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The Limits of Satire

Now of course, if we are going to talk about famous auteur comedians, then the place to start is surely with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is a curiously ambiguous figure these days: he remains possibly the single most recognisable person in history (while in his Tramp rig, anyway), and is still considered one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, but his films have – generally speaking – fallen out of favour and are little-watched these days. All this was really presaged in Chaplin’s lifetime, with his immense popularity in the early part of the last century declining to the point where he was essentially obliged to leave the country at the beginning of the 1950s.

With hindsight, the moment of Chaplin’s peak commercial and critical success was also one in which the seeds of his fall from grace were visible. I’m talking about his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was his biggest hit at the box-office, and is one of his best-regarded films these days, possibly because of the subject matter. At the same time, though, it’s one which demands you keep its historical context in mind.

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An opening caption informs the audience that the film is set between the two world wars, a period in which ‘Insanity cut loose… and humanity was kicked around somewhat’. From here we go straight into a lengthy, quite lavish sequence depicting the final hours of the First World War, and the exploits of a hapless soldier fighting in the army of Tomainia (played by Chaplin himself, clearly as a variation on the Tramp character). After various misadventures he ends up being sent to a veterans’ hospital with amnesia.

Twenty years pass and Tomainia falls under the control of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, making the most of his passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler), who institutes a regime of vicious oppression against his Jewish citizens. When the soldier, now revealed to be an unnamed Jewish barber, is discharged from hospital, he is shocked to discover what has befallen the country.

What follows is basically a film with two main plotlines – one concerning the barber, his romance with a local woman (Chaplin’s then-soon-to-be-ex-wife Paulette Goddard), and their attempts to live some kind of life in the ghetto, which mainly consists of sentimental melodrama and slapstick comedy, and one focusing on happenings within Hynkel’s palace. This is mostly farcical satire, with lots more slapstick in the mix. In the end the two storylines come together, with the fact that Hynkel and the barber are identical crucial to the denouement, but there’s never a moment where someone says ‘You know what, you look just like him!’ – the similarity is never commented upon prior to the moment it becomes central to the narrative.

I think that before you decide about your opinion of The Great Dictator, you really do have to remember that this is a film made at a particular moment in time: in 1940, to be precise. Why is this significant? Well, for one thing it is important to remember that this was a full year before the USA entered the Second World War, and the two countries were still technically at peace; for Chaplin to make a film which so openly ridicules both Hitler, Mussolini, and various other senior Nazi figures was a bold choice (after Hitler saw the movie he put Chaplin on a death list, or so the story goes).

But there’s more than this. These days you sit down to watch The Great Dictator in expectations of a timeless masterpiece in the modern sense. In the opening minutes what you get is a sequence in which Chaplin is in charge of firing a piece of artillery: he pulls the ignition cord, the gun goes off with a big bang, Chaplin falls over and waggles his legs in the air. Enemy planes attack the area and so Chaplin mans an anti-aircraft gun; frantically spinning the wheel that controls its direction and angle of fire, he ends up whirling around uselessly like a man on a fairground ride. Assigned to help a group of infantry, he is given a hand grenade; having pulled the pin, the grenade drops down his sleeve and ends up in his trousers. And so on.

In short, this is very broad slapstick, and not especially distinguished as such (later sequences in the film make it quite clear what an astonishingly accomplished and capable physical performer Chaplin was, even in his fifties). To a modern viewer there is something inescapably out-of-kilter about this sort of thing appearing in a film about Hitler and the Nazis. But it persists as the film continues: Goering and Goebbels are lampooned as Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as a homophone of ‘garbage’), Mussolini is played as a cartoon Italian gangster (it is somewhat eye-opening that the performer, Jack Oakie, was Oscar-nominated for the role); and yet in the same film there are scenes of Jews being beaten and robbed by Hynkel’s stormtroopers, having their homes burnt to the ground, eventually shot… this is not the stuff of comedy, by any sane metric. It is an uneasy juxtaposition.

But, as I say, you have to remember this is a film from 1940 and the full scale of Nazi atrocities had yet to become clear. Over twenty years later Chaplin himself wrote that …had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose. But the film is still uncomfortable to watch in parts.

