A short story

With lots of red pen, cups of coffee, and howls of ‘grrr why did I ever think that was a good idea?’, I’m progressing with my short story. It’s called Trash and is about a little girl who makes friends with a trash can. It’s not a fairy tale as we think of them, but definitely has a fairy tale approach and moral to it.

I’m hoping to get it finished in February. Here’s a picture.

Mouse House Movie Club #11: Mulan

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This is the first Mouse House Movie Club I’ve put together in a little while. I apologise for not keeping the feature going over the last few weeks, but, well, I’ve not been in the mood for cute animals and funny sidekicks of late. With everything that’s going on in the world, Disney can feel a little pointless. After all, there are no wicked witches as evil as Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump is a misogynist so vile he makes Gaston look like a chivalrous prince.

That said, while Disney’s version of the world can seem a little disconnected from reality, it’s an important escape. When terrible things happen, you must sit up and take notice, but you’ve also got to give yourself time to breathe, otherwise the sheer horror of what that gigantic orange blob is doing becomes too much to bear. So, I decided to load up a classic and write another feature. I enjoyed doing so and hope you enjoy reading it.

There was only ever one classic in mind for this edition, and that’s Mulan. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. 1) Disney’s art sellers Cyclops Print Works released a glorious and badass Mulan print this week that captures her grace and strength with wonderful simplicity. 2) A film about a brave and strong woman seems appropriate a week on from the Women’s March. 3) It’s Chinese New Year, an important time for a different culture that’s well worth acknowledging as Trump tries to stamp out anything that doesn’t fit within his minuscule world view.

Also, Mulan is good. Like, seriously good. So before deep-diving into the more social and political elements of the film, it’s worth discussing it on its filmic merits.

Mulan: Like, seriously good.
Here are four frames from Mulan. They’re taken from random and very different moments in the film, and come courtesy of the always awesome Disney Screengrabs.

Look at how different each shot is from the others. Not just in the camera angle and the way the moment is being captured, but also in terms of the colours. The rich reds, the muddy dark blues, the cold gray-whites, the muted greens. No two scenes are the same in Mulan, and that’s great for animation nerds such as myself, who revel in such detail and diversity, but also great for the film. Mulan is an epic and a classic heroes’ journey, and by giving each stage in her journey a distinct look, it feels more even grander, at times rivalling even some of the great live action epics of Hollywood history.

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This is some serious David Lean jazz going on here…

More significantly, it lends a sense of scale to Mulan’s achievement. While lesser films would resort to having characters tell us how arduous the trip is, Mulan is smart enough to show us. Thanks to the range of the colour palate, the film makes each scene seem fresh and each challenge feel genuinely new and unnerving for our hero. We all know what it’s like to feel lost or overwhelmed in environments we don’t know or can’t understand, and that’s how we feel when watching Mulan. We empathise because the film visually gives us an emotion to empathise with.

It’s why films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, indeed most Zack Snyder films, don’t work (apologies fans of he and the film. I appreciate both have taken a huge pummelling of late, but, well, they’re terrible). If we’re seeing the same kind of visuals from scene to scene, the film has no ebb and flow, it turns into a long monotonous hum, instead of a song. Mulan is the Bohemian Rhapsody of Disney films, flinging you from one distinct style to the next and making for a heckuva journey while doing so.

Speaking of music, there’s also great joy to be found in Jerry Goldsmith’s subtle and sensitive score, which manages to feel authentically Chinese without ever descending into cliche. One of cinema’s great musical innovators, Goldsmith plays it fairly straight on Mulan and is careful to ensure that his music never overpowers the film, instead working in tandem with the visuals to heighten the epic scale and intimate emotion. Ditto the songs, almost all of which come at the start of the film. As such, it doesn’t actually feel like a musical, certainly not in the same way The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast do. As I’ve said here before, songs in Disney films are like soliloquys in Shakespeare plays: they’re moments where the characters confess their innermost thoughts to the audience.

