Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

My partner Paula is a big fan of Japanese anime and has introduced me to a strand of cinema I didn't previously know much about. The work of Hayao Miyazaki has impressed me in particular, with 'Spirited Away' and 'Howl's Moving Castle' now installed on the 100 personal faves list. Until I get round to blogging about either of them, I asked Paula to write about her personal favourite Miyazaki film. My thanks to her for the following article.

'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' was Hayao Miyazaki's second film but his first collaboration with Toshio Suzuki, who became his producer. The success of this film led to the foundation of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki went on to make Japanese box office successes 'Porco Rosso', 'Kiki's Delivery Service' and the Oscar-winning 'Spirited Away'. Other Studio Ghibli directors include Asio Takahata, Hiroyuki Morita and Hayao's son Goro Miyazaki.

'Nausicaa' seems to have been a template for future Studio Ghibli productions: already in evidence are Miyazaki's love of aircraft ('Porco Rosso', 'Laputa: Castle in the Sky', 'Howl's Moving Castle'), environmental concerns and the natural world ('Princess Mononoke', Asio Takahata's 'Pom Poko'), changing times/conflict/the threat of war ('Porco Rosso', Takahata's 'Grave of the Fireflies', 'Howl's Moving Castle'), young heroines forced to make a choice or at a crossroads in life ('Kiki's Delivery Service', Yoshifumi Kondo's 'Whisper of the Heart', 'Spirited Away', Morita's 'The Cat Returns'). Miyazaki also seems to have strong feminist sympathies and you can see this very clearly in nearly all of his films: 'Spirited Away' is the story of a young girl who needs to be strong and become more mature for the sake of her parents who have have been captured; in 'Howl's Moving Castle'; a young women who initially has very little confidence in herself and her appearance learns that she has a lot more strength of personality when she is cursed with a spell that ages her; the heroine of 'Kiki's Delivery Service' is a young witch who must spend a year away from home and discover her powers.

'Nausicaa' is set in the future after the collapse of the industrial world. The eponymous heroine is a young woman who lives in the Valley Of The Wind; the film details her special ability to communicate with insects and her harmony with the natural world, as well as her forays into the toxic jungle which is gradually covering the planet. Other kingdoms are on the verge of making the same mistakes that led to the seven days of fire (the collapse of the industrial world) because they fear the spread of the toxic jungle. Nausicaa and her people, however, have learned to live with the threat of it by using forces such as fire in moderation. Nausicaa and her people's way of life is threatened when the warlike Tolmekians attempt to force them to join in a campaign to destroy the toxic jungle.

The first thing that captured me was the opening credits: it tells the story of the seven days of fire in the form of a tapestry, a purely visual explanation of what happened before and during the seven days as well as the immediate aftermath.

What I love about the film is the fact that the industrial world has collapsed and Nausicaa's village is at one with nature: they are agricultural, working the land, using the power of the wind and fire but only in moderation ("too much fire and nothing will live"). I also love the character of Nausicaa herself, her ability to understand insects and the fact that she discovers why the toxic jungle is poisoned. She is a strong character who even the older villagers look up to. She doesn't fear the insects, she respects them. There is a lovely scene where some of the villagers want to kill an insect that has become injured and fallen into the Valley; out of fear, it is summoning other insects to rescue it. Whereas the villagers advocate killing it to prevent an onslaught of other insects, Nausicaa calmly uses her insect charm and manages to lead it away. I also love the three old men who serve as hostages after the Tolmekians invade - although they only have a couple of scenes, their comic banter and irrepressible good-humour is needed in a film with such serious themes.

The Giant Warriors - the hulking war machines that rampage during the seven days of fire - while terrifying, are also very poignant and make me think of a line from 'The Matrix': "we marvelled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI". In 'Nausicaa', humankind gives birth to the Giant Warriors which as a result wreak destruction upon the planet.

The film is relevant to today's society. The Tolmekians are representative of interventionist governments who mistakenly believe that heavy-handed militarism is a solution, when it fact in makes the situation worse.

Despite heavy themes and concerns, the film is beautiful: Miyazaki conjures visual poetry in Nausicaa's relationship with the natural world. The tapestry in the opening credits is a work of art, not just depicting the seven days of fire, but foretelling a legend that, by the end of the film, is fulfilled - a symbol of hope from the outset. Even the insects, who can be destructive and aggressive when needed, are shown as wise and very protective of each other. The music, too, is very beautiful, Joe Hisaishi's score perfectly complementing the images and the story.

The animation - like all Studio Ghibli - is striking and very detailed; although it doesn't have the bright colours of 'Porco Rosso', it suits the themes and concerns of the film.

In short, 'Nausicaa' has a serious concept but is also heart-warming, especially the ending - not a happily-ever-after ending, but a hopeful one.

by Paula Harrison

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Foreign Correspondent

With the exception of Powell and Pressburger's unparalleled run of wartime classics, most propaganda films are blunt and tiresome. For example Jacques Tourneur's 'Days of Glory', wherein the entire script is a cut-and-paste sloganeering job with all the grim humourlessness and sledgehammer-like heavy-handedness of a Soviet newsreel expanded to feature length.

Fortunately, Powell's fellow countryman Alfred Hitchcock (in one of his early American productions) weighed in with one of the better examples. 'Foreign Correspondent' opens in playful fashion - quirky humour being a mainstay of Hitch's style - with newspaper boss Mr Powers (Harry Davenport) bemoaning the lackadaisical efforts of his London correspondent Stebbins (Robert Benchley). Determining to set loose a more traditional, not to mention unorthodox, newshound-stylee journo onto the European scene, he gives crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) a boat ticket and a per diem and sends him abroad. He also convinces him to adopt the more debonair sounding nom de plume Huntley Haverstock.

Thus the (mostly comedic) first act: Jones/Haverstock fails to make a big impression on the European scene (there's a tiresome-after-it's-happened-twice running gag about him losing his bowler hat); banters with Stebbins, a man so resignedly gloomy he makes Eeyore look exuberant; wangles an ad hoc interview with respected peace campaigner Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), only for the old man to spout definitely-not-front-page-worthy platitudes about feeding the birds in the park; and enters into a spiky courtship with Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), whose father Stephen (Herbert Marshall) is a colleague of Van Meer's. Only the introduction of the incomparably smooth George Sanders as Carol's sometime companion Scott ffolliott ("How does that work?" Haverstock asks of the iconoclastic spelling; "do you pronounce it like a stutter or just a f?") staves off inertia.

