Film Review:- Murder on a Sunday Morning

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Dir:- Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

Feat:- Brenton Butler, Patrick McGuinness, Ann Finnell, Duane Darnell, Michael Glover, Jim Williams, James Stephens

Following in the footsteps of documentary movies like The Thin Blue Line or the Paradise Lost trilogy, the Academy Award winning Murder on a Sunday Morning examines failures in the American justice system, that have ultimately led to a young black male being prosecuted for a crime he hasn’t committed. On the morning of the 7th of May 2000, a retired couple, Mary Ann & James Stephens, were approached by a young black male in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida. The husband and wife from Toccoa, Georgia were on vacation and had just been returning from breakfast when they were intercepted by the stranger who proceeded to point a gun at them and demand that Mrs Stephens hand over her purse. Moments later Mrs Stephens was dead from a shot to the face, her husband was in shock, but otherwise unharmed, and their assailant had scarpered with both the murder weapon and Mrs Stephens purse.

As all of this was taking place fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler was getting ready to go and apply for a job at his local Blockbuster Video outlet. Instead of applying for the job he ended up in the back of a Jacksonville PD squad car, whereby he was taken to the scene of the crime and hastily identified, by the sole eyewitness to the murder, as the shooter. Taken to the police station Butler was held for twelve hours by officers who seemed utterly convinced of his guilt, yet had no solid evidence to pin Butler to the crime. It is at this point that the case goes from being a routine murder/armed robbery investigation to a glaring miscarriage of justice. What transpires in the twelve hours that Butler is held in police custody is in effect the subject matter of Murder on a Sunday Morning.

Director-Producer team Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet had developed a production company called Maha Productions that specialised in making documentary films that examined aspects of international judicial systems. Immediately prior to their work on Murder on a Sunday Morning, they had been examining the legal campaign for international recognition of the atrocities carried out in Rwanda during the 1990’s in a television documentary entitled The Justice of Men. The two men happened to be in Florida in May of 2000 with a film crew, as they were carrying out preliminary research for a documentary film focused on the American justice system. Until the Butler case it seemed as if the project had no clear identity, with de Lestrade and Poncet trying to insinuate themselves into various law firms to get access to trials, but not really having the narrative hook around which they could structure a film or television series. On meeting the public defender, and effectively the star of Murder on a Sunday Morning, Patrick McGuinness, de Lestrade and Poncet were introduced to an eerily vacant and expressionless young man, that would turn out to be Brenton Butler. Ultimately, it was this inscrutable image that the young Butler presented to the filmmakers that got them engaged in his case, with both de Lestrade and Poncet unable to excise the boy’s face from their minds.

Throughout the film Butler is almost a silent cipher, both inscrutable and emblematic of the way in which black voices are still routinely silenced in American society.

What follows from this initial kernel of curiosity and interest is one of the more unusual examinations of legal process that has been committed to celluloid. Effectively given unlimited and unprecedented levels of access to the trial, through the defence attorneys McGuinness and Finnell, de Lestrade and Poncet were able to catalogue the construction of a case, that would go on to prove the innocence of Butler and indict the Jacksonville Police Department for a grievous miscarriage of justice.

Central to the power of the film is the relationship that is established early on between the viewer and the principle defender, Patrick McGuinness. This chain-smoking, hyper-focused, eloquent and fearsomely righteous individual is pretty much the first figure the viewer is introduced to in the film, as well as the figure who has the last word. It is McGuinness’ skepticism that propels the initial investigations into the negligible evidence that the officers have amassed. Also, it is McGuinness who first comes to express doubt about the veracity of the eyewitness identification. Unlike in Morris’s The Thin Blue Line whereby the director of the documentary is carrying out an investigation into the facts of a case that has been tried a long time prior to the completion of the film, de Lestrade and Poncet were not actively carrying out an investigation, but rather observing the inquiries of McGuinness and Finnell. This is an important distinction because in Morris’s movie the film becomes structured specifically around Morris’s understanding of the facts of the case, as he discovers them, with Morris effectively adopting the McGuinness role and using his camera to point up the hypocrisy of the principle figures involved in convicting an innocent man. In Murder on a Sunday Morning there is less of a sense of the film as a construction and statement of the truth, but rather as a literal document of the trial and legal process around Butler’s case. This makes Murder on a Sunday Morning seem a far more transparent film than it actually is. It is very easy when faced with the slow unfurling drama of McGuinness’ probing and pushing into the shoddy police work around the case, to forget that in effect there is only really one side of the case that these filmmakers have full access to. Thus no matter how panoptic it may appear the documentary has a very obvious bias, which shouldn’t diminish its message any, but that makes it impossible to tell both sides of the story.

This is a fundamental problem with all documentary film, however. More than with any other genre of cinema, documentary asks the viewer to invest in the truth of a cinematic depiction, whilst frequently manipulating an audience into certain ways of thinking about a topic. Every documentary film has an angle upon the ‘truth’ of what is being depicted, but few documentaries reveal this angle in its entirety, instead allowing the editing process to reconstruct moments of reality in such a way as to tell the narrative that the filmmakers wish the viewer to concentrate upon. Even the most ‘objective’ processes of documentary film (such as the non-edited film of an event or occurrence) are ultimately a construct of the director. De Lestrade and Poncet try to approach the material in a linear/chronological fashion. They take the news footage of the incident as a starting point and then introduce McGuinness and Finnell into the mix and show how they have doubts upon the events of the day. They then go through the stages of the trial, with moments where the film goes off at a tangent, or digresses to focus attention upon a pertinent detail that may have hitherto been overlooked. The viewer is invited into the Butler family home, the local church and the community to which the Butler’s belong, but the viewer’s involvement isn’t filtered through the direct awareness of the filmmakers role, or the camera’s presence, but rather through the displaced identification with McGuinness, the person to whom the Butler’s have pinned their hopes. What the film subtly establishes is a sympathy and empathy for Butler and his situation, based almost entirely upon the growing convictions of the prosecutor and the bonds established between family, prosecutor and filmmaker. It makes for a wholly compromised documentary, but, perhaps, a far more satisfying and involving film.

There are at least three significant elisions within the film, one of which is an aesthetic choice on the part of the filmmakers, the other two being more likely forced upon the filmmakers as a result of their investment in the Butler side of the affair. The aesthetic choice, which is also one of the defining characteristics of the movie as a whole, is in filming Brenton Butler almost entirely without hearing him speak. This seems to stem from de Lestrade and Poncet’s initial impression of Butler as a completely detached and self-contained individual. It also serves as a wonderfully sharp metaphor, seeming to demonstrate how Butler’s voice has been silenced, or denied him by the injustice of the Florida legal system. Also, it points up the problems of presentation that the defence attorneys have to face, with Finnell diplomatically describing Butler as a male teenager, with all the sullen uncommunicativeness that may suggest. Of the two omissions that were clearly foisted upon the filmmakers, the most awkward one is the lack of access to the victim’s family and in particular her husband. The film has to rely on the testimony of James Stephens and his cross-examination by McGuinness, to give an impression of this central facet of the story. This negation of the victim’s narrative, allows the filmmakers to focus upon the other ‘victim’ of the film, namely Butler himself. It also allows the filmmakers to opt for a detailing of the trial process from the point-of-view of the defence, showing not only the trial, but how a good defence attorney would probe and shape the evidence to get at the hidden ‘truth’ of the matter. This is an important formal decision as it allows the film to be authoritative despite the fact it is clearly one-sided. It seems as if the film stands as a direct riposte to the lies of the police investigation and a rebalancing of the justice system in the way it works its own biases so thoroughly into the fabric of the narrative. In this manner it is really no loss that we fail to get access to the police side of the story.

