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A princess of Hollywood, gone to the stars.

carrie-fisher-6

“You have owned my likeness, lo all these years, so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks.” 

I am not remotely embarrassed to I say I’m obsessed with Star Wars. I’m one of millions. But it doesn’t change the fact that seeing that universe expand in front of me from the day I was old enough to watch A New Hope (on VHS, I’m not that old) changed my life. I’ve watched that film over 100 times, and know every word and every character’s movements and expressions like it was my own. The quote above, of course, comes from Carrie Fisher to George Lucas, one of many quips she so beautifully and bitingly made in a career that was so much more than just those films, knowing so astutely that she’d have to rail against that oversimplified outline for the rest of her life. In this context, it’s not an exaggeration to say that when news of her heart-attack came through before Christmas I just thought “oh god, not her too”. There was way too much more to still come than 60 years would allow, even for someone that packed in as much as she did. I dearly hoped she’d pull through, ready with some withering self-deprecation about her not being dead yet, to witness the outpouring of support, and to solider on for another decade or two. But it wasn’t to be.

Really, it feels so desperately sad. I know public grief is a cheap commodity these days, traded in competitive chunks on a daily basis like a modern currency, but at 41 I don’t feel ready to let so many of these childhood touchstones drift into the mists just yet. Not Carrie, someone that stood out so much in those films, like she did in life, and instructed me about women in ways I didn’t even understand at the time. Even though she often resented the ties that bound her to those films (famously describing the role as ‘a lot of it was just running down corridors’) more tightly than she ever may have wanted, the late-blooming return to this fantasy universe and the rush of adolescent joy it brought me and so many others, makes it all the more sad she’s suddenly no longer here. [Spoiler alert] I’m not sure I could stomach that last scene in Rogue One right now. It just feels too sad to see that fresh face against this backlit scene of contemporary sorrow.

She was my first crush, probably before I even knew what one of those was. But she was also, flagrantly so much more than a sex symbol, and everything many women in cinema weren’t usually allowed to be at the time – feisty, witty, sexy, funny, articulate, intelligent and forceful – and not even Han Solo or Luke Skywalker stood a chance against her in those three films. Even as she was planned for execution, she fought back, showing vulnerability even as she cracked jokes at Grand Moff Tarkin’s expense. What a woman, in so many of the right ways, not some silver screen cypher employed as window dressing. I was hooked from then on, by this mystical figure clad in flowing white robes, who was pretty handy with a blaster and didn’t seem to care for gruff, charming space pirates (well, not at first). She transformed, during those six years from nervous ingénue princess to a star in her own right, famous – sadly, above so much else – for that bikini, rather than killing the mighty Jabba, as she should be. Perhaps one of her best put-downs came from this very weary topic, answering an angry father: “‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.””

She was fearless. The daughter of celebrity parents (Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, her mother now tragically joining her barely 24 hours later), born and raised into Hollywood royalty, she spent much of her life and career remorselessly skewering that privilege when others hid behind it, seeing no vanity or assuming no position from it, often making capital out of the litany of ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ drama that befell her. In fact, her truth about the underbelly of the industry, on others, but much of her own often painful and scarred experience, came to inform her post-Endor life. A voracious chronicler, her books were brilliant warts-and-all paens to growing up inside the movie bubble, with Postcards From The Edge very loosely autobiographical, and made into the brilliant film with Shirley Maclaine as the tortuous mother and Meryl Streep in the title role (for if Meryl plays you, you know you’re a true character of note). She even appeared – indirectly, until I only realised very recently – in the lyrics of one of my favourite albums of all time, as Paul Simon (her husband for eleven ill-fated months) talked about the “window in your heart” he found after she’d gone, immortalised in Graceland. Added poignancy when no more were needed.

She published memoirs that laid bare the high and low points of her life, taking them on tour as one-woman shows, and showing the openness and vulnerability that drew us to her from the start. Even forty years later, she managed to raise eyebrows when admitting to an affair with Harrison Ford in The Princess Diarist, which landed only a month or so before her untimely death. To the end, she never dimmed the switch. She also had roles and work that were often – sadly – overlooked. She provided the comic chops and humanity as Marie in When Harry Met Sally, worked in Shampoo, Hannah And Her Sisters, The Blues Brothers, Soapdish, and more as well as television, from 30 Rock, Family Guy, brilliantly as Rob Delaney’s acerbic mother in Catastrophe (for which she’d just finished a new series before the fateful flight home she caught from London), and spiky cameos aplenty in everything from Sex And The City to Big Bang Theory and Entourage. She never stopped working, applying uncredited script work to Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer and more, even if many foolishly thought there was nothing between Jedi and The Force Awakens. Her epitaph is so much more than A Galaxy Far, Far Away.