Mulan expresses that better than any other Disney musical. It’s a Shakespearean history play, where intimate emotions are painted across an epic canvas with glorious colours and beautiful songs.

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When will my reflection show/Who I am inside?
Nowhere is this better seen than in ‘Reflection’. In a bold move, Disney went in a different direction for the film’s I Want Song. ‘Reflection’ isn’t a stirring power ballad, or empowering statement of intent. It’s a rather sad and introspective number where we see a downtrodden Mulan lamenting the fact that she can’t be her true self and can’t live up to the demands of her family or the society around her. Christina Aguilera sang the ‘pop song’ version, and while it’s pretty enough, it fails to communicate the nuance and tragedy of the film version. It’s simply not a pop song. It’s something different and remarkable.

It’s worth examining the song’s lyrics in more detail, because it (and Mulan as a whole) was well ahead of its time.

Look at me,
I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

That’s the first verse, and it speaks more clearly to modern day identity politics than many modern films that are trying to directly address those issues. I can’t speak for women or LGBTQ people, I can only try to understand their experiences through the people I have the great honour to know, but I imagine this first verse covers it pretty neatly. The struggle to be perfect, the sense of playing a role, the desperation not to hurt those you love by simply being who you are. It’s all there. The pain Mulan is communicating must be tangibly real to anyone who doesn’t fit in with society’s increasingly harsh strictures, and ‘Reflection’ communicates it beautifully, perhaps better than any other Renaissance film, which were all aiming to achieve similar commentary.

It’s why I’m excited for the live action remake of the film that’ll be hitting screens next year. Mulan feels a little lost in the Renaissance mix, lacking the iconic status of The Lion King, the romantic sweep of Beauty and the Beast, and the enduring tunes of The Little Mermaid. As it’ll be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, Disney could give it a big birthday push: a new Blu Ray, a theatrical re-release, a huge merchandise onslaught. But no matter how much they promote it, it’ll simply never garner as much attention as a live action film. Fans of the original will hang on every casting announcement and trailer, and the new generation of teenagers, with their awareness of and interest in diversity, will also be keen to know who’s starring and how the story will play out. That will no doubt lead them to watching the original and discovering what a truly wonderful film it is.

That may seem a little naive on my part, but ‘Reflection’ alone will chime with thousands of people, and as the recent protests against Trump have shown, fictional heroes have more power than we may think. If a new film means Mulan gets seen by more people, then so be it. The film’s message is significant, its main character is an avatar for everyone who can relate to her, and ‘Reflection’ is an anthem for them to get behind. May it ring out clearly and may everyone who sees themselves in it feel strong enough to join in.

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A Girl Worth Fighting For
Beyond Mulan herself, one of the most compelling things about the film is how it extends its feminism beyond the main character – and in pretty subtle ways. Beauty and the Beast communicated its feminism through Gaston as well as Belle, showing him as the enemy of everything feminism stands for. It’s very direct, very broad, and very on the nose. Nothing wrong with that of course, but Mulan tries a different approach, showing threats to feminism as something a little more subtle and insidious, something that even good guys – and worse, comic sidekicks – can inadvertently succumb to.

Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po are our sidekicks here, and great ones they are too, generating the necessary laughs and silliness to ensure things don’t become too serious. But they treat Mulan poorly at first, and even when they’ve come to accept her (albeit in her disguise as Ping) they still display signs of sexism, most notably through their song ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’, in which they get through the trials of war by fantasising about their perfect wives. Here’s a sample of the lyrics…