Apparently, Hitler was under the impression that Chaplin himself was Jewish, and if this had been the case it would have explained the film-maker’s decision to lampoon the dictator with quite such asperity. But he wasn’t, and – beyond simple moral outrage – there doesn’t seem to have been a particular reason for him to make this film, although he himself observed that ‘one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi, just a decent normal human being.’ Then again, apparently Hitler held a strange fascination for Chaplin, the two men having so much in common – they were born within days of each other, both rose from backgrounds of extreme poverty to immense fame and power, and so on. ‘[Hitler]’s copying your act,’ observes Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin; perhaps Chaplin felt the need to return the favour in some form.

Whatever the reason, The Great Dictator is clearly a heartfelt piece, and this is never more clear than in the concluding sequence, in which the barber (now pretending to be Hynkel) addresses his followers. Chaplin is speaking straight into the camera, in a monologue that goes on for nearly five minutes, calling for peace, brotherhood, freedom and democracy. Some people think it is beautiful and uplifting, others that it is overly earnest and quite simply preachy (it has been identified as the moment at which Chaplin’s personal politics began to impact upon his public image, to his eventual detriment). Personally, I can only agree with Chaplin’s sentiments, I just don’t think this is the stuff of good film-making.

But then The Great Dictator is not really traditional film-making, in the sense that this is not primarily entertainment – Chaplin’s intention seems to have been to use his popularity, especially as the Tramp character, to attract audiences to a film with an overtly political purpose. Chaplin’s physical performance is terrific, and there are some very funny scenes (such as the one with the puddings filled with coins). But that’s never quite the point. Judging The Great Dictator as entertainment kind of misses the point of it. As a piece of political satire, though, I have to find its intentions admirable even if the execution often makes me rather uneasy.

Le Comedie Democratique

I used to be a fairly regular participant in the great British tradition of the pub quiz, back before the institution was effectively killed off by the rise of the smartphone and hand-held search engines. One of the methods by which the proprietors of these events tried to limit people’s ability to cheat was by introducing things like music and picture rounds, where you couldn’t just google for the answers. There was usually an interesting mixture of difficulties on display.

I recall on one occasion being heads-down with the rest of the team poring over some of the more challenging pictures we were being asked to identify: 1970s football managers, obscure cousins to the queen, and so on. And there was one photo of a middle-aged man in a shapeless hat and a raincoat, smoking a pipe, with a rather peculiar expression on his face.

‘Is that Eric Morecambe without his glasses?’ wondered one of the team, aloud.

‘No it’s not. Maybe it’s Harold Wilson,’ said another, prompting an instinctive and visceral hiss from the members of the team who also belonged to the local Conservative Club (one can’t always freely pick one’s pub quiz team-mates).

Something was stirring in the back of my brain, as the machinery back there (which I have given up trying to understand) quivered and buzzed and finally coughed up an answer.

‘I… I think that’s Jacques Tati,’ I said.

They stared at me a lot, torn between lack of comprehension at what I was on about and bemusement that I actually appeared to know the answer. For myself, I was astonished that a picture of a French comedian from the middle of the last century had turned up in a pub quiz picture round in the north-west of England, and also that I was able to recognise him despite never actually having seen one of his films.

I mean, come on, it’s French comedy: our cousins across the channel are famous for their wine, their cuisine, their sense of style, and the sense of humility which they take with them whenever they travel abroad, but French comedy is (generally speaking) down the list beneath their pop music when it comes to les grandes realisations de la France.

Then again, there are exceptions to everything, and if there is a French comedian with a claim to international recognition it is Jacques Tati, acclaimed as one of the greatest auteurs and film directors of all time by people who should actually know about that sort of thing.

Well, as I say, I’d heard of Tati (and clearly seen a picture of him at some point), but had never seen one of his movies until recently when a stack of films passed on to me by a friend happened to include Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (even I, who didn’t even take GCSE French, can figure out that this means My Uncle).

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With a title like that it sounds like some sort of sentimental, family-themed romp, but (and to be honest you had best get used to this) Mon Oncle defies – or, perhaps, ignores – expectations. Tati plays his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a carefree, easy-going gentleman of middle years, residing in a chaotic Parisian neighbourhood at the top of a ramshackle apartment block.

This is quite at odds with the lifestyle of his sister (Adrienne Servantie), who along with her husband Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) has relocated to an ultra-modern home in the suburbs, with all kinds of modern fixtures and conveniences. Despite all of this, their son (Alain Becourt) seems much happier spending time with his uncle, Hulot. This is a source of much chagrin to the Arpels, who view Hulot as a feckless embarrassment and seemingly spend most of their time trying to get him to adopt a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle – working in Arpel’s factory, and so on.

