Saturday 19 November 2011


In 1938, E.M. Forster wrote that, if asked to choose between 'betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country'. You might look at John LeCarre's work, particularly the books now known as the 'Smiley novels' as a profound examination of that point of view, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as its apotheosis. The novel was published in 1975, and the justifiably renowned television adaptation was shown in 1979. It may strike some as foolhardy to make a film of Tinker Tailor now, but in three decades our world has changed. The wars fought by our spies are no longer symmetrical and our perception of the home team in that battle, that nebulous entity called Britain/England, depending on who's speaking and in what context, has taken a battering from years of Thatcher/Blairism. Most importantly, our feelings about the nature of loyalty and betrayal have altered, and that change of our perspective may be the most notable thing in the new version.

The film is a fine adaptation, too, so good it drove me to re-read the book, and then to watch the TV series, which, oddly enough, I had never seen (in my early years in London I eschewed television, in part because I was working at ITN and got enough of it there). The screenplay (by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Staughan) sacrifices, as it must, character for plot, but the way it re-structures that plot, leading with the shooting of Jim Prideaux, not only makes the story flow more like a thriller, and less like a parlour mystery, but also foregrounds the novel's central concern with betrayal. It jettisons some of the supporting cast to simplify things. Where it differs most from the previous versions is in its attitude toward what drives that betrayal, and in its nostalgia for something very different than the things LeCarre wrote about.

It's too facile to say that being directed by a Swede (Tomas Alfredson) means the film falls onto the side of neutrality, but when Bill Haydon justifies his treason on the grounds of aesthetics, the film seems to accept the statement as if he were offering a critique of design, and makes you wonder if Haydon had ever been to the USSR. But in the book and on TV it is clearer that Haydon's aesthetic is his self-view; after all he is an artist, even if not a very original one, and rather than submit to the failed aesthetics of the world in which he grew up, which his paintings represent, he found it more aesthetically pleasing to create his own world, no matter how unreal, which in secret mocked that one. I've always found it odd that Ian Richardson played Bill; he's hardly a charmer, especially to the opposite sex; in my mind he was playing Anthony Blunt (whose own treason was revealed just before the TV series came out). But Blunt's own betrayal was indeed for aesthetic reasons, like those I've just described, and LeCarre was either prescient or imbued with deeper knowledge when he wrote his book.

The other big difference is that the film seems nostalgic for the era in which the book was set, but only to a point. It misses an important nuance there; the book itself was nostalgic for an earlier time—either the pre-war innocence of England or the years of the war itself, when these men were heroes and not so much bureaucrats. Haydon's art speaks to the thirties, and the suits worn by the Circus' leaders speak of that era: chunky tweeds and garish pinstripes, whereas the film's version of the 70s boast thinner materials, thinner ties, thinner lapels. Everything is more sleek, including the Circus itself. Critics praised its grainy reconstruction of its era, but a few moments with the TV series renders that praise hollow. Theirs is a far more shoddy world, one that still speaks of rationing and second-class status. In the film version, gone is the ramshackle HQ of a small British overseas business, stuck into tiny rooms in old buildings—its Circus is a cross between the many warehouse sets of Spooks and the control room of Get Smart.

There are other odd changes too: Smiley is moved from Pimlico to Hampstead (though the address on his letters, strangely, is a building in Kings Cross used for Spooks); he even swims in the pond on the Heath every morning. Gary Oldman's Smiley is a stronger and silenter character than Alec Guiness'; his performance reminded me most of Toni Servillo as Andreotti in Il Divo; Smiley as determined bureaucrat. The Circus' bureaucratic in-fighting is presented along those more European, less English lines as well. This is highlighted by some of the mis-casting, which you see around the Circus 'board room': Toby Jones is too young to be Alleline, and though he catches the ambition he doesn't get the clubbable fatuousness, nor the hint of incipient fascism, both of which were captured perfectly in Michael Alridge's TV performance. David Dencik's Toby is too weak; Bernard Hepton's was a more mysterious character. And although Terrence Rigby's Bland looks the part more than Cieran Hands, both are wasted; Hands' role reduced to a few sinister closeups and threats to maintain your suspicions. Which is the real problem: in the novel and the TV series, the identity of the mole is still a mystery—even though, like Smiley and Prideaux, we intuit it must be Haydon. But in the film, Colin Firth is really the only possibility; none of the others, bar Dencik, are given a chance to establish themselves, but Dencik plays the character too weak to be the traitor. That the film manages to be far more a thriller than the TV series is a tribute to the structure of its script and the pacing of the direction.

