Monsters, Inc. & Fossil Fuels

Slowly catching up on unwatched Pixar films and I’ve finally got round to Monsters, Inc. What an ace film – funny monsters, incredibly cute children, a brilliant premise for a world (scaring kids to harness energy – who comes up with this stuff!? Genius!), an extended cast of ace characters (the giant slug receptionist – haha), lots of heartfelt moments and a great, final message (big spoiler coming): that kids actually produce more energy when they laugh rather than when they scream and cry. Who’d’ve known!? Naturally, this is an apt metaphor for the fossil fuel industry.

The monster economy is predicated on traumatising children. This, ultimately, is horrible – how tragic that for the monsters to thrive they must instil fear and suffering into the hearts of endless children. So too for our energy industry – fossil fuel extraction has always been dangerous and is increasingly so. For example, the extraction of oil in the Niger Delta has led to huge amounts of pollution, high levels of corruption within the Nigerian government and many human deaths – due both to poisoning and murder. Of course, we can’t just blame other countries and their governments for the problem. Companies like BP and Shell are notorious for colluding in and profiting from corruption. In Monsters, Inc. a typical fossil fuel company CEO is represented by the five-eyed humanoid crab Henry J. Waternoose III.

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The company has been in Henry’s family for three generations and the pressure’s on for him to keep it running. Unfortunately, scream energy supplies are dwindling and Montropolis is experiencing frequent black outs. At first Henry appears harassed, proud but well-meaning until we discover he is colluding with one of his employees to use extreme-extraction techniques on children. So too for energy companies like BP as they’re forced to use more dangerous modes of extraction to get at lessening fossil fuel supplies. The Deepwater Horizon oil spillage of 2010 is a potent reminder of how dangerous this is – a BP owned rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico killing 9 and causing untold levels of pollution. I was at a talk given by an ex-BP member of staff and they admitted that the reason it was a BP oil rig that exploded rather than one owned by another energy company was “bad luck” – yup, oil rigs are accidents waiting to happen because energy companies want energy fast to boost their profits now. They ride rough shod over health & safety and concerns for the environment and the results are tragic. Fortunately, Henry J. Waternoose III ends up in prison for his nefarious dealings (as should CEOs of dangerous energy companies, instead they get £14 million pay deals but at least the BP shareholders are making a fuss about Bob Dudley getting paid loads to trash the planet).

Meanwhile, James P. Sullivan is a big, blue, fury scarer. He’s the best scarer on the block having spent years terrifying children. However, when one kid gets into the monster world – an adorable little girl called Boo – James is forced to think twice. They become friends but there’s a moment when he accidentally scares her. Naturally, she cries. The moment is caught on camera and James has to come face to face with who he really is. He realises his whole life has been spent causing misery and harm, so he changes his mind and changes the company. He becomes the new boss of the company and sets it on a sustainable path – collecting laughs not screams. In rea life, the CEO Ray Anderson turned the textile company Interface around, from dirty to clean; John Browne once told us that BP would go Beyond Petroleum (although that all turned out to be spin and lies); and Charles Grant was a businessman who profited hugely from slavery but became a major advocate for its abolition. So, it’s possible, people can change and so can business.

So let Monsters, Inc. be a lesson to us, especially the heads of fossil fuel companies. Climate change is continuing unabated, the world is heating up and sinking. Weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable and extreme. And all the while societies are being picked apart at the seams and so much human misery is caused. We desperately need a few CEOs to step up and have some climate-based epiphanies. There are benign energy sources out there like that giant ball of molten fire in the sky for instance. If the monsters can do it, so can we, and here’s to a future of laughter, not screaming.

