Friday 25 May 2012


My obituary of Paul Fussell, whose book The Great War And Modern Memory made such a huge impression on me many years ago, is online at and ought to appear in tomorrow's (Friday's) Guardian. You can link to the online version here. It appears pretty much as I wrote it to a very tight deadline, early in the morning in America; there are a few small changes (like calling him a 'US' writer) but basically the only flaw I could see was that I wasn't able to go into certain works in more depth. I also would have liked to pursue the parallels with the Vietnam war which I read into The Great War when it came out--they are parallels easy to extend into our current nightmares in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Fussell himself was quick to do. That his criticism always came from the point of view of a man who had been in combat made it that much more trenchant. Similarly, he viewed much of the 'greatest generation' hype just another glorification of war, and thought things like Saving Private Ryan simply missed the reality of men in combat.

Fussell was a very English kind of American writer: his analyses of American society sometimes seem to be written from a Anglophile, if not Anglo, point of view. His point was that America's class system was just as stratified as the British, if somewhat more flexible. But it is this perspective which helps make The Great War (and indeed Abroad) so effective--they seem almost to be written by a British writer, yet eschew the usually British perspective.

I'm curious now to read Betty Fussell's book; I wonder how important having a wife in the publishing world might have been to his career, and indeed to his children. I was curious about his brother too, after reading Susanna Rustin's excellent profile and interview with Fussell, published in the Guardian in 2004 (you can link to that here).

Wednesday 23 May 2012


I've just seen the trailer for Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby, and while it's wrong to judge a book by its cover or a film by its trailer, this is movie May at IT, and I have to say my immediate reaction was: I can wait. You can link to the trailer here.

It's one of the greatest of all American novels, and some of the things that make it great are precisely those that mitigate against its being turned into a great movie; films inevitably reduce it to a love story, an excuse for glorious sets and costumes, and celebration, rather than Fitzgerald's layered and nuanced analysis of class, success, and the American Dream (contained in a love story and a celebration of glorious sets and costumes).

But watching the trailer, and going back only as far as the last Great Gatsby film, Robert Redford > Leonardo DiCaprio, Sam Waterston > Toby Maguire, and although Mia Farrow probably is not > Carey Mulligan, Mulligan seems to have been cast more as Mia than Daisy. But who's going to match Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Scott Wilson, Lois Chiles, or Roberts Blossom, each perfectly cast in that 1974 film?

 Robert Evans had bought the rights (it had last been filmed in 1949, with Alan Ladd, who was the DiCaprio of his era. I haven't seen the 2000 TV movie with Toby Stephens and Mia Sorvino, and frankly, I have no plans to) so his girlfriend Ali MacGraw could play Daisy--and she would have been more interesting. But after she ditched Evans for Steve McQueen, various actresses were considered, including Chiles, who wound up playing Jordan Baker. Candice Bergen might have been better, or Katharine Ross; Cybil Shepherd would have been interesting because she might have captured some of the Zelda southern belle.

Jack Clayton's film was criticised in 1974 for being too glossy and for spawning a whole retro style campaign--but in retrospect it holds up pretty well; Redford's reserve being perhaps its biggest flaw. He seems to be trying to capture a Gatsby struggling to be what he isn't because he thinks he has to in order to win Daisy, which is part of it. But Francis Ford Coppola's screenplay is truer to Fitzgerald than anyone thought, right down to the eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg, who's no longer with us, watching everything in Nick Carraway's Valley of |Ashes anyway.

And perhaps Redford's seeming if anything too mature and worldly for the role might contrast well with DiCaprio's rarely seeming mature enough, as he also failed to convince in Revolutionary Road, The Aviator, or J Edgar. And if you doubt the Alan Ladd comparison, here' a shot of Ladd as Gatsby to ponder, along with Leonardo. Eerie, isn't it?


What did the awards season tell us about the state of movies today? This year's list of Oscar nominees was perhaps the weakest I can recall; I could name a half a dozen films I liked better than any nominated by the Academy, yet none of them struck me as the kind of film I'd be comfortable calling a year's best. The critic Michael Goldfarb suggested that since the average age of Oscar voters is 62, it might reflect an inability of younger voters to respond to edgier work, but I think the reality is anchored more firmly into the idea of what Hollywood's over-sixties see as entertainment, and this year's awards reflect two connected impulses: those of self-reflection and nostalgia, as well as a certain preference for the fantasies of memory over reality. I'd be tempted to draw bigger analogies to America itself in the post-Reagan era—the belief in self-regarding fantasies rather than challenging or unpleasant reality seems to define a large part of the country-- but that's not our purpose here. What else does a farce like The Help constitute, if not a self-reflecting fantasy of the past, which rewrites history from a comfortable point of view of a present which itself is an indulgence? But the two biggest winners at the Oscars were both films about silent film, movies that put the movie industry (and the past) at the center of human experience.

Yet surely indulgence is the operative word when we consider the screenplay awards for Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, a film which shines only in comparison to most of Allen's work in the past decade, and then mostly when he's revisiting familiar tropes from his past. It's very much like a blown-up version of an Allen short story, but given its place in Allen's canon it's theme of the idolised past not really being better (or practical) in the present, could be viewed as unfortunate. It's also lucky, in the sense that those Oscar-voting 62 year olds are probably the last generation for whom Hemingway and Fitzgerald were held up as literary gods, as well as romantic figures from history. It's an interesting conceit: Owen Wilson plays Gil, a writer making lots of money in the movies who wants to finish his novel, and comes to Paris looking for inspiration from the city of the 1920s (though not specifically for the Lost Generation—whose identity, after all, was based on having survived a savage, senseless war). His fiance thinks his career as a Hollywood hack is just fine, and is willing to indulge his dreaminess just so far. To stack the deck, Allen gives her the kind of parents who give nouveau riche a bad name, more gauche than rive-gauche, and a know-it-all professor friend with whom she's signalled early and often to have an affair—he's the kind of guy we expect Marshall McLuhan to come out of the crowd and correct.