Then, twenty minutes in, Hitch delivers the first of several inspired set-pieces: an assassination on the steps of a government building, rain bucketing down, a bravura overhead shot melding the journos and politicos and just plain bystanders into an identity-disguising crowd of identical black umbrellas through which the killer escapes. Inspired set-piece #2 sees Haverstock and ffoillott give chase, Hitch zipping his audience from crowded, rain-drenched city streets to the flatlands of the Dutch countryside within the blink of an eye. With only the briefest pause for breath (and for Haverstock to realise that the sails of a nearby windmill are turning against the wind), we're into inspired set-piece #3.

Ah, the windmill sequence. Fifteen minutes that showcase the best of Hitchcock: suspense, mystery, MacGuffins, dark humour and curveball narrative developments - sleight of hand film-making that still impresses nearly seventy years down the line.

Hitch has a few more goodies in store for the rest of the film - Haverstock's hotel rooftop escape from two heavies; another attempt on his life, this time atop a cathedral; ffolliott playing a tense game of bluff with a double agent; and a sustained sequence involving a flying boat, an enemy destroyer and a perilous descent into dangerous waters - but it's the business in the windmill that makes 'Foreign Correspondent' more than just a good espionage thriller; that lifes it above the tub-thumping exigencies of a mere propaganda film.

Having said that, the propagandist elements are certainly immediate. Made in 1940, it captures the tense days leading up to Britain's declaration on war against Hitler's Germany just a year earlier. Its MacGuffin, whilst one of the most tenuous in the career of a director who specialised in tenuous MacGuffins, is the unwritten clause in a peace treaty, committed to memory by Van Meer. While the exact nature of this clause is never made clear, the very idea of Nazi forces striking against even the possibility of peace is a powerful propagandist concept. As is Haverstock's concluding monologue. Remaining in London at the end of the film, even though the capital is ravaged by bomber raids, he makes a live radio broadcast to America, sending out this appeal even as the air-raid sirens wail and the bombs begin to fall:

Haverstock: Hello, America. I've been watching a part of the world being blown to pieces. A part of the world as nice as Vermont and Ohio and Virginia and California and Illinois lies ripped up and bleeding like a steer in a slaughterhouse. I've seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends. I've seen women -
Radio producer: It's a raid; we shall have to postpone the broadcast.
Haverstock: Postpone nothing! Let's go on as long as we can ... I can't read the rest of the speech I had because the lights have gone out, so I'll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear isn't static. It's death - coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don't tune me out. Hang on a while. This is a big story and you're part of it. It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come, as if the lights were all out everywhere - except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America. Hang on to your lights: they're the only lights left in the world.

Subtle? Hardly.

Effective? Hell, yes!

Monday, May 26, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: A Matter of Life and Death

There are personal faves and there are personal faves. If you asked me to fillet the list of 100 films and extract just ten - ten movies to represent what is truly essential to me in cinema - Powell and Pressburger's 'A Matter of Life and Death' would be one of the first, if not the first, I reached for.

I absolutely, completely, wholeheartedly bloody love this film.

The opening balances the metaphysical with the human element: the camera pans through the depths of space. "This is the universe," intones an unseen narrator, his voice almost the drone of a lecturer; "big, isn't it?" A whistlestop tour of nebula clusters and supernovas ends up at a blue-and-green globe, turning steadily, reassuringly on its axis. The camera swoops down, through fog; somewhere below, there is a glowing fiery mass. The narrator's voice changes, becomes more intense: "It's night over Europe, the night of 2nd May 1945. That point of fire is a burning city. It had a thousand-bomber raid an hour ago." Radio static, dashes of morse code, klaxons - harsh noises now fill the soundtrack: the sounds of the mid-twentieth century. The sounds of a world at war. A snippet of Churchill's immortal speech - "this was their finest hour" - is buried among them.

Every time I watch 'A Matter of Life and Death' - and I have honestly lost count of how many times I've seen it - the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention by this point ... and we're only a couple of minutes into the film.

What happens next slays me. Every time.

A voice floats out of the night, that of a young woman: June (Kim Hunter), an American WAAF stationed at a coastal base in England. She is receiving, over the radio, the last words of Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven). Carter is certain they'll be his last words: the skipper of a shot-to-ribbons Lancaster bomber, his crew have bailed out on his orders, his radio operator is dead, one engine is blazing uncontrollably, and he's about bail out himself ...

Carter: ... but there's a catch. I've got no parachute ... Don't be afraid, June. It's quite simple: we've had it, and I'd rather jump than fry. After the first thousand feet, what's the difference? ... June, are you pretty?
June: Not bad, I -
Carter: Can you hear me as well as I hear you?
June: Yes.
Carter: Good. You've got a good voice. You've got guts, too. I was lucky to get you. It's funny, I've known dozens of girls, been in love with some of them, but an American girl who I've never met and never will, will hear my last words.
June: Perhaps we can do something, let me report it, Peter.
Carter: No, no-one can help. Only you. Let me do this is my own way. I want to be alone with you, June. Where were you born?
June: Boston.
Carter: Mass?
June: Yes.
Carter: There's a place to be born! History was made there. Are you in love with anybody? No! No, don't answer that.
June: I could love a man like you, Peter.
Carter: I love you, June; you're life and I'm leaving you.

I love you, June; you're life and I'm leaving you. I get tears in my eyes at this point. Every time. I sincerely believe that if you don't at least have a lump in your throat during this sequence, it can be taken as scientific proof that you're simply not human.

So: Peter Carter plummets from his aircraft. Washed up on the beach the next morning, he's convinced he is dead and in Heaven, an impression strengthened during a pastoral encounter with a shepherd boy surrounded by animals. Then a Mosquito roars overhead and Carter realises that he's alive. He spots a woman in WAAF uniform cycling along the beach and goes hoving off after her to get directions. She is, of course, June. Neither can understand why Carter is still alive, but this mystery is soon eclipsed as they fall in love.

