Amy (2015)

2016 has been an awful year for many, the election of Donald Trump, rise of white nationalism, and just before the year is over, the singer George Michael and writer and actress Carrie Fisher has been taken from us.

I’ve lost track of the In Memoriam a long time ago. I am still stuck on Amy Winehouse. I am aware she died on July 23, 2011 at the age of 27, which in this digital age is aeons ago. Amy Winehouse belongs to the ’27 club’, which to me is just when your body gives up after one has abused it for so long, it’s not some cosmic fate or mystical number to me. It’s biological. A human body can only take so much abuse before it expires.

Unlike many sensationalist documentaries where the filmmaker focuses on the most scandalous and salacious bits of the subject’s life, Amy’s director, Asif Kapadia attempted to show the world the whole Amy, warts and all. Amy Winehouse is not a difficult subject to document, she’s neither reclusive nor shy. She’s a very open and candid person and doesn’t tend to sugarcoat events to make herself look better. And for someone who had such a short life and an even shorter time in the spotlight, she only became globally famous after the release of her album Back to Black in 2006, there was a lot of unreleased unseen footage which the director could draw from.

In an era where singers often lip synch, or use auto tune, Amy Winehouse was a revelation. She was brought up on Jazz music on the influence of her father Mitch Winehouse who was a huge fan of Jazz. Her voice is so crisp, so clear, so emotional. Amy Winehouse didn’t just sing Jazz music, she studied it and lived and breathed it. One of her band members said she had a PhD in Jazz music and often gave out ‘homework’ to her band members by requiring them to listen to Jazz albums and provided reading materials for them. Her first album Frank was a Jazz album she wrote herself and was named after her favorite singer Frank Sinatra.

Amy the movie shed light onto Amy Winehouse the full person, or to be more frank, how she came to be so fucked up, and it had nothing to do with fame. Not even close. Fame may have contributed to her problems, but they were not the cause. Amy came from what’s best described as an upbringing of benign neglect. Her parents were absent. They were loving, physically present but emotionally absent. The best way to describe her mother Janis Winehouse is a dingbat. She is a loving but vague woman, who has medical issues of her own (multiple sclerosis) and an unfaithful husband who was already gone before he packed his bags and moved in with his mistress. Amy poignantly said in one of her voice recordings “my dad was never there even when he was here”, when Amy and her brother were misbehaving at home and giving their mother a run around, her father never stepped in to discipline them, “didn’t even tell us to not be little shits”. Amy was also a strong willed child and her mother often caved to her daughters demands, regardless of how unreasonable or inappropriate it was. Janis Winehouse admits as much, she was totally helpless against the strong will of her daughter. She even suggested that her daughter’s frequent outbursts seemed like a form of Tourettes. When Amy told her mother that she was eating and throwing up her food as way of controlling her weight, instead of seeing the early dangerous signs of bulimia and taking her to a doctor, her mother thought it was a “phase” and that it would pass. When Amy’s father finally moved out of their family home, Amy began to show signs of depression and begun self-harming, her mother let a psychiatrist put Amy, then 12 years old on antidepressants (very dangerous for children under 18), and this is on top of her untreated bulimia. Amy had a warm and loving relationship with both of her parents, but she also knew they were not reliable parents whom she can turn to for help.

Janis and Mitch Winehouse failed to see what everyone else could see was wrong their daughter, and that is she (along with her brother) needed parental guidance, of any kind. Some force in their lives to say a firm ‘no’ when they were out of hand. All of those outrageous behaviors are just a test of boundaries to see how far they could push, and as we now know, it’s pretty far. There were no boundaries. When Amy became famous and her substance abuse issues spiraled out of control to where she was losing contracts and gigs, she had one chance to go to rehab, her managers asked Mitch Winehouse to step in as that is the only person that can make Amy do anything. But in that critical moment, where he could have stepped up and be a proper father to her, he failed her again, he said she didn’t need rehab. She was just upset at her breakup with her boyfriend and she’ll be fine with some rest. Many that knew her saw that to be a fatal mistake. It was the one and only chance where Amy was amenable to rehab without conditions. In her song Rehab, she writes:

