All your friends are right about how amazing Hamilton is

A hit

In 1789, Alexander Hamilton became America’s first Treasury Secretary. That presented him with the immense challenge of enabling the new republic to repay the immense debts it had wracked up winning the Revolutionary War against Britain. These came to the enormous sum of $75 million. In order to avoid a default, he not only raised a huge range of taxes, but introduced policy innovations which some credit as laying the foundation for America’s Federal Government, banking system and industrial economy.

In 2020, Disney struck a deal with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the right to put a live filming of his hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton on their streaming service. It cost the House of Mouse the enormous sum of $75 million.  

This equivalence between an entire nation’s debt and the royalties for a play speaks to two things: 1) inflation and 2) what an enormous success Hamilton has been. Even though its premise sounds like the basis for a Producers style fraud, it won 11 Tony Awards, endorsements from world leaders and runs in Broadway and the West End which only coronavirus could break. However, this hype had perversely made it rather inaccessible. Demand for tickets to the stage shows was so great that you had to book them months in advance at a price one could only afford via financial engineering worthy of the show’s protagonist. However, its arrival on Disney + brings it to an even larger audience.

As part of that latter group, I am immensely grateful. Yes, there is certainly a loss of intensity and immediacy relative to seeing the show live, but even on the TV screen it is still entrancing. I’m not musically literate enough to tell you how Miranda manages to deliver banger after banger, but he absolutely does.

Hip-hop history

However, if I may engage in some ill-informed speculation, Miranda’s counter-intuitive decision to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story using hip-hop, an art form which didn’t emerge until almost two centuries after his death, gives Miranda’s work a range of advantages.

Some of these are practical. To see one of them, compare Hamilton with Les Miserables. Both plays regularly require characters to deliver exposition about history and politics through lyrics. However, in Les Mis this sounds cringeworthily out of place. Hamilton can almost entirely avoid this distracting dissonance between form and function because the gap between rap and regular speech is narrower than that between speech and song.

Rap is also an apt vehicle for depicting the more combative side of politics. Public debate in eighteenth century America was at once more refined and nastier than it is today. Yes, it was an era when politicians were often classically trained rhetoricians who communicated through erudite essays and pamphlets. However, as the historian Alan Taylor observes: ‘We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”’ Taylor tops this point off by noting contemporary reports that three-quarters of duels arose from political disputes. 

Rap is of course also rich in poetic pugilism. A denunciation and a diss track, or a debate and a rap battle, are fundamentally pretty similar. In fact, two of Hamilton’s best tracks depict meetings of George Washington’s Cabinet as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

However, the greatest advantage of having eighteenth century characters rapping and singing hip-hop is that it is so anachronistic. It immediately and totally disabuses the audience of our preconceptions about what a period piece will be like. Freed from these constraining expectations, Miranda can create a musical of astonishing brio and bravado. It is defined by its big dramatic moments but is also wickedly funny. This latter quality is perhaps best depicted by a set of tracks which depict King George III (played by Jonathan Groff AKA Special Agent Ford from Mindhunter) as America’s psychotically entitled ex delivering lines like: “And when push comes to shove // I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”

It is also a wonderfully multi-layered. Take just one line. “I am not throwin’ away my shot”, which first appears as the chorus line for the third song and then recurs multiple times throughout the show. At different points ‘the shot’ represents: a single bullet in a dueller’s pistol, a shot of spirit, Hamilton’s ambition, the narrowness of the new nation’s path to survival and a nod to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.

The room where it happens

Obviously, for all its richness and complexity, it cannot possibly convey the same historical detail as the 800-page book it is based on. Plus, it is historical fiction rather than history. And even when it is dealing with historical facts, its representation of them is frequently abstract rather than literal; as we have already mentioned no one in the 18th century rapped. There does seem to be a bit of a dispute about the interpretation of history it presents. I have not really studied this period in any detail, so mostly avoid that discussion. That said, I do want to say two things in its favour on that score.

First of all, it is commendably sophisticated in the way it thinks about history. Indeed, at points it manages to deal with historiography as well as history. As it recounts past events it also comments on how they are remembered. Indeed, there are two tracks built around gaps in the documentary record. Both serve not only to acknowledge this uncertainty to the audience, but also illustrate important moments for characters.

 In addition, having worked in politics for a while – admittedly at a rather less elevated level than the characters in Hamilton – the depictions of politicians ring true. For example, Jefferson and Maddison gleefully throwing copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet into the audience, captures well the unsightly joy of a team of politicos realising their opponent has screwed up. I suspect this feeling of authenticity is why it seems to resonate so much with politicians.

There is also a substantive question underlying all the theatrics: Hamilton is a musical meditation on the place of personal ambition in politics. Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is a pathological striver. This serves to make him into a great man but also a tragic figure.

The drive to distance himself from a childhood in St Kitts and Neves marinated in bereavement, humiliation and disaster propels him not only to travel all the way to New York, but to rise socially; it also imbues him with the desperate energy which makes him so charismatic; and ultimately it is what leads him to become a Founding Father: in a new nation, to command the ship of state, he first had to build it.

Yet Hamilton’s own sister-in-law explicitly likens him to Icarus: a figure whose non-stop ascent destroys him. Growing up amidst constant death and loss leaves him haunted and conditioned to expect not to survive. This fatalism in turn feeds into recklessness. He is wracked by survivors’ guilt and crushed by the weight of his own and others’ expectations; too harassed to ever be comfortable or content. His opponents are able to exploit these doubts and drive him to catastrophically bad decisions. These repeatedly put him in conflict with Aaron Burr – who is depicted as sharing Hamilton’s hunger for power but not his ideals – with disastrous results for them both.

