Tag Archives: Cold War

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 1 – Huxley and the Prophetic Utopia: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offers excellent insight into the Cold War, despite the fact it was written in the early thirties. Indeed because of this earlier date of publication Brave New World is neatly positioned to shed light on the competing ideologies that would shape the world we know today. It’s also all the more impressive that many of Huxley’s ideas retain a degree of accuracy, when unlike Orwell (whose 1984 provided the other prophetic twentieth century novel), Huxley was writing before the enormous changes of the Second World War.

HUXLEY’S INFLUENCES

Perhaps the first enlightening principle to take from Brave New World with regard to the Cold War is how the opposing sides have similarities as well as striking differences. The figurehead of Huxley’s society, Henry Ford, is an icon of both capitalism and America. Effectively the God of Brave New World, Ford is worshipped in bizarre and hypnotic community ceremonies. It seems that his legacy of mass production accounts for his importance in a society conditioned to consume with a smile on its face. All of these pillars holding up the Brave New World seem distinctly American. However as Huxley himself wrote in 1928 “To the Bolshevist idealist, Utopia is indistinguishable from a Ford factory[i]. A society grounded in the wonders of mass consumption requires mass production. Factories are the habitats of the workers and therefore a Communist element emerges in the Brave New World. Huxley reminds us all how Communism is a child of capitalism. The aim of happiness for all is also recognisably Communist, albeit through propaganda rather than reality. The true triumph of Brave New World however is not how it incorporates two competing systems into one society but how it exposes their most damaging flaws. The reality of Communism triumphs over the ideal with the caste system reflecting how actual Communist countries turn out. The Alphas of Brave New World are the Party members of Communist Russia; privileged by position and a (relatively) luxurious quality of life. The liberating qualities of capitalism are also smashed by Huxley’s perfect machine of consumption. Through over-organisation the individual freedoms to pursue hobbies such as sport are slashed; everything must contribute to the pot of stability. Perfect capitalism comes to resemble Communism by placing the state above the individual.

Which then, of the two powerful forces destined to grapple for international influence, most compelled Huxley to write his unique novel? The answer is another reason to respect Huxley’s power for prophecy. After the First World War, Huxley predicted that Americawould enter a period of “inevitable acceleration” towards “world domination[ii]. This acceleration was not immediate, as despite Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points forming the backbone of the new League of Nations, America would never be a member. The opposition at home took advantage of anti-Wilson sentiments and soon public opinion resulted in a period of isolationism between the wars. Nevertheless America’s powerful corporations, boosted by their advantageous position in the First World War, continued to spread their wings globally. After the Second World War American isolationism was unthinkable even to most Americans and after forty-five years of Cold War Huxley was proved right that America would be the nation of “world domination” not theSoviet Union.

Brave New World is largely inspired by Huxley’s first visit to America in 1926. The 1920s saw a revival of anti-American feeling amongst the intelligentsia of Europe. Certainly this may have been fuelled by resentment lingering from the First World War, which left Europe ravaged and America bountiful. Men like Huxley may well have been suspicious of American opportunism but regardless of this a spectre of suffering loomed over Huxley’s generation which influenced their attitudes. On May the 5th Huxley’s ship arrived at San Francisco. He was greeted almost immediately by reporters, setting the tone for a whirlwind “celebrity” tour of the country. On board ship, before reaching America, Huxley had been reading My Life and Work by Henry Ford after finding it in the ship’s library. This discovery would prove crucial to the creation of Brave New World and influence the way in which Huxley viewedAmerica as he travelled around it.

            Despite arriving with the typical privileged and English views of American society, Huxley’s view of Americain the midst of the Roaring Twenties was far from clear cut. He found Los Angelesparticularly bewildering as he noted that “thought is barred in the City of Dreadful Joy and conversation is unknown[iii]. He also disapproved generally of the growing culture of materialism, the trash pumped out by Hollywood and the “vulgarity” of the flappers. Huxley’s whole family was more taken by New York and Huxley delighted in excessive socialising. Although Huxley at times seemed wholly negative towards America, claiming that a “radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards” was underway, he still left the country with an overwhelming sense of its split-personality, spotting the “strange co-existence of Puritanism and wild hedonism in America” which arguably is still the case today[iv].

