The Vibe’s look at 2013 in film

The continued pull of cinema can be encapsulated by the month just ended; in January, Les Miserables, Django Unchained and Lincoln were showing at the same time in theatres. Despite the economic crisis, moviegoers across the world are still flocking to cinemas to see the latest films, and there is little to suggest that this trend is about to change. The film industry is in rude health, and 2013 looks likely to be a year in which many excellent films are released. Here is The Vibe’s preview of films in 2013, beginning with new Culture Editor Jane Singer’s take on upcoming films.

Film preview of 2013

Jane Singer

There is a superb array of films set to hit our screens this year.  Two in particular to which I am looking forward are Oz The Great and Powerful and Pacific Rim.

Perhaps it is a yearning for my childhood and the magic of the Emerald City, seen first in The Wizard of Oz and then the 1985 Return to Oz, but I am very excited to see the return of the ruby slippers.  

Like the teaser-trailer that debuted in July and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the film starts out in black-and-white Kansas before arriving in the colourful Land of Oz. Disney’s fantastical adventure Oz The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, imagines the origins of L. Frank Baum’s beloved character, the Wizard of Oz. When Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot – fame and fortune are his for the taking – that is until he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting.  Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late. Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity – and even a bit of wizardry – Oscar transforms himself not only into the great and powerful Wizard of Oz but into a better man too.

This year welcomes back Guillermo del Toro after a few turbulent years.  Having seen success in 2006 with the Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth and in 2008 with Hellboy II, his path seemed set. However, after leaving The Hobbit due to delays and disagreements with Peter Jackson in 2010 and then witnessing the collapse of At the Mountains of Madness after Universal balked at its planned R rating, Del Toro returns to ours screens with Pacific Rim.  Set in Asia, the film is about giant robots fighting against giant monsters for the future of mankind.  The sci-fi epic sees Del Toro back to his best.

For my sins, I will admit that I am also looking forward to Top Gun 3D – what’s not to like – and the return of Bruce Willis in A Good Day To Die Hard, where he reprises his well-known character, John McClane.  Looking at the indie movies, two stand out in particular, Don Jon’s Addiction and American Promise.  The first is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut which portrays a modern day Don Juan who objectifies everything in his life, especially women.  However, his addiction to porn has made him dissatisfied with life and he sets out on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life.  However, he ends up seeing the bigger picture and learning more about life and love through two different women.  The latter chronicles the journey of two African-American boys from carefree kindergarteners to mature high school graduates.

Finally, don’t forget to see The Great Gatsby.  The cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann features an all-star cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher. and Jason Clarke.

Motorsport films

 Simon Stiel

Motorsport fans have been well served by excellent documentaries on the TV but the Senna film in 2011 was groundbreaking in that it captured the attention of the wider public in cinemas across the UK and the world.

We will see whether Rush will achieve that effect this autumn. It is directed by Ron Howard of Apollo 13; A Beautiful Mind fame with Hans Zimmer composing the soundtrack and Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) wrote the screenplay. It will chronicle the friendship and rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).  The two would be vying for the F1 World Championship in 1976, a year that is regarded as one of the most exciting seasons in the history of F1. As of now, the film is in the final stage of editing.

Rush is another example of prosthetic memory: an event in the past not being depicted in documentary form but by the tropes of thrillers and fiction. At best, audience members who were not fans of F1 either in the 1970s or now could be engaged about the sport. Whatever the critical response may be, it’s a notable event that a motorsport film is being made with a director of Howard’s repute at the helm. Rush will hold its premiere in September.

In contrast to Rush’s $100 million budget, independent film-maker Amber Fares used indiegogo, a site to enable donations for films and other art to raise money for her film Speed Sisters. The money was needed to cover production expenses and editing. The target amount was $35,000. The public response or crowdfunding netted $46,438.

Speed Sisters is about the Middle East’s first all women motorsport team and they’re from Palestine. They have competed in autotests held at Nablus, Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem as well as Aqaba, Jordan.  The team has gained international attention too.  In December 2011, one of its members Noor Daoud finished third in a race held in Israel at Eilat.   In January 2012, the team tested cars at Silverstone, the prestigious host circuit of the British Grand Prix and visited the popular Autosport International Show at the Birmingham NEC.

Speed Sisters features Palestinian women who are victims in that they have their daily lives controlled by occupation. They are also promising participants in one of the toughest sports in the world. It is hoped Speed Sisters will be completed in September and be released to festivals worldwide.

