American Hustle (2013) – dir. David O Russell

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Seventies fashion gets a lot of stick nowadays, as does the hair that went with it, but films with stories from the 70s are definitely in vogue at the moment (with Behind the Candelabra and Lovelace being two that come to mind). To the ensemble cast of actors that are up for a number of awards in American Hustle you could also add the clothes and even the music.

The Mob, Politicians and Corruption appear so often in the same sentence when discussing US society that it’s not a surprise that they come together here – with the FBI added for good measure.

Like all good stories of this type the surreal nature of the plot and unfolding of the story is made even more so by the fact that it is ‘based on a true story’. In 1978 the FBI hired/forced to cooperate a convicted con man in what became known as Abscam. This was an undercover ‘sting’ which set out to entrap, and succeeded in doing so, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey as well as an US Senator and a handful of other top politicians. Although the FBI was successful in both the film and in actuality this operation ended up being criticised for its tactics and the rules of the game, for them, were changed. Whether that was rightful indignation against entrapment or the politicians just trying to make things more secure for themselves in the future is another matter.

Camden was in the 1970s, and by all accounts remains to this day, one of the poorest inner city districts on the east coast. In real life Angelo Errichetti, the Democratic mayor from 1973-1981, was a bit of a populist and seemed to have a lot of support in his efforts to try to revive the district and bring down the high unemployment rate. The trouble starts when he considers that making gambling legal in Atlantic City (at that time the run down, once popular tourist resort on the coast) would lead to inward investment, regeneration of the area and employment opportunities.

Unfortunately for both the fictional and the real mayor in the US gambling means big money means the Mafia WILL have a share, the only question is ‘how much’. By bringing the gangsters into the affair he brings about his own downfall. When the FBI (when it’s not chasing Reds or getting involved in conspiracies to kill a president) smells the chance of a high-profile arrest of a top Mafioso they’re like a dog with a bone and won’t let go.

It’s interesting what goes around comes around.

This part of New Jersey was once a thriving commercial and industrial area when capitalism needed US workers. Through lack of investment and better opportunities elsewhere where labour was cheaper, in Latin America or Asia (a similar situation was developing at the same time in the UK) once so-called secure jobs just evaporated, almost overnight, leaving in its wake decline, deprivation and despair.

In such circumstances people will clutch at anything, even if the best that can be offered is working as a croupier in a casino – in Atlantic City that would mean working to put more money into the hands of the Mafia. So one set of gangsters is replaced by another, perhaps more honest, one.

Because of the FBI sting in the 70s the plan to develop the boardwalk in Camden didn’t come to fruition. Although a number of politicians were caught up in it (I won’t get into the discussion of whether they did what they did because they thought the best way to achieve what they had promised the voters rather than for personal gain – as far as I’m concerned all ‘democratically elected’ politicians are in it for something, whether it be financial gain or personal aggrandisement) none of the Mafia went down. I don’t know if it’s one of the true stories or whether it was put there for artistic effect but the mob boss threw a spanner in the works by showing a command of languages, even though he had been a cold-blooded assassin in the past. Fear of retribution also meant the Mafia were warned off. So the easy targets were caught but the real gangsters were allowed to go free due to incompetence.

For the people of Camden the debacle of the corruption case didn’t mean that national government looked on them favourably. They had gone through the disaster years of Nixon and Carter and they were about to face two terms of Reagan. If the national leaders didn’t come up with anything their future local ‘leaders’ didn’t turn out any better. Three out of the last 5 mayors of Camden have been convicted of corruption. Perhaps it’s something in the sea air?

I wonder how present day residents of Camden see the film? Even though in recent years the area has been developed there’s a stratification between the fortress like casinos and the ordinary people who live there, as was seen when Hurricane Sandy hit the resort last spring

The resort isn’t as sleazy as it was depicted in the 1980 film Atlantic City but it still doesn’t look any different from Blackpool with the sun – although I’m sure that during winter the Atlantic coast is a forbidding place. However, there are treats in store. February offers a Group Wedding Ceremony on the 14th (so get your booking in quick!). August provides the Grape Stomping Festival and there’s the Miss America Pageant in September. All year around you can ‘explore the world’s largest elephant’ or visit Bare Exposure with ‘over a 100 beautiful naked girls’ with a ‘buy one couch dance, get one free’ deal.