Huxley’s visit to Americaand his political stance on a number of controversial issues has led many to debate whether or not Brave New World is intended as a dystopia or utopia. Of course the literary debate surrounding whether or not it is possible to write a utopia at all plays a crucial role. Huxley was joining a long line of much discussed visions of society, each with its own controversial answer to the question of the human condition that for some fundamental reason the reader tended to resist. But Huxley himself, despite the breadth of ideas in the book, must have decided whether or not he wanted the reader to be left with a mood of negativity or possibilities.

            It is possible to argue that Huxley intended certain aspects of Brave New World to be perfect and even desirable solutions to social problems. Certainly Huxley had the foresight to address underlying flaws in the structure of society that were not discussed in the mainstream, perhaps because the task of tackling these issues seemed insurmountable. Even today some of Huxley’s concerns remain unchallenged, particularly in political circles, as candidates are fully aware that such things divide the electorate. In a recent article in The Times population growth is described as the “great ecological timebomb” that by 2050 will have exploded global population to “9.2 billion”. The premise of the same article however is that ordinary people or “cogs in our messy, glorious, capitalist democracy” (a phrase Huxley might’ve approved of), merely want to live their lives without surrendering anything to deal with such massive problems. The writer concludes that the “Green” fanatics of today would have to seize control in a manner similar to that of the “Reds” in the past in order to impose unpopular solutions from above[v]. Perhaps Huxley saw such a coup as the only viable solution too, as in Brave New World it is clear that at some point a group seized control amidst the chaos of war and economic strife and implemented its own system on society.

One of the features of the new order is a permanent solution to the problem of population control. In the various “hatcheries” not only the number of people but the quality of people can be adjusted and refined. Huxley had a genuine interest not only in the control of population but in any scientific method that might improve the genetic stock of the species. In various 1930s radio interviews he advocated eugenics, now a term dirtied by Nazism, as a way of dealing with Britain’s problems. Statements such as “any form of order is better than chaos”, have led some to reason that Huxley seriously supported the radical solutions proposed in his novel[vi]. However Huxley’s intellectual interest in emerging answers to problems like population growth is understandable given that he is a man of considerable scientific background. As for his fear of chaos, Huxley was not alone. Already haunted by the Great War, his generation were obviously perplexed by a decade of financial collapse, social change and dictatorship. After hearing a Parliamentary debate Huxley, like many others, became disillusioned with politics and scraps of information from experiments like theSoviet Union began to sound appealing. This is by no means an indication that Huxley proposed the schemes within his novel as viable options. The manufacture of babies is a device that highlights the issue of population. A sensible interpretation is that Huxley wished the extreme he described, or anything close to it, to be avoided by prompt action.

Huxley’s biographer Nicholas Murray is certain that Brave New World is a dystopian vision. He says “that the real meaning of Brave New World is that the idea of utopia is toxic”. This suggests that Huxley took a particular view in the literary debate surrounding utopias; they’re a bad idea. Murray goes further by comparing Huxley and Orwell (a common comparison) and pointing out that their attitudes towards utopias are shaped by the visionary projects of the time, namely the intended paradises of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. These examples seem to suggest that any attempt to perfect society will encounter opposition and incur casualties. In Huxley’s case I think it is more relevant to talk about the consequences of an American utopia however. We know that Brave New World was written before the shocking emergence of atrocities following the Second World War. Therefore the expansion of American control, the spread of their culture and the dystopian consequences of this sprawling growth, seems more of an influence on Huxley’s creative process. In Brave New World Revisited Huxley confirms that his intention was always to warn primarily against “government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of the individual”, rather than against the tyranny envisaged by Orwell[vii]. This makes it clear that Huxley’s primary target for criticism in Brave New World was the “American system”; a system that in 1947 President Truman would argue was “the only way to save the world from totalitarianism[viii].