I want her paler than the
moon with eyes that
shine like stars
My girl will marvel at
my strength, adore my
battle scars
I couldn’t care less what she’ll
wear or what she looks like
It all depends on what
she cooks like
Beef, pork, chicken
Mmm
Bet the local girls thought
you were quite the charmer
And I’ll bet the ladies love
a man in armor
This is wonderfully sophisticated and delicate storytelling. As I’ve said, these guys aren’t Gaston – they’re the comic sidekicks. We like them. But they’re perpetrating the same toxic viewpoints that Mulan is struggling against. That in itself is pretty sophisticated, but the context adds extra eloquence. It’s difficult to judge these characters for dreaming like this – they’re at war and they’re under incredible stress. We can forgive them a little fantasy, so the film doesn’t ask that we condemn them, and it certainly doesn’t condemn the women who do have “eyes that shine like stars” even if it frames such standards as dangerous and difficult to meet. It simply makes the point that by ascribing these roles to women, Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po are hurting women like Mulan who don’t fit into those categories, even if they don’t really mean to.

Moments like this add layers to the film’s message, but again underline just how hard Mulan has it. Not only is she fighting a vast society that refuses her the right to be who she is, she’s also fighting well-meaning friends who are sleepwalking into that self-same oppression. It’ll be a wake-up call to many men and young boys who may do the same. None of us are perfect, and Mulan has the sophistication to point that out, and instead of condemning show a way for us to better ourselves and be more understanding of the needs and struggles of others.

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Be a Man
Indeed, as well as having some vital things to say about women, Mulan also has some significant points to make about men. Mulan’s battle is as much one against patriarchy as it is against Huns, and the film sheds some light on how that damages men as well. ‘Be A Man’ is perhaps the film’s most well-known song, certainly the one that lingers in the mind the most. But it’s darker than its jaunty tune would suggest: a dehumanising number in which we’re told that Li-Shang’s recruits are “a spineless, pale, pathetic lot” who represent “the saddest bunch I ever met”.

As the song goes on, it reveals that the men of this army are subject to similar societal pressures as Mulan is. Here’s another lyrical sample:

[men] WE ARE MEN
We must be swift as a coursing river
[men] WE ARE MEN
With all the force of a great typhoon
[men] WE ARE MEN
With all the strength of a raging fire

Patriarchy (and this is what so many Men’s Rights Activists simply don’t understand) is devastating for everyone. Mulan is expected to be the perfect daughter: to be poised and graceful and elegant, and if she’s not then she’s somehow a lesser woman, a lesser human being. Men suffer in a similar way. The expectations on them may be focused on strength rather than passivity, but they’re still unrealistic and those who don’t meet them are dismissed as being spineless, pale, and pathetic.

The great victory at the end of the film is that Li-Shang, Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po break free from these pressures, just as Mulan does: Li-Shang accepting that Mulan has a great plan and taking her lead, the sidekicks dressing as women and playing their part in the scheme as distractions. Sadly, not all men have such moments of revelation and stay stuck in the patriarchal expectations imposed on them. It’s why suicide rates among young men are so high (certainly in the UK) and why a particularly toxic brand of misogyny has risen up of late. Men are told that they have to be strong and in charge: the idea of listening to women is a threat to that and therefore a threat to their very humanity. So feminism is fought against – vehemently – and they remain fixed in their destructive societal norms, dragging women along with them. It’s a tragedy; one Mulan communicates – as it does everything else – with incredible intelligence and great conscience.

Conclusion

Mulan should be required viewing at school. It’s simply that important. This has been an ineloquent piece that doesn’t cover even half of what makes the film so significant and I feel a bit uncomfortable for having dedicated a portion of a piece about an incredible woman to the film’s men. But maybe that’s why Mulan is so good. It’s a call for unity and understanding that shows how we all play parts in each other’s oppression, even if we’re not always aware of it. That sounds depressing, I know, but it also shows how simple respect and empathy means we can help each other out of that oppression.

In these dark and disturbing times, Mulan speaks clearly to who are, who we should be, and who we could be. It’s about time we started listening.

I watched the news today, oh boy…

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to look back at the lessons of the past and vow never to repeat them.

Sadly some of us have very short memories and never listened in class.

