Look Beyond the Show: The Theatre of Politics

Berlusconi e la sua Italia

At the weekend, Silvio Burlosconi chose the occasion of holocaust memorial day to celebrate Benito Mussolini’s leadership of Italy. Though he took care to recognise the anti-semetic nature of Mussolini’s government on holocaust memorial day his words have horrified many. In his speech at an event in Milan to honour holocaust victims he claimed “The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well.”

Silvio Berlusconi is so much a caricature of himself that he must be doing it on purpose. It seems at times as if he is playing an elaborate game of chicken with the Italian people who lose each time they re-elect him. This latest statement, for example, is part of Berlusconi’s persistent campaign to rehabilitate Italy’s fascist past, including giving not only the direct heirs of Mussolini’s fascist officials but also Mussolini’s granddaughter government jobs. While professing to preside over a free democracy, he controls many of Italy’s media outlets. Accusations of mafia connections have refused to go away throughout his political career. Not even a fresh conviction for tax fraud and an impending trial for underage prostitution can completely kill the Italian people’s enthusiasm for Berlusconi. The prostitution charge in particular is still more likely to be greeted with a wink and a nod than the condemnation that such sleazy behaviour merits. Berlusconi presided over the longest government in Italian post-war history and has been elected three times. Now he may very well be elected again when Italy goes to the polls later this year, though he is reportedly banned by his party from the Prime Minister job this time. At times it is a struggle to believe he is real.

And yet Italy is not the only country to elect an incredibly wealthy, gaffe-prone man who is constantly in trouble with woman, who makes populist policies with very little intention to keep them and whose affable, bumbling exterior hides intelligence, incisive political savvy and hardline right wing politics. Current mayor of London Boris Johnson is little better than Berlusconi-lite – a version somewhat sanitised for the British electorate.

These men typify the way that politics relies on the media and the cult of personality that surrounds those that strive for political acclaim. Manipulation of the media has been the making of these men and it is easy to be caught up in the web they weave. The key to the success of both Boris and Berlusconi has been to persuade their respective electorates, without a shred of evidence, that they are eccentric but ultimately harmless, and somewhat rebellious, genuinely likeable everymen. The truth is, however, that they are not – they just play one on TV.

English: Boris Johnson holding a model red dou...

Boris Johnson’s media image has persuaded hundreds of students and young people who would usually reject Conservative establishment politicians, to vote for him. Crowds bayed their approval in Hyde Park when he called out Mitt Romney over his less than enthusiastic support for the London Olympics. Yet though he wrote an article in support of Obama in 2008, ideologically and personally he is much closer to Mitt Romney especially when referring to his £250,000 salary from the Telegraph as “chicken feed” and denying climate change.  Boris is seen as a rebel for daring to criticise his Tory masters but his politics prove him little more than an anti-European Tory of the old school. He regards closer financial integration with Europe as ‘morally wrong’. His London Mayoral office runs as an informal old boys club with Andrew Gilligan recently appointed Cycling Tsar. He is anti-tax, anti-benefits, and pro-big business. He rejected the mansion tax, heralded the confusing and problematic reform of Child Benefits and remains a close friend of Rupert Murdoch despite the criticisms of his part in phone hacking.

Part of Boris’ endearingly bumbling persona comes from his constant scrambling to cover up his ‘slip ups’ such as claiming gay marriage was akin to a man marrying a dog. Though these days he fervently denies racism and homophobia by appearing in Gay Pride parades and embracing Islam as a religion of peace, it is important to keep in mind that the BNP directed their supporters to give their second votes to Boris in the 2008 mayoral elections.

Every television appearance, no matter how strange and apparently gaffe-filled, is part of a media campaign and we must never forget that. When powerful, intelligent men choose to put themselves on show for our entertainment, hackles should rise as the chances are good that they have something to hide.

Boris and Berlusconi, enabled by television and print alike, do not present themselves in the guise of traditional politicians and that dulls our natural scepticism of people in power. Superficially, they are easy to like which is a breath of fresh air in politics. People instinctively want to vote for people they like so they make excuses not to lift the curtain. This instinct should be a warning sign. When you find yourself shying away from further investigation, that is when it is imperative to look beyond the show to the political machinations behind the scenes. Only then you will begin to get a true picture of the men in power.

Reactions to Berlusconi’s Defense of Mussolini + Bonus Boris Johnson Article Defending Berlusconi:

“… there is something about the Italian leader that makes me warm to him; and it would be sad if he were to lose next month in the Italian elections to one as spine-crackingly worthy as Romano Prodi.”

Django Unchained Review (Mostly Spoiler Free)

Django UnchainedDjango Unchained is Tarantino’s latest offering it is a reinvention of the Spaghetti Western (with no small reference to blaxsploitation) and for me among the best of his films to date.

