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An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 2 – Dick and the Illusory War: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


The final part of my Cold War/sci-fi/American history essay. I was especially pleased with some of the analysis of Dick’s characterisation in The Man in the High Castle but disappointed that I had to rush Do Androids Dream Electric sheep due to word limit constraints:

 

DICK AND THE ILLUSORY WAR

 

In his 1955 talk Pessimism in Science Fiction Dick argued that the collapse of belief in progress had led to an unavoidable preoccupation with doom. Hence the science fiction writer was “absoluted, obliged” to “act out the Cassandra role” of giving early warnings of the grim times to come[i].”

Huxley was not alone in believing that science fiction could act as cautionary prophecy. He was also not the only one to recognise the stagnation of genuine progress during the Cold War period. Here we see that in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, Phillip K. Dick also asserted that ordinary people’s cosy everyday realities were menaced by “grim times to come”. He felt “obliged” as a writer to highlight what he saw as the main threats.

            For Dick the most important threat seemed to be the manipulation of reality. The “doom” that fascinated him was not simply nuclear destruction but the exposure of reality as a fabrication. Again and again his enormous body of work deals with the idea of life not being what it seems and conspiracies maintaining the status quo. Often his protagonists uncover seemingly pointless and elaborate fabrications that lead them to question their own sanity. “The paranoid theme manifests itself in Dick’s novels through the discovery of institutional conspiracies to promote versions of reality for often ultimate purposes often left unspecified[ii].”In The Penultimate Truth (1964), Dick raises the idea of a ruling elite maintaining the illusion of a long since ended war, in order to maintain their positions of power. The unsuspecting public is imprisoned underground, believing a nuclear war to be raging on the surface. They are kept busy producing lead robots to fight the fake war. The illusion is maintained through state controlled media and the speeches of the “Protector”, a President-like figure “who legitimates the regime by casting the administration as selfless guardians willing to brave the dangers of radioactivity for the public good[iii].”Clearly Dick is drawing a parallel with the ideological conflict sold to the American people at this time. It’s no wonder writers like Dick questioned the Cold War, as by its nature the conflict rarely went “hot” and provided concrete evidence of fighting and if skirmishes did occur they were in far away lands. Dick would also explore the theme of illusion extensively in other novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and in so doing comment on the political fabrications of the period.

 

There were countless events that may have triggered Dick’s suspicions during the Cold War period. I have chosen two examples of illusion that seem particularly relevant to his work. The first example of Resource War as a stimulus for illusion is linked to ideas raised by Dick’s characters in The Man in the High Castle. In this novel Dick has created his own Cold War betweenGermany andJapan and superficially the reasons for their rivalry are mainly ideological, just like the real conflict. However through his characters musings on the Nazi Party’s grand schemes it emerges thatGermany’s aims are primarily the extension of its own wealth. The most imaginative scheme described is the conversion of theMediterranean into arable farm land. This project clearly has the intention of expanding the resources of the German people and improving their living standards. Ideologically driven projects of genocide are also mentioned but the emphasis is on the lifestyle available inGermany as a result of their material conquests. Dick is clearly commenting on the political conflicts of the time and questioning whether it is in fact greed rather than idealism motivating confrontations with Communism.

            The second example I give as a likely influence on Dick’s work is the myth of the Missile Gap. Dick seems to deal with the idea of producing unnecessary weapons directly in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel an illusion of war is maintained in order to control the awareness of the population and maintain a power structure. In real lifeAmerica produced nuclear weapons, rather than the robots of the novel, to deal with an invented technology gap with the Soviets. This myth was sustained by the media and Dick reflects this in the novel too.

