Sunday, 28 October 2012

Skyfall- rebirth, resurrection, and reboots. My review.

*****Warning: Spoilers throughout. This article is MADE of Spoilers******


Bond: Everybody needs a hobby.
Silva: So what's yours?
Bond: Resurrection.
Skyfall

James Bond, famously antipathetic towards bureaucrats, nearly succumbed to the entropy of MGM's financial troubles, and Skyfall was in the freezer for two years until it emerged from the shadow of bankruptcy. Quite how the studio behind cinema's second biggest golden goose could find itself collecting coupons from magazines is entirely beyond me. What I do know is that the Commander's latest expedition of self-loathing and violence is a spectacular success. It is that rare thing- a reinvention that is actually inventive; and a homage to its serial identity, that doesn't wallow in its own history like Miss Havisham sadly thumbing through her scrapbooks.

When Fleming wrote the Bond books, international travel was still impossibly glamorous and expensive. They were outlandish windows into overseas Narnias, when planes were still the luxury liners of the skies. Today, stag parties bounce back from Iceland in a weekend, and air travel is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Skyfall nods towards this franchise default with an immaculately framed middle act in Macau and the Chinese coast, and a opening dash across the rooftops of Istanbul that had me hoping he would run into Liam Neeson, pursuing his family's tormentors like a grizzled Celtic Nemesis. Presumably someone in the Turkish Tourist Board had a rocket up his ass a few years ago, because they brought in two tent poles for us to chew on as we consider our holidays for Summer 2013.

'Is that Tom Ford?'
Longevity in any field necessitates reinvention: see Madonna for details. Bond's unique depiction of gender politics, international d├ętente, and a thousand other media theses are time-capsules of their eras. Each Bond has to be a reboot; each film is a tribute to the vices and virtues of the release date. And, as things change, so too does the Commander. But as many philosophers have considered; if something changes, is it still the same thing it was before? In other words, does it have an identity?

I am not the person I was twenty years ago; every cell in me has been reconstituted from newer atoms, shepherded by the chemistry of ingestion, digestion and excretion. I look different. Am I the same man? Football teams display this turmoil; does a life long Arsenal fan support the same team now as his father forty years before him? Can you step in the same river twice? Can you do it even once? As in Zen Buddhism, so in the Tao of Bond. Who is he now?

The writers confront this directly in Skyfall; the scaffold theme is rebirth, both as a franchise, and as a character. We've seen this done before- as the USSR disintegrated, Bond films often directly asked this question: 'You're a relic of the Cold War, 007' etc. In Skyfall, it isn't merely an afterthought (with the Russians replaced by omni-ethnic terrorists or shadowy conglomerates); it's the central motif. Bond is slotted by a witless colleague at the start, and topples to his apparent death, although this turns out to be no more fatal than Holmes toppling from the Reichenbach Falls. Possibly such ends merely invigorate fictional superheroes.

Evoking Abrahamic motifs of baptism and rebirth and Greek allusions towards rivers and the afterlife, Bond emerges from the water, harrowed and scourged. In London he is missing, presumed dead; M writes his obituary for The Times and his flat in the King's Road is sold. Back in Greece, the resurrected Bond recuperates by reverting to his factory settings: promiscuous sex, drinking down to his soul, and tempting death. Simultaneously, one shouldn't wonder. This is as far from Roger Moore's Chelsea fop  as can be imagined. This is a Bond more savage, nihilistic and solipsistic than even Connery's muscular hit man and serial rake.Then: a bell rings that draws him back to the worn groove of meaning that motivated his previous incarnation: danger in England.

Bond 'getting better.'
M, too, is teetering on the abyss. Embarrassed by her department's security failures, she is surrounded by the forces of change, hungry for her chair. Her ministerial line manager (Ralph Fiennes) draws a picture of her resignation and retirement. In a manner unimaginable for the M of Goldfinger, she is summoned to an open committee grilling, in scenes reminiscent of the Leveson crucible. Frustrated by the red tape, she is chastened by the Minister who reminds her, 'This is a democracy; we are accountable to the people we are responsible for protecting.' This is not a message that finds much purchase in the high stakes, damn-your-eyes world of men like Bond, but it is an important one, and the tension is compelling.