NABBED: Can you tell me which of these words are Butler’s and which of these words are your own.

The film is at its most entertaining and horrifying in the sections during which Jim Williams, Michael Glover and, the particularly odious, Duane Darnell are caught in McGuinness’ crosshair. McGuinness is a perfect cinematic subject, with a showman’s appreciation of the camera. Prior to each of the cross-examinations, he gives a little insight into his strategies for breaking down the individual testimonies of all the police officers involved. Often these are hilariously candid little bon mots, such as when before dealing with the arrogant and sleazy Officer Darnell, McGuinness tells the camera that in response to a gibe from Darnell about his smoking, he told the officer he always likes to have a cigarette before sex. McGuinness comes prepared, knowing full well that the officers in question have already displayed a pronounced track record for laziness, sloppiness and cutting corners. Having the ammunition of his knowledge of their incompetence, he routinely embarrasses the officers during his cross-examination of them, forcing them into a corner where they either have to renounce their flawed narrative and look like a liar, or affirm their narrative knowing full well how preposterous it now looks. McGuinness compares this process to the stern disciplining of a puppy that doesn’t know where to do it’s business yet.

Amongst the many irregularities in the Butler case there is the unquestionable fact that the police jumped on the first suitable black suspect they came across, with no evidence to link him to the crime other than the colour of his skin. Disturbingly there is proof of violence being used to force a confession from Butler, with the very fact that a large, intimidating police officer like Michael Glover, regardless of his ethnicity, admittedly took Butler into a secluded area of wood on his own, supposedly to find the murder weapon, becoming a damning indictment of their investigation, in and of itself. The neglect of responsibility for the case demonstrated by lead officer Jim Williams is gobsmackingly ignorant, with Williams effectively confessing to the fact that nobody monitored Darnell or Glover whilst they were in the interrogation room with Butler. It’s this final detail that points up the significant legacy of the Butler case, as shortly after his acquittal new regulations were drawn up to make it a requirement that all police interviews were to be filmed, as standard procedure. In the film’s hastily constructed post-script further information comes out regarding the case, which shows that McGuinness’s office actually provide the police with the relevant information to catch the real killers, Juan Curtis and Jermel Williams. Intriguingly the story that is told about the shooting reveals that James Stephens eyewitness testimony was somewhat more than suspect, as his wife apparently was able to fire her cup of coffee into the face of the shooter Juan Curtis, which may go some of the way to explaining the bizarre circumstances of the shooting. In the aftermath of the case the Butler family settled a claim against the Jacksonville PD out of court, for approximately $775,000, whilst all three police officers involved in the case were either demoted, or left the force. Undoubtedly the lasting impact of this quiet, isolated young man’s struggle with a distorted justice system, is in the increased procedural requirements that all US police forces have to fulfill before bringing a case to trial.

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Comment:- The Necessity of Hitchens

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Auditioning for the role of Shane MacGowan in the new Pogues biopic?

The long-expected, or if you are the National Portrait Gallery egregiously pre-empted, death of polemicist and writer Christopher Hitchens occurred today. Hitchens had been diagnosed with terminal end-stage oesophageal cancer in July 2010 and in a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, it was increasingly obvious that the disease had been taking its merciless toll. Despite this it is indicative of the sheer vitality of Hitchens ire and indignation, that even whilst riddled with cancer he was able to produce high quality writing, with his trademark polemical clarity, incisiveness and scabrous wit. It is the snapping anger of the man that will be most missed, particularly the way in which he tended to meet pomposity with pomposity, never-failing to address the rapidly accruing modern-day shibboleths within our globalising culture.

Hitchens dedication to critiquing the various different disguises that totalitarianism might take made him a prolific columnist for the likes of Vanity Fair, The New Statesmen and The Nation. Notionally a Marxist socialist with Trotskyite internationalist leanings, Hitchens, in later years, increasingly drifted toward the classical liberal socialist positions of people like George Orwell or Bertrand Russell. Many colleagues and like-minded commentators felt somewhat betrayed by Hitchens uncomfortable fawning around the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 War on Terror. However, despite this blind spot when it came to Bush, Wolfowitz, Chaney and Co., Hitchens remained incredibly cogent when it came to arguing against those who would sacrifice necessary ‘freedoms’ for the implementation of doctrine.

Quite late in his career Hitchens earned his largest public following for his very public criticism of the ‘totalitarianism’ of organised religion. His 2007 bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, argued for an atheistic understanding of human existence and attempted to puncture fatal holes in organised theocratic thinking. It’s a perfect exemplar of the articulate, powerful, but curiously insubstantial manner in which Hitchens best polemical pieces seemed to operate.

Until recently I had failed to grasp the importance of a figure like Christopher Hitchens. Having been exposed to the powder-puff conservative paranoia of his younger, more hawkish, brother Peter Hitchens, I’d frequently adopted the habit of zoning both Hitchens’ out of my consciousness, as if they were in fact one, and the same, person (now a little more portly, now a little more angular and avian). Such benightedness was really unforgivable, as the two Hitchens, on closer inspection, seemed to share little more than an uncanny physical resemblance, a penchant for arguing and a relatively stern conservative upbringing as the offspring of a socially mobile father. Of the two siblings Christopher was always more enamoured with the flamboyance and panache of his mother’s personality, something that seems to have been a defining difference between his brother and himself, making him a far more appealing transatlantic personality.

I actually began to tune in to Christopher Hitchens far more receptively after having read his thorough dissection and ritual disembowelment of Tom Wolfe that featured in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in The Public Sphere (London:Verso, 2000). Hitchens was here asking, nigh on demanding, that the careful reader observe a two-way connection between writer and politics. Most people would accept to some degree a writer’s personal politics will dictate their sphere of interest in terms of writing, but what Hitchens argues goes further, demonstrating that a writer’s work then engages with the political process, either implicitly or explicitly, by lending support to dominant ideologies, or through critiquing them. This was all very Saidian, but for Hitchens the distraction of ideology being a politically left concern was one of the fundamental flaws in the formulation of the political as something distinct from the cultural or aesthetic. With the increasing relativism, both cultural and moral, applied to criticism at the end of the twentieth century, Hitchens was strongly arguing for a necessary space in which the political could enter back into the aesthetic and cultural as a means of demonstrating, or possibly prompting, engagement with the essential ideas and issues of the times. This is perhaps one of Hitchens most important points, as it addresses a way of considering the world that has drifted out of fashion since the days of Orwell, namely that there is a continuum between political conviction and aesthetic creation, with both navigating their way toward some kind of notion of ‘truth’.