The novel is clear about the nature of betrayal, as an outgrowth of secrecy, and sexuality is part of that secrecy; its clarity recalls the Forster quote. Its deeply understated sense of friendship grows from the world of schoolboys to which LeCarre traces the English proclivity for both loyalty and betrayal. For LeCarre, sex is a side issue, a motivator, not a determining factor, and the TV series reflected that. For example, in the novel the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux is explained, if you can call it that, by innuendo—small comments about being close, reports from their university days, all of which require you to read between the lines, and much of which might have been missed by, say, a young American like myself with no grounding in British society. In the TV series, you are almost shocked to see the slight reaction from Ian Richardson when Ian Bannen (an excellent Prideaux) shows up. It should be noted that in LeCarre the only sexual relationship that is actually out in the open, discussed and mentioned freely, is Smiley's, or more specifically, Anne's serial adultery. In other words, only betrayal makes sex an open subject. In that context, Smiley's loyalty to Anne becomes a mirror, if not an explanation, of his loyalty to Britain, and the Circus.

And of course Smiley's own deepest relationship (apart perhaps from Control—and consider the meaning of his service being run by 'control', English self-control, self-restraint, stiff upper lip and all that) is with Karla, whose woman's name is no coincidence. Smiley 'gives' Karla the lighter Anne has given him, inscribed with the ironic-in-context 'all my love', and that becomes a key to identifying Karla's machinations behind the Circus' problems.

All this is grounded in hidden sexuality, but our world today, at least on film, requires that we give sex a more straightforward approach. In the movie, Colin Firth and Mark Strong exchange smouldering glances that leave little in doubt. This is the reason they are there, although  they are,strictly speaking, too young;  it would be a stretch, in the time of the story's setting, to see them as veterans of World War II. In this light, it is odd that they chose to give Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumerbatch) a gay back-story; there is no hint of that in the earlier versions, and there seems no point to it, unless they were worried they needed to balance off the image of gays as traitors. The film's sexuality does work much better on one level, however, and that is in the relationship between Ricki Tarr and Irina, who is far more beautiful in the film than she was on TV, and whose fate is shown in a moment that helps condense the plot. Moving Prideaux's betrayal from rural Czechoslovakia to a Budapest cafe is fine for its time-saving, but moving the Tarr scenes to Istanbul is a fine change that allows fewer religious overtones to Irina's conversion, and more standard spy intrigue. Interestingly, Tom Hardy's Tarr is probably the single role in the film that comes closest to the interpretation in the TV series (by Hwyel Bennett) while Svetlana Khodchenkova's Irina is very much a figure of sexy glamour, where Susan Kodicek's had been partly religious and partly non-glamorous in exactly the same way the service is presented throughout.

This ties in with the decision not to show Mrs. Smiley, which is pretty much true to the book, although it ends with Smiley anticipating her return to gather him up. The TV film added a postscript of sorts—with Sian Phillips perfect as Anne—which uses her to sum things up: Bill 'loved being a traitor', and she misses one opportunity when Smiley asks if she loved Bill, where she could have echoed ironically Smiley's earlier answer 'not really', but she also sums him up. 'Poor George,' she says, after telling him she didn't love Haydon. 'Life's such a puzzle to you isn't it?' Meanwhile Smiley fiddles with his glasses, and resets them over his eyes, perhaps seeing straight again. Anne is very much a presence in the film, but in a very clever way, seen only from behind, and with a flower in her hair to symbolise some sort of exotic and old-fashioned glamour, perhaps someone trying to retain their youth.

The film adds a few other inventions which are improvements, not all simply because they're needed in the restructuring which turns it into a literal thriller. John Hurt is particularly over the top as Control, and that works. The Christmas party scene is the one contrivance which actually harkens back to the LeCarre point of view, the one time you get that sense of the Circus as a second-rate British overseas corporation. And the moment Santa enters as Lenin and everyone sings the Soviet anthem in full voice is brilliant. The modern ethos seems reflected too in Connie's new status: from a dump of a flat she has moved up the property ladder to a lovely detached house in Oxford, and though Kathy Bates needs to be more crucial in this condensed plot, it is hard to top Beryl Reid's Connie for pathos.