Political films

 Alex Bryan

The big political film of the year is one that has already been released. Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist, is hyped as one of the biggest movies of the year, arriving in the UK having received 12 Oscar nominations and general acclaim. For the American political heart, divided (not quite as) sharply in two as it was in the 1860’s, this film will perhaps be more than simply a retelling of the story of the nation’s most revered son. But regardless of the modern-day state of the American political system, Lincoln is certain to be memorable; after all this is a film about Abraham Lincoln made by Steven Spielberg. Be sure to watch it.

From an epic take on the most momentous age of American politics to a slightly less realistic endeavour, if you scan through a list of films coming up this year Olympus Has Fallen will inevitably catch your eye. For one thing, it’s called Olympus Has Fallen, which gives the film potential to be inadvertently hilarious from the outset. From another, the official poster is a picture of the White House on fire. The cast list is impressive; Morgan Freeman, Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhardt just a few of the established names. The plot  – a secret service agent must save the President, who has been kidnapped by terrorists – is remarkably similar (if not identical) to White House Down, also set to be released this year. While the films seem remarkably alike, the superior cast of White House Down (including Jamie Foxx as the President) may bring in viewers who shun Olympus Has Fallen.

A more explicitly political film than either is No, the third of Pablo Larrain’s trilogy of films about Pinochet’s Chile. After being show at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, No has been talked about as a serious political movie done well. The story is taken up in 1988, in the run-up to Chile’s first democratic election. No is a film that is likely to teach something to every viewer – even if it is only to watch the previous two films of the series.

As a film about a girl in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is inherently political. Due to be released in April in the UK, the film tells the tale of a fun-loving 10-year old girl who wants a bicycle, but is refused it by her mother, who fears the consequences. As a film exploring human nature as much as the Saudi Arabian political system, Wadjda is a must-see this year.

 

Labour and the EU referendum

By Alex Bryan

Over halfway into the current parliament, characterised predominantly by economic austerity, one of the main criticisms of the Labour Party from the left (and indeed centrists rapidly losing confidence in George Osborne’s strategy) is that, though they have opposed the coalition policies, they have not done enough to oppose the underlying assumptions that have gone with them. The best example of this is the cut in real terms to benefits recently passed in the House of Commons. The rhetoric which the government used to try and sell the policy was essentially one of divide-and-rule, pitting the ‘strivers’ against the ‘shirkers’.

The reason for the difficulty Labour had in getting their point across was that they used the specific terms the coalition employed to attack the policy. The reason the coalition employed the ‘strivers and shirkers’ line was because the logical conclusion of employing such a divide is a policy similar to theirs. For Labour to attempt to stop that policy whilst simultaneously using rhetoric which presupposed its validity was a doomed strategy.

Since the Prime Minister announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership is to be held in the next Parliament (if the Conservative Party wins a majority, which looks fairly unlikely), commentators in general have seen it as a masterstroke on the part of Cameron and have scorned Ed Miliband’s lacklustre response. However, one must remember that in terms of both the 2015 election and the possible 2017 referendum, it is early days yet.

It is clear that Labour must begin to create a strategy to argue against the Conservatives though, because it is unlikely that the Tories will not place the referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign. And in order to succeed, Labour must learn some lessons from the benefits debate.

Not every Conservative is a Eurosceptic, but it is clear that the campaign to leave the EU will be led by Conservatives. This group has an immediate advantage in that the British public is by and large anti-EU. It will also be helped by the fact that the bulk of the British media takes a strong anti-EU position.

But they still need to make their argument. It seems likely that the argument this coalition of Eurosceptics employs will follow the guidelines set out by UKIP over the past few years, concentrating on sovereignty, EU bureaucracy and the supposed economic loss that comes from being an EU member state.

The pro-EU side (which, at least until 2015, will be most strongly represented by Labour) cannot simply oppose these points if it is to be successful. Much like the debate over benefits, to debate the EU over the terms set out by those against it would result in failure. In order to convince sections of the public that the European Union is not a hindrance to Britain and the British economy, Labour and the Lib Dems must redefine the terms of the debate.

The centrepiece of the pro-EU argument cannot be the economy. Firstly, the economic benefits or losses are so difficult to calculate, with so many conflicting conclusions, that such a stance would convince few outside of those already pro-EU. Secondly, the reason UKIP have been so successful in pushing an anti-EU agenda is because the issues they have focussed on are emotive. People will get passionate about protecting British sovereignty. People will admittedly get passionate about saving British jobs, but the anti-EU side can make that argument in a far more emotive way by concentrating on immigration. People will not get passionate about a macro-economic argument about growth, even if the economic woes of our time persist in 2017.