They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, no, no, no
Yes, I been black
But when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab
I won’t go, go, go
Her life went from out of control to completely off the rails when she met her future husband Blake Civil. They were a tumultuous match, it was a ‘relationship’ (if one can call it that) marred by fights, infidelity, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and violence. It was Blake Civil who introduced her to hard drugs, prior to meeting him she mostly drank and smoked weed. She became a full blown addict, slurring her words and wobbling down the streets of London with curious looking white substances at her nostrils, even losing a tooth at one point. She went from a girl with a quirky unique sense of style; heavy winged black eyeliner with that huge beehive wig and a big smile to a disheveled unkempt mess. Her father tried to get her into rehab then, to no avail. She first demanded to be in same rehab as her husband, Blake Civil, and then they both left rehab together within days.
Out of that tumultuous relationship with Blake Civil came one of the best albums ever made in recent times, Back to Black. It’s a 10 song track of a toxic relationship gone horribly wrong. She manages to convince you that getting involved with a bad boy is a really bad idea and not many people have successfully done that. The album is a documentary in song on a relationship which was wrong to begin with (Blake Civil had a long term girlfriend at the time) and went ahead with the relationship anyways but he decides to go back to his former girlfriend as he felt it was wrong to leave her like that, Amy Winehouse has a total breakdown for not being the one he chose, even if he is all wrong for her. After the release of the album, Blake Civil wormed his way back in to Amy’s life again, they got married and things went from bad to worse. Amy Winehouse did his ex-girlfriend a big favor.
Amy’s life was full of contradictions. She sees herself as a traditional Jewish mama, cooking in the kitchen for the family (and is quite a competent cook herself), she wants to settle down with a nice man one day and have children and be a “mum” yet all of the choices she makes run in direct contradiction to that fantasy life she has in her head. She also didn’t address how she would function as an alcoholic pot smoking mom. The gods intervened on Amy’s behalf when Blake Civil got arrested for causing grievous bodily harm to another person and got incarcerated, this physical separation led to their divorce, much to the relief of everyone. She spent the last year or so of her life out of the spotlight trying to clean up her act. She kicked her addiction to hard drugs but was never able to quit drinking alcohol. Her death was the result of alcohol poisoning aided by a weakened heart due to her years of bulimia (that thing which her mother called a “phase”).
Amy Winehouse was the one singer I wanted to go see perform live after she cleans up her act. She describes herself as a songwriter first then a singer, I disagree, she is every bit a singer as she is a songwriter. Around the time of her death, she already emotionally moved on from Blake Civil and the Back to Black album’s state of mind. She was ready for a new chapter, if not a more clean and sober one, at least a more peaceful one. But it wasn’t in the cards for her.

Closed Circuit (2013) and the Mass Surveillance State

Closed Circuit is a reactionary post-Sept 11 and more specifically post-July 7 London bombing film set in London. The Sept 11 like event in the UK is the 2005 July 7 bombing, though on a much smaller scale. The July 7 bombings were a series of bombings in the London Underground, during peak traveling hours in the morning that ultimately claimed 52 victims. The bombings were carried out by Islamic extremists in Britain. Islamic extremism was always lurking beneath the surface of the poorer London boroughs. There were a series of well known ‘hate-preachers’ that gave fiery anti-West and anti-Christian sermons in the full view of the British public. Due to Britain’s well established free speech laws, authorities were never very successful in convicting these hate-preachers for incitement. And in Britain, they were more successful in recruiting white Britons into radical Islam than their American counterparts. The documentary My Brother the Islamist details the transition of a middle class white British man to his conversion to Islam and then adopting radical Islam to where he feels his life’s mission is to actively wage jihad against the morally corrupt West. The director Robb Leech wanted to explore why his step-brother, someone he grew up with and lived under the same roof for most of their childhood found refuge in radical Islam.

Closed Circuit begins with the bombing of a popular London market called Borough Market where 120 people were killed by a truck bomb. Three men were arrested but two of the three men were killed during the apprehension process and Farroukh Erdogan was the only suspect apprehended alive and he’s been taken into custody and his wife and son are under the guard and surveillance of MI5. The audience does not know how the other two suspect died but that we are told they died during the apprehension process. Erdogan is to be put on trial and will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility or parole if found guilty (there is no death penalty in the UK). Erdogan’s defense is that he doesn’t know the other two suspects well and his only connection with them is that they rent a storage space from him and his only interaction with them is when he collects rent every month. That storage space also happens to be the location where they kept their bombs. Erdogan is no more than an innocent bystander to the bombing. But when his court appointed defense solicitor Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and special advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) begin to question him to prepare the best defense for him, they found their defendant Erdogan less than forthcoming with facts. He almost put up no defense for himself except guilty by association and didn’t seem interested in exonerating himself. He was going to ride through the trial and whatever verdict they come back with, he will accept. He didn’t behave like a man who was innocent and was desperate to clear his name and resume his freedom.