Far from agreeing entirely with Hitchens every vituperative polemic, I have found myself at least challenged to consider where my own ideological complacencies lie, vis-a-vis whatever the issue is that he is writing about, or discussing. Individuals like Hitchens who so jealousy guard the right to write or say anything well are a rare commodity, nowadays. The danger of any public life is that it ossifies the individual leading it, making the political everything and thus castigating any perceived incoherencies in a person’s positions and pronouncements. The very necessity of public critics and intellectuals like Hitchens lies in their unwillingness to simply toe the line and hold fast to the ideas of the past, whilst simultaneously ensuring that a critical voice isn’t diminished in these times of liberal-conservative political hegemony and post-Capitalist cultural disconnect.

 

The Best of Hitchens on the Web

1) The Hitchens Zone – An exhaustive assortment of articles, videos and general information resources, featuring Hitchens lengthy radio doc on George Orwell.

2) Vanity Fair Index – Christopher Hitchens contributed to VF for many years and the magazine has done its best to collate much of that material and other media on their website.

3) The Guardian: Books – The literary section of The Guardian newspaper has done a good job of catalouging their love/hate relationship with Hitch.

4) The New Statesman – The left-leaning weekly news and opinion digest has frequently published Hitchens work down the years and has an extensive on-line index.

5) The Daily Hitchens – A well maintained unofficial website, that does a good job of covering his material on atheism in particular.

The Mystery of the Manic Safety Dancer

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One of the more peculiar internet obsessions is to do with the absurd popularity of Canadian New Wave synth-poppers Men Without Hats. The Montreal outfit were founded at the end of the seventies by the Doroschuk brothers, Stefan (guitarist) and Ivan (vocals, keyboard), and rose to international prominence off the back of their sole successful single, the infuriatingly catchy ‘Safety Dance’. Having released an EP called ‘Folk of the 80’s’ in 1980, the band, with its ever-revolving cavalcade of members, released their first full-length album, entitled Rhythm of Youth, on the tiny Statik Records label (with international distribution picked up by MCA and Virgin). The album was trailered by two singles. The first single was ‘I Like’, which charted in the lower rungs of the US Top 100. However their second single, released in the US the week before the album in March 1982, managed to break into both the US and UK Top 10’s, also managing to top the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play charts. It was an unprecedented success and one which the quirky Doroschuk brothers struggled to follow-up over the ensuing decade of activity.

Like many apparent one-hit wonders before them Men Without Hats should have been destined for a short shelf-life, followed by an obscure reincarnation on the late-90’s nostalgia circuit. Yet their relatively insubstantial body of work has continued to sell steadily, as new generations of young muso’s have been switched on to their slightly haughty brand of baroque synth-pop by the relentless energy of that transcendental break-out hit. Over the last decade, or so, Men Without Hats have made a modest 2003 comeback, that resulted in the album No Hats Beyond This Point, as well as a few festival appearances in 2010 and 2011 (these featured only Ivan Doroschuk, of the original band members). The amount of attention that these low-key activities generated has been nothing when compared to the continued fascination with the bands ‘anthem’, a fascination that in some places has bordered on the creepily infatuated. Most disturbingly the substantial internet attention devoted to ‘Safety Dance’ seems not so much about the song, as about the video. Moreover it generally fixates on an enigmatic presence at the very centre of this pop curio.

It is with the video for ‘Safety Dance’, directed by The Cure favourite Tim Pope, that things become a little like a story that might feature in a Jon Ronson book. Taking a song that already contained one of the most infectiously bouncy dance rhythms in the whole of 80’s New Wave electronica, coupled with lyrics that have an almost childlike glee in incongruous rhymes and repetitions, Pope and Ivan Doroschuk added one of the most bizarrely off-kilter and eccentric pop videos ever made, even by the ludicrous standards of the 1980’s. In the video Doroschuk, the only band member who features, is wandering through some rural idyll of the British countryside, dressed in some romantic French Revolution idea of peasant attire and accompanied by a dwarf in a jester costume (played by Mike Edmonds). After thirty seconds of skipping through wind-blown fields of long grass and gesticulating theatrically to the lyrics, Doroschuk and the dwarf hook up with a deliriously dancing young woman, sporting a wild thatch of long crimped blonde hair, who is kitted up in what looks like some kind of ruffled linen skirt, with a black leather underbust corset and a billowing white blouse. Together the trio head into a small rural village where a group of morris dancers are parading toward the market square. One notable scene sees Doroschuk and his fellow travellers make the bizarre ‘S’-shaped dance gesture whilst standing in front of a gate and a dilapidated farm building, before proceeding into the town to partake in the pseudo-medieval festivities.

Despite Doroschuk’s rather singular appearance (all dark features, angular bone structure and flowing flaxen locks) and exaggerated mannerisms, it is this woman, who appears to be the very embodiment of chaotic human free-spiritedness, that seems to have hooked so many. There is indeed something compelling about this briefest of moments in the spotlight, a true ‘pop’ performance if ever there was one, with the woman’s blithe, ceaseless, skipping and dancing casting an almost hypnotic spell over the viewer. Pope does a magnificent job of centering the video around Doroschuk’s assured, strutting, promenading presence. Yet by using incredibly tight continuity editing, Pope also allows this beguiling presence to insinuate her way into shots as if she were the very rhythm of the song given corporeal form.

In a video for the bands earlier release ‘I Like’, Pope, who was again on directing duties, had used the same woman to man Ivan Doroschuk’s vacated keyboard. As with the video for ‘Safety Dance’ the woman is rarely seen clearly, either because she is in constant motion, or her face is buried beneath her wild blonde mane. At times Pope seems to deliberately play the camera away from her, either featuring her on the very edge of long shots, or cutting away after barely a second. Due to the insertion of an ‘and Sing’ line in ‘Safety Dance’, delivered in a female voice, many fans initially thought that this actress was in fact a member of the band. However, the Doroschuk’s have always stated that only Ivan, of the band members, features in the ‘Safety Dance’ video. Strangely they’ve never actually confirmed who in fact this fleeting presence in their pop careers was. Which is what makes things curious and curiouser.

