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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find.


Terry Leather is a scrappy London car dealer, his gambling problems placing both his business and his marriage in deep, deep trouble. When an old flame named Martine Love turns up on his stoop, he’s open to her somewhat surreal suggestion. She wants Terry to put together a crew and rob a bank. She will handle all the details. He just needs to find the manpower. Set up in an adjoining shop, the plan is to tunnel into the vault and rob it. Whatever Terry and the boys get, they can keep. Martine is after a specific safety deposit box. Turns out, a Black Militant group with ties to London’s underground pornography trade has compromising pictures of one of the British royals. Their leader is using the snaps to keep out of jail. But the heist uncovers more than Terry, Martine, and government intelligence want to know. As the main instigator of the crime, even the Crown could be compromised.


As with all ‘based on a true story’ narratives, the events in The Bank Job have to be taken with a small grain of cinematic salt. In essence, what we are getting is a thirty year old account from a supposed participant in this crime, claiming that the highest levels of UK intelligence staged a robbery to protect the image of Princess Margaret. If we are to believe the facts presented, the compromising images of the noblewoman in steamy sexual congress would destroy the Monarchy (proving, once again, that this really is the early ‘70s). Equally suspect is the notion that a street hood like Terry Leather - name changed to protect the ‘guilty’, or so the pre-credits screen card reads - could literally outsmart MI5, powerful mobsters, shady radicals, and his own character issues to make this all work.


Oddly enough, the heist is not the most compelling part of this film. The set up takes a bit to build, since Donaldson clearly wants to establish character and tone here. There is a nice squalid London vibe, a real sense of time and place. And the actors make good with the limited material they are given. Jason Statham is once again the balding British bulldog with an ever present muzzle and a head butting approach to problem solving. Saffron Burroughs is very believable as the aging model turned drug mule, forced into the service of the government thanks to a boyfriend in the Agency and a taste for cocaine. As suave flesh peddler Lew Vogel, David Suchet provides the perfect combination of sleaze and sensibility. And Daniel Mays leaves a large impression as Dave, one of Terry’s accomplices.


But weak links also abound - and not just in the performance pool. Peter De Jersey’s black radical Michael X is nearly comic in his chest-puffing arrogance. The entire subplot involving another secret agent (a hippy-dippy white girl) working within his group seems senseless in both its support of the story and its finale’s brutality. Also odd is the other main narrative - the potential impact of some additional scandalous photos on high placed British officials. It makes sense in the long run, especially when you consider the criminal element the movie is dealing in, but it frequently comes across like a bad joke. It’s like a punchline without a point. Of course, the era defines such reactions. We are so much savvier in our post-modern cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it helps the movie.


Still, Donaldson’s direction guides us through the rough spots. He’s efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements. The screenplay also strikes an interesting balance between crime and punishment. We want to see Terry and his blokes succeed, if only because these thieves are the most jovial lot on the screen. But we are constantly reminded that their felonious acts don’t often pay, and on a couple of occasions, a character’s fate seems unduly harsh. Donaldson does tie it all up in the end, and we feel a sense of satisfaction with the way things play out. But The Bank Job tends to remain an epic shorn of its scope. If Martin Scorsese were behind the lens, he’d have us at “allo”. Instead, everything stays a small little bit of relatively unknown British history.


Indeed, before the gag order turned the media labeled “Walkie Talkie Robbery” (a ham radio operator overheard signals being sent between Terry and his outside lookout) into a myth, there was substantial buzz about this incident. Why no one ever attempted a fully fictional adaptation of the facts seems strange - as does the arrival of this so-called ‘insider’ version. In part, the movie works because it’s offering us a previously squelched story dealing with inherently engaging material. But The Bank Job could be so much more. Sadly, Donaldson doesn’t strive for same.


 


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

13ghosts
The Lonely Death of Space Avenger [MP3] (from The Strangest Colored Lights releasing 18 March)
     


Beyond the Door [MP3]
     


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Teargas & Plateglass
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The Helio Sequence
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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008

I’m ignoring all the stories about autobiographical mendacity to report some good publishing news.


Ready?


Kurt Vonnegut is back from the dead. Kinda.


A year, believe it not, has passed since his death, and soon we’re gonna get just a little more from him thanks to Armageddon in Retrospect, out from Putnam next month.


The book, introduced by the author’s son, contains fiction on and non-fiction pieces from a variety of eras. Inside are letters, time-travel stories, more great speeches, and pieces of advice (i.e. “get a dog”).


While we’re at it, let’s revisit Vonnegut’s How to Write With Style essay. You can find it in a range of places, but I’ll send you here. A taste? Here’s rule number three:


As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do. Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”


Now, I’m off to re-examine my childhood, and make sure nothing has been left out. Like that time I was a child soldier, for instance.


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008

In San Francisco. Walking along Van Ness toward the wharf. Came across this nightclub exterior ‘round ‘bout the corner of Broadway . . . give or take a block or so.







It got me to thinking—a propos of nothing more than the title, I guess—about the U.S. presidential election.


“What? What would possibly make you make


that

connection?” you say . . .  (I know, I know. My mind is a simple thing.)



But . . . sad as it is to say, in this country, for an African American to win a presidential election might actually require a magic spell. At least some might aver. That particular, pessimistic, author calls it the “The Coon Affect” (sic). Well, whatever name it goes by, the fact is that the United States has only had five African Americans campaign for president in its two hundred and thirty-two years—Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, Jesse Jackson (twice), and Al Sharpton—all five trying their hand in the past thirty-six years, and none of them managing to steer their campaign caravans out of the parking lot.


Despite the grave doubt that Americans are ready for an African American president, a recent poll suggests that this particular ride might actually make it all the way down the road and end up parking in that big driveway on Pennsylvania Avenue. Although both democratic candidates currently fare better than John McCain in head-to-head matchups, it is Barack Obama who holds the current edge.


A magical possibility in the offing? Check back in eight months.


 



 


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008

I’ve wondered for a while now whether conservative theory could ever experience a vogue in the soft humanities (literature, cultural studies), not because of any intrinsic merit in the material but because it would supply a new niche for graduate students to exploit, fresh territory on which to stake a claim. Maybe this is already happening, or already happened: First, a tentative survey of the literature from a critical perspective: an examination of the tropes of conservative discourse, say, and how they have evolved—something like Hofstedter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Then, a deconstruction that shows conservative thought (something like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) is actually liberal thought. Then, an actual embrace of the reimagined or rehabilitated conservative works, and their use to explicate the raw material of humanities courses—Bronte novels and the like. I want to see the Hayekian reading of Jane Eyre, dammit!


Anyway, relevant to this fantasy, there’s been some discussion in the econoblogosphere, prompted by this Tyler Cowen post, about the dearth of conservative works of theory that stand the test of time. Cowen’s central claim about 20th century conservative political theory books seems right to me: “I opined that none have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be.” In other words, social conservatism is purely reactionary and history (the modern world’s robust ability to encourage tolerance) leaves such people behind.


Jacob Levy restates the problem this way: “there’s no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what’s interesting about Burkean or social conservatism…. The problem isn’t… that the conservative temperament isn’t easily reduced to programmatic philosophical works…. One of the problems is that history keeps right on going—and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling ‘stop!’ tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he’s already living in hell-in-a-handbasket.”


Brad DeLong sees no problem in this. He thinks we need to stop kidding ourselves that social conservatism has any theoretical component: “I say cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!!” He then uses Burke as an example to illustrate that “conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a set of principles.” There’s no point pursuing some kind of equal time for conservative theory to teach alongside libertarian or liberal theory because there isn’t any.


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