The eye of the hurricane

In a celebrated lecture delivered in Munich in 1919, the great sociologist Max Weber, addressed an audience of students. He spoke to the backdrop of a world overturned by the First World War. People were rising up, empires were falling, and young, scrappy and hungry countries were being born. Like Hamilton and his drinking buddies singing “My Shot”, these students could be forgiven for thinking: “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me”. Therefore, Weber turned to poetry to instil realism in them:

I wish I could see what has become of those of you who now feel yourselves to be genuinely ‘principled’ politicians and who share in the intoxication signified by this revolution.

It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102 should hold true:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.

But such is not the case. Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness

What Miranda manages in Hamilton is to somehow turn Weber’s dictum that “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards” into a musical romp where the hope for the growth of riper days and the polar night of icy darkness and hardness both get their dues.

Bonus:

This version of Hamilton as sung by the Muppets is a pure joy

Purgatory is other people

My quick review of Staged

Fiction will almost certainly have a lot to say about coronavirus: the initial cover-up in Wuhan is ripe for a Chernobyl style docu-drama, the frenetic scenes on hospital wards will be fantastic fodder for medical procedurals, odd couples forced to quarantine together will doubtless become a rom-com staple, and a legally enforceable “stay at home” orders will add believability to horror films which would otherwise be undermined by asking the question “why don’t they just leave?”

Staged depicts a very different version of the crisis. Indeed, it captures a reality many of us have experienced but seems almost impossible to present in an entertaining way. Let’s call it the paradox of the pandemic: the defining characteristic of day-to-do life amidst the most dramatic events of a lifetime has, in the main, been dullness.

The show – told in 15-minute episodes almost entirely filmed in the ensemble’s homes – follows the cast of a play mothballed due to the virus. Their director tries to encourage his two leads – Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing fictionalised versions of themselves – to continue rehearsing over Zoom. Like most videocalls for work it does not go well.

That the central characters are all comfortably off creative types means that they are almost entirely shielded from the true horror of the pandemic. All they need to do to is to stay in their nice homes. However, the very simplicity of that requirement starts to become a problem. They are high achievers who have grown used to the adulation of audiences. Therefore, they don’t really know how to cope when an endless series of videocalls and chores begins to substitute for having a real purpose. That leaves them bored, aimless and confused.

What writer/director Simon Evans – who also stars as writer/director Simon Evans – grasps is that this frustration can be mined for comic tension. That the characters are so filled with anxious energy yet have nothing to do with it, gives a natural reason for them to become irritable and do silly things that wind each other up. And with a cast as charismatic as Staged has, it is great fun to watch them bicker.

At the same time it is deeply relatable. It helps in this regard that the show was entirely written and produced whilst still under lockdown. It’s almost entirely set in the characters homes and is mostly dramatised video calls. This gives it an authenticity which will likely be hard to recapture later on. We should treasure it as a record of the absurdity millions of us have endured amidst tragedy. Well  for that and Judi Dench telling Tenant and Sheen to “stop fucking about!”

All hail the Mandalorian

*This post contains mild but only mild spoilers*

A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away: Palpatine died, Vader redeemed himself at the price of his life, the Death Star was destroyed, and the Empire was overthrown. But of course, Star Wars fans know there is no happily ever after: Sideous will be reborn, Ben Solo will take up the mantel of Vader, new planet killing weapons will be built and they will serve the First Order.

But even before all of that: what sort of world’s did the heroes of original trilogy create?  That is the question the characters of the Mandalorian have to grapple with. They live in the gap between the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic, which is a space dominated by warlords and gangsters, where the Jedi are but a legend, and the choices necessary to survive preclude simple allegiance to either the light side or the dark.

This is an environment the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) appears well adapted to. He is perpetually encased in a helmet and armour, which literally and metaphorically separate him from the people around him – less ‘the Man with No Name’ than a man with no face.

He is a bounty hunter, and a formidable one at that, bound by a “Guild Code” which makes it taboo to ask the kind of questions which might lead to reflections on the morality of his line of work. That is until a client pays him to hunt down an unusual quarry and maintaining this amoral outlook becomes impossible.

It is glorious. Some of the best TV and the best Star Wars I have ever seen. Here are some of the reasons it works so well.

1. The music

This might seem like a random place to start but bear with me: it perfectly distils the feel of this series.

Each episode is scored by Ludwig Gorannson – who also wrote the orchestral music for Black Panther.

Now, Star Wars has always drawn inspiration from Westerns. So, it is natural for the Mandalorian to tell a story with the tropes and conventions of the Western genre set in the Star Wars universe. Gorannson’s music reflects this dual character, creating something which sounds like the product of a collaboration between John Williams and Ennio Morricone. It is luscious but also dripping with menace. It bears listening to all by itself.

2. Talent

Gorannson is far from the only very capable person working on the Mandalorian.

It is the first live action Star Wars TV show and it had pride of place in the virtual shop window of Disney + at its launch. So, the ‘House of Mouse’ has put a reported $100 million behind making it a success.

That allows for a cast featuring not only Pascal but also – amongst others – Giancarlo Esposito, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Ming-Na Wen, Richard Ayoade, Amy Sedaris, Nick Nolte – voicing a 3ft foot orange alien, which somehow still looks like Nick Nolte – and Werner Herzog. Yes, that Werner Herzog!

However, it is Pascal who is most impressive. He is not only depicting a character who is honour bound always to wear a helmet – meaning he has to depict the character without using his face – but also one who is modelled on the taciturn Clint Eastwoodesque cowboys, so he’s not got much dialogue either. Therefore, he has to lean heavily on physicality to create the character. Generally, when he makes a movement it is sharp and deliberate – an effect accentuated by the armour he’s wearing.

3. It looks phenomenal

Disney have also been able to attract Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man and the Jungle Book, to co-write and act as showrunner, as well as directing several episodes. As you would expect given his pedigree – and the calibre of the other talent behind the camera – it looks fantastic. Better than a lot of the films. A succession of different planets and spaceships are lovingly rendered; CGI never looks like CGI and they have the capacity to put some impressive action set pieces on the screen convincingly.

