Make America Hate Again

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It almost feels like shooting a racist in a barrel, taking aim at Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president 2016. He’s a boorish, entitled, non-thinking, vain, preening, loud-mouthed, bullying, hectoring, ill-informed, historically and politically illiterate, ungracious, repetitive, spiritually ugly, self-serving, self-centred, self-aggrandising, self-loving, self-mythologising, showboating, grandstanding, oafish, blinkered, simplistic, dishonest, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, disablist, xenophobic, misanthropic, reactionary, vicious, voluminous, hate-filled, hate-spewing, inciteful, insightless, uncaring, myopic, deluded, lowest-common-denominator, divisive, simplistic, dangerous, inflammatory, rude, galling, pumped-up, far-right, destructive, deluded, deluding, uncouth, untrustworthy, rogue bad-haired Onanist who used to be on TV, and is now never off the TV. He also used to be a joke. Not any more. He’s now a threat. To – potentially – all of us. He is, after all, a man whose foreign policy is to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”, thinks that the violence he explicitly incites from his bully pulpit is “nothing to do with him” and who actually inferred he had a large penis in a televised debate. And he looks like Donald Trump.

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As you may know, I’m a keen follower of US politics, especially every four years, and if I had a vote, I’d lean to the Democrats. No surprise there. In my bones I know I’d be for Bernie Sanders, the Jeremy Corbyn of the American left. And yet, with Trump in the seemingly unstoppable ascendancy, I think that Hillary Clinton may be commonsense’s only hope. (Although one CNN poll found that Sanders would stand a better chance of beating Trump than Clinton.) It’s literally not up to me. I can only push my nose up against the glass and watch, helpless, as a polarised electorate, alienated from dynastic DC party politics at both ends, decide the fate of a divided nation after, let’s face it, eight pretty disappointing years of emollient talk and executive cool but too little great change from Obama, kneecapped as a Democrat President so often is by a Republican Congress. You win, you lose.

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Enter the reality TV star, so rich (“part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich”) he doesn’t need private donors, already a caricature of himself and thus beyond satire, and apparently on the side of the ordinary working- and middle-class voters who’ve lost their jobs due to the globalised free market waived in by libertarian, deregulating Republican administrations (and allowed to flourish by liberal, not-nearly-regulating-enough Democratic ones). He makes a powerful case to the disenfranchised of those United States: he’s going to stop corporations from upping sticks to China and Mexico if and when he’s President, before building a wall around the place, to stop Muslims coming in, and business going out. It’s a binary way of looking at the world, like Trump is a giant baby mesmerised by the pretty shapes a revolving nightlight projects on the nursery wall, and it’s more than gaining traction with the economically vulnerable. It’s also turning white America against the America of colour (as if the rednecks need any encouragement).

Divide and rule is nothing new. Donald Trump seems so ill-read and ill-versed in history and geopolitics, it’s a terrifying thought that he could ever hold any office outside of an office he already owns. (He’s the kind of American who believes that nothing can’t be bought, including democratic power.) It used to be tee-hee-hee amusing that daft old downhome George W Bush couldn’t name any other world leaders and basically wanted to play golf while he settled some Oedipal family score by being President, but Trump wouldn’t even feel the need to name any other world leaders and would surely wear his ignorance as a badge of honour (he’s “very rich”, you see, that’s the “beauty” of him, so he doesn’t need to memorise names of foreigners because he has no donors to dance for). It would earn him approval points among his desired, non-passport-holding demographic if he started a call-and-response that went: “Who’s stupid and PROUD of it?” “WE are!”

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I’ll say it again, I hardly feel as if I am going out on a limb expressing bemusement, bewilderment and fear at the thought of Trump wielding any kind of jurisdiction outside of a reality TV show, but it’s an unedifying sight either way watching his endless victory speeches and seeing the hatred and violence in the eyes of his supporters. (Some of them have violence in their fists and elbows, too; give these people enough rope and strange fruit will be swinging from a tree.) It seems quaint now that we worried about Nigel Farage in this country – who, on paper, rode the same bandwagon here, appealing to the more purple-faced on the right – as he now feels a bit like a single-issue figure of fun again. One hopes in one’s heart that Trump will fail in his bid to do something that he only really wants to do to see if he can do it. In any event, he would quickly tire of the minutiae of the job by about, ooh, half-ten the morning after he enters the White House. Bored now, what’s next?