PROGRESS

There are numerous examples throughout Brave New World of aspects of American culture that Huxley exaggerates into dystopian features of his fictional society. In fact the first chapter alone contains several elements that we can see have been influenced by Huxley’s concerns about Americanization. For example the first paragraph of the novel contains the slogan of the World State, “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” Whilst this may sound more like the Communist inspired mottos that Orwell made famous in 1984, it can also be likened to the mind numbing advertising catchphrases emerging as part of the corporation culture that was absorbing power in America. Also present in the first chapter is an American sense of scale. Huxley effectively uses the tour given to new recruits at the Central London Hatchery as a lens through which he introduces the reader to the foundations of his fictional world. At one point the Director, who is leading the tour, instructs a member of staff to “Give them a few figures”. This instruction and the description that follows reflects an aspect of the American ideal that may have particularly worried sceptics such as Huxley; the notion that bigger is better. Huxley’s description of the way the new recruits react to the size of the establishment is extremely revealing;

“Two hundred and twenty metres long, two hundred wide, ten high. He pointed upwards. Like chickens drinking, the students lifted their eyes towards the distant ceiling.[ix]

 

Here we get a clear insight into Huxley’s attitude towards an American ideal of progress. Bigger is not necessarily better, but in Huxley’s description of the awe-struck students he recognises the blinding qualities of grandiose projects.

The theme of size and quantity as the measure of success is continued throughout the first chapter, with continued reference to the output of the hatchery. Huxley was well aware of the importance of scale to the American system and the downsides of its reliance upon it. “The concept of scale is crucial to understanding the American economic model… American monopolists realised after the Civil War that scale above all gave them power: they could pay their suppliers less because the suppliers had nowhere else to go, they could charge their customers more, they could drive smaller competitors out of business[x].” The demand for scale did not have negative impacts inAmerica’s early years, as there was still plenty of sparsely populated land to colonise. The bulk of territorial acquisitions are forgotten because they were smoothly exchanged for dollars rather than the blood of American soldiers. The 1803Louisiana Purchase saw theUnited States double in size for just $15,000,000. The previous owners, the French, were delighted with this sum for what they regarded as land without strategic value. Napoleon would plough the American money into expanding the Channelport ofBoulogne in preparation for an invasion ofEngland. It is easy with hindsight to suggest that he chose the wrong scheme.

As Americagrew however the need for scale would begin to impact upon other nations. The outcome of the Civil War determined the character of America’s elite; the industrialists defeated the landowners. This new elite were responsible for a shift from property and populating, to profit, when it came to expansion. It was these industrialists that Huxley knew could exploit the system. Huxley would have been particularly worried by the influence of big business upon government; indeed in Brave New World he has the two become the same thing. It’s possible to draw parallels between the rapid expansion of America’s navy following the Civil War, so that it went from a force smaller than Sweden’s to only the Royal Navy’s inferior by 1907, and the soma spraying riot police deployed in Brave New World by the world controllers. The navy grew as a direct consequence of American corporations demand for scale, just as the riot police intervene to maintain the social order and stop the disruption caused by the Savage at the hospital, which was threatening the supply of dead bodies which are utilised in Brave New World as a resource.

Huxley’s worry was that the concentration of power would lead to only a small group’s interests being served by government. He would’ve been outraged by America’s policy u-turn on Germanyand Japanfollowing the Second World War. In 1947 Americaabandoned a commitment to purge these nations of undesirable political elements and limit their strength, opting instead to adopt a policy of accelerated development to open up export markets, reduce occupation costs and counter the Soviet threat with the creation of strong allies. This decision was strongly influenced by the desires of Northern industrialists. As a result Americaembraced industrial monopolies such as Mitsubishi in both rogue states, accepting the concentration of power amongst certain political elites to achieve their own ends. Through the Marshall Plan Americaextended this policy to Europe, often choosing to support the status quo in order to open up new markets for profits. At home the USgovernment could satisfy their powerful business allies whilst also appearing humanitarian to the public by saving their beleaguered European friends from the menace of Communism. Huxley was critical of this deception but also of the entire culture of consumption Americaimposed on other nations via the Marshall Plan. He had encountered it on his trip to Americain 1926 and in Brave New World he warned against its dangers.