A devoted little clique of messageboard posting ‘fans’ have become increasingly proactive in trying to unearth the mysterious female figure. Understandably their odd ‘enthusiasm’ has come up against either an outright wall of silence, with the Doroschuk’s essentially mocking all enquiries into the woman’s identity, or a frequently obfuscating drizzle of information from random posters, who claim to know the woman, or have met the woman. Aside from the stalkerish intensity with which some of these individuals have set about trying to acquire information leading to her identity, perhaps the most unusual thing about this whole affair is the way in which it has proven seemingly impenetrable to the all-pervasive modern media scrutiny of the internet age. Like some Warholian experiment in celebrity the video has established this woman as a significant ‘cultural presence’ in the nostalgic imaginations of a group of fortysomethings, yet a ‘cultural presence’ without any actual identity, beyond that of carefree, eccentric, dancing maiden. In this day and age of instant celebrity, where fame is prized above almost all other things, it is as if there is something deeply unsettling about the mysterious lack of identity that animates ‘Safety Dance’.

The internet has given people a direct means to comment upon and investigate all manner of things that in previous decades would have been effectively off-limits. It has redrawn the idea of ‘privacy’ more thoroughly than any other technological invention of the twentieth century (including the CCTV camera). At once ‘privacy’ has been assaulted by the expanded sense of ‘public forum’ that comes with global internet communication, whilst simultaneously the potential for subterfuge has exponentially increased, as people have embraced on-line identities, avatars and alternate profiles as a means of engaging with others on their own terms. The internet age that is advancing upon us has the potential to bring diverse groups of people into direct contact with one another at a greater rate than at any other time in human history. But what of those people who don’t care for such improved levels of ‘connectivity’, ‘interaction’ and ‘networking’?

In the case of the ‘Safety Dance’ saga the resistance to elucidation has clearly indicated a reluctance on the part of the actress to engage with the excitable celebrity culture of ‘fandom’. From the likes of Guanolad and Pierocampa there have been shrine-like websites devoted to expressing an ‘appreciation’ of a woman’s fifteen seconds of fame, almost thirty years ago. Messageboards devoted to the topic and a Facebook page with the specific aim of trying to uncover her identity, give the same silly reasons for being so desirous of knowing who she is, namely, that they want her to know that people really have appreciated her work. Decades ago it would have been almost impossible for such invasive inquiries to circulate with any resonance in the culture. However, with the rise of the internet and its limitless potential for information distribution, even strange little obsessions like this can gather a kind of critical mass that then begins to encroach upon the targeted individual’s life. It’s therefore quite understandable that the ‘Safety Dance’ woman would prefer to remain anonymous, rather than engage with people who feel some kind of entitlement toward ‘knowing’ the superficial details of her existence, as if they are indeed meaningful to them.

On one of the messageboards devoted to this topic a poster had managed to convince the domain operator and other regular user of the messageboard that they did indeed know the ‘Safety Dance’ woman. For a brief period a supposedly current photograph was put up on a separate website. Further enhancing the enigmatic status of this woman, the photograph was quickly removed from its location never to resurface (no mean feat with the ease of image duplication nowadays). The communities that are devoted to this cause were briefly excited into a flurry of activity based upon this photograph, not thinking this may be just a straightforward hoax. Information was supplied from sources that remained as anonymous as the woman herself (something the internet is particularly good at). Apparently she was a local from West Kington called Louise, who had moved to London and become a single mum of two children. In conflicting rumour-fact she was likewise known as Louise and was now living in the Midlands, having turned her back on acting. Some people have argued that she also appears in the ‘Pop Goes the World’ video for the band, but this appears to be a simple case of mistaken identity. Regardless of what is fact and what isn’t, these on-line communities have struck on the name ‘Louise’ as a preferable appellation, giving a vital element of identity to the fantasy figure that has been constructed from a few seconds of footage.

Considering the on-line activity regarding this mysterious individual it has been surprising that a sturdy wall of privacy has remained around her identity. All the verifiably public figures who were involved in the video have been unable,or unwilling, to supply any information. This leads one to consider the possibility of a particularly sophisticated Garboesque piece of mythmaking being undertaken by all those concerned with Men Without Hats. Perhaps, when realising the interest in this woman’s presence Ivan Doroschuk and his band mates have deliberately gone about cultivating this rather bizarre mystery, anticipating the small-scale, cult allure it may bring to their work. Alternately, all concerned could just be ensuring that a request for privacy is maintained. As has been mentioned, the truly bewildering element to this whole story is how such a seemingly insignificant piece of pop culture has been invested with a much more significant point and purpose. The inability to acquire knowledge, to experience the internet immediacy of contact, to observe the current celebrity circus rules applying, makes the ‘Safety Dance’ woman an uncomfortably alienating presence, that belongs to a bygone era. In her own way the ‘Safety Dance’ woman is comparable to a J.D. Salinger, or a Greta Garbo, in the way that her silence authenticates an air of mystery around her. Unlike both of those artists however, there is not only the post-vacuum status of the reclusive star, but the Warholian obscurity of the instant celebrity lacking the context of a body of work. It is as if this woman existed merely for the duration of the videos, with no past and no future. Maybe this is the extra ingredient which continues to make the ‘Safety Dance’ video so daftly compelling. In this inscrutable female presence an emblem of ‘pop’ modernity is outlined, which calls into question our current complacencies and assumptions about celebrity, fame and fandom. It also points up our modern inability to cope with such lacunae in our narratives of the ever-swelling public realm.

Film Review:- Salt of the Earth (1954)

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Dir:- Herbert J. Biberman

Starr:- Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, Juan Chacón, Mervin Williams, Henrietta Williams

Salt of the Earth  has a good claim to being one of the most controversial and notorious American movies of all time. Normally a film with such an infamous public reputation would be expected to have transgressed societal proprieties with regard to the use of sex and violence. However, that is not the case with this New Mexico set movie about a miners strike. Salt of the Earth was the film that suffered most at the hands of the McCarthyist witch hunts that were doing the rounds in early fifties America. Without wishing to condone the political attitudes of the time, it is to a degree understandable why this was the case as the film is one of the most impressive pieces of agit-prop drama imaginable.

The film was based on the real-life events surrounding the 1951 strike at the Empire Zinc Company mines in Grant County, New Mexico. A group of Mexican miners become fed up with the inequality of treatment that they receive from their employers at Delaware Zinc Inc. Ramon Quintero is one of the most prominent union agitators and he comes to the conclusion that a strike must be organised to force the company to take issues of safety, pay and living conditions seriously. Ramon’s wife Esperanza is the narrator of the movie and at the start she is locked into a domestic world of cleaning, cooking and looking after the children – with a third child on the way. Esperanza has literally no power within her home, or the wider community, so that the concerns she has for practical matters such as sanitation, hot water and small domestic comforts like the radio, are almost completely ignored by the activities of the male Union activists. Generally the women within the mining community are treated to the same condescending contempt that the ‘Anglo’ managers and foremen display toward the Mexican miners (the women’s husbands). This situation is gradually changed when the women within the community, lead by Teresa Vidal (a bullish Henrietta Williams) decide to replace their husband’s on the picket lines, thus circumventing the tyrannical Taft-Hartley laws. Now men like Ramon have to confront the difficulties of domestic life and the frustrating feelings of emasculation that come along with their women taking the lead in union matters.

