Saturday, 5 September 2015

Werewolf? There Wolf

The news that the University of Hertfordshire (no, me neither) is to hold a conference on the cultural significance of werewolves provided predictable filler during the dog days of August (that's dog as in sopping wet spaniel). Inevitably, the para-historians of the commentariat couldn't resist the urge to reshape the lycanthrope as an emblem of our times. Despite the original story in the Guardian noting that the legend of the cursed wolf-man goes back to antiquity, Kathryn Hughes followed up in the same paper with the claim that "Werewolves emerged in folklore in medieval Germany at times when a poor harvest meant that both humans and animals were contending with rumbling stomachs". This dubious claim was used to buttress a full-blown socio-economic theory: "Culturally, werewolves have always come to the fore at those historic moments when our most basic resource – food – starts to feel in short supply. And in these jittery days of collapsing capitalism, lycanthropes, or man-wolves (they are nearly always male) are emerging as the archetype around which our contemporary terrors adhere".

Werewolves, as a particular species of "shape-shifter", originate in the pagan practices of sympathetic magic by which shamans and warriors sought to acquire the powers of animals, often by wearing their skins or amulets fashioned from essential elements such as teeth. The purpose was intercession with the spririt world or an aid in hunting or battle. A lucky rabbit's foot and a grenadier's bearksin are both echoes of this, as is the attempt by Hull City's chairman to rename his club the Tigers. During the Christian era, these pagan practices were both absorbed and deprecated, with the positive aspects channelled into the lives of the saints (St Francis of Assisi negotiating with the wolf) and the negative recast as a curse or punishment, showing the influence of classical myths (Ovid's Metamorphoses, the spellbound wolves and pigs of Circe in the Odyssey etc). Hughes's "rumbling stomachs" theory suggests that the recurrent famines and plagues of the spectacularly dreadful 14th century should have been the medieval trigger, but in fact the folkloric werewolf only appears in numbers in the 15th century. It is a creature of the Early Modern period and inseparable from the witch-trials that occurred between the mid-15th and 17th centuries, with charges of wilful lycanthropy overlapping with charges of wolf-charming or the cursing of others.

As an aspect of the European witch-craze, the popularity of werewolves was driven by wider cultural factors: the dissemination of superstitions and lurid tales by printing (new media usually produce an explosion in credulity before knowledge); the religious hysteria of the 16th century and the belief in a proselytising Satan; and the dislocations caused by the end of the medieval social order. Early werewolves were said to prey on cattle and children, which emphasised that they were, like witches who "spoiled milk", both a quotidien nuisance and a useful projection for dealing with unexplained infant mortality (some historians believe that werewolves were occasionally invented to explain localised serial killing sprees). It is also worth remembering that real wolves were still a threat to livestock and even people across much of Europe, not least because the animals could be rabid. As human settlement expanded and the old woods were increasingly reduced or managed as an economic resource, the chances of conflict increased.

The werewolf trope also preserves the historic conflict between settled pastoral communities and hunter-gatherers ("preying on the unguarded boundaries of civilisation", according to the conference blurb). However, this owes more to relatively recent competition for resources, rather than any prehistoric memory, as agriculture and early industry spread to more mountainous areas in Europe during the demographic recovery after the 14th century. The earliest witch-trials, including charges of lycanthropy, are found in the Alpine regions, notably those with a history of heresy such as the Vaud. In other words, persistent tension rather than episodic famine gave context to tales of demonology and lycanthropy, and this was as much about itinerant communities (hence the werewolf's frequent association with Gypsies, who were also routinely accused of harming livestock and children) as the dwindling numbers who eked out a living in the woods.

The idea that werewolf stories come to the fore during times of economic stress is contradicted in the twentieth century by cinema's consistent interest. The first werewolf film is considered to have been made in 1913 (with a Navajo setting, emphasising the animist roots), and while The Werewolf of London appeared in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, the true classic of the genre, Lon Chaney Jr's turn in The Wolf Man, came out in 1941. Though Hughes references Guy Endore's novel The Werewolf of Paris, published in 1933 and set in the hungry Commune of 1871, she fails to note that the closest cinematic treatment of the book was the 1961 Hammer Horror film, The Curse of the Werewolf. That was no more a reflection of hard times than 1966's Carry On Screaming. Since the late-50s, the werewolf has been a universal trope of alienation, transformation and the beast within, often to parodic effect, such as An American Werewolf in London and Teenwolf. According to Hughes, "This recognition that it really is a dog-eat-dog world has always created a ripe breeding ground for werewolf fantasies ... werewolf stories are all about negotiating our terror over where, come the apocalypse, we stand in the food chain". That would make a lot more sense if you substituted "zombie".