So the solicitors began investigating Farroukh Erdogan’s background and through clever detective work they find out Erdogan is a secret MI5 agent. Erdogan is of Turkish origin and he came to the UK from Germany. He is a heroin addict and was busted on drug charges in Germany. But the real back story is he belongs to a terrorist sleeper cell in Germany and was arrested in connection with another bombing which killed 20 United States servicemen. German and British intelligence authorities found out that Erdogan was just a low level operative who didn’t have access to the leaders of the sleeper cell. So MI5 decided to recruit him to bust other sleeper cells in London using the German connection. It was not an offer Erdogan can refuse because if he does, he will be charged and go to prison and perhaps be deported back to Turkey. Erdogan and his family ’emigrate’ from Germany to Britain with legitimate immigration papers but the solicitor Martin Rose discovers that upon three months after arrival in Britain, Erdogan and his family received full UK residency (it usually takes three years and longer for those with criminal records) and six months later he was driving a late model Mercedes Benz all on income derived from low level heroin dealing, this didn’t add up. Martin Rose and Claudia Simmons-Howe’s go digging further and discover that Farroukh Erdogan isn’t his real name, it’s the new identity provided by MI5 and they found out a ‘special deal’ has been struck between Erdogan and his MI5 handlers that he is to take the fall for this bombing to cover up the fact that the British intelligence service may have used British taxpayers money to purchase the explosives which blew up the Borough Market that killed 120 people. It was an operation that had gone horribly wrong, the bombing was never supposed to be carried out, Erdogan was supposed to turn in the terrorists before the bombing occurred. But the audience is never informed if MI5 is scapegoating Erdogan for this blunder or if the terrorist sleeper cell Erdogan infiltrated double crossed him or if even Erdogan himself double crossed both his handlers and the terrorist cells he infiltrated. The bottom line is Erdogan has to take the fall so that no inquiries would be made into the bombing. And for agreeing to take the fall, his wife and son will be safe and his own life will be spared even if he were to spend it behind bars.

This film is a contrast of the mass surveillance state of the United States versus the United Kingdom. In the US we know we are being digitally surveilled but we’ve no proof of it happening in real time. There are security cameras which record footage in large public places such as subways and train stations, government buildings or department stores, all of which informs us that we are being watched and videotaped (as it is illegal to secretly videotape or tape record another person without informing them). But in the UK there are CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras everywhere, especially in the tubes, bus stations, major train stations, street corners, road intersections, everywhere. The British people know that when they step out their front door they can potentially be recorded by CCTV and their whereabouts that day could be known by pressing a few buttons. It is precisely under these circumstances solicitors Claudia Simmons-Howe and Martin Rose do the investigation on their client. They were not only watched by CCTV but throughout the duration of the trial, they were being watched by MI5 as well. They hide in plain sight, they hide when everyone including cameras are watching their every move. In order to orchestrate a secret meeting, Martin and Claudia decide to attend the same soccer match so they could get lost in a stadium of 80,000 people and in the middle of the soccer match disappear behind the bleachers out of sight of any cameras and exchange information (according to British law, when a trial involving national security and classified information is concerned, the defendant on top of their solicitor also gets assigned a special advocate and they may not meet in private once the trial is commenced because only the special advocate may see the state’s classified evidence against the defendant, the defense solicitor may not). The MI5 tried to keep these two solicitors from asking too many questions and just represent their client in his ‘simple defense’. When they realized they were being ‘managed’ by the British Intelligence Service on how to do their jobs, they discovered the government was trying to cover something up. Despite warnings that their personal safety may be in danger if they veer off course, they don’t relent.