 

We have seen that part of Huxley’s strong suspicion of the American system is its particular version of progress. ForAmericamaking the leap to inefficient and exploitative economies of scale was progress. It has also decided that it has a global role to play and that other nations should follow their systems of government and finance. It took advantage of the threat of Communism and asked the world to make a choice between their way and the Red way. As a result today’s world is largely dominated by the triumphant American system, with even supposedly Communist China playing the capitalist game. Those not part of the grand plan are judged as failed, ungoverned and terrorist states. I believe Huxley would agree with the modern writer John Gray about what progress ought to be:

There is an ingrained tendency to think of progress in terms of convergence on a global way of life and, up to a point, a global viewpoint is unavoidable. Pollution and climate change do not respect borders, and war or anarchy in any part of the world has spill-over effects on the rest, but we should discard the idea that one sort of regime is best for everybody. Instead of thinking of progress as a movement towards a single, ideal way of life, we could think of it in terms different ways of life developing in their own ways. If some countries wish to opt out of the global market, they should be free to do so. If they want to pick and choose among new technologies, let them try[xi].”

I believe Huxley would share this view because of his passionate defence of individualism both through the satire of Brave New World and the urgent essays of Brave New World Revisited. If he did think along similar lines, as his work suggests, then nothing could be more opposed to progress than one nation attempting to impose its way of life upon others.

            In the context of the Cold War however it may seem foolish to talk negatively about progress. It is generally accepted that the pressurised atmosphere of the Cold War induced one of the most productive periods of advancement in the history of mankind. We have already touched on the staggering economic turnarounds of Germanyand Japan, both of whom are today modern nations in so many ways. Then there was the development of a military-industrial complex that fuelled changes in so many areas. In 1960 defence spending in Americaaccounted for 52 per cent of all federal spending. In total the Defence Department employed over 2.5 million people. Research projects on a whole range of subjects were handed out to countless universities[xii].  Spin-offs from the arms race helped civilian industries like electronics and air travel. Television brought exotic locations into your living room.

           However for Huxley the television brought terrible indications about the dangers of progress for progress’ sake. The 1960 Presidential election is now infamous for its televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Over 60% of the adult population watched the first live televised debate, which was surely a triumph for democracy, making politics truly accessible to voters. However Huxley saw it differently. A decisive factor in the election turned out to be Kennedy’s superior performance on television. An often quoted fact is that those who heard the first debate on radio preferred Nixon, whereas those who watched it on television liked Kennedy. This suggests that, judged purely on the substance of his answers, Nixon was the better candidate for most people. Reading transcripts of the debates reveals that the two candidates’ views on key policy matters were not grossly different and that neither decisively defeated the other in arguments.  This seems to suggest that television offered Kennedy the chance to charm away his inexperience and claim victory. Nixon’s strong record of fighting Communism and experience as a Vice President was overshadowed. In the long run Kennedy’s success at avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon’s corruption exposed by the Watergate scandal seems to vindicate the result of the 1960 election. However at the time an election was one primarily because of the candidate’s image. Huxley worried that in this new age anyone could exploit the good will of democracy, “All that is now needed was money and a candidate who could be coached to look sincere.[xiii]” For Huxley it was all too similar to the fervour that swept Hitler to power in Germany and if it wasn’t that bad, it was still degrading politics so that people were voting for symbols rather than policies; “Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance.[xiv]


[i] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxi

[ii] ibid, page xix

[iii] Murray, N.  Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual, Abacus 2003 page 182

[iv] ibid, page 184

[v] Senior, A. 2009 Blunt warning about greens under the bed. The Times 24 July, No. 69896, page 27.

[vi] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxiii

[vii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 5

[viii] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 80

[ix] Huxley, A. Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page 8

[x] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009, page 353

[xi] Gray, J. Heresies: Against Progress and other Illusions. Granta Books 2004, page 63

[xii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 279

[xiii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 73

[xiv] ibid, page 73

Advertisements

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Introduction – Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Yesterday I dusted off some work from the archives of my laptop and gave it a new, backup home on the world wide web in the humble dwelling that is Mrtsblog. Today I’ll continue the trend with a more academic piece. This essay was the fruit of a summer of reading science fiction, histories of the Cold War and comparisons between the American and Russian ways of life. Originally I also intended to write about Ray Bradbury’s works. Whilst I did enjoy The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 immensely, and they really are beautifully written with fantastic ideas, I could not accommodate his writing with my theme. Perhaps it was better I left Ray’s work alone and in the drawer of pure enjoyment in my brain.

Anyway in the end my essay, for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-Level, became a comparison of the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick. Looking back on it now there are things I wish I had done better and it’s not as well as written or argued as I hope to be in future. But I do miss the satisfaction of both academic study and essay writing now and again, so these posts will remind me that I am capable of it.