The film worked so well for me because of the characters, which have more depth and development than most of Tarantino’s oeuvre. While there is no doubt they owe much to Western stock characters Schultz, Django and Candie step beyond the realm of Hollywood cypher and become characters in their own right. This is, in large part, aided by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. A lesser performance from any of these men might have left Django floundering under the weight of expectations and excessive violence. As it is all of them give the performance of their careers to date. DiCaprio’s turn as his first true villain, Monsieur Calvin Candie, is particularly arresting. He seems to completely inhabit the skin of the films most odious character and brings him to life with wonderful malice and complete cruelty. The story of DiCaprio cutting his hand during filming and continuing regardless is made thoroughly believable by his performance. The only flaw acting wise was Tarantino’s own pointless, ego stroking cameo.

Special praise ought to be given to Kerry Washington. She was remarkable and criminally underused as she was only on screen for about 15 minutes of a 2h45m film. I love her facial expressions – she can convey more with a look than many can in pages of dialogue. One of the enduring images of the film is her on a horse, smiling with her fingers in her ears waiting for the explosion.

Unlike other Tarantino movies, Django also isn’t too bogged down in how clever the cinematic references are. Though references litter the film they are additions and asides rather than the films raison d’etre. I have never seen a Spaghetti Western and my familiarisation with blaxsploitation begins and ends with Dolamite but I didn’t feel the lack of knowledge hampered me.

This film it is undoubtedly not for the faint of heart. Those who are squeamish or understandably disturbed by the consistent and frequent use of the n-word will want to give this a miss. The atrocities committed by white slave owners, though accurate are difficult to watch. For all this though, I didn’t find the violence or language gratuitous. It is threaded through the film, illustrating the extent to which careless violence against slaves and black people was a part of everyday life. People stop and stare in horror when they see Django riding on a horse, not when they allow dogs to tear a runaway slave apart. While other films about have been featured relatively bloodless depictions of slavery and choose to focus on the politics of it Django exposes the worst excesses of violence and horror that other films have tried to wallpaper over. Django’s revenge, when it finally comes, is all the more cathartic for it. If I were to take issue with anything it is the lack of support he receives from other slaves. The Candie Land slaves are curiously absent from his final explosive vengeance.

One of the successes of the film is its comedy. The dissonance felt when laughing at Stephen’s exaggerated mannerisms and comic obsequiousness only to be brought up short by the sight of two black slaves fighting to the death on the hardwood floors of a lavishly decorated billiards room at the behest of their masters who watch from the sofas calling encouragement and commands is intense and unsettling. It is more provocative than 2h45m of violence or even a mix of tragedy and violence. The humour reinforces the lack of compassion even more than the straightforward cruelty.

Tarantino’s film is unflinching in its characterisation of America’s antebellum Deep South. The film doesn’t even shy away from recognising the complicity of the Uncle Tom character, Stephen, whose position is much akin to favoured aging pet and whose loyalty to his masters overrides all else. If Tarantino occasionally revels too much in the extreme violence of his film it is not without cause – as Tarantino has pointed out, no film can be as monstrous as slavery itself was.

Do we owe it to people to come out?

English: Jodie Foster at the Academy Awards. P...Jodie Foster confirmed one of the worst kept secrets in Hollywood last Sunday when she came out at the Golden Globes. Her closet, like Anderson Cooper’s, was made of glass and her announcement surprised only those who didn’t care or deliberately didn’t ask. Many and more have commented on the speech, notably Bret Easton Ellis who seems to have problems with famous women these days if his attitude to Jodie Foster and Kathryn Bigelow is anything to go by.

I liked the speech in general but as much as I appreciate Jodie Foster’s plea for privacy her juxtaposition of privacy and coming out made me think about what we owe people where sexuality is concerned. Does Jodie Foster, or anyone, owe it to people to be out?

As Anderson Cooper pointed out in his coming out letter, ideally it would be no one’s business who he or any of the other celebrities that have come out has slept with. However our world is not ideal. While it is easy to suggest that with so much progress on gay rights the days when visibility was paramount are behind us that ignores the dark undercurrent of homophobia that taints so many people’s experience of coming out. There are many people who still suffer for their sexuality, not only in far flung locals like Saudi Arabia and Uganda but in our own back gardens as well. While gay marriages are busting out all over for many there are still families who shun their LGBT children – just look at Chaz Bono and Cher for a very public example. Homosexuality remains particularly taboo in sports, UK Football being the obvious example where there hasn’t been an openly gay man playing at the top level since Justin Fashnu who was driven to suicide.

There have been studies that show a beloved television character or star coming out can have the same affect on a persons views about homosexuality as if they were a close friend or relative.  The value of a celebrity coming out should not be underestimated by them or by us.