There is, it must be said, not much more in the way of plot when it comes to Mon Oncle, mainly just a succession of set-pieces which usually depict Monsieur Hulot unintentionally wreaking havoc upon the ordered existence and plans of the Arpels. Your sympathies are intended to be with Hulot throughout, not because he is a particularly engaging or identifiable figure, but because the lifestyle of the Arpels is depicted as phoney and dehumanised: their home is a sterile environment depicted in a palette of dull greys, the most distinctive feature a fairly ugly fountain (which Mme Arpel hurries to switch on whenever they receive an important guest).

This extends to the film’s view of the factory and the consumerist lifestyle which the Arpels have enthusiastically adopted: rows of grey cars trundling in perfect unison between grey boxes. The contrast with the slightly shambolic, but always warm and vibrant neighbourhood in which Hulot resides could not be much more clear. Points are obviously being made, and there’s a certain sense in which Mon Oncle would be a good double-bill companion piece to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for they are both obviously very seriously-intentioned satires of consumerism – indeed, Mon Oncle occasionally seems almost reactionary in its suspicion of modern technology.

Satire isn’t an exact synonym for comedy, of course, which I suppose is my way of delicately raising the issue of whether this famous comedy film is actually funny or not. I suppose it is, but this feels like the kind of comedy which is meant to be taken very seriously – in other words, it is Art. As you admire the conception, composition, art direction and performances of each scene, it almost seems disrespectful to laugh at the film: an approving, serious nod feels like a much more appropriate response.

It’s not really the style of comedy you expect, either. Monsieur Hulot is clearly part of a tradition of clowning which – in cinematic terms at least – goes back at least to Chaplin’s Tramp and continues on to characters like Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged Tati’s influence on his work). But the difference is that with the Tramp or Bean, you are always watching a star vehicle – they are always centre stage, the comedy built around them. In Mon Oncle, on the other hand, many of the scenes are filmed in long shot, with Hulot just one figure in a crowd of other characters (if he is present at all). He is a major character, but the film does not revolve solely around him.

I should probably also observe that there is an abrasive element to Anglophone clowning which seems to be almost entirely absent here. There is a lot less falling-over, slapstick, and comic violence than you might expect – there’s a fairly lengthy sequence about an automatic garage door opening mechanism which eventually causes the Arpels a lot of trouble after their dachshund starts to accidentally trigger the mechanism. I was anticipating the moment where someone either gets hit by the door or entangled in the works and whisked out of sight; it never happens and it almost feels like a scene without a pay-off. There are many other almost-throwaway moments of visual inspiration.

So I have to conclude that while Mon Oncle is clearly a well-made film and the product of a distinct creative sensibility, it didn’t actually make me laugh very much. Then again, it seems to be a film about ideas and the changes in French society in the late 1950s at least as much as it is a comedy; the conclusion (Hulot is banished to the provinces to become a sales rep) seemed to me to be genuinely affecting and rather sad. Still, an interesting film, though definitely the product of a rather different comedic tradition.

Doomsday in the Age of Disco

We live in a more connected world than was once the case. These days day-and-date releases for major movies are standard practice, and big TV premieres also happen close together. It was not always thus, of course: I remember the sense of resignation with which I learned that that Star Trek TNG would not receive a UK transmission until 1990 (three years after its American debut). There was once a time when it was seriously speculated that the delay in the UK release of The Phantom Menace (two months after its US opening) might actually impact on tourism figures, as people went to the States wholly or partly in order to see it.

Doesn’t happen these days, of course. Something else that doesn’t really happen any more is the phenomenon where US TV networks, having splashed out big money on a TV pilot or two-part episode, arranged to have their TV show released into theatres in Europe and other foreign territories, in an attempt to recoup their investment. I remember seeing in the very early 80s a movie entitled Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, which was an extended episode of the TV series starring Nicholas Hammond. Also earning big-screen outings in Europe were various episodes of the Bill Bixby Hulk series, and – most relevantly for our purposes today – Battlestar Galactica.