The antagonist reinforces the theme of rebirth; an agent from a previous decade, and Bond's predecessor for M's favour, he embodies a different kind of reinvention; his plan is simply an enormous, exhaustive revenge against his former department mentor, whom he perceives as having abandoned him.

Abandoned: now that's an interesting lens to observe the Bond story. Orphaned at 11, Bond is an avatar of rootlessness. 'That's what happens to unmarried agents with no family,' says M to Bond, having just told him his flat has been sold posthumously. Later, she tells him, 'Orphans- they make the best agents,' and Bond can only say nothing by way of agreement. Part of the utility of this isolation is to play to the themes that make Bond so attractive as a character: irresponsibility, the perfectly free individual, unworried by the tethers and ballast of kin. He can shoot, couple and quaff with abandon, with no one to whom he has to defer or justify himself. Even his department nomenclature, '00' indicates the libertarian fantasy of exemption from the most basic of society's prohibitions- killing.

But flip the lens, and the privations of this existence are obvious: Aristotle said that any man who lived without society was either a God or a Monster, and Bond is a fascinating blend of both. Loneliness is the counterpoint to privacy; and carelessness results in having no one who cares for you in return. Intemperance of alcoholic appetite is the path to addiction; aggressive promiscuity fails to satisfy the itch that inspires it, and leads to loathing. Even M, apparently his closest colleague, sends him to his death with barely a heartbeat of hesitation; not once, but repeatedly.

In the third, careful act of Skyfall, Bond grabs M in an attempt to steal ground on Javier Bardem's perfectly pitched villain, takes her home to Scotland (a hastily appended addition by Fleming to Bond's pseudo history after Connery absorbed the role so completely in Dr No) but to his family home in Glencoe: Skyfall. That he does so in the original Aston Martin from Goldfinger is just another beat in the great plan driving the narrative: Bond is going back to his roots, to be reborn. Mendes provides one of cinema's greatest indulgent shivers of joy when the car is revealed, and John Barry's surf-rock fanfare raises the score from background mood music to palpable protagonist. Moe than just a nerd's nod, it's also the most appropriate vehicle Bond could have chosen; going back to where it started, in his most emblematic wheels, to be reborn.

The moment when M asks Bond 'Is this where you grew up?', and he barely answers her, sweeping his gaze across the foggy, heroic valley of Glencoe, is poignant. Bond could never have been born somewhere petty or common; he was forged somewhere as mythical and epic as himself. But even here, we haven't reached the heart of Bond's roots, and we are led back in time to nearly- nearly- the core of Bond: Skyfall Manor itself (surprisingly not an audacious macguffin of pseudo-Armageddon technology as the film's titles usually are, but the family pile).

A knacker's yard of a house/ castle, it hides, almost like a ghost, Kincade, the family gamekeeper, and seemingly the last link between Bond and his past. It's interesting: we can barely visualise him as a traumatised boy, and we can see the walking scar tissue he becomes in the films, but it is impossible to imagine Bond as anything other than his invincible adult incarnation, reminiscent of the way that the gospels skim almost entirely over the figure of Christ, fast forwarding from his birth to the adult ministry via a pitstop at the Temple. Kincade, we find out, taught Bond (described in the novels as the best shot in the branch) to use a shotgun. He also describes to M how Bond, when informed by Kincaid of his parents' death in an avalanche, hid in the Priest's Tunnel. 'And when he emerged again, he was a man.' Kincaid is the witness, if not the midwife, to Bond's first regeneration. It's appropriate- maybe essential- that he's present for the second.

So: we have a surrogate father in Kincaid (whom Bond now amazes, and therefore surpasses in marksmanship), and a surrogate mother (albeit a pragmatic one) in M. 'Mommy wass ferrry bad,' Bardem hams earlier in the film. 'You've got a soft spot for Bond, and it's clouding your judgement,' the former Minister for Magic, Fiennes, chides her. Clearly M stands for more than just Emma.