Which is nice. But not for Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), the angel charged with collecting Peter Carter's soul for onward transmission to Heaven*. Up before a celestial tribunal to account for his ineptitude, Conductor 71 blames "your ridiculous English weather". He is instructed to visit Earth, explain the situation to Carter and conduct him to the afterlife. Carter, with good reason, refuses. "I'm in an entirely different position," he explains, demanding a right to appeal. Conductor 71 threatens to use force. "You could always try," Carter laughingly responds, one of the great put-downs in cinema. When Conductor 71 disappears, Carter is struck by a blinding headache and almost passes out. June, worried that he's hallucinating, arranges for him to see her friend, village doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey).

Reeves and Carter form an ersatz father-son relationship (Carter's biological father died in the First World War) which plays out in counterpoint to the romantic relationship between Carter and June. Meanwhile, Carter receives subsequent visits from Conductor 71, informing him that he has been allowed to appeal and can appoint anyone who has ever lived as his defending counsel. He is cautioned that the case for the prosecution is being headed by Abraham Farland (Daniel Massey), the first American killed by a British bullet in the war of independence and therefore ineffably prejudiced against all Englishmen.

While Carter frets over his indecision in appointing counsel, and worries that Farland's case will outweigh his, Reeves arrives at a diagnosis and determines that the key to Carter's condition is the winning or losing of his case. Reeves convinces a practiced neurosurgeon that the complex operation necessary to save Carter must occur immediately.

The operation is scheduled for that very evening. A storm lashes the village. The ambulance is delayed. Reeves clambers onto his motorcycle and tears off into the night to locate the medicos. Losing control of his machine, he swerves in front of the ambulance and is killed outright. Conducted to Heaven by 'Pilgrim's Progress' scribe John Bunyan, he is given over to the care of Conductor 71 who tells him Carter has requested Reeves represent him at the court of Heaven. Reeves agrees and goes head-to-head against the rabidly anti-Anglo Farlane to plead Carter's right to live and to love.

'A Matter of Life and Death' was the eighth and last of Powell and Pressburger's collaborations to be made during the wartime and funded by the Ministry of Information as a propaganda film. Their first film together, 'The Spy in Black' was a why-we-need-to-be-in-the-war film; '49th Parallel' was a why-the-Americans-need-to-be-in-the-war film; 'A Canterbury Tale' was an importance-of-the-home-front film. 'A Matter of Life and Death' was pitched as a film designed to reconcile the differences between English and American allies. By the time Powell and Pressburger completed it, the war was effectively over, not that this makes an iota of difference.

Powell and Pressburger took the propaganda film and made it art, in a way that perhaps only Hitchcock's 'Foreign Correspondent' equals (and I think 'Foreign Correspondent' will be the next film I write about on The Agitation of the Mind).

Let's pause to define art. Here's my definition (feel free to agree, disagree or leave comments): a true work of art functions, equally and simultaneously, on an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional level, the cumulative effect being the betterment of those who experience it.

Let's take these one at a time:

1) Aesthetic: the film is utterly gorgeous to look at. Powell entrusted the cinematography - ranging from the glorious technicolor of the here-and-now to the austere black-and-white of the Heaven scenes - to genius-in-waiting Jack Cardiff. It was his first gig as DoP. Cardiff rose to the challenge admirably and transformed P&P's concept into inspired actuality.

2) Intellectual: as fanciful as some of the conceits in 'A Matter of Life and Death' are, the screenplay never entirely veers into fantasy. The closest contemporary equivalent I can find is Guillermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth', in which the boundaries between the real world and a supposedly imagined one are transgressed at one point only and even then in such a manner that enough ambiguity remains that the viewer can take the film as reality or a fantasy ... and it still function as powerfully given either reading.

3) Emotional: it's about a man who defies Heaven to be with the woman he loves. 'Nuff said.

4) The betterment of those who experience it: I've never met anyone who avowed a deep affection for 'A Matter of Life and Death' who didn't believe in love, who didn't appreciate cinema.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed one of the most unique film-making partnerships. 'A Matter of Life and Death', in my opinion anyway, represents their highest achievement. It does everything cinema should do, everything art should do, and speaks to the heart, the mind and the soul with equal intensity and sincerity.

*In the interests of context, I should point out that I'm an atheist. I do not believe in Heaven or life after death. As regards 'A Matter of Life and Death', however, this matters not one jot. It's a beautiful, life-affirming work of film art and, as far as I'm concerned, that's all that matters.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The House with Laughing Windows

Painter Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is invited to a church in a run-down village in Italy's Po Valley to restore a fresco by the late Legnani, a local artist notorious for his degenerate lifestyle and descent into madness. The fresco depicts, in gruesome detail, the suffering of St Sebastian, and a graphic sepia-toned opening credits sequence suggests that it might have been painted more from life than from historical record.

Solmi (Bob Tonelli), the nattily dressed dwarf who serves as the mayor, views it as a significant work of art destined to put his town on the map; it is at the recommendation of Antonio (Guilio Pizzirani), a former colleague of Stefano's sojourning in the country during his recuperation from a nervous breakdown, that he engages Stefano to undertake the work.

Stefano arrives, however, to find Antonio spooked and jittery, dropping allusions to a horrific story behind Legnani's painting and rambling about a "house with laughing windows". Seemingly mistrustful of the townsfolk, he promptly clams up, promising to discuss things privately with Stefano later. Before this conversation can occur, Antonio is killed. The local police write it off as a suicide. Meanwhile, Stefano has begun receiving phone calls warning him away from the fresco; encouraging him to leave town.

Dedication to the work and a developing romance with fellow outsider Francesa (Francesca Marciano) - a schoolteacher transferred there from another town - persuade him to stay. When he is asked to leave his hotel room to make room for a large tour group - a reason he quickly discovers is a lie - he is offered a room by Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), an edgy young man who helps out at the church, at his mother's house: a rambling old building in the middle of nowhere.

