Saturday, 10 April 2021

In Life And In Death, Prince Philip Embodied The Value Of The British Monarchy

The past few years have been turbulent for the British Royal Family. A slew of controversies, from the links between Prince Andrew and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, to the departure of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and their subsequent accusations of experiencing racism within the 'Firm', have led to increased questioning among the young in particular about what the monarchy is for and why it exists in an age of democracy and representation. The death of Prince Philip yesterday, the man who dutifully stood two paces behind the Queen for over seventy years and did more than anyone to make the monarchs visible and accessible to the public, will plausibly only galvanise such questions once the mourning period has faded.

Though many monarchists may recoil at the question being asked at all, it serves an important purpose not only in testing the resilience of the nation's institutions, but the clarity of people's understanding of their usefulness. The Royal Family is not elected or directly accountable to its people, nor should it be, but it cannot persist unless the people feel proud to be represented by them and that the values they embody are the right ones. In this, the allegations surrounding Prince Andrew's close friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, and the Palace seemingly closing ranks to protect him, have been particularly corrosive. If the public is unsure why the monarchy remains important in spite of any controversies surrounding it, either the people in charge of maintaining our institutions, or the institutions themselves, are not doing their job. In this respect, while the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, may be the first step in a period of transition for the monarchy, the remembrance of his remarkable life may also serve to remind the British people of its immense value to the nation and the world.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Uncertainty As The Path To Resurrection In Dante's Commedia

The Christian holidays have become largely divorced from their original meanings. In some ways this is helpful, allowing them to be days of universal celebration rather than exclusively serving a single section of our theologically diverse societies. Christmas is these days about giving, gratitude, and reuniting with loved ones, rather than specifically a celebration of Christ's birth. Christ's story encompasses those qualities, but what is celebrated are the shared values rather than the event itself. Though most are aware of Christmas' religious origins - it's right there in the name - the connection is not necessarily made between those origins and the values it now represents. This inevitably leads to the hackneyed complaint that Christmas is just about 'capitalism', which says more about the complainer's inability to understand the value of giving than they might have wished.

Easter is further divorced from the reasons for its Christian celebration than Christmas. In part, this is because the name does not tie in so obviously. According to the Venerable Bede, a seventh-century monk known as the 'Father of English history' for his ecumenical writings, the month of Christ's resurrection was called Eostremonath in Old English, named for the goddess Eostre. The association between the two stuck even after the name of the month changed. Aside from the loose symbolism of eggs to birth, the idea of resurrection has been lost in how we celebrate Easter today. In search of that original meaning and how it relates to our contemporary lives, we should look to one of the great works of the global literary canon, whose narrative not coincidentally begins on Maundy Thursday, just before Easter Weekend: Dante Alighieri's epic poem, the Commedia.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Movies: Zack Snyder's Justice League review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Zack Snyder
Stars: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa
Running Time: 242mins

Zack Snyder's cut of the 2017 Justice League movie sits at the nexus between the Donner cut of Superman II and Snyder's own extended edition of Justice League's much-derided predecessor, Batman v Superman. Although director's cuts of movies have existed for a long time, the 2006 re-edit of Superman II to fit the vision of original director, Richard Donner, was the first time a movie had been effectively remade and rewritten with unused footage and the removal of any scenes added by the director who took over the project. Ten years later, Zack Snyder used the home release of Batman v Superman to signficantly extend the running time and clarify the near-incoherent narrative of the theatrical cut.

Snyder's re-edit of Justice League does a little of both: it removes all trace of Joss Whedon's contribution to the 2017 release and uses its massively extended running time - doubled, in fact - to add missing character motivations and give the story room to breathe. Like his Batman v Superman extended cut, it improves on many of the fundamental shortcomings of the original release. However, just as the Donner cut simply turned a bad movie into a different kind of bad movie, Snyder's Justice League may be different from Whedon's cut, but whether it's a better movie overall is an open question.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Appreciating Nikki van der Zyl, Who Gave The Women Of James Bond Their Voice

For a series whose hero embodies the masculine id, the history of women's influence on the James Bond movies is a long and fascinating one. The figure of the Bond girl is the most famous and most analysed, though the importance of the many women who have guided the series from behind the screen is just as great, albeit less widely recognised. A prominent modern example would be Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of one of the series' original producers, Cubby Broccoli, and who now runs the show along with her half-brother, Michael G. Wilson. A less known example would be Johanna Harwood, an Irish screenwriter who was a credited screenwriter on the first two Bond movies, Dr. No and From Russia With Love, and contributed uncredited work to Goldfinger.

One of the least recognised names is Nikki van der Zyl, yet if you haven't heard of her, as a Bond fan you certainly will have heard her. A German voiceover artist who died three days ago aged 85, van der Zyl leaves behind a legacy which shaped the Bond girl icon every bit as much as Ursula Andress - whose voice van der Zyl dubbed.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

The Datafication Of The Human Being

Datafication is a term invented in 2013 by Victor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Culkier to describe the process of digitally mapping human activity and interactions into data and how it is fed back into the real world by businesses and governments to optimise their services based on the information gathered. This manifests in ways both seemingly benign, such businesses and cities changing the allocation of their resources to suit the activities of their customers and citizens, and more concerning, such as employers and banks using an individual's data to determine their employability or assess an application for a loan.

