason, this otherwise great show comes down to the middle tier.

The Christmas Prince series is now on its third outing. It’s cheap film, cheesy and utterly nonsensical. Yet the whole idea of a stuffy royal in an imaginary Germanic-looking European country called Belgravia where everyone speaks the Queen’s English falling for an unsophisticated US journalist has enough comedy moments (both intentional and unintentional) to make the series worth watching.

The Princess Switch series is a similarly fantastical slice of cheese in which the doppelganger of a European royal (both played by Vanessa Hudgens) surfaces from the USA, with all the comedy of manners and etiquette that entails. The utter tastelessness of what the director thinks an American audience will think is classy adds an extra layer of unintended comedy, and one can just relish the cheapness of it, alongside its good heart.

Christmas stinkers:

The Knight before Christmas looks like it should have it all. Comedy and magic as a mediaeval English knight magically appears in modern New York. But Josh Whitehouse (also seen in Poldark) stumbles through the script and his clear sense of embarrassment at playing such an awful role is clear in the lack of life he brings to each scene. This one also stars Vanessa Hudgens, and while she is endearing, the whole offer of the Princess Switch series is a better vehicle for her.

Christmasland. I don’t know where to begin with this dreary, suffocating tale which actually does have it all: irredeemable writing, unforgivable acting and terrible, soulless direction. The ideas and concepts in this story of a woman falling in love again with the Christmas village she has inherited from her grandmother are half formed, the acting dreary and the lack of plot tension frustrating. If you like staring wallpaper for 90 minutes, this is the film for you.

Christmas Break-In – actually I’m in no position to review this, since I managed the first 4 minutes and then couldn’t carry on. But, that’s sort of a review, right?

I’m sure there are others we’ve watched that I’ve missed… but… enjoy!

Parasite: Is It Any Good? – Review – Some Spoilers

Parasite, the Academy Award Winning movie has been a game-changer in Hollywood, which sees tinseltown’s establishment placing foreign language films on the same equal footing with English language works. To say this is a revolution in the way the city of dreams sees its place in an expanded and globalised world is a truism. But is the movie any good?

The answer has to be, of course, yes. But it is also not a flawless masterpiece and it certainly won’t appeal to all tastes. To my eyes, the opening hour of the film is slow as it sets up the set of relationships between the wealthy members of the Park family, and the carpet-bagging wannabe Kim family who at first just want enough money to eat and pay for their mobile phones, but by half way through have grand dreams of owning the luxurious modernist pad their hoodwinked employees inhabit.

The Kim Family in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
From left, Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam.

The film is billed as a black comedy thriller, and that in itself has a few problems. Black comedy, in my experience, often means comedy where there aren’t very many laughs, but more a twist of schadenfreude. And this movie stays true to that maxim. The travails and hopes of the Kim family in trying to climb the social ladder are neither particularly thrilling nor are they particular funny. One sees them do what they do, and there are occasional moments at which one thinks – well, that was clever of them, or that was mean of them – but judging by the silence of the cinema I sat in, not many others found much humour during the film’s rather long, slow first hour. There were, however, quite a lot of phone screens lighting up as people checked the time.

The second act of the movie becomes suddenly a lot crueller and more interesting, with a dark secret uncovered, and yes, it has some unpleasant humour in it and some genuine tension and violent comedy-ish moments. But what happened here for me was the unpleasantness each character shows to the others began to disengage me from them. I felt no emotional investment in anything going on.

It is quite possible this is deliberate. There is a discussion in the movie which talks about how wealthy people are made likeable by money. So, of course we aren’t going to like the poor characters. But this seems a rather trite and literalist take on the script’s meaning, which is a comment on the deep inequalities in society, and how people live in their own tiny worlds unaware of those around them, selfish and self-centred.

And that message, really, is the problem for me with this movie. Everyone is selfish. There’s no one to like.

By the time the ending comes with one of the characters deliberately incarcerating themselves and trying desperately to communicate with the outside world in the most preposterous of ways, when they could at any moment just walk out from their prison, I had lost faith in the movie’s vision and message. The director, having set up a strongly realist scenario, had decided to jump paradigms into symbolism. At no way, on a realist reading, does the ending work. It is psychologically untrue, and actually rather insulting to the audience, after they have invested this time in the film to receive such a poor pay-off.

