Category Archives: Culture

The Contradictions of Dylan: A Primer for the Unconvinced

There is perhaps no figure, in all the popular culture of the modern Western world, who simultaneously combines such dizzyingly high critical esteem with such capacity to bemuse and underwhelm those many, many people who do not connect with him. Bob Dylan is an unassailable musician, and yet to many people – and not people from dramatically divergent cultural backgrounds either, but people who often tick all the other boxes of middle-class good taste – people, in other words, who are expected to like Dylan, who learn that they should like Dylan – his appeal is simply a puzzle. They have resigned themselves to being told all their lives that Dylan is a genius, but they know, through often arduous experience, that he simply will not speak to them. This is not because he is so complex or so challenging that they do not understand him (artists who need to be defended on those grounds are rarely worth the trouble). They understand him just fine. They just fail to see what all the fuss is about. Continue reading

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Hollywood and Space Exploration: The New Optimism

Something odd is happening in the world of American blockbuster filmmaking. Two years ago, the Oscars were swept by a film that presented itself as a simple, fundamentally realistic, and resoundingly positive – even triumphalist – take on contemporary manned space exploration. That film was Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The year after, Hollywood’s most ambitious celebrity filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, offered us Interstellar – a movie which suggests that the ultimate solutions to the Earth’s ecological and political problems might lie in a renewed and far-reaching initiative in space travel. And now, in 2015, The Martian teaches us that there is no problem – neither in space nor, by implication, on Earth – that cannot be solved by human ingenuity and intelligently applied scientific understanding. In all three films, we are invited to feel exhilarated by the sheer, glorious potential of human endeavour in space. Optimism about space exploration has soared back into fashion at the top of the film industry. Continue reading

Skyfall, Spectre, and the Politics of Bond

A British flag flutters in the wind against a grey sky. It is weary, but resilient, and in the face of everything, it is still flying. This image appears towards the end of both the last two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. Of course, the Bond franchise has always been suffused with British patriotism. But in their latest incarnation, the films have come to embody a more specific strain of British pride. The spirit on display in the two Sam Mendes-directed instalments is defiant, independent, and conservative to the point of being reactionary. In the wake of Spectre, it is worth reflecting once again on the political agenda that is being subtly and not-so-subtly promoted by these movies. Continue reading

Gaga and Swift: The Unlikely Inheritor

Last week, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” landed with a thud in everybody’s news feed. The typical blizzard of unrestrained hysteria, intermingled with the typical eye-rolling from those not yet converted, blew around the internet as per usual. Because after all, we love Taylor Swift. “Serious” pop music critics (what does this term even mean anymore?) talk about her with a level of respect and thoughtfulness usually reserved for the darlings of the indie circuit. It’s all a bit reminiscent of that time last decade when Pitchfork, arch-elitist stronghold of ultra-serious music journalism, randomly decided to get really passionate about Justin Timberlake. But this time it’s broader. What other teen-pop star commands the kind of attention that Swift routinely receives from the musical establishment? Slowly but surely, she has become an institution. And everybody loves her. Except for the haters. But the haters are gonna … you know. Continue reading

The Nolanisation of Hollywood

When the late Roger Ebert, film critic without peer, reviewed Batman Begins upon its release in 2005, he neatly captured the essence of what made it different. “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be,” he said; “but it acts as if it is.” And he gave it the full four stars. As time has gone by, the prescience of Ebert’s assessment has only become clearer. Nearly a decade since that first installment in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, his ethos has come to permeate mainstream American film-making. At a stroke, he made redundant the self-referential cheesiness, the glossy, flashy sheen of slick production values, and the extravagant sensationalism that had hitherto been the norm in Hollywood action movies. The new norm is the style made fashionable by Nolan: ultra-serious, pseudo-realistic, and both thematically and visually dark. Continue reading