Fans of rebirth and resurrection metaphors aren't disappointed. Bond's home is driven to rubble by incendiaries, but tellingly he finishes the job himself with the tools from his past: gas cannisters and sticks of dynamite, channeling the A-Team, perhaps. Backed into a rathole, with no weapons, facing massively superior odds, Bond upgrades into the Nietzschean lion that resists all defeat. He blows up his past, retreating into the Priest's Hole once again to reincarnate. First fire, then ice: moments after he emerges, he- again, deliberately- throws himself back into water for a second time in the frozen loch, where he re-emerges in full third act unstoppability. What is left after the cremation and baptism is Bond, distilled to the purest form. Nothing weak or mean or petty remains.

And finally, in the chapel, the last pangs of the birth: M succumbs to blood loss and dies, evoking a rare tear from Bond. Is it significant that the father figure remains? Is Bond so closely aligned to masculinity that only the male warrior remains, the one who taught him to shoot? Perhaps. It's an interesting resolution in the end: Bardem attempts to kill M and simultaneously commit suicide with the same bullet, but Bond stops him with his father's knife. M dies anyway, and we obtain the same results as the one Bardem was seeking. Perhaps the only significant difference is that one scenario was done to the protagonists, and one was chosen by them. Both paths led to death in the chapel, but one is seen somehow as victory and one defeat. Moral ambiguity has always been Bond's world.

And in the end, where have we come? Full cycle, it seems. Fifty years of Bond marked by burning down the family home until nothing is left but the minimum: Bond, cold, cruel and therefore powerful as before, Monneypenny back in admin (so much for liberation, it seems, but then misogyny has always been in the DNA of a man who feeds on the warmth of others) and a man back in M's seat. Westminster has always been a boy's club, despite recent innovation; perhaps Bond's environment simply reflects this.

And finally a word about the year of Skyfall: a year in which a tired, recession-battered UK surprised itself by remembering that it can also celebrate and succeed. The old relationships- Ruler of Waves, Favourite Auntie of America- no longer succour. Acts of Union grow brittle, and 60 million people wonder what we have in common with each other when our metropolises ripple with languages and values. If ever a nation needed a reinvention, to burn down the rotten wood of a leaden heritage, it's us. The Olympics were a tiny example of how this might be achieved; not by pretending to be better than anyone else, but by having the self-respect and integrity to be excellent in ourselves, and never mind if we led the board any more. Send a gun ship to burn down the timidity and narcissism of uncertainty, of comparing ourselves to the world; what remains might be worth something.

It's being described as the best Bond film by some. It may well be. It's certainly the best Bond film now.

The director of Bond 24 has a hard job ahead.



 *Note: This was meant to be a blog on the education of Bond. It ended up as this. I blame half-term fever.


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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Step back in time: The Chamber of Secrets, Dungeons and Dragons, and saving children from Satan

Who needs to Hang Around? I've got the Internet.
I uncovered some weapons-grade gold this week: under a stack of boxes, unmoved for decades was a dusty, discreet red book, innocently titled 'RS Department Minutes 1980 ff'. It might sound unremarkable, but to the steam punk edu-enthusiast that I am, it was crack. To me it was a time capsule, a message across the decades from one teacher to another. I've even been reading it in bed, that's how good it is. Like a prospector hand-sieving lakes of dirty water, much of it is as gripping as a Ukrainian phone book. But every so often, a flake of purest magic gleams in the silt. Now I can see why Tony Robinson spoils his knickers whenever someone pulls out a grimy sliver of pottery from an dismal ditch.

1980. Imagine the world then: Jimmy Carter signs a $1.5 billion bail out for Chrysler, and the USA boycotts the Moscow Olympics; the Iranian embassy in London got its clock cleaned; and Jimmy Saville's chair was the relic of a saint as opposed to an emblem of disgrace. The Berlin wall was still mercifully unaware that David Hasselhoff would conduct a concert from its apex, years later, as a final humiliation for Communism. Duran Duran signed with EMI; and in Glasgow, an eight year old boy sat at a desk, waiting for blogging to be invented. A world as alien and intimate as 2044 is to us.