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Strictly speaking there were three Galactica movies, if you lived outside the US at least: one which was a re-edited version of the pilot episode, plus Mission Galactica (cobbled together from elements of the episodes The Living Legend and Fire in Space), and Conquest of the Earth (a similar fix-up derived from the follow-up show Galactica 1980, which I came across being shown at a Butlin’s in about 1983). But let’s stick to the original, directed by Richard Colla.

Things get underway with portentousness dialled up to maximum and an opening voice-over from an uncredited Patrick Macnee, who presumably appeared as a favour to an old friend and for a hefty fee. ‘There are those who believe that life here began out there… some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive – somewhere beyond the heavens!’ Well, that’s as maybe, but as a glance at any newspaper will tell you, these days some people will believe anything.

Well, anyway, somewhere beyond the heavens we find the assembled fleet of the Twelve Colonies of Mankind (yes, I know: but they seem not have discovered gender-neutral nomenclature beyond the heavens), who are happily anticipating the conclusion of hostilities between their people and the Cylons, who seem to be oppressive alien robots. We really don’t learn much at all about the Cylons, except they apparently ‘hate freedom’ and want to eradicate civilisation as we know it, which is the kind of lazy propaganda you see on the right-wing news; it would be interesting to hear the Cylons’ point of view, but we never really do.

Alone in his scepticism about the coming armistice is basso profundo (and, it must be said, somewhat nepotistic) patrician Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), whose suspicions turn out to be well-founded: two of his sons, flying a patrol mission in their space fighters, discover a massive Cylon ambush. It turns out that peace broker Count Baltar (John Colicos) has sold them all out.

The Cylon attack devastates the unprepared fleet while the Cylon base ships wreak havoc on the home planets of the human colonies. Only Adama and his crew, aboard the ‘battlestar’ Galactica, manage to escape more or less unscathed. The commander seems to develop a kind of Moses complex and declares they will gather together the survivors and set out across the universe in search of a fabled lost colony where they may yet find haven – a mysterious planet known only as Earth…

There is, of course, a very good reason why Battlestar Galactica received its US premiere in 1978, only a few months after George Lucas’ initial stellar conflict opus began its demolition of box office records. On top of all the space battles, laser blasters, weird aliens and so on being displayed here, calling this story ‘Saga of a Star World’ was probably overdoing it – almost inevitably, accusations of plagiarism and a lawsuit ensued.

Battlestar Galactica is kind of respectable again now, mainly due to the success of Ronald D Moore’s Bush-era retelling of the tale (a programme I find it easier to admire than to genuinely like), but for a long time this was not the case: it had a reputation for being cheesy and po-faced and sometimes unintentionally camp. The creator of Babylon 5 instituted a ‘no cute kids or robots’ rule for his show, and you can’t help thinking that this was at least in part a reference to Galactica, which frequently has both in close proximity. However you view the relationship between the main show and Galactica 1980, this is still another US SF TV series that failed to last more than a couple of seasons. It’s got to be tosh, right?

Well – maybe. Glen A Larson, creator of Galactica, was a smart enough cookie to get as much of the budget up on the screen as possible, and the big draw for this show is that it had – for the late 70s – near-as-dammit movie-quality model work and special effects. The ships look great and the production designs are impressive. Even nowadays, you watch the first few minutes of Battlestar Galactica and go ‘wow, this looks pretty good.’

Then you spend the next few minutes going ‘Hang on, I’ve just seen this bit,’ for they start very obviously re-using special effects footage within the first half-hour and continue to do so throughout. Battlestar Economica might have been a better title for this project; it’s round about this point that most people start paying more attention to the plot and the acting.

There’s an odd sort of twin-track approach going on here – obviously, much of the plot is derived from an odd mish-mash of classical and religious influences. There are characters called Apollo, Athena, and Cassiopeia, and many elements of the story are based on Mormon theology; the tone of the programme occasionally resembles that of a Biblical epic with extra ray-guns. ‘And the word went forth to every outpost of human existence, and they came…’ declaims Greene at one point.

On the other hand, most of the rest of it is late-70s quotidian stuff, with disco dancing, interesting haircuts, and so on. The younger characters are designed to be archetypes, for maximum audience identification – there’s earnest young leader Apollo (Richard Hatch), loveable rogue Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), feisty single mum Serina (Jane Seymour), and so on. Chief human villain Baltar is a bit of a panto turn.

