The Handmaid’s Tale: the future of television.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the first decade of the new millennium the music industry was destroyed, felled in a single strike by Napster. Suddenly, indeed overnight, every song that had ever been recorded was freely available over the internet.

Traditional media was a thing of the past, and any day now, television, newspapers, magazines and all of those other relics of the twentieth century would likewise be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Napster himself, Sean Parker.

But as we move into the third decade of the new century, newspapers and magazines are still around, TV is thriving and even the music industry is actually doing rather nicely, albeit in a diminished form.

There are two perspectives on the digital revolution. One says that the future is digital, and everything else is doomed to go the way of vinyl. The other slightly more nuanced view goes as follows; we all have a certain amount of money that we enjoy spending on stuff. All the digital revolution does is to change the way that we distribute whatever that sum is, by adding a new outlet to channel those funds into.

So if you had a certain amount of money that you looked forward to spending on cds in any given year, the fact that any album you might be interested in is now freely available on the internet will very probably mean that you now spend little or none of that cash on actual cds.

The handmaids.

You’ll still spend that money on the music industry though. It’ll just be on going to gigs, on downloads or on merchandise, say on a rare, deluxe cd boxset, or on a vinyl edition of an original recording.

Indeed, what all the research shows is that you’ll very probably spend more than you used to now, whether that be on music, film, television or publishing. As the internet creates further synergies for all of the other mediums, in much the same way that television, and then video and cable did for cinema, in the 50s, 70s and 80s. Having access, in other words, to all that free music just makes you want to spend even more of your money on music than you used to, before everything was available for free.

Amazon’s Seattle bookstore.

The same thing has happened in publishing. When ebooks began to take off about ten years ago, the death of the printed book was confidently predicted and was, more over, a matter of days and weeks.

But ten years on, ebooks have plateaued and been superseded by audio books. Neither of which, we now realise, are going to replace the printed word. Rather, ebooks and audio books are an added source of revenue for a rejuvenated publishing industry. And it’s not just the industry that’s bouncing back. Independent book stores are experiencing a mini renaissance as well. Indeed, the big bad wolf itself, Amazon, has started opening up its own bricks and mortar, actual physical books stores.

Most obviously of all, television is alive and well and booming. Which isn’t to say that the digital effect has been negligible. Far from it, digital has completely disrupted every conceivable corner of the media landscape. So that the way that we now watch, read and listen to films, television, music, the radio, books, newspapers and magazines has been completely transformed. It’s just that none of them are about to disappear any time soon.

Apple’s view of the future.

If you want to see what the future of television is, all you have to do is look at screen size. Mobiles want to be smart phones, smart phones want to be laptops, laptops want to be desktops, desktops want to be TVs and TVs want to be cinemascope. Everything is getting bigger, not smaller. And all content is following suit, and is trying perpetually to move in the same direction. How many TV stars do you know that dream of one day being on the internet?

Try watching the Handmaid’s Tale and see how you feel. Of course you could watch it on your laptop, or even on your mobile. But as you do so, you’ll have this increasing itch to see it on a proper screen and with a grown-up sound system. So you can really luxuriate in the tactile sound of an old fashioned fountain pen, as it scrawls and scrapes its italic script clumsily across the fibres of an actual piece of old fashioned paper. And you can pick

out with pleasing clarity the dusky book covers as the Commander runs his finger lovingly over their corners, as he appears from the depths of the shadows to gaze greedily on his mahogany bookcase.

Elizabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes square off.

And the people who make the best television, and the television being made at the moment is some of the best that’s ever been made, the Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point, feel exactly the same way about making their programmes as we do about watching them.

Nobody’s going to choose to watch something on a laptop if given the choice of seeing it on a 32 inch television. And no-one’s going to be satisfied with watching it on that 32 inch screen if offered the chance to see it on a 55 inch one. Television’s not dead. On the contrary, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

You can see the trailer of the Handmaid’s Tale here.

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Habaneros, BBC doc on the Cuban revolution.

Havaneros – You Say You Want a Revolution.

Habaneros, the BBC’s brilliant new documentary charting the history of Cuba, completes an unlikely comeback for Julian Temple, one time enfant terrible of British cinema.

Temple shot to fame in 1980, when he documented the rapid rise and demise of the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. In it, Malcolm McLaren cleverly presents himself as the evil Svengali pulling all the strings, and the brains, therefore, behind the band’s success.