This dubious interpretation of werewolves as a sign of hard times serves to create a particular contrast, suggesting Hughes has spent too many hours watching the Twilight and Underworld series: "For vampires belong to altogether more prosperous times and catalyse an entirely different set of anxieties, mostly to do with sex. They raised their fanged heads in Bram Stoker’s classic novel of 1897, which appeared at the height of fin de siècle jitters about sexual decadence. Two years earlier the Oscar Wilde trials had suggested the possibility that Britain harboured an underground community of homosexuals trying to 'convert' young men by penetrating their bodies, taking them permanently away from everything that was decent and holy". Though naughty, vampires have the saving grace of class: "Vampires are nicely dressed, seductive in their own way, and always remember to say 'please' and 'thank you'. (Count Dracula had lovely manners.) Werewolves, by contrast, display no such finesse". This is another example of the Guardian's class contempt, poking through the arch irony.

"Haemosexuality", the sexual basis of the vampire's blood-lust, has provided an excuse for the exploration of deviant sex and the unshackling of female desire since Freud and Kraft-Ebbing. Homosexuality has only ever been one dimension of this. The coincidence of blood and sex, from ancient fears of menstruation through AIDS, is a commonplace, but so too is the parallel association of blood with the vital force of the body politic, hence the "blood-suckers" trope common to criticism of the state. Though this starts with straightforward complaints about tax collection and decadent, spendthrift rulers in the ancient world, it mutates as money is increasingly seen as a proxy for the élan vital of enterprise and commerce. By the time of Voltaire and Rousseau, the charge of vampirism is routinely levelled against the church and aristocracy, as well as tax-farmers. Karl Marx would famously employ the vampire as a metaphor for dead capital, while the Nazis and others would seek to associate Jews with vampires via the "blood libel". Even today, the assessment that Goldman Sachs is "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money", owes more to the word 'vampire' than 'squid'.

Vampires did not arrive in popular culture with Stoker's novel, but Dracula was innovative in combining a number of separate vampire strands that had developed over the course of the preceding century (well documented in Christopher Frayling's Vampyre): the folkloric vampire, who was usually low-class and often repulsive; the femme fatale, representing a female sexuality freed of bourgeois constraints (that would further evolve into the "vamp" of early cinema); and the outrageous aristocrat (partly modelled on Lord Byron) that originated in John Polidori's tale, The Vampyre, which he wrote in competition with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1816. This last aspect was as much a reflection of economic as sexual decadence, and was clearly influenced by Stoker's Anglo-Irish background: Dracula, who shares neither culture nor religion with the Transylvanian peasantry he parasitically lives off, seeks to become an absentee landlord in England. Stoker's tale adopted the implacable force of Marx's vampire, but refurbished its feudal trappings and obscured the Irish parallels with a whiff of the oriental and the shtetl (popular British fears in 1897 were more focused on Jews and racial degeneracy than homosexuals).

Prior to the Romantic era, vampires had been predominantly associated with the borderlands of South East Europe, roughly from Galicia down to Greece. If werewolves were centred on Eastern France and Southern Germany, vampires were to be found mainly in the mountainous areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This reflected a number of factors: the region's economic underdevelopment and the persistence of older religious superstitions; the zealotry and cross-fertilisation arising at the historic interfaces of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam; and the frequency of lawless violence ("blood-feuds") in areas where state power was weak and borders frequently shifted through war. Behind this also lay a folk memory of the arrival of epidemics in Europe, via the Levant and the Balkans, during the Medieval period (the plague ships and rats of films such as Nosferatu have a long pedigree), a memory that has been stirred again by the sight of long lines of refugees marching through Serbia and trucks of corpses lying abandoned in Austria.

Today, the vampire and the werewolf form a binary metaphor for class, appealing in particular to the paranoia of the middling sort, who imagine themselves under simultaneous pressure from above and below. The vampire has been stylised as an indulgent posho toying with his or her sexuality (from Interview with the Vampire to Made in Chelsea), while the werewolf stands for the intermittent eruption of the feral through the veener of civilisation (from Shameless to Broadchurch). As Hughes sees it, werewolves "remind us that, if times really do get bad, there is nothing we wouldn’t do to survive, including quite possibly ripping out our neighbour’s throat". This is a call-to-arms for violent individualism, with an implicit "defence of property" justification. In fact, what actually happens in our cinematic fantasies is that we pick up our pitchforks and hunt down the werewolf/vampire/monster together. Mob violence may not be particularly tolerant, but it is collective action and it proceeds from a rationale appraisal of the community good: kill one to save many. Hughes's bestial vision is that of Thomas Hobbes, homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to man), that allows the better sort - those well-mannered vampires - to remain safely ensconced in their castles. I wonder what she thinks of Lords reform?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Straight Outta Chipping Norton

