Solidarity amongst the Grapes of Wrath

I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was 17. Re-reading it now I realise how little I understood it then but that, at some level, it must have helped to form a sense of anger at the injustice and inequality in the world.

Of the many causes of this injustice and inequality, I was struck this time by Steinbeck’s description of the anonymity of the banks and companies causing so much misery, and the way in which they are somehow more than the people who make them up:

The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [men] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and monsters all at the same time.

Steinbeck skewers the supposed helplessness of individuals who work within these monsters (in a way that, to be frank, brings to mind what we often hear people who work in large public sector bureaucracies say):

‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster…’

‘… Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’

‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.’

What’s worse, the anonymity of the banks and companies is combined with a lack of understanding of the land, histories and culture their actions are displacing. This picks up a theme Steinbeck covers in a series of seven journalistic essays he wrote in 1936, The Harvest Gypsies, which provided much of the research and material for The Grapes of Wrath. There he notes:

Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, the [migrant farmer families] have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle.

There is a sense of hope, though – represented most directly in the character of Tom Joad and more mystically through Rose of Sharon. The contrast between “I” and “we” –

This is the beginning – from ‘I’ to ‘we’… the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off from the ‘we’.

– provides through communal effort a basis on which Man will always, somehow, progress:

This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

There is solidarity amongst the grapes of wrath.

Tom Joad is often portrayed as the hero of The Grapes of Wrath, and is given this famous speech (in both the book and 1940 film adaptation):

I think the real hero, though, is Ma Joad. Steinbeck describes her like this:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practice denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seems to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

She herself describes the role of women compared to men like this:

This seems to me right, and why, perhaps, people “is aimed right at goin’ on… Jus’ tryin to live the day, jus’ the day.”


The Revenant and Room: survival and cinematography


The Revenant – about a huntsman left for dead in the wilderness after a grizzly bear attack – and Room – about a young boy and his mum kept imprisoned in a small room – are both currently in cinemas.

Image via IMDB

Though they have very different lead characters, both are films about survival. Watching them in quick succession, I was also struck by their common theme of the beginnings and end of life: Room about the desire to protect and maintain childhood for as long as possible; The Revenant about deterministically following a path or river to its ultimate conclusion, and so death.

For all its excellent character development, Room isn’t, I think, quite as good a film as it might be. It is clearly a book adapted as a film, in that there isn’t sufficiently good cinematography to suggest the picture could have been conceived in its own right. A 10ftx10ft room provides plenty of opportunity for certain types of shots, but the film defaults to regular stills of a skylight to the world outside. Handheld camerawork substitutes for the first-person perspective of the 5-year-old boy, and the filmmaking isn’t quite enough to sustain the film beyond the walls of the Room itself during its second half.

the revenant
Image via Awards Daily

The Revenant, however, is remarkable. A shot of a man sleeping inside the body of a dead horse we have just seen him gut – a camera directly above pulling back to show the hollow black and white horse in blood-soaked snow; the view of a distant avalanche in a snowscape as the lead character watches from the foreground: both exceptional, visual images that add to and don’t just serve the story. The emergence of gun barrels from behind a forward-tracking camera in the opening sequence (part of a continuous shot that reminded me of the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan), a camera lens steaming up from a grizzly bear’s breath; blood splattering another lens as it swivels amongst two fighting characters: this is filmmaking and cinematography that puts you immediately in the film without the crassness of a first-person perspective.

We shouldn’t be surprised that The Revenant achieves this: with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio we have both director and lead actor producing some of the most intriguing film work just now. The standout performance, though, is from Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, who first wishes to see DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass left for dead and later wants to finish the job the grizzly bear started. I don’t know if it’s his sort of thing, but an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor must be a possibility.

Brad Pitt and the 2008 financial crisis

Two films about the financial crisis of 2008, both with Brad Pitt in them. Is he trying to tell us something?

I enjoyed both Killing Them Softly and the recent The Big Short, though the latter’s editing takes a bit of getting used to. (It’s based on the book by Michael Lewis, of The Blind Side and Moneyball, which also had Brad Pitt in it.)