On the back of which, Temple was handed the reigns on Absolute Beginners in 1985, which duly became the most expensive film ever made in Britain, and which was supposed to have established Goldcrest as a rival for the big Hollywood studios across the pond.

Absolute Beginners.

Instead of which, the film bombed, the quote studio unquote crashed – aided by the disaster that was the Al Pacino vehicle Revolution – and Temple departed with his tail between his legs in the general direction of the Hollywood hills.

One of the peculiarities of the film industry is that it is always better to have made something, anything, however vacuous, than to have more prudently done nothing at all. So once there, they gave him more money to make his second feature, the instantly forgettable Earth Girls Are Easy, from ‘88. He spent the next decade making equally forgettable if impressively expensive music videos for big name artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Kinks and David Bowie.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

But his unlikely comeback began in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury, his well-received Pistols doc which went someway to correcting the biases of his earlier venture. While in 2015, he made the Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, one of the many, many impeccable Storyville docs that BBC4 has been producing over the last decade (reviewed earlier here). And now this, once again under the auspices of the BBC, this magisterial doc charting the history of Cuba over the past hundred years or so.

The first half of Habaneros charts the history of Cuba in the run up to the revolution in ’59. The repeated interference of the US throughout the first half of the century, which eventually produced the Batista revolution in 1933. But he quickly proved himself to be every bit as corrupt as the regime he’d revolted against, and he and his acolytes bled the island dry before retiring to Florida in ’44. But he returned once more in ’52 when he was re-installed as a US puppet – imagine that, a US backed military coup to overthrow a democratically elected foreign government. Well there’s a first.

Havaneros.

But in ‘56, the exiled Fidel Castro sailed back to the island with 81 troops, only to be immediately ambushed on landing. Just the 12 of them survived, fleeing in desperation for the hills of the Sierra Maestra, with the sum total of seven rifles between them. But in what must surely be the most unlikely successful revolution ever embarked upon, just three years later he and Che Guevara marched triumphantly into Havana on News Year’s Day of 1959, having taken control of the entire island.

This first half of the film is undoubtedly the more lively of the two, as Temple brilliantly mixes media, telling the breathless story of the lead up to the revolution through a montage of carefully chosen interviews, archive footage and animation, on to which he superimposes newspaper and magazine pages that comment on the visuals and voice over underneath.

The second half then follows the history of the island in the wake of that revolution, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc in the‘90s, which resulted in their sole source of funding disappearing into the ether.

Viva la revolucion!

As scrupulously fair as you’d expect from one of the many projects overseen by the peerless Alan Yentob, the second half is inevitably less exciting than the pre-revolutionary fervour that precedes it. As on the one hand, the revolution continues to be celebrated by some, who rightly point to the heroic resistance that the island has maintained against the avaricious interference and oafish grandstanding of its bullying neighbour to the West. And on the other, there are all those who lament how inevitably disappointing that revolution proved to be for the lives that so many of the islanders were forced to live.

It’s a brilliant film, intoxicatingly so in its first half, and everyone involved, especially Temple, should take a very deep bow.

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You Were Never Really Here, a new film from Lynne Ramsay.

You Were Never Really Here.

Lynne Ramsay is one of the few, genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, and You Were Never Really Here is her latest offering.

She arrived on the scene with Ratcatcher in 1999, which covers exactly the sort of terrain you’d expect from a first film, but in an unexpected and impressively enigmatic way. Next up was Morvern Callar, from 2002, which comfortably confirmed all of the promise that had been hinted at in her debut.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mundane events, in what appears to be a conventional genre film, are presented in an off-kilter and distinctly left of field manner. And everything is transformed by her insistence on fully exploring the cinematic language and grammar at her disposal. So that sound is used every bit as expressively as the visual elements, and pace is as pregnant with meaning as any of the sparse if carefully considered lines of dialogue.

We Need To Talk About Kevin came next, in 2011. Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s contentious novel was as viscerally disturbing as the source material demanded, and was one of the stand-out films of that year. So is this, her fourth.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here centres around Joaquin Phoenix as one of those nebulous, violent fixers prepared to do the sorts of things that well brought up, middle class people wouldn’t dream of doing themselves, but which they are perfectly happy to pay others to do for them. When a high level politician’s 12 year old daughter is abducted and enslaved, Phoenix is dispatched to recover her.