I do enjoy a good newspaper juxtaposition, not least because it isn't always clear whether it's the product of unconscious affinity or subversive editorial humour. Page 5 of today's Guardian carried two stories: one revealing that And Then There Were None, in which various invitees to a mysterious island gathering are serially bumped off, has been voted Agatha Christie's most popular whodunnit; and another revealing Anthony Horowitz's chagrin that his assessment of Idris Elba as "too street" for the potential role of the first black James Bond has caused offence. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American writer whose newly-published book, Between the World and Me, suggests he is currently in a pessimistic and sensitive place, called-out the Brit thus: "Just be honest and say ‘James Bond’s being white is important to me’ and be done with it ... Elba is ‘too street’ in much the same way that Obama was ‘too foreign,’ and King was ‘too communist". Horowitz insisted on his anti-racist credentials by claiming that he simply preferred the "suave" Adrian Lester for the role. In other words: I'm not racist, I just don't like the rough boys.

Christie's tale was originally published as Ten Little Niggers in the UK in 1939, reflecting the "... and then there were none" rhyme used as a framing device for the plot. The title was changed for the US publication in 1940, an alteration often attributed to the word "nigger" being deemed offensive in America, though this was surely as much about the class connotations for the target audience of white, middle-class readers - i.e. a belief that the term was common and lacking decorum - rather than any incipient sense of interracial solidarity. The US stage adaptation of 1946 would use the title Ten Little Indians, which was also employed for the 1965 film version, at which point the N-word would certainly have been inflammatory. The Native American protests would not start to bite until the 70s, with the last publication of the alternate title being in 1986. The last English-language version to employ the original title was published in the UK in 1977 (oh, how we laughed). NWA's debut album, Straight Outta Compton, which popularised the modern recuperation of "nigga", would be released in 1988. Coincidentally, their group-biopic of the same name came out last week.

What was notable about the Guardian article was that it didn't refer to the significance of the title of Christie's book at all. There's a weird parallel here with Straight Outta Compton. Peter Bradshaw's review of the film briefly acknowledged the group's full title, and their adoption of a "retail-friendly contraction", but the separate assessment of the film's historical accuracy didn't. While it highlighted the group's misogyny (which the film appears to structurally reflect by having no substantial female characters) and antagonistic relationship with the police, it skipped the role of race in NWA's rise and the provocative nature of their name. Equally absent is the "performative capitalism" of gangsta rap - the glorification of abuse and waste that can be read as either an ironic criticism of American society and mores, or as the recuperation of an older conservative social form, modelled equally on the popular culture image of the Italian Mafia and the sexual politics of Blues and Soul, by the growing black middle-class.

Over the years, Christie's work has been repeatedly edited to remove the most objectionable racist and antisemitic phrases, though plenty of casual offence remains, not least because Christie's technique required her to echo contemporary prejudices rather than challenge the reader: women just want husbands, gypsies are malign, foreigners (Belgians excepted) are untrustworthy, and homosexuals are unreliable. Given that her milieu is one of reactionary snobbery and the fetishisation of property, and that she started writing in the 1920s, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. Though she toned these prejudices down after the Second World War (she would keep writing until 1973), one thing that didn't change with the times was her attitude towards the lower orders, which ran the gamut from patronising to contemptuous. Her only stab at ventriloquising a working class character, in Endless Night in 1967, ends by revealing that the narrator is a money-obsessed homicidal maniac (even this plot-twist is a case of "aping one's betters", as it echoes the earlier and more celebrated The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The Guardian's sensitivity to racism, and its assertive championing of gender equality, are good in and of themselves, but this scrupulousness serves to highlight the paper's tone-deafness when it comes to class. This is a wider failing that affects the increasingly segregated  private-school and Oxbridge-educated media and professional elite, rather than the speciality of one newspaper, which - in fairness - they are only too happy to deplore (while not lifting a finger to do anything about - they have to think of the children). A fascinating insight into this, and how it appears to non-Brits, has been provided by the emails recently released by Hillary Clinton. One, from Sidney Blumenthal (a former aide of Bill Clinton), describes Nick Clegg during the coalition as having: "inbred arrogance (from no less a privileged background than Cameron, though seeming less snobbish because he went to Westminster instead of Eton)". Blumenthal is no less of an elitist, but it is significant how much explanatory emphasis he places on Clegg's schooling.