What makes Salt of the Earth a fascinating and powerful leftist agit-prop work is this dual focus at the heart of the film. Not only is it running against the dominant American politics of the time, rife with suspicions of anything vaguely socialist, but it is also engaging with issues of women’s rights and female equality, that literally had not been documented in film before. The reshaping of the domestic sphere of the mining community, with its demonstration of discriminatory practices being confronted and overcome, acts as a microcosmic exposition of the larger political issues at stake within America, regarding workers’ rights and union organisation against corporate exploitation. This is a narrative trick that British filmmaker Ken Loach has utilised with varying degrees of success in films like Bread and Roses and My Name is Joe. Take the small-scale personal politics of a family or community and through closely examining the struggles to fend off oppression in these spheres, it allows the more abstract political concerns of larger movements to be felt and understood, without necessarily appearing forced or inauthentic.

The star of the film is the bewitching Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was one of only five professional actors featured. Aside from being the principal narrative voice of the film, Revueltas as Esperanza Quintero is also the human point of contact and empathy for the audience. Ultimately it is her strength of character and courage that brings the community together under a greater sense of social equality and solidarity. Whereas Ramon and the other men of the community allow themselves to be cowed by authority, becoming increasingly easy prey for the divisive tactics of management and strike-breakers, Esperanza and the other women of the community present a more compelling and stubbornly resistant organised front. In a particularly powerful sequence at the centre of the movie, Esperanza and some of the other ringleaders of the women’s picket are fingered by a ‘scab’. The police decide to arrest these women assuming that by doing this they will rob the protest of its organising force. But the women are better prepared than their husbands, brothers and fathers. The moment that the police round-up these ringleaders, more women appear in the picket line, who have been held back in reserve. Likewise, once placed in the jail cells, the women will not shut up making the men of the police department’s life hellish. Such well orchestrated protests are almost Gandhian in their simple effectiveness.

The Salt of the Earth has been a grievously mistreated film, aside from the difficulties that blacklisted filmmakers Biberman, Paul Jarrico (the producer) and Michael Wilson (the screenwriter) suffered getting the movie made, there was also the near blanket ban to contend with, which was applied to the movie across most American cinemas on its theatrical release. For the best part of a decade after its release it was banned from distribution in the States, which might explain part of the reason why the movie looks incredibly dated nowadays, considering how few prints must have been kept in circulation. Both Biberman and Jarrico barely worked in Hollywood again, whilst lead actress Revueltas was deported back to Mexico during the shooting of the film. Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Wilson was able to get work on movies such as The Bridge over the River Kwai (for which he won a second Oscar, assigned to him posthumously in 1978), Lawrence of Arabia and Planet of the Apes, but had to suffer the ignominy of having his name removed from these films for fear that it would sway industry insiders from promoting or voting for these movies. The politics of these times are quite rightly viewed as a particular low-point in the much-heralded democratic freedoms of the American way of life.

One of the key cinematic techniques that the film deploys to wonderfully expressive effect, is that of the montage. Seemingly directly inspired by cinematic luminaries such as Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein, Biberman meshes together various different elements of the daily routine of the mining community, that helps to meaningfully illustrate the hardships of a miner’s life, its impact on his family and the mechanisation of working conditions within the mines. There is a disturbing montage sequence that conflates Esperanza’s giving birth to her third child, with the beating that Ramon receives at the hands of the police officers. Within this powerful sequence we have the sufferings of men and women aligned, which also acts as the point at which Esperanza and Ramon begin to move toward each others separate spheres, with Esperanza entering into the politics of the picket and Ramon coming to terms with the labours of his wife’s domestic life. Biberman shows a particular preference for framing his actors in stylised close-ups, with the camera either tilted upward (in the first part of the film almost always when focusing on a male actor), or high-angled, looking down upon them (most frequently when the women are talking to men, or the Mexicans are talking to their Anglo bosses). The camera only enters into medium shots when there is a sense of parity amongst the people framed. Also the work which Esperanza, and later Ramon, engages in around the home, is frequently framed in the kind of extreme low-angled shot that Riefensthal utilised in her Nazi propaganda movies to emphasise the power and strength of Hitler and other members of the Nazi party. Such a shot seems to highlight visually what Esperanza says toward the end of the film, that through their work the people must feel they are moving up in the world. Thus Esperanza’s domestic chores are the foundation for the successful picket movement, as through work and labour these people find inner strength (something which Sol Kaplan’s gratingly overzealous score seems to likewise be reinforcing).

Perhaps the most significant achievement of this film is the way in which it manages to freight in to its dialogue so much of the language of the labour movement in the US (it was after all funded by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who were seen as a subversive Communist-led Union organisation) without diminishing the authenticity of the community it depicts. There is clearly some influence from the post-war Italian neorealism of De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini in the way in which Biberman manages to extract committed dramatic performances from a majority non-professional group of actors. Unlike other agit-prop films, particularly those of British filmmaker Peter Watkins, there is a neatly balanced line between the political message portrayed and the authentic humanity of the performers, that helps to make Salt of the Earth both a thought-provoking and visceral cinematic experience. Like all good films of this ilk it patiently demonstrates the injustices of its scenario, whilst carefully winning an audience over to its cause. In this way it makes perfect sense that an American political mainstream so palpably unwilling to engage with issues of corporate and industrial exploitation, particular at the height of a Cold War that allowed for so many awkward scapegoats to be manufactured, should do everything in its power to prevent this movie from being seen. Ironically in 1992 that most central of American cultural-political institutions, The Library of Congress, inducted the movie into the National Film Registry for the preservation of culturally significant works of American cinema, thus providing the blacklisted with the last laugh.

Summertime, When the Living Ain’t Easy – Israel and the ‘Tent City’ Protests

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In many ways 2011 has, thus far, been a year of public protest and action, frequently verging on the revolutionary. With the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and Syria, either having proved successful in changing government and/or government policy, or showing no signs of abating until they do, global media attention has become focused on how such outpourings of public discontent are being organised and maintained. Much writing and commentary has been devoted to the internet as a source of free-floating information that circumvents the controls governments have previously been able to exert over their populations. A negative aspect of this preoccupation, has been the increasing ‘threat’ to social cohesion that the internet has come to represent even within supposedly democratic governments such as France, the UK and the US.

 

After the UK riots at the beginning of August, much of the press and government criticism was directed toward the ease with which individuals were able to organise and incite public violence via on-line social media and mobile technology. In many ways this has paralleled the increasing mistrust of the internet amongst more obviously totalitarian regimes, such as Iran and China, which in turn is fuelling the desire for western democracies to crackdown on the ‘too free’ circulation of information via the internet’s various social media sites. Part of the UK government response to the riots was to utilise emergency legislation to prosecute individual’s who were seen to be using the internet to spread provocative and inflammatory information regarding the public violence. In America the S.773 Cybersecurity Act of 2009, proposed by Sen. John Rockefeller and Sen. Olympia Snowe, has been working its way through Congress. This act whilst seeking to tighten the US’s Federal interstate internet security procedures, also includes the possibility for the federal government to seize control of private-sector internet networks (in much the same way as the Chinese government does), in the event of a ‘cybersecurity emergency’.