Over the course of the film, we move back and forth between the sinister events of the present day thriller, and the equally dark episodes from his past. The abuse he suffered as a child, and his experiences as a soldier in whichever one of the US wars he was sent over to pointlessly partake in.

Boorman’s Point Blank.

You Were Never Really Here could have been, indeed is essentially, a genre piece. But what might have been little more than a conventional thriller is elevated into something significantly more substantial thanks to Ramsay’s very distinctive stamp. So that the sort of violence which ordinarily washes over us so easily is rendered shocking and even surprising because of the stylised way in which it is presented.

Rarely is anything shown in an expected manner, as key events take place off screen but are heard, loudly, or are seen at one remove, on the CCTV in the corner of a corridor. While Johnny Greenwood’s score, though sparingly used, further adds to the heightened sense of dislocation and the constant sense of threat.

Morvern Callar.

All the performances are pitch perfect and Phoenix is exceptional, but the real star of the show is Ramsay who delivers infinitely more in 90 minutes than just about any other film maker around manages to do in twice that time. And, although there are clear shades of John Boorman’s Point Blank, particularly in its dissonant, staccato editing, and of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its themes, this is a triumphantly original piece. She might not yet have produced that definitive masterpiece, but Ramsay’s first four films, and particularly the last three, herald the arrival of a gloriously distinctive and impressively original cinematic voice.

You can see the trailer to You Were Never Really Here here.

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Ready Player One, the new Spielberg film. Yawn.

Ready Player One.

So Ready Player One, the New Seven Spielberg film, is a formulaic, painfully predictable pastiche of the genuinely cinematic. So what? What should we expect from the latest Hollywood blockbuster?

For what it’s worth, the story revolves around a Steve Jobs type tech wizard and his creation of the Oasis. This is the virtual reality video game world where everyone in the universe, that is to say in America, escapes to in the year 2045. By then, we will have so thoroughly trashed the actual world that life will only be bearable in the virtual one accessible through our ubiquitous screens.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Before his death, this latter day Willy Wonka announces that he has hidden three keys within the world of the game, and whomsoever retrieves them shall be bequeathed his entire fortune and, more importantly, the world of Oasis.

And so our teenage orphan-hero teams up with a motley crew of juvenile waifs and strays in a race to retrieve the three keys before the evil rival corporation gets their hands on them first. And, much more importantly, to win the love and respect of the inventor father figure, who continues to live on in the world of the game.

It’s not hard to see what they were trying to do here. A few decades ago, Hollywood film makers looked at the way merchandising was threatening the world of film making, and they chose to address it head on by making Toy Story, one of the best trio of films that Hollywood has ever produced. And so, watching today as all of those dollars disappear into the abyss that is the gaming world, they’ve tried to make a Hollywood film about, and addressed to, gamers.

Toy Story.

Bizarrely though, they’ve drowned it all in a sea of cultural references from the 70s and 80s. Not one or two sly nods to Back to The Future and Atari. It’s a never-ending barrage of increasingly tedious and, worse, poorly chosen references. So they’ve produced a film aimed at the under 30s which will only appeal to the 40s, and, much more likely, the 50s, 60s, and overs. There’s one especially cringe-inducing scene in a virtual club that’s the cinematic equivalent of seeing your uncle trying to breakdance to Bon Jovi at your cousin’s wedding.

The fact that this is the new Spielberg film shouldn’t, I suppose, surprise us. After all, it’s a long, long time since he made Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1975 and ’81. His only film of note in the last 30 years or so was Catch Me If You Can and the first hour and a half of Minority Report, both in 2002. And let’s not even mention the execrable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Catch Me if You Can.

No, what’s so disappointing about Ready Player One is its look and feel. It’s so thin and flimsy, so undifferentiated and inconsequential, so cheap looking and just so, well, digital. A digital screen can be wonderfully engaging in the privacy of your own space. But up on the vast expanse of the silver screen it gets lost, and is reduced to being horribly flat and lifeless.

Very unwisely, Spielberg references Stanley Kubrick (reviewed earlier here), his cinematic hero and father figure, in one of the key scenes. But all this does is to remind us of why it is that real film makers go to such trouble to source actual locations, proper period furniture, tactile costumes and physical trinkets.

Barry Lyndon.

