The Wind That Shakes The Barley

The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in Cork in 1920-1, and opens with a community radicalised by an armed British presence that reacts violently when they dare to play a hurling match (a game whose national significance now makes sense to this reviewer!).

These were uniquely ‘politicised times’ as Ken Loach said in his talk following a screening at the Barbican. The Bolshevik revolution was still fresh in the memories of the key protagonists, as was the Great War during which the British and the other powers sought to divide bits of the world between them, and Sinn Fein had won a massive victory at the polls and a clear mandate for power. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The infamous mercenaries, the Black and Tans, were sent in to quell republican resistance.

One reading of this important episode in the story of anti-imperialism is a tragic one, and yet the struggle shook the British establishment at a time when it was stretched and exposed, fighting on too many fronts. More effective solidarity with the restless working class in Britain, and with nationalists all over the empire, could have tipped things in a very different direction. It seems like a world away now from our more cynical and world weary times. It was. Politics was never more vital. A super-potent version of that sense of injustice that is a staple of Loach’s films going back to Cathy Come Home was the fuel that fed their anger and drove them to fight back.

Loach doesn’t spare us in his portrayal of the torture of republican soldiers, or the brutality visited on the communities from which they came – but neither does he titillate us with blood and guts. We are left in no doubt that this was a guerrilla war but, as he explained afterwards, we wouldn’t have learned anymore if they had pulled out teeth rather than just fingernails. The most exhilarating parts of the film are filled with talk. The violence is only ever a means to an end.

In a highly charged scene at a meeting of volunteers following the announcement of the signing of the partition treaty with Britain, we witness the beginnings of division in the ranks. Would they fight on for their freedom and disassociate themselves with the ‘free-staters’, or concede the north of the island, accept partition, and the dominion status that came with it? Loach rightly refused to come down on either the socialist/republican or bourgeois/nationalist (as he put it) sides, but instead allowed us to empathise with their personal torments and understand their political motivations.

‘How does if feel to kill an Irishman?’ asks one of another when hostilities break out once more. Loach explained how the cast was recruited from the local area, and how events lived on in the memories of those around at the time, and in contemporary folklore. He describes an instance he came across where one man had signed the execution warrant for the best man at his wedding. The telling of the story through the prism of the relationship between two brothers was clearly more than a neat dramatic device. The civil war ran deep.

Curiously though, like Basil Fawlty, Loach couldn’t help but mention the war (in Iraq) – at least they marched for one day, he said unconvincingly. Like Ireland, it has a long and bitter history of resistance, its boundaries drawn by British colonialists, and it now involves surrogates fighting a dirty war. But today’s reluctant imperialists exhibit a more accidental and aimless brutality, the consequence of its armies being holed up in their high security barracks with no clear mission, and promoted by a culture of paralysis and fear indulged by political elites at home. And the left is much the same, practising a politics that can only live vicariously through the self-destructive acts of deluded individuals with no roots in the local community – quite the opposite of supporting the right to self-determination of a sovereign people.

But there is one other parallel. According to Loach, all his films follow a clear narrative structure, tracing contradictions in the character’s lives and taking them to their resolution. Which is a strange thing to say if you think about it after a film about Ireland. Like Iraq, it is a conflict that was never really resolved. In the latter, the allies claimed to have won without declaring their victory for fear of triumphalism, but remain caught up in skirmishes as they try to avoid responsibility for the devastation they leave in their wake. This confused state of affairs is echoed in the republican movement’s declared end to hostilities. Though its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, like partition all those years earlier, signalled a withdrawal from its wider ambitions, Sinn Fein was more or less triumphant in public, in a calculated effort not to admit defeat.

The mystifying language of identity politics that subsequently came to dominate in Ireland (and Iraq, and elsewhere), subsumed its political history under the demeaning logic of historical and unchanging antagonisms, and institutionalised the divisions more than the barbed wire and check points ever could. That is the real tragedy of Ireland, and perhaps another film.