I think it still surprises many Brits to discover just how off-kilter the international understanding of our country is. The gap between image and reality is probably the same for all countries, but the specific direction it takes - where that image sits relative to reality - is perhaps more significant. This in't just a chronological failure to get beyond the Beatles or Maggie Thatcher, nor is it simple ignorance - e.g. the belief that the Queen has a say in government policy, or confusion over which state Northern Ireland is a part of. Rather it is a superficial knowledge, which is both accurate and incomplete, that manages to be insightful because it isn't mediated by our native consoling myths and unstated assumptions. In other words, the common image of the UK as a toff-run bastion of privilege and anachronistic tradition is a case of the emperor's new clothes. While we convince ourselves that declining social mobility is a live issue, rather than the consequence of a battle that ended 30 years ago, and point to poly-dropout Jeremy Corbyn as evidence that all is not lost, the rest of the world sees a state in the hands of a social elite that would not be out of place in a prewar Agatha Christie story.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Beyond Chapter Two

Andrew Haigh's new film, 45 Years, is based on a David Constantine short story, In Another Country, which was included in the 2005 collection, Under The Dam. The story's title is a nod to Christopher Marlowe's oft-quoted The Jew of Malta - "but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead" - which has served as a recurrent motif of alienation and relativism from T S Eliot's Portrait of a Lady, through James Baldwin's 1962 novel to Julian Mitchell's 1981 play about Guy Burgess. The dam of the collection title is the central metaphor of Constantine's story, a glacier holding back a huge body of melted ice-water that global warming will eventually release and "anything human in the way of it will be wiped out". Among the rocks and mud will be the corpse of a young woman: the past returned to haunt the present. Haigh's previous work as a director has focused on gay themes (Greek Pete, Weekend), and this new film could as easily have been about the destabilising revelation of youthful homosexuality for a settled heterosexual marriage, in the manner of 1961's The Victim. It is a tale of inter-generational conflict that largely avoids the young.

The 11-page short story has been skillfully expanded into a film, though it would have worked just as well as a half-hour radio play. A comfortably retired, childless couple, Geoff and Kate Mercer, about to celebrate their sapphire wedding anniversary, are disturbed when he receives an official letter from Switzerland confirming the discovery of the body of his ex-girlfriend, Katya, who fell into a glacier fissure in 1962. Her corpse has been revealed frozen in the ice, as the covering of snow has gradually melted, still as fresh and young as the that day she died. The film coolly watches as Geoff and Kate come to terms with this eruption of the past. Its quality is in the timing and phrasing of the leads, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, though both are also excellent at subtle visual communication: Courtenay's whole body oscillating between tragedy and comedy; Rampling's face a dark pool of emotion. There are essentially only two and half characters, with Lena, played by Geraldine James, acting as a rather cursory sounding board for Kate's concerns. This is a very British two-hander, in which silences and mutually-assured restraint create space for fears to grow and hopes to curdle.

The alternately grumpy and meek Geoff, who suffered a heart bypass 5 years previously (thus causing the cancellation of their ruby wedding anniversary), becomes loquacious and even poetic as he recalls the events of over 50 years ago when he and Katya walked south to Italy, posing as man and wife for social convenience. His language takes on the cadences of D H Lawrence, particularly of his poetry in Look! We Have Come Through!, a work that partly celebrated Lawrences' own southward Alpine crossing with Frieda Weekley, a woman temporarily estranged from her children by his love, just before the Great War. Geoff rhapsodises a violet flower that sprang up amid the snow (Constantine's story mentions blue gentians as well, an explicit reference to Lawrence's poem, Bavarian Gentians), emphasising how alive the young couple were, with no purpose beyond looking for food and a place to sleep, while the wider world grappled with the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall (in the story, set some 17 years earlier, the surroundings were more menacing: "with Hitler where they'd come from and Mussolini where they were going to").

The film has an undercurrent of class antagonism that is absent from the story. Kate was a respected teacher, with perfect upper-middle class diction; Geoff was an engineer, who worked his way up from the shopfloor to management and regrets the decline of the unions (his regret over a lost past is a key theme). She corrects his placing of Tollund (he's referring to the ancient bodies preserved in peat) from Sweden to Denmark ("I had to teach it"), and cheerfully derides his three attempts to tackle Kierkegaard ("you've got three copies of that book and you've never got beyond chapter two" - We never learn which book, but the Dane's concerns with choice and anxiety are suggestive). He generally responds with patient silence, not unlike a cowed schoolboy, but notes her father's dislike of him as a suitor in his speech at the wedding anniversary party: a small revenge. She is a model of structure and habit: walk the dog, drink a glass of water, pop into town. When their shared life appears to be on the brink of unravelling, she cleaves to routine: he'll take his pills, they'll eat their meal, they'll go to bed, and tomorrow they'll go on. But this is more a determination to discipline the imagination than Beckettian resignation.

