Understanding Gilliam, and other men of a certain age

Oh, Terry Gilliam.

You were part of the counter-cultural movement that helped destroy the fusty hegemony of British society by laughing at it. You helped make the modern world a bit less shit. And now the modern world is not happy with you because you seem to have become the sort of reactionary, establishment prick you used to kick against.

For those who like Gilliam but also think he's so very wrong, it can be a bit confusing. But it's all quite simple really.

Terry Gilliam and his gang are, at heart, anti-establishment types. They came up in an era when "the establishment", in the UK at least, was fuelled by the legacy of Empire and British exceptionalism whilst being undermined by the death of said Empire and the creeping realisation that the British weren't that exceptional. That's Monty Python in a nutshell – kicking the post-war establishment as it fell.

This was, of course, a good thing. But for them it became the norm. Anything establishment is to be attacked, and anything that resembles groupthink or dogma is dangerous. (His generation's parents fought the Nazis too, don't forget.)

Fast forward to the 21st century and while economically it seems like the right wing won, a curious paradox is that Thatcher and Reaganomics heralded a significant liberalising of the culture. Attitudes on sex and race have progressed remarkably over my lifetime to the point where, in the culture industries where Gilliam works, the status quo looks radically different to the 60s.

In Gilliam's defence he has always had to fight for his work. Partly because he's an insufferable prick, I'm sure, but also because his work never fits. He exists in that troublesome position of having just enough popularity that his films are worth funding, but not quite enough popular appeal for them to be funded effectively. He has a platform, but he's still fighting for scraps, and consistently biting the hands that do feed him.

But that's not an excuse. I think he's wrong to be attacking "the #metoo movement" but I do kinda understand where he's coming from. Rightly or wrongly he sees himself, and his peers, as outsiders fighting against the establishment. When the establishment declares progressive ideas around equality to be the ethical standard but still won't support his work, he's going to see those ideas as the problem.

It's sad because people from Gilliam's generation, especially those who haven't gone to the dark side, do have a lot to offer today's progressives. The veterans of the post-war counterculture may be scarred and twitchy but they fought the power and they know where it lies. It'd be lovely to think the generations could come together and learn from each other. Sadly, I can't see that happening while everything is mediated by the commercial internet.

In 2013 I went to see the flawed but underrated The Zero Theorem with Jez and Tom. I had the distinct feeling we were seeing the modern world through Gilliam's eyes. In some ways it was a parody of what an old man thinks of young people (the party scene lit exclusively by iPad screens was genius) but beyond the bluster and rage were messages and arguments I think today's progressive counterculture warriors would find useful. Sadly I doubt any of them will give him the time of day…

The danger of meaning

I would comfortably say that I'm often searching for meaning in things. This feels like a good thing to do, to not accept face values but to prod and question and figure out what's actually going on. And upon finding meaning I'm happy and satisfied. My work is done. I can move on.

So I was intrigued, on starting to watch Examined Life – a series of interviews with contemporary philosophers, to come across Avital Ronell's rejection of meaning.

(Sidebar: I know Ronell is apparently what we might call a "controversial" figure and a pretty horrible person, by some accounts, but I'm just interested in this idea of Heidegger's she articulates here.)

It's worth watching, but in essence, meaning makes things satisfying, so we are prone to accept meanings without questioning them because they feel good. But many things don't lend themselves to simple meaning, and that's when we have to work harder, to pay attention to our actions and question the easy but empty meanings that are attached to such things.

I found myself thinking of traffic lights and the language of road signage. It is easy for motorists to read the signage and apply that meaning to the road environment to the exclusion of any messier information that might be around. A green light means go, so we go. We are slaves to meaning.

An intriguing, but rarely implemented, method of traffic calming is to remove as much signage as possible, along with curbs, road markings, crossings, etc. This shared space idea makes driving full of uncertainty because you don't know what anything means. There's no handy light telling you to go and a sign saying at what speed. You have to move your car through this space and anything can happen.


pic via

Ronell seems to be saying we should approach the world like a shared space road, removing all the signage erected by those who control and influence society's rules and moving carefully because anything can happen.