On his own, Gil gets transported back to the 1920s and immediately meets Scott, Zelda, and Hem. He's encouraged in his writing, not least by Gertrude Stein, and he also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) the woman of his demi-monde dreams, especially if he'd seen Amelie before he had those dreams. And that is the lesser of the two big problems with this film. Woody's Paris is about as real as Gil's Paris of the Twenties, that is, about as real as Woody's London was in Match Point; although in that film I thought Woody might have been influenced by Hitchock's Frenzy, and the unreality was part of its charm. It's presented in a visual homage to his opening of Manhattan, which was in part about Woody himself living in the past, but rather than convey the beauty and mystery of New York's kaleidoscope world, his Paris is a stereoscopic viewer full of picture postcards, the kind of thing my ABC colleagues used to run as shorthand to identify the which part of the wide world Wide World of Sports was visiting this week. His Paris is luxury hotels, top restaurants, museums where Carla Bruni is a guide, and the odd quirky shop whose odd quirky assistant will turn out to be Gil's soul-mate. It's a construct from the past as much as the 1920s are for his alter-ego.

But those 1920s are even more of a conceit in another way. Famous faces satisfy the received opinions of them. Woody's Hemingway talks, not like Hemingway may have talked, but like he wrote. Maybe that's because he's Gil's Hemingway, not Woody's? Though his takes on Scott and Zelda are good (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are perfect as the doomed golden couple), and Kathy Bates' Stein is a hoot, the deeper we go into Gil's fantasy world, the more historical figures assume walk-on roles, to the point where they get introduced, we appreciate the likeness to the pictures of them on Wikipedia, and they walk off. At least they walk, so they can't be called tableaux vivants.So when Gil and his period flame Adriana themselves go back to the Belle Epoque, she stays there; she also sees the past as more attractive than her present (and never considers the time paradox: she mentions Gil in a book, which she wrote presumably after meeting him but before getting stuck in the belle epoque, but somehow managed to get published in the present.) Woody's conceit is much the same thing: Hollywood loves his film because it's literary, and speaks to a culture they remember but haven't participated in years. But for him it may serve a simpler point: in Manhattan the wonderful young girl went to Paris and he lost her; this time, the younger Woody played by Wilson--California rather than Manhattan but with a similar nasal voice--goes to Paris and finds her. It's that simple.

The Artist is an even more likeable movie, whose textured black and white images also recall the past, invoking all the glamour that was Hollywood in its heyday. But as it rechurns many of our favourite cliches form silent films, it as indulges a peculiarly French sense of style over substance—that a trench coat and cigarette is all it takes to hardboil a man. It's true that this was indeed the currency of silent film, but although it shows modern audiences that contemporary emotions can be expressed in silence, there is rarely a moment in The Artist where we sense the kind of gut-wrench which the best actors of the era could wring from their theatrical techniques. This is why I was particularly puzzled by Jean Dujardin's Oscar for best actor—his is a pleasing, but hardly challenging performance. Similarly, the film itself is hardly challenging; The Artist does little to play with the uses of silent film; Mel Brooks' Silent Movie was much more creative with what it did with the limits of silence. It's also significant that Silent Movie ended with Marcel Marceau 'speaking', whereas The Artist ends with the sound of tap: ironically one of the easiest for talking films to dub (and thus make dancers seem better than they are).

In much the same way Midnight In Paris' historical figures become less and less substantial as the film picks up speed, so too The Artist's story reverts more and more to cliches as it picks up speed. French cinema has always loved Hollywood's style, and paid it hommage, that trench coat and cigarette was for decades thought enough to transform even the most unlikely French actor (Catharine Denevue, anyone?) into Bogart—but The Artist's cliches are sometimes so historical as to be unrecognised by most of its audience, even our prototypical 62-year old Oscar voter. In this sense you can understand the plaudits for Dujardins' performance, which deserves plaudits for overcoming two handicaps. One is the strident one-note beat of his leading lady Peppy (Berenice Bejo) and the other, of course, is being upstaged by the dog.

Uggie, charming as he is, may indeed be the best metaphor for the film itself—for there isnt a single thing he does that we haven't seen Asta, or Rin Tin Tin, or Lassie, or Pete (the pup with the ring around his eye in the Little Rascals) do already. When today's audiences react to Uggie's big life-saving moment, it's with brand-new glee, which is understandable. You can't criticise them for falling for it, but we can chide Oscar voters for not knowing more, or better.

In which context, it is somewhat surprising that Hugo did not do better—although what The Artist has that Hugo doesn't, besides a dog, is the ability to project a sense of wonder without bogging it down in just the sort of knowingness I'm exhibiting in this essay, so maybe I am indeed demanding the impossible. Martin Scorsese's love of movies has been demonstrated before, in documentary fashion, and here it propels a story which engages his sense of wonder at the same time it loses ours, by turning into another worthy documentary, about the rediscovery of George Melies. To put it simply, the difference between The Artist and Hugo is that the former shows us the wonder of silent film, while the latter tells us about it.

I should confess now that I saw Hugo in 2D, so I can't evaluate fully Robert Richardson's Oscar for its use of 3D (except by visual inference) but it is exceedingly fascinating even when seen in two-dimensions. The film is gorgeous to follow, and Richardson constructs his shots around Scorsese's theme of the mechanical becoming human, and the human mechanical. But sadly, it's the performances which are the most mechanical thing in the film. The children sometimes look like they've been processed in CGI-- they may well come off two-dimensional when seen in 3D, but it's hard to warm to them, especially when they are together. Paris Montparnasse station is populated entirely by English actors who seem content to go through the paces of their well-established stage presences—not totally their fault because their stories are very lightly developed almost in silent film fashion (as we watch at a distance through Hugo's eyes)--except for Sacha Cohen's hammy Inspector Gustave, who would not be out of place in a silent film, or in a Clouseau tribute band. For a comedian whose success relies solely on playing with safe ethnic stereotypes, Cohen seems an odd choice to play a damaged but sensitive character, and it's as if his performance recognises that. Matching him with Emily Mortimer creates an interesting link with Allen's Match Point.

It was the film I liked best of these three, the most involving, but in the end, Hugo seems to lose interest in its most compelling story: the boy trapped in the station, and instead loses itself in the very familiar stories of the people within the station, presented with incredible low energy, and the history of silent film, presented with high energy focused on didactic explanation. Its Paris is a thing of wonder, but to Scorsese that wonder can't compare to the movies themselves. It fully deserved its haul of five technical Oscars, and indeed Scorsese's Golden Globe for best director might have been a better reward than was his Oscar for The Departed.