The Night Manager: A Slower James Bond

The Night Manager, it’s the new John Le Carré adaptation on BBC1, a typical story of intrigue, spying and nefarious businessmen screwing the rest of the world over. If you’ve ever seen a James Bond film then it’s like that (sorry, spoiler alert) – big baddy selling weapons, objectified women who get killed by baddies and some dull, semi-sociopath spy caught in the middle of it. Except this time M is played by Olivia Coleman and she’s got a northern accent and a baby on the way. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts you’ll be able to predict my complaints: it fails the Latif and Bechdel tests so far (I’m on episode 3 and still asking myself why I didn’t stop at 1), there’s plenty of sexualised, female nudity and zilch sexualised male nudity (not even some side penis to compensate for all the side boob we get) and the protagonist has no charisma, genuinely zero, he doesn’t even register on the personality scale. To summarise, this is a boring yet glamorous waste of time. If you really want your fill of slightly-more-intelligent-than-James-Bond spy thriller (but still disappointingly chauvinistic) watch The Constant Gardener.

So, need this blog go on? Well, one thing I do find quite interesting about this series is it’s depiction of rich people. And we’re not just talking millionaires we’re talking the billionaire businessmen who sell arms and pull strings in national governments to get away with it. Yup, it’s the elite of the elite, those at the top of the capitalist military industrial complex. And the one in The Night Manager is called Richard Roper and is played by Hugh Laurie. And, curiously, he’s not very scary. He tells crass jokes, he flops around his villa eating brioche, he quaffs champagne, he does the odd deal, he dances with his much younger girlfriend (who is often to be seen naked unlike Hugh Laurie of course). Meanwhile, his rich friends have drinking problems, are insecure about how they look, cheat on their wives with their French au pairs, have complexes about their masculinity (and penis size no doubt), and genuinely do what insecure, entitled men do. Meanwhile, the wives look on as they try to ignore their husbands dodgy dealings whilst packing off bratty Tamara and Tim to boarding school.

And these so-called elites, the 1%, are the ones we’re encouraged to aspire to be like!? The only difference between these people and any other group of malfunctioning humans (which is most groups) is that when they negotiate over a contract that contract tends to be about weapons that may well be used in a war. When I fall out with my friends it’s usually over a round and the repercussions might be a split pint or two. For the 1% it’s whether British arms will be used to trash the next Middle Eastern country. So The Night Manger, whilst being a well-worn cliché of exotic locales and exoticised women has done me the favour of putting me off my dream to become a billionaire. The rich come across as pretty boring and Hugh Laurie’s attempt at justifying his lifestyle is also quite boring. After having said how great it is to be able to eat brioche whenever he likes and go skiing a lot he then says: “Children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It’s crap. Becoming a man is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness, that’s freedom.” I mean, seriously, what a half-hearted attempt at justifying egoistic nihilism. The whole point of nihilism is that you don’t need to justify it, it’s just an excuse to be a complete wanker and not care about anyone else. Sure, Roper fits the bill but is a villa in Mallorca really the best he can do? Personally, I’d prefer some nice friends and not facilitating World War 3.

The X-Files Are Back…Yawn

Just when you thought the American government couldn’t conspire to hide the alien-based truth any longer it turns out you were wrong and there are still a load more extraterrestrial twists to be uncovered. And so, over a decade after it ended The X-Files has been rebooted for six new episodes. A friend of mine was so excited about this that they rewatched the old episodes (all 200 of them) last year in order to prepare themselves for the new season. I can safely say they completely wasted their time. Spoilers, but no aliens, ensue.

And that was one of the biggest problems – there weren’t any aliens. Ok, so there were multiple flying saucers and we even saw a little grey man get shot but it turns out all that stuff that went on in those previous 200 odd episodes was just a cover up: a well-orchestrated government conspiracy to hide the advancement of the military-industrial complex (that has been using super, fuel-efficient alien technology for over fifty years) behind a smokescreen of alien invasion. Yup, all that stuff about aliens invading earth was just a cover-up to let rich, businessmen get away with making loads of money (it even turns out that the aliens came to earth to try and help us solve our problems but the nasty government men just shot and experimented on them instead). Hence, my friend not needing to rewatch all the old series as they were basically all invalidated. “I couldn’t call,” explains Mulder, “because this is going to sound crazy.” But I don’t think crazy is the right word, I think perhaps boring or cliché. Admittedly, it was a valiant effort by series creator Chris Carter to try to summarise the entirety of globalised, militarised, consumer capitalism in a few pithy sentences involving alien conspiracies but this could also be seen as a desperate attempt to make an old series appear modern and relevant.