The Diary Of Tom Bennett
Playah's Handbook

It's a fascinating chronoscope; a window in time. It feels like the Diary of Tom Riddle, and at any moment I'll tumble through the fourth dimension and land in a world where Pac-Man is just arriving in pubs, and I have to avoid meeting myself in order to prevent the end of the galaxy. I could write a book about this book: this is a reality before Ofsted; before the National Curriculum; before Citizenship and VAK, levels and damned sublevels; before unsatisfactory and 21st century learning; before flipped classrooms and robber-baron consultants.

There's too much in there to cover in one blog: for instance, there's a report from the Inner London Education Authority (which I believe Boris has, just this week, floated the idea of a resurrection, because few politicans can resist the lure and bait of autonomy for long. A devolved power doesn't last long when someone reckons they can scoff it themselves) to the school, a sort of Ofsted report. The staggering thing about this is the level of detail and effort that's gone into it, as opposed to the cookie-cutter approach these days where the inspectors essentially decide the school grading in advance from the data, and then look for the evidence to confirm it. There's an enormous amount of discussion about O-levels, the rise of multiculturalism, secularism, and also, to be fair, stationery. The whole damn thing is typed or written, in an era when only NASA could muster a word processor. It really is a very impressive piece of book keeping.

Gelatinous Cubes

Another time for all that. What caught my eye last night was an excerpt from an RS department meeting, which is a joy to read, and read around:

'...all members of the department had been asked quite a lot of questions on the subjects of the devil, the occult and mysticism; it seemed there was a growing interest in the school on these matters. The department felt that a role play club based on the game, "Dungeons and Dragons" would be most unwise.'

I was hugging myself with pleasure at this. Oh for an era when Dungeons & Dragons was the most worrying cultural influence on our children. In 2012 if a kid hasn't seen 2 girls 1 cup by the time they finish primary school, they're deemed to have had a sheltered upbringing.

Level 5 Teacher/ Lion Tamer
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), as the less popular among you will know, was part of the role-playing game phenomenon, which now seems impossibly quaint and old fashioned to a generation used to Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim and Resident Evil. Essentially a Lord of the Rings rip-off, you pretended to be a wizard, a warrior, a thief and so on, in entirely fictitious scenarios generated and administrated by a 'Dungeon Master (DM)'; you would be expected to face challenges and battles using spells, weapons and wits, moderated and circumscribed by game rules. The element of chance was delivered via a series of spectacularly silly dice: four, eight, twelve and twenty sided shapes.

Has the internet been invented yet?

You would sit around a table and glumly act in character as you navigated the imaginary perils the DM put in front of you. Like this:

DM: You are in a dark room, with a treasure chest and a coffin in the corner.
You: I open the coffin.
DM: *rolls odd die* OK, it opens. A MUMMY jumps out at you, groaning *makes groaning noise*
You: My character says 'Go back to the eternal rest from which ye spawned!' I cast a Fireball spell at him.
DM: *rolls some more dice* OK, he's toast.
You: Does he have any treasure?
DM: He might have had some, but the fireball melted the whole coffin.
You: Aw, man! Is there any more Pepsi in that glass?

Etc. It was a lot more fun that it sounds, maybe. Essentially it was a way for young nerdy teen boys to get together while they poured over complex books of spells and rules, drew monsters and improbable damsels with dimensions that would require scaffolding to support. It was almost always boys, in my experience. Perhaps girls had grown out of playing Let's Pretend by then. But it was sociable, and added meaning to endless nights drawing comics, writing cod-fantasy stories, and pretending to save the world, night after night. These days being a Geek has been rescued from opprobrium by virtue of the fact that geeks grew up and colonised the media. Now, it's so hip it's commonplace.

Not in 1980. In 1980 if you were a geek you were marked with the sign of Cain, and no one would go see Smokey and the Bandit 2 with you. Believe me. So we did what sub-cultures have always done; banded together. Which is exactly how vulnerable, sensitive children who read Le Guin, Moorcroft and Burroughs but who lived in goals and never got picked for the team have survived. If you're lucky, you invent Microsoft; if not, you spend your life hiding your comics and queueing for autographs at sci-fi conventions.