4. Storytelling

Having invested in visuals, the filmmakers able to let them to do a lot of the storytelling. For example, at one point a simple turn of Mando’s helmet will convey that he has decided to take a mission. This style of course, suits the story’s protagonist.

It also provides a conspicuous contrast with a lot of sci-fi shows. The Mandalorian never subjects us to clunky dialogue that goes like: “ever since the War of the Two Planets, the Neptunium and Plutonian kings have been locked in a struggle for the heart of Rohana, the princess of Titan, a beautiful fish creature with a talent for lockpicking. Now in order to impress her, each man has sent a challenger to compete in the zoidbergaloid races of venus…”. (Or, perhaps worse still: “somehow, Palpatine returned”!)

It turns out that being rather spare with its dialogue makes for leaner storytelling that moves at a brisker pace and better episodes overall.

5. Excitement and tension

The action sequences in the Mandalorian take advantage of the possibilities provided by the Star Wars universe – among them droids, jet packs and tie-fighters – but can use them in ways that more align with its crunchier sensibility. For example, in the opening sequence the Mandalorian defeats an opponent by crushing them in a set of sliding blast doors.

These sequences benefit from being located in a notably nasty and unpredictable universe, where it seems well within the realms of possibility that something unpleasant could happen to characters we care about. That helps dial up the tension.

6. Baby Yoda

Let’s address the mudhorn in the room: Baby Yoda (or to give him his official name “the Child”) became an internet sensation for a reason. With his huge eyes, twitching ears and haphazard walk,  he is quite possibly the cutest creature ever to emerge from sci-fi.

That might seem incongruous in an otherwise dark show. However, this mismatch is what makes him a narrative necessity. In a deeply corrupt part of the galaxy, his adorable wide-eyed innocence serves to upend the status quo.

7. Making sense of Star Wars

So far, it appears that in story terms the Mandalorian is at most perpendicular to the Skywalker saga, it does provide an important thematic connection between the original and the most recent trilogies. It depicts the continuing appeal of the Empire to some and, by extension perhaps, why there would be support the arrival of the First Order.

One of the villains asks our hero: “Look outside: is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death and chaos.” The seedy and violent worlds the show depicts, do not allow that point to be easily dismissed.

It not only shows us those who sympathise with the Empire but also those who distrust the democracy which has taken its place. An imperial army slaughtered the Mandalorian’s people, but it does not follow from this that he or the other victims of the old regime, we meet have faith in the democracy which has replaced it.

At one point, when he is clearly troubled by a particularly odious group of ne’er-do-wells, the head of the bounty hunter’s guild suggest with a complete lack of conviction: “well, if it bothers you, just go back to the core and report them to the New Republic”. The Mandalorian wearily dismisses that option as “a joke”. The Mandalorian thus depicts the sense that a tyranical order might be preferable to no order at all.

This marks a departure for Star Wars has generally shown the lure of the dark side from the point of view of characters for whom it offers incredible power. In the Mandalorian, we see its appeal from a different – and more relevant angle: that of those who see no realistic prospect of escaping the darkness, so hope that the right kind of darkness will grant them relief from a life of terror.

The Podcasts getting me through lockdown

As with any podcasts I recommend, these reflect my own rather idiosyncratic tastes.

However, boredom is apparently a major contributor to the mental health problems that arise from lockdown and in the difficulties some people have complying with it. And as podcasting is one of the mediums that it easier to produce from your kitchen, it’s probably one of the better places to look for boredom antidotes.

Podcasts about coronavirus

There is a strong argument for not overdoing news at the moment. Personally, though, I find that its less about the quantity of news I consume than the quality of the sources. If they enlighten rather sensationalise then I find that helpful.

Both Radio 4’s More or Less and Gimlet’s Science Vs have been exemplary in this regard. What they have in common is a tone defined by apparently genuine curiosity, which they assume the audience shares. The teams behind them not only want to tell you what we know but also how we know it. This allows them to adopt an authoritative tone, which offers clarity without obscuring genuine uncertainty. It also helps that these shows can take the virus seriously without taking themselves seriously.

Recent events have also played to strengths of Inside Briefing from the Institute of Government. A lot of more conventional politics podcasts are essentially about inter and intra party competition and have struggled as those themes have temporarily been side-lined. A focus on public policy and the machinery of state currently feels both more relevant and more edifying.

In terms of specific episodes, Talking Politics’ interview with Nate Silver is a little out of date but definitely still worth a listen. Silver is not an epidemiologist, but someone who predicts politics and sports. So, he thinks about the models used to try and anticipate the spread of the virus in very broad terms. So, this is a very clear overview of the topic.

Speaking of overviews, China Talk’s episode on the politics of coronavirus ably relates what happened in Wuhan at the very start of the outbreak to the broader political climate in the country.

Sticking with Asia, the Inquiry from the World Service did a fascinating look into how South Korea contained covid-19.

If you want something that focuses less on a global understanding of this strange moment in history and more on how to manage its consequences as an individual, then check out How to! not to go crazy under quarantine and beat your isolation loneliness from the Happiness Lab. They are both from the early stages of the lockdown and the advice in them has been helping me ever since.

Not about coronavirus (but also kind of are)

If you’ve not come across Tim Harford’s work before, he is essentially a social science communicator who combines the story telling acumen of Malcolm Gladwell with the intellectual rigour of someone who is..well…not Malcolm Gladwell. He uses these talents to full effect in Cautionary Tales. Each episode unpacks the reasons behind a disaster such an airship crashing, the wrong film being announced as an Oscar winner or a con man tricking an entire platoon of soldiers into assisting with a bank robbery.

By contrast, as the name implies, Chernobyl focuses in on that single (and singular) disaster. It is an accompaniment to the HBO/Sky TV drama about the disaster and is essentially a series of extended conversations with Craig Mazin, the show’s writer. It is frequently answering the question: did that really happen? To which the answer is usually: yes, it did.

Both were made before the coronavirus arose as an issue but given their themes will definitely give you a perspective on it.