For Allen, Paris is a thing of wonder which inspires love and literature, for Scorsese it is a thing of wonder that inspires cinema. For and the movies can't compare to that. For The Artist's Michel Hazanavicius, Hollywood is a thing of wonder, where all is artifice, and only more artifice can redeem those nearly destroyed by it. For the 62 year olds who vote for Oscars, those pluckings at the strings of wonder appear to be all we need expect from our movies.

Saturday 19 May 2012


The most entertaining thing about this new Conan movie may be the screenplay credit, which it says is based on 'the character originally created by Robert E. Howard. Only in Hollywood can something be 'originally' created, as opposed to created. The oddest thing about the film is that the Cimmerian's name is pronounced 'CONE-in', like Conan O'Brien, the talkshow host, rather than 'Ko-NAN', the way it generally has been before. Though in fairness, even the latter often comes out sounding more like the former when it's said in conversation. The assumption that another Conan movie needs be made rests, I suppose, on the idea that you can do more justice to the character with someone other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The reason here is to make something closer to Lord Of The Rings than Robert E Howard, and director Marcus Nipsel does a fine job of that—there are moments when Conan's world is both stunning and believable.

In fact, this version is somewhat truer to Howard's world than any of the Arnolt adaptations were.Although it also sets up a simple revenge-style plot, it gives more of a taste of the various nation-states within the Hyborian Age, and gives Conan two sidekicks, neither of whom get enough of a look-in, but the very idea that they'd recapitulate Conan's corsair days is nice. It has a nice line in wenching scenes too. Sadly, Conan keeps leaving people behind, which means Nonzo Anozie, playing Artus, winds up auditioning to be the black Brian , while Said Taghmaoui as the theif Ela Shan is a kind of Grey Mouser to Conan's Fahfrd, but he too doesn't get much of look in. It is interesting, however, that his return in the film illustrates the law of Last Reel Compression, in which time slows down (or speeds up) in line with the running order of the film, and distances shrink if necessary to allow the characters to move from one place to the next to impossible deadlines (see also John Carter).

For all his flaws as an actor, Arnolt was not a bad Conan. He had the anabolic profile necessary (in fact, bore an eerie resemblance to Frank Frazetta's paintings of Conan, see below left) and his accent reminded us that the Cimmerians are indeed northern barbarians. The Governator's problem was trying to keep a straight face (making an interesting contract with, say, Wilt Chamberlain's trying not to) and not softening the character. Jason Momoa, a method-acting veteran of Baywatch Hawaii, actually begins with a sort of softer Conan and gets harder as the story progressing, until he is pretty convincing by the end, if only as a hero, if not Conan. It's sometimes hard to conceive of him as Ron Perlman's son—Perlman is good in the role of his father, and the battlefield birth scenes are excellent, but Perlman brings a lot of baggage from his grotesquerie roles (Beauty and the Beast, Hellboy). But at one point, Momoa too strains the straight face test, when he says 'I live, I love, I slay' I couldn't help but hear Allen Sherman's comedy Greensleeves in which the knight wishes he 'could give up smoting for good'.

The highlight of the film, however, is Stephen Lang, sporting impressive new pecs (and teeth far too perfect for any Hyborian dentistry), as the villain Khalar Zym. Lang is a tremendous actor who has shone in many smaller parts, for Michael Mann in the TV series Crime Story and in Manhunter, as Pickett in Gettysburg and ten years later as Stonewall Jackson in Gods And Generals, and as Ike Clanton in Tombstone), but here he gets to indulge himself, and he sells the character completely. Rose McGowan as his daughter is somewhat less convincing, though the two play a fascinating sort of incest scene, which suggests more motivation and might have conveyed Zym's supreme manipulation. But when McGowan goes one-on-one against the heroine, Rachel Nichols (above left), the battle to be convincing almost reaches an apex of futility. Nichols, like Momoa, starts off drawing incredulity, but tries hard to grow into the role. She's hindered partly by a script that flips her between being aggressive fighter and proto-feminist role model and being screaming damsel needing Conan to rescue her from distress. And the solution is to end her climatic battle with a wisecrack, which actually works.

Which brings us back to the original question, what is the point of another Conan movie if it isn't going to do anything new (which would include going back to the old, pre-movie, idea of the character and his world). As we're bombarded with remakes of the comics and pulps of our (and ours via our parents') childhoods, Howard, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, is perfect fodder for adaptations that will always fall just short of being totally satisfying. And that is because they lack the sense of wonder the originals had. Their makers, and indeed their audience, brought up on JK Rowling and teenaged heroes, may lack it as well. My worry is that our generation, which rediscovered Howard, may have lost it as well.

Friday 18 May 2012


Note: this review appeared, in a somewhat shorter version, in the TLS. I have restored its original argument and made a few updating changes, but otherwise it remains as published in 2007.

Stanley Kubrick remains the most fascinating and perplexing of directors, difficult for critics and audiences to pigeon-hole and, sometimes, to warm to. Kubrick actively resists categorizing: beloved by those who cherish 'independent' film-makers and granted extra kudos among Brit critics for abandoning the US for England, Kubrick actually played the Hollywood system more successfully than most, getting Hollywood finance yet keeping almost total control of his films while ensconced in his Hertfordshire mansion accumulating massive project files and watching American football on TV.

Kubrick befuddles critics because he is at once a master of using film to evoke specific emotions, something he began learning how to do when he was 17 and working as a photographer for Look magazine, and an adapter looking to translate the essence of his material to film. In the latter role, he oftens subjugates film technique to a more intellectual end, sometimes to the detriment of his films' 'entertainment' value (think Barry Lyndon, and how perfectly Kubrick uses Ryan O'Neal to capture the character's essential shallowness). And, as one might expect from the director of Dr Strangelove, a strong vein of satire, or at least deep irony, runs through even his most serious later films.

James Naremore believes a 'grand synthesis' of Kubrick's work to be 'impossible', and it may be that he is right.  His comprehensive study progresses chronologically, setting out most of the important critical positions as it does. Born in the Bronx, a doctor's son, the young Kubrick was an indifferent student but a prodigious auto-didact. Naremore's efforts to define Kubrick as a modernist, and a practitioner of the grotesque, can be understood more simply when one considers the influences of  Weegee and 'New York school' photography, and the artistic climate of early 1950s Greenwich Village.  Oddly, Naremore mentions only in passing that Kubrick audited an English course with Mark Van Doren at Columbia, who at the time was the center for New York's literary modernism.