And although Haydon's artistic career doesn't play the part in the film it did before—hence the problem with the 'aesthetic' argument; Haydon is not, after all, a very good artist—it is a signal that he is off-kilter. Colin Firth's performance is exceptional, particularly in catching what LeCarre described as the 'pewter' tone of Haydon's eyes after his interrogations. His louche pose, slipping on chukka boots, would be something Richardson would not do. He wouldn't wear chukka boots! But of course much of the rest, including the looks exchanged with Mark Strong's Prideaux, is stuff we've seen before from both actors; for that Firth could have wandered in from the set of A Single Man.

But the most telling re-doing is Prideaux's relationship with the schoolboys. Prideaux, after all, is the key character, the one who is personally betrayed by the man he idolises and loves, the man with whom he has the exact sort of schoolboy relationship envisaged by EM Forster. In the novel and TV series his car is something old fashioned, 'best of British,' an icon which represents the illusions of a lost past which he is conveying to the boys he teaches. LeCarre is pretty clear about this: in the novel we again intuit that Jim has killed Bill because the manner of death has been foreshadowed a couple of times, most notably when he kills a bird in front of the schoolboys. On TV we see it, but it's a face to face killing, a small discussion of betrayal followed by anger. And although there is no discussion between Jim and Bill in the film, the face to face is reduced to Jim's seeing him through a sniper scope, the look on Colin Firth's face is one of what, resignation? Perhaps invitation? And we sense Jim may even be doing him a favour.

We know the myopic Jumbo could well be the schoolboy Smiley—the kind of boy who could grow into Alec Guiness' huge spectacles. But he can't really become Gary Oldman's Smiley, and that is probably why there is such a significant change in Strong's Prideaux, whose car is a junker and who, after killing Bill, reacts to Jumbo with fury. In LeCarre, traditions carry on, and public schools will continue to produce men increasingly unsuited for the non-imperial world—Camerons and Osbornes and even non-men like Stella Rimington. For Alfredson, it's different. You might read Strong's rejection of Jumbo as a rejection of the weak or you might read it as a rejection of the system. In the latter reading, Prideaux becomes a sort of disillusioned hero, the only one in the game willing to give it up because it's at heart corrupt, or at least disfunctional. But I prefer to see it as Alfredsson's way of suggesting the circle has been broken here, and Prideaux will no long participate in grooming boys for the system that feeds the Circus. I love the ambiguity here, but it bothers me because of what follows.

Which is the triumphalist ending, undercut by the ironic use of 60s pop song 'La Mer' as Oldman's Smiley sits in the control seat in the Get Smart set. It doesn't really work. Smiley is in charge, but as we know from LeCarre, this is not really a triumph: it is only the first step in his becoming what he is closest to. For me, coming back to the 1970s versions, artefacts of the time I arrived in this country, but with the knowledge I have learned over all this time, the depths of its predecessors seem something the film cannot match. But I am also acutely aware that there is a generation of film-goers now as ignorant of that Britain as I was when I arrived here, and this is a film pitched for them, and, as I have said, an excellent one, for me too. I am not criticising the film for not recognising what is after all outside its purview; but I wonder if, even within its own terms, that was way it ought to end.

Tuesday 15 November 2011


Sometimes it really does seem like you couldn't invent this stuff...but while reading about Herman Cain's defenses of both his past as an employer of women and his present as a tabula resa in terms of Libya and other parts of the rest of the world, the opening line of The Band's 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' ('Virgil Cain is my name/and I served on the Danville train') and the resentment which provides the emotional core of that song seemed to fit our current Tea Party world, that the rest of this just happened, as they peace out

Herman Cain is my name
and I worked on the pizza chain
til Bachmann's insanity came
and tore up the prim'ry campaign
in the winter of 2011
I was trailin, barely made news at seven
Then came the babes with the stories to tell
It's a time I remember oh so well

The night I drove her forehead down
Liberal media grinnin
The night she claimed I felt around
Fox News pundits were spinnin
They went, gag gaga gag gaga
Gaga gag gag gaga gag gaga....