For me, on that level, the film is interesting but unsatisfying. It gives some deep insights into life in South Korea and its class system, it is beautifully acted and stunningly shot – but in the end, it is trickery, and one is reminded of that by its preposterous denouement.

When it finished, I was glad it was over.


Birds of Prey Review: Harley Quinn’s Mythic Journey

In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn transforms from Joker’s love interest to self-realised Loki-style spreader of upheaval and mischief. And it’s one hell of a ride all the way.

From the Golden Age onward, with a few notable exceptions (eg Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy), female comic book characters have too often suffered from being less powerful copies of male originals.

Supergirl (actually the older cousin of Superman) was made younger than Kal-El by a freak of Einsteinian relativity. Spiderwoman, She-Hulk, Batgirl and many others appeared to be created with little originality as cheap enticements to a female readership, or to titillate the boys – or both.

Harley Quinn is in a similar position. Her origin story – she was the Joker’s psychiatrist who fell for him and turned to evil – is an echo of the old stereotype that women are driven by emotions to do bad things at the behest of males – a narrative as ancient as Eve and the Serpent. She’s all too easy to view as the impish, psychotic diminutive version of Mr J.

So, the question is, in a comic book world now burgeoning with fully-realised, powerful female characters, how does Harley Quinn claim an identity for herself away from associations with the Joker?

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) deals with that problem head on. The original title, which has been shortened in theatres to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is far more accurate because at its heart, this movie is about freedom and self discovery.

Its celebration of breaking out from societal constraint is a subversive, radical, deviant message for our times. Oh. And it rocks, too.

It’s also given an original setting. Though tales of slave revolt are nothing new, this one is given a fresh comic book context, when a group of women rebel against the dominance of their various male overlords.

For the journey to begin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has to sink to rock bottom, enduring post-break-up grief over splitting with her mentor and tormentor the Joker. She’s a complete mess, living on the borrowed fear the Joker instils in the hoodlums of Gotham.

She expresses her fucked-up, emotionally dependent state to Black Canary, another woman under a man’s thumb:

“You know what a Harlequin is? A Harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master, and no-one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.”

And so her journey of self-actualisation begins, with a grandiose and potentially suicidal declaration of independence.

The scrapes that follow stem directly from her escaping the Joker’s protective orbit. Because an awful lot of people have a truckload of grievances with Harlene Quinzel they’ve been too afraid to act on.

In the movie’s early stages, a drunk, grieving and fucked-up Quinn is at times vulnerable and so out of control she’s in danger of being raped or horribly murdered – all because she’s now a woman on her own.

“It’s a man’s world,” Black Canary pointedly sings. In that masculine violent hoodlum’s world, she needs to create a space of her own – and it’s not going to be a tiny apartment above a cheap takeaway for long.

Quinn isn’t alone on her journey. Finding her story echoed by each of the main characters, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), she observes: “…turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” Nor is she the only person seeking it in the world, either.

Just like Eve in the Genesis myth, she is the cause of everything that follows from her first act of rebellion against male domination. Unlike Eve, in this story, there’s no-one to judge her nor anyone strong enough to punish her. She acts according to her own lights. Beyond good and evil, she is pure self-serving elemental force. She’s what English Romantic poet William Blake once said Satan stood for – energy.

Harley Quinn is a trickster figure, the Loki of Norse mythology (not the Marvel one), who MAKES THINGS HAPPEN. She’s the driving motor at the movie’s centre, while all the other main characters are fellow travellers, each on journeys of self-realisation.

As with all great tricksters, she’s lucky and cunning in equal measure. And just like Loki, she operates by her own code outside of conventional morality .

Harley Quinn is most definitely not one of the good guys. She is a fighter and a survivor. By the end, she finds her own way by her own rules – no matter how impermanent and nebulous those rules may be. She has her own inner life, and is no longer “Pudding’s” (the Joker’s) distorted reflection.

Harley Quinn is, in many ways, any ambitious person seeking to create their identity in the world. It’s just that she also happens to be a devious, brilliant, witty, funny, remorselessly violent, scatterbrained and totally nuts supervillain.

That’s why she’s able to declare at the end:

“I’m the one they should be scared of. Not you, not Mr J, because I’m Harley freaking Quinn.”

That’s her hero’s journey. What a journey it is. And it’s worth following all the way to its explosive conclusion.