Libération

je-suis-charlie

Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment – movies, theatre, music – is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socialising presence of women.

This thought-provoking quote is from Lawrence Wright’s vital 2006 book setting out the long context leading to 9/11, The Looming Tower, which I read in 2007. In it, he traces al-Qaeda back to its roots in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, the “father” of the radical Islamic movement: a middle-class, educated civil servant and writer who learned his hatred of America while studying there in the 1940s.

It was modernity Qutb took exception to (“secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism”) and returned radicalised to Egypt, a country still under the yoke of Western colonialism. After Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in a military coup against the bloated ruling class in 1952, Qtub hoped for “a just dictatorship”, but Nasser moved the country towards a socialist, secular society (ring any bells?) and Qtub’s cohorts in the Sharia law-favouring Muslim Brotherhood turned against the leader they had helped to put in place. (The Brotherhood would, of course, play its part in the post-Arab Spring reconstruction vacuum.)

Qtub ended up in prison in the crackdown on dissenters after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, and it was here, brutalised, tortured and horrified at the Muslim guards’ treatment of other Muslim prisoners, that he wrote his apocalyptic manifesto, Ma’alim fi a’Tariq (Milestones), which, among other assertions based on his own dark reading of the Quran, stated that any Muslim serving Nasser was not a “true Muslim”. (This observation from 50 years ago felt relevant again yesterday when Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet in Paris and a proud, upstanding example to anyone in a crisis, called his brother’s killers “false Muslims”.)

Thus, did Qtub make enemies of anyone who didn’t agree with him and set the clock back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed, before which the world existed in “a period of ignorance and barbarity”, jahiliyya. When Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, Wright’s fastidious book seems to say, al-Qaeda was effectively born.

I reprint the quote above, and the context beneath it, because it kept coming back to me over the past week’s grim events. It might seem glib to accuse radicalised men like the Kouachi brothers of simply being “young, idle and bored” (and it doesn’t account for the actions of Hayat Boumeddiene, partner and accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly in Thursday’s Montrouge shooting and Friday’s Porte de Vincennes siege), but there is a grain of truth in the generalisation, and those in the neglected suburbs of Paris certainly felt – and feel – disenfranchised and apart from the glories of modern, secular French society.

I have no answers to the broader problem, but I do think an inquiring understanding of the situation is required – and a reaction as dignified and nonviolent as the one we’re seeing across France. None of this happened overnight. The warning signs were there. And so much of it leads back to pre- and post-war Western colonialism (Saudi Arabia’s close ties to America were always troubling to more traditionally versed Muslims and when King Fahd allowed US troops to be stationed there in 1990, the camel’s back was figuratively broken). It’s something Nigel Farrage and Marine Le Pen would do well to remember before they open their mouths today, I think.

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Funny Monet

Well here’s a pleasant surprise: a good Woody Allen movie. I contextualised my position on Woody in my review in March of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, which may well be his worst ever film. You can read that again here, if you want to understand my disappointment in full. Needless to say, like many others, I used to love him, and fell out of love with him when he started to make films outside of New York. It’s like the old Jewish joke he tells in Annie Hall: the food here is terrible … and such small portions! As a rule, Woody Allen films are now terrible … and they arrive at a rate of sometimes two a year!

Well, I’m relieved and delighted to report that the chatter is true: Midnight In Paris is a return to form. Not a fully fledged return, but a wander in the right direction. There are three things that make it work:

1) Owen Wilson. All my all-time favourite Allen films have Woody in them, in the lead, playing the screen version of himself. However, as he’s aged past the point where he can any long “get the girl” without the rest of us squirming and mopping our brows, he’s had to try out a few surrogates. John Cusack was good, Kenneth Branagh less so, Josh Brolin and even Larry David a disaster. But in Owen Wilson, he’s found himself. Here, Wilson plays a writer (of course, which other profession is Woody interested in?) who becomes inspired to write his novel on a visit to Paris. He’s clearly in a toxic relationship with Rachel McAdams, whose parents are overbearing, Europhobic Republicans, and whose attraction to Michael Sheen’s pompous pseud marks her out as a shallow waste of space. But beccause Wilson plays it puppydog innocent and eager to please you root for him without thinking, hey, he’s asking for it. There’s something about Wilson’s round, imperfect face and his shaggy mop that brings you onside from the first glimpse. If Woody decided to always cast Wilson from now on, I’d be more than happy.

2) The idea. Yes, it’s a moderately-high-concept Woody Allen film. Because the story involves Wilson going back in time to Paris in the 1920s when the clock strikes midnight, and much of its humour revolves around the literary, musical and artistic icons he bumps into in the sort of cafes and salons that still exist in modern-day Paris, Woody gets to indulge his own love of a prelapsarian golden age when American greats like Hemingway, Porter and Fitzgerald rubbed shoulders with Europeans like Picasso, Dali and Bunuel. Woody has always had a symbiotic relationship with Europe, and Midnight In Paris sort of encapsulates that mutual admiration, but in a genuinely funny conceit. So it’s not an all-out period piece like Sweet And Lowdown, Bullets Over Broadway or The Purple Rose Of Cairo, but it hints at all three, and that’s a good thing.

3) It’s not set in London. As proud as we are to have him in our great capital, Woody Allen does not understand the way people speak here, and as a result, he’s made his worst films here: Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Tall Dark Stranger. And maybe it’s more irksome when an artist idealises a place you actually know inside out? (He does it to Paris, naturally, especially in Midnight‘s opening montage, but then again, he once did the same for Manhattan and he didn’t even have the excuse of being a tourist!) Either way, any city that tempts him away from London is good news.

More context for my enjoyment of Midnight In Paris: I’ve seen an awful lot of violent films of late. Good and powerful films, but 18 certificate brutal. I was so looking forward to turning up to the Curzon and seeing a 12A certificate that would be guaranteed free of violence. Especially impact-based violence. The fact that it was a funny film, and I mean a film that made me laugh out loud often – not least when Wilson meets Dali (a show-stealing Adrien Brody cameo), Bunuel and Man Ray and explains his time-travelling conundrum and they find it perfectly commonplace (“Of course, but you’re surrealists“) – meant that it was just the tonic. This is not a revolutionary piece of work. It is not “important” in that sense of the word. But it was important to me yesterday afternoon. It provided cultural and comic relief. It was lovely to be sat in a pleasant arthouse of an afternoon and sense that others were getting the gags about Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Gaugin … frankly, most Woody Allen fans would. But Woody Allen fans are akin to those who support a local football team who used to be in the Premiership and now struggle on a regular basis to find their old form, and yet, you support them doggedly anyway, and take no pleasure in their downfall.

In contrast, last night I caught up with the opening episode of Romanzo Criminale, which represents Sky Arts getting into the BBC4 game by importing a subtitled drama series, this time from Italy. It’s set in Rome, in the past – the 1970s – and presents anything but a tourist’s-eye view of the city. A brilliant antidote, once again. I’ll write about it, and FX’s forthcoming French import Braquo, soon.