It’s hard to believe that we’re just a week on since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It’s been a strange and unsettling week. Actually, scratch that. Let’s be clear here, it’s been a strange and unsettling week for me, a straight white man, because I won’t be affected by much of the evil that Trump is seeking to perpetrate. For women, people of colour, immigrants, and LGBT people, it’s been a downright terrifying week, and because of that, it really should be terrifying (not just strange and unsettling) for all of us.

I intended to write a blog about Trump and the immediate aftermath of his yugely well-attended party last weekend, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I retreated into a story I’m writing instead. This was partly because I simply didn’t want to engage with Trump beyond a few venomous tweets, and partly because I was unsure of my feelings about the major issue at the time (the punching of a white supremacist who I won’t name). Is it right to attack someone like that?

I’m still not entirely sure. I couldn’t care less about the person himself (if you want to take away someone else’s rights, I won’t shed a tear when yours come under attack), but I wondered about what it achieved. A number of people drew comparisons to World War II and how appeasement and taking the moral high ground failed to stop Hitler and maybe even contributed to the devastation that gripped the world between 1939 and 1945. Sometimes violence can be deemed necessary, the argument goes, and while that’s true, there needs to be purpose and strategy behind it in my opinion. I saw neither in the video of the attack last weekend, and there’s something about celebrating such pointless violence that leaves me queasy – no matter how satisfying it is to see an odious person given his just desserts.

Of course, things have got much worse since. Trump has been every bit the monster he promised he’d be on the campaign trail. Why wouldn’t he be? He may be a liar, but when he promises to do great evil, you better believe that’s exactly what he’ll do. He will ban Muslims, he will build walls, he will trample all over the rights of everyone who isn’t white, rich, and male. “Yes we can,” said Obama. “Yes I can,” says Trump. Because that’s who he is. The man who put the ‘I’ in America.

What can you do in the face of such hate? Millions of wonderful people made their opening statement last weekend with the glorious Women’s March, proving to Trump that unity will always triumph over division. Other marches are already planned for the future, and I’m sure there’ll be many many more to come. Beyond that, I’ve been encouraged by people’s creativity: the beautiful simplicity of this tweet, and the inspiring hope of this piece of art. Trump is a destroyer. One of the most potent forms of resistance is to create.

For what it’s worth, I myself have taken to Twitter and been more political than I’ve been in a long, long time, ridiculing Trump and the long, frog-faced turd that’s poking out of his rectum (fuck you, Farage) and even managing to work an excellent reference to Pogs in a tweet about Mexico paying the US back for the ridiculous wall. It was a beautiful reference. A great reference. Seriously, you’ve never seen a better reference to a 1990s relic than this one.

But it’s all a little pointless.

Twitter is fine and all, but using it to mock Trump feels futile. It’s nice to think that a well-crafted burn will get under his skin, but even if it does, it’ll never have enough impact to do him any real damage. He may even become more determined in his efforts to screw the world over. He’s just that kind of a dickhead.

So instead, I’ve tried to pump a little positivity into the world.  I’m writing a story that’s unashamedly hopeful and all about the importance of empathy at times like this. I’ve donated some money to a local LGBT charity. And I bought flowers for colleagues at work who a) celebrated their birthday and b) completed a long, hard piece of work this week. In the grand scheme of things, these actions probably don’t amount to much; they’re certainly not going to put much of a dent in Trump. But kindness needs all the help it can get at the moment, and this is something at least.

So that’s it really. A messy, disorganised blog to report on messy, disorganised thoughts about a messy, disorganised week. I’ll end it with a clip that would no doubt drive Trump insane.

More powerful than you can possibly imagine

Of the many wonderful things that came out of the Women’s Marches this weekend, I was particularly heartened by the appearance of Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher on a number of signs that people took with them. We’re nearly a month on from her untimely passing, and it’s inspiring to see that for women across the world, Fisher remains a source of empowerment and hope. To paraphrase a famous Star Wars quote, the world struck her down, but she became more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine.