Getting a break from coronavirus

At the moment, most of the podcasts I’d normally turn to for light listening have started running lockdown or virus themed episodes. So, I have been finding my escapism in some surprisingly dark podcasts.

In February last year, a group of masked men broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid in the middle of the night and took the staff apparently under the impression that this would provide cover for a diplomat to defect. Instead, they left with just a few laptops and USB drives, pursued by the Spanish, Americans and most, dangerously, the North Koreans. A fascinating episode of NK News covers Free Joseon, the shadowy group behind the attack. The renegade band of characters populating this story and their “antics” are like something out of a Le Carré novel.

The second series of Monster on the Zodiac killings handles the perennial problem of true crime podcasts about unsolved cases not having satisfying conclusions by turning the focus back around on the audience. It becomes less about who the killer is than why this case still holds such a fascination and why for many people it is such a destructive one. A bonus episode on ‘the Accused’ develops this idea even further by examining how the desperation to unlock the riddle led to multiple different people being seriously discussed as suspects despite a near total lack of credible evidence against them.

Finally, Intelligence Squared has an interview with Kate Murphy about her book “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters”. Which was interesting enough to persuade me to go out and get the book.

Happy listening and stay safe!

Though shalt not go to church

A cautionary tale

Despite the huge ramifications of her decisions, only so much is publicly known about “patient 31”. We do not know her real name or many details of her life before February this year. Nor despite extensive investigations by public health authorities, do we know how she contracted the covid-19 virus.

However, we do know she is a 61-year-old woman and lives in Daegu, a South Korean city of two and a half million people. We know that on Feb 6th, she was involved in a car accident that led to her being hospitalised and that whilst she was there, she developed a fever. We also know that on Feb 17th, she tested positive for Covid-19, making her the Republic of Korea’s 31st confirmed case of the virus.

Most crucially, we know she was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and that she attended the church’s services on February 9th and 16th, the latter time despite the fact her fever had already began presenting itself. Finally, we know that this was a decision that would have catastrophic consequences.

As her designation implies, coronavirus had been present in Korea before “patient 31”. However, most sufferers had either travelled to Wuhan and been in direct contact with someone who had. It was in short, thanks to a world-class public health infrastructure, broadly contained.

Then “patient 31” brought it into contact with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. It spread first amongst “patient 31’s” congregation, then amongst Shincheonji members across Korea, and then to members of the general public they had contact with. As of March 20th, 5,000 coronavirus infections had been traced back to “patient 31” and the Shincheonji Church, more than half the total number reported in Korea.

There are particular factors which made Shincheonji an effective vector for spreading the virus. Its congregations are unusually large and during services they sit close together on the floor. It is also a secretive organisation that is often branded a cult in part because it teaches that the Bible is full of secret metaphors which only be interpreted by its founder, a self-proclaimed messiah named Lee Man-Hee. Due to its suspicion of outsiders, it initially obstructed the health authorities’ efforts to trace and isolate potentially infected people.

That said, virtually all religious worship involves bringing people from different households into close proximity. So, it is to my surprise that I see some Christians agitating to physically congregate despite the risk of creating many more “patient 31s”.

Leading us into temptation

An Ohio churchgoer recently earned herself worldwide internet notoriety by telling a TV reporter on the way out of a service, that she was not worried about catching or passing on the virus because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus”. This might seem lurid but of the 39 states in the US to have implemented ‘stay at home’ orders, 12 specifically exempt religious gatherings.

Nor is this a purely American phenomenon. In the Philippines, despite official disapproval from the Government and the Catholic Church: “Some…penitents flagellated themselves and prayed outside closed churches…to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday.”

Even here in the UK, where churches have almost uniformly conformed to, or even gone beyond, official advice to physically distance, there are still voices calling for a more relaxed approach. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, used a recent opinion piece for the Telegraph to argue that church closures were a mistake because in difficult times “we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith”. He emphasises the need for any gatherings to be social distanced – but nonetheless argues for churches to opened, and asks rhetorically, why this would be ‘any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?’

I submit these positions rest on a set of three misconceptions:

1. There is no religious immunity from this virus

Seeking exemptions from lockdowns for religious gatherings makes little sense, because, bluntly, viruses do not comprehend, much less respect, sacred spaces.

Any Christian tempted to imagine that what happened to the Shincheonji church was God enacting his wrath on a heretical cult – or at least a sign they did not enjoy his protection – and that, therefore, it could never happen to a more mainstream Christian church is ignoring one very basic fact: something remarkably similar has already happened to a mainstream church.  

In February, a group of about 2,500 worshipers from around the world gathered for an annual prayer meeting at an evangelical church in the French town of Mulhouse. A regional public health official likened what happened next to an “atomic bomb explosion”.

One of the worshipers, must have been carrying covid-19. Within days of it finishing, dozens of attendees began displaying flu like symptoms. And from there it kept spreading. For example, a nurse who had been to Mulhouse carried it into a hospital, where 250 patients and staff became infected.

This one prayer meeting has now been linked to thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths and disease clusters on three continents.

That faith is not an effective anti-viral should not surprise us. God offers an assurance of salvation, yes. But this is spiritual, not physical.

Believers have been wrestling with the implications of this fact since at least 1755. In that year, a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon on the morning of All Saints Day. The result was that when every church in the city collapsed or was destroyed by fires, they were packed with worshipers. So not only were the faithful not spared but they bore the brunt of the tragedy.

In fact, as two millennia of martyrs attest to: having faith not only does not reliably repel physical danger but can actually attract it!

I would, however, be remiss not to point out an important distinction between what happened in Mulhouse and in Daegu. As far as I can see, the French church did nothing wrong. At the time their gathering took place there was no guidance in place discouraging such events or advising physical distancing.

However, as we have seen, there remain Christians not only arguing for the right to continue holding services, but actually doing so. This apparently has already led to tragedy. Three members of an Arkansas church, including a 91 year old greeter who had served the church for decades, died after a childrens’ service went ahead despite the state’s advice to avoid gatherings.