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America can be a scary country, with its guns, and its flag, and its belief in God, but for every rally it holds in the name of reductive ethnic stereotyping and baseball-cap fascism, a bunch of protesters will challenge that poisonously antithetical orthodoxy, even risking a remorseless thump in the head for enacting their unalienable right to do so. I’ve just watched the third part of CNN’s fascinating newsreel-based documentary series The Seventies on Sky Arts, headed Peace With Honour, which covered the last, glory-free five years of the Vietnam war, and it made you proud to see so many ordinary Americans, from students to veterans, protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and other outrages, literally risking life and limb in the process. Let us think of the United States as a nation of questioning, constitutional dissent. What Trump is whipping up is not dissent, it is fear. The only questions he asks are ones to which he has a pre-prepared answer. “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?”

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Simon Heffer has written a good piece from on the ground in the New Statesman about the Trump effect, and he rightly points the finger at Obama for the shortfall between his “elevated rhetoric” and the “lower reality”. He also noted that America is “an unhappy nation.” The cards are stacked in favour of a no-nonsense (or so the disillusioned think) demagogue who promises to fix the problem. He also reminds us that Trump “is not a politician … [he] has never served in the military or held political office.” He’s the sort of golf-club bore most of us would edge away from in a bar, but we’re not everybody in America. Desperate times – and for millions they are fucking desperate – require desperate candidates.

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2014: My Top 50 Films

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I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

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1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

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Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

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A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

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It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.

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He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).

Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)

Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.

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First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)

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AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?

DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.

AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?

DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.

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AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?

DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.

AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?

DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.

AC: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!

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The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.

While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”

I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”

It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”

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I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”

Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”

Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”

I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”

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So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”

A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”

I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.

On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”

For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”

Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”

How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”

Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”

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Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.

An education #1: The Supreme Court

Here’s the deal. Two thoughts have conflated. One occurred while watching the excellent final of Euro 2012 last night, before and after which we were invited to look back upon what has been a memorable tournament. It was at this point, as if to illustrate the deficiencies of my non-footballing brain, that I realised that I can’t even remember the scores, or the goal-scorers, from most of the matches I have watched over the last three weeks. This is not just my 47-year-old mind going, as I can remember the names of actors from way down the cast of films that I shouldn’t even remember. It’s just that my brain isn’t tuned to football the way serious football fans’ brains are. (When I sat down to watch this one, after my traditional two-year sabbatical, I seriously couldn’t remember off the top of my head who’d won the 2010 World Cup, or Euro 2008. Both are imprinted there now, but ask me in a year’s time.)

The other thought was this: with the sad closure of Word magazine, a couple of people looking down the barrel of a dystopia with less printed words in have asked if a subscription to the New Yorker (one of a number of influences on Word in its prenatal stage) might help ease the pain. I have been a subscriber to the New Yorker since March 2005, when Stuart Maconie thoughtfully bought me a year’s subscription as a 40th birthday present. Once it started arriving on my mat once a week, I became quickly hooked. I can’t imagine a world without it. (It’s particularly handy at Presidential Election time, but not just, as I sincerely believe that to be disinterested in US politics is to be disinterested in global politics. And if anyone’s going to report from the frontline of American life, I’d prefer it to be a bunch of die-hard liberals.)

Anyway, it’s a struggle most weeks to get through the whole magazine. (I recycle mine by passing them on to a friend at Radio Times, who, when she’s done with them, passes them on again – I rarely give an issue up to this value-added cycle within a week of receiving it.) As such, I’m always in intellectual arrears. There’s enough brain food in a single issue to last a month. This means serious reading, and serious staying power. If you don’t know already, the pieces in the New Yorker are long. And detailed. To put them into context, the cover story I wrote about the Stone Roses for a recent issue of Word, which by definition will have been about the longest story in the issue, was 4,000 words. The double-page spread I write for Radio Times most weeks comes in at around 800. The New Yorker doesn’t have a cover story (it doesn’t even tell you what’s inside the issue on the cover), but its longest pieces can be more like 12,000 words. That’s a tenth of Where Did It All Go Right?