Kubrick's breakthrough came with The Killing, which I see as a take on John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle; not coincidentially, Sterling Hayden stars in both. It's a more taut caper film, its style more in line with the documentary-style films often associated with film noir (Anthony Mann's T Men for example) than the more shadowy noir which Huston shows. In Huston's world, fate may be battled against, or submitted to, think of Walter Huston's laughter ending The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, or the soldiers facing their fate in The Man Who Would Be King. Huston's film at least brings Hayden back to his dream before he dies. To Kubrick fate is equally harsh, but less amusing, as Hayden's  robbery loot blows across a runway, he refuses to run. 'What's the difference?' he asks.

The Huston comparison is worth more examination.  MGM's Dore Schary, who backed Huston, hired Kubrick after The Killing, but rejected Paths of Glory, worried it might bomb like Huston's anti-war The Red Badge Of Courage. It's interesting that both directors chose to live in symbolic 'exile'; Huston, by birth a Hollywood insider, was as adept at working the system as Kubrick turned out to be. Interesting too, in terms of the system, that Kubrick twice tried to squeeze Jim Thompson out of screenwriting credits

Kubrick's career benefited from good timing.  Kirk Douglas seized on Paths Of Glory when stars were busy setting up their own production companies; he gave Kubrick a budget of $1,000,000 (one-third, of course, going to himself as both producer and star).  Although Kubrick's experience on Douglas’s Spartacus was a nightmare, it was profitable, and taught him a valuable lesson about control. Dr Strangelove was perfectly timed to catch the boom in political satire in America, just before the era of protest began.  Its roots can be seen in the madcap comedy of Ernie Kovacs, whom Kubrick had wanted to star in an earlier project. 2001 coincided with the popularization of mind-expanding drugs, while A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick withdrew from exhibition in Britain, not only rode the new wave of violence, but commented archly upon it, a point lost totally on the British press and censors.

As I mentioned before, to me Kubrick's films often seem to comment on other films, or literature.  His understanding of the roots of style in Lolita and Barry Lyndon reflects the satirical elements of both Nabokov and Thackery.  His take on 2001 expands from Arthur C Clarke's story, incorporating ideas closer to Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens Of TitanDr Strangelove makes perfect sense as an existentially more convincing absurdist response to the book Fail Safe than its own filmed version did, while Kubrick's Clockwork Orange owes at least as much to Linday Anderson's If as it does to Anthony Burgess' source novel.  It sometimes seems as if he were upstaging his fellow directors who didn't think things as fully through.

For example, Full Metal Jacket marks the apotheosis of the first cycle of Vietnam films, and Kubrick's adaptation questions the assumption of spoiled innocence central not only to Gustav Hasford's novel, but to most of the acclaimed Vietnam films (not least Deer Hunter or Coming Home), to the point I sometimes look at it as a riposte to Oliver Stone's Platoon. The shooting script ended with Joker's (Matthew Modine) death intercut with the 8 year old Joker playing war with a toy rifle and falling down 'dead'.  In the final version, Joker and his buddies march away from a fire fight singing the 'Mickey Mouse Club' song. Existential absurdity or clunky satire?

This small point resonates because Naresome's analysis of the Steven Spielberg version of Kubrick's cherished final project, AI: Artificial Intelligence, is excellent, and Spielberg draws on specific Disney references, which thus take on appropriate irony in the context of Full Metal Jacket.  Here Naresome comes full circle, showing how AI's roots go all the way back to Kubrick's Freudian-influenced modernism which he proposed as a trope at the start of the book.  It's a neater conclusion than that of Kubrick's own last film, Eyes Wide Shut, another literary adaptation (of Schnitzler's 1925 tale of fin de siecle Vienna) which might be thought to bear more directly on Freud. Like The Shining, it is also an essay on dreams, and their repression, on how the responsibilities of life work against the dreamer’s creative freedom. Naremore suggests Eyes Wide Shut may be the only Kubrick film, apart from his very first feature, Killer's Kiss, with a 'happy' ending.  It may be that Delmore Schwartz's ultimate modernist work, 'In Dreams Begin Responsibilities' another product of that late 1940's Columbia/New York era,echoes all the way down through Kubrick’s work. It may be that his defining characteristic as the director is the undercutting of the possibility of happy ends.

On Kubrick by James Naremore
British Film Institute, 299pp, £17.99
ISBN 9781844571420

Monday 14 May 2012


Note: I wrote this piece ten years ago for the Financial Times, having seen Southern Comfort at the Sheffield Festival, and then interviewed Kate Davis after the film played at the NFT. It aired that spring in the BBC's Storyville series. Seek it out; it's a brilliant documentary. I came across the article as I was going through some files, and thought, since May is supposedly Movie Month here at IT, I'd run it again here....

It’s not what you have down there that determines your sexuality,”says Robert Eads. “It’s what’s here,” pointing to his heart, “and here,” to his head, “that determine who you are.” Kate Davis’ documentary Southern Comfort charts the last year in Eads remarkable life, but that wasn’t what she set out to do.

The director of the award-winning Girltalk, a study of runaway teenagers, had turned to producing for an American cable network. “I found more opportunity to give a voice to people who aren’t usually heard much,” she explains. But while working on a programme about the struggle for civil rights by people who’ve undergone sex change operations, Davis attended a conference of female to male transsexuals. Standing out from the crowd was Eads, a bearded, pipe-smoking man in cowboy hat and boots.

He broke all the stereotypes, so completely." she explains, "He was a prototype Georgia 'bubba'. But this redneck had been the mother of two children."

Born into a girl’s body, Robert always felt male. He’d tried marriage, but found childbirth “both the best and worst experience of my life.” The joy of life inside him was countered by his despair at feeling it was all wrong, because he was a man. He got divorced, lived for a time as a lesbian, but finally began hormone treatments and surgery to remove his breasts, transforming his body to match his mind.

When Davis met him, Eads, only 52, was dying of ovarian cancer; betrayed, as it were, by the part of his body that remained female. When he first noticed the symptoms, some two dozen doctors made their excuses and declined to treat him, avoiding the awkwardness of a man in their OBGYN surgeries. Eades' lack of bitterness made an deep impression.

