Game of Thrones: Season 6: The Politics of Isolation

*WARNING – SPOILERS ALERT! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE END OF THE SIXTH SERIES!*

 

I have always found something a bit odious about Game of Thrones, but I’ve never quite GoT_season_6_official_poster.jpgbeen able to put my finger upon what it is. Until recently that is, as I settled down to watch the last episode of the current series, in the midst of a period of national turmoil that is without precedent in my lifetime. You see, as the lengthy credits sequence began to roll, I started to think about the parallels between the overall tone of Game of Thrones and the mood of our country, both of which are intensely pessimistic.

We have collectively decided, through the EU referendum, that the way forward to solving all of the great global threats (climate change, the deregulation of banking systems, religious extremism, famine, starvation, and overpopulation, to name a few) is to cut ourselves off from the countries that surround us and simply to go it alone. We have shown a mistrust of international cooperation, and a belief that divisiveness is necessary in order to protect our own interests. All other countries are fighting for their own supremacy, we have decided, so why shouldn’t we? How can we trust them or work together with them, when they will so clearly endanger our own people through their own inherent selfishness?

Game of Thrones absolutely believes in the inherent selfishness of human beings as well, and I believe that is why it has found such popularity across the world in these dark times. The twin failures of neo-liberalism in the West and democracy in the Middle-East can be seen being played out in the series’ most brutal moments. Scenes of union, symbolised by weddings, quickly turn to rape and bloodshed. Justice, in the form of fairly reasoned trials, are often replaced by combat. Religion, personified by the High Sparrow, brings those in power to task for their failures, but in a manner as brutal, power-hungry, prejudicial, and unforgiving as everyone else. Memorably, at the end of the last season, the democratic election of the Commander of the Night’s Watch is followed by a villainous mutiny shortly afterwards.

What I find odious about this relentlessly bleak vision is its one-dimensionality: of course the world contains unimaginable horrors and violence, of course it is full of various factions fighting each other for supremacy at any one time, of course people can be selfish and stupid and care only for their own blood as ferociously as the monstrous Cersei Lannister. We know the world is a cruel, harsh place, and far wiser creations than Game of Thrones have been observing it through the medium of film, poetry, music, art, and literature for hundreds of years. But you only have to turn off your television, walk outside, and talk to people whom you encounter in the street, in all their different races, nationalities, genders, and sexualities, to discover that life is not at all that simple. People can be beautiful, funny, brave, inspiring. They are all flawed, but they have seen and lived through profoundly amazing things. Any cultural creation that does not recognise this, that can only report to us on the cruelty and misery of mankind, is only showing us one side of the coin, and its foundation is a lie (it’s one of the reasons I’ve never been able to stand most heavy metal music). It’s a dangerous lie, because it implies that violence and divisiveness are the natural order in our world. Our current political systems may not have worked, but that does not make it the case that aggression and isolationism are the only answers. Why the defeatism, both in Game of Thrones and in our culture at large?

game-thrones-season-6-premiere-jon-snow-ghost.jpgOf course there are ‘good’ characters in Game of Thrones as well, but these are as one-dimensional as the ‘bad’ ones, therefore rendering them unrelatable, and besides they are shown to be the rare exceptions, constantly beset upon by an overwhelming tide of evil. Jon Snow formed a romance with a wildling beyond the Wall and a friendship with the affable Samwell Tarly, however, in typical Game of Thrones fashion, she was quickly killed off and Samwell left the Wall, leaving Jon alone and at the mercy of his enemies. Daenerys, another fan favourite, had an intense romance in the first series, but this came to a brutal end and left no lasting impression on either her constitution or the audience’s. Tyrion has been hounded away from family, lover, and friends throughout the course of the series, usually turning to alcohol instead of people for his own solace. No alliances, romantic or filial, can last in this harsh world of divisive regimes, because the show supposes that human beings are destined to be perennially isolated from each other. Which is what we have also chosen to believe in this country, with our decision to leave the EU being motivated primarily by a lack of belief in lengthy, mutually beneficial alliances.