Labour and the Lib Dems instead must concentrate on the social goods of the EU, so rarely focussed on. The Conservatives will make an argument that the Working Time Directive, the existence of the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act are a drag on the economy, an attack on British sovereignty and overly bureaucratic. The pro-EU side needs to focus their campaign on issues like these, for there is significant scope to persuade the public that EU membership protects them as workers and indeed as individuals more effectively than any domestic legislation could.

It is an essential aspect of the British constitutional tradition that any law, no matter how important, can be repealed or replaced by a simple majority vote in Parliament. Whilst this provides a great flexibility for change, it makes entrenching rights very difficult. Our membership of the European Union entrenches the rights of British citizens more deeply than any domestic law could do. By emphasising this, and other social benefits to the EU, Labour and the Lib Dems might be able to begin to overturn the immense Euroscepticism of the British public.

The Diplomatic Value of the EU – Why the current debate on British EU membership misses the mark

By Beth O’Brien

For a snowy week in January, current affairs enthusiasts have been spoilt for big news stories. A hostage crisis in Algeria, Hillary Clinton testifying on Benghazi, North Korea threatening “a new confrontation with the US”, and a declaration from David Cameron that a re-elected Conservative government will hold an in-out referendum on European Union membership.

Debate about EU membership invariably centres around the economic. Should we follow the working time directive? What about the Euro? However, I submit that these discussions are all but irrelevant. The European Union represents much more than purely an integrated market. The diplomatic value of the European Union cannot be understated. To leave the EU now would be a gross oversight by the government of the United Kingdom, and so the current concerns about economic cost of membership should be sidelined.

All of the news stories I mentioned above had a decidedly international flavour, and they all relate to something that could impact the UK in some way. The 21st century presents its own challenges that we are yet to fully understand. There are established non-state threats, such as Al Qaeda and associated groups. However, there are also state-based threats to international security. Over the last week, North Korea has declared its intention to violate UN Security Council requests to cease testing rockets. According to state television, these rockets are designed to be used to attack the US in the near future. Also this week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party was returned to power, albeit only just. Netanyahu declared his priority to be the prevention of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. It is clear then, that there is a complex list of possible threats to domestic security.

Membership of the European Union offers the UK another outlet to participate diplomatically on security issues. Particularly in relation to the Middle East, Europe is in an important geopolitical position. A unified, strong position and shared policy from the EU will allow a more effective combating of potential threats. Indeed, the European Union website states “acting together as the EU, the 27 member countries have far greater weight and influence than if they act individually, following 27 different policies.” Non-participation in this matter not only drastically reduces the weight of influence we as a nation have, but may also weaken the position of the EU. For what is a unified European viewpoint without one of its most prosperous nations?

“But isn’t that what NATO’s for”, I hear the Eurosceptics cry. Granted, NATO does represent an invaluable web of allies for the UK, and given it is a military alliance, can deter potential threats from acting at all. My argument in response to this is twofold. Firstly, the EU includes a number of states that are not in NATO, and so a unified position from both the EU and NATO would have greater coverage. This is especially important when we consider the potential influence of ex-Soviet Union nations. A unified position that may, in some respects, cross cultural boundaries, may have more influence than a purely ‘Anglo-American’ statement. Secondly, the European Union is not a military alliance. Diplomatically, this can appear to be less ‘confrontational’ than threats from NATO.

Regardless, I believe the more avenues we have to present our own specialised security needs, the better. Membership of the EU creates an environment for us to liaise with the other major European powers without the influence of America. To lose this capacity for influence would be to seriously damage our own security interests in the future.

As an aside, it may be relevant here to mention that we were only at war with some of the nations of Europe 70 years ago. To say that this is not relevant is, in my opinion, to come from the false assumption that war between modern European states is a theoretical impossibility. Before World War I began in 1914, we existed in “splendid isolation” from mainland Europe, choosing only to enter into military alliances to prevent a hegemon emerging on the mainland and threatening British sea trade with the Empire. Before World War II, Hitler (yes, I am Godwin-ing this) admired Britain and her society, openly considering the possibility of a formal alliance. Of course, I am not saying if we leave the EU we will war with mainland Europe, nor will membership permanently prevent a possible altercation. However, we cannot foresee what challenges the rest of this century and beyond will bring. Distancing ourselves from our European allies would be foolish, no matter the economic implications.