Seeing these signs reminded me of the power of fantasy and fairy tales. Star Wars is arguably the defining fairy tales of the 20th Century, and I hope the 21st Century gets one just as popular. Perhaps it’ll be Harry Potter, which I appreciate began in the 90s, but continues to be a significant force today – as evidenced by the many signs referencing that series at the Marches. Perhaps it’ll be something else, as yet unwritten, but fermenting in the brain of a child who witnessed the marches, either in person or on television, and now feels inspired to express themselves.

One day, I’m going to write more in-depth thoughts about fairy tales. They’re critical to our very being as humans, a way to engage with difficult and abstract concepts in a engaging and entertaining way. Sadly, however, I don’t have time at the moment, and am actually trying to formulate my own mini fairy tale, which I’m working up the courage to complete and post here. I’ll keep you up to date on that one.

So instead of a full blog, I’ll simply leave you one of my favourite images from yesterday and a quote, from fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes:

“Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been “a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.”

Mankind has created a horrifying terror. Princess Leia will help conquer it.

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Panic on the Fourth of July: Spielberg’s America

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In this article, originally posted on From Director Steven Spielberg, I take a look at Spielberg’s complex portrait of America, which strives for hope but expresses a deep sense of anxiety at corruption, masculinity, and political process gone wrong. 

Steven Spielberg delivers one of his most damning indictments of the American psyche in his anarchic Second World War comedy 1941. The film, which depicts the chaos of an anticipated Japanese attack on Hollywood in the wake of Pearl Harbor, is a mess of wild set pieces, juvenile jokes, and teenage bawdiness that only occasionally rises its head of the parapet of brilliance. But when it does, it homes in on an anxiety around the American identity that Spielberg repeatedly returns to and which rings true as clearly today as it did at the end of a decade shattered by Watergate and Vietnam.

One such moment is, typically for a film of cartoonish insanity, a song and dance scene (1941, it should be noted, is not a musical). Taking place at a dance competition, the sequence finds our hero Wally attempting to dance with the girl of his dreams, Betty. He’s been practicising for weeks, aiming to impress Betty with his moves and win her heart. Trouble is, he has a rival. Military jerk Stretch also has his eye on Betty, and he and Wally come to blows in a balletic sequence that features some stunning choreography and beautifully fluid, energetic camerawork. It would go on to inspire the more famous Anything Goes sequence that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and remains one of the most expressive scenes of Spielberg’s career.

But at the centre of this display of grace and beauty is a tale of American bullying, the betrayal of the little guy, and the destruction of the American Dream. Wally has pulled himself up by his bootlaces by learning to dance.. There’s creation there, a sense that he’s made something of himself through hard work and endeavour. With Stretch, however, there’s only destruction and a sense of entitlement. He’s strong and masculine. He’s in the army. He deserves Betty and should simply be given her heart, not have to win it. This attitude finally catches up with Wally by the sequence’s close where, having been thoroughly humiliated, Stretch traps Wally, winds up a punch and knocks him out. Underlining his political point, Spielberg uses a point of view shot from Wally’s perspective and frames Stretch against a neon-lit American flag as he delivers the blow.

Arrogance and brutality. This is the America of Spielberg’s early career: the little guy is crushed and authority figures bully their way to success. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even E.T. follow suit. Think of authority figures in these films: the mayor in Jaws, the government officials of Close Encounters and Raiders, the hazmat suited goons trampling through Elliott’s home in E.T.. Spielberg either turns these characters into the bad guys, or depicts them as being as morally duplicitous as the bad guys. The “top men” we’re told about at the end of Raiders are unlikely to be as bad as Belloq and co., but can they truly be trusted with the Ark? Are they really going to keep that source of unspeakable power safe?

