With a new Edinburgh Fringe show coming up, and lots of fun and interesting Digital Footprint and other work stuff to share I wanted to reflect back on the last few months – hence this post, originally shared on my EDINA blog:
As we reach the end of the academic year, and I begin gearing up for the delightful chaos of the Edinburgh Fringe and my show, Is Your Online Reputation Hurting You?, I thought this would be a good time to look back on a busy recent few months of talks and projects (inspired partly by Lorna Campbell’s post along the same lines!).
This year the Managing Your Digital Footprint work has been continuing at a pace…
We began the year with funding from the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme for a new project, led by Prof. Sian Bayne: “A Live Pulse”: Yik Yak for Teaching, Learning and Research at Edinburgh. Sian, Louise Connelly (PI for the original Digital Footprint research), and I have been working with the School of Informatics and a small team of fantastic undergraduate student research associates to look at Yik Yak and anonymity online. Yik Yak closed down this spring which has made this even more interesting as a cutting edge research project. You can find out more on the project blog – including my recent post on addressing ethics of research in anonymous social media spaces; student RA Lilinaz’s excellent post giving her take on the project; and Sian’s fantastic keynote from#CALRG2017, giving an overview of the challenges and emerging findings from this work. Expect more presentations and publications to follow over the coming months.
Over the last year or so Louise Connelly and I have been busy developing a Digital Footprint MOOC building on our previous research, training and best practice work and share this with the world. We designed a three week MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that runs on a rolling basis on Coursera – a new session kicks off every month. The course launched this April and we were delighted to see it get some fantastic participant feedback and some fantastic press coverage (including a really positive experience of being interviewed by The Sun).
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The MOOC has been going well and building interest in the consultancy and training work around our Digital Footprint research. Last year I received ISG Innovation Fund support to pilot this service and the last few months have included great opportunities to share research-informed expertise and best practices through commissioned and invited presentations and sessions including those for Abertay University, University of Stirling/Peer Review Project Academic Publishing Routes to Success event, Edinburgh Napier University, Asthma UK’s Patient Involvement Fair, CILIPS Annual Conference, CIGS Web 2.0 & Metadata seminar, and ReCon 2017. You can find more details of all of these, and other presentations and workshops on the Presentations & Publications page.
In June an unexpected short notice invitation came my way to do a mini version of my Digital Footprint Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas show as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I’ve always attended EIFF films but also spent years reviewing films there so it was lovely to perform as part of the official programme, working with our brilliant CODI compare Susan Morrison and my fellow mini-CODI performer, mental health specialist Professor Steven Lawrie. We had a really engaged audience with loads of questions – an excellent way to try out ideas ahead of this August’s show.
Also in June, Louise and I were absolutely delighted to find out that our article (in Vol. 11, No. 1, October 2015) for ALISS Quarterly, the journal of the Association of Librarians and Information Professionals in the Social Sciences, had been awarded Best Article of the Year. Huge thanks to the lovely folks at ALISS – this was lovely recognition for our article, which can read in full in the ALISS Quarterly archive.
In July I attended the European Conference on Social Media (#ecsm17) in Vilnius, Lithuania. In addition to co-chairing the Education Mini Track with the lovely Stephania Manca (Italian National Research Council), I was also there to present Louise and my Digital Footprint paper, “Exploring Risk, Privacy and the Impact of Social Media Usage with Undergraduates“, and to present a case study of the EDINA Digital Footprint consultancy and training service for the Social Media in Practice Excellence Awards 2017. I am delighted to say that our service was awarded 2nd place in those awards!
You can read more about the awards – and my fab fellow finalists Adam and Lisa – in this EDINA news piece.
On my way back from Lithuania I had another exciting stop to make at the Palace of Westminster. The lovely folk at the Parliamentary Digital Service invited me to give a talk, “If I Googled you, what would I find? Managing your digital footprint” for their Cyber Security Week which is open to members, peers, and parliamentary staff. I’ll have a longer post on that presentation coming very soon here. For now I’d like to thank Salim and the PDS team for the invitation and an excellent experience.
The final big Digital Footprint project of the year is my forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe show, Is Your Online Reputation Hurting You? (book tickets here!). This year the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas has a new venue – the New Town Theatre – and two strands of events: afternoon shows; and “Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas by Candlelight”. It’s a fantastic programme across the Fringe and I’m delighted to be part of the latter strand with a thrilling but challengingly competitive Friday night slot during peak fringe! However, that evening slot also means we can address some edgier questions so I will be talking about how an online reputation can contribute to fun, scary, weird, interesting experiences, risks, and opportunities – and what you can do about it.
To promote the show I will be doing a live Q&A on YouTube on Saturday 5th August 2017, 10am. Please do add your questions via Twitter (#codi17digifoot) or via this anonymous survey and/or tune in on Saturday (the video below will be available on the day and after the event).
So, that’s been the Digital Footprint work this spring/summer… What else is there to share?
Well, throughout this year I’ve been working on a number of EDINA’s ISG Innovation Fund projects…
The Reference Rot in Theses: a HiberActive Pilot project has been looking at how to develop the fantastic prior work undertaken during the Andrew W. Mellon-funded Hiberlink project (a collaboration between EDINA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics), which investigated “reference rot” (where URLs cease to work) and “content drift” (where URLs work but the content changes over time) in scientific scholarly publishing.
For our follow up work the focus has shifted to web citations – websites, reports, etc. – something which has become a far more visible challenge for many web users since January. I’ve been managing this project, working with developer, design and user experience colleagues to develop a practical solution around the needs of PhD students, shaped by advice from Library and University Collections colleagues.
If you are familiar with the Memento standard, and/or follow Herbert von de Sompel and Martin Klein’s work you’ll be well aware of how widespread the challenge of web citations changing over time can be, and the seriousness of the implications. The Internet Archive might be preserving all the (non-R-rated) gifs from Geocities but without preserving government reports, ephemeral content, social media etc. we would be missing a great deal of the cultural record and, in terms of where our project comes in, crucial resources and artefacts in many modern scholarly works. If you are new the issue of web archiving I would recommend a browse of my notes from the IIPC Web Archiving Week 2017 and papers from the co-located RESAW 2017 conference.
A huge part of the HiberActive project has been working with five postgraduate student interns to undertake interviews and usability work with PhD students across the University. My personal and huge thanks to Clarissa, Juliet, Irene, Luke and Shiva!
You can see the results of this work at our demo site, http://hiberactive.edina.ac.uk/, and we would love your feedback on what we’ve done. You’ll find an introductory page on the project as well as three tools for archiving websites and obtaining the appropriate information to cite – hence adopting the name one our interviewees suggested, Site2Cite. We are particularly excited to have a tool which enables you to upload a Word or PDF document, have all URLs detected, and which then returns a list of URLs and the archived citable versions (as a csv file).
Now that the project is complete, we are looking at what the next steps may be so if you’d find these tools useful for your own publications or teaching materials, we’d love to hear from you. I’ll also be presenting this work at Repository Fringe 2017 later this week so, if you are there, I’ll see you in the 10×10 session on Thursday!