You wouldn’t expect the two styles to go together particularly well, but they somehow do: it is sometimes camp and cheesy, and sometimes (as mentioned) rather po-faced and portentous, but still strangely watchable. This is not the subtlest of programmes – ‘broad’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe the default performance style of everyone involved –  and while it is occasionally somewhat sentimental, it is seldom full-on mawkish.

It’s still the case that you can practically see the joins where this pilot movie will be chopped up to make at least three separate episodes when the show goes into syndication, for the plot is episodic at best – there’s the opener, concerning the apocalyptic Cylon attack on the colonies, then some rather humdrum stuff about food shortages in the fleet and a minefield that must be traversed, and finally the secret of the space casino of the planet Carillon and its insectoid owners. But it holds together, just about.

(For the purposes of this rambling I watched the cinema edit of the pilot, which is slightly different to the TV version – the main difference being that it has the scene where Baltar has his head chopped off by the Cylons. In the US version he survives and goes on to become the regular villain on the show. I like the comeuppance, but I also enjoy Colicos’ performance, so I find myself a bit torn by this.)

I don’t know, I find it very easy to indulge the original version of Battlestar Galactica, mainly because I am amused by the way in which its lofty storytelling ambitions collide with the minutiae of making a weekly mass-audience TV drama (here’s some more Mormon theology, along with a guest spot by Fred Astaire), but also because it does manage to give a better sense of an epic voyage across the galaxy in one season than Voyager managed in seven (yes, I genuinely think that). You couldn’t honestly describe the pilot as great, but much of it is good and most of the rest is not that bad either.

 

 

 

Out and About

Life is life, na na na na na. – Opus, ‘Live is Life’

It may just be the case that my visit here concludes rather sooner than anyone expected, for reasons that those pesky professional ethics preclude me from going into in any detail. Suffice to say that things are not going to plan and it is a struggle to keep the situation at work from colouring my whole perception of Bishkek and the trip. (What is it with me and this country?)

I am not seeing quite as much of the city as previously, as (as part of this week’s shenanigans) I have been required to move apartments. The good news is that the new place is closer to the city centre (about a block south of the Metro Bar, KR old hands – I will just mention that the closure of the US air base a few years ago has seemingly hit the place hard and it is a shadow of its former, never especially substantial self). The bad news is that it resembles the kind of place that recently-recanted still-under-surveillance political dissidents would be housed in: small, receiving virtually no natural light, and lacking in essential things like cutlery and anywhere comfortable to sit. Given the choice I would have taken the 35 minute walk and/or taxi fares willingly.

Walking around at least gives you a chance to get a sense of the city: mostly quite modern, laid out on a grid system, and sloping very gently away from the mountains to the south. I get the sense that most Kyrgyz with any money don’t tend to walk anywhere, as any time I ask colleagues how far away somewhere is the answer is wildly inaccurate – ‘it’s an hour’s walk to the office’ turned out to be only about half that, while ‘it’s only five minutes away’ in reality was more like a quarter of an hour.

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One of the charming Kyrgyz water features which made the morning walk to work so pleasant.

In the morning, though, the streets are full of people going to work or school. If a dust storm has blown down from Kazakhstan (this is neither as interesting nor dramatic as it sounds) some of them will be out sweeping the pavement outside their shops with proper Harry Potter-style brooms. American-style sportswear is the preferred clothing option for younger people: older Kyrgyz men often wear the traditional Kyrgyz hat regardless of the rest of their wardrobe choice.

Walking around Bishkek is a decent option if you have the time and stamina for it, the only wrinkles coming from the poorly maintained pavements – you have to keep an eye on where you’re treading, doubly so after sundown, although people seem to have stopped nicking manhole covers to sell as scrap – and the constant adventure of negotiating the street crossings.

This is mainly because traffic signals appear only to be advisory here, unless a traffic cop is in attendance. One thing I suspect I will never get used to is a fully-loaded minibus screeching to a half about eight inches away from me while I am in mid-crossing with the green man still fully in effect. The people on board usually give hardeye to express their outrage that pedestrians should be on crossings, of all places. When possible I take my usual approach and try to make sure a local person is crossing at the same time as me, preferably between me and the oncoming traffic.

The other travel options vary. There are still buses and trolleybuses, wires zinging and twanging overhead, and while these are apparently cheap I have no idea of the schedule. Most people’s first choice is a marshrutka, which is the Russian name for one of those minibuses I mentioned earlier. There are swarms of these all over the city but I have always been very reluctant to use one – partly because (ten years ago at least) a foreigner boarding the vehicle unleashed every person’s inner pickpocket, but also because I can imagine getting on one of these things to go to work, making an elementary Russian mistake and ending up in Uzbekistan.