Back on the stump in Tennessee
Politico says to me
Herman quick come see
We've got the testimony
And one week later when it all came out
Said I don't know what you're talkin about
Don't remember that woman, not at all
And the settlement's somethin' else I don't recall

The night they drove the candidates down,
And it's just beginnin
The night they drove the candidates down
Why can't we do our own spinnin
Goin gag, gaga gaga gag
Gaga gag gag Gaga gaga gag

Out on the stump in Richmond town
Said 9-9-9'll bring your taxes down
Tea party they gave a frown
said it's just 666 upside down
Now it may be the devil who made me grope
But for tax policy there still must be hope
If I'm President, I'll make the country fine
And if I dont, at least I got mine

The night they drove them deeates down
The tea party was grinnin
The night they drove them candidates down
Cause Mitt Romney weren't winnin
They go, gag gaga gag gag
Gaga gaga gag gag gaga gag

Met with the papers in Milwaukee
And what did they say to me
Herman, do you agree
With Obama's take on Gaddafi?
Well, OK, so I answered slow
And I had to admit that I didn't know
WTF, it's only President,
Bush knew shit from Saddam and look where that all went...

The night they drove them deebates down
What was it they expected?
They night they drove them candidates down
Jes tryin to get elected
They went gag gaga gaga gag
Gaga gaga gag gag gaga gag

Like Rick Parry before me
I forget and smile
Unlike Mitt Romney longside of me
I'll hold a view for a while
Now I don't mind choppin Michelle
Santorum? Already gone to hell.
But if the voters notice what I lack
I'll say it could be worse, cause I could be Barack!

The night they drove them candidates down
Liberal pundits all grinnin
The night they drove us candidates down
Fox News says I'm winnin
they're all hah hahaha haha, haha haha hahahaha ha

Tuesday 8 November 2011


It was Joe Frazier's blessing and curse that he shared center stage in the squared circle with Muhammad Ali, and their rivalry may be the greatest of the sporting 20th century, better than Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Palmer and Nicklaus, Borg and McEnroe, because it took place in the one setting most revealing of a man's character, courage, and self-awareness.

It helps that Frazier and Ali were perfect complements to each other. Out of the ring Ali was pretty, loud, egotistical—a presentation he'd learned studying pro wrestlers. He often had another agenda, and he played it out perfectly. Joe was rugged but not beautiful, softly spoken, and straight forward in what he said and what he did.

The same applied inside the ring. It's not enough, nor is it true, to say they epitomised the 'boxer versus the puncher' matchup—you want a classic for that watch Kenny Buchanan against Roberto Duran. Rather, it was that their behaviour in the ring echoed perfectly their characters outside it.

Ali's boxing style kept his face from being hurt. He was the quickest heavyweight any of us had ever seen, both with his dancing feet and his ability to pull his head back out of range in a flash. His punches, with their twist on the end, weren't knockout blows, but damaging in their own way.

Smokin' Joe, by contrast, was willing to sacrifice himself to get into punching range, taking a beating in order to give one, and once he got close enough he inflicted hammering drill-press pain, with a left-hook that destroyed right-handed punchers. He was Rocky Marciano, in a lot of ways, and once Eddie Futch taught him to bob and weave coming forward, he was as close as boxing gets to an irresistible force.

The shame of their three meetings is that Ali, having been stripped of the title, didn't get to work his way through the other contenders, and face Frazier with his hand and foot quickness intact. When they met at the Garden for the first time, a few days before my 20th birthday, I listened to the fight on the radio. I was a war-protesting pseudo hippie jock trapped into a love of competitive sports, and Ali of course symbolised the meeting of those two worlds so I was cheering for him. But even in the radio commentary I could tell that Joe was dominating, coming forward, taking the fight to Ali. The beauty of their fights is that Ali proved he had the courage to match Frazier at his own game, enduring inhuman punishment, until in the monumental rubber match, it was Futch who threw in the towel after the fourteenth round.

People remember that Ali won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (but often forget it was at light-heavy) but not that Joe won the heavyweight gold in Tokyo four years later. His path to the medal wasn't easy, because he lost at the Olympic trials to Buster Mathis, who drove Joe crazy in the amateur ranks. When Joe lost to Mathis at the Olympic trials he complained that the Baby Huey-shaped Mathis pulled his trunks so high ('up to his titties') that he was penalised two points for a low blow that went right into Buster's ample midsection. But Mathis pulled out of the '64 Olympics, and Joe, despite breaking his left thumb in the semifinal, won the heavyweight gold. He would later destroy Mathis when they met as pros.