 

We have already seen through Huxley’s criticisms that economic factors were crucial to the rivalry betweenAmericaandRussia. The notion that the Cold War was a purely ideological struggle between democracy and Communism is nonsense.Americawas concerned by the expansion of Communism because it was a system of governance that would ultimately be controlled and exploited by the Russians. The primary motivation for the Cold War was not a moral disapproval of Communism and its failings, but to sustain an economic system and therefore a way of life. The Second World War merely removed all the other competitors for the resources of the world, weakening them to such an extent that to acquire anything they must sit at the table of one of the superpowers. A century before the Second World War, it had already been observed thatAmericaandRussiawould one day be direct and supreme competitors by Alexis de Tocqueville, in De la Democratie en Amerique:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.[iv]

The Cold War fulfilled this prediction of Americaand Russiadetermining the fate of at least half the world, as there are few regions the division did not in some way consume. One of the areas particularly embroiled in competition was the Middle East. This was because oil was now the resource everyone craved, just as gold, sugar or coal had been for the competing empires of the past. As Americamade the transition from the world’s largest oil producer to its biggest importer, it scaled up its military presence in the oil rich region. In 1940 Middle Eastern oil only accounted for 5 % of world production, but by the 1950s Americahad moved to secure its potential[v]. It took advantage of British weakness following the Second World War to replace them as the dominant power in theMiddle East. TheSuez crisis of 1956 forcedAmerica to choose between her Allies taking on a dictator who was flirting with the Communists and the oil of the Arab world; it chose the oil. It also repeatedly stopped short of fully supportingIsrael, despite the power of Zionists in American politics, in order to maintain relations with oil abundant Arab states. OperationAjax, a CIA led overthrow ofIran, was carried out in response to the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There were worries about Soviet plans forIran but these were concerns about the flow of oil, not the method of government or the welfare of Iranians. The Americans knew full well that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company could be influenced or replaced by American firms like ARAMCO or Standard Oil. The Russians, once in place, would be less accommodating.  

The Cold War was a resource war on a global scale and the resources involved were not simply fuels like oil.Americagained immensely from friendly, prosperous governments. Therefore wars like the Korean War, whilst not fought to secure control of a particular treasure, were carried out with the aim of acquiring an asset. They were also preventative, in that they halted the Russians from advancing any further and seizing land that may yield future benefits. Importantly they were clearly not ideological, as the Korean War was fought in support of a cruel dictator as tyrannous as the northern alternative, with the exception that he would do business with suited money men.

 

A recent article in The Times analyses the world’s current stockpile of nuclear weapons. The article is prompted by Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club and is headlined “Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas[vi]”. The main message of the article is “the world already has enough nuclear weapons to destroy every single nation on the planet.” Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for daring to suggest a world without nuclear weapons as President of theUnited States. However the world seems locked into a situation that makes it impossible to get rid of the destructive devices, despite a commitment by the Cold War powers to reduce their own stockpiles. This is because the hysteria of the Cold War arms race was not controlled and now the technology is far too freely available. The origins of this ludicrous ability to destroy humanity several times over lie in the pressure cooker of American politics at the beginning of the 1960s.

            The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik is partly responsible for the sheer number of nuclear armaments produced. It was not just the initial launch in 1957 but a whole series of satellites that shocked and amazed the world. The Americans had dismissed the Russian plans as propaganda but Sputnik’s radio bleeps provided the world with solid proof; Russiawas winning the technological race. The scientist Edward Teller said on television that Americahad lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbour[vii].”American pride took a severe beating and its military were also given a nasty shock at the realisation that Soviet missiles could soon be reaching US cities. The result of immense public pressure was a flurry of reactionary schemes to close the missile gap, the “technology gap, and behind that an education gap. A lasting legacy of the panic generated by Sputnik was the passing of the National Defence Education Act of 1958, in which at last the case for federal involvement in education was accepted by Congress[viii].”However not all of the schemes enacted in the hysteria were so harmlessly beneficial in the long run. As well as thousands of new university places the panic spawned thousands of new nuclear weapons. In 1959 the defence budget was increased by President Eisenhower to more than $40 billion, over half the entire federal budget. The press saw this as a long overdue response to the Sputnik crisis but a reluctant President Eisenhower had been more realistic. He knew from intelligence reports comprised of detailed photographs by U-2 spy planes, that the missile gap with the Soviets was a myth. However the top secret nature of this information meant he could not use it to ease political pressure on himself and as a result he was forced to increase the production of nuclear weapons anyway. His silence on why he felt reluctant to increase spending had already damaged his administration beyond repair. The American people turned to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960 instead of Eisenhower’s deputy Richard Nixon. Kennedy placed great emphasis on restoring America’s lead in the technological race, only to find on taking office that America was in reality already far ahead of the Soviets.