Their world is flat. The film is set is rural Norfolk, with bustling Norwich serving as a backdrop for Kate's increasing alienation and a rather obvious visual link between weddings and Switzerland by way of a jewellers. Their home is bleached, rustic and comfortingly middle class: the Roberts radio, the grey Skoda, the cream Aga. Kate on screen is far less severe and unsympathetic than on the page, where the couple are only ever Mr and Mrs - only Katya has a first name in the story. The promotion to cinema has also upgraded their material circumstances. In the original, they live in a small house ("nowhere to pace") with a flagstone garden on a dull estate in North Wales (Mrs Mercer takes day-trips to Prestatyn and Horseshoe Pass). Evenings are spent watching TV, rather than listening to classical music, and the books mostly come from the library. What's consistent is the inverted fissure of the loft, a glacier-like deep storage from which troubling mementoes emerge.

In the story, Katya is revealed to be a Jewish orphan and her death occurs in late wartime (what Mr Mercer is doing in Switzerland is unclear). The revelation of Katya's pregnancy comes directly from Geoff, not, as in the film, when Kate discovers old photographic slides. He says they were "heedless", but admits to himself that their certainty that they wanted a child and to go on living together was anything but. In the film this becomes the admission that they would have married, that Katya would have become Mrs Mercer, had she survived. For the actual Mrs Mercer in Constantine's tale, "All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn't been nothing, it hasn't been a waste of time, the fifty years, that they amount to something, if not a child". The story ends with Mr Mercer setting off on a probably abortive attempt to get to Switzerland. In the film he eschews any such mad idea, settles for social conformity and does the right thing at the celebratory party - he toasts Kate as the best decision he ever made and blubs, as Lena confidently predicted he would.

With little visual exuberance - the flat Norfolk Broads are a blunt contrast to the unseen Alps, though they do allow for references to digging - the film over-invests in music as a symbol of the Mercer's shared history, with ironic if unsubtle pointers to their contemporary pain. The Platters' Smoke Gets in You Eyes bookends the film (Kate hums it as Geoff opens the fateful letter, and it is the first number they dance to at the party), but hearing "when an old flame dies" repeatedly is bathetic. A distracted Kate, prompted over the phone for the party playlist, runs out of steam and ends with "Oh, and The Moody Blues". Are you trying to tell us something, dearie? When Gary Puckett & The Union Gap's Young Girl comes on the radio in the car while she is travelling with Lena, Kate promptly turns it off. A more realistic response would have been a sour joke about Jimmy Savile.

Where the film works better is in its suggestive elisions, such as the "big decisions" that Kate now fears Geoff regrets, the key one presumably being the decision not to have children (explicit in the story). Her angst stems from the fear that this was a decision made with Katya in mind more than her. At the anniversary party, Lena presents the couple with a collage of photos, a summary of the view that others have had of them over the years, a moment that is both chilling and warm, and reminiscent of the surveillance trope in that great film of bourgeois guilt, Michael Haneke's Caché. They see how young they were, how dogs substituted for children, and Kate suddenly realises how little all this has meant. Where Geoff at least has had substantial regrets to cosset, she has too easily accommodated herself to limits and lack - making a virtue of placid emptiness. Perhaps Kate's final realisation, superbly rendered on Rampling's haunted face amid the party crowd, is that she has never got beyond chapter two either, and her chance to do so has now gone. Geoff at least repeatedly tried.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Do You Want Notes?

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Mistress America is that rare thing: a grown-up film that owes a debt to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This is not to say that Mark Twain's books haven't inspired adult films, but this has often been done indirectly via other novels, such as The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. As Hemmingway said of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "All American writing comes from that". In cinema, the direct influence of Twain's imaginary America has been more obvious in comedy-action films, from the Indiana Jones franchise to Bill and Ted's various adventures. What is doubly remarkable is that Mistress America changes both gender and perspective, with the younger Tom (Tracy, played by Lola Kirke) documenting the adventures of the older Huck (Brooke, played by co-writer Gerwig). What remains constant is the trouble that the two characters delusions, a love of stories and adventure respectively, spawn in their lives.

The film is structured into three acts and an epilogue - a "chapter the last", in Twain's formulation - and a fitting epigraph might have been taken from among Huck's last words, "if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it and ain't agoing to no more". This is a story about the contrasting and conflicting difficulties of living and writing. The first act is the setup - an episodic collage that introduces Tracy, a straight-outta-suburbia freshman student at New York's Barnard College and aspiring writer. Her assigned roommate is a black hole of negativity and her classmates are patronising dicks or social losers. Like her. Her ambition is to be accepted into the exclusive Mobius Literary Society, a clique of talentless snobs. She is rejected by them, and then by fellow rejected scribbler Tony, who chooses the possessive Nicolette as his girlfriend instead. This is a parody of the prematurely middle-aged that will find an echo in the ambition, materialism and vindictiveness of the third act. The influence of Woody Allen is front and centre. The mood is sour, wry and the visual palette is mostly brown and grey.