There is hope, though, or at least there is in Game of Thrones: the winds of change permeate the course of the sixth series, leading to a curiously optimistic ending. New alliances are formed: swearing oath under Jon Snow in the North, and crossing the seas with Daenerys in the East. Whether these are to last we shall see, but they certainly seem more permanent than has ever previously been the case. Only Cersei sits on the throne in splendid isolation, having detonated not just her enemies but also her own family in a moment of reckless self-destruction. We can only hope that she will not come to be seen as an analogy of the United Kingdom in the near future, as a former beacon of power sitting alone in a darkened room with no allies and a fabricated throne.

I presume that all of the main families will eventually have to put aside their differences and come together to defeat the White Walkers in a future series, just as our world is going to have to collaborate to defeat the existential terrors that threaten us. The ascension of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, and the result of the EU referendum in the UK, are both steps in the wrong direction. But I hope the writers of the show, and the shapers of our history, will seek to reverse the tide. Optimism and collaboration is direly needed, not because of any idealised notions of universal humanity, but because we simply don’t have a choice.

Winter is here.

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Reviews Roundup: Me Before You; Paul Simon, The Monkees

IN CINEMAS

Me Before You

Me-Before-You.jpgI was sitting through the end credits to this film, as I always do, when I noticed something unusual. I wasn’t alone. Normally everyone is in a rush to exit the cinema, but this time there were others in the dark alongside me, contemplating what we had just seen. As the music died down, I noticed something even more unusual; the members of this select audience were mostly sobbing, some of them quite hysterically. My first reaction was incredulity – how could they possibly have been emotionally affected by such a dreadful film, one which shamelessly deploys disability and euthanasia as mere narrative devices for sentimental effect?

Yet sitting there and listening to their instinctively emotional responses I realised that I was perhaps too jaded and cynical, that my impulse to catch the film out on its flawed construction had prevented me from being touched by its sole and humble purpose, which is to reduce one to tears. Who was I to begrudge the film for having achieved its goal, or the audience for having been won over by such blatantly manipulative tactics?

I believe they were moved by the age-old concept of doomed love that the film invokes, of beautiful people tragically unable to requite their love due to an immovable barrier: in this case the severe physical disability on the part of the handsome Will (Sam Claflin), a former womaniser who has been left paralysed after a motorcycle accident. It quickly becomes evident that the most troubling aspect of Sam’s incapacitation, at least in his mind, is the negation of a fully functioning sex life. His impotence is felt all the more keenly due to the radiance of Lou (Emilia Clarke), a caregiver attending to his every whim yet causing feelings of emasculation through unwittingly drawing attention to his inability to sleep with her.

A great director like Hitchcock would have realised, as he did in Rear Window, that this young man’s disability/impotence reflects our own paralysis in the cinema, unable to rise from the seats we are glued to and fulfil our sexual desires for the absurdly good-looking people onscreen. Such an implication would’ve taken a more assured hand at the director’s helm, some cunning and wit, but this film is content with using the disability/impotence theme to imply why life might not be worth living any more for our hero.

Impotence is indeed a frightening thought and trying to imagine, as this film wants us to do, a love affair that can never be satisfied sexually is stifling. The solution? Perhaps voluntary euthanasia, the film wonders clumsily. This could release the obligation of the able-bodied participant in the relationship, even if leaving them perpetually emotionally scarred. This could potentially be shocking or at least morally challenging, but Sam’s contemplation of taking his own life is portrayed in strictly heroic terms, designed to inspire in the audience romantic considerations of the nobility of sacrifice within a relationship. Oh, and tears of course, lots of tears.

To me, Me Before You is a travesty: appallingly scripted, acted, and directed, a deeply silly film that foolishly believes in, or at least romanticises, a binary contrast between freedom and disability (whilst being blithely unaware that such a contrast might cause offence to disability activists, as of course it has done).

To you, it could be a moving, even a life-affirming experience, as it proved to be for my companions in the cinema. Such is the subjective nature of film. But the nature of writing about film strictly places me before you, which is why I’ve ultimately decided upon the rating below.

