Anyone can right, write?

A writer, pictured in their natural habitat: a dark, lonely room, probably spiralling into a pit of despair.

Hello, my name is Paul. And I’m a frustrated writer.

I say this into an imaginary room full of hundreds of thousands of other frustrated writers because those two words go together like Mac n’ Cheese, Laurel and Hardy, Donald Trump and ‘dumbass’. There are, simply put, a hell of a lot of writers out there, all struggling to make their voice heard, all with minds overflowing with ideas, all frantically punching words into their laptops, sometimes with their fingers, sometimes with their bloodied foreheads, hoping to get somewhere.

Let’s face it, being a writer today is pretty difficult.

There’s one very simple reason for that: everyone can write. Or at least, everyone thinks they can write. It’s dangerous territory to say that because it sounds horribly elitist, especially when you take into account the fact that, well, yes, everyone can write. It’s a basic skill most people learn at a very early stage in life, and so for many, claiming that writing is some sort of special talent worthy of acclaim is a lot like claiming breathing is. Everyone breathes and everyone writes. What’s so great about you, eh Poindexter?

That’s all well and good, but there’s a difference between writing and Writing. I’m not talking about typing out an email, or jotting down a shopping list. I’m not even talking about writing a blog post, which yes everyone can and should do because writing is genuinely good for the soul. I’m talking about writing as a profession, writing as a form of communication that requires special understanding, granular detail and a level of clarity that’s very very difficult to achieve. I’m talking about the difference between these two statements:

Mike left the room.

Mike exited the room.

Two sentences comprising four words, three of which are exactly the same. Big whoop? What’s the point? Well, the one word that’s changed here is pretty significant. ‘Left’ and ‘exited’ are essentially the same word to most people: they mean the same thing. But the English language is a wonderfully complex and fluid tool that’s dictated by emotion as much as cold, hard facts. So while words can mean the same thing they can seem to mean something different.

Looking at my example, ‘exited’ sounds harsher than ‘left’. Left is a pretty neutral word, and when Mike has left the room, the other people in there probably just got on with their lives, unconcerned by what happened. ‘Exited’ is different though; the ‘x’ makes it harder. So when Mike ‘exited’ the room, it sounds like he did so with a certain brusqueness. Was he angry? What was he angry about? Who was he angry with?

It’s one word and one little letter. But it makes a big difference.

That’s the difference between writing and Writing; a person who writes and a Writer. But this seems to be slipping through the cracks of our national (even global) understanding. The same can be said of literary concerns as a whole. I don’t mean this as a complaint against the current ‘War on the Elites’ that Trump and Brexit have ushered in, because I also see it among those who are supposed to be educated. I can’t count the number of times intelligent people have dismissed writing as something that everyone can do. Indeed, just last week, I grimaced during a media conference I attended when a speaker dismissed creative disciplines as “fluffy”. More practical concerns were of greater importance, he seemed to be suggesting.

It’s an understandable, if fundamentally wrong-headed, point, and I’m sure anyone who studied literature, art, film, or the media at university has gone through the same thought process as they tried to find a job that uses their skill. It’s pointless, society seems to say, to understand art, and certainly nowhere near as important as a science, which provides tangible results – an actual thing at the end. Such is the state of Western society. We’re obsessed with things and an action is not worth anything unless a thing is produced at the end of it all. Science does that; art does not.

The sciences are, of course, utterly critical, but just because studying a piece of art doesn’t have a tangible ‘thing’ at the end of it, doesn’t mean it’s pointless. It just means its use is a little more difficult to grasp. Again, here’s an example.

A little while back, I watched the 9,568th entry into the X-Men franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse. Lots of other people have done the same, and lots of other people will have opinions on it. My own is that it was a solid entry into the series whose interesting character dynamics are swamped by humour that’s desperate to keep pace with Marvel Studios and special effects that become very dull very quickly. It’s a solid, if forgettable, piece of comic book hokum.