The New Yorker article I’m about to disseminate is about 5,000 words.

So, in order to counter the erosion of my memory, and to perhaps pass on some interesting information from a magazine that is jam-packed full of information (its fact-checking culture is legendary), I have decided to run an occasional series on this blog of articles about articles I have read.

This one, by Jill Lepore, was tucked away at the back of the Jun 18 issue (cover image above), and entitled, with typical elan and economy, Benched. It’s about the Supreme Court and was written before this august and powerful institution voted for “Obamacare” and surprised everybody. (I can’t wait to read this week’s New Yorker and its editors’ thoughts on what might be a turning point for Obama’s re-election chances.)

Essentially a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, forged in New York (then the nation’s capital; still the nation’s capital according to the New Yorker!) in 1789 when George Washington appointed six Supreme Court Justices, Lepore’s end-point is, clearly, the Affordable Care Act and whether or not today’s bench of nine decide that it violates the Constitution or not, vis-a-vis “commerce.” (Can the government constitutionally force its citizens to take out health insurance? Spoiler alert: yes it can.)

As Lepore states early on, “under the Constitution, the power of the Supreme Court is quite limited.” Its executive branch “holds the sword”, the legislative branch “the purse”, and the judiciary, neither; “no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society”. It’s tough for us Limeys to understand the Supreme Court, as we don’t have one, but if there’s one subject that comes up more frequently in the New Yorker than baseball and/or whatever Malcolm Gladwell is thinking about, it’s the Supreme Court, so it’s as well to do some homework, which is what this feature turned out to be, and why I ploughed through all 5,000 words of it.

I discovered that, under George Washington, the Justices of the Supreme Court were expected to “ride circuit” (one of those great phrases that make reading this magazine such a thrill), in other words, they were expected to judge ordinary cases as well as supreme ones, as it were. But this was scrapped. It’s basic stuff to American history students, but I now know that in 1800, the capital moved to Washington, D.C., and the following year president John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was the first to live in the White House, while Congress met at the Capitol. His Chief Justice ensured that all the Justices rented rooms at the same boarding house, “so that they could at least have someplace to talk together, unobserved.”

Under Adams, the 1801 Judiciary Act reduced the number of Supreme Court Justices to five. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch when this was engorged to the present nine. Under Jefferson, the Supreme Court was granted the right to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. (“This was such an astonishing thing to do that the Court didn’t declare another federal law unconstitutional for fifty-four years.”) Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: “Congress shall have power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” During the New Deal in the 1930s, the “power to regulate commerce,” along with the definition of “commerce” itself, became the chief means by which Congress passed legislation “protecting people against an unbridled market.” (In 1964, the commerce clause formed part of the basis for the Civil Rights Act.) As you can guess, the solid Democrat base of the New Yorker means that the Supreme Court’s power to fiddle with commerce – that “unbridled market” which gives Republicans such an under-the-desk hard-on – is taken on trust as a good thing. To the right, it’s bad.

There are lots of landmark rulings cited along the way – Lochner v. New York in 1905, where the Court “voided a state law establishing that bakers could work no longer than ten hours a day, six days a week”, on the grounds that the law violated a “liberty of contract” (cue: sound of employers rubbing their hands in glee); U.S. v. Lopez, in which it was decreed that gun ownership is not commerce, “because it is in no sense an economic activity”; U.S. v. Morrison, in which parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act were judged unconstitutional; and one that is enshrined in US lore: Dred Scott v. Sandford (“Dred Scott”), which in 1857 voided the Missouri Compromise by arguing that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and effectively put slaves and their descendents outside of the constitution.