To bring the HiberActive to life our students suggested something fun and my colleague Jackie created a fun and informative gif featuring Library Cat, Edinburgh’s world famous sociable on-campus feline. Library Cat has also popped up in another EDINA ISG Innovation-Funded project, Pixel This, which my colleagues James Reid and Tom Armitage have been working on. This project has been exploring how Pixel Sticks could be used around the University. To try them out properly I joined the team for fun photography night in George Square with Pixel Stick loaded with images of notable University of Edinburgh figures. One of my photos from that night, featuring the ghostly image of the much missed Library Cat (1.0) went a wee bit viral over on Facebook:
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James Reid and I have also been experimenting with Tango-capable phone handsets in the (admittedly daftly named) Strictly Come Tango project. Tango creates impressive 3D scans of rooms and objects and we have been keen to find out what one might do with that data, how it could be used in buildings and georeferenced spaces. This was a small exploratory project but you can see a wee video on what we’ve been up to here.
In addition to these projects I’ve also been busy with continuing involvement in the Edinburgh Cityscope project, which I sit on the steering group for. Cityscope provided one of our busiest events for this spring’s excellent Data Fest – read more about EDINA’s participation in this new exciting event around big data, data analytics and data driven innovation, here.
I have also been working on two rather awesome Edinburgh-centric projects. Curious Edinburgh officially launched for Android, and released an updated iOS app, for this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. The app includes History of Science; Medicine; Geosciences; Physics; and a brand new Biotechnology tours that led you explore Edinburgh’s fantastic scientific legacy. The current PTAS-funded project is led by Dr Niki Vermeulen (Science, Technology & Innovation Studies), with tours written by Dr Bill Jenkins, and will see the app used in teaching around 600 undergraduate students this autumn. If you are curious about the app (pun entirely intended!), visiting Edinburgh – or just want to take a long distance virtual tour – do download the app, rate and review it, and let us know what you think!
The other Edinburgh project which has been progressing at a pace this year is LitLong: Word on the Street, an AHRC-funded project which builds on the prior LitLong project to develop new ways to engage with Edinburgh’s rich literary heritage. Edinburgh was the first city in the world to be awarded UNESCO City of Literature status (in 2008) and there are huge resources to draw upon. Prof. James Loxley (English Literature) is leading this project, which will be showcased in some fun and interesting ways at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August. Keep an eye on litlong.org for updates or follow @litlong.
And finally… Regular readers here will be aware that I’m Convener for eLearning@ed (though my term is up and I’ll be passing the role onto a successor later this year – nominations welcomed!), a community of learning technologists and academic and support staff working with technologies in teaching and learning contexts. We held our big annual conference, eLearning@ed 2017: Playful Learning this June and I was invited to write about it on the ALTC Blog. You can explore a preview and click through to my full article below.
Phew! So, it has been a rather busy few months for me, which is why you may have seen slightly fewer blog posts and tweets from me of late…
In terms of the months ahead there are some exciting things brewing… But I’d also love to hear any ideas you may have for possible collaborations as my EDINA colleagues and I are always interested to work on new projects, develop joint proposals, and work in new innovative areas. Do get in touch!
And in the meantime, remember to book those tickets for my CODI 2017 show if you can make it along on 11th August!
To mark the launch of our new Digital Footprint MOOC I wanted to share some background and context to the course – hence this post, originally shared on my professional blog:
Last Monday we launched the new Digital Footprint MOOC, a free three week online course (running on Coursera) led by myself and Louise Connelly (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies). The course builds upon our work on the Managing Your Digital Footprints research project, campaign and also draws on some of the work I’ve been doing in piloting a Digital Footprint training and consultancy service at EDINA.
It has been a really interesting and demanding process working with the University of Edinburgh MOOCs team to create this course, particularly focusing in on the most essential parts of our Digital Footprints work. Our intention for this MOOC is to provide an introduction to the issues and equip participants with appropriate skills and understanding to manage their own digital tracks and traces. Most of all we wanted to provide a space for reflection and for participants to think deeply about what their digital footprint means to them and how they want to manage it in the future. We don’t have a prescriptive stance – Louise and I manage our own digital footprints quite differently but both of us see huge value in public online presence – but we do think that understanding and considering your online presence and the meaning of the traces you leave behind online is an essential modern life skill and want to contribute something to that wider understanding and debate.
Since MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – are courses which people tend to take in their own time for pleasure and interest but also as part of their CPD and personal development so that fit of format and digital footprint skills and reflection seemed like a good fit, along with some of the theory and emerging trends from our research work. We also think the course has potential to be used in supporting digital literacy programmes and activities, and those looking for skills for transitioning into and out of education, and in developing their careers. On that note we were delighted to see the All Aboard: Digital Skills in Higher Education‘s 2017 event programme running last week – their website, created to support digital skills in Ireland, is a great complementary resource to our course which we made a (small) contribution to during their development phase.
Over the last week it has been wonderful to see our participants engaging with the Digital Footprint course, sharing their reflections on the #DFMOOC hashtag, and really starting to think about what their digital footprint means for them. From the discussion so far the concept of the “Uncontainable Self” (Barbour & Marshall 2012) seems to have struck a particular chord for many of our participants, which is perhaps not surprising given the degree to which our digital tracks and traces can propagate through others posts, tags, listings, etc. whether or not we are sharing content ourselves.
When we were building the MOOC we were keen to reflect the fact that our own work sits in a context of, and benefits from, the work of many researchers and social media experts both in our own local context and the wider field. We were delighted to be able to include guest contributors including Karen Gregory (University of Edinburgh), Rachel Buchanan (University of Newcastle, Australia), Lilian Edwards (Strathclyde University), Ben Marder (University of Edinburgh), and David Brake (author of Sharing Our Lives Online).
The usefulness of making these connections across disciplines and across the wider debate on digital identity seems particularly pertinent given recent developments that emphasise how fast things are changing around us, and how our own agency in managing our digital footprints and digital identities is being challenged by policy, commercial and social factors. Those notable recent developments include…
On 28th March the US Government voted to remove restrictions on the sale of data by ISPs (Internet Service Providers), potentially allowing them to sell an incredibly rich picture of browsing, search, behavioural and intimate details without further consultation (you can read the full measure here). This came as the UK Government mooted the banning of encryption technologies – essential for private messaging, financial transactions, access management and authentication – claiming that terror threats justified such a wide ranging loss of privacy. Whilst that does not seem likely to come to fruition given the economic and practical implications of such a measure, we do already have the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 in place which requires web and communications companies to retain full records of activity for 12 months and allows police and security forces significant powers to access and collect personal communications data and records in bulk.
On 30th March, a group of influential privacy researchers, including danah boyd and Kate Crawford, published Ten simple rules for responsible big data research in PLoSOne. The article/manifesto is an accessible and well argued guide to the core issues in responsible big data research. In many ways it summarises the core issues highlight in the excellent (but much more academic and comprehensive) AoIR ethics guidance. The PLoSOne article is notably directed to academia as well as industry and government, since big data research is at least as much a part of commercial activity (particularly social media and data driven start ups, see e.g. Uber’s recent attention for profiling and manipulating drivers) as traditional academic research contexts. Whilst academic research does usually build ethical approval processes (albeit conducted with varying degrees of digital savvy) and peer review into research processes, industry is not typically structured in that way and often not held to the same standards particularly around privacy and boundary crossing (see, e.g. Michael Zimmers work on both academic and commercial use of Facebook data).