Frazier's pro career is odd, in that, having come up later than Ali, he never fought Liston or Patterson, he missed Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams, and after Ali he somehow never got in the ring with Ken Norton. His best fights, apart from Ali, were probably his first against Oscar Bonavena, who knocked him down twice, the stoppage of George Chuvalo (both those guys made Joe look like Ali), the first win over Jerry Quarry, which was probably Quarry's best fight, and the first over Jimmy Ellis, the Ali sparring partner who won the 'tournament' to replace him as champ, a tournament Joe refused to fight in. Joe Bugner gave him a tough fight losing a 12 round decision, and the one I remember well is Frazier's quick win over Bob Foster, the exceptional light-heavyweight, who was tall and skinny and nearly knocked horizontal in mid-air by a Frazier punch. But here's the rub: Ali had half a dozen fights besides the ones with Frazier that were legendary, or close to it. Frazier really had only the ones with Ali.

He lost twice to Ali, and twice to George Foreman, who was an immovable object if ever boxing produced one. Ali watched Frazier's irresistible force rendered useless and figured out what he'd have to do to beat Foreman, and he knew, having survived three fights with Joe, he could take the punishment. He paid the price down the line, as we all know. Joe saw Ali extending his career for big paydays, but his own comeback lasted only one fight, an awkward draw with Jumbo Cummings, and he retired for good.

Joe's legacy will always be entwined with Ali's, and it's important to remember how badly Ali treated him. Joe refused to participate in the WBA's tournament when Ali was stripped, and he wrote to President Nixon asking that he reinstate Ali. He actually loaned Ali money to keep him going when he wasn't boxing, and making a living speaking on college campuses. He thought they were friends, and he'd stood by his friend.

Then, when the time came for them to be matched, Ali launched into his full pre-fight hype mode, calling Joe an Uncle Tom, a gorilla, dumb, and all the rest, which not only infuriated Frazier, but hurt him. You could see his anger in the first fight, which otherwise he might have approached with some reluctance, in a business-like way. But Ali had made it personal, and both guys took a lot of punishment as a result.

Smokin' Joe was pretty fine as a singer too, with that Philadelphia sound—something that is often overlooked. He wasn't dumb by any means; but there was still a lot of rural Beaufort, South Carolina rather than urban Philly (or Louisville, for that matter) in him. He was funny and quick-witted in interviews, but that side of his personality would always be overshadowed by Ali. As would Joe's entire legacy. There is no shame in that—Ali is undoubtedly the biggest worldwide sports personality ever-- but there is shame if we don't remember just how good, how straight-forward, and how important Joe Frazier was. He was everything heavyweight boxing was supposed to be, and, since the days of Ali and Frazier, has not really been for a long time.

Monday 7 November 2011


Sometimes it seems as if George Clooney wants to single-handedly re-interpret America's last great Golden Age in terms of the paranoid politics of today, as if to make the world safe for an heroic sort of Kennedy liberalism. Although he reached back to the Fifties to recast TV newsman Edward R Murrow as the forefront of the campaign against McCarthy-ism in Good Night And Good Luck, it's more instructive to see the CIA reduced to a Chuck Barris gong show, or Fail Safe's Col. Jack Grady given a conscience but still carrying a full payload of paranoia strong enough to conclude both the President and his own son are Soviet dupes.

His latest film, Ides of March, which received its world premiere at the London Film Festival is really a reimagining of The Candidate, which highlight the differences between Clooney the director/star and the approaches of both Michael Ritchie, a sharp social critic, as the Candidate's director and Robert Redford as its star. Ides transfers the focus from the candidate, Governor Mike Morris, played by Clooney, to his number two campaign chief, played by Ryan Gosling. In a neat transfer from The Candidate, here it is the political pro who is the idealist, who believes in the candidate, and the candidate himself is, at best, already a seasoned pol. But just as crucially, we can imagine Ides Of March's storyline beginning exactly at the point The Candidate ends, with Redford as Bill McKay, exchanging glances with the young campaign worker slipping into a hotel room. That moment symbolised McKay's corruption in the way American political films—and I extend this to documentary as well as fiction-- see their politics: in personal terms.