I couldn't get him out of my mind," says Davis. "All the way back to New York, I was thinking 'I've got to make a film about Robert. This is such a bizarre story, I've got to tell it myself'.' When I got home and called him he said 'I thought you'd call'. Robert, knowing he was dying, wanted to reach out to as many people as he could."

But even as Davis began filming, the story began to change. Robert fell in love with Lola, a male-to-female transsexual. As their relationship blossomed, he became determined to stay alive long enough to attend Southern Comfort, Atlanta's annual transgender convention, one last time.

The film opens in spring, with a sense of emotional rebirth as Robert speaks of coming to terms with dying just as he finally found peace in life. As Robert shows Lola pictures of himself as a little girl, we see just how far he has come. Davis works with all the intimacy of a home movie, allowing the audience to become part of Robert's world. "Yes, you could say it's close to subjective camera work," she says. "It gets the audience into the people's heads, so you can't objectify them."

Documentaries often do objectify. Davis studied with the masters of fly-on-the-wall techniques: Frederick Wiseman, Ricky Leacock, and Ross McElwee. The unwritten law of such films was that the camera is a silent observer. Not so this time. "I found the camera disappeared." Davis says, "In a sense I crossed the line. It became totally a labour of love. Where it might have been shocking, there was just so much normality."

In fact, what is amazing is how quickly the audience accepts a new definition of normality. The film's saddest moment comes when Robert's father explains why he now tells friends Robert is his nephew. "I didn't want the neighbours realising this is something different," he says. At the same time, when one of Robert's own sons tells us, "If I were to remarry I'd want Mom to be the best man," it is uplifting, and it doesn't sound at all strange.

Using digital video enabled Davis to work unobtrusively, and to move quickly to emphasise emotional reactions that larger equipment, or crews, might miss. Having Robert's trust enabled her to gain quickly the trust of is surrogate family, a pair of younger transexual men, and their partners. These are people whose first instinct is to remain inconspicuous. They appear to have chosen backwoods Georgia specifically for the privacy it affords. And they had real fears.

"Some were scared they'd lose their jobs, if not their lives,” Davis says. “But they wanted to believe they could change people's hearts and minds.” She laughs. “Of course, no one liked the way they looked on film! But seriously, some have attended public screenings, and when they see audiences react positively, they've been amazed."

Southern Comfort won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. Its UK premiere came at the 2001 Sheffield International Documentary Festival. I spoke to Davis after a February 2002 screening at the National Film Theatre, part of the Sheffield Festival's national tour. She too was overwhelmed by audience reaction.

"This was what he wanted. I think Robert would have approved," she says, and her eyes begin to fill. She still feels the loss. "I just couldn't break away," she tells me. "Usually after you finish a film you may stay in touch, but you re-establish your distance from your subjects. This was a real friendship. Frankly, it took me almost a year before I could begin editing. I miss him so." She stops again, distracting herself by rounding up her two children. "That year was necessary, because I was still caught up in the injustice of Robert's death. I needed distance to cool down, to see that the story was simpler, deeper than that. I'd actually interviewed two doctors for the film, but I cut them out. I didn't want an investigative report."

Instead, it is a moving portrait of one man's difficult struggle to simply be accepted as the man he wanted to be. Robert Eads brought dignity to the film himself. Kate Davis might finally bring him acceptance.

DONALD 'DUCK' DUNN, RIP, as we were setting up to do our Americarnage Live! show at Bodeans in Tower Hill, Erik Janssen arrived and told me that Duck Dunn had just died. Dunn was the bass player in Booker T and the MGs, and in an odd bit of synchronicity, I had originally decided to use their 'Time Is Tight' as my entrance music for the show. But we changed it, for something more jokey and dramatic (the theme to The Good The Bad And The Ugly, which is also the ringtone for text messages on my phone), so I wasn't able to pay immediate tribute to Duck then.

The things with Booker T, and the whole Stax sound, were that they appeared to have such fun while playing their tightly-rehearsed spontaneous music, and that they were multi-racial in a time when such a thing was a beacon to those who still believed real integration was possible, and that all sorts of music were possible under the umbrella of 'rock', everything from blues to bluegrass, from In A Gadda Da Vida to Bitches Brew, American Beauty to America.

Robert Collins posted on Facebook a clip from the 1966 Stax/Volt Review European Tour, of Sam & Dave doing 'Hold On, I'm Comin' (link to it here). It's fantastic, Sam and Dave the way I remember seeing them live in May of 1969, a night that will live forever in my personal store of memories. But check out Duck and Steve Cropper on guitar, in matching suits, and the horn section in their own matching suits, including Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson. I'd seen the Chambers Brothers on New Year's Eve 68/69; the Mahavishnu Orchestra with its Miles alumni, Charles Lloyd's group with Keith Jarrett (though in fairness, everyone then assumed he was black!) and it seemed the rainbow coalition had already arrived.

Social issues apart, Duck and Steve Cropper would play together all over the place. Most people know them from the Blues Brothers Band, but it's also interesting to see Booker T playing on tour with Neil Young (here's another you tube link) where they're content to take the same backseat, even when Young does 'Dock Of The Bay'. I've never found a really good quality bootleg of that tour, but it's fascinating to see the range of styles the Memphis guys are comfortable behind. And Duck has the greatest bobblehead rhythm-keeping of any bassist anywhere.

Al Jackson died in a so-called burglary, which may have been a murder, back in 1975. Duck was only 70, and now half the band is gone. Time is indeed tight. Listen to it here. It's a live version with a improvised intro that
 now seems to resonate with sadness...


My obituary of Horst Faas, the great combat photographer and photo-editor, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. It was an easy piece to write, because Faas' work is so remarkable it literally speaks for itself: anyone looking at his pictures can 'get it', the emotionalimpact of what he saw in war. What is fascinating is the way in which his remarkable courage, taking pictures in the midst of battle, is a reaction to exactly the same fear many of his pictures show, among both civilians and soldiers (though expressed differently). And it is in the overcoming of that fear, the coping with it, that his pictures work best.

It was nice to discover his role in the story of Greg Marinovich's pictures; Bang Bang Club is coming up for review here at IT during Movie May. I'm a little surprised I never met Faas, particularly in my UPI days in London, and I now regret that. It also seemed ironic that the illness that eventually killed him manifested itself in Vietnam, to which he had not returned often.