Our relationship with our allies within the confines of the EU is worthy of debate. Membership as a whole, I would argue, is not. If the referendum does come round, I hope campaigners will consider other factors outside the economic, and see the EU for what it really is – a mechanism for cooperation and alliance in an increasingly unstable world.

Polls Open for General Election in Israel

By Oliver Griffin

‘If you’re in Israel today, vote as if your life depends on it. It does’ is the message blaring from Jewish Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s journalists today, Tuesday, 22nd January. Millions of Israelis will be turning out to elect the 19th Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The Knesset is made up of one-hundred and twenty seats and it is widely anticipated that the incumbent coalition government, headed by the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, will retain power for a third term in office.

However, the outcome is set to be slightly different from last time, with results expected to show a drop in seats held by the Likud-Beiteinu coalition from forty-two to thirty-five. This is largely due to a mix of dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s foreign policies and the draining of votes by the ultra-nationalist, ultra-orthodox Jewish Home party. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute has said that it is likely that “there will be an over representation of the religious and ultra-orthodox – approximately one in three according to the latest polls.” This is quite a considerable jump from the one in five seen at the end of voting in 2006 and further implies that there is a hardening of right wing opinion in Israel at present.

Mr Netanyahu, who has previously been seen as “disappointing” in his leniency towards Arab settlements in the West Bank and his acquiescence of demands made by President Obama, is expected to become more hard line than he has been previously. This is without doubt influenced by the sudden upsurge of nationalist sentiment, which itself is caused by the fear of external threats, such as the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons plan. Many within the Jewish Home party, expected to be the third largest party of the coalition with approximately twelve seats, are vehemently opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state. Further to this, they advocate the annexation of large swathes of the Palestinian West-Bank, believing that the Arabs there are the responsibility of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments.

With the likelihood of an ultra-right Israeli coalition coming to power, so too comes the potential for further trouble in the Middle East. Only a few months ago after sustained rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and other Israeli territories, the prospect of an Israeli ground invasion seemed imminent. If such a nationalistic and uncompromising government is truly established, it is likely that we will see further conflict in the region and a move away from the process of establishing a lasting peace.

Public perceptions of the Meatgate scandal

By Issac Turner

Ethical reactions to the supermarket horsemeat incident 

It’s Meatgate. Burgers being sold in Tesco, Iceland, Lidl and Aldi have been found to contain traces of horsemeat in quantities of up to 30%, a damning revelation for four of the ‘big ten’ leaders in the mass-market food industry.

The social significance of this fact is clear if we consider the fact that Tesco have resorted to publishing large advertisements in several national newspapers apologising for their unfortunate involvement in what, to the boardroom, must seem like a crisis for maintaining profit margins and consumer faith.

In Britain, we are evidently ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ at the inclusion of an animal that is generally seen as socially unacceptable to eat, but in countries such as France, the scientifically damning findings dominating headlines over here would hardly make page thirty of a regional paper.

This draws up an interesting dilemma for the United Kingdom: why exactly are we revolted by the findings?

It could be because we feel cheated by supermarkets that originally had our faith and loyalty. In an age of weak industrial responsibility and public vitriol at other powerful institutions such as Northern Rock and Goldman Sachs, it was perhaps the duty of Tesco, Aldi and so forth to promote more sound ethical practices and a regular control over the content of the foodstuffs they sourced from external outlets.

Alternatively, could it be more that we may have consumed the products in question? This interpretation is less about corporate responsibility and more about social norms. The supermarkets in question have breached societal practices that we as British consumers abide by in their ‘acceptance’ of horsemeat as a valid part of burgers, unintentional though it may have been. Thus, this argument goes beyond mere ‘disappointment’ in the industry, to actual personal disgust. This is where it can get dangerous; when ethical arguments become a direct issue for citizens, they are more likely to take a polarised opposition to the guilty parties.

Naturally, different individuals will have alternating philosophies when it comes to the crux of the situation, and it is likely that many of us will feel a mixture of the two scenarios I have outlined above. But what can the supermarkets do now to win back our trust?

Tesco have taken the first step in issuing a public apology. This is something that characters such as Rupert Murdoch, and even Tony Blair, have been much more reluctant to do, yet in their powerful appeal to the nation Tesco have managed to begin a dialogue of empathetic and sorrowful language. This is the main action that needs to be implemented across the board.

Another solution is scapegoating. The public need someone to blame- it’s inherent in human nature. If the issue escalates it is likely that the original source of the burgers, the ABP Food Group, will face the brunt of the scrutiny as questions from industry and media are directed at considerations such as honesty, business practices and even possibly legal repercussions- for the more sensational papers.