I, Robot

Director, Alex Proyas; Starring Will Smith, Bridgit Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood; 20th Century Fox, 114 minutes

The ‘I’ in ‘I, Robot’ takes on a whole new significance in Alex Proyas’s disappointing take on Asimov’s classic. It is not so much ‘Turing Test’, speculating on what might happen if the boffins were able to mimic consciousness. Rather we get a dumbed down humanity in which the only thing separating the metal imposters and us is that we can emote.

And that, significantly, is what makes them dangerous. The robots could outsmart us and take over, if we don’t get emotionally intelligent and rein in our rational urges. The message – the inevitability of our downfall as we overstretch ourselves – is no doubt familiar to contemporary audiences, but quite alien to the visionary writing that inspired (for want of a better word) this adaptation.

The cynical cop, played by Will Smith – very much in Men in Black mode – awaits his calling, though wrongly apprehending what he presumes to be a bag-snatching robot in one of the opening, and most engaging, moments in the film. Dr Calvin, rather than the ageing United States Robots figurehead who narrates the book, threatens to becom the obligatory love interest for our cynical anti-hero.

What might have been an intriguing psychological thriller – as the trailers of the interrogation of ‘Sonny’ certainly led me to expect – was in fact something altogether more predictable. Just as it looks as if it might get interesting, the pace picks up and we are treated to special effects set-pieces as chases ensue.

Having said that, there are some wonderfully evocative scenes, reminiscent of Blade Runner, as robots and humans pass each other in the Metropolis without a second glance. The vertical car parking and awe-inspiring wired-up cityscape – not to mention the surprisingly nimble lifelike robots – are worth taking away with you if nothing else.

From Dystopia to Myopia: Metropolis to Blade Runner

From Metropolis to Blade Runner, representations of the city often suggest a bleak view of the future. Has the image of the city become more dystopian? Does culture provide us with an imaginary future, or does it presage the way that we will influence the real future? The film session at the Future Vision: Future Cities conference, held at the London School of Economics on 6th December 2003, looked at the changing historic visions of the city using cinematic examples from different periods. 

For Kim Newman, a novelist and film critic who spoke at the event, filmic depictions of the future are very much reflective of their times. Typically they fail at the box office but acquire cult status in retrospect. Their very downbeat projections and dark fantasies are strangely seductive. It is, I think, worth noting that films such as Alphaville, Blade Runner and Dark City (discussed below) adopt film noir-like devices to portray shadowy, brutal streets through which their lone anti-heroes prowl. This perhaps reflects a brooding cynicism pervading contemporary thought on all things urban after Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis.

H G Wells dismissed Metropolis (1927) as a mix of ‘almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general’. The creators of the Blade Runner cityscape, on the other hand, openly acknowledged their heavy debt to Lang’s vision. Was Wells right? Xan Brooks, film editor at The Guardian (London) online, speaking at the event, described the film as a modernist representation of an ordered society, exhibiting the sense that there was a relatively uncontested view of where humanity was heading. Despite the theme of industrial conflict, I would add, there was at least a shared framework of meaning. That is lacking today.

The apparent absence of a futuristic vision on celluloid in the post-war period arguably reflected a deep pessimism in the Western cultural elite with regards ‘progress’. The sci-fi classics of the 50s tended to substitute alien encounter for the ‘red menace’ of the Cold War. In Japan, the cultural impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being exorcised in the incredible guise of Godzilla (1954), described by Stephen Barber (Projected Cities: cinema and urban space, 2002) as a ‘spectacularly mutating form engaged in a direct, irresoluble combat against the surfaces of the city’. Was this just a run of the mill B-movie or was it an early example of the city as polluted landscape? Godzilla, with his ‘radioactive breath’, is the result of American nuclear testing. But the toxic lizard takes on a malignant resonance of its own in its intent on destroying Tokyo. 

There seemed to be an optimistic cultural turn in the 1960s but the ambivalent attitude to technology and notions of progress seemed to persist in a modified form. In Alphaville (1965) for instance, Jean-Luc Godard presents a dystopian nightmare world hostile to individuality, love and self-expression. Godard was apparently thinking of calling it Tarzan versus IBM. The film warns of the ‘computerised horrors of the city’. The hero of the piece seeks his own reality by battling against its cold rationality and artificiality. This privileging of the emotions was a significant departure. After all, Wells’ lambasting of the sentimentality of Metropolis would be inadmissible to the advocates of the counterculture. 