Health officials in the Californian city of Sacremento linked 71 infections to a megachurch, where some members appear to have continued to meet informally after the shutdown. There is also the case of Bishop Gerald Glenn, who died of coronavirus last week after having vowed to continue holding services “unless I’m in jail or hospital”.

2. Closing churches does not mean the Church is out of action

Part of what make these deaths so tragic is that they are unnecessary. Gathering for worship is of course a hugely important part of Christian life. However, it is hardly of overriding importance.

In an article for Christianity Today on celebrating Easter at a time when churches are closed, Rev. Tish Harrison Warren reflects that:

“the solid fact remains that Christians do not make Easter through our worship…Jesus rose from the dead, and even if it were never acknowledged en masse, it would remain the fixed point around which time itself turns.”

What goes for Easter, goes for any Sunday. If, for reasons beyond our control, we cannot attend church for a few weeks or months, we do not cease to be Christians. We have never held those with serious illnesses to this standard and I see no reason why, in the context of coronavirus, we should be holding the broad mass of churchgoers to it now.

This is even more the case given that our ability to gather together without physically being in the same space is greater than ever before. Services can be livestreamed; study groups can meet via video calls, and messaging apps can broadcast prayer requests far more widely than a preacher in a pulpit. Clearly these options are not open to everyone – and even the most tech literate are unlikely to find virtual church a perfect substitute for the experience of an in-person service – but as a stopgap measure they substantially mitigate the impact of closures for many.

Of course, churches do more than hold services: they are also vital pillars of the community. But here too there are grounds for optimism. Bishop Nazir-Ali’s accusation that the church has withdrawn its support in the nation’s time of need because its premises are closed to the public is wide of the mark. Not only have churches made replicating their Sunday services online the norm, they have continued to be a huge source of charitable and pastoral support: parish priests have become temporary hospital chaplains, church buildings have become mask factories and congregations have taken on a central role in providing mutual aid.

It is a truism that a church is not just a building, but the lockdown has proven it afresh.

3. Love our neighbours

There is, however, an even more basic principle at stake. As has been reiterated many times by now: maintaining physical distance is not only that it prevents you catching the virus, but that it prevents you passing it on to anyone else. The practice combines concern for yourself with concern for others. For example, had Patient 31 demonstrated it, then she would have shielded literally thousands of people from harm. It is a way to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, which is after all one of the two commands Jesus declared the greatest.

This is why I take issue with Bishop Nazir-Ali equating the risks of going to church with the risk of going to the supermarket or taking the Tube to argue for opening churches. Not only does it ignore the fact that, both those activities are currently so dangerous that TfL and supermarket staff are dropping dead; it also, fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

Not only does it ignore the fact that both these activities are currently so dangerous that people who work on the Tube and in supermarkets are dropping dead, it also fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

It is not something in which Christians should be aiming merely to match prevailing standards. We must instead seek to be exemplary physical distancers.

After all, Jesus spent much of his earthly mission curing disease; if we are cavalier about spreading it, we are directly contradicting the example he set for us.

Our faith demands that we never risk the lives of our neighbours for the sake of our worship. Following regulations designed to protect the health of the population is not the same as capitulating to an oppressive regime trying to supress our faith. Rather, it is modelling God’s love to those around us.

Correction

When I first published this post, it stated that the Greers Ferry Church is Arkansas had met in contravention of social distancing guidelines. In fact, the virus spread at a service prior to the state’s stay at home order being instituted. Apologises to everyone connected with that church.

Notes on sources

I have mostly acknowledged the writing I have drawn on via hyperlinks in the main text of this post. However, I wanted to acknowledge the particular debt I owe to Reuter’s reporting on the Daegu outbreak and ‘How a prayer meeting at a French megachurch may have led to scores of coronavirus deaths’ by James McAuley for the Washington Post.

My ranking of the 2020 Best Picture Nominees

9. Joker

Comic book films are often accused of being ‘dumb fun’. Joker avoids that risk by jettisoning the fun and cranking up the dumbness. The core problem with it was skewered years ago by The Lego Movie, which had its version of the Caped Crusader performing a heavy metal “Untitled Self Portrait”. This song begins with Batman very solemnly declaring “Yes, this is real music. Dark, brooding. Important, ground breaking” and its chorus line is just him yelling “DARKNESS!”

Joker takes this gormless equation of bleakness with profundity as its credo. Then pursues it with wearying determination. The result is a one note parade of suffering and sadism devoid of depth, wit or intelligence. That writer/director Todd Phillips clearly believes he’s preaching empathy for those suffering with mental illness, whilst perpetuating nearly every negative stereotype about them suggests a staggering lack of insight on his part.

Joker is ultimately as unpleasant, narcissistic and miserable as its protagonist. It should be a shoo-in for the Razzies not a contender for the Oscars.

8. Irishman

The key thing you need to know about the Irishman is that it’s 3hr 30 mins long. That’s almost an hour longer than any of the other nominees. That runtime is a monument to self-defeating self-indulgence on Martin Scorsese’s part.

The ambling storytelling it arises from undercuts any way this film might work. It is much too slow to possibly be meant to be an effective thriller. Yet if the idea is that it is instead a character drama, why does are the audience subjected to an encyclopaedic recounting of the interplay between the mob and the truckers union in 60s/70s America? This could be a study of the hollowing effect of violence on its perpetrators, but that thread is picked up so sporadically and haphazardly that it never pulled me along. But hey at least I now know who the accountant who oversaw the Teamster’s pension fund was, so that’s some repayment for the investment of 210 mins!