She was also fearless in her openness about mental illness. Suffering from bipolar disorder from a young age, she never shied away from what it led her to, or the complexities of being a sufferer. Being the daughter of Hollywood royalty would be hard enough to cope with, but fighting bipolar disease, it’s actually incredible to think she had a career at all, given the rates of suicide it induces. But addressed it she did, and head on: “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she spoke over two decades ago. In a still-incredible interview, she talked in understandable terms about how her battles manifested themselves. ” I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.” It’s for this reason alone, and her honesty, that she should perhaps be lauded more than anything for helping switch around the usual mental health narrative. She showed that that real, famous, great, successful people suffer from these conditions just as much as the rest of us, and the effect it can have on those people that feel alone and side-lined and unable to feel they can talk to anyone about it. Taboos are there to be broken, and Fisher did this with all the vim of Leia or Marie, realising that if it came from her, then another wall could be broken down.

But the part of me that aches the most is still that boy that watched entranced back in the early 80s, as this whirlwind in white, that grew up with that adoration and admiration unchanged, seeing that return in 2015, and feeling privileged to be living through both ages of the life of the person I knew as Princess Leia. From childhood crush to full-on adult infatuation, to middle-aged reverence, that person on and off-screen that never played by the rules, never kept quiet when it was expected, never felt she should fulfil the role of which she was expected. She suffered, wore that as a badge of honour, and never stopped seeing the positive side of her fractured existence. As my 40s trundles on, it feels like too many of those we held dear in our formative years are being taken away too early. Perhaps this is just what getting old is like, and this is the start of a long, uninterrupted march of those faces in front of us for the next few decades. But few will have the impact that the likes of Leia, Han and Luke had, and that emotional squeeze from the icons of your simpler, more brightly coloured childhood often hold onto you much more than those in our cluttered, complicated adult life ever could.

Sixty years old is way too soon, when so much felt still in front of her. The sadness is only compounded by the devastating death of her mother, Debbie, only a dayfew after her daughter. But for  a couple of lucky generations, we all saw that first clip and thought what Luke Skywalker did: “Who is she? She’s beautiful“. She was one of a kind, and the world is a far poorer place without her. May The Force be with you, Leia.

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What Brexit says about the choice the United States has…

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As a Brit with an interest in US politics that’s lasted pretty much my entire adult life, all I can say is that if Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that those promoting the politics of fear and division don’t care about you or I. Their ideological, selfish campaigning has nothing underneath it. The vote to Leave was a shock, but not unexpected. The Remain campaign simply thought they could scare voters into staying, while Leavers simply peddled negative, xenophobic, racist and outright made-up figures that played to that populist, “we don’t need anyone else to be Great Britain” rhetoric. It resonated with people that thought politics had failed them and saw solutions through demonizing others rather than the very people telling them to Leave. The very same people from the heart of the establishment who were claiming to be anything but. Sound familiar?

There are many things about Hilary Clinton that I have issue with, and while Bernie made inspiring and principled speeches and energised youth and disaffected voters, surely we all knew the reality was that the majority of his plans would have never been reality (Obama’s two terms fighting the House and his own party tells us that an overwhelmingly decent and principled man still struggles to push through even the most sensible policies). And we only have to look at the Labour party to see how a candidate that’s come to power on a wave of populism and left wing ideals has proven a less than competent and effective leader.

But Bernie has forced Hilary into adopting more of his language and policies. This can only be a good thing. Is she as inspiring? As emotive? As warm and engaging? No, she isn’t. And she’s up against a candidate that, however abhorrent, knows how to speak in a way that (unfortunately) connects with many people, playing to their fear and anger. She has to be positive, she has to be able to reach out to voters that want to be heard, that are being attacked by her opponent. That’s a potentially huge demographic. The more he alienates, the more voters are up for grabs for the democrats. Simply refuting his “policies” won’t work, because he makes them up as he goes along, which makes them hard to lay a punch on. And yet Hilary seems to be held up to a level of scrutiny that no man and certainly not a “personality” like Trump ever is.