Whatever the outcome of Meatgate, it is likely that the widest theme that will emerge is the continuation of public dissatisfaction with globalised chains such as Lidl. The mass-market experiment is one that has taken fifty years to come full circle. If we can’t even trust in our most valued retail institutions, where does that leave a nation built on dubiously ethical commercial motives?

North Korea: Where Ignorance is Power

By Patrick Lee

North Korea: A totalitarian state. A place which, much as he tried to avoid doing so, Christopher Hitchens could not help but to draw parallels with Orwell’s 1984, the novel and the state each beginning their nascent stage within the same year. Hitchens observed it was almost as if Orwell’s novel was used as a guidebook of how to operate a totalitarian regime. A regime that imprisons its own civilians in concentration camps, entire families being sent to facilities for the crimes of long dead family members (crimes such as attempting to flee the country), until three generations of that family has served its sentence, without trial. The most recent, and conservative, estimates according to the British Home Office show that 138, 000 people are currently held in detention centres, of which 130, 500 are political prisoners. Many of these people die in the camps.

This then, is the very broad context into which Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, has wandered in to when claiming that “As the world becomes increasingly connected, their [North Korea’s] decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth, and so forth, and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically.” Schmidt’s words relate to the fact that, like all totalitarian states, free information is illegal. In North Korea no citizen (besides the Kim family and a few elite military officials) is free. Again according to the Home Office, citizens are denied free speech, free press, assembly, association, religion, movement and workers rights. Of course there is no independent media; no opposition political parties; very little internet access, of which limited amount is heavily censored and domestic instead of global; and heavily restricted mobile phone use. Most citizens of North Korea are lucky to get electricity throughout the day. The most interesting spectrum through which to view Mr Schmidt’s comments is with the knowledge that protests do occur in North Korea (albeit very limited protests) based upon occasional severe laws and restrictions on domestic black markets.

In Blaine Harden’s book Escape from Camp 14 (the account of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s escape from North Korea) we get an insider perspective on how North Korea cannot feed its people. Black markets thrive throughout the country, with the army often making deals with civilians for food supplies. Malnourished North Koreans are infamously an average three inches shorter than their South Korean neighbours. During national famines in the past (particularly during the 1990’s, when an estimated three and a half million North Korean people starved to death) Kim Jong-Il was lenient on the black market revival, despite this contradicting the communist ideology of the state. This may, however, have been down to the fact that the army was also starving.

Now things get interesting, and one has to ask the question of Google’s Mr Schmidt: Why now? There are two main narratives to consider in why Mr Schmidt’s comments may actually be, rather than facile and obvious, prescient and accurate. The first narrative concerns the fate of most isolationist economies and communist states. Whereas considering North Korea from the perspective of an educated Westerner living in a liberal trade economy renders the reasons behind its status as a Third World seemingly obvious.

Lenin, the father of the dependency theory, posited that capitalism bought itself initial success through exploitation and market monopolisation of the underdeveloped world. He differed from Marx in his assumption that rather than the final fall of free market capitalism coming from the internal working class, instead the global proletariat would fight the final revolution. This seemingly liberal idea has had nothing but illiberal consequences for Third World economies. Dependency theory led to policies such as import substitution, whereby high tariffs against imports are introduced in order to encourage internal growth. In North Korea, and other communist states, the economy withdrew entirely from the global capitalist trading system and instead integrated nationalised industry and economies. Dependency theory fails though, when noticing that less developed countries, particularly in the east, have experienced extreme economic growth and better living standards when abandoning economic autarky and embracing export-led growth. Veblin, an early liberal trade theorist, predicted that those late to modernization would in fact have an advantage over early starters due to the ability to import contemporary technology rather than develop it, and in the case of recently developed Asia he has been proven right.

Traditional liberals may argue, as Francis Fukuyama anticipates, that the economic boom in countries such as South Korea comes at the sacrifice of social justice; that draconian policies and exploitative worker rights have helped support the new economy. In fact South Korea, among others, has steadily decreased income inequality over generations. Compare these results with isolationist states and those which utilise import substitution policies, such as those of Latin American countries, and North Korea. What convinced those late to the liberal market after World War Two to adopt economic change were the clear benefits of global capitalism: better living standards, lower inequality, healthier democracy, improved education and health.

