Category Archives: Film, books and TV

Posts about films, books and TV shows I like

An affirming flame – RIP Robin Williams

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

“Days” by Philip Larkin

And so another of my teenage heroes, Robin Williams, has left us – and already the ‘sad clown’ archetype is being rolled out once more, with commentators professing to find it a mystery, that those with the talent to make us all laugh so often have difficulty doing the same service for themselves.

It is no mystery to me. The twin poles of drama, comedy and tragedy, exist as two of our attempts to answer our fundamental unanswerable question – why do we live? What are our days for?

We live in a time where we know more than we have ever known about the ‘how’ of our lives.

But the ‘why’ still stubbornly eludes us.

And each one of us in our own particular way must find our own accommodation to its absence.

We can seek to ignore it in the minutiae of ordinary life, drowning it out with the ‘what now’ and the ‘how’.

Or we can seek the certainties religions seem to offer us. Or seek power over others, or a life in their service. (But unless we are prepared to tread these paths with unwavering humility the consequences of these choices can be terrible, as we know from history and from the events unfolding around the world as I write).

Or we can pour our uncertainty into an art, or a craft, into science or philosophy, and seek to make, shape and write our own versions of answers – tragic or absurd, sublime or banal, precious glimmers of insight or failed speculations.

So it is not so hard to see that a comedian – one who shows us all the absurdity of our lives and invites us to laugh – may feel the uncertainty underlying their art rather more than those of us who are privileged to enjoy it.

For all of us, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, life, and our continuance in it, is a question of faith. Not as it is generally understood in the religious sense – because that is so often tied to a set of beliefs that can be badly, tragically, wrong.

But a faith expressed by Walt Whitman, which Williams’ character quotes so memorably in Dead Poets Society:

“…’what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

But this faith, like all faith, is fragile.
One in four of us will experience depression within the course of any year, when our biochemical and philosophical accommodations with our existence fail.

All any of us can hope, amid the uncertainty of our lives, is to try and act as another great, dead, poet, W H Auden, suggests in 1 September 1939:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

RIP Robin Williams, o Captain my Captain. You showed your flame for as long as you could, and the verse you have contributed stands as your memorial.

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Why I’m not watching The Call Centre

Knowing what I do – which partly involves managing a team of around 75 student telephone fundraisers – a lot of people have been asking me if I’ve been following the new BBC3 documentary, The Call Centre, with its ‘charismatic’ CEO, Nev.

The answer’s been no, partly because I’ve been so busy over the last few weeks running my own! But last night I thought I’d try and catch up. And I gave up after just a few minutes.

Not because I don’t like Nev’s management techniques, although some of it does seem to border on bullying.

No, I gave up because I don’t agree with what they’re doing. The dishonesty inherent in their sales calls.

Whatever kind of call centre I run, I’m glad that at a very basic level it’s founded on honesty.

None of the people who donate to my wonderful student callers are going to see their money again. That’s it, gone. No free broadband, no impartial assessment of their loft and cavity wall insurance needs from one of my fully trained ‘experts’.

They are giving to my amazing university with no expectation of something in return.

Except this – my promise that their money will be spent as they wish.

That it will allow a new student somewhere to access the amazing store of knowledge that should be the birthright of every human being who can make use of it.

That it will build a new library. That it will help fund research that matters.

And I promise that their gift will be prized. That they won’t just be another sales number. That their messages of kindness will be heard, their memories treasured.

A call-centre that treasures its staff and its donors.
A workplace built on honesty through and through – that’s what I’m proud to run.

Sorry, Nev, you’ve lost me.

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Star Trek: Into Darkness, or The Wrath of Spock

So, I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness on Saturday (yes I am restoring the colon to its rightful place) and it is starting to dawn on me just how clever JJ Abrams’ reboot of the series is.

Spoilers from now on people, beware!

Yes, really, don’t read on unless you’re sure you want to…

Into Darkness is a genius reboot of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with the emotional focus of the earlier movie shifted entirely from Kirk to Spock. But, to begin with, it’s not obvious what Abrams is doing.

There’s a red planet, Spock’s trapped in a volcano trying to extinguish it before it wipes out the populace, and the Enterprise crew is hiding in the starship on the sea bed, and trying to save Spock against his will.

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It’s a nifty copper-coloured heat suit Spock’s wearing, and the symbolic significance of it will become clear later on.

Kirk’s decision to save Spock (who, McCoy tells him, would have left him to die were the roles reversed) leads him to violate the Prime Directive – bringing the Enterprise up out of the sea in a dramatic rescue attempt in full view of the far less technologically advanced inhabitants.

For this, Kirk is stripped of his command back at Starfleet HQ, thanks to Spock spilling the beans.

But it doesn’t last for long, as rogue Starfleet operative John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) wipes out most of the High Command, including Kirk’s erstwhile captain and mentor Admiral Pike, in a terrorist attack.
But this emotional moment isn’t Kirk’s, although we don’t know it at the time.

Kirk and crew pursue Harrison to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld, and Kirk is persuaded by Spock to attempt a capture of Harrison, rather than the assassination he has been ordered to carry out.

On the voyage down to the planet’s surface, Spock is berated by Uhura, his girlfriend, for the coldness he showed towards his impending death in the volcano and his lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Spock’s reply is startling. He reveals that at the moment of Admiral Pike’s death he mind-melded with him and experienced the emotions he felt as he died – hopelessness, sadness, aloneness and anger – and realised that these were all familiar to him, as he had felt them all on the day his planet was destroyed. He has no desire ever to be in thrall to them again, he tells Uhura and Kirk.

So the symbolism of Spock’s heat suit in the volcano becomes clear. Spock’s about to take his mental suit off and start to experience his own volcano of emotions, but not quite yet.

Harrison puts up a fight on Kronos, but then suddenly and inexplicably surrenders.

It’s now that we are let into the secret of the film – Harrison is really Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered super-villain from 300 years in the past, discovered floating in hibernation by a Star Fleet admiral.

Oh, we know where we are now, don’t we?? There’s going to be an epic duel between Khan and Kirk, Kirk will yell “Khaaaaan!!!” as he’s marooned by Khan somewhere unpleasant, and Spock will sacrifice himself nobly to save the day, because, as he says in the volcano at the beginning, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Er, no! We have been gloriously wrong-footed.

Khan sends the Enterprise spinning to its doom in Earth’s atmosphere, and it’s Kirk who sacrifices his life rebooting the warp drive to save the ship.

And it’s Spock who now has to make the famous run on hearing the words “Spock, you’d better get down here. Right away.” from Scotty.

And it’s only now, after seeing the death of another human, one he still doesn’t quite understand, that Spock yells, “Khaaaaan!”

The climactic show-down – between Khan and Spock – has Spock in one of those good old-fashioned fist fights for which Shatner’s Kirk was so famous, and really wanting to kill Khan stone dead – only held back by Uhura pointing out that they need Khan’s genetically engineered blood to save Kirk.

So the earlier film – which emotionally was all about Kirk’s coming to terms with middle age, fatherhood and loss of a friend – becomes in Abrams’ hands a film about Spock coming to terms with death and his half-human heritage of emotion. Brilliantly done, and I hope you liked it too.

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