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ON SPOTIFY

Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon
paul-simon-stranger-to-stranger-album-cover-art.jpgOne of the great paranoid, self-conscious wimps of the music industry, Paul Simon can perhaps be seen as rock’s answer to Woody Allen (and indeed he played a minor part in that director’s Annie Hall), with slightly less jokes and slightly more angst. This is a man, after all, whose career famously kicked off with the line ‘Hello darkness my old friend’, delivered without the slightest trace of irony, on a track complaining about ‘The Sound of Silence’.

Over the years he has managed to loosen up a bit, first by ditching the angelic presence of Art Garfunkel and then by wholly embracing world music; the reggae textures of certain songs on Paul Simon and the South African guitar and rhythms on his masterpiece Graceland animated him quite a bit more than the self-satisfied smugness of the acoustic folk tradition from which he had emerged. Still, the arty abstractions and miserable tenor of his lyrics persisted, until 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, an album that managed to combine the beauty and the ‘so what’ attitude of rock n’ roll, with more jokes and less angst for once. No other artist has matured with such grace and ease, shedding a predilection for despondency and blossoming into a man with a universally humanist outlook in both his words and music.

Stranger to Stranger continues in that vein but is not his strongest work, crippled for the most part by the meandering ‘Proof of Love’, coming halfway through the record and providing no such thing. Meanwhile, two instrumentals come and go without leaving much impact, and the first one is an embarrassing metaphor for the encroachment of death. It’s called ‘The Clock’.

But for the most part it still sounds like a party to which the whole world has been invited, with echoes of Simon’s eclectic past in the West African guitar licks of ‘Cool Papa Bell’, Brazilian samba grooves of ‘In a Parade’, and American blues and gospel mash-up ‘The Riverbank’. Even more excitingly, the first three (full-length) tracks are collaborations with Clap! Clap!, an Italian electronic dance artist who animates our eternal wimp into producing some of the best music of his career. ‘The Werewolf’ uses vocal samples and drum machines to thrillingly conjure up images of an apocalypse ready to devour us all, from the rich who ‘Eat all the nuggets, then order extra fries’ down to the poor. ‘Wristband’ uses a looping acoustic bass line in a circular arrangement that teases the rock star of the lyrics, a man who can’t get back onstage because he doesn’t have the circle mentioned in the title around his wrist. ‘Street Angel’ distorts a gospel choir sample beyond all recognition as the artist’s words become increasingly surreal. They’re all wonderful, invigorating and fresh, with sure-handed, conversational vocals from Simon. He’s always sounded best when at his most relaxed and playful, pushing the boundaries of his art with a casual ease that is at once alarming and inviting.

The title of the album could refer to the beginning of a love affair, or to a prayer with God, but it could also refer to the nature of music, which transmits emotions from the heart of one stranger into the bodies and minds of others. To fail to create any sort of meaningful transaction between the music and audience is any rock star’s greatest fear, and Simon is only guilty of it on a few tracks of this generally excellent album. Give it a go; it might just make you forget for a moment that the werewolf is coming to bite.

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Good Times! – The Monkees

the-monkees-good-times-cover-art-final-1200x1200.jpgThe Monkees have too often been at the receiving end of jokes and jibes about the commercialisation of music, with humourless critics claiming that their manufactured image, moulded after The Beatles for the sake of a popular TV show, demonstrates all that is wrong with the world and the capitalist reclamation of art. Me, I’ve never had a problem with the commercial side of rock n’ roll, always an inescapable aspect of a form of music that tends to appeal directly to the emotions rather than the intellect. Let the children boogie.

Good Times! could be the title to any number of 50s and 60s rock albums, from Chuck Berry to Elvis to early Beatles, in which the rhythmic thrill and adrenaline rush of the music was the primary attraction. The Monkees were indeed a business venture intended to exploit this sudden craze, brought together by a television production company based primarily on their looks. But it was a very good business venture, utilising great songwriters to craft songs such as ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, which stand up as rich and compelling commercial products to this day. Anyone who denies their cohesion as a unit, listen to Headquarters, where they played their own instruments for the first time. Anyone who imagines that they’re soft, listen to ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’, where they rival the Stones for venomous spite. Anyone who thinks that they’re bland, listen to the subtlety of Micky Dolenz’ vocal performance on ‘I’m a Believer’, one filled with desperation and yearning.