As films, what was most interesting (alongside the editing choices) is that both chose to break the fourth wall.

The Big Short’s approach is audacious: nearly all of the main characters talk directly to the audience, and there are three breaks in the narrative in which people-as-themselves (including Selena Gomez and Richard Thaler sitting together at a casino table, obviously) explain some of the complex financial instruments central to the crash (such as Collateralised Debt Obligations, or CDOs).

Killing Them Softly’s fourth wall technique is much more subtle. An edit chooses to maintain the shot of a camera mounted on a car door as the car door opens and closes. Some have suggested this is a bit of a show-off shot, but I take both films’ breaking of the fourth wall to highlight that what they’re talking about – the economy – is about “you”, i.e. us.

A brief thought on disability in A Theory of Everything (updated)

Theory of EveythingTo the cinema to watch A Theory of Everything.

The perspective on disability the film brought was, I thought, excellent. It explicitly included reference to the impact Professor Hawking’s impairment had on his life and the people around him. From a practical view it showed the adjustments the Hawkings had to make in their lives, and the importance of good support that came from a range of different people.

Most satisfyingly, the film clearly captures the fact that Professor Hawking realised his ambitions and what he was capable of irrespective of the barriers – physical, attitudinal, practical – that could have prevented this.

This is perhaps best demonstrated in the sequence following his pneumonia in Bordeaux. A doctor proposes a tracheotomy, meaning Professor Hawking will not be able to speak; feeling that Professor Hawking may not survive a journey back home the doctor asks Jane Hawking to consider ending her husband’s life. Jane refuses and instead finds a way that means Professor Hawking can communicate in a different way. Eventually, of course, he speaks using a synthesized voice – something probably as closely associated with him as black holes.

Without necessarily recognising it, A Theory of Everything provides one of the best representations of the Social Model of Disability I can remember seeing.

(From a film point of view, I think Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking are fantastic. If the Best Actor awards are a straight fight between Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch (for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) then Redmayne should win hands down. Put simply: Redmayne is Hawking, whereas Cumberbatch is Cumberbatch being Turing.)

Update: The Washington Post shares similar thoughts regarding the film’s portrayal of disability (via @angelamatthews4)

PhD thesis titles inspired by #BreakingBad

I predict with a high degree of confidence that there will be several “What x can learn from Breaking Bad” articles over the coming weeks. At least a third of these will relate to public services.

In that spirit, here are suggested titles (semi-serious) of PhD theses I suspect will appear at some point.

  •  Disparity in the attractiveness of female actresses to their male counterparts in on-screen relationships on US television
  • Cooking crystal meth: how accurate is the science portrayed in Breaking Bad
  • Antihero: the demise of Walter White
  • Normalising, pointless or somewhere in-between: why was Walt Jnr a disabled person?
  • Gateway drama: Breaking Bad and the glorification of the drugs trade
  • On location: the importance of Alberqurque and the state of New Mexico as the backdrop to Breaking Bad
  • Modern man or hunter-gatherer? The portrayal of masculinity in Breaking Bad
  • Editing techniques as a means for replicating the sensation of drugs: a case study
  • Recreational Vehicles (RVs) and their uses
  • How much is enough? Average lifetime costs for families after a spouse dies
  • Actions speak louder than words: the contribution of dialogue-free scenes to the dramatic effect of Breaking Bad
  • An analysis of Walter White’s physical appearance and its developed over time
  • Marie’s kleptomania as more than a pot development tool
  • Sexism, misogyny and Breaking Bad

Feel free to suggest your own in the comments below or on Twitter (@rich_w).

The Bourne Legacy

A rare trip to the cinema last night to watch the fourth installment of the Bourne series, The Bourne Legacy.

I call it the fourth installment when really it’s the first installment of the second series of the Bourne films. Where the first series, with Matt Damon as Bourne, had come to the end of its natural story – Bourne had by the end figured out who he was – so the latest film establishes a new “Bourne” in the shape of Aaron Cross (played well by Jeremy Renner).

The skeptic in me didn’t think there was much left to do with the Bourne concept; a fourth film was surely just about the money?