The first post (this one) will be the introduction, with the two parts on Huxley and Dick to follow. I really enjoyed marring my interests in literature and history with this essay, and as it was primarily written for English sizeable chunks about American history had to be removed. Unfortunately it’s still quite a drawn out read, with as I say, a lot of weaknesses despite a good mark. I don’t really expect any readers to consume the whole thing, but as I say, will add it to my online archive of work regardless.

So here we go:

Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?

 

Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick can both be loosely linked under the banner of “science fiction” writers. However the two men have extraordinarily different backgrounds and influences. Huxley was an English intellectual living in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Dick was an anti-establishment Californian who came of age as the Second World War ended. The literary outputs of the two men are also poles apart in a number of ways. Huxley wrote satires of the English upper classes but Dick’s mainstream successes were realistic portrayals of the average American dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Huxley’s most celebrated work, Brave New World, is regarded as a “novel of ideas” and Huxley himself admitted that he struggled to find the balance between plot and information. Dick did not have Huxley’s scientific heritage, but approached writing fiction with a strong knowledge of philosophy, psychology and Eastern Religion. These influences are all evident in Dick’s most highly regarded novel, The Man in the High Castle, along with an excellent original premise and believable characterisation. Whatever their differences however, both men continually challenged accepted thinking in their writings and in particular questioned the reality of the Cold War world. Both men are also best known for cautionary messages that prompted readers to remain vigilant about threats to their humanity from any source, totalitarian or otherwise.

Huxley and Dick were both rightly influenced by the division of a post-war world into two separate ideological camps. Huxley was deeply concerned by the methods of totalitarians and the worrying susceptibility of the masses to their tactics. Dick was amongst the first to recognise the destructive potential of two nuclear armed adversaries and the implications of impending doom on human existence. However what sets them apart from the rest is their refusal to allow their thinking to be consumed by the scale of the Cold War and the evil of the Communist threat.

Both men had the awareness to keep one eye turned inward on the frailties of the Western world, at a time when democratic governments were getting an easy ride on a wave of unity against the tyranny of the Reds. Neither man succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying the world around them into a good vs. evil struggle. They equally recognised the potential for right and wrong in each individual human being. A Communist was still a person capable of good, just as an American had the potential for bad. Both men touched on this theme in their work, Huxley with his “Savage” outsider and Dick more specifically with his almost – human androids.

The underlying warning was that a capitalist citizen could be as easily exploited as a Communist drone if they neglected their freedom to think and question. In life both Huxley and Dick were determined never to do so. Huxley fretted about ignorant modern lives, lived to purely satisfy the senses. He questioned the very idea of progress, warning against unnecessary and deceptive changes. Dick led a tortured life, lurching between periods of depression, paranoia and addiction. Through it all he maintained an intellectual curiosity with the abuse of power and perceived reality. There was hope for both of them in freedom of expression.

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel)


Film fans love a good tunnel. Whether it be the ingenious method for a daring bank robbery or the claustrophobic road to freedom from a tightly fenced POW camp, they are a vital ingredient of many a cinematic classic. Tunnels are a striking but simple storytelling device, that place the focus of the narrative firmly on the characters of people getting from one place to another, usually against the odds and at a snail’s pace. And what are all stories but snappier versions of the long and slow journey of life?

Sitting just a hay-fever induced sneeze away from surprisingly sizzling Easter sunshine with the windows flung open to the fresh spring air, I doubted my ability to fully inhabit the journey of the characters in Der Tunnel, a German film finally released on DVD on the 25th of April. In the comfort and luxuries of a 21st century room, blessed with the freedom to liberally gulp countryside air, I felt a million miles away from the damp, stuffy, volatile tubes carved torturously through the soil by countless characters in tunnel based films of the past. Not to mention feeling a world away from the 1960s Berlin setting of Der Tunnel.

Berlin is a constant inspiration for superb historical drama. It’s a fascinating city and just a glance at the ingredients that comprise its vibrant whole tells you why it’s so popular for storytellers. It’s steeped in history of all kinds, even before the rollercoaster the 20th century put the place through.  It became a radical melting pot for cultural and political change, ravaged by wars and economic turbulence and enriched by the presence of artists, writers, intellectuals and dancers.