The Ten simple rules… are also particularly timely given the current discussion of Cambridge Analytica and it’s role in the 2016 US Election, and the UK’s EU Referendum. An article published in Das Magazin in December 2016, and a subsequent English language version published on Vice’s Motherboard have been widely circulated on social media over recent weeks. These articles suggest that the company’s large scale psychometrics analysis of social media data essentially handed victory to Trump and the Leave/Brexit campaigns, which naturally raises personal data and privacy concerns as well as influence, regulation and governance issues. There remains some skepticism about just how influential this work was… I tend to agree with Aleks Krotoski (social psychologist and host of BBC’s The Digital Human) who – speaking with Pat Kane at an Edinburgh Science Festival event last night on digital identity and authenticity – commented that she thought the Cambridge Analytica work was probably a mix of significant hyperbole but also some genuine impact.
These developments focus attention on access, use and reuse of personal data and personal tracks and traces, and that is something we we hope our MOOC participants will have opportunity to pause and reflect on as they think about what they leave behind online when they share, tag, delete, and particularly when they consider terms and conditions, privacy settings and how they curate what is available and to whom.
So, the Digital Footprint course is launched and open to anyone in the world to join for free (although Coursera will also prompt you with the – very optional – possibility of paying a small fee for a certificate), and we are just starting to get a sense of how our videos and content are being received. We’ll be sharing more highlights from the course, retweeting interesting comments, etc. throughout this run (which began on Monday 3rd April), but also future runs since this is an “on demand” MOOC which will run regularly every four weeks. If you do decide to take a look then I would love to hear your comments and feedback – join the conversation on #DFMOOC, or leave a comment here or email me.
And if you’d like to find out more about our digital footprint consultancy, or would be interested in working with the digital footprints research team on future work, do also get in touch. Although I’ve been working in this space for a while this whole area of privacy, identity and our social spaces seems to continue to grow in interest, relevance, and importance in our day to day (digital) lives.
Just before Christmas I was saddened to learn that my friend, Keith Hennessy Brown, had passed away at the horribly young age of 44. Many reading this will know Keith from his exceptional film writing including his many insightful and accessible film reviews (see Eye for Film, Rotten Tomatoes) and his academic film work, most notably his PhD thesis Deleuzean hybridity in the films of Leone and Argento (Brown, 2013).
I have very fond memories of working with Keith on insideout/IOfilm (now Eyeforfilm), covering the Edinburgh International Film Festival and picking through the programme’s coded summaries (and I do always think of Keith when cynically spying the phrase “hypnotically beautiful” in a film summary). Indeed, to see the quality of his writing I would invite you to compare several of the films we both reviewed – my own inexperience very much evident when compared to Keith’s deeper film knowledge and concise impatience with lackluster film making.
It had been several years since I’d last spoken to Keith, but he had been a friend for a long time, since I first moved to Edinburgh in 1999. One of my very first acts as a student was to join the Edinburgh University Film Society, where I found a wonderful group of what have proved to be lifelong friends, most of whom I knew through their love of films: lively advocacy for unlikely programme choices when it came to programming for the society; the sharing of much loved films (from mainstream to thoroughly obscure) through social movie nights; the annual scramble to write reviews for the Filmsoc Programme. And so when I think about Keith, it is inevitably the films he was passionate about, the curios and he would recommend, and those shared experiences of cinema, sharing and impassioned argument and analysis of film.
When I heard the news of Keith’s death – on a day I was due to meet friends at The Filmhouse, a space I strongly associate with planned and accidental meetings with Keith – the first thing I wanted to do was to watch something strange, and odd, and appropriate to his eccentric range of film taste. And so, it feels like the most appropriate tribute to him is to reflect on some of the strange films I had only seen at his suggestion whether through gifts of DVDs (Keith was generous in a quiet random way), or in cramped living rooms full of people open to the strange films he would appear with. I won’t pretend that all of those films were good, or to my taste – Keith spent several years immersed in Giallo, a movement where the misogyny and violence leaves me pretty cold, even when the outlandish plots and eye catching visuals have their appeal – but his selections were always so much more interesting than whatever was playing at the local multiplex.
Suspiria | Italy, 1977 | dir. Dario Argento | 98 mins
I had heard about Suspiria before I met Keith but the DVD of the film was one of his generous but random gifts – he would appear with a DVD or CD at random, and without any expectations of reciprocity. His recommendations were always tailored, although he would also champion his own favourites. Suspiria, being largely female and quite a queer movie, whilst also beautifully executed fit one of the odd overlaps of our film taste which is why it was the first film that came to mind on learning of his death (which also feels appropriately in poor taste).
Suspiria is the story of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student who arrives at a prestigious German ballet school where she witnesses a terrified student running away to a grim fate. It quickly becomes apparent that the ballet school is even more sinister as Suzy begins to explore the strange goings on.
As a film the plot is really secondary to the atmosphere of Suspiria: it is shot in alarming reds and greens with a spine-chilling score by Goblin, shot through with whispery voices. As Suzy is drugged with wine the audience also falls into a confused stupor, stumbling through the strange happenings in a haze of bewildering images and beautiful repetitive musical themes. It may have the plot similarities and strange out of step dubbing of other Giallo movies but it is rightly regarded as a horror classic, with visual, musical, and tonal influence felt in many other movies. The sense of fear and foreboding builds continuously and absorbingly to an appropriately terrifying ending.
Death Laid An Egg / La morte ha fatto l’uovo (aka Plucked aka A Curious Way to Love) | Italy, France, 1968 | dir. Giulio Questi | 86 mins
Keith’s outlandish DVD contribution for film nights were sometimes met with delight, sometimes with derision, and sometimes disquieted silence. Occasionally they were even met with a little snoring… Death Laid an Egg pretty much covered all of those bases…
The title is, I am sure you’ll agree, incredible and immediately raises many questions. The title sequence shows a chicken foetus gradually developing under a microscope… As is appropriate, but you almost certainly won’t have guessed, the plot focuses on extraordinary murder and perversion on a recently industrialised chicken plant. Yes, really. You know that you want to have seen this film, if only to say “I saw this amazing film about battery hens and sex and murder called Death Laid an Egg!”
I shall leave the summarising to user Count_Fistfulldollars on the IMDB (whilst you are there marvel at the classy 5/10 review that mainly focuses on the disappointment that Gina Lollobrigida (playing Anna) is not nude enough):
A love triangle develops between three people who run a high tech chicken farm. It involves Anna (who owns the farm), her husband Marco (who kills prostitutes in his spare time) and Gabriella (the very beautiful secretary).