There’s nothing special about this thought. Anyone can write, anyone can formulate an opinion about a film. But there’s a difference between criticising a film and critiquing it. ‘This film is fine’ is ok, but going into depth on why it’s ‘fine’ and what that film has to say is a different thing altogether.

Returning to X-Men: Apocalypse, I’d argue that it’s at its strongest when exploring real-world parallels (a consistent strength of the X-Men series). A powerful moment finds the pre-Cyclops Scott Summers struggling with his nascent powers while in a history class that’s focusing on the events of the previous two films. Another involves Magneto, who at the start of the film has moved on from his villainous past, relocated to Poland and started a family. Tragedy, of course, is just around the corner.

Both these moments speak clearly to the plight of LGBTQIA people and immigrants struggling to create a new life for themselves. The Summers scene made me wonder how it must feel to be in class as a closeted LGBTQIA teen and learning about the horrors that people like you have historically suffered. How difficult must it be for you to experience that? How much must you want to hide from a world that has shown people like you nothing hate. The Magneto storyline, meanwhile, links to the struggles of immigrants and how the West has created its own enemies by showing refugees and those with less privilege than us nothing but scorn. When the world rejects you, the storyline asks, why should you accept it?

This is by no means exceptional critical thinking, but it’s a step up from ‘yeah, it’s ok’, and it’s really important for society to do it more often. We think of art as disposable. “Ah, it’s just a film, isn’t it? Don’t take it so seriously.” And yes, it is. But that meal is just a pizza and a can of coke. Just because it’s ‘just’ something doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. After all, you wouldn’t wolf down that pizza and guzzle on that Coke if you didn’t have some informed insight into what’s actually in them. The same applies to art: you shouldn’t consume a piece of art (or TV news, or an advert, or anything like them) without questioning what exactly is beneath the shiny surface.

At the same conference I grimaced through criticisms of “fluffy” disciplines, I also grinned through a panel about Fake News. There, a speaker was asked what the term means to him, and he used one simple word that cut through the bullshit of Trump’s favourite excuse: Propaganda. He went on to speak eloquently about the need to improve our education system’s use of Media Studies and how that will help give people the necessary tools to identify and act against Fake News. Had I not been at the course with work, I’d have stood and applauded. Finally: someone got it.

The rabbit hole goes pretty deep though, and for us to change our perception of Fake News, we need to change our perception of media studies, the arts, writing as a whole and the nature of value vs worth. Just because you can’t sell something doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value. Just because something doesn’t churn out a tangible thing doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Just because everyone can perform the physical actions required to do something doesn’t mean they can really do it or do it well. This isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, but society’s struggling to grasp it nonetheless.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that things will get better any time soon. In the internet age, we’ve reduced writing to a tool to win clicks and raise ad revenue. Until that changes, nothing I’ve mentioned here will change; in fact, they’ll only get worse. It’s hardly a happy note to end on, but I don’t think there’s any other way to end. When society gives up on writing it gives up on the art of communication, and when that happens, we end up with people who spout empty slogans and blatant lies without a second’s thought.

Sound like anyone familiar?
 

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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.

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…

What just happened?

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It’s lunchtime on the morning after the night before. Or the morning of the day after? Or… something. I don’t really know what time or day it is, to be honest. I woke up at 1am this morning and… just… couldn’t… not…watch. Even after Clinton lost Florida and the game seemed up, I couldn’t tear myself away, I couldn’t stop hoping that somehow, in some way, a miracle would arrive.

It never did.

This whole election, and this election day, constitutes perhaps the most bizarre, enraging, blackly comic, and ultimately tragic occurrence of my 32-year-old lifetime. Remember in history class when you’d hear about injustices of the past: women having to fight for the vote etc. And you’d kinda laugh at it because it’s seems so utterly ridiculous to you. This election, this society, this very day, is the laughing stock of 10-year-olds of the future. “They didn’t really elect him, did they?” Yes, Little Johnny. I’m afraid they did.