The middle act is the womance, a conscious escape from her empty life, in which the younger Tracy hooks up with Brooke (frequently referred to as "Bro"), her soon-to-be-stepsister-by-remarriage. Tracy is entertained and fascinated by the 30-year-old technicolor Brooke, much as Nick Carraway was by the slow-motion train-wreck of Jay Gatsby. New York itself is most visible as a character in this section, but despite the clichéd tour of contemporary hipsterdom (there's a cameo by the Dirty Projectors), it's the fragments that echo earlier gleaming visions, from Breakfast at Tiffany's via Desperately Seeking Susan to Sex and the City, that catch the eye. Brooke has a portfolio career, relentlessly "curated" online, that combines being an under-employed interior designer, spin class leader and home tutor with grand plans to open a restaurant in Williamsburg with her absent Greek boyfriend, Stavros. In other words, she has been vainly trying to monetise her personality for over a decade. She is clued-up, highly-networked and going nowhere.

Her home is a loft space zoned as commercial - i.e. it's illegal. Her world soon falls apart as Stavros dumps her and the restaurant and she is locked-out of the apartment. In the key scene of the act, an old school contemporary of Brooke upbraids her for her historic cruelty - she sarcastically accused others of being bitter - which highlights both Brooke's own contemporary bitterness and her tendency to confuse an unwillingness to confront the consequences of her actions with largeness of spirit. After visiting a wry medium ("you must listen to spirit"), who fulfils the role reserved for psychoanalysts in the Woody Allen canon, her anger is redirected towards Mamie-Claire, a former friend who apparently stole Brooke's earlier boyfriend, Dylan, her two cats and the idea for a t-shirt design that was sold to J.Crew (Mamie-Claire will later justify the cats through investment - "I paid the vet bills so I own them" - and the theft of intellectual capital through superior exploitation - Brooke was incapable of monetising the idea). Brooke and Tracy set off to confront this "nemesis", who now lives a comfortable life in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Despite the nods to screwball comedy (rapid-fire repartee, the country house setting, unexpected guests etc), the third act is a gloriously stagey farce whose increasingly surreal plot and rhetoric owe more to Bunuel, Renoir and Godard than Hawks, Cukor or Sturges. The visual style is Le Corbusier off-white. It's the most European part of the film, which perhaps explains why some American critics seem uncomfortable with it. Brooke seeks restitution from Mamie-Claire and Dylan in the form of investment in her restaurant. Dylan offers to pay off her debts, but insists on dropping the restaurant idea, the implication being that he expects her to become his mistress. Brooke refuses. The possessive Nicollette, convinced that Tracy is trying to steal Tony (the two have been roped-in by Tracy and Brooke for the trip because Tony has a car), finds Tracy's short story about Brooke, Mistress America, reads it and then denounces Tracy to Brooke and the rest as a monster of self-regard. The ensemble, including Mamie-Claire's pregnant tax lawyer friend, Karen, and a resentful paediatrician neighbour, Harold (played by the film's co-composer, Dean Wareham), interrogate and judge Tracy.

A European film would end at this point, but Noah Baumbach reveals his larger, optimistic purpose by adding an extended epilogue in which Tracy and Brooke are reconciled, Brooke reveals she has paid off her debts and will finally go to college (funded by a pay-off from Mamie-Claire, who is desperate to save her marriage to Dylan), and that she is lighting out for the new territory and promise of LA, somewhere that may suit her personality better. Tracy finally eulogises her friend's spirit, despite the self-deceit and failure to follow-through on plans (it's worth noting that Brooke could probably have secured the pay-out earlier, but it took Tracy's prompting to make it happen), because she is a refreshing contrast to the narrow calculation and selfishness of others: "she was the bonfire to their matches". In this she echoes Nick Carraway's celebration of Jay Gatsby for the sincerity of his shallow beliefs. The visual tone of the epilogue starts with the muted browns of the first act, but finishes with the warmer colours of the second.

There are a number of interesting motifs in the film, showing a degree of care that most reviews have skipped over. As the film itself makes clear, we live in an era when social media requires opinion to be cut down to the punch of a tweet. "Must we document ourselves all the time", Brooke faux-naively asks at one point, and then goes on to insist there is a huge difference between parasitically tweeting someone else's bon mots and using their character as the basis for a work of fiction. The entr'actes feature glass: the cracked glass of a smartphone screen, when Tracy decides to call Brooke for the first time; the crystal ball of the medium, which sets Brooke and Tracy off to Connecticut; the dirty windows Tracy peers through when she seeks out Brooke for their reconciliation. The epilogue ends with a view from the street, through glass, into a restaurant where the two are laughing. Like the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the film is also marked by absent and unreliable men: Brooke's dad is only ever heard on the phone; her boyfriend Stavros is only heard from second-hand; pregnant Karen waits vainly for her husband to pick her up in the third act.