 

The internet has become a source of intense paranoia for global government regimes, as internet users far from being bound to their desks by the ready availability of frivolous on-line entertainment, have increasingly sought to use the powers of the internet to organise large-scale public activities and demonstrations. Aside from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, there have also been Tea Party and anti-Tea Party rallies throughout the US, all year long, many of which have harnessed similar social media tools to give their movements shape. In Greece and Spain general strikes and protests have been organised, via the internet, in response to vast and rapid cuts to ailing public sector institutions and state welfare services. Throughout Europe and North America regular protests against the Afghan War have similarly been prompted by direct internet action. Whilst in Chile students have organised various actions against the government during August, in protest at the poor infrastructure in the Chilean secondary and higher education systems.

 

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and challenging of recent national protests have been those taking place in Israel for the last six weeks. Whereas the ‘Arab Spring’ protests, were in effect uprisings, whilst the Greek, Spanish and Chilean protests were limited to narrow, if important, political aims, and the Tea Party/anti-Tea Party rallies in the States were more about different, conflicting ideas of governance, the Israeli protests have featured a panoply of social and political issues that have come from middle-class Israel, as well as lower-class Israel, and have sought to blur the strict, dividing boundaries between Palestinian and Israeli concerns. At the core of these protests is a disillusionment with the lack of socially responsible economic reforms made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, which has in turn spilled over into increasingly radical demonstrations against social issues that are, as a result of this inaction, biting at the financial heels of more than just the worst-off in Israeli society.

 

These economic and social action protests have politically energised and engaged a normally relatively docile, if divisive, Israeli population, with over 450,000 people having taken to the streets in various different demonstrations and activities over the last six weeks. Unlike in London, where a slow-acting and alienating government, endured the kind of violence that stems from a generalised breakdown in the relationship between youth and authority, with little or no obviously articulated political agenda underpinning the rage and chaos upon the streets, Israel has seen weekend after weekend of carefully marshalled and organised political and social demonstration. Much of this activity has directly stemmed from the population’s engagement with different internet forums (at the forefront of which have been the ‘Activism’ blogroll and the ‘Wisdom of the People’ portal, which utilises a live chat messenger service to help organise events and actions) and social media, leaving Netanyahu’s government looking increasingly embattled.

 

The origins of the Israeli protests can be traced back to the issue of housing and accommodation in Israel, as well as a more generalised concern with the cost of living, as embodied by the effective protests regarding the price of an Israeli dietary staple, cottage cheese. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has written extensively over the past six weeks about the protests. Initially the protests developed around a Facebook-organised protest instigated by Daphni Leef, which asked for people (at first mainly students) to congregate along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and construct a ‘tent city’. Leef, a filmmaker who had been involved in previous political protests regarding army service and civil marriage, had discovered, when she was looking for new accommodation in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, that rent costs had doubled over the previous five years. Concerned and shocked by this information she set about sounding out students and young people on Facebook, to see what other people’s experiences were of the rental issue.

 

On Thursday 14th July 2011, the first tents began to be erected in and around Rothschild Boulevard. Within days the movement had transferred to other cities and communities (such as Beersheba and Ramat Gan) and the Likud government began to realise that there was a significant Israeli popular political protest underway, for the first time in the country’s brief, but troubled, history. Normally Israeli’s would limit street protests to issues of defence and settlement, fearing that a protest directed at domestic policies of government would destabilise their regional power base in the eyes of external aggressors, such as Iran. Leef’s movement seemed to be establishing a different relationship between Israel and her neighbours, seemingly channelling some of the energy from the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Bahrain and directing this toward Netanyahu’s government and their apparent lack of understanding of basic domestic issues affecting the majority of Israelis.

 

As Bronner points out Likud and their finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, initially were seen to react quickly to the concerns and demands of the protestors:-

“promising construction of thousands of new housing units, along with a set of changes to bulldoze bureaucracies and press landlords to expand the market through a mix of carrot and stick (sell and get a bonus; don’t sell and face a tax)”

Yet some are now beginning to question whether Israel’s government have perhaps been a little too responsive to the demands of protestors.

 

A few weeks prior to the tent protests, Israel’s government had faced political pressure over the soaring cost of cottage cheese. Under fire from various protest groups the Knesset authorised State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to look into the issue of cottage cheese prices, resulting in a 25% reduction in the price of cottage cheese. Clearly buoyed by the success of this particular issue, certain groups on the political left in Israel, such as The National Left, had begun to cultivate and mobilise protest groups against the issue of housing costs. Leef’s decisive intervention in establishing a Facebook site for much of the political dissent bubbling under the surface of Israeli society, has since snowballed into the longest period of political protest in Israeli history and has effectively brought together elements of the political right and left, as well as Israeli and Palestinian communities – one of the most noted ‘tent city’ constructions was that carried out by Palestinian activists in the Israeli-Arab city of Tayibe (or Taibeh).

 

On consecutive weekends during the last week of July and the first week of August, protestor numbers swelled to over 300,000, counting for something like 5% of Israel’s total population, a figure unheard of in Israeli domestic protests. The movement had shifted from its narrow focus on issues to do with housing, to a concern with something it was terming ‘social justice’, with the left-leaning independent mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich listing “education, health care and affordable housing” as the most pressing social issues that the Israeli government needed to address. The general tenor of the protests themselves was seen as being a commitment to numbers rather than issues, with a feeling that the protests whilst being mainly peaceful, were doing nothing more than creating ‘party atmospheres’ in which politics was taking a backseat. Regardless of the protestors intentions, the sheer volume of people on the streets couldn’t be ignored by Netanyahu and his government.

 

As Gideon Rachman puts it in his excellent FT column, 2011 has had a the feel of “the year of global indignation” and whereas nothing obviously links the politics behind the street demonstrations in Chile, Greece and China, with those occurring in Israel, Rachman is right to point out that

“Many of the countries hit by unrest have explicitly accepted rising inequality as a price worth paying for rapid economic growth”

The free market, possibly neo-liberal, economic theories of the likes of Friedman and Stigler have been refined and gradually worked into policy in countries like Chile, Sweden, the US, the UK and, of course, Israel. The aggressive rolling back of the social policy mechanisms of state in many countries, after the economic turmoil of 2008, have left an increasing number of people around the world feeling dramatically disenfranchised from the apparent wealth of their national economies. In Israel, as Bronner points out, Netanyahu’s government has, on paper, managed economic growth superbly. Yet despite the fact that the

“unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, a 25-year low and about half of that of Europe. Its currency, the shekel, is strong. Its exports outstrip its imports. It is attracting foreign investors, especially in the high-tech sector”

it has still being unable to adequately convince large parts of its population, particularly those under forty years of age, that these are indeed times of plenty.