On the evidence of the film, I’d say not. The first 1.5 hours were excellent, particularly in establishing Cross as an altogether more human, emotional focus, and in the interplay with the timeframe and events of Ultimatum. The last 30 minutes were typical action-thriller spills and stunts and the film was much the worse for it, but I suspect overall Legacy would compare favourably to the first of the Damon-as-Bourne series, Identity.

It will be intriguing to see what story develops around Cross. I’m going to hedge my bets and suggest it will either be:

  • More back story on how Cross became Cross (though this was basically done with the first Bourne series)
  • Following Cross on a specific job after a kiss-and-make-up with the CIA
  • Matt Damon teaming up with Renner in a Bourne-Cross tag team.

My money would be on the last one, if the studio can work out a decent script and make the sums work.

Autism friendly cinema screenings

A couple of weeks ago I blogged on the work of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, campaigning about the poor access that disabled people encounter during something as taken for granted as going to the cinema.

As I noted at the time:

[I]t’s the things that non-disabled people wouldn’t even think of that often scupper the opportunities for disabled people to have the same opportunity to participate equally – in this case, going to the cinema.

In the spirit of sharing good news as well as bad, I was taken by this: Autism Friendly Cinema Screenings

Cinemas are to start staging monthly autism friendly screenings of top films. The move comes after the hugely successful summer pilot which saw more than 3,000 people affected by autism attend special morning screenings.

Sensory friendly screenings will now be taking place monthly in 55 cinemas.

Admittedly, the screenings – the result of a partnership between Dimensions and ODEON – will only be monthly. But at least the particular barriers faced by people with autism have been identified, and the organisations involved should be congratulated for their work on this.

For information: the next screening will be of Johnny English Reborn (during week commencing 14 October), followed by Arthur Christmas (during week commencing 18 November).

Hallowe’en Special: Blog Of Blood!

At the end of Mark Gatiss’ excellent three-part A History of Horror series, which ends, appropriately, with a review of the power and impact of John Carpenter’s first Hallowe’en film, released in 1978, Mark explains his decision to stop the series in the late seventies.

He says that whilst he feels there have been ‘standout single films’, too much modern horror seems like ‘more of the same fare, spiced up with pointless torture’. Mark ends by saying that he thinks this is partly due to growing older: as you do you ‘fear your own mortality’ and your tastes shift as a result, in the case of horror ‘towards ghosts and spookiness and away from blood and gore’.

Like Mark, I’m also a fan of horror films, and these comments caused me to reflect on why certain films in the genre feel groundbreaking despite of, or in some cases even because of, the extremity of the images they show, and why others seem gratuitous and almost entirely unnecessary. I was also reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s comments made in London at the start of this year: he said that ‘[violence in films] affects audiences in a big way. You know you’re watching a movie.’

There’s obviously a difference between horror films and films containing horrific things (and most of Tarantino’s films fall into the latter category), but for what it’s worth I think there are three key ingredients which mark out a brilliant horror film with violent imagery from a shoddy one.

First and foremost: realism. I can’t be the only person who’s had the pleasure of watching Peter Jackson’s 1992 film Braindead (yes, Peter Jackson the over-sized hobbit), which has levels of blood, guts and general goo that, if they were in any way realistic, would’ve prevented the film from ever being released. But as it is, Braindead is so over-the-top, silly and, crucially, funny, that not for a minute do you ever entertain the possibility that what you’re seeing is real. Also in this category: later George A. Romero zombie films, the Evil Dead series, and plenty more besides.

But of course realism does have a place in horror, so what does a realistic, violent, but really good horror film look like? This is where key ingredient number two comes in: impact. By the time we’ve got to the third in the Saw series (or, in fact, halfway through the first film) the increasingly horrible images are having no impact at all on our deadened brains.

Impact is usually a factor of the originality of the image, its unexpectedness, and the way suspense has been built (or not). So when, in one of Gatiss’ favourites the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first teenager is offed upon entering the house where the serial-killing redneck family live, the sequence is brilliantly effective because of the way suspense has been amped up and because of the gruesome originality of the style of the attack and, actually, for its brevity: it’s all over before you know it and you’re left wondering what exactly you’ve seen.