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One of the charming Kyrgyz water features which makes walking home at night so challenging.

Then there are taxis. These are also ubiquitous. One of the big changes since 2009 is that everyone who wants one now carries a smartphone and as a result the taxi meter has now reached Bishkek. Back in ye old days, the price of a taxi was negotiated in advance and likely to triple if, for example, it was snowing. In my experience, Bishkek taxi drivers were matched in sheer piratical ruthlessness only by the tuk-tuk operators of Galle in Sri Lanka. Everything is much more civilised now.

And, like everywhere else, you can learn a lot from talking to a taxi driver. A decent percentage of these have English good enough to carry on a basic conversation. One guy all but shook his head in marvelment as he shared his opinion that virtually every American traveller of his experience was basically a hedonistic kidult (I paraphrase). Another cheerfully told me of his three children, aged 19, 17, and 2. When I commented that they were (to put it delicately) unevenly spaced, he explained why. ‘For many years no kids. Then doctor he say I have problems with my Testarossa so I get injection in my arm and my daughter is born.’ (He was driving a Nissan when he took me home. I suppose his other car must be a Testarossa.)

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But what kind of city are these people driving around? Much of it is unchanged from 2008-9: the traffic is mostly the same, the pavements are still unkempt, the nicer avenues lined with trees, the derelict buildings crumbling away. Most street corners still have a woman under a garish umbrella selling drinks to passers-by – it looks more professional, even branded, but that’s the only difference.

Bishkek has changed though: there is a swagger and colour and energy about the place that feels new. Construction sites are everywhere as new buildings shoot up; it now has at least three big malls. One of these, the Asia Mall, even has its own branch of KFC in its food court. (The quintessence of Bishkek is embodied by the fact that, as far as pedestrians are concerned, this supermodern consumerist temple complex is approached via the creakiest, ricketiest old  footbridge imaginable.)

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It’s an impressive pile, and I understand it was built by a local tycoon who wanted to go into politics (‘Make Kyrgyzstan Great Again’), as a blatant attempt to buy the votes of local shoppers and lovers of fried chicken. Apparently, when his run for office ended in failure he was obliged to flee into Kazakhstan, pursued by allegations of corruption.

One of the things I am obliged to do here is hang out with various NGO employees and I did comment on the amount of new construction taking place in the city. I asked them what had made this happen, expecting to hear that it was all about new inward investment. They had a different answer. ‘Political corruption,’ they said, matter-of-factly. It’s all a question of the right people getting the right kickbacks, apparently. The current government is attempting to tackle the problem but with only limited success, according to my informants.

And even if you view the regeneration of Bishkek as a good thing, albeit a compromised one, it’s still relative. My understanding is that the money flows into Bishkek and pools there, not benefiting the countryside much. And when I told some local colleagues how impressed I was with the changes in the city, even suggesting it was now a kind of boom town, the response was ambivalent at best. ‘I can see how you would think that, if you weren’t probably going to spend the rest of your life here.’ That gave me pause, and strikes me as fair comment. Right now I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but it certainly won’t be long enough to really understand a city like this one. It is what it is. Bishkek is Bishkek (na na na na na).

 

The Return of the Shpace Cowboy

It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

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I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

The Sensual World

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.

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It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

Dependence Day

The last time I was hereabouts, a couple of waggish fellow expats started a magazine they called The Spektator, which covered all aspects of Kyrgyz life in a usually-sardonic fashion. One of the contributors was a guy who I briefly shared a bathroom with, whom old friends and family may recall was the one who stole the bathplug when he moved out and had the habit of washing his dishes using the shower (our kitchen arrangements were a bit basic). Bits of veg and potato were wont to linger: in our apartment, one did not so much take a bath as participate in a rather large ad hoc casserole.

Bathroom Man’s finest hour came when he delivered a sizzling and, to be fair, very funny expose of an NGO away-day held near Issyk-Kul under the auspices of the UN, for whom he worked. His descriptions of ice-breaker games with Kyrgyz tribal elders forced to have post-it notes stuck to their heads and his portrait of the UN agency chief as a man who spent most of the weekend either sunbathing or playing ping-pong were certainly vivid and imaginative. Unfortunately his imagination did not extend to working out just what would happen when his bosses at the UN read his little essay, which was more than likely to happen given that the foyer of the UN building in Bishkek was one of the places which had agreed to sell The Spektator and his piece was mentioned on the cover. I have no idea whether he took the plug with him as a souvenir when he left the country a short time later.