Before leaving this film, can we talk about the extensive use of digital de-ageing. What exactly is its point in a film like this? Would the Godfather trilogy have been improved if the the young Vito Corleone had been played by a digitally de-aged Marlon Brando rather than Robert De Niro? Did some section of the audience for the Two Popes find it impossible to imagine that both Jonathan Pryce and a younger actor who looks a bit like him were playing Pope Francis at different stages of his life? It doesn’t even work that well. It just about holds up when the actors are reasonably static, but they still move like guys in their seventies and in one fight scene it makes suspending disbelief completely impossible.

7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

If the key to making a good film was assaulting the audience with a relentless stream of 60s pop culture references then this would be a masterpiece. As it’s not, it is insufferable.

It’s also a mess. Less of a coherent film than a scrapbook of ‘things that make Quentin Tarantino feel nostalgic’ haphazardly bolted together. That said some of the individual segments are quite entertaining, so for me it just pips the Irishman.

6. Le Mans ’66 (AKA Ford v Ferrari)

At this point, we cross the line between good and bad films. Not good enough to merit a nomination mind you. However, I’ve already done a full blog post on why this is a competent and diverting but ultimately uninspired film, so I will avoid repeating myself.

5. Jojo Rabbit

Making a broad comedy about two young people (one German and one Jewish) struggling to survive the final and most violent spasms of the Third Reich is such an implausible endeavour that Jojo Rabbit arguably deserves a nomination just for pulling it off.

Farce is a counterintuitive medium through which to examine a period of history marked by such brutality. However, it provides a way to focus in on the madness which arises at the nexus of totalitarianism and total war.

That said blending comedy, tragedy, history, polemic and a coming of age story is not an easy feat. And whilst Taika Waititi mostly pulls it off, there are also a fair number of moments where Jojo Rabbit misfires, especially when its weirdness overwhelms it, hence why it is not higher up this list.

4. Marriage Story

This is probably the nominee I have the least to say about. It is an impeccable piece of filmmaking, so there are no flaws for me to lay into. However, it is also not as bracingly original as some of the other nominees. It absolutely deserves to be nominated but probably not to win.

3. 1917

It is obviously impossible to fully evoke on screen, what it must be like for soldiers to contend with the constant fear of death on the battlefield. However, in this film, Sam Mendes probably gets as close as one possibly can. In the process he creates perhaps the most intense two hours of film ever. Shooting the whole film as if in a single shot might sound like a gimmick – and in many films might be – but in 1917 it serves to drill us ever deeper into the awful situations the protagonists face.

I’d give a particular shout out to the production design, which not only always looks totally convincing but conveys the oscillating mix of filth, desolation and horror the soldiers of WWI had to contend with.

This seems to be the bookmaker’s favourite to win, which would be a choice I’d respect. You might then ask why I have not put it higher. Well, for all it overwhelmed me in the moment, its impact lingered with me less than the two films at the top of this list. But that is to praise them, not to depreciate 1917 which is a nigh on perfect film.

2. Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking is a bit of a mystery to me. I was utterly charmed by Ladybird two years ago and this reduced me to tears several times. However, I cannot explain why. I don’t really understand the craft she is deploying to so utterly draw me into films in genres that usually don’t resonate with me.

A particularly commendable element of Little Women is how lightly it wears its depth. The question is posed in the film itself of whether chronicling mere ‘domestic drama’ can be a worthy artistic endeavour. It also answers it, not only creating compelling relationships between characters, but also examines the role of women and the impact of war on children, whilst also offering a meta-commentary on the process of storytelling. But it doesn’t feel the need to weigh down its storytelling by telegraphing its importance or worthiness. It is content to just be those things.

1. Parasite

Parasite has the uncanny ability to succeed at what every other nominee is attempting:

  • There are moments of black humour funnier than anything in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
  • It satirises social inequalities with the kind of wit and nuance Joker so lacked.
  • It creates families you believe in as much as those in Marriage Story and Little Women.
  • There is a scene where characters have to sneak out of a house, which is as tense as soldiers crossing no-man’s land in 1917.
  • As you might have gathered from the points above it blends genres like Jojo, working as a black comedy, a thriller, a family drama and a social commentary.

It is one of those marvellous films which not only works at multiple levels but gets them all working in perfect harmony. It is also a masterpiece of execution: The rhythm of every scene is perfect, any of the central cast would have deserved acting nominations and the writing is a marvel of economy.

I urge you all to see it. Not least because I want as many people as possible I can discuss it with!

Could the Academy really not find 10 films that were better than Le Mans ’66?

I have not got to the cinema as much this year as I have in previous years. So, I have not seen most of the nominees or potential nominees for this years Oscars, so will be staying out of arguments about whether Joker’s nominations are ‘a joke, if Greta Gerwig was snubbed in the Best Director category or if the whole thing is just too pale, male and stale.

Nonetheless, I do want to gripe about one anomalous inclusion. Why on earth is Le Mans ‘66 (or if you are in the States Ford v Ferrari) in the running for Best Picture?

It is not that I think it’s a bad film. I actually rather liked it. Had I done a top ten films of 2019, it would have been one of them. However, that reflects the fact I have not seen many more than ten films. I am incredulous that the Academy, whose membership must between them have seen thousands of eligible films to pick it as one of its ten nominees for Best Picture.

The film tells the real-life story of how in a few months, the Ford motor company went from a standing start to having a racing team able to break Ferrari’s hegemony over the sport. And – to reiterate – it does this well. It has a strong cast headed by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who director James Mangold gets good performances out of. He also delivers some genuinely exciting race sequences, aided by solid work from the films VFX and sound teams, who fully earn their nominations in technical categories.

And yet, it is hard to see, how it is a special enough film to truly merit Best Picture nomination. A wrongheaded narrative has developed in some corners of the internet that its financial and critical success represents a blow against formulaic blockbusters. Granted, there are no superheroes in it and its not part of a franchise. However, that just means it is a blockbuster made with a somewhat out of fashion formula. It is a by-the-book sports movie, saturated with the clichés of that genre and reliant on its stock characters. It does not subvert, reassemble or play with those elements, the way Knives Out does with the components of a murder mystery. It is hardly original and honestly feels like it could have been made in 1989 rather than 2019.