Spielberg’s uncertainty with figures of American authority stems (as much of his thematic make-up does) from childhood. As a kid, he grew up an isolated outsider: the victim of anti-Semitic abuse and general bullying. America was a land that promised much, a country his grandparents spoke of with reverence where, in the allegorical words of the Amblin-produced An American Tail, there were “no cats”. Yet the reality was very different. In his Spielberg biography, Joseph McBride writes:

“Spielberg has recalled that he was tormented in high school by a bully who ‘made anti-Semitic slurs’ and enjoyed pushing him around. The bully would shove his face into the drinking fountain between classes and bloody his nose during football games in physical education. The most frightening incident came with the boy tossed a cherry bomb at Steven while he was sitting on the toilet in the school lavatory; Steven barely escaped injury.” (McBride, 96).

If the films of the 70s and early 80s were essentially bully films, Spielberg’s range expanded as his career developed. We still get some American bullies (Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but as the 80s turned into the 90s, there’s something more complex about Spielberg’s authority figures. 1987’s Empire of the Sun and the 1993 duo of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List delivered compelling and ambiguous characters in the shape of Basie, John Hammond and Oskar Schindler. While only Basie is actually American, all three characters represent American values: Capitalism gone awry and the pursuit of money unchecked by responsibility. They’re all charismatic presences and they all commit great acts of evil as well as acts of good. Basie stands apart from Hammond and Schindler as he ends Empire of the Sun by killing a child, while Hammond and Schindler see the error of their ways. But neither can be described as heroic, neither truly escape the shadow of their dubious earlier actions.

This approach informs even those characters who Spielberg clearly marks as heroes. Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, for example, is undoubtedly a good man, treating his troops with respect and going about his task with dignity and honour. He’s a classic Spielberg/Tom Hanks American Everyman, but the war brings him into conflict with his morality. He has to make tough calls and negotiate situations where there’s no ‘right answer’. Against this backdrop, Spielberg asks what we can do to stay good and maintain our morality. “Earn it,” Miller tells Ryan with his dying breath. By living good lives, the film says, we can honour the literal and moral sacrifice of those like Miller who ultimately couldn’t. But as the film closes on the sight of an American flag, fluttering in the breeze and faded against the light of a piercing white sun, Spielberg suggests we’re failing. America isn’t ‘earning it’.

Such darkness continued into the first decade of the new Millennium. The focus remains on what good people can do in bad times, but the films that constitute Spielberg’s Noughties output represents some of the most ambiguous, and – in the opinion of this writer – best work of his career. The vision of America Spielberg projects in these films is riddled with anxiety as good men do terrible things, authority figures abuse their power and human life is discarded like trash. Dr Hobby of A.I. and John Anderton of Minority Report wilfully play God, Frank Dixon in The Terminal treats Viktor like an animal in order to win a promotion, and Ray Ferrier kills a man in order to protect his child in War of the Worlds. It’s telling that in this period, Spielberg cast Tom Cruise twice, and turned this icon of American manhood into a monster, once emotionally (in War of the Worlds), once literally by literally mutilating his face (in Minority Report).

His own American icon – Indiana Jones – didn’t get out of this dark decade unscathed either. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy’s out of touch with a world torn apart by paranoia. In one of the film’s most fascinating sequences he’s questioned by the FBI and openly accused of colluding with Soviet forces. His war record and the incredible heroism of his past are barely considered: the very concepts of heroism and goodness have lost their currency in a paranoid world where authority figures suspect everyone. The question that permeates the film is: how can one do the right thing when the right thing doesn’t seem to exist any more? By having the extradimensional beings – who the film builds as a metaphor for knowledge – depart at the end, Spielberg brings his decade of darkness to a close by lamenting the loss of wisdom and the virtue that brings.

Such moments lend a sense of sadness and regret to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that’s continued through to Spielberg’s most recent films. His first movie to deal directly with the machinery of politics, Lincoln finds Spielberg zeroing in on one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived, but shows him having to bend the system and essentially commit illegal acts to bring in laws that ensure fundamental human rights. Made in the middle of the Obama era, it’s aware of the unending need for progress and the things that stand in the way of it, and asks how morality can win when certain figures of authority stand in its way.