Of course this could lead to paralysis, but I think it's more about being aware that the meaning we assign to something or someone is, by necessity, a massively simplification. They are evil, they can be trusted, they deserve their fate. These simplifications let us get past the issue nice and quickly, but that does not make using them the right thing to do. Nuance is important.

Plenty to ponder.

Examined Life is on Prime at the moment.

Pretty Trauma

With some trepidation I watched the first episode of season two of The Handmaids Tale the other night. The first season had been very good but I'd heard the next was a bit all-out brutal horrorshow and, oddly enough, I didn't find myself needing that of an evening.

That first episode is pretty brutal and presumably sets the tone for some outright misery. Usually I'm OK with that, but I'm wondering to what end this is all for. The first season mirrored the book and therefore had a coherent arc. There was a point. This next wave is, what, world building? Where's it going?

Obviously that will become clear over time, but there was something about the presentation that slightly unnerved me. It was quite beautiful.

There's a whole thing in film theory (I believe – this is definitely not my area) about the perils of presenting horrifying scenes that you want the viewer to engage with but in doing so make the horrifying thing exciting and alluring. Film, like all visual art, gets its power by showing an abstracted, unreal or hyperreal version of the world using tropes and styles that can detach us as much as involve us. Or something. Maybe an example will help.

In this first episode of Handmaids season 2 the women are forced to stand in a courtyard in the rain holding a rock at arms length as an ongoing punishment for the denouement of season 1. It's basically a torture scene, but it's filmed beautifully. The women are perfectly arranged in a circle and frequently filmed from above, their bright red and white costumes contrasting with the dark bricks.

It is a visually beautiful scene, perfectly staged, cleanly shot. Prior to this was a flashback to the pre-fascist days which is all soft lights and handheld cameras. A contrast is being made, but I'm uneasy about how gorgeous the nightmare looks. How it draws me in. Maybe that's the point? I'm not sure.

I filed all that away in my mind, but then we watched I, Tonya last night, a biopic about ice skater Tonya Harding, which was excellent in many many ways. I particularly liked how the tone threw me off guard. The trailer sets up a light-hearted comic romp about white-trash idiots and the film itself pretty much delivers that sort of film, except it doesn't because this is a story about an abused woman, emotionally by her mother and physically by her husband, ultimately punished by society for something she (probably) didn't do. I'm sitting there thinking, am I supposed to be laughing at this? It's been set up as a funny, there are some genuinely funny bits, but this story is not funny at all. It's a genuine tragedy.

I think I, Tonya plays a bait and switch, promising you a Goodfellas or Logan Lucky and then betraying that with something much darker. The Founder did a similar thing with Michael Keaton's character who you initially root for and by the end feel terrible for ever liking. It's a subtle and tricky thing, to subvert the viewer's experience like that, and it's all the more powerful when it works.

Handmaids doesn't feel like it's doing anything subtle here. It seems to be simply saying "This world is awful. Look how awful it is. Look at it." But to make sure we look they make this awful world look beautiful even when it's supposed to be ugly and brutal. Especially when it's ugly and brutal. And I'm not sure that works in the way they intended.

Sunday Reads

A currently biweekly digest of longer-form writings and the occasional video I would like to commend to you for a lazy Sunday morning.

The Shape of Space

This extensive look at the geometry of living in environments where up and down don't make sense is packed full of quite wonderful things. Buckminster Fuller made a big deal of us living on "Spaceship Earth" and encouraged shifts in language to reorient ourself as riding on a planet moving through space, but our evolutionary experience is stubbornly locked to a gravity model. Even astronauts on the International Space Station, that great experiment in post-planetary living, orient themselves as if "they are in a very tall building with all the intermediate floors removed." Also of note is an intelligent and detailed look at those 1970s cylindrical space habitats that haunted my childhood.