It was a privilege to be able to write about him, and instructive to me to be able to revisit the feelings engendered by those photographs which I recalled so well from the days of the Vietnam war. The sad thing today is seeing the way electronic media turn the horrors of war into a video game, and politicians exploit this sense of detachment to turn the inhumane into the non-human.

Thursday 10 May 2012


My obit of Junior Seau, which I wrote last week, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. Had I had more space, and time, I might have tried to dampen the speculation on the causes of his death. I cannot begin to express the shock I felt when I was called late at night and asked to do an interview for the World Service about a football suicide. 'Not another one,' I said. 'Who was it?' and when they said 'Junior Seau' I was speechless. Like the teammate whose quote I used in the obit, I thought of Seau as a sort of superman, and a very affable one too.

We don't know whether or not he was suffering from depression; though the 2010 incident certainly appears to indicate he might have been. And we don't know if that depression was the result of thousands of impacts on and by his head, although it's easy to guess that it may have been a contributing factor. But just as important may have been something many of his teammates suggested, that Seau may have found the transition to life after football difficult. Which seems strange, in the sense that he had his business, his foundation, and his love of surfing to see him through. I tried to suggest, in recounting the story of that first year at USC, when he was academically ineligible to play football, that it may have been the core of his life--but the story itself seemed to say that he learned a lesson from that.

The one thing we have to remember is that lots of people who are not football players kill themselves. Two baseball players, Mike Flanagan and Hideki Irabu, committed suicide in the past year and no one is talking about it being an epidemic within baseball. Flanagan, like Seau an outgoing sportsman reknowned for his affability, apparently found life as a broadcaster unsatisfying. There could be any number of things in Seau's life that felt overpowering to him, or it might have been just a fleeting impulse. In the absence of a note, we will never know, although the texts he sent his ex-wife and his children indicate that it was a pre-meditated decision.

As a football player, Seau was one of the all-time greats. In my all-time NFL team, the three linebackers were Bobby Bell, Dick Butkus, and Lawrence Taylor (I never pick active players). If I were picking that team now I might be tempted to choose four linebackers, as the 3-4 defense is so prevalent today, and make Seau the fourth.I find it hard to measure his impact on some mediocre San Diego teams; his freelancing was phenomenal, because of great instincts allied to speed and power, but it was also a risk/reward strategy which requires the players to always be on top of his game, as we've seen with the guy who might be described as Seau's heir, another Samoan American from USC, Troy Polamalu. When he went to New England he moved inside, and his freelancing was severely curtailed; there are stories of his feuding with coach Pepper Johnson over his willingness to sometimes forget the Patriots' mantra of 'do your job'. But basically, he made that switch very well, playing in a rotation, and was a key part of what came close to being the greatest season in NFL history.

Concussions are the skeleton in the NFL's modern-day closet. They can legislate against big hits on defenseless players, but although that causes some horrible injuries, the concussion problem is a cumulative one, the result of the hits that are part and parcel of the game as played fairly.

When I played with suspension helmets that never fit me, I used to see stars all the time--today we'd call that concussion syndrome and it would explain a lot about my behaviour today. When inflatable padding was introduced, those stars became rare occurances.Multiply my problems by a thousand and you're in the realm of NFL players.

When you consider all the fierce collisions Seau's head endured, years of practices as well as games, you have to consider that damage that was likely done. I hope his family does donate his brain to BU (they were having second thoughts after my obit was written) because it will tell us a lot to see what a fully-fit linebacker's brain looked like so soon after his finished playing. But what it will never tell us is why a man who looked so perfectly adjusted to his world, found it too much to be able to cope with it. And how, looking out at the Pacific from his beachside house in Oceanside, at the surf that he loved, he could choose to end his own life.

Tuesday 8 May 2012


When I wrote Charles Colson's obituary for the Guardian (link here, or check the IT piece linking to it last month), I had mentioned to them a few conspiracy theories I avoided for their benefit, the most prominent of which was the death in a plane crash of Dorothy Hunt, wife of Colson's college friend E. Howard Hunt. Dorothy was carrying cash which CREEP was paying to ensure the silence of the Plumbers and some of the other characters attached to the CIA and the Cuban exile movements who keep turning up whenever the boulders of conspiracy theory get rolled over.

As it happened, I'd forgotten this when, Sunday morning, I picked up Carl Oglesby's book, The Yankee And Cowboy War, which I'd referenced while writing his obituary for the Independent (link to that here, or check the IT link 29 September 2011 to it) intending to return it to its shelf. I opened it at random, to the first page of Chapter 7, 'The Watergate Plane Crash' and found this quote staring back at me:

'I don't say this to my people. They'd think I'm nuts. I think the CIA killed Dorothy Hunt'.
 -Charles Colson, Time, July 8, 1974

Dorothy Hunt, on behalf of her husband, and the operatives for whom he felt responsible, had been threatening (blackmail is such a nasty word, but it's the one Nixon and his aides use on the White House tapes) the Nixon administration to the effect that their silence had to be bought at the right price. Watergate burglar James McCord, who by the autumn of 1972 had disassociated himself with the payoffs from the White House, to leave himself free to bargain with the Watergate prosecutors, said in November that Dorothy told him her husband had dictated to his lawyers a letter which would 'blow the White House out of the water'. On Saturday, December 2, Nixon and Bebe Robozo met, while Dorothy Hunt continued to try to get through to Colson, who appears to have been dodging her. Just as John Sirica was telling America he wanted to find out who was behind Watergate, CREEP made either $250,000 or $350,000 available to pay for silence. On Friday December 8, United 553 from Washington to Chicago crashed. Dorothy Hunt, carrying $10,000 in case to give to one of Hunt's Cuban operatives, died.

There were a number of suspicious occurrences around the crash of United 553, and even more in how the investigation was handled, particularly in the quick way the FBI flooded the crash site before any other investigators could arrive. But I couldn't recall what precise role Colson had played in it, merely that part of the Nixon Tapes show Nixon and John Dean doing a very peculiar kind of tap dance which appears to be his way of disavowing any involvement before (and without) its being suggested.