The film is parodically postmodern: it even critiques its own title. Brooke is asked to make her business pitch to Dylan and Mamie-Claire on their "media-stage", fluffs her opening speech and makes a weak visual joke about rewinding, finally producing the hilarious line: "It’s a restaurant, but also where you cut hair". The Mobius Literary Society is a transplant from a pre-email age, requiring short-stories to be submitted on onion-skin paper and deposited in a drop-box in full view of its members. At one point Brooke pines for the class certainties of feudalism. Inter-textuality is rife. The third act interrupts Mamie-Claire's reading group of pregnant Stepford wives discussing Faulkner's The Hamlet and a "slim biography of Derrida". There is a recurrent trope of critical feedback ("do you want notes?"), which allows the writers to neutralise the potential criticism that they have created female characters who are vicious and amoral by having Mamie-Claire critique Tracy's story on similar grounds. But despite this Old World sophistication, the film remains a paean to New World optimism: second chances, reinvention, the limitless opportunity out West. And its got lots of jokes.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Zombies and Luddites

One of the defining features of political economy since 2008 has been the persistence of ideas that were discredited by the global financial crisis. Paul Krugman popularised the term "zombie" to describe them, prompting the title of John Quiggin's 2012 book, Zombie Economics, which examined "how market liberalism depends on ideas that have failed", such as the Great Moderation, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and DSGE. Quiggin starts by acknowledging both Krugman and Keynes, which shows that the zombie trope has a long pedigree. His epigraph is one of Keynes's more famous quotes: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back".

It's worth extending the quote, as Keynes then defines the problem more mundanely in terms of institutional conservatism - i.e. people in positions of power are usually middle-aged and have adopted much of the existing orthodoxy during their ascent: "I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil". The coda suggests that good ideas will triumph in the end, which in turn implies that vested interests have little staying-power (Keynes ended up in the House of Lords, which suggests otherwise). Paul Krugman is essentially battling to reinstate ideas that came to the fore as far back as the 1930s (e.g. the Hicks-Hansen IS-LM Model), so he appears to be up against more than just a generational lag.

Insofar as wrong ideas live on until they are refuted, the high percentage of zombies in the field of economics reflects the nature of a social science whose theories are not easily falsifiable. Much the same is true of history, though there the zombies tend to be myths, which are perhaps better thought of as ghosts - i.e. claims that are easily disproved but survive because we like a good story. A real zombie idea in history is usually a claim about process that can be abstracted as a general rule from a specific historical event. For example, in a routine bleat about the ethical decline occasioned by social media, Rafael Behr claims: "It has been said many times that the communications revolution we are experiencing is analogous to the disruption of old European authorities caused by the invention of the printing press. The capacity to knock out thousands of pamphlets in vernacular German and English broke the monopoly of the Latin-writing class on interpretations of scripture and law". In other words, technology directly triggers social upheaval, which is naive determinism.

The suggestion that Latin went into decline among the clergy and lawyers after the mid-15th century is obviously nonsense, as is the implication that the vernacular was excluded from political life before then. English supplanted Latin (and more importantly French) in most areas of public life a hundred years prior to the first printing press. Chaucer preceded Caxton. It was the Renaissance that saw the wider adoption of Latin as a technical and literary language, a process that was accelerated by the dissemination of classical texts in printed form. Behr is pushing the zombie idea that the Reformation was essentially the product of the printing of vernacular bibles, though he is using the idea to emphasise the distorting power of technology as a caution against the enthusiasms of social media (i.e. Corbyn-mania). He ignores both the possibility that the Reformation may have had other causes and the role of vernacular printing in the Counter-Reformation.

Zombie ideas are not merely myths, or the sort of pseudo-science favoured by dictatorships, such as Lysenkoism, far less the tenacious conspiracy theories that mutate over time from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to black helicopters. A prime-cut zombie idea has the flavour of a natural law, and is often supported by explanatory parables. Thus naive technological determinism (which ignores the social determination of technological development and assumes that progress is the uniform advance of knowledge) is proven by the printing press dethroning Latin. The persistence of a zombie idea, in the sense of it being taken seriously and having an influence on public policy, is the product of the ruling ideology. This is why most zombie ideas appear to emanate from the political right. For example, the Laffer Curve is obviously a reflection of the interests of the elite, even down to the story that Art Laffer sketched it on a napkin, proving both its simplicity and revealing its social context (rich people enjoying lunch).