But Camden is still one of America’s poorest cities and suffers from all that accompanies such an economic situation. It has almost 5 times the violent crime rate of cities of a comparable size (giving it number one place in country) and two out every five residents live below the national poverty level. Rather than the situation getting better it seems that law changes in Philadelphia are starting to challenge Atlantic City’s monopoly on gambling so even that ‘boost’ to the local economy might be lost in the near future.

Such is the American Dream.

Ferry Los Cristianos, Tenerife to Santa Cruz de La Palma

Volcan de Tuberiente at Los Cristianos

Volcan de Tuberiente at Los Cristianos

Ferries are the most important communication links between the Canary Islands and although there are direct flights from the UK to the airport of Santa Cruz de La Palma they are all (to the best of my knowledge) for those on package holidays and not suitable for the independent traveller. There are inter-island flights but they are expensive if you are not a Canary resident – who get subsidised travel. Here is some practical information for those wishing to travel from Los Cristianos in the south of Tenerife and Santa Cruz on the island of La Palma. Tenerife Sur is the busiest airport in The Canaries and as both Ryanair and Easyjet fly there opportunities exist for cheap flights.

To get from the airport to the centre of Los Cristianos you don’t need to get a taxi as there are two buses that serve the route. The 111 and 343 both stop at the airport. The cost one way is €3.10 and takes about 20 minutes. It’s about a 10 minutes walk from the bus station in the centre of Los Cristianos to the port.

Two companies offer an option on this route. Naviera Armas run the slower boat whilst the Fred Olsen Express run the jet propelled fast ferry. This used to have a reputation as a whale killer – the lack of a propeller mean they have a low sonar signature. The normal boats that cover this route are the Volcán de Teide (Armas) and the Benchijigua Express (Olsen) and have a passenger capacity of 1,500 and 1,291 and top speeds of 26 and 38 knots respectively. With such foot passenger capacity you would have to be extremely unlucky to not get the boat on the day you might wish to travel.

However, although turning up and getting on board might not be a problem it’s well worth while booking in advance (both have that facility on their web sites) as the prices are cheaper if you book some days before departure. In the low season you can expect to pay up to €35 for Armas and €43 for Olsen. In both directions the two lines call in to San Sebastian de La Gomera. The scheduled time for the ‘slow’ boat 3 hours 45 minutes and the fast one is 2 hours 50 minutes. When I took the slow boat from Los Cristianos in January 2014 it left 15 minutes late and somehow lost another 30 minutes in what seemed, at least to me, favourable sea conditions.

The difference of an hour shouldn’t make much difference unless you might be catching a flight from either of the Tenerife airports. What might well be worth considering, though, is any desire you might have to spend time out of the interior of the boats. The Volcán de Teide has bar facilities, which are open in the summer, on the top deck which is a great place to soak up a bit more of the Canary sun and take a look at La Gomera as you pass along its eastern side.

The only place you can stand outside on the Olsen boat is at the stern as the speed of the boat will have you swimming the rest of the journey if you get caught in the wind. When I first went on the Olsen boat some 12 years ago another down side was the noise but these vessels and becoming more powerful and quieter all the time. Maybe not good news for whales but perhaps for the passengers.

As for facilities on board they’re much of a muchness. The normal bars, cafés, restaurants (not on the Olsen) and shops as well as some sort of place for young children to play. But if the weather is good it makes sense to just watch the world go by, soaking up the sun with a cold drink in hand.

As for departure times the Volcán de Teide leaves Los Cristianos at 18.30 Monday- Friday and 12.00 on Sunday. There’s no sailing on Saturdays. From Santa Cruz de La Palma it’s a crack of dawn touch as it leaves at 04.00 Tuesday-Saturday and 16.00 on Sunday. There’s no sailings on Mondays. As far as I can tell this is the timetable throughout the year.

The Benchijigua Express leaves Los Cristianos at 19.00 Monday-Friday and 11.30 on Sundays. There’s no departure on Saturdays. From Santa Cruz de La Palma it leaves at 05.30 Tuesday-Saturday and 15.00 on Sunday. There’s no option on Mondays.