Then with the division of the city via its infamous wall, the eyes of the world came to rest on a stark clash of cultures. When JFK declared himself a spiritual resident of the city he confirmed its status as a symbol of the Cold War, the tense conflict in microcosm. The West stood for freedom and the East for brainwashed or enforced conformity. Whilst Der Tunnel is ultimately pro the West and anti the Eastern regime, it does make you consider such simplifications more carefully. Standards of living do not change magically because of a move, and state intrusion can be replaced by the media. The West is no sure-fire ticket to happiness.

 Of all the tales inspired by the city though it’s perhaps those of suspicious spies and elusive espionage that endure with the widest and most thrilling legacy. Set a film in Berlin and it’s almost guaranteed shorthand for the audience that secrets will lurk and loom at the centre of the plot. Der Tunnel is no exception to this rule. There are a number of features that could be ripped straight from a Cold War thriller, with a manipulative East German Colonel using relationships and blackmail to protect the regime a superb example.

And yet this isn’t a tale of meddling foreigners but a story based on the truth of real Berliners, trying to escape meddling and ideological interference in their private lives. It’s principally the tale of champion swimmer Harry Melchior, who gives up a comfortable and celebrated lifestyle in the East to flee to the West before the wall is completed. He’s unable to get his beloved sister out in time though and he sets about finding a way to “bring her across”, and is joined by others cruelly parted from family, friends and lovers.

It’s a dramatic scene between two separated lovers, one of them also Melchior’s love interest, that really stood out for me from Der Tunnel. One of many emotional moments in the film, this rises above the rest because of superb acting and high drama but also due to the visual presence of the wall: painfully, physically and unavoidably denying the lovers a precious moment together. The tender scenes after this event are also moving, and the standout scene itself certainly has the potential to pluck tears from the coldest of eyes.

At just twenty minutes short of three hours long, I was worried about the wearisome effects of Der Tunnel. Would I need to scramble to the surface for air? In many ways this isn’t very creative or original storytelling, but it’s undeniably well executed, from the acting to the direction. I was engrossed by the lives and loves of the characters throughout. Crucially the tense and exciting climax delivers a classic, satisfying conclusion that’s fitting for such a classic premise.

The Adjustment Bureau


Chance and fate are like twin sisters; biologically related but far from identical. They are concepts we all know and experience day after day. Yet their effects fluctuate so wildly that no human being can define, prove or explain what exactly they are, or indeed confirm their existence with any certainty. The best, most brilliant minds throughout history have focused their attention on these beguiling, fascinating, unknowable sisters at some point. Everybody, from genius to crack addict, ponders the cruelties of chance, the favours of fate.

Was it chance that brought the girl of your dreams out onto the street in front of you? Was it just bad luck that you were spitting out your gum at the time, so that she walked head on into a potent projectile of sugared saliva and masticated goo? Or were you doomed to failure? Manipulative Miss Fate may have singled you out as her joke of the day. Then again, perhaps she was just redressing the balance after she took out the lights in the bar that time. Your powers of attraction increased tenfold in near darkness, allowing you to raise your standards considerably. That girl, let’s say Linda, barely noticed the peculiar crook of your nose, for instance, or the irrepressible leering tint to your eyes. But then again maybe there’s no balance at all, no order. Maybe it’s just Miss Chance, a bored, daydreaming secretary at her desk, absentmindedly jabbing at her keyboard.

Often the only way we can begin to explore or talk about these sisters is through storytelling. And George Nolfi’s first feature film as a director, The Adjustment Bureau, is fairly explicitly about the human relationship between our free will, each and every choice that we make, and our fate, the possible destiny that may be already determined for us, laid out beyond our control. The Adjustment Bureau is also a film that can claim to be a “sci-fi romantic thriller”; a distinctive and intriguing description of any story.

Indeed ever since I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau I have been anticipating a thoroughly different blockbuster. Several of Phillip K. Dick’s stories have been taken on and adapted by Hollywood, and several more such as The Man in the High Castle (an alternative history of the Cold War), would make excellent movies. Dick had a knack for capturing fascinating science based or philosophical questions, within a captivating narrative framework that really made you think about the issue. Apparently Nolfi has expanded considerably on Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, for this project, and that may account for some of its failings.