As Orwell suggests in 1984 the power of a totalitarian regime stems from the ignorance of its people. North Korea cannot keep its population blind to the huge advances of the West and its neighbours forever. There can be few more encouraging signs than the chairman of one of the leading corporations in the world, and one that specialises in free information, calling for less isolation for the regime. Liberals will argue that Google itself represents an exploitative corporation. The obviously corollary to this is to point out that more obvious exploitative, less-egalitarian option between the two opposing sides.

The second narrative that must be considered is to ask why Schmidt has made this comment now. Is North Korea close to the period of change that it must undergo? In his first New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong-Un celebrated the internationally illegal launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3-2 rocket, which released a satellite that now illegally orbits the Earth; and other internationally illegal rocket launches. At the same time, however, he encouraged “great reunification programmes common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity”. He has encouraged peace talks with the South, while behaving aggressively toward them. There are two ways to interpret this behaviour: Firstly, following the South Korean December elections and the coming to power of Park Guen-Hye, Kim Jong-Un is attempting to persuade Guen-Hye to abandon previous South Korean president Lee’s aggressive policies toward North Korea. Prior to Lee, South Korea was a great provider of aid and resources to its starving and aggressive isolationist neighbour. Lee, however, introduced “Vision-3000”, a policy which led to less aid and an approach to the North which insisted on non-proliferation and denuclearisation as an absolute must, the acceptance of which would be met with aid on an “unthinkable scale”. This aid, Lee told the North, would help to increase the average per capita annual income to the level of $3,000 (US) in North Korea. The “carrot on a stick” policy failed, however, as it was essentially too aggressive, particularly as it included the “May 24” measures which prevented any South Korean from coming into contact, or doing business with, any North Korean. Put simply: Kim Jong-Un wants to return to the days where the North Korean’s continued to exploit the South’s generosity and naivety.

The second interpretation is far more nuanced. Perhaps, Kim Jong-Un recognises the need for economic change. He has assigned a party official to oversee the army, a very courageous decision for a country that relies heavily on its militant power and loyalty and has a democratically unprotected government. He has utilised and empowered his uncle Jang Sock Taek, who has travelled to the West and (reportedly) encourages economic reform. Perhaps with his missile launches, Kim Jong-Un is appeasing his military officials who rely on aggressive policies toward the West and South.

Simultaneously, newly elected South Korean president Park Guen-Hye, while being criticised for being too similar to her predecessor Lee in her punishment of North Korean nuclear provocation, may be the catalyst for a North Korean paradigm shift. While her advisors have publically demanded an apology from the North for the Cheonan attack, it seems that Guen-Hye is open to talks before the North begins a denuclearisation programme. She wishes, initially, to promote North and South exchange offices to promote cultural and social interchange in areas such as public health and education. The idea, publically, is to build trust between the two nations. It would have the consequences, however, of surreptitiously but effectively educating North Korean citizens to the benefits of non-isolationist regimes, and expose them to the lies of the Leader. Kim Jong-Un, perhaps recognises the benefits of this offer, which is much more attractive than the Vision 3000 plan, which demanded absolute capitulation to South Korean demands.

While the US government publically peddle Mr. Schmidt’s comments as “not particularly helpful”, which is the immediate obvious response, this view turn out to be myopic. Perhaps the best chance of engaging with North Korea is to demonstrate the advantages of Western based economics and free information. Change in North Korea will come from within rather than by direct external force, and this fact is absolutely necessary for continued relations between the East and West. Mr Schmidt is not only absolutely right in his statement, but he has made them at exactly the right time.

Notice the form, or, Looking up at music culture from the underground.

By Patrick Lee

And so to be brought reluctantly to the task of writing about music, an act memorialised by a post-ironical tee shirt that fittingly (pun intended) declares, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. “Memorialised” is the correct word as the tee shirt predicts, describes and celebrates the death of an act of expressing expressions on the already expressed. It is hard to imagine more fertile ground for soppy, pretentious and fledgling weaklings to plant their mossy heads but as this is the current task let’s briefly indulge in the really great aspect of the tee-shirt’s witticism, using a famous but pretentious aphorism: a witticism is an epigraph on the death of a feeling.