Lidio isn't the only strange character Stefano meets: all of the villagers seem to be in on something dark and unspoken, from the police chief to the mayor's alcoholic driver Coppola (Gianni Cavina). Imagine the pastoral milieu of the Sicily-based scenes in 'The Godfather' repopulated with the residents of 'Twin Peaks', with perhaps a dash - in its final stretch - of 'The Wicker Man'; such is the atmosphere of Pupi Avati's slow-burn giallo 'The House with Laughing Windows'.

Disturbed by noises from the upper storeys when the only other resident is Lidio's bed-ridden mother, Stefano comes to the painfully slow conclusion that something is amiss.

Painfully slow is a criticism frequently levelled at the film as a whole, along with bland hero and weak ending. And I have to agree, to a greater or lesser degree, with all three brickbats. However ... the slow pacing is offset by the creepy atmosphere Avati conjures from the first frame and sustains effortlessly. Cinematography and canny choice of locations give the film a striking visual quality. There are any number of shots that could be clipped from the film as a single frame, enlarged, framed and hung on your wall as a piece of art, utterly compelling images even if divested of a narrative context.

The other criticisms aren't so easy to get round. Stefano ranks as one of the least pro-active characters in cinema history, wandering through the film like a narcoleptic. Capolicchio's performance doesn't help - you'd have to spend a week at a lumber yard to encounter something more wooden. The much-maligned ending, whilst conceptually appropriate, is arrived at by two plot devices that are clumsy at best and embarrassing at worst. They bely the 'artistic' quality Avati seems to be striving for.

'The House with Laughing Windows' (or 'La Casa dalla finestre che ridondo', to quote its indigenous title) thus occupies an uneasy middle ground between art film and genre film. The script leaves much unanswered, and while some of the resulting ambiguity is effective, the overall feeling is one of being sold ever slightly short. Still, it remains genuinely unsettling, and made yours truly jump more than once; Avati's direction is often stylish without being intrusive; it's not your typical giallo and is worth seeking out as one of the more cerebral examples of the genre; and the title's a belter.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Who Saw Her Die?

With Daniel Craig established as a Bond to rival Sean Connery courtesy of 'Casino Royale', the only certainty nowadays in any poll is who would come bottom of the list: George Lazenby.

In all fairness, it's hardly his fault. A former male model, whose only previous acting experience had been a small role in the low budget spy spoof 'Espionage in Tangiers' - that the producers plucked him from nowhere and expected him to fill Connery's shoes was a spectacular bit of bad judgement, one compounded by further hamstringing him with a script as wet as an out-of-season weekend in Bognor Regis and pitifully lacking in the ruthless do-or-die ethos that characterises the best instalments of the franchise.

But I digress.

I have little interest in writing about 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'; what is worth mentioning, however, is what George did next. He followed his solo Bond appearance with a lead role in Cy Endfield's largely forgotten mercenary drama 'Universal Soldier' (nothing to do with the Dolph Lundgren/Jean-Claude van Damme flick), after which he found himself negotiating the dank, dangerous, non-tourist-promoted backwaters of Venice in Aldo Lado's dark and compelling giallo 'Who Saw Her Die?'

Lazenby plays Franco Serpieri, a sculptor living in Venice whose desultory affair with a local woman barely masks with pain of his estrangement from his wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg). Dishevelled, gaunt (Lazenby lost weight for the role), at odds with the cliquey society of art dealers and collectors, personified by his patron Serafian (Adolfo Celli - star of an earlier Bond film, 'Thunderball'), upon whom his livelihood depends, Serpieri's malaise is temporarily relieved by a visit from his vivacious young daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi).

Temporarily, because red-headed Roberta falls foul of a black-gloved murderer a third of the way into the film and Serpieri, reconciled with Elizabeth through the harshest of tragedies, becomes obsessed with finding her killer.

At which point I need to stop talking about Lazenby. His physical transformation for the role is remarkable - coming a scant three years after 'OHMSS', he's almost unrecognisable: gone, the chiselled good looks that secured his erstwhile modelling profession, gone the coiffured, clean-shaven image; the Lazenby of 'Who Saw Her Die?' is an emaciated scruff of the first order - but his range as an actor is limited. Which is more than can be said for Strindberg. Often cast in gialli purely for her striking, high-cheek-boned looks, she has seldom been saddled with a more useless eye-candy/set-dressing/"woman in peril" role than here. (You can imagine Lado's direction: "Anita, look glacial ... Anita, look scared ... Anita, scream like you've never screamed before.")

I should mention instead Celli's effortless portrayal of Serafian as a sybarite/sensualist/degenerate (delete according to personal aesthetics), fine work from a wonderfully expressive actor who, in this film particularly, comes across as a Peter Ustinov gone bad. He's great; his scenes bootstrap the film up to a higher level.

But there's two people who really turn 'Who Saw Her Die?' into, if not a top-flight, then certainly an inspired giallo.

One is director Aldo Lado. Not just the only director, to the best of my knowledge, who first name and surname are an anagram of each other, he also worked as assistant director to Bertolucci on 'The Conformist'. Unjustly overlooked, Lado's contributions to the giallo are the equal of anything Bava achieved, and his capacity for spatial dislocation/disorientation and sustained setpieces (notably a tense cat-and-mouse sequence which takes in a fog-wreathed harbour and an abandoned factory) come close to the prowling, subjective camerawork of Argento at his best.

And speaking of those two maestros: remember Nicoletta Elmi, the creepy kid in Bava's 'A Bay of Blood' and the even creepier kid in Argento's 'Deep Red'? Here she plays a decidedly non-creepy kid. An actually quite adorable kid. Just eight years old when she starred in 'Who Saw Her Die?', Elmi acts everyone offscreen. The first act of the film, in which the killer makes two failed attempts at abducting Roberta before finally - fatally - succeeding, rises above the genre checklist it could easily have become. It's the doomed Roberta you remember more than the driven Serpieri. It's her terrible vulnerability, her achingly poignant innocence, than define the film, long after the shoal of red herrings have been forgotten and the almost awkwardly abrupt ending has ceased to bother the casual viewer.

Nicoletta Elmi has acted in only a handful of films and TV shows.An early, very small role, was in Visconti's masterpiece 'Death in Venice'; a decade and a half later, she proved the only good thing in Lamberto Bava's so-bad-it-was-almost-good-but-ultimately-was-just-plain-bloody-awful 'Demons'. In her mid-twenties, she turned her back on acting and studied medicine. A loss to cinema, but I applaud her humanity.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

The Goons might belong to my parents' generation, but in my humble opinion their humour is more incisive, subversive and downright hilarious than anything that has crawled out from under the rock marked 'comedy' in the last three decades.