The difference between the two films is primarily that Clooney starts from an assumption that we all know our institutions are corrupt; he is building on the revelations which spawned films like The Candidate. That the professionals are running the show, that ideals are sacrificed on the altar of vote-getting expediency, a revelation in The Candidate, here is taken for granted. The play on which the film is based was called Farragut North, after a Washington DC street off K Street where lobbyists and consultants make their lairs. Therefore the crucial change of focus is from the candidate himself as idealist to the campaign manager as idealist—the somewhat contradictory idea that Ryan Gosling's Stephen Meyers is a ruthless professional who could be in this sleazy business for idealistic reasons. That he is out-smarted by Morris' opponent's campaign chief, Tom Duffy, played by Paul Giamatti reprising Allen Garfield/Goorwitz's brilliant performance from The Candidate, is not a surprise; that the weakness on which Giamatti preys is Meyers' boss Paul Zara's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sense of loyalty—Hoffman in a sense is playing the Peter Boyle character from The Candidate, but he is playing it as PSH in standard mode. Although the term 'anorak' doesn't really exist in America, he wears one, and plays it as one; the most predictable scene in the film is the one where he gets the push from Morris. It's a shot of the car in which the dagger is being used, and when Hoffman gets out, and the car drives away, you can predict the slump of the body within the anorak.

Because this is America, the crucial betrayals are not political but personal—and it's hard to figure out whether Meyers is more incensed because Morris is shown to have sexual feet of clay, or because Molly, the campaign intern he's sleeping with (Evan Rachel Hunter) has 'cheated' on him. Intern sex reflects the post-Clintonian reality of political morality, which is specifically referenced twice: first when we learn the Republicans are more ruthless, better organised than the democrats-better at the process of politics, the perennial lament of the headed-for-extinction liberal. And second when we learn that the one unforgivable political mistake is 'fucking an intern'--all else, including starting wars, pales into insignificance.

That Meyers first lets Molly down and then appears to threaten her with exposure causes her suicide, and puts him in the position to be able to blackmail Morris indicates the key thrust of the film. Although Clooney the actor handles Morris' 'reveal' brilliantly. It's always fascinating to me how powerful Clooney can be playing against type. He's our Clark Gable, but he has darker depths. And like Gable, he's not very good at comedy, though unlike Gable he keeps trying. Clooney the director isn't so subtle about the reveal: both Morris and Gosling's Steven are cast in half-shadow, to emphasize the duality of their positions, the choices they make. It's shot wonderfully by Phedon Papamichael, who alternates the styles of campaign documentary and neo-noir with aplomb. The film reveals its origins as a play – it is opened up but everything of importance takes place in small encounters, and the mobile phone plays an important role in delivering outside news. But the real point of the film is never politics, but love.

This is born out by Marisa Tomei's turn as Ida Horowitz, the obnoxious (and Jewish—pointedly so) reporter for the New York Times, who keeps telling people she loves them and reminding them that love means nothing. In that sense, we see Giamatti's seduction of Gosling as more telling than Molly's seduction of him, and we realise that Molly's weakness may well be believing in love more than politics. It is interesting that the scene in which Gosling rings least true in his role comes in the bedroom, where he's revealed to be far more buff male beefcake than you'd expect from a campaign manager—more American Psycho than American Politico. But again, that may be the point. And the reversion of Molly to helpless girl, female victim of morality (her family is Catholic) may well be more a comment on the false morality of American politics than an attempt to send the women's movement back to the Sixties.

There are a few practical problems. That Molly is the daughter of the Democratic Party's chairman means that Mike Morris would know her as well as Paul Zara says he does, and Stephen would likely be at least aware of who she was. Would Morris thus choose her to sleep with? After her death would no one do an autopsy that would reveal her recent abortion, and then check local clinics? Did no one ask Stephen why he happened to go to her room where she was found dead? Did no one try to trace her phone? But those are the kinds of question you'd ask in a crime film, not a political drama.

The revelation that politics are corrupt, or hypocritical, is hardly earth-shaking. It's easy to see Ides Of March as longing for some more innocent reality, but such innocence may never have really existed, we George Clooneys just believed it did because the media (and movies like The Candidate) hadn't revealed all to us. This film is earnest in its liberal way, well-played and well-made, but it really reveals very little.