Numerous reviews have pointed out the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau and lamented its implausibility. For a film marketing itself as exciting, the lack of engaging thrills has also been highlighted. It’s certainly something that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief to really enjoy it. However, critics have also been quick and correct to heap praise upon the performances of the two leads.

In interviews Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have talked of how they “dicked around” on set and tried to transfer some of this interaction, this genuine banter, to the screen. It’s a technique that worked tremendously well. Much of Nolfi’s dialogue in this film is good, but inevitably when trying to encompass such grand themes and deal with an issue like love at first sight, the odd passage is clunky, cliché and cheesy. These bad moments have the potential to seriously deflate the quality of a film. But Damon and Blunt’s brilliance ensures that these dances with disaster become strengths. Whenever an emotional speech is about to over step the mark, one of the characters, usually Blunt’s, makes a jokey remark to both lighten the tone and preserve the intensity of what went before. With such sensational plot components Blunt and Damon’s incredible, immense believability and appeal makes the romantic element of the story feel constantly real and affecting.

Damon in particular is excellent as the focus of the tale and adds another impressive notch to his CV. He appears to have truly arrived as a top Hollywood leading man. Here he plays up and coming senator David Norris, who concedes a mammoth lead in the polls thanks to some revelations about his wild shenanigans in the past. It was a step too far for voters, who had been willing to back the fresh faced, young and local candidate. Damon is completely convincing as a politician passionate for change but disillusioned with the system he must embrace to achieve it.

Underneath it all, Norris just wants company and affection, and this Damon portrays well too. In the Gents after his election defeat, he bumps into Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer. After an odd (but believable!) first meeting, Norris is as infected with the chemistry between them as the audience is. He abandons his conservative losing speech in favour of a frank, electrifying exposure of behind the scenes campaigning and the nature of politics as a whole. His popularity sky rockets (one of the film’s multitude of interesting ideas and points is how the public wants honesty in politics but good men are continually stifled from being themselves).

However when Norris tries to pursue his instant infatuation with Elise, he’s warned off by mysterious looking types in 1950s style period suits, wearing silly hats. This is The Adjustment Bureau; the people that make things happen according to plan. They are not all powerful, as they appear to be governed by their own set of rules and frequently require greater levels of “authorisation”, but they can flit about New York City by teleporting through doors and predict the choices you make. John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terrence Stamp, all give decent performances as agents of this supernatural organisation.

The dated look of the agents has come in for considerable criticism; but I rather liked it. Whilst the film could be more thrilling, it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that’s still exciting and engaging without being stunt heavy. The focus is not on the action but on the plot and the romance between Elise and David. As for the plot holes, especially increasingly silly ones towards the end, these are probably due to the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is ideas heavy. Sure some of these musings on such debated subjects as the limitations of free will, determinism, God, chance and love are far from subtle. But to me that doesn’t matter, especially given the convincing chemistry at the heart of the film driving it forward as the narrative focus. It’s extremely admirable, valid and bold to make a mainstream film about any of these ideas at all. The Adjustment Bureau will get you thinking and talking about them, and hopefully exploring these fascinating areas further.

Besides, in my opinion, not all of the film’s ideas are as flat and basic as some reviews would have you think. The corporation like structure of The Adjustment Bureau for example (with God referred to as The Chairman), made an extremely relevant point about the limitations of our free will today, in supposedly completely liberated western societies. We no longer realistically worry ourselves with tyrants and dictators, but money, class and big business can substantially shape our paths through life and the hold the powerful keys to turning points in our destiny.

I applaud the abundance of ideas in The Adjustment Bureau then, even if it could have been a better film. Because of all the talking points and its compelling romance, it is still a good and worthwhile watch. Perhaps the most resonant, but also cliché, point that it makes though, and chooses to conclude with, is that love is worth fighting for. Whatever uncontrollable obstacles life throws in the way, be it distance/geography, illness/injury or rivals/opponents, love can be enough and worth holding on to. No matter what.

Oh god. Did I actually just type that? Shoot me now. Yes their performances really are that good.

Burke and Hare/Shutter Island


A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.

The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.

As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.

However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.

If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.

Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.

It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.