Dick chose to reflect the illusory aspects of the Cold War period in his writing. He did this in a number of ways and in many of his works, but I am choosing to focus on two of his best known novels, The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the most obvious illusory element is the fake animal industry. Status within society is determined by whether or not you own an animal. This had led to a supply of fake electric animals in order to satisfy the demand. Dick may have taken inspiration for this fake industry from government reports during the Cold War that recommended the construction of futile nuclear shelters and sanctioned the sale of “private family fallout shelters” by companies at a cost of “$2,395-installation extra[ix]. Here we have a clear example of government orchestrating an illusion in order to gain profit and control. Official reports calling for nuclear shelters served the dual manipulative purpose of keeping the public in fear of attack but also making them feel that they were empowered to do something about it, thus avoiding hysteria. Allowing companies to sell private shelters to families would also have wrongly made people feel that they were taking positive action to protect their loved ones. It also allowed nuclear protection to commercialise and create an entirely new industry based on a fiction. The government directly instigated an illusion for profit.

 

The Man in the High Castle presents an alternative ending to the Second World War, in which the Axis powers triumphed. Whilst this would be a drastically different reality in many ways Dick makes a comparison with his own world by setting up Japan and Germany in a similar superpower standoff to that between the USA and USSR. He comments on the Cold War by creating an alternative one of his own, with arguably more extreme opponents. He reveals shocking snippets of information regarding world affairs in his alternate world, only through the individual musings of his characters. Indeed I think the believable characterisation in The Man in the High Castle is an important part of Dick’s representation of the theme of illusion.

The first character we meet in the story is Mr R. Childan, proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. It is interesting to analyse the way Dick introduces us to Childan, as the novel goes on to introduce us, in my view successfully, to a number of different characters. All of these characters allow us to view Dick’s alternate world from a different angle, but they are all ordinary, accessible people with narrow viewpoints. The result is a tremendously varied novel, with intertwined narrative strands converging upon one ultimate revelation.

            Dick does an excellent job of establishing Childan as a character very quickly. We soon realise that Childan is a proud business minded man firstly because he is thinking about the upcoming business of the day and then from his actions in tidying up the shop. He takes “a cup of instant tea”, which suggests he is unwilling to stop, he likes to be busy. There is also an attention to detail in his preparations that serves the dual purpose of establishing the setting of the shop in our minds and features of his character like pride and tidiness. There is some further background detail about businessmen hurrying to work, purely for purposes of realism, before a more telling detail about Childan’s character.

Women in their long colourful silk dresses…he watched them, too.[x]

Dick does several things to show us that this detail is telling. Firstly the three adjectives, “long colourful silk”, without commas, give the sentence an elongated, seductive sound. They highlight in what way Childan is looking at the women by drawing attention to their “dresses”. Dick also adds in a suggestive pause as Childan’s thoughts wander. Finally there is the “too” tagged on to the end of the sentence, which further sets it apart from other background details. Later in the novel, with Childan’s character more firmly established, Dick hints again at his vulnerability.

I always give satisfaction, Childan thought. To my customers.[xi]

Here it is the “To my customers” that Dick highlights as a telling detail. Just three words tell us an awful lot about Childan’s character and how he has allowed his professional and public appearance to dominate his life. There is a strong indication that something is missing, or of a sense of inadequacy when it comes to real relationships with people. Dick continues to drop hints relating to this theme throughout the novel, particularly when Childan has conflicting feelings about his attraction to the Japanese wife.

            Dick explores the theme of illusion through Childan in several ways. One of these I have touched on in that Childan has an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness compared to an outward professionalism. Another is the way in which Childan can recognise and dismiss one aspect of society as fabrication but not others.