Yet this is no joke. In an election cycle marked by mockery from TV, press, social media and even the candidates themselves, the biggest joke is that there really isn’t a joke. The punchline has slipped past us, the only thing accompanying that rimshot is the threat of reduced rights for anyone who doesn’t fit within Donald Trump’s minute world view. The moment where Stephen Colbert was told live that Trump had taken Florida captures it perfectly. No jokes. No laughs. No nothing. Not even an absurdist of Colbert’s caliber could find anything in this.

In the aftermath, it’s difficult to know how to react. As a Brit, I’ve had Brexit to grapple with this year, and something so huge truly warps your view of the society you live in. How could so many people vote for something so stupid, so damaging, so downright offensive to my sensibilities? I suspect Americans can relate to that kind of disgust and confusion at the moment. How do you simply get up, go to work, and live your life when the hatred of your society has been laid bare on the world stage? How do things go forward when you’re one half of a deeply divided country?

I say all this, of course, as a person of some privilege. I’m middle class, white, male, and straight. Were I American, I’d like fit within Trump’s tiny judgement of acceptability pretty easily. I can try to empathise with how anyone sitting outside of that zone feels today – anyone who may not be able to marry the person they love, who may be targeted by bigots, who may have to stay stuck in a gender they don’t feel comfortable with, who may fear a resurgence in sexual assault. But I’ll never truly know, and my heart goes out to those people who have no choice but to know.

I’ve tweeted a lot today, putting out my own thoughts and retweeting those of others. It’s quite rare for me to get so political. Twitter can be an echo chamber sometimes, and when it’s not it can be a source of immense pointless strife. I don’t do conflict so I tend to stick mostly to my Disney, Spielberg, comic book, and film tweets. But it’s difficult to ignore Trump’s election today and probably for a long time to come. There are people who I’ve come to count as friends who are not just upset but genuinely scared, and that’s a horrifying thing.

I’ve seen people get angry, I’ve seem people get down, I’ve seen people seem utterly anxious. Gladly, I’ve not seen too many trying to police the reaction, as tends to happen on Twitter when big news hits. Maybe it’s because people are in too much shock, maybe it’s because there simply isn’t a right way to respond. You can’t pop an Alka Seltzer and head back to bed for this hangover. There simply isn’t a good remedy.

My solution is to try for positivity. It’s a purely personal choice born of the fact I’m relatively unaffected by it (beyond suffering through what’s going to be a turbulent four years for the world). I don’t think it’s how everyone should react because for those fearing for the lives they’ve built or are trying to built, positivity may not be an option. The terror is real. It’s pretty futile to say ‘oh everything will be fine’ and try to carry on when it feels like the enemy’s at the gate.

But maybe we need to retain some level of positivity. The concept of equal and opposite reactions keeps going around my head. Trump’s election was a reaction against the increasing social justice in the States, and I hope there’s a similar equal and opposite reaction from the other side. I’m sure there will be. There has to be. The opposition to Trump and his equally odious VP (who thinks you can electroshock the gay out of people) needs to be strong and effective. The election was just the beginning.

Anger has to play a part in that, but it can’t be the only part or the most significant part. Trump’s campaign was built on hate and division; the response cannot be. Equal and opposite reactions. If they give hate, you give love. If they give division, you give unity. Just as a Clinton win wouldn’t have sucked the Trump poison out of America’s veins, nor should a Trump win invalidate the Love Trumps Hate mantra Clinton espoused. In fact, it’s more necessary now than ever. It is the opposition. Positivity is the opposition.

Perhaps that’s naive on my part, perhaps it’s coming from a place of privilege, the lack of which I can’t possibly understand. I can’t disagree with any of that. But for the time being, it’s how I’m dealing with things and maybe it’ll help others deal with things too. Mourn for what’s been lost and prepare to oppose those who’ve taken it. But for the moment, maybe the best thing we can do is hug someone, love someone, say hi to someone, help someone. It might not mean anything in the long run, but maybe, to some one, in some way, it’ll mean everything.