So when Stephen Hopkins's 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' opened with a splendid evocation of BBC radio comedy circa 'The Goon Show' - Bluebottle, Bloodknock and Neddie Seagoon springing to life in nostalgic sepia - I was immediately won over. And from thereon in, the film just got better.

Two hours and ten minutes later I found myself wondering why every review I'd read had been sniffy and snidely critical. Then I realised. Talk about a collective example of missing the point. The accepted critical line is that Hopkins's film fails because it gives us no impression of who the real Peter Sellers was.

That's exactly the point! Adapted from Roger Lewis's shelf-breaking biography (1,200 pages!!), the film is a character study of a man whose personality was entirely dictated by the character he happened to be playing at any given moment. In the title role, Geoffrey Rush gives a career best performance, inhabiting Sellers's onscreen roles - Closeau, Chance Gardner, the militaristic triumrvirate at the heart of 'Dr Strangelove' - with an under-the-skin conviction, whilst showing Sellers fumbling between roles, unsure of who he is, who he should be and what his fans, family and children want of him. It's a tour de force of screen acting.

He is ably supported by the wonderful Emily Watson, the emotional heart of the movie as Sellers's first wife Anne; Charlize Theron, who conjures Britt Ekland so perfectly that you'll be hard pressed to tell the two actresses apart; Miriam Margoyles, finding the human element in what could easily have been a demonic performance as Sellers's obsessive, manipulative mother; Peter Vaughan in one of his rare sympathetic turns as Sellers's overlooked father; and John Lithgow in his best turn for ages as director Blake Edwards.

Hopkins directs with wit and humour, conjuring the aesthetic of the Sixties (Sellers's halcyon days as a screen actor) in a series of playful vignettes. The scene where Sellers visits a car showroom, the oleaginous salesman (step forward Mackenzie Crook, Gareth in 'The Office') describing the vehicles in perversely feminine terms; before Sellers's eyes, the cars morph into archetypal Sixties dollybirds. An entire saucy seaside-postcard strand of British cinema is evoked within a few seconds.

The denouement, in which Sellers brings his dream project - 'Being There' - to fruition is incredibly poignant, the actor revelling in finally being able to portray a character who has no personality at all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Architect

I'd had it on good authority that 'My Architect' was a better film than 'Sketches of Frank Gehry', so I bumped it to the top of my Amazon DVD rental list.

I wasn't misinformed.

'My Architect' isn't just a documentary about an architect: it's a detective story, a family drama, an investigation of the enigmatic, a celebration of the eccentric. It's a film of great beauty, and incredibly moving.

Nathaniel Kahn opens the film with a contemporaneous newspaper report of his father, architect Louis I. Kahn's death from a heart attack at Pennsylvania Station in 1973. The article states that he is survived by his wife and daughter. "When I first read that obituary, I must admit that it was looking for my own name," he opines; "I was his child, too. His only son." Making no bones about his father's extra-marital activities, Nathaniel reveals that Louis flitted between three families. But there is no judgementalism here: Nathaniel's film is driven by a genuine and poignant desire to find out more, to become closer to, a man who died when he was just eleven.

(A brief digression: being English, I tend to refer to people by their surname in these reviews [ie. Kinski responds well to Herzog's direction, never mind that they almost killed each other]; here, however, "Kahn" could refer to either director/son/narrator or architect/father/subject, which leaves me the option of turgidly alternating between L. Kahn and N. Kahn, or using first names. The latter, while familiar, is easier.)

Nathaniel tracks down people who commissioned, worked with - or, in the case of Edmund Bacon, opposed - his father. Bacon was the driving force behind the redevelopement of downtown Philadelphia in the 50s and 60s. Nathaniel interviews him, a crotchety and opinionated old man, in the middle of a Philadelphian sidewalk. Bacon trashes Louis's conceptions for the re-imagined city, including circular car parks on the outskirts of the city centre to encourage pedestrianism. Demonstrating an incredible degree of patience and good grace for a man forced to listen to his father being slagged off, Nathaniel asks, "Ultimately, isn't it two strong men, two strong egos, that don't get along?"
"Godammit, no!" Bacon yells, balling one hand into a fist and pounding the palm of the other hand. "It's absolutely pure damn ignorance on Lou's part. The same damn ignorance that the American Institute of Architects is based on now ... You simply have not understood a word I've said."

In one respect, this is a phlegmy-voiced old guy throwing his toys out of the pram. In another, it's the documentary film's equivalent of "Funny how?" in 'Goodfellas' or "You fairy, you company man" in 'Glengarry Glen Ross', a moment of such fuck-you intensity that you only need to see it once and your jaw drops as it burns itself into your cultural memory.

At the other end of the spectrum there's Nathaniel's visit to Robert Austin Boudreau, captain and conductor of the American Wind Symphony Barge, an astounding nautical creation which is half boat half concert stage. A vessel that takes classical music to any venue it can moor at. Initially somewhat truculent, Boudreau's reaction on learning that Nathaniel is Louis's son is one of the most emotional onscreen moments I've seen in a long time. "I saw you at the wake," Boudreau recollects, visibly affected. "I saw you with your mother." He stumbles forward to hug Nathaniel. "You are Lou."

And then there's the buildings themselves ... oh, sweet lord, the buildings. Architecture as art. Form, structure and the play of light achieving harmony. Can a building be described as spiritual, as transcendental? On the basis of Louis's work, I'd say yes. Certainly Nathaniel is justified in using Beethoven's Ninth on the soundtrack for the Kimbell Art Museum sequence. His unbridled delight at his father's genius is as it should be, but it's also tempered by a remarkable scene, earlier on, where he visits the Richards Medical Research Building (Louis's only major project in Philadelphia) and admits to a sense of disappointment. Moreover, interviews with staff reveal that it's not a great place to work.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, however, is a truly breathtaking creation, presenting each researcher who is based there "with a study with an unrestricted view of the Pacific Ocean".