Russian Cosmism Versus Interstellar Bosses: Reclaiming Full-Throttle Luxury Space Communism

Cosmism is a new term to me and I'm enjoying discovering it. Like many ideas that came from inter-war Europe and post-revolutionary Russia, it's unrealistic and bonkers but highly alluring. And the parallels with the fringe ideologies of our algorithm-weilding masters is quite striking, albeit more optimistic, maybe? Does the left need to "seize back crazed utopic ideas from fascists and Silicon Valley" in order to save the world from Trump? It's certainly worth considering.

How to be human: the man who was raised by wolves

A long-read on Marcos Rodríguez who was abandoned as a child in poverty-stricken Spain and grew up without human contact. But that's just the preamble. The story really happens when he is brought back to civilisation but doesn't have any of the social tools to deal with a culture coming out of Fascism.

It may be no accident that Rodríguez's case was, for half a century, rather less celebrated: he emerged from the mountains into a country scared to investigate itself for fear of what it might find. There was little appetite for reopening debates about poverty and neglect, or the sale of children into labour, even in the 1970s. It was not until much later, 35 years after Franco had died, in a democracy mature enough to confront its past, that the details and significance of his story were finally embraced.

What does a nuclear bomb blast feel like?

The headline here is soldiers at nuclear bomb tests seeing the bones in their hands as they covered their faces, but the real kick in the guts for me is that they were forced into secrecy for decades and never compensated for being there at all. Oh, these are British soldiers, by the way, dying of leukaemia and fathering deformed babies. This bloody country…

Chamberlain Clock

On a number of Birmingham's traffic islands you'll find these iron clocks painted green. They're total heritage but because they often have no pedestrian access it's tricky to see them up close. While doing a reccy for my Jewellery Quarter walks this month I crossed over to read the inscription on the clock there and took a photo because it's quite specific.

Joseph Chamberlain is one of the Big Names in this city. Not to be confused with his son Neville of "peace in our time" fame, Chamberlain's mayorship in the 1870s saw one of the great Victorian programmes of municipal socialism, clearing the slums and reducing the blight of poverty, fighting hard against the Conservative establishment to bring about real reform. He was, in short, a local hero, so it's unsurprising that there are countless monuments and memorials to him, not least a public square of equal stature to Victoria's next door.

But he was also a massive Imperialist. Having sorted out Birmingham he went Westminster and became Colonial Secretary in Salisbury's government and brought his paternalist reforming ideas with him.

"I believe that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen… It is not enough to occupy great spaces of the world's surface unless you can make the best of them. It is the duty of a landlord to develop his estate."

Nice.

And then there were the Boer Wars which he oversaw, including the delightful invention of the concentration camp. These were won and the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in May 1902.

The plaque on the clock is about a two month tour of South Africa from over the Winter of 1902-3, a bridge building, conciliation effort to bring everyone back under the umbrella of the British Empire. Everyone with white skin, that is. Apartheid might not have become official policy until 1948 but it was there in all but name. Blacks were a resource, like the land, and the Boer Wars were effectively about who would control that resource.

The quote on the clock reads: "We have shown that we can be strong and resolute in war; it is equally important to show that we can be strong and resolute in peace." Within a decade white South Africans had negotiated nominal independence and were fully sovereign by 1931.

Chamberlain seems like a massively complicated figure but he marks an interesting moment in the history of progressiveness in the UK. He was in some ways ahead of his time in Birmingham, recognising that the city was only as strong and healthy as its inhabitants and that industry alone could not provide the necessary levels of infrastructure. He, and many others across the country, laid the foundations for the welfare state, and for that we must be grateful.

But he was behind the times when it came to the rest of the world. He believed the hubris of Britain's divine right to rule the waves and their superiority over other races. The 20th century would prove him as wrong as it would prove his civic ideas right.

In Birmingham I think we like to remember the young Chamberlain over the old, just as the English as a whole prefer the old Churchill to the more problematic pre-war version. It makes us feel better about our place in history to concentrate on the good stuff. But we should probably remember the bad stuff too. Birmingham's connection to the evils of empire is less clear cut than, say, Bristol and Liverpool where the slave trade looms large. But it's there, clearly written on the lovingly preserved heritage clocks on the traffic islands.