Despite all of this, anyone who suggests that they are on a par with The Beatles are most likely being deliberately obtuse: their vocals were never as effervescent, and they never managed to craft a consistently pleasurable album, as the Fab Four did time after time.

Good Times! continues the hit-and-miss approach to crafting music that was their wont, or at least was the wont of their managers and production team. It is carefully constructed as a tribute to their former glory, with such retrograde musicians as Noel Gallagher and Adam Schlesinger contributing songwriting duties. But it ends up as more of a tribute to the weakness of The Monkees’ full-length approach, which would typically consist of singles-plus-fillers. The title track, ‘You Bring the Summer’, ‘She Makes Me Laugh’, and the pretty ‘Me & Magdalena’ are the obvious singles here, well-crafted homages to the 60s rock sound with crunchy guitars, cymbal-heavy percussion and inventive harmonies. The urge to get up and dance is still present in almost every note: Austin Powers would love it.

The fillers, however, are disappointingly frequent: ‘Our Own World’, ‘Little Girl’, ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’, ‘I Know What I Know’ are all fairly tedious, as shallow as a puddle lyrically and not much more interesting musically. ‘Love to Love’ regenerates the sadly deceased Davy Jones on the vocal track, but he never really had the pipes, so it comes across as woefully pedestrian. Still, in our digital age these can be easily skipped or programmed out, leaving behind a terrific little portrait of old-timers whipping up a good old-fashioned rock n’ roll barnstormer.

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Reviews Roundup: The Nice Guys, Love & Friendship; Chance the Rapper

IN CINEMAS

The Nice Guys

Do we really need another buddy detective action comedy? Perhaps, but this isn’t the one. Shane Black, both as writer and director, has made a career out of our affection for mismatched guys who like to act tough but also love each other, y’know, just that little bit, The-Nice-Guys-poster-2.jpgbut not enough to trouble the insecurities of the heterosexual majority. Now he has made a film to really challenge that model: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play a duo of mismatched detectives, the former a no-nonsense hard case and the latter an alcoholic closeted wimp, who must learn to get along in order to solve a case. If you can’t tell how this one is going to pan out, you’ve obviously been avoiding the right films.

It’s not enough that its title is deliberately ironic, it’s not enough that it has occasional moments of pithy self-awareness (Gosling observes at one point: ‘I don’t seem to be able to die – I think I’m invincible!’), it is in love with its own boring fantasy of two buddies tackling a corrupt world and it has no original perspective on this theme. Crowe and Gosling seem as mismatched to the comedy genre as their characters are to each other; their commitment to appearing silly is undoubted, but they have no knack for slapstick and the chemistry between them never catches fire in the same way as it did for Tatum/Hill in 21 Jump Street or Pegg/Frost in Hot Fuzz. In fact, Crowe/Gosling are shown up in the comedy department by the child stars of this film, including a young boy who boasts about the size of his dick and a young girl who unhesitatingly lets her dad know her low opinions of him. That dad just so happens to be played by Ryan Gosling, and she acts circles around him.

The 70s Detroit setting allows for some overused R&B and rock tunes to be played on the soundtrack, tacky period costumes to be worn, and gratuitous female nudity to be deployed at every available opportunity, because we’re led to believe that parties were wilder back then. It references Nixon and ‘government corruption’ throughout in poorly realised attempts to gain wider social relevance, but sadly has no satirical bite. It ambles along to an overdue conclusion, and you won’t remember it for much longer after it’s ended.

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Love & Friendship

Jane Austen’s is one of the supreme comedic voices in literature, a fact which has often been overlooked in the collective memory due to the romanticism and repressed sexuality of recently filmed adaptations; scenes such as Mr Darcy’s topless swimming in the lake in Love-Friendship-1.jpgPride and Prejudice are generally more widely acknowledged than the original work’s satirically pointed prose. Austen always delighted in skewering the pretensions of the British aristocracy and the absurd games they played in order to maintain their privileged way of life. No other film has captured that element of her writing quite as successfully as Love & Friendship, a refreshing update of the bonnet movie franchise, which is an adaptation of several of the more obscure short stories in her canon.