So with a film like Barry Lyndon, and not withstanding its many, many flaws, it still has a magnificent physicality and a tangible solidity to it, because of the manual process through which the images were put together. In contrast, when you know that the edge of the cliff that your hero might be about to drive over is merely made up of pixels, you couldn’t care less.

But much more to the point, and most obviously of all, who wants to watch a video game you’re not allowed to actually play? Imagine peering over someone’s shoulder, and being told you have to stand there and watch as they spend two and half hours playing a game that you’re never going to get a turn on. Who the hell was the Hollywood genius who agreed to green light that idea?

You can see the trailer for Ready Player One here.

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What’s happened to RTE’s Other Voices?

St. James church in Dingle, co. Kerry.

What’s going on with the once great Other Voices? The first episode in this the 16th season began exactly as you would have expected, with BBC Radio 1 dj Annie Mac delivering an intro promising music from the likes of Perfume Genius (reviewed earlier here) and Django Django, with reports and footage from festivals in Berlin, Belfast and at the Electric Picnic.

The usual heady mix then of left of field, broadly indie fare mixed with the best in Irish music, and all set against the picture postcard-perfect backdrop of a church in Dingle. But that intro, it transpired, was for the series, not for the episode at hand which was considerably less auspicious.

Ibeyi, from Paris via Cuba.

First up were Picture This, who hail from Athy. If you’ve ever passed through Athy, you’ll know that at its centre sits Shaws, the drapers where every local mother brings her son and daughter to get fitted out for their first holy communion, conformation and debs. And which famously ran an ad declaring, gloriously, “Shaws, almost nationwide!” Which is all the more delightful in its refusal of the obviously correct “nearly nationwide”.

Had it been penned by a beard in Williamsburg it would quite rightly have been hailed as a brilliantly biting deconstruction of what advertising copy is supposed to do. Let’s just assume that’s exactly what was intended by whoever came up with it here. Well, Picture This sound exactly what you’d expect a band from Athy to sound like.

Wyvern Lingo.

Next up were a couple of numbers from Sigrid, an oh so earnest Swedish would-be teen queen whose dreary synth pop is obviously going down a storm with the pre-tweens, and who was clearly as surprised to find herself on stage singing as we were to see here performing on it. No doubt she’ll have a host of hilarious stories to tell her class mates once she goes back to college to finish her degree in architecture or interior design, before settling down to bring up her kids.

After the break we had a couple of songs from Wyvern Lingo, a genuinely compelling trio from Bray who set their mellifluous melodies to glitchy indietronica, very much in the mode of Sylvan Esso – who themselves are made up of one part of Mountain Man, who Wyvern Lingo were compared to when they started out.

Katie Kim performs at the RTE Choice Music Prize 2016, by Kieran Frost

After that, we were given a haunting performance from singer songwriter Maria Kelly, and it looked as if the programme was back on track. But immediately after that it was up to Belfast, and who did they find to record there? Only Picture This. And, sure enough, after Belfast it was back to Dingle we were treated to no fewer than four further tracks from Athy’s finest, and another three from Sigrid, the very much not Stina Nordenstam.

So three quarters of the programme was devoted to a pair of young-fogey, pub-rockers from the midlands, and the least threatening Swedish chanteuse you’ll ever hear.

There’s nothing wrong with devoting three quarters of your programme to just two acts, so long as the acts in question merit that attention. If the focus had been on, say, Katie Kim (reviewed here), Lisa Hannigan, Brigid Mae Power or Rejji Snow from these shores, or, from further afield, on the likes of Cigarettes After Sex, Ibeyi (reviewed here) or Car Seat Headrest (reviewed here). Or, most obviously of all, if they’d turned the show on its head, and given three quarters of it to Wyvern Lingo and Maria Kelly, and just the 20 minutes to Picture This and Sigrid.

Car Seat Headrest’s brilliant Teens of Denial.

There’s nothing wrong with Picture This, but their debut album went to number 1 here (and there’s a prize of a Curly Wurly and a sherbet dip for anyone who can correctly guess what they called it), and there are any number of outlets where they play that sort MOR music wall to wall, night and day. The whole point about Other Voices is that the music it gives voice to is supposed to be precisely that, other.

Here’s the video for Wyvern Lingo’s Out of My Hands and the video for I Love You, Sadie also from Wyvern Lingo.

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