It would be cheap of me to belabour this point by noting that Le Mans ‘66 has essentially the same story as Cool Runnings. Nonetheless, it does undeniably feature a team from the New World making an unexpected entrance into a high-profile race, where under the guidance of a former top-flight racer forced to stop competing prematurely, they achieve a moral victory, which earns them the respect of snooty European rivals who initially scorned them.

Granted, inventiveness is not necessarily essential quality in films that deserve to be nominated. I would argue Spotlight earned its win in 2016, not by upending the conventions of films about reporters, but by producing a superlative example of one.

However, Le Mans ’66 is not in that category either. For all the things it gets right, there are a number of reasons it falls well short of master crafts status:

  • Precisely because the story almost always does exactly what you expect it to, it is not as exciting as it could be. Which is a real drawback because being exciting is the real test of a racing film.
  • The one real twist it does deliver, is taken from the actual events of the 1966 race at Le Mans, so if you know that history yo will not have had even that solitary surprise.
  • The first half drags.
  • Chunks of it are quite corny and sentimental. For example, Bale’s character’s interactions with his son.
  • While the cast are good and well used, I’d defy anyone to say they are delivering anything approaching career-best performances
  • Its attempt to sell us on the idea there is something almost spiritual about racing are thin and come across as silly rather than profound.
  • Even if you buy that, then it creates a contradiction at the heart of the film. The Ford team is presented as a tool of the marketing department of a large and unappealing conglomerate, who sees them as a gimmick to sell cars. By contrast, Ferrari are shown as motoring purists, who treat racing as an art form. Therefore, if we accept the supposed philosophy of the film, shouldn’t we be rooting for Ferrari?
  • It foreshadows the tragic elements of its story in the more ebullient sections. However, it doesn’t really integrate them into an arc, which is satisfying even in terms of character development or tone. All that seems to connect the death of Ken Miles (Christian Bale) with his moral victory at Le Mans is the fact that they both involve driving fast. As a result, it comes across not as the emotional culmination of the film, but as a discordantly dark note tacked onto the end of what is mostly a quite breezy film.

These limitations are hardly inherent to the sports or racing genre. Compare Le Man ’66 with Ron Howards’ Rush. It not only has more visually and sonically spectacular racing scenes, but spreads them more evenly throughout the film, creating a better pace. It also counterpoises moments of triumph and tragedy, so that they build on each other, and create an emotionally compelling journey for the characters, leading up to a more poignant ending. Naturally, in its wisdom, the Academy not only did not nominate Rush for best picture, they did not nominate it for anything at all.

That is just one reason that the recognition Le Mans ’66 has received today feels strange. Are the Academy really telling us it deserved that nomination more than the deliciously devious Knives Out, the heart-breaking Farewell, or the genuinely profound Two Popes? What special qualities are they claiming elevate it above 14 of 15 films nominated in the best documentary, animated feature and foreign language categories which will not get to compete for Best Picture? By nominating a film, which includes a scene where a motor exec directly advocates pandering to baby boomers, is the Academy attempting to satirise its own hidebound conception of what films might be deemed Best Picture?

If the point of increasing the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 was to give recognition to a broader range of films, then Le Mans ’66’sinclusion seems like a clear admission of failure. It undoubtedly took a huge amount of talent to make and its qualities far outweigh its vices. However, it is hard to see a case that it was nominated because it was exceptional, rather than because it makes the median Academy voter feel comfortable.

Two Popes are better than one?

* I don’t think this is a film where spoilers matter, but in case you disagree full spoilers ahead *

Habemus Papam*2

According to the fictional version of Pope Benedict XVI who appears in the Two Popes: “there is an old saying – ‘God always corrects one pope with another’.” This idea of Benedict and his successor as thesis and antithesis animates The Two Popes. However, not in the way you might expect.

When then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) travels to Rome in 2012 to appeal directly to the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) for permission to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is surprised to discover the Supreme Pontiff is also considering stepping aside. Neither man is initially sympathetic to the other’s intentions and not only a battle of ideas, but a clash of temperaments ensues. The cerebral traditionalist Pope initially regards everything about the down-to-earth, reform-minded Cardinal as a challenge.

In many films, the two popes would function more as stand-ins for schools of thought than actual characters. However, The Two Popes prioritises, not only, understanding, its central characters as men, but also imagining how despite their differences, they could develop a friendship and reach a mutual understanding.

The film’s Benedict is initially in a sort of spiritual funk, sensing that he is not meant to be Pope anymore, but fearful about the direction the Church will take if he relinquishes his office. However, encountering Cardinal Bergoglio, and realising he can hear God speaking through someone he considers so heterodox, gives Benedict faith that there is a path forward for the Church without “God’s Rottweiler” at its helm.

At the same time, Benedict is able to challenge the Cardinal’s guilt over his ambiguous role during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. Using his relentlessly scholarly mind to deconstruct the illogicality of the future Pope Francis’ unwillingness to extend to himself the forgiveness, he preaches for others.

This very intense focus on just two characters, only works because both Hopkins and Pryce are superlative. Henceforth, I expect to have the same difficulty mentally disentangling the Pope Francis and Jonathan Pryce, that I do separating Mark Zuckerberg and Jesse Eisenberg.

While scriptwriter Anthony McCarten is clearly more sympathetic to Francis’ worldview than Benedict’s, the marriage of his writing and Hopkins’ performance creates a portrayal of Benedict which is no less empathetic than that of Francis.

And crucially given the subject matter and central characters, both the writing and acting of the Two Popes, finds a way of depicting personal faith which reflects that as inexpressible as it is, for Benedict and Francis there is no force more powerful.