Bridge of Spies acts as a sister film to Lincoln and finds another great America, James Donovan, repeating the President’s actions: bending the law, going rogue, and employing “lawyers dodges” in order to secure basic human rights. Both films were criticised for being too idealistic; old-fashioned throwbacks that painted complex subject matter with broad strokes and a limited palette. Whether you agree with that or not, the ultimate moral of these films hardly waves the flag for justice in the States. American democracy is fundamentally broken, they tell us, and the only way to fix it is to work outside of its strictures and essentially break it all over again.

Is that morality? Does the end justify the means? Spielberg’s great success with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies is to show American justice as a living organism, always changing – both for good and bad.  And with one of the final shots of the latter, he shows just how delicate the balance is. Donovan rides home on the train, his job done after recovering Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets. He looks out of the window, seeing boys in their gardens climbing over the fences. It reminds him (and us) of East Berlin, where innocent people risked their lives trying to climb the Wall and secure their freedom. It’s a beautifully Spielbergian image – innocence and darkness combined to make an ambiguous and unsettling point: that America, like all democracies, is always just a breath away from falling into corruption.

Spielberg has evolved from an angry young man railing at the bullies of America to an introspective middle-aged father wondering about his place in the system and finally become an elder statesman, looking back and telling stories about the triumphs of America’s past. As he finds hope in history, he also expresses an anxiety about the future. What will happen when the Lincolns and the Donovans fade, he asks. What will happen when someone arrives to bend the law for his own good rather than the common good? We may be about to find out…

Conflict and Compromise in La La Land

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Spoilers for La La Land. Don’t read this piece until you’ve seen the film.

The cinematic musical is a medium of grand emotions and even grander visuals. Everything is heightened. Colours are brighter, sets are larger, emotions are wild, untamed, and only suitably expressed through spontaneous song and dance. La La Land, Hollywood’s latest attempt to revive the genre,  is no different. The film ends with a glorious, bittersweet sweep through unreality, and when our two lovers fall for each other, they do so while floating on air at Griffiths Observatory.

Yet the film has an organic feel that many classic Hollywood musicals don’t. While the cinematography adds a dreamy sheen to almost every scene, director Damien Chazelle shoots in real locations, lending the film a compelling tension between reality and fantasy. This tension is echoed by the script, which uses the improvisational nature of jazz as a metaphor for life and love. “It’s conflict, it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting,” Ryan Gosling’s frustrated jazz musician Seb tells aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone).

As these characters progress through the film they too have to battle conflict and compromise. They love each other, but they also have very firm dreams that take them in different directions, sometimes coming into conflict with their principles, sometimes having to compromise their lives together. Mia refuses to join Seb on tour after he joins a successful band; Seb is so busy with the band that he misses Mia’s one-woman show. They eventually split, form separate lives, and in a heartbreaking finale meet each other again five years in the future, Chazelle taking us through a gloriously artificial vision of what their life could have been together.

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Such sequences are common in traditional Hollywood musicals. Gene Kelly had a particular fondness, using them to dramatise a Dancing Cavalier sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and a dream sequence in An American in Paris. They’re both moments of artifice, with the false sets heightening this sense of constructed reality. La La Land‘s artifice in this epilogue sequence does the same; this isn’t a dream sequence, but it is a vision of what could have been. Seb and Mia’s life together has slipped from sight, and all they have now is an illusion of their love.

What adds extra resonance to the sequence though is how the banality of what we see clashes with the way it’s being seen. The visuals may be artificial and exuberant, but the story is one of tough, everyday choices being made in a slightly different way than they did in the story we’ve just watched. Seb never joins the band, he goes with Mia when she gets her acting gig in Paris, they get married, and have a child together. The compromises they could only make for their dreams, they now make for each other and so they end up together.