You can, however, have realism and real impact without having a good horror film: they can still be horrid rather than horrific. I think it’s when genuine nastiness enters a film – misogyny, explicit torture, sexual violence – and when there’s either a focus on that over everything else or no actual point to it beyond displaying the act itself (because we can!) that a horror film falls down.

There are, few and far between, exceptions that prove the rule: the scene of torture in Eden Lake is one of the examples of genuine nastiness which serves a purpose; in this case parodying the Daily Mail style demonisation of the nation’s youth.

At its best, to come back to the Tarantino quote, really good horror can – sometimes literally – jolt you out of the everyday and make you feel more alive. It’s when you find yourself wondering ‘what’s the point?’ that you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

Am I missing something crucial? Have I got it completely wrong? Let me know on Twitter @philblogs.

Post-bureaucratic age, the #BigSociety and Ace Ventura

There’s a moment in the first Ace Ventura (Pet Detective) film when Jim Carey’s character realises that the male sports star he’s been searching for is actually the same person as the female police chief he’s been battling with.

With disbelief, he cries to himself:

Ray Finkle is Lois Einhorn. Lois Einhorn is Ray Finkle. Oh my God.

The realisation makes him sick.

I’ve just had a similar experience.

For reading Ian Birrell’s account of his role on David Cameron’s speechwriting team, he asserts

So what is the big society? First of all, I must confess that I am no fan of the slightly fuzzy title… But it is better than its predecessor, the clunky “post-bureaucratic age”.

That is, the Big Society is the post-bureaucratic age. The post-bureaucratic age is the Big Society.

But such things are totally different in conception.

One is a (seeming) positive. The other is a negative – it defines itself by what it isn’t.

One relates to community and how everyone should take a role in it, irrespective of the state. The other starts with the premise of a state and the officials it contains, and moves away from it.

One is expansive in its scope and looks to what the future will be. The other narrows and limits in its scope and ties itself irrevocably to a past.

If – and it’s a big if – the Big Society is the post-bureaucratic age, then Cameron’s in more trouble with the idea than I thought. Because previously, I’d assumed the vision was sound and the details were lacking. This makes me think that the idea may be a bit lacking as well.

A short post that has absolutely nothing to do with football

Having provoked the eloquent tribalist ire of my fellow blogger, I think it’s time to leave posts about the kicking of a many-panelled spherical object to one side, at least until the World Cup begins (and I find that Stef is actually Dutch, or something).

As a salve for the still-bitter sting of the Robins’ defeat on Saturday, last night I went to see the film Bad Lieutenant, starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes and directed by Werner Herzog. It’s a loose remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara movie which had Harvey Keitel in the lead role.

My cinema of choice? The world’s poshest screening venue, the unintentionally hilariously-named ‘Everyman’ in Hampstead, where you sit in sofas surrounded by the most horrendously self-entitled, over-privileged, late-middle-aged audience you can imagine: grey-haired women with ‘funky’ trainers and men with faces weathered from too much time on yachts, their bellies swollen by excessive consumption of cheese. Still: once the lights go down you forget they’re there, and I must admit to enjoying the chance to drink a G&T at the cinema. And anyway the ODEON on Holloway Road wasn’t showing the film. Alright?

Back to the film: it’s slick, sexy, mildly deranged and atmospherically charged (almost literally: the director does a great job of evoking the muggy closeness of the Deep South, not least with an outstanding soundtrack). I wish other reviews hadn’t flagged up one particular reptile-related scene, because its shock and surreality would’ve been more effective if they hadn’t. There are brilliant turns amongst the supporting cast from such under-rated actors as Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler’s ‘Mom’) and, yes, Val Kilmer.

Many of the reviews rightly focus on Cage’s central performance, which is certainly mesmerising. For some reason I went into the film expecting a kind of Pacinoesque scenery-chewer of grandstanding and excess. But actually I think the secret of Cage’s success is that he keeps the physical and verbal tics and minor explosions to the bare minimum required, and delivers a portrayal that’s actually quite sad and often subdued. So go see it. Just not at the Everyman.