But however depressing it is to see another dynasty crowned (between Bush and Clinton, that’s most of my life covered, more than half if Hilary gets in) and feel as if there’s such a narrow choice for leader, the alternative surely must galvanize democrats? So many here voted Conservative in 2015 thinking it was a safe bet for a coalition only for a majority to get in and set about further ruining the country, culminating in our decision to leave the EU. Many voted there as a protest, or because they bought lies on immigration, the economy, public services, and it’s going to affect the rest of our lives in the UK.

Trump would be the same. It would be an atom bomb in the US political landscape. Like Leavers, I’m not even sure he wants or expects to win. It’s just about his own ego and popularity. He’s willing to divide the country to feed his own myth and coffers. It’s a crazy situation, but Hilary hasn’t even made her convention speech and yet democrats are fighting each other: it’s just what he wants. I can’t see any reason not to vote against Trump, and to prevent him from being in office, Hilary is the only choice, surely? Anything else is just giving a vote to the devil….

The rich get richer, and the poor….

Obama announces debt deal

Well, when you’re a Tea Party-backed Republican and you’re crowing about your ‘victory‘ in the debt-ceiling deadlock, why should you care? After all, you stood in the landslide mid-terms on a ticket of no taxes and rolling back so-called ‘big government’, under a misguided sense of taking America back to Washington-era constitution, and after weeks of acrimonious argument and Capitol chicanery, you’ve succeeded in hijacking a process that’s hitherto been smooth and commonplace and turning it into a means to push America further to the right.

It’s astonishing that, for an administration that still holds a Senate majority, this government can be held hostage by a group of politicians that, for all the aghast cries from dissenting Democrats, didn’t even support such a painful bill because the cuts were not nearly tough enough, and the compromises too weak. The likes of Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, who would sooner give up their right to bear arms than bring in tax increases for the rich, have come off best in a game of brinkmanship that played with the global economy as if it was a roulette table. While many thought that a deal would eventually be done, simply because it had to, it’s incredible to think that a President whose election ideals reached out to the poor and disenfranchised so much has now been forced to support a deal that must’ve felt like sucking vinegar, against everything he and many of his party stood for.

So why did it come to this? The debt ceiling had to to be raised, as it had painlessly by countless Democrat and Republican Presidents before, but this time the Democrats, shorn of their House majority, had to face the fact that this time the vote would be made, by those on the far right, to symbolise the deep divisions on Capitol Hill. The GOP, so riven itself in conflict that on Friday its House leader, John Boehner, humiliatingly lost proposed vote simply to approve his own party’s plan, has managed to play a game of chicken, safe in the knowledge that however opposed to their plans President Obama was, he would most likely compromise in the national interest, something they would refuse at all costs. And what costs? While many doom mongers had forseen another 2008, the reality was that a US that couldn’t service its own payrolls could’ve sent the markets into turmoil, and yet Tea Party-backed Republicans and many more moderate in their party saw it as a viable alternative to many of their bete noires, especially that spectre of all spectres, tax rises for the rich.

It’s a distasteful, unpalatable truth that many of these super-rich politicos see it as their divine right to save the majority of the wealth for the majority of the rich. Bush’s tax cuts, an abomination when they were brought in 2001, are staggeringly still here, making those with the most proportionally better off year on year. It was this unthinkable that saw the Right push back against a series of proposed Democrat plans that would’ve seen them take a hit along with many schemes designed to help the poorest – social security, education, Medicare, Medicaid – in favour of swingeing cuts that simply left them untouched. To a British citizen like myself, even with a Conservative-lead government, this seems an almost unbelievable truth. That a country as apparently welcoming and diverse as the United States, self-appointed global leader and trumpeter of its ideals, can allow this abomination to persist, in fact to be furthered is shameful beyond description. But this, to many on the Right, is the American Dream. You are responsible only for yourself, you reap what you sow, your success is yours alone to enjoy, and no-one, NO ONE, is going to deprive you of it. Perfect, if you’re a millionaire, but if you’re below the poverty line? Well, you just need to work harder. It comes as no surprise that the majority of these Tea Party-backed are white, middle and upper-class (yes, there are token minorities, there always are), and their supporters even more so, while all the poor are often black, many minorities. Well, they’re just poor because they’re lazy, or they don’t work hard enough, or they’ve not made their own opportunities. It’s one of the staggering conditions of the United States: try to redistribute wealth, to help using taxes those less well off than you? You’re a socialist.