One problem with the facts of the case is that the bulk of the research was done by a Chicago private investigator named Sherman Skolnick, odd even by the flexible standards of assassination theories. He was the kind of figure whose methodology could leave even viable discoveries obscured by the question-marks raised by his own character, a man whose scatter-shot attacks and whose often free-form leaps from assertion to validation are dangerous to take at face value. Among the question marks with the crash were the elevated levels of cyanide found in the post-mortems in the pilot and six passengers; the switching of the plane to a shorter runaway at Midway Airport, with less sophisticated landing devices, the damage to the altimeter, and the failure by the pilot to respond to a stall warning.

As usual with conspiracies, however, it is the possibility of a cover-up which generates more interest than the by-now unprovable 'facts' of the crash itself. The FBI presence was explained away by the acting director, William Ruckelshaus. He had moved from the Nixon Justice Dept to head the Environmental Protection Agency before Nixon brought him back after his appointee to replace J Edgar Hoover, L Patrick Gray, had to resign after passing FBI investigations into Watergate over to the White House. Ironically, Ruckelshaus would later resign his post as Deputy Attorney General, rather than fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, after his boss, Elliott Richardson had already refused to do Nixon's bidding. Luckily the darling theorist of the right-wing, Robert Bork, as Solicitor General, was willing to do the deed.

But the White House presence in the United 533 investigation was more sinister than that. Not only did the FBI show up all over the crash site, but Nixon's Plumbers soon showed up all over the investigation, all names that would become familiar to those following the Watergate hearings. Egil 'Bud' Krogh was appointed an undersecretary at the Department of Transportation on Saturday, 9 December, the day after the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board, who investigate crashes, falls under the DOT, and Krogh allegedly spent much time pressuring their investigation. Alex Butterfield, who set up the White House taping system, and whose testimony would finally reveal it, was appointed to a post in the Federal Aviation Administration—an appointment delayed only because Butterfield was still a commissioned military man. And Dwight Chapin, one of the bagmen for CREEP, left the White House to join United Airlines as a 'director of market planning' in their Chicago office, from which he attended every day of the NTSB hearings. Another Nixon appointee to the NTSB, Richard Spear, took advantage of the absence of the head of their Bureau of Aviation Safety to rewrite the very definition of 'probable cause' in the BAS handbook, and also pressured BAS investigators to close down the 533 investigation.
I doubt we will ever get a definitive answer whether or not Dorothy Hunt was murdered. As with the JFK assassination, I suspect that even if the perepetrators walked in and confessed, researchers would find problems with the confession, and the vested powers of disinformation would somehow discredit it. Remember, confusion is often the best enemy of conclusion in the murky world of conspiracy investigation.

But I now wonder about Colson and his statement to Time. Not that I suspect him of being involved in Dorothy Hunt's murder, and obviously he believed it was murder. I find it hard to credit his acting against his old friend Hunt that way. But when he attempts to blame the CIA, I ask myself 'why?'. Yes, Hunt, McCord et al were CIA people, and their underlings had CIA ties. McCord, in fact, was widely suspected of having been a CIA plant, and deliberately bungling the Watergate break-in. Martha Mitchell, for one, thought so. But McCord denied it, specifically rebutting Colson's assertion to Time, and saying Colson was simply trying to divert attention away from the White House.

Apart from getting rid of Nixon, the CIA's only motive might be to stop the release of information about past deeds more heinous than the Watergate burglaries: the stuff Nixon referred to famously in the Watergate tapes as 'the whole Bay of Pigs thing'. This makes some sense to me, but it also seems like overkill. Hunt was probably more loyal to the agency than he was to Richard Nixon, and, as Jim Hougan showed years ago in Secret Agenda, you can make a good case that the CIA was interested in getting rid of Nixon. But there is a difference between the institution of the CIA and the murky world of agents, assets, contacts, hirelings, mafia partners, Cuban exiles and the like who swarm in and out of the axis of events from the JFK assassination to the fall of Nixon: arguably the 12 most chaotic years in American government since the Civil War.

What makes more sense is that the White House, its plumbers, and FBI itself were involved. I say the FBI partly because Nixon's grip on this organisation was firmer (through the likes of Cartha DeLoach, for example, as opposed to Mark Felt, who revealed himself as Deep Throat—and whose motivation might have been Nixon's giving the top job to Gray after Hoover died) and partly because they appear to have been central to whatever coverup may have occurred.

As I like to remind people in sports, coincidence does not imply causality. Skolnick's shotgun approach to theories muddied the waters, but it is easier to explain the FBI's sudden presence, and the Nixon regime's efforts to control the investigation at being more concerned with stopping Dorothy Hunt from speaking, had she survived, and if she didn't, making sure she wasn't carrying incriminating evidence that would become public.

What I think was going on in Colson's mind was a bit of disassociation, from a possible murder, but more importantly for the whole mess Dorothy represented. He wanted to remove himself and his colleagues from what, if his supposition were correct, was a low point for the Nixon administration. To that point. We saw in Colson's born-again life the way that fundamentalist Christian can embrace very non-Christian ideas, and we now how those reborn, like Colson, can, shall we say, embrace ambiguities and turn them into recitable facts. I'm sorry now I didn't mention Dorothy Hunt in my obituary of Colson—it's like shining a bright light on the murky shadows of the inner man.

Friday 4 May 2012


My obit of Amarillo Slim is up at the Guardian's web site, and will be in Saturday's paper; you can link to it here. It's true what I say about Slim's influence, and thanks to the Poker Professor (I gave him the name, so I ought to use it!) for the great quote.

This wasn't the place for an essay on the progression from Slim and his cohorts, as I describe, to the next generation of players who led the boom and rode it through its massive exposure on satellite TV and of course on the internet. Televised poker went very quickly from something covered almost like a sport (in fact, that's exactly what we tried to do with the World HeadsUp Championships that Pete and I commentated on) with personalties you could sell like sportsmen, to something like televised internet poker, where youngsters in sunglasses and hoodies hide their faces and listen to Ipods while playing the game as if they were online. Not surprisingly, a 21 year old who has spent four years doing nothing but playing poker online is not necessarily the best story nor best interview. I am exaggerating a little, but not that much. So televised poker moved quickly to celebrity-driven shows, which are a whole different thing.

A generation of players, both in the US and Britain, learned from Slim, a built themselves personalties they used to hustle, both players and audiences (and TV commentators!). It is so true that in poker you're battling the person, not the cards. Slim knew that, and knew how to sell it.