Yes, the film is as bonkers as it sounds, although like many poorly dubbed Italian movies (which I have watched many of amongst Keith’s recommendations) Death Laid An Egg managed to be titillating and exploitative (witness the glamorous calendar shoot amongst the industrial plant and baby chicks!) whilst also yawn-inducing (dubbed discussion of animal husbandry!), horrifying (crunch, there goes a character into the machinery!) and yet deathly dull… But I am being unfair because Death Laid an Egg is an enjoyably weird example of the Giallo genre. And I suspect a deeper reading also says a great deal about Italian politics, and the importance of food and traditional farming in Italy. In any case, it will certainly convince you to go free range…
The thing about watching a genre piece like this is that part of the fun is seeing how all of the required components slot into place… Indeed, watching the clever self-reflexive, horrific Christmas special of Inside Number 9 a few weeks back, I couldn’t help but think how much Keith would have enjoyed the ridiculous attention to detail – from film stock, to props, to casting and child phobic plot – and it’s dark cynical conclusion and framing.
The Phantom of the Paradise | USA, 1974 | dir. Brian de Palma | 92 mins
The last film I remember watching with Keith was the excellent and relatively little known Phantom of the Paradise. Keith arranged a special screening to mark his 40th birthday and selected this crowd pleasing 1974 oddity from Brian de Palma. In many ways this was a quintessential “Keith Movie”: full of recognizable people, full of interesting ideas, mainstream in many ways, yet tongue in cheek, flecked with body horror and critiques of social norms and populism.
The Phantom of the Paradise sees Winslow Leach (William Finley), a gifted composer whose romantic ambitions far exceed his charisma or success, become embroiled with Swan (Paul Williams), a music industry tycoon… Leach is besotted with Pheonix (Jessica Harper) and sells his soul to Swan (who is also the devil) to ensure that she will sing his music.
This is an ambitious very funny, very dark satirical rock opera version of the Phantom of the Opera. Paul Williams is gloriously weird as Swan and de Palma has all kinds of fun with the variety of bands Swan manages, always desperate to tap into the latest fad that will sell well. Williams’ also contributes much of the score – a reminder that he had some strange awesome work under his belt long before Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Meanwhile Finley has huge fun with his tortured role as Leach, making a virtue of his unconventional physicality – using his tall gangly frame and his dramatic post-disfigurement costume to beautiful effect. Harper has much less to do but she is a perfect innocent foil for the corrupting music industry, channelling her best troubled Karen Carpenter impression for the singing scenes.
Like much of the best cult film treasure The Phantom of the Paradise seems so obviously like it should have been better known, maybe even as a much more mainstream hit (if Grease can be, this funnier cleverer film surely could?). Whilst some of the scenes have dated (mainly the romping Bedazzled-ish scenes of Williams’ hareem), The Phantom of the Paradise‘s core morality story of talent corrupted by the music industry remains just as relevant and very enjoyable. And indeed ripe for a remake… (Might I suggest Louis Walsh as a suitable modern counterpart for Swan?)
And so those are three films that capture some of what I will miss about Keith. Although I haven’t done him justice here as he had a throughly diverse taste in films – I am confident he would watch absolutely anything once. He recommended early cinema, obscure queer classics, and all manner of films to me, and a whole range of other titles to the many people who benefitted from his knowledge and generosity.
That diversity of film knowledge also meant Keith was infuriatingly good at film quizzes – usually knowing many more of the answers than the rest of us – but it wasn’t just film, he had an equally eclectic range of music taste (including some terrible nordic metal that I remembering joyfully head banging to many years ago). Sometimes his enthusiasm for sometimes very bad taste cinema and his impish critiquing and intentional ignoring of social norms could make him challenging company but Keith was always a very kind and gentle soul.
In recent years I know Keith contributed hugely to the Edinburgh Film Guild, and continued to provide friendship and wonderful weird film knowledge to a diverse and international group of friends (not to mention his much loved cat). Even those of us who had not seen him in a while will very much miss him and both his insights and provocations. I am particularly sad that Keith will not be around to write more as I was always sure he had several brilliant film books in his future.
Spectre | UK and USA, 2015 | dir. Sam Mendes | 148 mins
By now you will quite probably already have seen Spectre (which is fortunate as spoilers are ahead). If not, you will at the very least have caught the many splendored adverts for the film – for what is the point of Bond if not to be the world’s most pornographically produced product placements? – and that means you likely already know the main plot points…
We open with Bond in Mexico for a stunning opening sequence. He finds a lead for someone he’s been tracking, has a disagreement with M (an ever more weirdly coiffed Ralph Fiennes channeling Voldermort) and irritates a brand new C (Andrew Scott, miles off his usual Sherlock form), and spends the rest of the film undertaking off-duty chasing of the dark criminal masterminds of Spectre (the “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”), led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, all sinister in cashmere and Persian cat hair). Excitably staged chaos, naturally, ensues in a variety of improbably exotic locations… But you knew that would happen didn’t you?
Spectre is our first film in a post-Dench-as-M world and it suffers for it. When Bond was initially revived (after a brief but badly needed ‘90’s hiatus) Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for M. The franchise was resetting itself for a more feminist era, with women in senior roles in the workplace, men occasionally (and ever more so) presented as eye candy, and (gradually) a few post-Perestroika bad guys. Casting M as a woman nodded to Stella Rimington, the first female Director General of MI5 and – perhaps relatedly but certainly more interestingly – the first head of MI5 to embrace greater transparency and scrutiny for their work. Dench was also a wise choice as she also gave women a powerful stake in the franchise beyond the usual line ups of helpless half nude set dressing, lazy untrustable women archetypes, or the (very rare) ruthless lesbian bad guys.
A female M meant Bond had a boss with real bite – particularly after the Pierce Brosnan films (I always think of Brosnan as a transitional Bond, moving us from Retro Bond with his aged leisure jackets and hairpieces to the Modern (buff) tailored Bond era). M was not part of the boys club in any sense, and her air of disapproval was all the more potent and her threats all the more believable for that. Dench’s M had the balls to actually suspend Bond and (mostly) mean it… She was also unusually unseducable although flirted with, her presence lending tacit female approval for the character’s excessive hijinks: a morally ambivalent cross between a protective mother and Lady Macbeth (incidentally one of Dench’s most marvellous roles) forever threatening to cut her favourite son off and take away all his favourite (lethal) toys, even as she encourages his misrule and manipulates his destiny. And so a new order was signalled when Skyfall saw Dench bow out as M (however improbable that end was – the real Stella Rimington is now a non-executive director for M&S when not writing novels).
And it turns out that the new order, the Remixed Modern Bond, ushers in conservative male-dominated leadership, shaped by an incestuous political elite… Which does, I suppose, feel fairly contemporary in some important and disheartening ways. We therefore have Ralph Fiennes as M, styled as politely brutal old boys club – indeed, it feels like no coincidence that Fiennes has been cast given both his Harry Potter form and his best left forgotten role as John Steed in the abominable 1998 Avengers revival movie. In his loose-fitting double breasted tailored suits, Fiennes’ M recalls Retro Bond, with so little in the way of balls and complexity that Dench’s M is still calling the shots – sending Bond off on missions via recorded messages, “nothing would stop her doing her job, not even death” he quips.
I mention the suiting not as an afterthought: in Spectre the tailoring does at least half the work of the script. In the opening sequence we know Bond by his very tightly fitted (single breasted) tailoring and confident stride long before a mask is removed. Meanwhile C is clearly untrustworthy with his full some hair, his obsession with formality but not for ritual, and most damningly of all, his poorly cut off the peg suit. He is clearly a social climber with no sense of tradition, because as Bond would have you believe, rational decisions in power rely on the patriarchal authority that comes with the right suits, the sense of social propriety and, of course, the wisdom to be born into money and class at such a level that one may reject the advances of the most seductive of bad guys offering financial and power rewards. Fear not Britain, Spectre seems to be saying, the aristocracy have your back, no need to worry about those unscrupulous subverting forces…
I, like many, have a love/hate relationship to Bond and that means Spectre triggers a real mixture of disappointment (see above) but also moments of delight.