Sharks and Wires: The Importance of Unsolved Mysteries in European Cinema

For the past fifteen years or more, the European art cinema scene has increasingly come to be dominated by one outstanding and frequently controversial director: the Austrian Michael Haneke. Other directors have produced films just as distinctive and just as widely praised – Lars von Trier and Béla Tarr spring easily to mind – but nobody else has such a consistent record of rich, original, and provocative critical successes. Haneke’s films are precise, suspenseful, and explicitly and disturbingly violent. Yet the classic hallmark recurring through his half-dozen major films is not the way they very shockingly observe and confront human evil, but something seemingly much less significant: the fact that they frequently rest on unresolvable or open-ended storylines. Many viewers feel that Haneke teases them by refusing to answer the narrative riddles that he poses, and so his fame and his notoriety have come to rest not so much on his moral boldness as on the manner of his storytelling. Even some of his admirers claim that he ought not to play such games of befuddling the viewer, as this distracts attention from the intellectual and ethical points that form the centres of his films. Continue reading

The Mantel Paradigm

Thomas Cromwell was born in obscurity, the son of a blacksmith, sometime in the 1480s. In 1540 he was executed for treason by his master, King Henry VIII. In between, he achieved one of the most impressive feats in the history of English politics: he successfully transformed England from a Catholic kingdom into a realm where the church came under the law of the king, and the king alone. Cromwell engineered the annulment of Papal authority and the establishment of the Church of England, and he did it so well that his creation survived the next several decades of feuding and backsliding by England’s demented Tudor kings and queens. He was the father of the English Reformation, the man responsible more than any other for the form that English Protestantism would take. Strange, then, that popular histories of Cromwell’s era have for so long cast him as a villain. Continue reading

What we Need from Peter Capaldi

Or perhaps that should be, “What we need – now – from Steven Moffat”. The key responsibility does lie, after all, with the head writer. Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor was unremarkable, but never exactly bad. The bigger reason why Doctor Who in his era became so lamentable was the poor quality of the scripts, and for that it is Steven Moffat who must answer. Yet now Moffat has a perfect opportunity to redeem himself. In Peter Capaldi, he has the right actor with whom to make a new start. Just as importantly, he has also engineered the story in such a way that he has license and justification to put a different slant on the show. Will he follow through with it? I don’t doubt that Capaldi can give us what we need, but I worry that Moffat might not give him the scripts that will let him do so. Continue reading

Reflections on Breaking Bad

Three months ago, on Sunday 29 September, “Felina,” the final episode of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, aired in America. The show which began five years ago with a minor cult following now commands a greater level of popular success and acclamation than anything on television except, perhaps, Game of Thrones. Is there anything I can say about it that has not already been said? The story of Walter White (Bryan Cranstone), who begins cooking crystal meth in order to save up money for his family when he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, has already generated more debate and analysis than any novel published in recent memory (a meaningful comparison, as I will explain). The tortuous moral ambiguities of Walt’s story, and his equally tortuous relationship with his ex-student and sometime distributor, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), will doubtless continue to be debated and discussed for a long time to come. Here in this brief note I can simply remark on a few of the reasons why I believe Breaking Bad is seminal, era-making television. Continue reading

Vampires and Sexuality: A History of Symbols

You could be forgiven for wondering what has happened to vampires over the last few decades. They who walk by night, who were once among our most reliably terrifying monsters, seem to have evolved into something weirdly ordinary. They who once inspired horror – real, sick-to-the-stomach horror – now stare broodingly down from glossy posters in the bedrooms of teenage girls. This trend has not gone unremarked, nor unlamented. Finding new and progressively more creative ways to pour scorn on Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise has been a common pastime for many years now, and the most common point of criticism – besides the general awfulness of the writing and the patent talentlessness of the film stars – is the Twilight take on vampirism. There are indeed a great many very solid grounds for complaint here. Meyer’s failure to understand that beings with fantastic powers are only interesting if those powers also come with limitations (like burning in the sunlight, for example) has prevented her from offering us a version of the vampire legend that might endure. But there is also something else going on. Edward Cullen and his kin are not just unfrightening because Stephanie Meyer has a poor imagination. They are unfrightening because of what they symbolise in the culture that produced them. Continue reading