The radio of the pedecab blared out popular tunes, competing with the radios of other cabs, cars and buses. Childan did not hear it; he was used to it. Nor did he take notice of the enormous neon signs with their permanent ads obliterating the front of virtually every large building.[xii]

Here Childan seems to dismiss the culture of advertisement as artificial and false. He lets it wash over him, an unavoidable aspect of his routine but not an influence upon him. He also doesn’t hear the “popular tunes”. The implication of that phrase is that the music is mass produced, lifeless rubbish, worthy merely of the background. However whilst Childan refuses to buy in to the illusion of advertisement, he readily embraces the struggle to climb the ladder of social status. At various points in the novel Childan recognises the fixed nature of the social system, determined almost entirely by race. He appears to acknowledge that his race means he will never advance beyond a certain position. And yet all of his actions in the novel are geared towards how he can advance himself and “have, even for a moment, higher place”.

            Dick also uses Childan to show how illusion can be imposed from above. He has Childan blame the Germans for the racial social structure which is constraining him and then praises them for their vision. Childan describes Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing as works of progress. He even defends what the Nazis have “achieved” in arguments with others. He reflects the theme of Resource War through Childan by having him describe ideological motivations in a way that shows they are actually material. He convinces himself Aryans are better because “Those fellows certainly looked happy. And their farms and cottages were clean[xiii].” Dick suggests that it is the strain of being occupied and ruled by the Japanese that has led Childan to hold such contradictory views at the same time. Dick’s way of showing the enormous influence the occupation has had on Childan is to have his internal monologue mimic the speech patterns of the Japanese he both hates and admires.

Has he stumbled onto correct notion, Childan wondered, that certain of the historic objects in stores such as mine…are imitations?[xiv]

 Here Dick is commenting on the long term effects of American occupation on the minds of people. Dick’s awareness of Japanese culture would have made him mindful of the effects of American occupation on the country and others likeGermany. In particular Dick must have worried about the legacy of resentment that accompanied the dropping of the atomic bombs. He was also fully aware of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the First World War that only lead to greater slaughter. By changing Childan’s speech patterns Dick is suggesting how people can be psychologically altered under occupation in ways they don’t even realise. In a more recent examination of the issue, David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Ghostwritten has a Japanese character who has become a terrorist partly as a result of the American legacy. Today the resentment felt by many in the Muslim world towardsAmericamay have been caused by a similar process of American superiority.

Despite the various narrative strands at work in The Man in the High Castle, such as Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plan to launch a nuclear strike against Japan and Julia Frink’s relationship with a volatile Italian; it is ultimately The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within a novel, which gives the story its illusory message. Of course there are other elements of the narrative that are linked to the theme of illusion, such as the fake jewellery and antiques business and the uncertainty regarding the identity of agent Baynes, but it is the hope of an alternate future that provides the novel’s key illusion. The revelation at the end of the book is that the truth behind an illusion may be extremely disappointing, perhaps so much so that we might wish to return to the illusion. Here we can draw parallels with Huxley, in how the Savage fails to appreciate the Brave New World. As part of that theme of disappointment Dick deliberately leaves the fates of characters we have come to care for hanging in the balance.  This though is part of the message of The Man in the High Castle. We cannot be sure of anything.


[i] Seed, D. American Science Fiction and the Cold War. Edinburgh University Press 1999, page 135

[ii] ibid, page 136

[iii] ibid, page 137

[iv] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009

[v] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 109

[vi] Binyon, M. 2009 Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas. The Times 6 October page 28

[vii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 173

[viii] ibid, page 175

[ix] ibid, page 178

[x] Dick, P. The Man in the High Castle. Penguin Classics 2001, page 9

[xi] ibid, page 27

[xii] ibid, page 27

[xiii] ibid, page 29

[xiv] ibid, page 175

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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.

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.

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.

The Adjustment Bureau


Last night a whole pack of films competed for America’s attention during the much talked about Super Bowl Ad Breaks. It was the start of a long, hotly contested race for summer Blockbuster glory.

You can check out the TV spot trailers over at Flickering Myth: http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/02/super-bowl-tv-spots-captain-america.html

Keep an eye out for the fourth Pirates film, which I thought showed more promise than expected.

Looking through the year’s other upcoming films though I stumbled across The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. The synopsis was extremely vague at first, so I delved deeper, checking out the film’s site and the trailer. Out in March, The Adjustment Bureau is far more interesting than it first appears to be. It’s something very few films can claim to be: romantic sci-fi.