Two notes

Before finishing this review, duty compels me to note two things. The first is my one substantive criticism of the film. I do wish relatively more had been made of Benedict’s pre-clerical past. At one point, he says to Cardinal Bergoglio: “we both know that part of what dictatorships do is take away this choice”. Despite this, and the fact that incidental characters twice refer to Benedict as a “Nazi”, his upbringing under the Third Reich, and whatever parallels it might have with Francis’ experiences under Argentina’s Juanta, go mostly unexplored.

Secondly I absolutely, most flag up how legitimately funny the Two Popes is, especially when it depicts the stand-offishly modest Bergoglio confounding the grandiose world of the Vatican. As that world is often personified by Benedict, that means large sections of the film function as an odd-couple comedy.

Understanding

However, this humour is always affectionate, as befits a generous film that promotes understanding rather than conflict. But that is not understanding as some intellectual exercise, rather it is as a lived experience involving other people, who are inevitably replete with nuances and frustrations.

It is also understanding with teeth. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism that: “People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”

Both Benedict and Francis are men of faith who believe in moral truth. That is what gives the fictional conversations across an ideological divide in the Two Popes such weight and urgency: they are between people who think that words can alter beliefs and that the right beliefs can change everything.

However, McCarten’s script avoids positing anything as simple as one man successfully proselytising the other. Rather, like two marbles travelling in opposite directions, which collide; after their encounter both his popes are put on an altered course, neither of which matches the trajectory either was on before.

That kind of change in one’s understanding might seem weaker than brute persuasion. However, as the Two Popes shows, under the right circumstances, it can be powerful enough to vault someone from the throne of St Peter.

Best podcast episodes of 2019 (Part 1 – Reply All)

As I was compiling this post, I realised I had a problem: I was going to have a top ten which was mostly episodes of Reply All.

It is tech podcast with a difference, focusing not on the technology itself, but on the stories of those who have found their lives impacted by the internet in surprising ways.

It is largely made by This American Life veterans and uses a similar storytelling style, but for my money hosts PJ Voght and Alex Goldman and the rest of the team behind it have an even greater knack for finding subjects that are both revealing and have a very human core.

So here are my top 5 Reply All episodes of 2019:

5) Dark Pattern [June 27th]

Christopher Hitchens told a story about going to Prague whilst it was still under communist rule “determined to be the first visiting writer not to make use of the name Franz Kafka.” Only to be arrested and have his captors tell him he had no reason to know why he had been detained!

The lengths companies go to in order to prevent Americans exercising their legal right to file their taxes online for free make clichés about ‘Kafkaesque’ situations similarly hard to avoid.

4) 30-50 Feral Hogs [October 10th]

In August 2019, a little known twitter user responded to a tweet about banning assault rifles by asking rhetorically: “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” Unsurprisingly, this decision made him a global laughingstock. It also prompts PJ Voght to ask why wild pigs became such a problem that someone would sincerely believe they need to military weaponry to deal with them. A strange (and very American) tale follows.

3) The Great Momo Panic [March 14th]:                              

It is easy to deride the parents and teachers who fell for a hoax story about a “demonic chicken lady” encouraging children to commit suicide. However, this episode makes a persuasive case that part of why this fake story caught on is that virtually all of its constituent elements (including messages about committing suicide being snuck into Youtube videos aimed at children) reflect things that have actually happened. Google comes out of this episode especially badly, having allowed Youtube to become a major presence in children’s lives, whilst taking little responsibility for what they see.

2) The Crime Machine (parts 1 and 2) [October 12th]       

The story of the NYPD’s embrace of data-driven police almost feels like a Greek Tragedy. At first, reformers used it to make policing not only more effective but fairer. However, over time what was once a useful tool, essentially hijacks the entire department, creating incentives for officers to conceal crimes and target ethnic minorities.

1) The Roman Mars Virus [11th April]                                   

An investigation into why a listener’s car stereo crashes when it plays 99% Invisible (and only 99% Invisible) turns into a loving homage to podcasting itself.

Best Podcast episodes of 2019 (part 2)

Having yesterday considered the best episodes of Reply All, today I’m moving on to the crème of the other podcasts out there:

5) Can My Stutter Be Cured? [Crowd Science]

A touching look at a group of patients struggling to overcome stammering.

4) The Fictional Presidencies of Hilary Clinton [Primetime]

Emily VanDerWerff uses popular TV shows to analyse America’s strange relationship with Hilary Clinton. Could the same women really inspire both Lesley Knope and Claire Underwood?

3) Mrs Sherlock Holmes [Criminal]

Criminal specialises in true crime stories that avoid straightforward mystery tales. Nonetheless, episode does raise the question why no one has made a TV series based on the life of Grace Humiston, a New York heiress born in 1869, who, despite her gender, became not only a crusading lawyer but also a famed criminal investigator?

2) Don’t Accentuate the Positive [Happiness Lab]

Anyone who finds the Onion headline “Perky Optimist Brings Joy Wherever She Leaves” as funny as I do, is sure to find validation in this episode. Yale psychologist, Dr Laurie Santos uses research and anecdotes to make the simple, but somehow still counterintuitive point, that only imaging success leaves us unprepared for failure and ultimately makes us more miserable.

1) The Missing Crypto Queen and the Dropout

I’m going to mess about with the format of this list in two ways for this one. Firstly, I am choosing two podcasts not one. I’m also choosing whole series rather than individual episodes. However, these two podcasts are both compelling and make a fascinating pairing.

They both centre on the women behind multi-billion dollar scams. Elizabeth Holmes won plaudits as “the new Steve Jobs” and persuaded some of the richest and most famous people in America to put their names and money behind a plan to revolutionise blood testing, which rested on devices that did not work and were probably physically incapable of ever doing what Holmes claimed they could. Ruja Ignatova sold an imaginary crypto currency to thousands of people around the world.

Ignatova was likely a con artist from the start and very possibly working in league with organised criminals throughout. Holmes appears to have been more a narcist, who genuinely convinced herself she could fake it until she made it. What unites them was their ability to harness the mythos and tropes of Silicon Valley to prevent their victims properly scrutinising the product they were selling.