(On an unrelated note: I tweeted this week that I thought Red Dwarf was, to be honest, a bit pish. Five minutes later one of the writers of the thing had retweeted me to his army, and I spent the rest of the night watching as pale-faced, unshaven, grown men filled my timeline with poorly punctuated insults. Given that I hadn't  @ed the chap I presume he must have been scouring the timelines for references to his masterpiece theatre. I only hope that, in the dystopian future of Red Dwarf, it's still OK to dislike fart jokes and say so publicly. Smoke me a kipper! Hilarious.)

Yeah. That didn't happen in 1980.
Do you renounce Old Split-Foot?

The idea that teachers could save children from El Diablo by preventing them from role playing as Caradoc the half-elf magic user now seems twee beyond expression. And with apologies to my predecessors (all of whom had immaculate administrative skills) I hope they never see the lessons I do on Wicca, Norse Gods or the Gods of Mount Olympus. I even, in response to a class vote, made a lesson on Dawkins, Hitchens and Bertrand Russell, and we debated atheism. Next week we'll all be raising spirits like the Witch of Endor and attempting to kick-start our broomsticks. Or not.

It would appear that the geeks did inherit the earth. I can only imagine what my predecessors would have made of it. Sorry.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Michael Wilshaw needs YOU: how we can all help improve education, right now

Wilshaw, yesterday.
Michael Wilshaw needs your help.

You heard me. There's been a flurry on Twitter this morning that gladdened my wholly humble heart. An elder statesman of the edusphere, Oldandrew (@oldandrewuk- don't forget the uk part; like the X-Factor, he's been syndicated internationally. The Ukrainian version is hilarious) has been banging the breakfast gong about the current Head of Ofsted's actual stance on how teachers should teach, and by extension, how schools should encourage their staff to behave. Read his blog for a good summary if you want to know more, but I'll condense it down into weapons grade.
'We, and in that word “we” I include OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little.'
In Communist Ofsted, class teaches YOU
Now this astounds some; the idea that Ofsted aren't actually looking for all that fluff and flimflam that has characterised so much of teaching in the past few decades. Three part lessons, for example, emerged from the cauldron of the National Strategies, which merely suggested that good lessons often contained trinary structures, NOT that all lessons should have three parts. Other dogmas, like group work being the best way to learn, or children only learning if doing so independently, have been pretty thoroughly spit-roasted by current research evidence that suggests there isn't much evidence for either claim other than speculation and wishful thinking.

Wilshaw, of course, has the chops, and the notches on his axe to suggest someone who knows what he's bloody well talking about. He's actually done what every armchair edugob imagines they would, were they only able to stir themselves from the internet: he's taken a tough catchment and given them an education, and a better chance than they ever might have hoped. He mops up more slings and arrows than Saint Sebastian. The worst that people seem to be able to say about him is that his comments are 'unwise' and 'misjudged'. Considering that this is usually from people who haven't read what he said, but rely on the headlines, this is a bit ironic. And anyway, if that's the worst anyone could say about you, I reckon you could sleep easy. Most of what I say is quite spectacularly misjudged, which is exactly how I like it.

Comrade pupils! Today we work from books!
So why does Dame Wilshaw need us? Because I think there's something we can do. I'm often asked 'what can I do to make things better?' And it's a tough one, because teachers have creaked like galley slaves for decades under the bullshit of Ofsted's moronic belief that there is a perfect way to teach; that it can be observed by almost any hard-on with a clip board; that every lesson should contain certain key indicators of easily metrified data, etc. Make no mistake; this has soiled, spoiled and ruined teaching, and schools, for years. Teachers often no longer ask, 'How can I best teach these kids?' but now ask, 'What is the school looking for in a lesson?' And schools no longer ask 'What do the kids need to do really well?' but 'What are Ofsted looking for?'

To be fair, some schools make even more of this than they should, fetishising what they think Ofsted are looking for, and making a cargo cult of education: the Gods are angry, and there must be a sacrifice. Unfortunately, it's been all of us. And yet, the Gods are angry still, and the crops are still failing, or at least the kids often are.