But it wasn’t modern and relevant because the new episode was just like the old ones. Mulder, being the guy, takes the lead and does all the actiony stuff whilst Scully stands around looking like a harried, female stereotype. “I’m just the messenger,” she says at one point, admitting to her own nature as a convenient plot device for yet another white, male’s hero’s quest, except this time he’s middle-aged and a bit wrinklier (although, mysteriously, Gillian Anderson has appeared to reverse-aged – now that’s a real conspiracy). Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully spend a lot of time looking almost-meaningfully at one another but they’ve been doing this for so long that they’re dead behind the eyes now. As for the other characters, basically just bland cardboard cut-outs that occasionally spouted some relevant exposition.

I also ended up watching a bit of a later episode about some lizard person that shoots blood out of its eyes and can morph into a human. It was as the token, hackneyed trans sex worker spoke her few lines that I realised this series really is stuck in the 90s (a white, cis, male 90s that is). If The X-Files wants to get with the 21st century it could do with killing off its leads and introducing an interesting array of new characters who don’t plod around making the same mistakes and revealing the same prejudices that they did for the last 200 episodes. Oh, and as my friend rightly asked, why does Scully not have a desk? She works just as hard as Mulder, probably for half the pay (indeed Anderson was frequently paid less than Duchovny for her acting abilities), yet he’s the one that gets to sit on a fancy swivel chair at a desk with enough room for two. I think she might want to go find her truth elsewhere.

How To Get Away With Murder (Spoilers)

I’ve just binge watched the first season of How To Get Away With Murder – a 2015 US TV series about a bunch of over-achieving law students who over-achieve a little too much when they murder their professor’s husband. Cue legal hijinks and shenanigans as their professor colludes with them to cover it up because she believes her husband was guilty of the murder of a sorority girl he was having an affair with (but can we be sure it was him!?). In many ways the series is very good: it passes the Bechdel and Latif tests with flying colours, it doesn’t pretend we live in a post-race and post-gender society where these things don’t need to be talked about, the core cast are conventionally attractive (if conventions are your bag) and Viola Davis as the kick ass Professor Annalise Keating is just scorching – she makes the series. However, I’m not so convinced it rates as a whodunnit – there was the odd twist or two but come the finale the surprise payoff just wasn’t big enough. So, following on from Professor Keating here are my three top tips on how to get away with murder, inspired by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.

1: Characters Not Caricatures: If you’re going to make your core characters a bunch of spoilt, bratty law students then we need to like at least one of them. Unfortunately, the leads, whilst brilliantly acted aren’t particularly easy to sympathise with. We’re given occasional glimpses into their back stories – cue compassionless and snobby family dinners, overbearing fathers and threatening mothers-in-law – but we needed more. Without context and background the characters just become ciphers for each episode’s mini-plot (usually court scenes involving helping random guilty people get away with murder) and the series’ overarching plot – who really killed the sorority girl? However, despite their lack of depth what did make for compelling viewing was watching the leads unravel after they all colluded in and covered up the murder of the husband. Turns out being heirs to fortunes and at a top university count for very little when it comes to coping with the consequences of murdering someone. Of course, whether or not they get away with it doesn’t really seem to matter given they’re all such prats.

2: Red Herrings: The jilted lover, the heir, the jealous sibling, the conveniently placed lunatic, the rival in love and even the identical twin all make for great distractions from the actual murderer. A Christie novel basically involves tying the reader up in a tangled mess of string made predominantly from red herrings until the final reveal when the detective untangles the mess and the audience cannot believe it was that obvious all along. Again, HTGAWM let the side down by not having enough red herrings. It didn’t take too many guesses to figure out who really might have killed the sorority girl meaning the finale was a bit of a damp squib. Ideally, if the actual murderer is implicated at any point they must then be made to appear above suspicion, for example, “watertight” evidence needs to appear that puts them somewhere else at the time of the crime. Also, given point 1, it helps if we’re vaguely interested in the character who ultimately turns out to be the murderer, i.e. they’re more than a convenient plot device.