I mention all this because I am reluctant for the same thing to happen to me. I am here primarily on a working visit, and I would like to say a little something about what I’m up to, but, you know, I don’t want to get into trouble for being remorselessly flippant about colleagues or the company or otherwise bringing the firm into disrepute. So bear with me and forgive a little vagueness: I’d rather not come home ahead of schedule.

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The kind of anonymous picture of a Bishkek park which will not show up in search engine results and as a result help me keep my job.

***

August the 31st is the official day of our office’s Grand Opening, so chosen because it is Kyrgyz Independence Day (the 28th of that ilk, if my maths is correct). Everyone has been working horribly hard since long before I arrived getting the place spick and span and ready for the big day. The official ribbon-cutting is not until early evening but even so I turn up around 8.30 a.m. expecting a hive of activity.

I do not find it. Instead I find one of the girls from the front office sitting on the steps down to the front door (our place is, for want of a better expression, in a basement) with an enormous bucket which turns out to be full of raspberries. She is hugely apologetic about our being locked out but generous with the raspberries, which are probably the best I’ve ever tasted. (Apparently the berries are destined for jam.)

It eventually turns out we are not locked out at all, but I never quite manage to get to the bottom of why we couldn’t get in. Within there is indeed all the hustle and bustle I anticipated as about a dozen various members of staff make final preparations. Balloons are being inflated by the dozen, discoloured ceiling tiles in high-traffic areas are being swapped with pristine ones from quiet corners, and someone who seems to be a professional beautician has set up in one room and is working her magic on the staff (she refuses to let me come anywhere near her). Someone with a frankly underpowered electric drill is putting up pictures and signs at a rate of knots: halfway through the morning the health and safety notice falls off the wall and nearly causes a nasty accident, while my own portrait later does its bit to try and preserve the eyesight of our clients by hurling itself onto the floor in the middle of the night.

But it’s all very good-natured given the stress everyone is under. This is no small deal: we have been promised that the Vice Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan will be attending, along with various other eminent local bods. The fact that it is also Independence Day, and the third World Nomad Games are due to open the next day (basically they’re like the Olympics, but with more goats), may have thinned out the really top-drawer VIPs, but I can still sense the nervousness. Frankly, I share it: my previous and only meeting with a senior Kyrgyz politician came in late 2008, when the Minister for Culture threw me out of the National Opera House (it’s a long story).

There’s not much to do in my particular area of responsibility and so I end up floating about taking the odd behind-the-scenes photo (none of which I can really share, just to be on the safe side). I ask the local director if there’s anything I can do to help and get a startling response: BBC Kyrgyzstan is coming to cover the opening, and would I be willing to do an interview with them? Me? And the BBC? Would I ever.

***

The official photographer turns up, which makes me feel like even more of a spare wheel, and also the tamada, or master of ceremonies for the occasion. (I was slightly alarmed that this might turn out to be another encounter with the tamada from my wedding, who did a nice line in impressions of Soviet leaders, but it was a younger, hipper guy who appeared, resplendent in designer glasses and a velvet jacket.)

The office is reaching peak balloon, with a whole wall of the things erected to block off one of the site’s less appealing corridors: this turns out to be less of a good idea when it’s remembered the kitchenette is down there which the caterers will need access to.

We are all dragged into one of the larger rooms for another round of official portraits with the photographer. It is decreed that the shorter members of staff must stand on a large paint pot in order to make best use of the painted backdrop. I am not one of the shorter members of staff and end up standing on a wooden pallet instead.

All this time the tamada is warming up and checking his sound system at the other end of the room. We pose for our photos while sounds of beatboxing and chicken noises float around the room. It seems strangely in character with the rest of the day so far.

Finally the MD of the company arrives, looking as bleary as you would expect of a man on a business-related day trip to Central Asia from the UK. He wanders about looking duly and genuinely impressed with everything.