The British justice system (just like the US) is shown in a contradictory light. They pride themselves on having a transparent process but there are closed sessions when discussing classified materials, the public are informed that a ‘closed session’ in judge’s chambers is taking place but cannot divulge the people in the session besides the judge. The judicial process is claimed to be just and fair but the defense attorneys representing the defendant are being steered and told how to do their jobs. For every breach of rights granted by the constitution, there is only one response: national security. For the sake of national security all jurisprudence developed over the last 200 years can be thrown out. For the sake of national security the defendant’s rights can be curtailed and the outcome of the trial manipulated. For the sake of national security, sacred rights such as habeas corpus and innocent until proven guilty can be suspended indefinitely. Suspects may be tortured and abused against the laws of the nation they are being tried but all of it is being done in the name of national security. Those who invoke abuse in the name of national security also defend their actions by suggesting their actions ‘save lives’, which is ironic in Closed Circuit as the movie opens with a massacre at a public market, possibly at the negligent hands of the British Intelligence Service.

‘Tis the Season

It is The Season. The season to be merry, jolly, overeat, over drink, over indulge in ways we normally wouldn’t nor shouldn’t. It’s also a season of undue, self-inflicted, unnecessary stress.

The stress that the turkey or ham won’t cook in time for Christmas dinner, the stress of in-laws visiting, the crazy uncle, the cousin who doesn’t wash on a regular basis and you hope that for Christmas, they, out of some sense of decency for The Season, they’ll wash and show up in a presentable manner.

During The Season, we are pressured into having around or being around people we don’t like and normally would do anything to avoid, but because it’s The Season, we must, out of some arbitrary sense of goodwill and obligation, tolerate people we don’t like, even if it’s just for one or two days. I think this is the stress that irritates people the most. It’s also what ultimately gets to me.

People work themselves into a frenzy over food, wines, spirits, seating charts, whom to invite and being a diplomat to avoid blow ups. But why? Christmas holidays apart isn’t it hypocritical to be nice to someone you usually don’t have time of day for the other 364 days of the year? This mentality is not unique to Christmas. This mentality is prevalent in the Chinese New Year holiday every year too. Growing up, my grandmother banned us (yes, she physically and verbally banned us) from having a cross word or unkind feelings against another person, especially people in our family. Any whisper of complaint about someone we don’t like, she’d immediately hush us and say ‘It’s New Year, stop it.’ The reason for this are many. First, it’s considered bad luck or inauspicious to wish bad thoughts on others or oneself during this annual almost sacred holiday. Second, it’s also a holiday promoting togetherness and family harmony. Specifically in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and any other country where a dominant Chinese population is present, people get 7 to 10 days paid vacation during Chinese New Year for the sole purpose of allowing people to return to their families and celebrate the new season (Spring) and new Year. Thirdly, it’s a ‘new year’, it’s also a time of renewal. Out with the old and in with the new and this includes emotional baggage, grudges, unkind thoughts and feelings towards oneself and others; failure to do this can bring the bad baggage and the bad luck associated with it with us into the new year.

So Americans whipping themselves up into a holiday frenzy of trying to appease everyone and be the best host possible is understandable to me. But how much of it is driven by unrealistic expectations from society and commercial marketing of how a ‘good’ Christmas should look? We all sigh and moan about our in-laws or the creepy uncle who tells racist jokes when he’s drunk, but yet, we still bust our behind to make everyone happy, even at the expense of ourselves. As a hostess for several Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I fell victim to this. On top of making sure my house is perfectly decorated, tidied, all the lights on, making sure the food and drinks are in order, by the time the guests arrive and we are ready to enjoy the food I prepared, I just want to call it a night with Netflix and a bottle of wine on my nightstand. I realize that everyone is having fun except me, which is what the aim of every good hostess is, making sure all of her guests are happy. As a young unmarried woman, I fancied myself a mini-Martha Stewart hosting fabulous dos and get togethers, when I became a married woman with a house to which I can host parties in, I realized I liked idea of being a Martha Stewart more than the reality of being a Martha Stewart. I was rubbish at hosting people I didn’t know well. I am not a natural conversation starter and I find myself refilling my wine glass too often hoping the evening would pass faster.

My idea of a good Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is a potluck style dinner with lots of wine with my closets friends, people I’ve known a long time, where I don’t need to stay on neutral topics and avoid discussion of politics and controversial subjects, where we can get rowdy and loud without judgment and do and say as we please. This is precisely what I did for this Thanksgiving, it was the best one I’ve had in years. For Christmas we’ve been invited to a relative’s home where other guests might include a corporate lawyer and police officer. I am deciding if I should do the polite thing and stay on neutral topics or go nuclear. I am trending towards the latter.

Happy Holidays!