There are some wonderful things to enjoy here: the opening Day of the Dead sequence is genuinely exquisite, shot in a continuous and very cleverly fluid take. There is real grace and elegance to both the motion of the camera and the choreography of our key players. Bond may be more obviously objectified in Casino Royale’s beach scene, but here he prowls with a far more alluringly sexy Gene Kelly elegance.
The Day of the Dead sequence shows off Mendes’ strengths as a director, and his sense of theatre and visual spectacle. And then, just as you marvel at the cleverness, it all goes off-key as the set pieces and stunts drag the sense of pace, immersion and (oddly) the sense of danger down many notches. And that is disappointing but not surprising, for Bond must now out-stunt even the most ridiculous action movies with the result that these set pieces seem utterly implausible, particularly for any type of undercover operative. I all but gasped as Craig ever so casually stepped across a convincingly high roof (played so very differently from the Casino Royale Parkour scene), but I felt absolutely no sense of danger – or medical plausibility – when I saw him walk/dance his way out of exploded rubble. It was as if Cary Grant urbanely walked across that roof, alive with ambiguous tension, but suddenly as the explosion occurred, he was replaced with an unusually attractive Mario Brother, hopping through obstacles and sight gags. As he finds his feet at the end of the stunt it is suddenly hard to take that prowling as seriously again, because he may be about to elegantly dodge danger, or he may be about to temporarily halted by a spinning turtle. The tension and the reality of the moment broken.
However, there are other things that work well too. Ben Whishaw is not only settling in as Q (a character absent from the books and therefore always harder to write or perform), but Spectre sees him adventure beyond his tech cupboard and better prove his skills. That works well partly as Ben Whishaw is charm and nerd personified – and looks more ordinary and therefore a whole lot more like a spy than Craig. His locatoin scenes add crucial credibility to what was always a rather thinly written stunt and product explainer. The Q of Skyfall and Spectre is clearly skilled, working to a (slightly) more realistic budget, and has his own personality. Of course those currently watching Whishaw in London Spy will also be well aware that even with an enlarged role for Q, very little of Whishaw’s best acting skills are really being called upon here.
Whilst Whishaw has, unexpectedly, a more interesting role in Spectre sadly the same cannot be said for Andrew Scott. In Sherlock, Scott is so dazzling with his ambitious, absolutely callous, and very flirty performance as Moriarty that he seems like a wonderful casting choice for a low level bad guy. Yet in the Spectre script they have given him very little to work with, and seem to have done little to tailor the role to Scott’s strengths. But it isn’t just about the script… I suspect the direction for Scott may have run along the lines of “be corporate, be evil, but also be as straight and boring as possible”. It isn’t much to work with, especially in his cluster of short office scenes. There is an importance and fascinating dramatic tension that could be played out through focusing on the banality of evil but that requires far more skillful writing and a genuine sense of danger. And that is made all the harder as Scott is co/sub-bad guy with the effortlessly creepy Christophe Waltz (and his grim Jaws-like associate Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista))…
In Spectre we have a panoply of bad guys (and it is guys, although lone female crime baron merely has a cameo): Bond vs Mr Hinx in a series of Fast & Furious stunts with inappropriate moments of comedy (recalling the Pink Panther films or the Italian Job) seemingly written to sell super cars to a very particular macho niche of the audience. And if Spectre has a nod to the modern face of the chaos and brutality of terrorism Bautista’s Hinx and the opening sequence (with Alessandro Cremona as Marco Sciarra) are it… And of course these bad guys are relatively easily vanquished as fluffer action readying Bond for the real bad guy. From there we have parallel bad guys stories: it’s Bond vs Blofelt, each more viscerally violent and steeped in Retro Bond baggage than the other; and M vs C in a battle for bureaucratic supremacy that seems more true to the modern world of spying. It does work to have the attention spread a little more widely – and reflects the impact of shows like Spooks and Orphan Black on the aging Bond franchise – but it does turn the whole enterprise into an old(ish) boys club (with boss level hierarchy perfect for the game of the film, no accident I’m sure). Apart from Moneypenny, whose early bravery is quickly sidelined and undermined entirely (for what are women for, if not to accidentally compromise your mission?) as the men take on what the writers clearly deem the really important dangerous manly posturing power and action stuff.
Apparently Mendes was still editing right up until the week of release and that is entirely plausible. Based on that final edit, it seems he and his crew of writers (there are many credited, all men, all with at least one other sub-par Bond screen writing credit) seem to see writing, directing and editing women, and most especially sex scenes, a hideous chore. Which is odd, as they seem – true to all Bond – so keen to objectify those women in the first place, then instantly get bored and lose all interest. Perhaps this reflects their dual target markets of teen boys (wanting to look but with no idea what to do with a real woman) and overseas sales in even more gender unequal markets that prioritise public moral uprightness with rather stone age personal moral choices and sexual politics. Perhaps it gives away how much the film is shaped by middle aged men out of step with a world in which Tinder, Grindr and more fluid notions of sexuality make Bond looks thoroughly traditional in his bedroom habits. Or maybe this is all just where we are with a 12A rating at the moment: we can watch a man have his eyes gauged out in grotesque close up but a bared breast – let alone the full nudity of a mature woman or a scene of female pleasure – would corrupt the world.
In the last Bond outing, Skyfall, some of that disinterest in women played out more interestingly with the homoeroticism of bond’s perpetual trailing of men, particularly Javier Bardem, interested only in physically engaging with one another. Given the tightness of the suits, the particular preened variety of gym (rather than, say, military) buffness of Craig as Bond, and the casting of two wonderful openly gay actors (Scott, Whishaw) and the wonderfully camp Waltz in supporting roles it seems bizarre not to play with that. Every moment of Craig on screen is boy eye candy and what little chemistry there is comes from his scenes with other men… Even the tiniest scrap of script writing (and producer/studio) confidence a much more interesting and far more edgy homoerotic Bond movie could have emerged from this rather lacklustre reworking of familiar 007 tropes.