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange (1971), was filmed as the counterculture gave way to punk nihilism. It unapologetically indulges us in the amorality and brutality of urban thuggery. This film seems to represent a turn away from the concerns of its dystopian predecessors with mechanical progress, the toxic city and counter-cultural idealism. How do we account for this abandon of such grand themes, or the ‘vision thing’? Unlike the earlier films, Kubrick presented not just a bleak depiction of the future, but a near future in which both city and its most marginal inhabitants are utterly degraded. This quintessentially British dystopia of the period (when considered alongside Derek Jarman’s anarchic Jubilee) is worth comparing with the much grander degradation of the screen adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (1968).

Aldous Huxley dubbed Los Angeles ‘the City of Dreadful Joy’ and in one of his post-Brave New World novels, a ‘ruinous sprawling ossuary’ subject to ‘deforestation, pollution and other acts of ecological imbecility’. In Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott added cheap neon, digitalized advertising hoardings and teeming streets to bring this particular LA up to date. According to Xan Brooks, the film presented a post-modern collage as opposed to the ordered cityscape of Metropolis. The old and the new coexist, he said. This is certainly I think, in contrast to Lang’s portrayal of opposing worlds, the elite cityscape against the mechanized workers slaving below.

William Gibson was writing Neuromancer (1984) as Blade Runner opened in cinemas. He claimed not to have seen the film until well into writing his novel. However, each has been credited with initiating the cyberpunk era of science fiction. The introduction of the virtual dystopia to the genre was seemingly grafted onto the themes of urban decay and moral crisis visited in A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner. It was as if the ‘punk’ had vacated the brutal alleyways of 70s London and the sprawl of LA to stalk cyberspace instead. But how has the dawn of ‘virtual reality’ impacted on the film city of the future?

In Dark City (1998), Alex Proyas presents a stylised metropolis, an ominous and dark dreamscape. Arguably Blade Runner still casts a shadow over these later films. Yet, like Neuromancer before it, Proyas paves the way for The Matrix trilogy in as far as it ‘depicts a world that is illusory and malleable’. For me though, Dark City is a retreat from engagement with the city as a material or social entity. The political industrial dynamic of Metropolis and the gritty urban realism of Blade Runner are shelved. Alphaville may have been anti-rational but it didn’t indulge in the mystical contortions of these films. We may associate the birth of new ageism with the 1960s but only in the 1990s (alongside Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, et al) was it to really take hold. Why is this? 

The renowned academic Russell Jacoby has said: ‘The world stripped of anticipation turns cold and grey’. In contemporary cinema, fantasy is the antidote. From the late 90s on, there has been a marked retreat into the inner world, into childhood and away from dirty, complicated reality. This is a dramatic break from Lang’s clearly framed if simplistic depiction of the workings of a futuristic city. As a moral tale,Metropolis towers above the relativist creations that followed. Fractured, partial conceptions of the future dominate today. Indeed, Barber has noted the ‘wry abuse of, or oblivion directed at, linear narration’ in contemporary explorations of the urban.

But is this solely a cultural phenomenon? I would argue that, on the contrary, it reflects the loss of the cohering influence of the defining political projects of the 20th century. As ideological and institutional foundations have crumbled, so have our social narratives and their cultural expressions. Unlike the lead in Dark City , we have a diminished sense of self that cripples our potential to shape the world around us. The future is thus narrowed in its conception or emptied of meaning. Lang’s work is arguably impressive today because its breadth and mastery are counter to the low horizons we now set ourselves. In virtually every sphere of life, those bold enough to present ambitious visions of the future are met with cynicism. This amounts to a short-sightedness that denies the creative capacity of human agency. And, if it goes uncorrected, will inhibit our potential to conceive a future worth realising.

Note: Thanks to Sandy Starr for advice and comments.