These times mean that much of the journey will be in darkness for much of the year, only around June and July will there be a chance to get a good view of both La Gomera and La Palma as you sail past. That’s unfortunate as both these islands are impressive if you travel or walk their hills so seeing them from the sea is a bit of treat.

12 Years a Slave (2013) – dir. Steve McQueen

'Strange Fruit' - Lynching in Indiana, 1930

‘Strange Fruit’ – Lynching in Indiana, 1930

You wait years for a film to come along which addresses the issue of slavery in the United States and then you get two within a year of each other – and both being multi-nominated in the award season that sees the film industry worldwide slapping itself on the back. But these are very different films and perhaps in that way show that there is no real consensus on how to portray one of the issues that determined North American society, more or less from its inception. 12 Years a Slave is the latest offering and it shows there’s still a long way to go before the matter can be said to have been put to rest.

One of the problems of such emotive issues (the Holocaust and the Nazi plan of the ‘final solution’ which led to the murder of millions of Jews being another) is that to criticise a film which portrays slavery as not being very good is seen as tantamount to condoning the practice.

By the end of 12 Years a Slave we are not left with a clear message of the obscenity of slavery or any other exploitative and oppressive means by which a minority of the population use the majority for their own perverse pleasures. At the end of the film Solomon Northup returns to his family (this is not giving anything away as the very title suggests that his slavery was not for life, as was the fate of millions of others) not by an act of defiance, not by risking everything (including his life) to escape but by a legal ploy, by presenting a piece of paper which proves that he is a ‘free man’ – the fact of anyone having to have that piece of paper in the first place being another obscenity within American society at that time, in antebellum USA.

There are gaping holes in the story from the very beginning. Northup is depicted as a ‘fine fiddle player’ but seems to have become exceptionally wealthy from playing a musical instrument. Musicians can make a mint out of their music both in the past and now but surely he’s not in the same league as a Mozart or The Beatles? He is abducted after spending some time playing in a circus which doesn’t have the same resonance as playing in whatever was the Madison Square Garden of the early 19th century. When he doesn’t return home after this circus engagement, his family not having the slightest idea of what had happened to him, how is it they seem to be able to survive very well thank you when the principal bread-winner has disappeared? In a Dickens novel they would have been on the way to the workhouse before Northup would have been put up for auction.

His life pre-abduction is displayed as quite idyllic. He’s respected by wealthy and distinguished whites, he’s fated as a good customer in a white owned shop and generally shown as living in what can only be described as a multi-ethnic paradise. This is not the picture of the United States that seems to fit with what else was going on at the time.

Although slavery in the northern states was gradually being made illegal in 1841 (when the film starts) slaves would still have been common on the streets of New York as they accompanied their owners on trips north. We see an example of this when Northup goes shopping with his family. A southern slave is depicted as astounded that a black man could be free – but in this scene Northup is more interested in buying trinkets than the fact that chattel slavery is evident on the streets of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line.

(Jumping ahead here – during the final credits we are told that Northup became active in anti-slavery movements from 1853. It’s a tragedy that many people don’t see injustice in the world, even though it exists all around them, until it directly effects them personally. Incidences of police brutality, inefficiency and conspiracy or miscarriages of justice are just a few cases in point that are occurring all the time in the UK.)

It also doesn’t fit in with the open racism that existed in the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, only eight years after the period of his forced labour. The film Glory (1989) is a cinematic reference to the racism that existed in a war that, we are generally told, was to rid the country of the scourge of slavery – and it’s also worth remembering that these black only units even existed in the Second World War.

What is also missing from the state sponsored version of the history of that period in the mid 19th century was the real reason for the civil war in the first place. Firstly, the Confederates wanted to secede and that would have weakened the young US in economic struggle with the European capitalist powers – that ‘great liberator of the black race’, Abraham Lincoln, once stated that he would have accepted slavery if it would ensure the Union.

Secondly, and more importantly, slavery was a brake on capitalist development and exploitation. If we ignore any moral repugnance at the institution of slavery we have to accept that it is unbelievably inefficient. Although it was brutal it didn’t mean high levels of productivity and that was what American capitalism wanted, and needed, if it was to play a role on the world stage.