But that would require a sense of humour, and in Spectre all humour is utterly drained away with the more playful Craig moments of his earlier Bond appearances gone. All of that means we are left with some of the most bizarre sex scenes of any Bond film… Or rather a showy lack of sex scenes…
Bond’s first conquest seems to be the result only of a physical reaction to danger, for there surely isn’t any chemistry or interest between the pair, even though in Craig and Monica Bellucci we have two of the most attractive people to grace any screen. Bellucci, so publicised for being the oldest “Bond girl” to date is hardly featured, her role merely to hand Bond a ring. The sum total of their sex scene is a sub-50 Shades of Gray moment of stylish partial undressing, and a post coital shot that owes a debt to the lingerie stylings of the Benny Hill girls, because having cast an older woman they clearly cannot countenance actual nudity (how exactly might one enjoy such an encounter in such immaculately unruffled underwear? Or am I missing the point by assuming that Bond’s women might in any way enjoy their couplings?). As Bond leaves she is left with a promise that almost certainly means nothing… but we’ve already forgotten her, just like Bond, before we’ve even left the room…
Bond’s second, and central dalliance is a very young, very conventionally pretty, blonde, Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, improbably well attired at every moment, though also both objectified and always well covered) who is a full 21 years younger than Bellucci and might easily be playing Craig’s daughter. Craig is a full 17 years Seydoux’s senior – something not deemed notable in any publicity in notable contrast to his 4 year age difference to Bellucci, whose casting was publicly deemed brave and edgy. The relationship with Swann does at least attempt to develop a little depth with some sort of development of the relationship between them, albeit following the (as Pop Culture Happy Hour would say) “they fight, and then they fall in love” dynamic so beloved of movie producers, and so rarely the makings for anything but the most dysfunctional relationships in real life.
The problem with Bond is, and has long been, one of expectations and the impossibility of meeting all of the needs of the many Bond audiences. On the one hand they must be family films, and must be profitable exportable block busters. On the other hand they must be exciting action adventures, and also glamorous and sexy (problematic bed fellows at the best of times). And they must do all of that with a great theme tune (and oh, is Sam Smith’s effort for Spectre so very far from that) and the full buy-in from products and advertisers featured so prominently. There are so many components to a movie in the franchise that, whilst there is some evolution and change, they more or less make themselves…
And yet the fact that Mendes’ two films for the franchise have managed to reimagine Bond back into the dark ages (most horribly in Skyfall’s no consent exploitative sex worker seduction scene), speaks volumes about the power of Bond as a juggernaut that can stand even the most ill advised of missteps. It isn’t just the sexual politics or the product placement – though Omega has been astonishingly successful with the product demonstrations and conspicuous screen time (quite possibly longer than Bellucci’s and certainly move loving) in Spectre… There are the computer games levels that have clearly been designed into the scriptwriting, and the mission-setting sequences in Spectre that feel suspiciously like pre-packaged Cutscenes preceding effects that are far more grounded in the physics of console games, than reality. But should that be surprising? After all the Bond that brought the series back from the brink was Golden Eye – arguably a more popular game than film. But do I want to watch a console game for teen boys in the cinema? Not usually…
There are a few glimmers of hope though, and a few reminders that some adults were part of the film making process at some point… Spectre is about corporations at the heart of government and the weakness of modern cash strapped government in the face of wealthy global corporations and their leaders (a recurrent modern bond theme); terrorism funded by corporate, government and gangster backers; and most interestingly, about the problematic motivations and public justifications for state use of electronic surveillance. It came out in the weeks that the UK Government proposed to track literally every citizen and retain their data for a year as standard. And I’m writing this review in the aftermath of the Paris attacks with policy shifting swiftly and unwisely every day. Because by far the craziest thing about the Spectre plot is that, in many terrifying ways, it is too real.
If only the scriptwriters had done more than just cherry pick at these issues: the surveillance; the threat and then reality of a terrible helicopter crash in the middle of a city; the image of a plane wrecked on a picturesque mountain side… It’s as though they have watched the news and thought “what a great visual”, “what a great stunt challenge”, “ah, that would make a great idea as long as the guy didn’t die at the end” rather than feeling anything empathetic. But then, belatedly realising that films need some sort of human centre, they have loaded the script with artificial emotional moments about as convincing as Bond’s interest in women. Considering these stunts all depict devastating moments they are loaded with potential for real drama, peril, fear, and the kinds of jeopardy that makes an action film scary and engaging, rather than cartoonish. But Mendes and his writers seem to reject any notion of being absorbed beyond the Spectre-cal.
The writers are no better on technology, with stunt “smart blood” used to track bond when a GPS tracking device implant would actually be plausible and no less effective. Smart blood is clearly one Nature headline remixed in a writers brain with some sort of Wired infographic of how Lance Armstrong cheated through the Tour de France. M looks shocked that C has bugged Moneypenny’s phone even though Google has been recording everything you ever vocally searched for, Barbie may be listening to all your kids conversations, and the News of the World was way ahead of everyone on the hacking front. One can only daydream about the stories we could tell about the true terrors of the world through the populist lens of Bond if only they would hire (a) a scientist or computer scientist and (b) a woman as part of the writing team (since producer Barbara Broccoli seems to have little influence on the sexual politics of the franchise). Bond as written by Cory Doctorow and Margaret Atwood, as directed by Jamie Babbit? Now that would be a insightful, thrilling, sexy and fun Bond movie to enjoy!
But then, is Bond designed for women in their thirties? That commercial juggernaut isn’t about selling films to nice middle class British audiences… A film receiving a 12A certificate when it includes multiple reproducible lethal physical assaults, and yet shying away from any sexual scenes or nudity and toying with political corruption yet centering on white Italian and german protagonists of evil (and a morally ambiguous Swiss contingent), seems to clearly indicate that this is a film for foreign distribution to as many countries as possible (particularly those with high super car sales), and aimed squarely at teen boys, console game buyers and middle aged purchasers of luxury goods/high street products from luxury brands.
Did I enjoy Spectre? In parts. But I was also disappointed by the inverse relationship between the film’s cost and it’s quality. Maybe that’s the best that can be hoped for from a modern action genre film so massive and so shaped by industry and audience expectations… But if I were looking to extend the long term life and quality of the 007 brand I’d seriously consider how to make a great Bond film, that keeps just enough of the tradition but respects its female characters and audiences, and engages with more thoughtful writing, editing and direction. It would still do very well financially. And it would be so much more interesting and worth rewatching than the easy to export Bond that sees the lead as an avatar for teen boy game players and puts women back in their (powerless) place as doe eyed sex (and occasionally love) interests, untechnical secretaries and pitiable widows, all of them merely set dressing to progress an ever more incoherent plot.
Thought I would share this very lovely update from my Digital Footprints colleagues about #jisc50social – click through to “Nicola blogs…” at the end of the post to read my original post on my work blog.
Nicola Osborne (EDINA), lead collaborator on the Digital Footprint campaign (2014-2015), member of the research team and actively supporting students, researchers and staff at the University of Edinburgh, has just been listed in the Jisc 50 most influential HE professionals using social media.
Congratulations Nicola! It’s fantastic to have your expertise and involvement with the Digital Footprint service and research.
This post was first published on my work blog here.
What is it like to write a show for the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (#codi15)? Well, as I make the final preparations for my own show, Back to the Statistical Future (26th August, Stand in the Square, 3pm, just £8 per ticket!), I thought I would share some reflections on the process of developing a show for the Edinburgh Fringe that is based on academic and research areas, but is accessible to a wider audience. And also on the nerve-jangling experience that is selling real tickets to real punters – and using social and other media to help with that!
So, firstly a wee bit of background.