There is a large backlog of film reviews and essays waiting to be done or finished; films from the London Film Festival which have not seen release, films that were released in Britain while I was in NZ, and vice versa, and a few I've just only got around to seeing, well after their release. There are a few older ones in there too. As you may be aware, personal circumstances slowed down postings to IT, but I do hope to increase the pace for the next month or so, and do a cinematic catchup. Tune in frequently, and spread the word. Meanwhile, note today's post on John Carter, seen in Paraparaumu, New Zealand, as part of a crowd of five!


John Carter opened to some of the worst reviews I've ever seen, including a monumental raspberry from the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. So I wasn't surprised that when we went to see it in Paraparaumu, New Zealand, there were only two other people in the crowd (not that there are many Guardian readers in Paraparaumu). I was surprised, however, to find that the film was nowhere near as bad as the critics would have you believe. For sure it's easy to understand the roots of complaints like Bradshaw's, because John Carter is overblown in any number of ways. It's too long, because of repetition; it's too big, with too many scenes or situations there seemingly only to find a way to use the expensive CGI (apparently much of the cost overruns involved re-shoots to merge up the live action with the animated backgrounds, and one wonders how much of the film's expense is intra-studio anyway) and it tries to do too much, indicated primarily by the contrasting acting styles of heroes and villains.

It was also a film marketed ass-backwards. John Carter is based on the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, set on Mars, and titled A Princess Of Mars. It's an interplanetary love story as well as a prototypical lost city adventure novel, but looking at the film posters and trailers you'd think it was about a muscle-bound guy trying to drag a huge rock away from animated monsters. Has they featured Lynn Collins, as the erstwhile titular princess, in her Frank Frazetta-style battle gear, they might have drawn a female audience and they certainly would have drawn every teenaged male with hormones pumping through his body. Even though Collins at times looks like a more muscular Minnie Driver, which is not necessarily the best thing, but she survives somehow anyways.

It's as if, while Hollywood continues to pillage the adolescent reading (and watching) habits of Baby Boomers, they want to deny its adolescent nature. Perhaps it's the dynamic of the industry itself that inflates cinematic versions of pulp (in the real, generic sense) fictions, like actors taking steroids to play muscle man roles. In effect, this is a huge-budget adaptation of a low-budget adventure story, and it battles against itself in its ultimate unwillingness to surrender to its material. ERB's Martian novels, like most of his work, drive a hero through a series of encounters. On Mars this involves the battle between the vari-coloured races which make up the red planet, and analogies to 19th century perceptions of white men and lesser races are made clear early on in both book and film: Burroughs served out west and had great respect for his Indian adversaries; the fact that John Carter is a former Confederate officer sets him up as a rebel, yet willing to ally with the racial underdogs while always remaining part of the overdog club. Which is exactly what happens to him on Mars—fighting with the underdogs but allied, via the comely Deja Thoris, the red-skinned princess, to the overdogs.

It's a great set up, and the makes the most of its conflicts. John Carter must prove himself to the 15-foot tall, multi-armed Tharks, then lead them in battle on the side of their traditional enemies. The script, co-written by Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, hews pretty closely to Burroughs' basic tensions: Chabon has already shown himself to be a faithful yet telling interpreter of such material. And director Andrew Stanton, as you might expect from the guy who did WALL-E, has considerable sensitivity too. Action scenes move simply and dynamically, and the framing story, involving Carter's nephew Edgar Burroughs, are well done.

Taylor Kitsch is surprisingly good as Carter—in the TV series Friday Night Lights he never seemed quite solid enough to be the Dillon High fullback, and occasionally he seems too light for Carter as well, but he manages to carry off the action while catching the lighter tones of the character just as well as he does the sombre. Just before seeing John Carter, I watched Kitsch playing another character named Carter in Bang Bang Club, this time in Martinborough when we were literally the only people there. I worry about the future of film in NZ. Here Kitsch is a sort of more muscular Johnny Depp. He's a specialist in the heavy-browed pout to display internal emotion, but John Carter doesn't ask for an overdose of that. I read a lot of criticism of the Tharks, but Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as his daughter Sola may well be the best part of the film; the simmering feud between the wise old chief Tars and the war-hungry young brave Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) is a parallel to the main story, and the fact that these CGI characters are easily the most 'human' in the film is an irony Hollywood and critics alike seemed to miss.

The real problem is on the villain side. First because Dominic West seems to be enjoying himself too much to take it seriously, and seems also to believe in the essential dumbness of his character Sab Than. You wonder why the all-powerful Therns would have chosen Sab as their vehicle, and why their boss, Thern, wears that stupid earclip. I wonder if there was a trans-Atlantic disconnect going on during filming, because Cieran Hands seems intent on channelling the awesome talents of Brian Blessed into his role. Maybe the clip was the best Strong could do to keep the noise out. You also might wonder why the boss Thern, Shang (Mark Strong) never seems to use his greatest powers when he needs them. Perhaps there is a subtle existential problem being worked out, about over-manipulating societies, but if there is I missed it. I did get the parallels with Earth society, however, on both the 19th and 21st century levels, though that seems to have passed the critics by as well. It should be noted that the straight-to-video Princess Of Mars (2009) starring Traci Lords as Deja Thoris (!), set John Carter in modern-day Afghanistan before his transport to Mars. (As an aside, it's a shame Lords wasn't still doing adult films, as a cheapie porn ripoff of Princess Of Mars could have been called Deja Throatest). Back to the original point—Carter's final ploy at the end of the film would seem useless if Shang and the Tharns were really as powerful as they say—why would they not have simply killed John Carter as they did Sab Than? It's like the way Carter's ability to leap great distances (like the original Superman, by no coincidence at all, since this is where Siegel and Shuster got the idea) due to lesser gravity gets greater and greater as the film goes on, and how, towards the end, we also see the final reel compression of distance which allows the ride to the rescue. These things are common in big action movies, and they are not the real problem, nor the cause of the film's bad reviews.

The point, in the end, is that John Carter can be fun if you relax and let it take you with the ERB flow. The problem, in the end, is that the film itself conspires not to let you do that. It doesn't want to think of itself as John Carter of Mars, and it tries too hard not to be. Hence the reviews. It all depends on how sturdy your suspension of disbelief really is.