Is this too much pressure to put on LGBT actors, singers and musicians? Should being born gay mean you are forced to be a role model or to be an activist or a spokesperson?

I think people ought to be able to choose their own approach to their sexuality. Except where hypocrisy and politics are involved I would not condone outing anyone. Once out, no one will force you to be an activist or even political. On the other hand I think all those in the public eye should have a long hard think about their life choices if they decide to stay in the closet. One simple act of honesty and bravery could change someone’s life. I think everyone who has ever struggled with their sexuality is owed and owes that.

Concerning Jodie Foster, coming out and bonus Bret Easton Ellis being a sexist dick:

Review: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

English: Cory Doctorow in his office

English: Cory Doctorow in his office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have read prose by Cory Doctorow before. I find his writing for the guardian and BoingBoing to be, by enlarge, compelling, persuasive and thought provoking. I would recommend his articles whole heartedly even to those likely to disagree with him so when I got Pirate Cinema in the humble ebook bundle I was excited to finally try his fiction.

Unfortunately Pirate Cinema did not live up to my expectations.

The plot of Pirate Cinema, such as it is, follows Trent, or Cecil B DeVil as he will come to be known, as he runs away from home after his internet is cut off for illegal downloading and he finds himself homeless in London.

That seemed to have potential but here is where the problems begin. Everything from here on out is sanitised to the point that being homeless in London becomes a utopian dream world. There are no sexual predators, limited mental illness or violence and even the drug dealers are friendly. Trent/Cecil leads a charmed life that makes even the most potentially interesting exploits boring.

In London, Trent meets a man who teaches him the ways of squatting, dumpster diving and begging. His luck briefly runs out when the police bang on his door but before he’s had time to do more than wallow he meets cool friends who love his video remixes of fictional star Scott Colford. Then he gets a cool, clever girlfriend called 26, and he takes an interest in politics – mostly to get into her pants. Despite his apparently sophmoric understanding of the issues, the sheer stupendousness of his remixed videos propels him, above more qualified characters, including 26, to the position of leader of a campaign to repeal the “Theft of Intellectual Property” act. This act has given the government powers to lock up illegal downloaders all of whom are teenagers and none of whom are in the least bit nefarious. He is reunited with his incredibly intelligent sister who now looks up to him, is reconciled with his parents who finally understand the importance of what he’s doing and becomes friends with the granddaughter of Scott Colford. He is briefly arrested and put on trial but even this is of only limited inconvenience. In the end he even manages to get TIP overthrown with the power of his amazing Scott Colford remix and doesn’t seem too upset when his girlfriend announces her intention to move to Edinburgh.

Through out the book Trent/Cecil is relentlessly two dimensional and lacking in depth. Even the long copyright speeches he is forced to make sound contrived. Where ever he goes and whatever he does everyone he meets loves, admires and respects him but at no point could I understand why. The boy is not very bright, he’s self-centered, constantly whiny, obnoxiously hipster and has everything ridiculously easy. I now suspect that the reason he was so well loved is simple: he is the author-avatar. Though he spent a lot of the book moping or in some kind of turmoil, the challenges he faced were overcome far too easily and usually with no sacrifice or effort on his part. He can’t even think or feel for himself and relies constantly on characters around him that fed him their knowledge, convictions, passions, tolerance etc… without getting any recognition for their efforts. He doesn’t even have to spend time in jail when his whole movement is arrested.

The problem with Pirate Cinema is that it the whole thing is merely a flimsy front for a polemic. The plot is incidental and merely carries the semi-anarchist, anti-copyright, anti-corporate diatribe that addresses none of the subtleties or potential counter arguments.  From his other writing I guess Cory Doctorow to be a man of deep conviction who is nevertheless intelligent enough to grasp the intricacies of the copyright debate so why is it that none of it shows up in his book? Instead we have endless pages of sainted artists who only want to violate copyright to create and make no money because they are living the utopian dream vs the evil corporate copyright holders who want to hold the country to ransom for a fortune. It is unforgivably naive even in a book aimed at Young Adults. When the politics are portrayed as so black and white it’s no wonder perhaps that both plot and characters are so two dimensional that they function as little more than threadbare mouth pieces for Doctorow’s proselytizing.

The result is simplistic, preachy, shallow and painfully naive without even enough character or plot to rescue it.

Finishing this little book was such wretchedly hard work. I know I get no extra credit for making it to the end. No one will reward me for the effort. Life is too short for terrible books you may cry and you’d be right but my deep and almost instant dislike compelled me to keep reading. I felt like I had to give it a chance but I don’t think I have ever had to try so hard to finish a book in my life (excepting one or two particularly uninspired history text books). Being able to start my reread of A Dance with Dragons on the tube this morning was a blessed relief.