The last quarter of the documentary, comprising two sections entitled "Family Matters" and "The End of the Journey", integrate as fully as possible with Louis Kahn the man - his juggling of three families, his absolute dedication to his work; a muted but touching reunion between Nathaniel and his stepsisters; an assessment of Louis's legacy and the deeply held beliefs that formed it. Here we have the beating, aching heart of the film (the testimonies of Indian architects B.V. Doshi and Shamsul Wares, in respect of the Indian Institute of Management and the Capital of Bangladesh, are emotional suckerpunches); this is the human element which makes 'My Architect' essential viewing, even if your interest in buildings and their design is non-existent.

Monday, May 12, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: Bowling for Columbine

Ten jaw-dropping moments from 'Bowling for Columbine':

1) A bank handing out free guns as an incentive to open an account.

2) Michael Moore teaming up with two Columbine survivors who still have K-Mart-sold ammunition embedded in them to petition K-Mart against selling ammunition. The retail chain acts promptly and decisively, promising a phasing out of all ammo sales within 90 days. Slainte, Mr Moore.

3) Moore interviewing Terry McVeigh, brother of convicted Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh; the gentlemen proves a seriously maladjusted individual.

4) Goth bad boy Marilyn Manson providing the most insightful, intelligent and eloquent interview in the entire film. When asked what he would say to the survivors of the Columbine massacre, he replies unhesitatingly, "Not a word. I'd have listened to what they had to say. And that's what nobody's been doing."

5) Moore's deconstruction of the government-manipulated, media-driven culture of fear: reality cop shows on which the suspects are invariably black; the "if it bleeds, it leads" attitude of TV newsmen.

6) The "What A Wonderful World" archive footage montage, culminating in the second plane striking the tower.

7) The NRA and the KKK: that historical connection in full. The first Klan,
established in 1866 by Confederate veterans with the stated aim of restoring white supremacy to America, was effectively outlawed with the passing the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Guess which year the NRA was founded? Coindence? You decide.

8) The NRA holding a rally in Colorado, just two weeks after the Columbine shootings, OAP gun-worshipper and celebrity frontman Charlton Heston tactlessly hefting a rifle and shouting "From my cold dead hands." Knob. (Moore's critics have stated that this rally was planned years in advance. As Bill Hicks would have said, I have four questions: yeah? and? so? what? Cancel the fucking thing. Have some sensitivity. If a major Hollywood studio can postpone the UK release of 'Gone Baby Gone' because of possible similarities to the Madeleine McCann case, then surely the NRA can pull out of a rally after a high school shooting that leaves thirteen dead.)

9) The NRA then topping this by holding a rally in Michigan, shortly after a six-year old boy in Moore's home town of Flint took a handgun to school and shot six-year old Kayla Rowland with it. (Moore's critics use the same argument here. The same counter-argument applies.)

10) OAP gun-worshipper and NRA celebrity frontman Charlton Heston agreeing to an interview with Moore at the end of the film, only to come across as an even bigger knob than he did in the archive footage and a man terminally in denial.*

And two other 'Bowling for Columbine'-connected jaw-dropping moments:

1) Moore using his acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Oscar to lambast Dubya. "Shame on you, Mr President. Shame on you." So say we all.

2) Yours truly reading user comments on IMDb, astounded at how many commentors accuse Moore of being manipulative, a liar, or a propagandist. As if twelve students and a teacher never died, and a further twenty-three were never injured, at Columbine. As if six-year-old Kayla Rowland wasn't killed by a gun in Flint. It puts me in mind of Bill Hicks's comment on the gun-loving psyche of the American public: "But of course there's no connection between having a gun and shooting someone with it and not having a gun and not shooting someone, and you'd be a fool and a communist to make one."

It is currently illegal, in 13 countries, to advocate the opinion that the Holocaust never took place. Moore's detractors, who think that gun ownership is a good thing, have the same mentality as Holocaust deniers. 'Bowling for Columbine' throws their own refletion back at them. No wonder they don't like it.

*You may have noticed that this entry is demonstrably not dedicated to the memory of Charlton Heston.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Thoughts on how to make a documentary film:

Either ...

1) Pick a powerful, thought-provoking, contentious subject (gun culture in 'Bowling for Columbine'*, Tony Blair as a lying s.o.b. and lapdog of Satan in 'Taking Liberties', George Bush as same in 'Taxi to the Dark Side');

or ...

2) Be utterly objective.

Which brings us to 'Sketches of Frank Gehry', in which Sidney Pollack makes a documentary about his mate. Who's an architect ...

No, wait.

I know I just used the words "documentary" and "architect" in close proximity, but bear with me. I know also that 'Sketches of Frank Gehry' isn't going to have mass appeal, and I should make full disclosure at this point: a friend of long-standing is an architect - I've occasionally assisted him with measured surveys and specifications. Without his influence, I doubt I would have rented this film.

I should also make full admission: 'Sketches of Frank Gehry' is a flawed documentary, even if you do have an interest in architecture (I have it on good authority that Nathaniel Kahn's 'My Architect' is a much better piece of work), and yet I enjoyed it for one all-important reason. So let me quickly point out the flaws -

*Pollack states at the beginning of the film that (a) he's never made a documentary before and (b) how do you deal with the three-dimensional (ie, buildings) when your medium is two-dimension (the cinema screen). This sense of awkwardness typifies the film.

*The choice of interviewees favours artists and celebrities (Bob Geldof, Dennis Hopper, a dressing-gown-clad Julian Schnabel) over fellow professionals (the opinions of civil engineers tasked with realising Gehry's designs would have been interesting).

*Most of the interviewees blatantly fawn, with only critic Hal Foster providing an alternative perspective.

- and just say this:

Frank Gehry has designed some of the most striking, original and controversial buildings of the last half century ... and Sidney Pollack, in simply allowing his camera to glide over, in and around them, has made them cinematic.

*Up next in the personal faves project.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Little Children

Two strong central female roles are at the heart of ‘Little Children’, Todd Field's follow-up to the acclaimed ‘In the Bedroom’. Kate Winslet plays Sarah, a graduate stuck in an airless marriage to a never-home businessman with an addiction to internet porn. Jennifer Connelly, as Kathy, is Sarah’s opposite: a successful documentarist trying to persuade her layabout husband, Brad (Patrick Wilson), to sit the bar exam and become a lawyer.