This trend carries enormous implications for privacy and freedom, particularly when it comes to systems either being faulty, such as facial recognition systems used by law enforcement struggling to differentiate between black faces, or outright abused, as in China's use of mass surveillance to monitor and control every aspect of its citizens' lives. As enormous as these issues are, the focus of this piece is not on how datafication has changed how data presents us, but rather how we have allowed datafication to change the way we perceive ourselves.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Adam Curtis' Nostalgia For Radicalism Paints A Bleak Picture Of A World Changing For The Better

Adam Curtis released his latest documentary series, 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head', last week. All six episodes are currently available for UK viewers to watch on the BBC's iPlayer, while worldwide viewers can watch it here. As one might expect from Curtis, it is an expertly made visual collage with a superlative soundtrack, telling the stories of some fascinating figures largely forgotten to history, which Curtis ties together as part of his overall mission statement. This time, he is telling an 'emotional history' of how Western society embraced individualism to compensate for how the radicals of the past failed the change the world for the better, eventually leading to the rise of conspiracy theories and populism.

If that sounds familiar to Curtis' fans, it should: the documentary acts as something of a greatest hits of his previous concerns, ending up feeling almost as much of a retreat into Curtis' own history as that of the world. His signature phrases, '...And then something strange happened' and 'So they went back, into the passed' are trotted out in key moments much as how Marvel deploys beloved characters at unexpected moments for maximum fan excitement. It's as exciting, electric and eclectic as the best of his work to date. But then something strange happened: in going back, into his past, Curtis became infected with the very nostalgia-driven nihilism he attributed to others. In repeating his familiar refrains about our failures to improve the world, he missed how the world has been steadily improving in a different way to how he was expecting.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Games: Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury (Nintendo Switch) review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo 
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Nintendo's latest console, the Switch, is awash with games carried over from its previous one, the Wii U, which sold far less well. It's a strategy which has been a boon for Nintendo, padding out the Switch's library with games which never got the chance to sell as well as they might have, but less so for those of us who owned a Wii U in the first place, who have found original releases few and far between. In order to combat this, Nintendo has taken to adding extra material to the games in question. On the whole, this material has been half-hearted at best, with an extra character added to Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze and a few token side-missions reusing environments in Pikmin 3.

The headline extra in the port of Super Mario 3D World is a mode entitled 'Bowser's Fury', a more substantive addition which, were it not for its short length - about two hours to see the credits, perhaps four to finish everything - could be called a new game in its own right, one possibly hinting at a more open-world, non-linear future for the Mario series than even Odyssey, the Switch's own original Mario title.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Movies: Promising Young Woman review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Emerald Fennell
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox
Running Time: 113mins

The rape-revenge movie has a long and inglorious history of adopting a false stance of female empowerment in order to fulfil male fantasies, not just in terms of sexualising the traumatic assault, but in the act of revenge itself. Revenge in these movies is typically enacted on the physical bodies of the perpetrators, a male sense of power twinged with BDSM undertones by having a woman as the heroine. Promising Young Woman's most potent idea is to feminise the concept of revenge: what if the heroine's vengeance was not on the body, but on the soul? What if, for a moment, she could make those who inflicted trauma on others see themselves for who they really are and understand the gravity of what they have done?

Promising Young Woman's writer/director, Emerald Fennell, was also the showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve. Despite the strength of its core ideas, Fennell unfortunately carries over the weaknesses of her tenure on that show to her first full-length feature behind the camera, notably an inability to maintain the razor-edge balance between drama and irony which Phoebe Waller-Bridge made look so effortless. The intensity of feeling behind the material and its central character is never in doubt, though perhaps ironically, Promising Young Woman is too wounded to achieve its full potential.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

2020 Movie Catch-Up Review: Wonder Woman 1984


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig
Running Time: 151mins

Wonder Woman 1984 shares more than a little in common with Gal Gadot's infamous celebrity rendition of 'Imagine': both well-intentioned, yet tone deaf and hopelessly misjudged in every conceivable way. WW84 brings to light how much of its predecessor's success was rooted in its setting. The horrors of WW1's trenches and war-torn landscapes gave the original Wonder Woman an emotional and thematic heft which its sequel's lazy pastiche of Eighties fashions and hues, unsurprisingly, cannot come close to matching.

Wonder Woman emphasized the values and value of its heroine by transporting her - a sheltered, yet powerful and intensely compassionate woman - into one of the most apocalyptic periods of human history and letting the audience experience it with her first as despair, then as hope as she used her power to do something about it. WW84's setting, by contrast, evokes nothing about its heroine and forces the film to resort to meaningless bromides, whose espoused values it itself does not even stick to.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Do You Want To Build A Snowman? The Importance Of Small, Spontaneous Joys

It snowed in London yesterday, so I took the opportunity to walk to my local park. I stopped at one of my favourite spots, a small bridge overlooking a pond with a tree growing out of an islet in the middle and a small waterfall rippling in the background. The pond was partially frozen over and trails had been cut through the thin ice by ducks swimming to and fro from the shore. The bare branches of the tree were dusted with snow which was lightly shaken away whenever a bird landed or departed from them. At one point, geese flew overhead, migrating from the pond on the other side of the bridge for a change of scenery and to take advantage of an elderly woman throwing crumbs from a bag to the ducks in the water.

I've walked across that bridge countless time before, sometimes stopping to enjoy the moment before moving on, but rarely has the simple sense of life in and around it been so noticeable. I've written before about my walks around the park and my enjoyment of the small details which are so easily overlooked. This time, the half an hour I spent looking out across the little pond made me aware of how much the lockdowns of the past year have deprived so many of us of the experience of watching life innocuously unfold around us, whether in trails through an icy surface or snow displaced from a tree branch. It has also deprived us of the human contribution to that tapestry, the traces of our existence we leave behind not only as part of our own stories, but as additions to the stories of others. Specifically, in this case, a tiny snowman.