It follows the callous, manipulative and (much to her delight) recently widowed Lady Susan as she deigns to sleep with most of the eligible young men (bachelors or otherwise) in Somerset, whilst simultaneously trying to marry her daughter off to a rich yet hilariously foppish landowner, played to absolute comic perfection by the unheard-of Tom Bennett. Kate Beckinsale is also excellent in the lead role, as a woman who knows what she wants and is willing to use either of the nouns in the title to achieve it, no matter what damage she causes to others; only the lightness of the script’s touch allows her to get away with it. A full-blooded heroine she is, which is more than can be said for the men on the scene, who are portrayed as hopelessly in thrall to the women of their lives and far too passively sentimental to play a significant role in the cynical games of courtship at work. This is an encouraging reversal of the depressing machismo of so many comedy films, where women are often relegated to faceless background objects: here it is the men who are largely devoid of character. It is satisfying to see them impishly squirm before their feminine intellectual superiors, but it doesn’t quite make for effective drama. The best of Austen, and the ideal adaptations of her works, have well-rounded characters on both sides of the sexual divide. Still, though it may not be particularly illuminating with regards to either love or friendship, what a great deal of fun it all is.

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Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

One of the most promising young talents working in music, Chance the Rapper has frequently been touted as the next Kanye. Certainly he draws on many of Yeezus’ trademarks: live choirs and instrumentation, deeply layered soul and gospel samples, and a restless enthusiasm to explore the world outside of the gangsta clichés with which hip-hop is commonly associated. Yet Chance is different and tougher than Kanye: he grew up in a troubled area of Chicago and as a youngster witnessed his best friend’s murder at the Chance-The-Rapper-Coloring-Book.jpghands of hoodlums, a scene chillingly recalled in Acid Rap’s ‘Paranoia’. The brutal reality of life on the street is one of rap’s most persistent meta-narratives, but Chance’s unique take on it is to use the terrors of his youth as a dramatic contrast to the ebullience and boundless optimism with which he has faced life since becoming a musician.

The joy Chance associates with the simple act of making music is palpable in Coloring Book, as it has been throughout his career. On the first verse of ‘Angels’, for example, his rushed flow and rhythmic contortions ooze excitement at the prospect of being… well, alive. Collaborations with the great (his hero Kanye, Lil Wayne) and the merely famous (Justin Bieber) spur him on to greater heights, and he frequently shouts out to them in his lyrics. This is all in line with the community spirit and positive vibes of last year’s Surf, recorded with Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, but instead of the jazz inflections of that album, the focus is far more on gospel music, particularly in its use of the Chicago Children’s Choir to stirring effect throughout.

Chance loves being alive, and he loves thanking God for his being alive, so the gospel elements of Coloring Book are in keeping with the overall theme of the album, which is to do with contentment at how his life has panned out. It is a tribute to his feelings of being blessed by God, expressed most explicitly of course in ‘Blessings’, but evident from start to finish (where that track’s title is reprised). Alienating this should be to an atheist like me, but I find the optimism of his faith uplifting nevertheless, as I do with the best gospel music. Besides, he extracts from his religion a humanism that is always important to hear in this world: in ‘How Great’ he raps along with a Muslim on the theme of God’s benevolence, for example. And in ‘All We Got’ he detests evildoing so much he’s willing to give Satan a swirlie.

This is Chance’s third album (fourth including Surf), all of which have been made exclusively available to download for free. He hasn’t perfected his craft yet; he is too prone to undisciplined bouts of nostalgia as it stands, particularly on this album’s ‘Same Drugs’, where he mawkishly addresses a lament on lost childhood to Wendy from Peter Pan. But his proud stand for individuality, both against the record labels (for whom he is refusing to make a profit) and the tired gangsta postures of too many rap stars, leads him to a mantra I can get behind: ‘I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom.’

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