Sarah meets Brad at the local playground, their days spent caring for their offspring and growing further apart from their partners. Before the eyes of a clique of neighbour mothers - who occupy their time with reading groups and gossip - they begin a tentative friendship. Then, secretly, a passionate affair.

Meanwhile, Brad’s friend Larry (Noah Emmerich) stirs up vigilante action against Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), newly returned to the neighbourhood after serving time for exposing himself to a minor. The sultry summer days blister into a heatwave; feelings run high; jealousies, violence and recriminations bubble under the surface.

Despite its subject matter, ‘Little Children’ begins in an almost humorous vein. A laconic voiceover emphasises the ironies and idiosyncrasies of humour nature. Fields populates his film with stock characters, but seems to do so deliberately. He has fun shuffling the clich├ęs.

Gradually, the tone becomes darker. As the locals demonise Ronnie, their own flaws and failings are thrown into sharper relief. Sure, Ronnie is an unpleasant individual, but is the threat he poses as great as Larry paints it? After all, everyone’s guilty of something: Sarah and Brad are adulterers; Sarah’s husband is as sexually dysfunctional as Ronnie; Kathy sidelines family for career; Larry is a hypocrite and a bully. And yet all of them - even Ronnie - are capable of humanity. People are complex and complicated, Little Children seems to say; there's good and bad in all of us.

Fair enough. But this doesn't disguise the film’s faults. Fields relies too heavily on cyphers. Sarah’s husband is one-dimensional. The members of the reading group are straight out of central casting. The voiceover feels increasingly forced. The denouement is clumsy, character motivations going off the rails for the sake of lumbering melodrama.

Still, ‘Little Children’ boasts some terrific performances, moments of genuine erotic frisson, and, for the most part, a refreshing lack of judgementalism.

Monday, May 05, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: L.A. Confidential

James Ellroy's peerless crime fiction has found a very haphazard reflection on the big screen. James B Harris's 'Cop', starring James Woods, was a fair-to-middling take on 'Blood on the Moon'. Jason Freeland's 'Brown's Requiem' was a reasonably faithful but curiously characterless adaption of Ellroy's frenzied first novel. 'The Black Dahlia', the first book in the L.A. Quartet and Ellroy's breakthrough, was originally slated as a David Fincher project, and with the 'Seven' and 'Fight Club' helmer calling the shots could well have been a masterpiece; after much prevarication, though, Brian de Palma took up the reins and the result was a miscast, muddled, histrionic mess.

On the small screen, Ellroy's short story 'Since I Don't Have You' was effectively realised as part of the 'Fallen Angels' series, whilst a pilot was shot for a projected 'L.A. Confidential' mini-series starring Kiefer Sutherland and Melissa George but was never developed further. Ellroy has written directly for the screen with 'Dark Blue' and 'Street Kings', though in both cases other scribes were brought in for re-writes - to such a degree on the former that Ellroy has disowned it.

Of the much discussed and delayed 'White Jazz' - due to go before the cameras first with John Cusack and Nick Nolte in the lead roles, then with George Clooney, and at time of writing still trawling the lower the circles, Dante-like, of development hell - I'll believe it when I'm standing in the foyer at Cineworld clutching a ticket for it and I'm not holding my breath till then.

Which just leaves Curtis Hanson's 'L.A. Confidential'.* Two things demand to be pointed out from the start - and the one shouldn't retract from the other:

(1) 'L.A. Confidential' is merely a palimpsest of Ellroy's novel, incorporating incident from roughly the first third and even then diverging crucially in several respects (matters pertaining to Dudley Smith, matters pertaining to Buzz Meeks, and all that "Rollo Tomasi" business).

(2) 'L.A. Confidential' is one of the best mainstream American films of the 90s.

In respect of (1), it's impossible to compress a tautly written 500 page novel into a two and a quarter hour movie. As truncated from its source material as Hanson and Brian Helgeland's script is, even the briefest synopsis runs something like this:

Following the beating of some Mexicans arrested in connection with an assault on two police officers, the Chief of Police (John Mahon), Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and District Attorney Ellis Lowe (Ron Rifkin) undertake an official investigation. Implicated are Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), his partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) and Sgt Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cop who enjoys celebrity status through his work as technical advisor on a TV cop show. Ambitious Sgt Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) rats out all concerned in return for swift promotion, pushing particularly for White's indictment. When White refuses to testify against Stensland to take the heat off himself, he is suspended. Smith promptly re-appoints White to work directly under him, strongarming organised crime suspects in a series of interrogations that pretty much define the term "police brutality".

Vincennes, buckling to departmental pressure rather than be kicked off the TV show, begrudgingly rats out "a few old-timers" and accepts a temporary transfer to Vice. A pornography cases puts him onto an exclusive club called Fleur le Lys, operated by the ultra-wealthy, ultra-well-connected Piers Morhouse Patchett (David Strathairn), who has the goods on various city officials courtesy of a stable of call girls "cut [ie. had plastic surgery] to look like movie stars".

Meanwhile, Vincennes' main source of information, tabloid writer Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito) intimates that a sexual scandal involving Lowe and a pretty-boy B-movie actor is on the cards. Still, the big news in Hudgens's scandal sheet is the systematic (and still unsolved) hits on former associates of the now-incarcerated mob boss Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle).

Exley and White are brought into conflict (White is already harbouring a grudge at Stensland's dismissal) after Stensland is found dead, one of several victims in a coffee shop massacre. Another victim, Sue Lefferts (Amber Smith), was one of Patchett's girls. Smith pulls rank on Exley to take charge of the case, but when the arrest of a number of black suspects leads to more questions - and their subsequent escape explodes into violence - Exley almost unintentionally steals the glory. The suspects dead, the case is closed. But something still bothers White. His own investigation leads him to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), the Veronica Lake lookalike in Patchett's little stable.

With Smith suspicious at White's increasingly erratic behaviour, and with Exley instructing Vincennes to keep tabs on him, White finds himself in deeper than he expected, particularly when revelations about his former partner come to the fore ...