Few of us will ever have to decide whether to join a band or take an acting job in Paris, but we make similar decisions all the time. Do we take that job that means a two hour commute and less time with the family? Do we stay true for our dreams regardless of the security they do or don’t offer? Do we chase love or a career? By juxtaposing such everyday choices against such exotic visuals, La La Land succeeds in creating a profound melancholy. These decisions, the film says, may seem pedestrian, but ultimately they have grand consequences, deciding who we are, what we become, and whether or not we end up dancing in thin air with the love of our life.

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Tips for living alone

JpegWith Christmas gone, we’re in the depths of winter with no holidays or festivities to look forward to. Days are short, nights are long, and if you live alone (as I do), it can be particularly difficult to get through the day and keep smiling. Sometimes I get in from work and wish that I could simply turn myself off, like a light, to avoid having to find something to do with myself in the evening.

That, of course, is most definitely not the right way to go about things, so instead of dwelling on that, I thought I’d put together some helpful tips on how to get through the next few months if you’re living alone and feeling lonely.

Keep your living area clean
One of the worst things about living alone is that you’ve got no-one to keep you honest. When we’re around other people, we feel the need to keep things neat and tidy – put stuff away, wash up promptly, hoover the carpet. This is dull work, and when you’re on your own, the temptation can be to procrastinate – put it off until another day. Then another day. Then another day. Don’t. Keep tidying up. Not only will it give you something to do, but it’ll ensure that your living area is something to be proud of – a haven you’ll want to be in.

Seek your solace
Speaking of which, I’ve found it useful to create small ‘solace’ areas in my house – places I can retreat to where I can shut negativity out. I’ve got a little nook under my stairs where I store some of my favourite books. I’ve put some multi-coloured fairy lights around the book shelves and plan to squeeze in a comfy chair so I can sit and read. I’ve done the same with my bedroom. I could never find the right balance of light in there – both my main light and my bedside table were too bright. So I put some soft light fairy lights around the room, and now there’s a cosy glow whenever I go in there. It’s great to retreat into when I feel a bit low.

Jpeg

Get out more
Weekends can be pretty difficult for me. From 5pm on Friday evening to 9am on Monday morning, I generally don’t have a single face-to-face conversation with anyone. Sure I talk to people on the phone, online, and briefly at supermarkets and coffee shops, but actual, real-life, extended conversations? Not so much. It’s tough, and the worst thing you can do is play into it by staying at home. Even if you’ve not got anything to go out for, go out. I write quite a lot at the weekend, but I try not to do it at home. Instead, I go to a coffee shop, buy myself a Vanilla Latte, and smash out a few blog posts. It keeps you vaguely sociable, gives you something to shape your day around and – hey – you never know who might come and sit next to you.

Use social media to your advantage
Social media is a double edged sword. It can be great for putting you in touch with people, but it can also convince you you’re being sociable when you’re really not. Worse, it can make you feel more alone by reminding you that there are people similar to you – they’re just half-way around the world. Work out what you enjoy about social media and focus on that, ignoring everything you don’t like about it. Engage with the people who you like and who like you, and try to ignore those who don’t. Social media is an excellent window into the world and can help you build relationships and boost confidence. Use it in a productive way.

Find what works for you
No two people are exactly the same. What works for me might not work for you, and what works for you might not for your friend. Work out what you need and do it, even if it’s a bit embarrassing. As long as you’re doing no harm to others, it doesn’t matter what people might whisper behind your back. What matters is how you feel and helping you feel better. In that spirit, I’ll openly admit to cuddling my pillow at night. I appreciate that’s a bit weird and embarrassing, but on long, cold nights, I find it comforting. It does no harm, and if people judge me for it, I don’t really care. That’s up to them, cuddling a pillow is up to me. They’re as welcome to judge as I am to not care about their judgement.

And that’s it really. Hopefully those five hints help. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is listen to yourself and focus on what makes you happy. As I’ve said, as long as you’re doing no harm, it’s all good.