 

Having already extracted numerous ‘assurances and guarantees’ from the Likud government, as well as some noted immediate policy intervention, in recent weeks the protest movement has once again morphed from peaceful protest and demonstration to a slightly more legally ‘dubious’ approach. Esther Witt, a special education teacher, originally from the Netherlands, is one of the figures who has spear-headed the ‘lightning squat’ recently adopted by ‘social justice’ protestors. Witt had been in attendance at ‘tent city’ protests in Independence Park, Jerusalem, earlier in August. In an article featured in Haaretz she had given a very clear, individual picture of some of the difficulties families were facing in Israel just to meet the costs of keeping a roof above their heads.

 

During the last weekend in August Witt, and a coalition of fellow activists, engaged in the first truly ‘controversial’ piece of political theatre of the protests, thus far. The group broke into a vacant building owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), not far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Taking over the four-storey building they christened it the ‘People’s House’ and held a public squat, that Witt hoped would force the government to introduce stricter property-ownership regulations, making it impossible for such buildings to remain unoccupied. In a Guardian report by Luke Brown, Witt claimed

“We’re trying to make a point – this building could easily house four families but it has stood empty for 15 years, … We want those people who own apartments in Israel but only come to the country for two weeks a year to feel that if they leave their apartment empty, it’ll be squatted, and so it’s in everyone’s interest if they rent them out instead.”

Witt, and those like her in Israel, are people newly committed to an old-fashioned idea of ‘society’ in the face of a perceived widening of social inequalities, as a result of aggressively pursued policies for economic growth. Whereas the noises from governments throughout the developed world are mainly of the bemused variety (how can people be protesting when so many nation’s are wealthier than they have ever been?), it is in protest movements like that in Israel that we are seeing the first articulations of dismay with the self-serving nature of much global economic policy and social reform.

 

CODA:- (Since starting work on this article much has changed about the situation of the protests, that can only really be reported, rather than directly commented on. What follows is an addendum tracing outlining recent events)

This latest escalation in the protest movement was followed by a momentary lapse in demonstrations, where the numbers of protestors in ‘tent cities’ across the country dwindled, but on Friday 2nd September the largest protests of all were stage across Israel, pulling in upwards of 450,000 people. The largest protest was staged at Kikar Hamedina, a large plaza in the centre of Tel Aviv. Protest leaders and student groups addressed the crowds asking for action and recognition from the Knesset. In the aftermath of this historic night Israeli city councils poured pressure on the protest movement to begin sustained dialogue with the Knesset and the Trajtenberg Committee instituted by Netanyahu on August 8th 2011 to examine the socioeconomic issues at the heart of the protests.

 

A temporary hiatus was called amongst the protest movements various bodies, but no solid attempt, as yet, has been made to discuss issues pertaining to Israel’s socioeconomic problems with the Trajtenberg Committee (many protestors remain opposed to any talks other than with the Knesset). The protest movement has since intimated its demands are to

“ “eliminate economic centralization”, propose a discussion to end monopolies, dismantle economic pyramids, increase competition, tax reform that would cancel the lowering of corporate taxes while raising taxes on high-income individuals, lowering indirect taxes, and monitoring of the capital market.”

Furthermore there have been increased calls for a return to the ‘welfare state’ model of social governance, that Netanyahu’s government has assiduously dismantled. Within the last 48 hours, a hardcore contingent of protestors that have chosen to ignore the requests of the government, local councils and the protest movements leaders, have been engaged in skirmishes and clashes with Israeli police. It remains to be seen what will happen next in this monumental protest movement, but it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will be able to ignore the events of the past six weeks and attempt to draw a line under proceedings.

Power-To Disap-Point

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Article Prompted by:- The Political Party That Wants to Ban PowerPoint (Julie Bindel, The Observer, Sunday 28th August, 2011)

I occasionally worry if Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) wasn’t really on to something after all with his wonderful justification of amorality from atop the Ferris wheel of Vienna’s Prater amusement park. Switzerland occasionally bursts into the public consciousness with global projects like the LHC, but more often than not it drifts about in a willfully decadent obscurity of its own making, seemingly disconnected from the global events that besiege other wealthy nations. This belies the fact that Switzerland tends to do a fairly good job of tackling social crises’, such as their growing urban heroin problem in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Far from being an unresponsive and sluggish politics, the Swiss approach to national governance, with its tendency toward direct representation and reasoned consensus, actually seems to do an admirable job of empowering its citizens, given them most of what they want, whilst managing to ensure economic stability. In many ways it is a shame that Switzerland doesn’t take a more vocal role upon the international stage, where for many, it is nothing more than the low-tax playground for the privileged and the pompous (Phil Collins, anyone?).

How irritating then that the one story involving the Swiss political landscape that does get a bit of serious media mileage, is the almost too laughable tale of Matthias Poehm, a former-software engineer turned experienced public-speaking trainer. Mr. Poehm has seen fit to try to establish a serious political party around one of the most pressing issue of the day – the overuse of Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation software at conferences, seminars and public-speaking events. For Poehm, who is at pains to highlight on his website the fact he is “organizing the most expensive public speaking seminar in Europe” (penis envy, anyone?), the scourge of modern society is Microsoft’s all too-handy presentation utility, which reduces even the most enthralling talk to, as Bindel puts it, an exercise in boring an audience to tears “with fiddly slides consisting of flying texts, fussy fonts or photo montages”.

Whereas Bindel, in her article, is actually highlighting a more crucial issue, namely the wastefulness of many an ‘academic’ conference, in terms of the money required to front the proceedings and the likelihood that said conference will actually generate any stimulating work, beyond that which could have been printed on a blog, or in a journal/book, Poehm seems to be more obsessed with the idea that the software itself is responsible for a CHF 2.1 billion loss in the Swiss economy. Poehm puts together his economic theorem by pulling a whole lot of statistics out of the ether (4.1 million employees in Switzerland, including school children; 11% of whom are involved in PowerPoint presentations regularly, at least twice a week; 85% of participants in these presentations are demotivated by them, the swiss average hourly wage is CHF 56.30). As you can see this ragbag of statistical data lacks even the slightest pretence at contextualisation. How are school children employees? Where does his ‘conservative’ estimate come from? How can he regulate for presentations twice a week? Where is the economic model to quantify the damage of demotivation? Oddly this impressively vague and random assortment of information, actually makes one wish that Poehm was more versed in presenting statistical data, using software like PowerPoint, as an example that comes quickest to mind.

Bindel’s justifiable ire at the shoddy state of much academic discourse (particularly in the Humanities), conducted through the flawed medium of the Conference, has somehow attached itself inscrutably to a kneejerk neo-Ludditism and found something of resonance in Poehm’s frankly farcical political campaign. In many ways Bindel and Poehm’s complaints are nothing more than the blaming of one’s tools for the poor quality of work one produces. Is it not far more likely that the poor-standards of presentation are perhaps more to do with the poor quality of the ideas behind them, or even the inability to execute the presentation of these ideas properly using the software selected. Rather than talking up a relatively politically pointless Anti-PowerPoint agenda, perhaps we should be targeting the more serious ineffectiveness of multiple conferences, presentations and seminars, or the poor standard of computer skills training within many institutions (particularly of the educational variety) and companies.