In other words, there's quite a lot going on! (The novel's about twenty times more complex, btw.)

Regarding (2), these are just a few reasons why 'L.A. Confidential' came out of nowhere ten years ago and completely blew me away, and why it's been on the personal faves list ever since:

There was nothing in Hanson's filmography ('The Bedroom Window', 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle') to indicate that he'd make the quantum leap to a film as stylish, gripping, intriguing, multi-layered and downright well-directed as 'L.A. Confidential'. And with the exception of his excellent Michael Chabon adaptation 'Wonder Boys', he's done nothing to touch it since.

It made a major player of Russell Crowe and put Guy Pearce on the map (ironic that Ellroy's fiction is so quintessentially American and the lead roles in 'L.A. Confidential' went to Australian actors). James Cromwell is absolutely spot-on perfect as Dudley Smith. Kim Basinger has never been better; her Oscar was well-deserved. As for Kevin Spacey, well ... the man basically spent the 90s on a roll: 'Glengarry Glen Ross', 'Swimming with Sharks', 'The Usual Suspects', 'Seven'. With 'L.A. Confidential', it was easy to be glib: hey, it's another great Kevin Spacey performance.

Dante Spinotti's cinematography and Jeannine Oppewall's production design create a stylish evocation of 50s L.A. The period soundtrack is terrific, kicking off with 'Accentuate the Positive' and including Kay Starr's evergreen 'Wheel of Fortune'.

The pace never flags despite the large amounts of exposition necessary to clarify the various plot details. The action scenes are particularly well edited, and the climactic shoot-out - although wildly divergent from the novel - is tense and exciting.

Maybe one day someone will mine the rich vein of McCarthy-era witch hunts, Hollywood B-movies, corrupt ambition and ambiguous sexuality rife in Ellroy's jaw-dropping 'Black Dahlia' follow-up 'The Big Nowhere' - done properly, it could be another film of the calibre of 'L.A. Confidential'. But until then, Hanson and co. still carry the badge and gun on behalf of Ellroy's dark staccato prose.

*I'm not taking into account here films about James Ellroy - such as 'Feast of Death' and 'James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction'. These are different beasts entirely, and quite possibly the subject of future posts.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald's 'Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price' isn't a particularly well-made documentary. Production values are bargain basement, the editing is often clumsy and the sound is murky, rendering the comments of some interviewees almost indecipherable. Structurally, it's all over the place; pacing didn't seem to be a concern during editing. An inordinate amount of screen time is given over to the history of a family-run hardware store put out of business by Wal-Mart's competition, but with little detail as to the actuality of their experiences with the retail giant. A catalogue of crimes committed in Wal-Mart car parks is slathering rolled out, but with scant emphasis on the scarcity of on-site security. This, surely, is the issue in question - not the misdemenours themselves. Wal-Mart are guilty of corporate crimes, but not car park purse-snatching.

Greenwald proves less a documentarist than a polemicist. 'Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price' makes Michael Moore's ouevre look objective by comparison. There's an over-reliance on tub-thumping and sloganeering. Footage of protestors successfully demonstrating against a planned Wal-Mart development is overlaid with the word "victory" in fiery letters; the effect is that of a bumbling amateur with no self-control let loose on Pinnacle Studio software for the first time. Greenwald is so well-served by his contributors, many of them former Wal-Mart employees (some at management level) who candidly reveal the corporation's callous attitude towards its staff, that all he really needed to do was film their testimonies, be a little more judicious with the editing, and maybe throw in a small but incisive amount of narration to tie the whole thing together.

Having said all that ...

Greenwald's film comes out swinging, a minimally-budgeted David, tooled-up on righteous indignation and not giving a shit about the consequences, inviting its corporate Goliath nemesis to step outside and put 'em up.

So, while 'Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price' is flawed as a piece of film-making, it deserves to be seen as a work of anti-corporationism. Critics have accused Greenwald of not soliciting Wal-Mart's side of things, but he does ... sort of. The film opens, and is interspersed with, footage of CEO Lee Scott talking up a self-congratulatory storm at a big conference. For every PR-sanctified platitude he comes out with, Greenwald's interviewees tell a different story.

Wal-Mart likes to refer to its employees as "associates" ... and treat them like slaves. Stores are deliberately understaffed to keep costs down, store managers struggling to keep within monthly expenditure budgets whilst hitting conversely-ratio'd income targets. Staff are coerced into working unpaid overtime (if you don't want to do it, runs the whispered threat, there's plenty of others who will). Unionisation is a dirty word - an anonymous bit of paper reading "we need a union" in the suggestions box is enough for head office to despatch an anti-union response team aboard a fucking Lear jet - this from a firm who pay their grass roots workers peanuts. A firm whose medical cover robs these workers of $75 out a week's pay packet, forcing many of them to use state medical programmes. A firm, basically, for whom the human element is subjugated to the sweaty, grasping pursuit of ever higher profits.

A lack of concern for the environment is in evidence. Overseas incursions epitomise Wal-Mart's campaign for aggressive growth. Cockney fruit stall holders protest a Wal-Mart owned Asda development which threatens their Upton Park market livelihood ... but they're nowhere near as hard-done-to as the Chinese workers enduring sweatshop conditions and cowed into lying to official visitors about their wages and working conditions - just so that Wal-Mart can save a few more cents.

Tales of racism and misogyny abound, merging in a particularly nasty two-for-one in the case of a highly capable, eloquent and motivated lady, all of whose appraisals cited her as management material. Continually passed over for promotion, she enquires of her manager whether it's because she's a woman or she's black. His response? "Two out of two ain't bad."

One of my heroes, the late American comedian Bill Hicks, once rounded on "anyone ... who works in advertising or marketing", exhorting them to "quit putting a fucking dollar sign in front of every god-damn thing on this planet". Here's Lee Scott, woefully unversed in the Gospel According to Bill: "We had record sales, we had record earnings, we had record re-investment back into our company" (this might be a euphemism for 'straight into the shareholder's pockets', I'm not sure) "but I tell you, my friends, you'd better be ready to be better." Which says it all really. Record profits aren't enough: the dollar sign has become a god, the corporations are blind to everything else, and their rampant wasteful money-grubbing is always at a human cost.