This article, for those who are already turning up a nose, will continue in the same vein so be advised: this may be the last piece of writing you ever read about music so you would do well to proceed. The Dandy Warhols get it down better than anyone else has at the start of their Odditorium when ringside announcer, well, announces: “By the time Gene Vincent, B.B King, and Elvis Presley heard this Warhol sound, they were calling it “Rock and Roll”. Front man, Courtney Taylor Taylor was quoted as saying “I know it’s only Rock and Roll, but I think I like it”. I’m Bill Curtis, and you’re listening to a piece of history.” Quoted and typed quickly and verbatim (as is, I confess, the majority of this article), such is the power and ability of those words in introducing such an excellent album. The point, and here we come to dangerously fertile but nonetheless necessary terrain: Alternative culture, music culture, American culture, anti-culture, and especially, people, youth culture has undergone a process called pre-corporation. It has been packaged, sold and materialised as mainstream alternative culture and what’s more there is quite literally no escape from it (Kurt Kobain, trapped by the enormity of his own commercial success, made this point with his shotgun, which I suppose is an escape or sorts). The history you are listening to a piece of is the endless chasm of history created at history’s end (see the same author of the death of the witticism quote above[1]), and writing about this history is not just like dancing about architecture, it’s more like dancing about dancing about architecture. At the end of creative, alternative, youth culture, the main option for an artist is to progress ironically, using a mosaic pattern of previous, more “genuine” days gone by, and to do this in a celebratory tone (it’s true: Tarantino’s later films are very comparable to late Dandy Warhol material – two truly contemporary artists[2]). And while we’re at it, please reflect on the un-accidental choice of the Dandy’s to nominate and modernise the name “Warhol”.

It is true, then, that this is more of an article about articles about music, and unfortunately in a world where to make a certain point about the inescapability of consumer culture people have to shoot themselves in the head, criticism (sweet criticism) has to draw some cultural blood. Get ready for it then Christopher Nosnibor, because you’re about to be quoted:

 

Granted, a band as hot as White Firs are going to attract more than their fare share of hipster hangers-on, and the duffel-coat wearing popped-collar brigade are out in full force tonight, standing right at the front talking loudly and posturing hard. Forget ‘em. it’s all about the music…

 

I think I might have been (depending on the time of the paragraph taking place) one of the “hipster hangers-on”, and whereas I am, I think, borderline complimented by this, I do take exception to the duffel-coat criticism, wanting to take the chance here to express admiration both for the duffel coat itself, and for those daring enough to wear it inside at a gig as “hot” as the one The White Firs produced. The quotation marks on “hot” there meant more as a satire on the tepid description, rather than my feelings on the band’s performance.

The talking referenced might also have been in relation to me as, alas, I confess to talking during the show. Now, obviously talkers are an issue during times when quiet ostensibly rules supreme[3], but to criticise those voicing an opinion during bands like Bull and The White Firs would be an error. Daring to pursue, tackle, render lifeless and then begin a post-mortem on this error is, as noted, daring, as splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions is likely to result in being covered in surgical smelling entrails; but, dragged here as we have been, we might as well cover ourselves in the grizzly innards of the thing, and hopefully be left cathartically and metaphorically cleansed by the end. A crucial question has been left unasked by the typical, cliché-ridden reviewer of music: What do The White Firs do?

For both purposes of relevance and brevity, Bull will also be included in this description. The talking referenced by Nosnibor during Bull may well have been me referring to them as “Weezer meets Teenage Fanclub, with a side plate of Pavement” a metaphor which has since been upgraded to a more nuanced food metaphor, in which Pavement is symbolised by vinegar. Nonetheless, a positive review. Very positive, in fact, and as terrible it is to say it must be acknowledged that their performance and sound was intelligent, in the same way that The Dandy Warhol’s intro is intelligent, and the way that Tame Impala (et al) have forced themselves into being very credible and highly enjoyable bands. They are catchy and simultaneously both serious and fun. I can pay no higher compliment to (is it still kosher to describe instrumentalists in this way?) the rhythm guitarist, and truly hope he takes it as a compliment, when I say that no man has ever been so obviously a Thurston Moore fan, a friend of mine noting “from the top of his scalp to the very tips of his toes”. He was great, put briefly. Originality, brilliance, achieved in reference and pastiche: Bull, you passed the test. You have furthered the cause.