Back in 2013 Beltane Public Engagement Network – of whom I am a long term fan/member/participant/event junkie – decided to create a new show for the Fringe. It was to be a light hearted academic and research led strand of one-off events for smart audiences. And this “Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas“, was to be a co-production with the lovely experienced production company Fair Pley and the unstoppable ball of energy and obscure facts that is Susan Morrison (stand up, Bright Club compere and enthusiast, and Director of the Previously… History festival). You can hear the original pitch, filmed outside that first venue, here:
That first year was an experiment (read more about our EDINA show at CODI13 here) that led to an amazing CODI (as it became known to insiders/Twitter) run in 2014. Having rushed through prep for our first CODI show, we were keen to be better prepared and planned for our 2014 show, What Skeletons Are in Your Closet?. Looking across the EDINA activities we were keen to highlight and thought would be of interest to Fringe audiences we decided that the Statistical Accounts of Scotland were an ideal candidate. The show sold well, got some lovely comments and attention, and was great fun, and so for 2015 we are going Back to the Statistical Future, and here’s how we are doing it…
Where do you start?
The whole idea of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas is to actually have a “dangerous idea” – something challenging or provocative. Last year we – myself and my lovely co-host and Statistical Accounts of Scotland editorial board corresponding member Helen Aiton – focused a lot on the forgotten members of society, and the ways in which the Statistical Accounts capture and share their lives. This year we wanted to do something a wee bit different, but we also wanted to be able to build on the best bits of the 2014 show, things like the background to the accounts including, as Susan calls it “the world longest letter” – our enormous physical list of all the questions that had generated the Accounts in the first place (indeed we discovered 6 additional questions last year when researching the show!).
So there we were, in autumn 2014, trying to think about what might make for a good show… because planning for a Fringe show really has to start about a year ahead to make the various deadlines. At this point we knew the Scottish Referendum result but we also knew that there would be a general election before the Fringe and that the Fringe programme deadline would pass before we knew the impact of that. Now, why would that matter for a show about 18th or 19th Century Scotland? Well, for our ideas to be dangerous and engaging they also needed to be timely and that meant making some sort of connection to the current context.
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
One of the brilliant things about CODI is that the production team have set a lot of early deadlines to make sure those terrifying Fringe form deadlines start to look easily achievable! This year pitches for show were due in person by the end of November or by video in early December. That means you need to know roughly what you want to talk about and roughly how you plan to do that 9 to 10 months ahead of your show. It means much of the hard work is done long before you officially start writing.
So, in November Helen and I started thinking about ideas and decided to take a wee risk. We decided that such was the focus on austerity and cuts that, no matter what the election outcome, there would be a great social policy angle tying the historical picture in the Accounts to modern day Scotland.
But then we needed a name…
Thankfully all of the buzz around the upcoming anniversary of Back to the Future inspired us. The film had been interesting partly because 50s fashions and mid-80s tailoring actually has a lot in common, which meant that whilst social attitudes and pop music provided fun contrasts, a lot of what makes that film great is the familiar being re-experienced in an unfamiliar context. With what we had found in the Second Statistical Accounts on part time librarians, pressures to pay to school your children, gentrification, increasing scrutiny of those receiving poor relief and the help of the parish, we knew we had some parallels and a perfect simple title: Back to the Statistical Future!
The next stage was to get all of our expression of interest paperwork together for the CODI producers and, once our show was selected/accepted (yay!) we needed to ensure we had all our details for the Fringe programme. Because the Fringe deadlines are very early – the final deadline for totally finalized copy, images, URLs etc. for the programme and website hits as early in January – we also had to make sure we had everything finalized. That included the modest funding to cover registering our show in the guide, in key programmes, on posters in St Andrews Square, etc. The CODI producers, being fabulous, bundle this all together into a very affordable fee that doesn’t even pretend to cover all their serious hard work supporting the shows and working to get potential audiences, as well as University press offices and local and national press aware of the strand.
So, we had a show title and basic idea… And an official listing imminently going live… What next?
Never mind writing the show itself, the next priority is actually writing the stuff to promote the show: news items for websites, tweets, blog posts, emailing contacts or nudging the press. Because if there is an audience all booked in, we not only need to have the show written but there’s a good chance it will go well. If there is no audience the best written show in the world won’t be nearly as fun.
Tickets for CODI have been priced this year at £8. That is a marker of the confidence the CODI producers have in us lot – the writers and performers – but it is also something of a challenge. If I can go see Bridget Christie for only a few more pounds, or something at the book festival for a similar price, my expectations as an audience member are set high. But I’m also really invested in what I’m about to see or be part of. Psychologically paying for stuff makes us value it more than free stuff. There is a whole free fringe, and there are also quite a lot of free events led by academics and researchers, which are frequently excellent.
There are other reasons to charge £8. Our venue this year and last has been a yurt in St Andrews Square, part of the Stand in the Square, one of the offshoot venues from legendary comedy club The Stand. So there are promotion costs, the venue costs (hire of space, yurt, power etc), and the costs of having an (excellent) technician keeping our mics and music working as expected – and those apply to every show no matter how famous you are.
Thus, as August draws closer you find yourself logging in daily, checking ticket sales, panicking, and working out how to make your show better, how to let people know about it in a new way, how to tell all of your friends that really, they are better booking early. Every ticket sale is a victory as well as a reminder that your show really really better be good… And so…
Writing the show itself
So, as I post this it is mid August and our show, taking place on 26th is coming together but isn’t finished yet.
Back in November, when we were preparing our pitch Helen and I both scoured the Statistical Accounts for what we call our “snippits” file – highlights, quotes, interesting leads, stories and statistics that we think might make a show. Once we had that clearer idea of what to focus on we started looking for more, digging deeper into some of our key topics: libraries; schools; literacy; public housing; disability and poor relief.
There were also Boot Camps to help us along – CODI gatherings in which all participants are encouraged to come along and share advice and in-progress show ideas. Some of these are in the Stand, which comes with the bonus of letting you tread the hallowed 4 feet of plywood that is their tiny stage. And for the last of these, in June, we were expected to give our 3 minute presentation outlining not just the topic, but also the structure of our show. Which means you have to have one. And even if that structure is only finalized late the night before the bootcamp, it’s still awfully useful to have. Because with that title, description, structure and a slowly booking audience all in place you have at least a full skeleton of your show, and plenty of time to flesh it out properly.
With CODI now in it’s third year there are some golden rules about what makes a CODI show too. It isn’t a presentation; it’s about interacting with the audience and engaging them. It isn’t about being the cleverest person in the room but it is about sharing and enlightening the audience with what you know. You need to be prepared but you can also count on Susan, now the compere for all CODI shows, to manage anything really challenging for you. As a bonus she’ll also dress as a minion, or a penguin, or a hurricane, or, for our show, impersonate a judgmental 19th century Minister of the Church of Scotland.
So the final stage is writing that script down. Which doing Bright Club has taught me is always worth doing for a performance where timing and wording will matter (so this is not always the case for presentations elsewhere). And that structure will get rejigged, and new data may need gathering – for instance in the last week Helen has been gathering data on average pay in 1835, whilst I’ve been scrutinizing the finances of an Edinburgh workhouse. As Helen and I are in different geographical locations emails and google docs and Skype calls have been happening to check in. And finally, as I am currently doing, it will all get into a finalized script, then read through and changed and made funnier. Then we’ll need to think “is that clear enough” and “can I back that up”…
And then, on 26th August, we will go into a wonderful and hopefully full yurt, and anything could happen… we may forget half of the content, we probably will be taken in whole new directions by the audience, why not join us and find out?