What confirms the absurdity of Poehm’s position is the solution that he floats, as if it were something people had never considered doing before, of utilising a flip-chart in presentations. Bindel stands by her man here, by claiming that she turns up to conferences nowadays with “a set of index cards on which I have jotted down key points”. What, both Poehm and Bindel, genuinely seem frustrated with, is the notion that a person can get up in front of a room full of people and stumble through a flashily animated computer presentation, without having devoted any time to what they wish to achieve with the presentation. They are right to suggest that there is more to public-speaking than some computer-generated fireworks, yet their obsession with PowerPoint, or more broadly computer technology, as an obstacle to direct human communication, strikes me as more than a little fallacious, knowingly or otherwise. The absurd statistic that Poehm produces, and cannot even justify in his video address, that 95% of PowerPoint presentations would be as effective, if not more effective, if delivered on a flipchart, is just another reason to deeply mistrust the political ethos at work here.

One area in which Poehm’s agitation does seem to be appropriate is with the idea that PowerPoint has become an enforced requirement of presentations within schools, academies and workplaces. Here he is absolutely right to criticise the fetishisation of Microsoft software (and similarly Macintosh products), particularly by educational institutions who should really be resisting applying such restraints on creativity. In his own rather silly way, Poehm is stumbling upon a key reason why Microsoft has managed to achieve such market hegemony in the computer software sector. Alas, after repeated viewings of his political address as President of the APP, I can’t shift the sneaking feeling that this is all some sophisticated (and impressively po-faced) piece of Swiss satire, as Poehm seems to be wishing nothing more than “wanting only people to talk about it”. If not, then I return to my Orson Welles opening and suggest Harry Lime may well have called it right, in discussing the CUCKOO clock.

Armand Traore on a Train to Auschwitz?

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holocaust n 1 great destruction or loss of life or the source of such destruction, esp. fire. 2 (usually cap.) the Also called: Churban, Shoah. the mass murder by the Nazis of the Jews of continental Europe between 1940 and 1945. 3 a rare word for burnt offering

Sometimes it is important to start an essay with the lazy, or overly literal, students favoured opening gambit, namely the dictionary definition. Before discussing some of the truly simian outrage that has greeted Tony Cascarino’s use of a word, even a word that is showily hyperbolic, I’d just like to fall back on the students favoured follow-up, the etymology of a word. The etymology of the word holocaust, is from the Late Latin holocaustum, meaning whole burnt offering. Which in turn was derived from the Greek holokauston, which is Holo + kaustus (or kaiein), meaning to burn the whole.

I have to begin in this manner, as those simian yelps and howls make it really, really difficult to focus, so apologies if you actually know the rudiments of the English language. Now granted Tony Cascarino, during Sky Sports News’s coverage of the Arsenal vs Man Utd match, is maybe going a bit far semantically (that hyperbole) when applying the noun to the following sentence: “Poor Traoré at right-back is having a holocaust because he’s finding himself against Nani, who’s literally running him from everywhere and Arshavin’s just not tracking his runners.”. However, can anyone truly say that Cascarino is making a wantonly historically ignorant remark, that is truly offensive to people in a directly harmful and hurtful manner, like Ron Atkinson’s more furtive indiscretion? Apparently they can, as the internet has been abuzz with the kind of jive-talk that seems to come up whenever there has been a dearth of sensation in the media.

Marcus Dysch stated that: “Tony Cascarino said Traore was having a ‘holocaust’ against Utd??Fantastic. I’ll enjoy ending Mr Cascarino’s career this wk at work.”. Nice to see Mr Dysch, a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle, taking a reasoned approach to Cascarino’s utterance. Whilst Steve Busfield, took a slightly more attenuated position, claiming: “Arsenal’s performance was bad, but Tony Cascarino’s “holocaust” description is stupid”. Steve Busfield being the Sports Blog Editor at the Guardian was generally bucking the trend of hysterical condemnation, that the usual suspects from the red-tops, as well as the Daily Telegraph, were all too eager to embrace.

As someone with more than a passing interest in keeping the idea of The Holocaust at the forefront of societal collective memories, I actually take offence at the apparent willingness of commentators to leap to the assumption that there is something overtly racist, tasteless and/or politically loaded in Mr Cascarino’s outburst. When looking for live comment from ex-football players it is rare to hear them do a credible job of anything more than describing the action. Cascarino on the other hand, in a similar way to Pat Nevin and Lee Dixon, has tended toward the insightful, if occasionally impassioned, in his reportage and his columns for The Times. Do I think that Tony Cascarino is seeking to make an equivalence between the organised slaughter of six million people (predominantly of Jewish origin) in Europe during 1940-1945 and an aberrant display from an Arsenal squad football player, positioned on the left-side of their defence during a mauling from Man Utd at the weekend? No, I do not. Do I think Tony Cascarino was utilising the term as an acceptable, if overly hyperbolic, way of describing the devastation Traore’s performance was causing down Arsenal’s defensive left-side? Yes, I do.

If Mr Cascarino had said something like ‘Armand Traore is playing football like a Jew trying to escape The Holocaust’, then I would have been jumping in with the condemnation myself. As it is, he didn’t even prefix the word with ‘The’, suggesting we perhaps shouldn’t be reading ‘Holocaust’, where it may well have been ‘holocaust’ that was intended. To demand a pundit’s head for such a remark only highlights the modern tyranny of ‘fixed semantic interpretation’, that seems to make a mockery of more serious and verbally wounding outbursts. In policing the ways in which we talk freely, on air, or otherwise, we are merely creating a futurescape in which thoughts lead to actions, with very little discussion, or reasoned debate – in fact not so dissimilar a set of social conditions as that which existed in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. Our freedom of speech should be what we protect robustly, not the questionable sensibilities of the eager-to-be-scandalised.

Attempting to side with some of the sensation-hungry out there, I’ll go along with this condemnation of Cascarino’s use of a ‘word’ (a word that clearly must only ever now be used in one, historically accurate, context) and let Cascarino be fired by his employers, despite his apparently contrite apology (his more stupid move, if you ask me). In the future live sports broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC and ESPN, will then need to ensure that all broadcasts are scripted and vetted as the action unfurls and the Gareth Southgate’s and Alan Shearer’s of this world can then be safe in the knowledge that their teleprompter will never let them stray into the choppy waters of poor word selection.

Alternately, you could condemn Cascarino with the questionable grammatical accuracy of his noun selection and read Martin Gilbert, Hannah Arendt, or Primo Levi, safe in the knowledge that The Holocaust hasn’t suffered a significant devaluation in meaning. Oh and spare a drop of sympathy for the recently immolated Armand Traore.

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