Lepore’s thesis, neatly woven through this chunky history, is simply that the Court is getting more political. Under game-changing arch-Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall’s 35 years in office – that’s six administrations from Adams to Jackson 1801-35 – we learn that the Court struck down only one act of Congress; by comparison, in the seven years since John G. Roberts, Jr. (a Bush appointee) took the job in 2005, the Court has struck down “a sizable number of federal laws, including one reforming the funding of political campaigns.” She describes it as “the most conservative court in modern times”, its rulings under Roberts pleasing the right 60% of the time, according to figures, which is way up basically.

We go back to the early American colonists, “who inherited from England a tradition in which the courts, like the legislature, were extensions of the crown.” Over here, a “defiant Parliament had been challenging the royal prerogative, demanding that judicial appointments be made not ‘at the king’s pleasure’ but ‘during good behavior.'” (This phrase “good behaviour”, which means, effectively, for life, recurs.) The Justices are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and it’s a gig for life. But who judges the judges?

Since it successfully rubbed out a “labor” law protecting the health of employees in favour of the employer, the aforementioned “Lochner” (known by just the one name) is said to have become “likely the most disreputable case in modern constitutional discourse.” (From where I’m sitting the American right are all for the individual, as long as that individual is an employer, not an employee.) In 1906, legal scholars rounded on it, one of them writing, “Putting courts into politics, and compelling judges to become politicians … has almost destroyed the traditional respect for the Bench.”

As ever with a New Yorker piece, you learn some things off the bat, and you have to do a bit of further reading to understand others. It’s casually referred to, but I had no idea what Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose campaign” was, for instance. So I checked. It was the nickname of a political party (the Progressive Party) he set up in 1912 after a Republican split, and after he’d been shot but claimed to be as fit as a bull moose. The building that still houses the Court across from the Capitol had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1932, by Herbert Hoover and marble was shipped in from Spain, Italy, and Africa. Three weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected in an actual landslide and those battles between Congress and the New Deal began. Exciting trivia: by June of 1933, less than 100 days after his inauguration, FDR had proposed 15 legislative elements and each had been made law, passed by the Court, whose four-out-of-nine conservative Justices were known as the Four Horsemen. During the passing of the 16th, one of the horsemen is said to have burst out, “The Constitution is gone!” (“a comment so unseemly that it was stricken from the record”).

The Supreme Court’s new building opened for business in 1935, described in the press as “a classical icebox decorated for some surreal reason by an insane upholsterer.” In the following 18 months, the newly-housed Justices struck down more than a dozen laws. “Congress kept passing them; the Court kept striking them down, generally 5-4. At one point, FDR’s Solicitor General fainted, right there in the courtroom.” You’ve got to love the way the best New Yorker writers humanise otherwise husk-dry material. It’s a detail like the fainting Solicitor General that could help you remember the trouble FDR had in the mid-30s.

Lepore sums up beautifully. “The Supreme Court has been deliberating in a temple of marble for three-quarters of a century. In March, it heard oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act. No one rode there in a horse and buggy.” She goes on, “The separation of law from politics for which the Revolution was fought has proved elusive. That’s not surprising – no such separation being wholly possible – but some years have been better than others. One of the worst was 2000, when the Court determined the outcome of a disputed Presidential election.”

I started reading the New Yorker in 2005, when Bush was into the second term of that “disputed” election. His presidency gave the magazine’s liberals something to push against. They do not, though, let Obama off the hook, and a 9,500-word piece by Ryan Lizza in the same issue about what the President might do if re-elected (again, written before the Supreme Court judgement went Obamacare’s way) is, although hopeful, honestly argued and superbly contextual. But that’s enough learning for one day.

The full, six-page Supreme Court piece is available online. So have a read. The 12-page Obama re-election piece also happens to be online, in full. (They aren’t always, so this is a bit of luck.) The New Yorker is available in full, digitally, to subscribers and as an iPad edition. It’s almost 90 years old, but it moves with the times. However, with such a lot of words to read, I couldn’t possibly read it offscreen. I need my paper copy. And long may it abide.