In fact, Zombie ideas are to be found across the political spectrum. An example of a lefty zombie in mainstream economics would be the job guarantee, an idea that should have been buried in the 1970s as structural unemployment took hold. The idea is kept alive mainly by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) advocates, who believe that the state can employ a "buffer-stock" of workers to control rates of both unemployment and inflation. Jeremy Corbyn's proposal for "People's QE", whereby the Bank of England buys the bonds of a national investment bank that in turn funds infrastructure projects, is a variant on this. The most persistent zombies are those that are commonly advanced by both left (i.e. respectable centre-left) and right (i.e. non-lunatic right). Naive technological determinism is one example, which in turn reflects the breadth of neoliberal ideology and the power of its supporting parables of progress, disinterested science and the marketplace for ideas. A classic ecumenical zombie, that never appears to lose it charm, is the Lump of Labour Fallacy and in particular its supporting parable, the Luddite Fallacy.

Katie Allen in the Guardian gave us a textbook run-through this week in an article entitled "Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data". This turns out to be the work of "economists at Deloitte" who have analysed the job titles reported in UK census data since 1871. There are some obvious methodological issues with this, chief being that the normalised index of occupations encodes assumptions and that these change over time. The modern era has seen not only job title inflation (e.g. "manager") but occupational ambiguity (e.g. the application of "analyst" to a raft of clerical roles). Allen starts with the stock parable: "In the 1800s it was the Luddites smashing weaving machines. These days retail staff worry about automatic checkouts. Sooner or later taxi drivers will be fretting over self-driving cars. The battle between man and machines goes back centuries. Are they taking our jobs? Or are they merely easing our workload?"

The Luddites did not fear that they would be replaced by weaving machines, but that the new technology would be used to de-skill their job and thus force down wages. They were motivated by the falling returns to skill rather than technophobia. The broader imputation is that workers instinctively subscribe to the Lump of Labour Fallacy, the belief that there is a fixed amount of work in the economy, so that if technology (capital) directly substitutes for labour, this will reduce the demand for workers. Both the Lump of Labour Fallacy and the Luddite Fallacy are strawmen - i.e. their critics are many while their advocates are largely mythical. Ironically, the true believers in the idea of a fixed amount of work were the proto-capitalists of the 17th century, who were influenced by both mercantilism (the idea that there is a fixed amount of trade in the world, justifying state power to seize and secure it) and the debates on poor relief that started after the dissolution of the monasteries (notably the fear that outdoor relief would deprive others of work, which lives on today in that other zombie, the public sector "crowding out" the private sector).

By the late nineteenth century, the Lump of Labour Fallacy had been refashioned to resist demands for a reduction in working hours, the new strawman being the claim that a general reduction in work-time would require more workers to be employed. In fact, the agitation for reduced hours reflected the understanding of workers that increases in productivity both justified and were a consequence of reduced hours. Pressure for a reduction in work hours continued through the twentieth century, but by the 1960s the priority of organised labour was increased wages (and overtime), which reflected the profusion of commodities. During the neoliberal era, debt has increasingly substituted for wages and systemic under-employment (i.e. involuntary reductions in work hours) has grown. The strawmen have now been repositioned in support of creative destruction and technological disruption: the robots will do the shit jobs and we'll be freed up for creative and caring roles. The common feature throughout this history is the reluctance to address what the changing composition of roles means in terms of power, and specifically the impact on wages - the Luddites original concern.

Allen exhibited the ability to hold (or at least report) conflicting views on the subject the following day, when she penned a piece on the falling returns to education: "UK graduates are wasting degrees in lower-skilled jobs - Over-qualification has reached saturation point". Larry Elliott helpfully glossed this with a reference to the economics canon: "So much for Say's Law. The expansion of higher education in Britain has been based on the law espoused by the famous French economist that supply creates its own demand. So increasing the number of graduates should increase the jobs that need a degree". This implies that there is a fixed number of graduate jobs, which is no less daft than supposing that the total number of jobs in the economy is fixed. This is an example of (to borrow Keynes's term) a vested interest. The middle classes are conditioned to believe that society and economy are inescapably constrained, necessitating competition and sharp elbows for limited school places and nice homes. This constraint now extends to graduate jobs, with scare stories about unpaid internships jostling in the media with the trusty standby of property prices.

While the tribunes of the middle classes would never concede the lump of labour theory for the economy as a whole (they'll still insist the poor should accept that crap wages and insufficient hours are the price we must pay for progress, while the unemployed will be told that there is always work to do), they will accept that there is a fixed amount of material success in society and this should be reserved for those who have invested in their human capital. The concern over "graduate saturation" looks like a harbinger of a further shift in the political wind towards the pricing-out of lower class students (to "maintain standards"), which will probably be effected by fully commercialising student debts, limiting means-tested state support, and allowing universities to balance the books by removing the cap on course fees. In other words, we'll end up much like the USA. To judge from the steeply rising cost of student digs, this process is already well under way. The zombie shuffles on.