At the same time the film is full of stereotypes. We have the brutal slave owner who gets drunk and forces the slaves to get up in the middle of the night to dance for him, Northup providing the musical accompaniment. He’s also infatuated with one of the young slave girls and regularly rapes her. We have the put upon and ever suffering ‘southern belle’ who knows what her husband is doing but society wouldn’t thank her for leaving him and her petty acts of spite against the innocent slave girl only seems to stress her impotence and frustration.

We have the ignorant and vicious white overseer whose only claim to importance is his brutal control of the slaves and he hits out at any challenge to his ‘authority’ – yet another example of the economic inefficiency of slavery. Then we have a couple of liberals, probably to give ‘balance’. One a slave-owner who’s strapped for cash and the other a free thinking Canadian whose ideas, freely expressed, surely would have made his life impossible in the plantations of the time. He’s Northup’s ticket out. We even have a former slave woman who becomes mistress of her house and gets tea served to her by a slave girl on the terrace of the big house. Now I’m quite prepared to accept that all these stereotypes existed at the time, slavery being such that it was prone to anomalies, but do we need them all in one film?

But the trailer and the film’s poster try to mislead us. Although based on an autobiography this is known to only a few so images of him paddling along through the swamps on a makeshift raft imply an escape attempt as does the figure of him running in the poster. His quote immediately after his capture of not wanting to just to survive but to live is made so that we can see him on the point of breaking when he joins in the singing on the death of one of the older slaves, a religious chant that keeps the slaves in their place – they can suffer the indignities of their slavery if Christ (a black or a white one?) is waiting to greet them at the Pearly Gates standing beside Peter.

We see that he’s really been broken when he viciously whips the young girl who had infatuated the ‘Master’, preferring to beat rather than be beaten. To hurt the innocent on the orders of the guilty is what allows exploitative and oppressive societies to continue to exist and it’s this aspect of 12 Years a Slave I find most problematic.

There is no challenge to the institution of slavery anywhere in the 134 minutes. He looks back when the carriage comes to pick him up with a white friend from New York holding a piece of paper proving his status. That in itself is pushing things as by all accounts these plantation owners were a law unto themselves and we must remember that all this takes place only 8 years before the declaration of the Confederacy – about which we learn nothing at all from this film.

Steve McQueen (one of the few black directors making feature films that get wide distribution) has missed an opportunity if he wanted to really challenge the history of slavery. If he wanted to use a book as a starting place why not choose the brilliant novella The Kingdom of this World by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier – about the revolt of the Haitian slaves, their revenge against the whites and their lackeys and the establishment of the first Black Republic. Or he could have based his film on The Confessions of Nat Turner, about a slave revolt in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, written by William Styron. This was controversial at the time of its publication but at least the slaves got up off their knees in one of the 250 documented revolts (why so few?). Yes they were defeated and cruelly put down but defeats are there to teach us to make sure of success the next time.

Because failure to get up off your knees doesn’t mean that repression won’t be as vicious. Lynchings of black people (and a few of their white supporters) weren’t an aspect only of the period of slavery. Just look at what happened after the Civil War and the way that Reconstruction was attacked with the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Billy Holliday’s song Strange Fruit is about whites, men women and children, proudly posing for photographs at lynchings in the first part of the 20th century. And what of later killings of black people in the US, from George Jackson, who was murdered in the prison system on 21st August 1971 or the very recent shooting by a white racist vigilante of Trayvon Martin on 26th February 2012?

Or he could even have attempted something about the history of the Black Panthers where the black population were prepared, for the first time in any organised manner, to defend and protect their communities.

But that would end up asking more questions than it answered. If it’s right to rise up and fight against oppression under the system of slavery then surely it’s equally OK to do so against the system of wage slavery. But that would send a signal that perhaps so-called parliamentary democracy and recourse to the legal system is incapable of ridding the world of exploitation – and that wouldn’t do.

Django Unchained (2012) might have been a fanciful fantasy but at least it depicted a fight back and the exacting of revenge. However, in an age where Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is the preferred way forward anything further than Tarantino’s comic book representation would probably never get past the pitching stage.