It’s also based on a Phillip K. Dick short story, an extremely inventive writer I studied for an in depth, extended project at A-Level. Sci-fi stories often get bad press but the likes of Dick and Ray Bradbury wrote extremely beautifully and explored ideas conventional fiction barely scratched the surface of. In this case the story seems to explore the ideas of free will and fate, and the possible forces manipulating that fate. Again I studied this issue in Philosophy and found it a fascinating debate, and it will be interesting to see how The Adjustment Bureau works it into a sensationalised story.

From the trailer it’s hard to tell how good it will be. The premise is what interests me the most and I can only hope the film itself does the idea justice. But it also looks glossy and exciting at times. The lead actors are beautiful. Despite some predictable, less interesting sections, I’ll definitely be checking this out at the cinema.

http://www.theadjustmentbureau.com/

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman


Ned Beauman’s debut novel is a distinctive, original and confident creation that is immensely readable. It is not especially remarkable for young novelists to produce compelling fiction but it is a considerable achievement for Beauman to have pulled off a story based on some controversial ideas and subject matter that may have otherwise repulsed or offended readers if not carefully executed. It is by no means a perfect debut and its often ghastly and occasionally two dimensional themes do grate at times, but its success lies in its bold originality and playful prose.

The inside cover of Boxer, Beetle brazenly asserts that this is a clever, distinctive and entertaining novel. Despite a number of flaws including the unconvincing skin deep characterisation of one of the main protagonists Phillip Erskine and simply an over abundance of weirdness at times, I would not disagree with this confident claim on the cover having finished the book. At times the novel displays all three qualities and its brave comic handling of potentially problematic areas such as the collection of Nazi memorabilia ensures it is a distinctive experience throughout. It probably helped my enjoyment of the book that I found many of its chosen themes of eugenics, fascism and underworld boxing culture historically fascinating, but Beauman also vividly evokes the period sections with well written and sensual description that ought to engage those without a particular interest in the era.

Indeed Beauman demonstrates a gift for colourful and accurate description during the third person period sections of the novel and he also has little trouble in fleshing out believable minor characters with unique idiolects. He does struggle to make the key characters, repressed homosexual and twisted beetle collecting Fascist scientist Phillip Erskine, and rampant homosexual Jewish boxer Seth “Sinner” Roach, into rounded individuals though. It might be argued that Beauman does develop their characters enough, it is simply that I did not like them and neither was I meant to, but I can’t help thinking that Erskine in particular was a little too predictable in terms of prejudice and the attempts to make Sinner endearing in some way by introducing a regret at losing his devoted sister seemed forced.

The first person sections of the novel were always enjoyable however, seen through the quick witted and odd eyes of the impossibly smelly Kevin Broom, nicknamed “fishy” by his rich Nazi collector friend Grublock, who meets a sticky end at the hands of a sinister Welsh assassin searching for clues about the boxer and the beetles from 30s Britain. At times the present day sections felt almost like a comic novel, such was the pace and playfulness of the prose. One chapter begins with the narrator musing about what Batman would do, only to conclude that he could not imagine Batman in a Little Chef and that in general the everyday, mundane architecture of modern Britain was not conducive to a cunning, acrobatic and glamorous gothic hero. Generally the novel works superbly well, even with so many ideas flying about, providing they pass through the lens of the likeable narrator. In the third person sections too many ideas can bog the plot down and make passages with Erskine in particular almost tedious. However the novel rarely becomes an essay, despite a couple of unfocused chapters devoted to invented, short lived artificial languages and the third person chunks set in the past tend to zip along well enough despite the inferior sense of character.

Overall Boxer, Beetle is a satisfying read with a bizarre, strangely gripping narrative populated by characters we are not meant to take too seriously dealing with a cocktail of varying grand ideas and themes. Beauman’s writing style succeeds largely in pulling together a lot of seemingly unconnected subject matter into a coherent and entertaining read. It will be interesting to see how Beauman chooses to follow up such an individual first book but his writing talent is evident and Boxer, Beetle is such a mixed bag you get the impression he could and would turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.