He regretted asking the inspector for feedback.
The challenge for La Wilshaw is that he might think this, but there is an enormous machine that stretches out from underneath his wings: Ofsted itself. Nothing so bureaucratic and furious can be modified without taking the engine apart. Recruiting inspectors who actually know what good teaching is, is problem enough; training them to observe and assess others appropriately is another. Getting schools to understand that everyone teaches differently, and that it's OK for teachers to have their own styles and mannerisms, to be individual, to not fit the cookie cutter of the 'perfect Ofsted lesson' is yet another.

And that's where we come in. Read The Duke of Wilshaw's actual thoughts. Then go back into school tomorrow and think, 'What's the best way to teach these kids?' without thinking about Ofsted at all. If you're in a management position, do the same, and reframe the way you evaluate and assess teaching in your department areas. Don't observe lessons with a checklist; go in with your eyes open and judge it like a teacher. Are the kids learning? Are they safe? We need to get back into the habit of teaching to the best of our abilities, and then expecting- demanding- Ofsted to record this. If someone comes into your classroom, ask them to justify their assessment.

Is this you?
That's their job. Ours is to teach, and if you needed permission to do so- and you don't- then the burra wallah of HMI has given it. Our duty now is to respond to that. Drive the change in our own schools, not wait for a desk jockey to tell us it's ok.

Maybe it's time we stopped waiting for people to fix things for us. Maybe it's time we started to fix things, one class at at time, for ourselves. Who knows? You could even apply to be an inspector.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

FINLAND! The Party Conference Education Speech Drinking Game™

Is there a portion of the calendar that lends itself more to metaphors of breathless, giddy excitement and vertiginous, libidinous, shivering thrills than the conference season? NO, READER, THERE IS NOT. As I watch the keynotes, particularly the education keynotes, I am torn between the poles of drowning myself in the bidet and attempting to feed myself into the toaster from the head down. That's how barely I can contain my quivering heart.

But. Just in case you wanted to watch them again when the DVD comes out at Christmas ('Now that's what I call a conference education speech volume 33'), here's a game that you can play with all the family: FINLAND! The Party Conference Education Speech Drinking Game . Simply start the evening with a full table of ASDA's finest hootches and moonshines, charged glasses, and press play. Last person standing wins a lifetime supply of ennui and schadenfreude.

Let's Play FINLAND!

'This green tea's a queer bubbly, wot?'
Someone mentions the 21st century without apparently being aware that we're 12% into it already: take a sip
A flagship school is mentioned: take a sip
Says 'I've been up and down the country, and people are telling me...': take a sip
Uses phrase 'And what I say to these people is this....': take a sip
Professed socialist with offspring in private school takes the stand: take a sip
Speaker from private school talking about state education: take a sip. Tut.

Speaker refers to the scarcity of 500 year-old oak trees in their childhoods: take a gulp, and look up 'odd' in dictionary
Somebody falls weeping to the ground, touching Stephen Twigg's hem to be healed: empty glass of communion wine
Michael Gove shows a millisecond of self-doubt: empty glass, replay, freeze frame


'So I said to Mitchell, take the p***, it'll be a laugh..'
Camera cuts to elderly delegate, fast asleep and snug in a blanket: take a shot of sherry/ port
Bored cameraman attempts to find attractive delegate- fails: Take a drink and email Guardian
Bored cameraman attempts to find attractive delegate- succeeds: Take a drink, turn back to the right channel
Speaker suggests link between Free Schools and National Socialism: Take a schnapps; salute
Gove refers to Unions as 'Dem Babylon': select a bottle, drain to the hilt
Specific teaching method disparaged as Victorian by someone who has never taught: drink bowl of own tears
Attempts to mangle a joke out of the word 'PISA': drink continuously until sentence is finished

'I endorse this brew. Give me the launch codes.'
Unsuspecting teacher/ student/ patsy dragged out onto stage to do monkey dance: ramraid nearest Threshers, demand a helicopter to fly you to Singapore
Finland is mentioned: drink EVERYTHING on the table!





*Thanks to @captainrobs for inspiration