His arrival is shortly followed by that of the BBC crew, led by a middle-aged man in a loud check jacket which is, to be perfectly honest, a couple of sizes too small. I am all set to talk to them but a wrinkle rapidly manifests. Not only are BBC Kyrgyzstan more interested in talking to the experienced and important MD than some doofus from the UK who’s only here because he was the only person who vaguely met the job spec, they turn out to be a Kyrgyz-only TV channel, with special dispensation made for Russian speakers if the situation demands it. As my Russian only really extends to ‘Give me cheeseburger and Sprite, please’, the interview is off. I retreat to my office and brood darkly about how my licence fee is spent.

More dignitaries turn up from various regional bodies and the deputy UK ambassador to the region. We were hoping that the bagpipe band the British Embassy is sending to the opening of the World Nomad Games could spare us a few minutes, but apparently they are too jetlagged to puff at the moment. There is a genial encounter between various worthies in the corridor, followed by an awkward interlude in which half a dozen people with multiple jobs all exchange business cards with each other in near silence.

Finally, with a couple of jobbing violinists from the Kyrgyz National Orchestra filling in for the bagpipes and providing some mood music, the Vice Prime Minister arrives. (I am slightly bemused to report that half an hour of intensive research on the internet has left me no wiser as to what her actual name is. It seems to be some kind of state secret.) The moment of crisis arrives as I actually have to meet her, but I mumble ‘Nice to meet you’ in Russian before she is ushered away to company more fitting of her great status.

And so it goes on. The MD is given the traditional (in more ways than one) kalpak as a gift (this is an ethnic Kyrgyz hat) and we have the actual ribbon cutting ceremony. There has clearly been some kind of debate over status and rather than risk upsetting anyone, a five-foot stretch of ribbon is to be cut by no fewer than four people simultaneously: the MD, the Vice Prime Minister, the Deputy Ambassador, and someone from an important regional agency. They tackle this slightly unusual task with about as much dignity as one could hope for. Then we are off to one of the big rooms for speeches, the tamada‘s spiel, and a quick quiz about the company with prizes for the winners.

Finally it is time for the buffet, which is rather good (though as we are in Kyrgyzstan, it is heavily meat-and-pastry based). I find myself talking to someone who is either an assistant chef at the German Embassy or the Deputy Ambassador; either way she has dressed down for the occasion. Only having had a couple of bread rolls, some raspberries, and some sushi all day I do eat rather a lot.

Finally the event seems to be winding down, with senior guests heading off to events for Independence Day and the Games. I am looking forward to getting home myself, before I am invited to a swanky restaurant by the senior management and the MD’s party. I always struggle to say no to this kind of invitation, and we head off into the dusk.

***

The swanky restaurant bears the name of Mikhail Frunze, a famous Red Army commander and hero of the revolution who was born in the city and whom Bishkek was for many years named after; this is the kind of odd historical quirk that is really common in these parts (Frunze also has a chain of supermarkets named after him).

What he would make of the restaurant I am not sure. For me, it is heading into Bond film territory as we find ourselves sitting outside in a small pavilion (it is a very mild evening), six of us sitting around a table intended for twice as many people. Beefy men drinking beer occupy the surrounding pavilions and from somewhere behind us comes the vague football-crowd roar of thousands of people celebrating together in the centre of the city.

As the table is slowly covered by dishes of meat and bread and vegetables – far too much for us to eat all of it – the conversation turns to the events of 1991 and memories of the dissolution of the USSR: the MD recalls catching a train from Kiev to Moscow and being turned back at the Ukraine-Russia border as the visa requirements had changed in the short time since he’d bought the ticket. Kyrgyz colleagues recall the fact that their country won independence without having to struggle for it at all.

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On the other hand, it occurs to me (and I keep this to myself) that many Kyrgyz people, especially the older ones, still seem a little ambivalent about the move away from the Soviet system. Statues of Lenin and Marx are still cheerfully standing in the parks of Bishkek. Bishkek itself seems to be on a roll currently, but I can’t help remembering the deprived state of the countryside and its villages last time I was over here; agriculture was left in a terrible state by the withdrawal of support. I think many people might welcome the chance to again be part of something larger.

Which, of course, is really why I’m here. A long-established Kyrgyz company is going into partnership with one from Britain, giving up much of its autonomy to join the group. That is what today was all about, when you really dig down into it; although nobody was saying as much, of course. Still, maybe there’s something to be said for celebrating Dependence Day as well as Independence Day. Or it may just be that the local beer is going to my head.