In a Europe where Obama would be, and is, welcomed with open arms for his lofty ideals and balanced views, many in his own country happily equate him with Stalin. And as the Right pushes further from the centre, these viewpoints, festering in the fetid cauldron of the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, gain more and more mainstream credence, and soon, they are talked of as the ‘centre’ ground in a country whose politics are becoming ever more polarised. So, we’re left with a bill, that’s passed with disgust by the majority of Democrats, and amazingly rejected even more so by the Tea Party for its weakness, that ‘saves’ the States, for now. And you almost have to take your hat off for the way the Right fought the battle. They’ve weakened the President, undermined the economy, and a Senate majority, won a bill that’s abhorrent to Democrats, and for them this is just the beginning. And why? Because they’d rather see people on the street over medical bills, bankrupted by mortgage repayments, homeless and jobless, because they see it as their divine right to retain all the wealth they have, at the expense of those who have none. That is, in their eyes, the American way, the American ‘dream’.

It’s a disgrace, and no amount of argument, however eloquently expressed, will convince me that the Tea Party is anything other than the politics of the mean. The selfishness of the wealthy over the powerlessness of the poor. Helping those less well off than you isn’t socialism, it’s humanity, and these last few weeks have shown, as if it wasn’t already flashing like a million watt bulb, that these people have none.

Closure at last, and a significant event, but the end is still a long way away

Bin Laden's reign at the head of Al-Qaeda is at an end.
Osama bin Laden

Waking up to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s capture, and ultimate death gave a sense of relief, but also a sense that this significant landmark is only a mark in the long path to defeat terrorism. We can only wonder and hope that there is some closure now for those that have lost loved ones, friends, colleagues and family in the atrocities before, on, and after September 11th 2001, but it won’t be the end of this story. Bin Laden was a figurehead, the head of an organisation that had, for the last 15 years, been at the hub of multilateral actions against the West, and, as is often overlooked, many Muslims around the world. Seeing the events and reaction unfold today brought a rush of the blood, but not excitement. While the man behind so many deaths is now gone, it gives me no pleasure to rejoice the death of another human being.

Scenes in America have been more colourful than in the UK. It’s understandable when their operation resulted in the killing – with, tellingly, no direct assistance or involvement from the Pakistan government – and their country was so horrifically affected. I can’t imagine how those friends and relatives of those lost in the Trade Centres must have felt over the last nine years as bin Landen evaded the clutches of the allied forces, and countless American soldiers and intelligence, prolonging the agony and seeing the man responsible taunting the West with videos, messages and more attacks. Dancing and cheering in the streets – from a mostly young and sometimes well-oiled crowds – didn’t sit too comfortably with me, as I can’t bring myself to celebrate a death, however repugnant the person may be. But the US has invested so much emotionally, financially and ideologically into finding and killing Al-Qaeda’s leader that the reaction was always going to be different on the other side of the pond. Watching some of the reactions today of the bereaved to the news, and how they conducted themselves with such dignity was very moving. For them, the victory, however hollow, must bring an end in part to a harrowing period.

For Britain, it’s also a landmark. We’ve been – justifiably or not – invested into this battle ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the United States since its beginning, and we’ve been directly affected by the spectre of Al-Qaeda, its operations and figurehead looming over the last decade. For teenagers and younger adults, they’ll struggle to remember a time before this was so. Having attended a funeral after 7/7 – something I hope I never have to go through again, let alone seeing the pain it caused to the family – it’s a relief to be at this point. But the reality is that little will change. In fact, we may see things escalate if revenge attacks are orchestrated. London will be a more tense place for a while. But we can only hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter, and that, with all the change that’s now afoot in the middle east, that Al-Qaeda’s lustre is reduced, and that their dominance ebbs in the coming years.