Ides Of March directed by George Clooney
screenplay by Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon,
based on Willimon's play, is on general release

Friday 4 November 2011


When Bob Kane and Bill Finger were producing the Batman, the villains were influenced heavily by Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. They were often bizarre, barely human creatures which reflected a perception that criminality was an aberration, out of pace with normal human behaviour. In one sense, they were ogres from children's bedtime stories; think of the Riddler, the Penguin, or Catwoman, yet not really threatening in a real-world sense. Yet even in those days of more straightforward comic books, and even through the Sixties rebirth of the Batman as an icon of ironic camp culture, there were a few villains who hinted at darker depths, and touched more sensitive areas. Two Face is a brilliant creation, a basic psychological trauma personified, but the key adversary for every version of the Batman has always been the Joker, and no matter how camply the caped crusaderwas portrayed, no matter how comic the Joker became, he was the one villain who can never quite hide the basic frightening instability that serves as the perfect foil to the Batman's obsessive quest for revenge against crime itself. He was and is the one villain who personifies the chaos which is what we all ultimately fear.

This is the spirit which is captured brilliantly in Batman: Going Sane, written by JM DeMatteis and drawn by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell, in which the Joker, having 'killed' the Batman, discovers both 'normal' life and love. DeMatteis' story pulls no punches, but is based on the perilous ying and yang between hero and villain; without the Batman, the Joker remains haunted by an emptiness even love cannot fill, while the 'reborn' Batman cannot conceive of a world in which a Joker reborn as an ordinary man can exist. The artwork plays this dichotomy well: often harkening back to the simplicity of 'comic' books, but always bordered with darkness that occasionally is allowed to take centre stage, as in the dramatic moment when the Batman announced to Jim Gordon 'I'm back'. But the studied plainness of the Joker's life as a citizen makes a strong contrast, and the way he edges back to his Joker-madness is an intercut sequence of rough brilliance.

The real key to the modern Joker is the embrace of his madness; some of the artists who've approached him recently assume there is no top over which they cannot go. But he's such a brilliant creation, such a representation of the appeal of the madness, that they may be right. But notice the story's title: this is not really the story of the Joker's 'going sane', it is the struggle of the vengeance-stoked Batman to regain his sanity, and not surrender to the Joker's world. Mitchell's heavily-inked lines remind me of Frank Robbins, and serve here to remind us of the harsh borders of the world these two antagonists inhabit, and the equally wide lines that delineate order from chaos. It's that response to chaos that makes this such a touching, and indeed powerful, story.

Appended to it is a story called 'Gotham Emergency', written by From Hell artist Eddie Campbell and Darren Sears, and drawn by Bart Sears in a style nearly as dramatic but somewhat slicker as Going Sane, which draws on the thing that has lain at the centre of all Joker stories—the Batman's need to inhabit the Joker's mind in order to defeat him—this is Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter stuff, and like Lecter the Joker is the more flamboyant character. The other connection with Going Sane is the presence of an attractive woman doctor who is drawn to the Batman, and who can be used, if only for an instant, to establish his own somewhat tenuous humanity.

With the Joker stowed away safely at Arkham Asylum, it was another stroke of brilliance to make him the narrator of short stories. These stories work best when we remember, or indeed forget but are reminded, that they are told from the Joker's own unstable and untrustworthy perceptions. In Volume Two of Joker's Asylum the most impressive tale features the Mad Hatter, and is drawn by Keith Giffen and Bill Sienkiewicz in a wonderfully tormented style that only dimly recalls Tenniel. Like Going Sane, it revolves around the Hatter's efforts to make himself 'normal' through love, and of course it fails for the same crazy reasons the Hatter is what he is. What brings it to a bravura conclusion, however, is the Joker's own presence as narrator, as writer Landry Quinn Walker catches his function perfectly. In other stories the Joker presents you with a riddle in a story about the Riddler and leaves you to figure it out...or not. Penciller Andres Guinaldo reminds me a lot of Gil Kane. There's also a little comic relief from James Patrick and Joe Quinones, when Harley Quinn breaks out of her asylum to spend Valentine's Day with the Joker, and a rather familiar film noir version of Beauty and the Beast with Killer Croc playing, of course, the Beast. I was also taken with Kelly Jones' art in Kevin Shinnick's tale of Clayface, 'Midnight Madness'. But it's the Joker who unifies all these stories, and makes them work.

Batman: Going Sane DC/Titan Books 2008 £9.99 ISBN 9781845768638
Joker's Asylum, Volume 2, DC/Titan 2011 $10.99 ISBN 9780857681676