Inside Out | USA, 2015 | dir. Pete Docter | 102 mins
Pixar’s latest film has a simple concept: it claims to take us inside the head of an 11 year old girl called Riley. There is a little more to it than that – this 11 year old girl is having a stressful year moving house for her father’s work.
I think it is uncontroversial to say that Pixar has pretty solid form: even their least successful films are pretty darned good and that’s not too surprising given their animators’ undoubted skills and attention to detail. As is now expected of an animated film Inside Out also benefits from a well chosen cast – most prominently Amy Poehler (as Joy) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust), and a thoughtful and emotive score (too emotive for my taste but well crafted by Michael Giacchino). But, despite many lovely parts, for me Inside Out just didn’t quite work.
The film isn’t without ambition, dealing with interesting ideas about what makes a person’s personality, emotions, core. In order to understand this one person we follow Riley’s inner emotional team – composed of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger – as they sail her through a tough preteen time whilst her parents move home from Minnesota to San Francisco.
There really is much to love here, from consistently funny jokes and background details, to the quite avant garde visual highlight of a journey through Abstract Thinking. It is kooky, silly, and yet the concept also raises so many questions. I agree entirely with Pop Culture Happy Hour’s comments that it seems bizarre that when we see into other characters’ heads – particularly adult characters – there are no other personality/emotional states present. Notably absent is lust (or something in that broad direction), which may be just about excusable in the 11 year old Riley but peculiar in her adult parents minds. And there are strange gender clichés too: Riley’s father is operated by male emotions led – and entirely embodied – by Anger, whilst her mother is operated by Female emotions led by Joy and Sadness. Riley’s own emotions are a mix of genders, which seems positive, and her interests helpfully are not cliched – ice hockey features but so does an imaginary boyfriend – but in naming, emotions, and interest there is almost a sense of Riley as pre-gender and pre-sexuality rather than genuinely diverse or more meaningfully defying convention.
Of course defying convention requires slightly more variety than most Pixar films are comfortable with: I may love Toy Story as a fun cute movie but I am growing tired at seeing the same narrative of lost innocence play out in (almost) all of their movies. For some of us childhood isn’t the best time of our lives, some of us adults actually really like being adults and have only minimal nostalgia for childhood. Although I have long suspected that Pixar makes films not for kids, or for child-free adults, but for the parents who wish their little monsters (inc) would stay tiny for ever. I understand the motivation for universal themes in films that take years to make, but I do wish they’d take an edgier, more realistic stance on what it means to be a kid.
But then that cheesy earnestness also has it’s charms. Inside out includes a wealth of jokes that gently mock West Coast hipsterism, such as Riley’s family responding to discovering that a pizza place named “Yeast of Eden” serves only broccoli pizza, to their shared disgust (a plausible moment of goofiness in a city that began the “Toast Craze” with Trouble, a restaurant that serves only toast, coffee, grapefruit juice and coconut water). The fact that Riley yearns for Minnesota whist in San Francisco – rather than the other way around – marks a genuine point of difference from most teen relocation movies that speaks to what kids might actually want, rather than what stage school kids want. It rings true, even if the picture of Minnesota life is a little too ridiculously cosy and retro to bear up to too much scrutiny.
Other aspects are less convincing: Riley’s father is supposed to be setting up a start up – or at least developing his start up – and is stressed with investor meetings despite a notable absence of working at home, or his working until 11pm. If you have friends in similar roles – or listen to Start Up – you may recognise this as, at best, an unusually functional work-life balance. The entirely family also seem to have moved into the kind of run down townhouse that you wouldn’t actually get for under a few million in downtown San Francisco anymore – a small niggle but it matters. And despite the current property prices in the Bay Area by far the most terrifying moment in the movie for most viewers who’ve ever spent time in San Francisco is likely to be the thought of an 11 year old walking to school, and worse still walking to the bus station, alone… Now we are meant to fear for Riley’s safety at the crucial run away moment but perhaps not to that extent. It’s not that that artistic license isn’t acceptable, but in such an already silly high concept movie, details really do make a big difference.
For me the trickiest element of the entire film is the audience it is intended for. Much of the funniest and most interesting material seems aimed at an older teen or adult audience, and it works well… But then we have Riley’s emotions visualised with muppet like fabric textures (presumably an intentional move since this is notably absent in the adult counterparts), and engaging in any amount of random slapstick. We have a few moments of genuine tension but also some distance from adult life/decisions which might be plausible in a 5 or 6 year old lead character, but seems unlikely for an 11 year old… And there seems like so much more that could be explored through this central Numbskulls/Herman’s Head like conceit, if only the Pixar team had the courage to be fine with excluding younger viewers. Because for me Riley seems like a very young 11 year old girl and whilst I’m pleased that they made their lead a girl I think that, in an attempt to make her work for any audience, what they have actually written is the emotional landscape of a sensitive 11 year old boy…
So an ambitious and beautifully animated film, and an interesting idea, but for me – and I’ll be honest I know I was a troublesome and precocious 11 year old so what do I know – it didn’t ring anywhere near true enough to suspend my disbelief. There were emotional moments, genuinely good jokes and some big ideas but by focusing on the rather simplistic emotions the team behind Inside Out have forgotten to make their human leads engaging or intelligent enough to really reflect the complexities of real emotions and personalities.
And, as an aside to Pixar, it would be nice to see not only more female characters with complexity in your films, but also a darker and much stronger script occasionally. Inside Out could have been brilliant given a much darker, more honest, critically engaged and more mature script – because there is a lot more going on in most 11 year old brains than Inside Out begins to get near. Animation does not mean that all audiences are or should be children (or have children), to assume that is the only audience is to give up on pushing boundaries. At the same time, if you are representing and reflecting kids lives or experiences where are you non white protagonists? Your single parent families and children with experience of divorce, bereavement or the care system? Your working class (in the UK sense) parents, struggling to survive, rather than stressing about what must (in the case of Inside Out) be multi million dollar enterprises or choices between affluent homes and choices. There are so many interesting stories to tell, why only focus on the nostalgic lament of childhood? My childhood had moments that were wonderful but was not the happiest time of my life – my thirties have that honour thus far but I have high expectations for the future too – so why assume that all children should fail to grow old or fail to develop in order to be happy? There are plenty of playful, intelligent, critical, and very happy adults out in the world, and many introspective, bullied, unhappy kids out there too. Don’t assume all in your audience share all of your desires to return to a more innocent time. Innocence is often seriously overrated.
So, that mini rant aside, would I see Inside Out again or recommend it to others? Yes, absolutely. It’s well crafted, sweet, but it is much less substantial and interesting than it should be. The Incredibles, oddly, feels much more grounded in reality compared to this ode to the delights of the Mid-West. Wall-E is more gut wrenching in it’s targeted exploration of dark themes. This is the Numbskulls mixed with Herman’s Head in a very light Judy Bloom (pre-Forever) honey coating. If you long for your childhood days, you’ll love it. If you were a tough little pre-teen I suspect you’ll be more than a little frustrated.
Footnote: And don’t even get me started on the advertising, endorsements and product tie ins that have emerged since the movie went into official release…