And predictably, even as the news surfaced, there were naysayers already debunking the news. However low governments and the military may stoop – whatever we may say, we left thousands dead in Afghanistan and Iraq – it’s hard to believe that this would be an untruth. It would be one that would dwarf the spin that so ashamedly took us to war in Iraq. The US and its allies have invested way too much time, money, resources and emotion in this claim otherwise, and there have been none of the usual denials from the terror groups that form the cabal involved. I’m a skeptic, but this is one thing that I am taking on face value. And cheeringly, Obama will have a grandstand moment to validate his presidency, giving him a boost that even grudging Republicans can’t deny him. The States are united for a short time, and great that is too.

We will be talking about this day for many years, and the main hope is that it can be a positive landmark, that we will look back at this as a turning point. But to think that cutting the head from one of the snakes in Medusa’s hair renders the rest of the beast incapacitated would be short-sighted. But at least for many, this will hopefully be some sort of closure, and draw a line under the terrible events in New York and London. It’s the least that the bereaved deserve.

Obama’s changing religious image….

I was depressed but not surprised to see news of a poll this morning that almost a fifth of Americans think Barack Obama, their President, is a secretly pracitisng muslim. More worrying still, in a country where the religion, especially of a president, is seen as a key belief, those that think he’s a Christian has fallen from 43 to 34%.

Driven in a large part by the right-wing conversatives, above all in the media (Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, take a bow) it would be almost amusing if it wasn’t alarming. Clinging to the tenet that his middle name – Hussein – and schooling in Indonesia must’ve contributed to this, and the concious feeling that, unlike his very publicly god-fearing (and communicating, if you beleive Dubya) predecessor, he’s not visibily religious enough, those that oppose him politically and ideologically are slowly eroding his image. Most worrying of all, some of those whose minds have changed are his own supporters.

With the mid-terms approaching, this is another worrying statistic in a long and difficult term for a president that deserves a lot better from his people and his country.

When celebration on 9/11 is not glorification

Islam is taking a hammering in the US press at the moment, most of all from the traditional right-wing (read: intolerant) suspects over its so-called increasing influence in America. Witness the reaction over the plans to build the ‘9/11 mosque’ (an Islamic centre to be run by an organisation that aims to build bridges between the Islamic and Western world, but why let the truth get in the way of a good polemic?) near Ground Zero in New York recently – and the battle is still ongoing – to see that Islam is under fire as much as any time since that terrible day in September 2001.

But even more worry is now placed on the Eid festival this year, which falls on or near September 11th. For Muslims this is a celebration of the end of Ramadan, a religious period of fasting that goes back to the very core of their beliefs, but there’s a real danger that certain parties in the United States will use any show of elation as Islam glorifying the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001.

With some of the reaction in the US over the decision to go ahead with the mosque two blocks from Ground Zero (a church’s “burn the Qu’ran day” and “Islam is EVIL” signs being some of the most shameful) coupled with growing Republican support, particularly from the far-right ‘Tea Party’ movement in the last year, September 11th 2010 is likely to be arguably the most tense anniversary of the terrible day since the event, but one can only hope that it can be treated with some perspective, and some understanding, a reminder that the US constitution is based on freedoms, including that of religion, and that all religions should be resepected, however unlikely that may be.

The worry is that those that seek to spread the message that Islam = Al Qaeda, and that all Muslims supported 9/11 – shocking untruths that still are too readily accepted by those that hear what they want to believe – will use this unfortunate clash to “prove” that the Islamic world and terrorists are one and the same. One can only hope that sense wins out, and this vocal minority (and it is, thankfully, whatever you feel of the US, still that) is put in its place. We are, after all, still claiming we live in a civilsed society where freedom still has value. And that, after all, should extend to everyone, not just those that we feel it should.

What’s goin’ on?

Marvin Gaye

Since Tuesday afternoon the world feels a fresher place, and while Barack Obama’s near-deification over the last eighteen months has at times taken on unrealistic proportions, his first days in office have been cause for great optimism: the closure of Guantanamo Bay (or its start), the dismantling of US intelligence’s ‘Black Sites’, the repealing of the 25-year gag order on US funding for organisations that are linked to abortions, and the freezing (and ultimate reversing) of many of Bush’s late-breaking laws.

And one song seems to be echoing round my head today – Marvin Gaye’s sublime What’s Goin’ On? The lyrics are as resonant today as they were when the song was released, but they now sit against the backdrop of a hope for a brighter future, and that is something that means I can wake up with a smile on my face each morning, however cold it is.