This began, however, as a description of main event The White Firs. A final digression, though, for the sake of Muttley, who, sadly, fill the otherwise empty void which, God help us, would otherwise have had to be filled with conversation; playing the dreaded early evening spot to which I was not present, as it was far too early, and so you will for now be confined, potentially permanently, to history’s chasm as mentioned earlier. Don’t give up. We all have to try to claw our way out. The White Firs, though, they do something. I’ve recently heard that York is now somewhere high up (I believe either third or seventh) on a respectable publishers list of most influential cities in terms of music. This is no accident. Firs’ Front man Danny Barton, previously of The Federals acerbically observing “it only took us seven years”. As many reviewers currently and will continue to notice, The White Firs have kept The Federal’s scuzzy garage sound so easily comparable to The Stooges while at the same time developing a more melodic, unashamedly pop centred façade. Please note: “façade”. They are, and will continue to be, difficult to pin down, reference, pigeonhole and atomize. Credit must go to James Barton for seemingly adding the level of maturity and frivolity to brother Danny and Jack Holdstock’s obvious musical accomplishments. Further kudos goes to The Dutchess for honouring a musical occurrence of such originality with a new, more intimate and less conventional setting. It worked. Back to task: What The White Firs have brought to York, and to those lucky enough to be in the The Dutchess’s innovative space is an excellent local band who have both the potential to be enjoyed by a mass audience while at the same time somehow being totally incapable of being packaged and sold on any obvious mainstream scale. This is not to say that they are unmarketable; all run the risk, and constant change is necessary to avoid the giant rat or monkey or however you envision the consumer beast, but The Firs are highly original and accessible now. The sound is there; the influences a vague shadow, but their presence and the phonological result is unapologetically original and almost dangerous. Barton’s voice, as well as Holdstock’s drumming and the song writing as a whole are entirely their own. It is, unfortunately, rare to find a band that fits such a description.

This is in danger of turning into a description of sounds as interpreted by me, in turn expressed to you which is a trap I’d hoped to avoid. A description of the meaning of this sound, however, does necessitate treading the dangerously mossy pretentious ground, but is necessary all the same.

There can be a lot of speculation as to the next step for culture that is trapped in a constant state of ironic self-reflection, a relentless re-packaging of days gone by (the word “retro” always comes to mind while describing the sterile state of the early twenty-first century, but please believe and explore: it goes much deeper than that. Late capitalism affects more than just a culture’s notion of self-perception and forms of expression). I would argue that The White Firs have furthered the debate. While Bull fit satisfyingly into the bracket of ironic contemporaneity (forgive the use of word, I am on mossy ground) reflecting ironically days gone by, of the celebratory form of scuzzy indie pop, The White Firs announce themselves as being simply there. This sounds like a cop-out for a review, and is in truth a difficult form to describe. Consider the difference in the writing of Ernest Hemmingway and Bret Easton Ellis[4]. Both employ minimalist technique, sparse and equally effective, yet used to totally different effects. Hemmingway (here comes my layman interpretation) reflecting on the indescribability of war, trauma, among other themes, while Ellis inverts the rhetoric and technique of modern consumer society: juxtapositions of nihilism, violence and constant desire; constant sensory saturation inverted. A better example would be alt-lit king Tao Lin (much as I am loathed to describe him as such, it is true, he is a king of a certain genre), who uses literature and the same minimalist technique for its most simple basic function: description & communication. His point being that the technique reflects the state of modern life: the response to constant self-reflection is to not reflect at all, but rather to simply, unapologetically be[5]. This is not to say that The White Firs’ sound is minimal, the comparison instead is supposed to draw attention to the fact that they have used something old to represent something totally modern. There are arguments, on the literature side of this progression of expression, that this is essential in the continuation of expression fundamentally, an ultimatum which is difficult not to over-exaggerate. The White Firs, yes, that local band that played to an audience of maybe one hundred, I argue, have introduced the debate into our music scene. Unlike bands referenced above (and ones that come to mind now of similar vein: Tame Impala, Wilco, Smog, etc. etc., please free feel to fill in blanks) it is hard to find an obvious bracket or market for their sound or attitude. They simply, excellently are. And in the atmosphere of the odd, intimate setting of the venue, dare I even say it, in the context of the introduction of the New Year, they almost seemed to show us where we are all going. They are something new. Something as yet unnamed.


[1] Particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[2] Or maybe just past the point of contemporary, as will be seen.

[3] I, for example, am currently sat in a sparsely occupied “Quiet” train carriage. Empty except for me, a small, frizzy haired, bespectacled comic book harassed looking woman holding a cage containing a quieting kitten which is learning to adjust to the shakes of the train; and a very annoying young Cockney geezer type who is quite literally leaving the same message again and again on different answer machines re: the amount of trains it takes for him to travel wherever his A-B actually is. This, Nosnibor, is the quiet carriage. Not a live gig. This is where we’re meant to shut up.

[4] The recently increasingly terribly opinioned, over-rated Bret-Easton Ellis, my favourite description of which is that it’s just “such a shame that the man can write”.

[5] There is, of course, much more to say on the themes of Tao Lin and the instruction of his form…but this is for another day.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 616 other followers