3: Hiding Things In Plain Sight: “Where’s the best place to hide a pebble?” asked the legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to his stupid sidekick Arthur Hastings. The answer: “On a beach.” Likewise, the best place to hide a killer motive is amongst a whole load of other killer motives. It’s like a magician’s sleight of hand – we’re all looking at one hand whilst the rabbit or dove is hidden up the other sleeve, or something like that. Unfortunately, HTGAWM pretty much gave us all its possible motives on a platter without trying to hide the actual one. As with point 2 given that the who of the whodunnit wasn’t a huge surprise then the why of whydunnit, or indeed the how of howdunnit, needed to be more surprising.

Having said all the above HTGAWM made for compelling viewing – it was fast-paced, sufficiently twisty and full of great performances. And by the looks of the trailer for season 2 things are about to get even more twisted. Here’s to more back story, more red fish and even more killer surprises (but please don’t do what the promising series Revenge did after season 1 which was to become increasingly baffling and pointless). If the starter was medium let’s hope the second course is cooked rare.

Was Agatha Christie An Anarchist?

A toffish cad. A louche adventurer. A religious spinster. A pompous war general. A Harley Street doctor. A private investigator. A self-important judge. A teacher at a private girls’ school. A supercilious butler. A jittery maid. Yup, it’s the characters of And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s most successful murder mystery novel. Now, many of us will know Agatha Christie not only for her ingenious twists but also her racism, homophobia and sexism. She might have been ahead of her time in terms of plot devices but she certainly wasn’t when it came to values. However, it’s always the ones we least suspect and I think that behind all the casual bigotry lay an undercover anarchist. Here’s why (with big spoilers but I certainly won’t reveal whodunnit).

It starts with that cast of ten characters – between them they represent the British establishment: there’s inherited wealth, colonialism, imperialism, religion, the military, the justice system, private school, wilful/enforced servitude, the class divide and the law (perhaps there should be an MP there too but inherited wealth and private school pretty much cover that one). They are also predominantly male and all are white. So they’re everyone wrong with elitism and all are incredibly nasty people – not least in personality but also because each one of them is guilty of murder. Yup, as if being bigoted snobs weren’t enough they’re also killers and many of them show no remorse for it – turns out there’s such a thing as daylight murder as well as daylight robbery.

So this just basically sounds like yet another homage to posh, British people a la Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and any Tom Stoppard/Noel Coward play. But because it’s Christie and because she really couldn’t let ten terrible people get away with murder she does something your typical English-aristocracy-tribute doesn’t do – she kills them all. That’s right, one by one they get picked off, in increasingly brutal fashion, by an unknown killer on some sort of deranged vendetta. So that’s how Christie treats her posh people and for me nothing could scream undercover anarchist more loudly. Of course, anarchists don’t condone murder but they do condone a complete overhaul of the establishment and what better way to do that than metaphorically bump off all the usual, elitist suspects – the ones with the vested interests that keep society unfairly rigged in the favour of the 1%.

Convinced? Probably not. But post-colonial, feminist revisions are always fun, next time I’ll apply the queer gaze. Although before I do that I should probably lay my cards on the table and confess to being a huge Christie fan – whilst I can’t help but feel she had similar views to her characters (but perhaps not, Hercule Poirot was a refugee after all and made a habit out of standing over the dead bodies of rich Brits) she was the mistress of the red herring and surprise ending. The trick now is to take those plot devices and place them firmly in the 21st century, to ensure curtains for bigotry as well as all those nasty, murderous elites. Oh, and the BBC are showing this Christie classic at the moment, it even stars Poldark!

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When Brits go abroad they don’t come back…