The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.

The Price of Sex

This is (probably, I might come back to it if I have trouble thinking of material) the last post I will be doing in this mini-series on the subject of sex.  Today’s title is probably the bluntest of the series as a whole, and yet is probably most descriptive of its post’s content, as today I am going to be dealing with the rather edgy subject of prostitution.

Prostitution is famously quoted as being the world’s oldest profession, and it’s not hard to see why. Since men tend to have physical superiority over women they have tended to adopt overlord roles since the ‘hitting other people with clubs and shouting “Ug”‘ stage, women have, as previously stated, tended to be relatively undervalued and underskilled (in regards to stuff other than, oh I don’t know, raising kids and foraging for food with a degree of success often exceeding that of hunting parties, although that is partly to do with methodology and I could spend all day arguing this point). In fact it can be argued that the only reason that some (presumably rather arrogant) male-dominated tribes didn’t just have done with women as a gender is purely down to sex- partly because it allowed them to father children but mostly, obviously, because they really enjoyed it. Thus the availability of sex was historically not a woman’s most valuable asset to her male peers, but since it was something that men couldn’t/would rather not sort out between themselves it took on a great degree of value. It could even be argued that women have been ‘selling’ sex in exchange for being allowed to exist since the earliest origins of a male-dominated tribe structure, although you’d have to check with an actual anthropologist to clarify that point.

Since those early days of human history, prostitution has always remained one of those things that was always there, sort of tucked into the background and that never made most history books. However, that’s  not to say it has not affected history- the availability of pleasures of the flesh has kept more than one king away from his duties and sent his country into some degree of turmoil, and even Pope Alexander VI (a la, among other things, Assassin’s Creed II) once famously hired 50 prostitutes for a party known as the Ballet of the Chestnuts, where their clothes were auctioned off before both courtesans and guests (including several clergymen) crawled naked over the floor to first pick up chestnuts, and later compete to see who could have the most sex. In fact, for large swathes of history, prostitution was considered a relatively popular profession among lowborn women, whose only other choices were generally the church (if you could afford to get in), agriculture (which involved backbreaking toil, malnourishment and a generally poor quality of life), or serving work if you were lucky. It was relatively well-paid, required no real skill, was more exciting than most other walks of life and far less risky than a life of crime. Even nowadays sex workers are held with a degree of respect in many countries (such as The Netherlands and New Zealand) as being people stuck in a difficult situation who really don’t need the law trying to screw over (if you’ll pardon the pun) what little they have.

However, that doesn’t mean, and never has done, that prostitution is just some harmless little sideshow that we should simply ignore. The annual death rate among female prostitutes in the USA is around 200 per 100,000, meaning that over a (say) 10 year career one in fifty are likely to be killed. Compare that to a rate of 118 per 100,000 for America’s supposedly most dangerous profession, being a lumberjack. Added to this is the fact that prostitutes, many of whom are illegal immigrants, runaways or imported slaves, are rarely missed or even noticed by society, so make easy victims for predators and serial killers. Prostitution is often seen as a major contributory factor in the continued spread of STD’s such as HIV/AIDS, and is often targeted by women’s rights groups as being both degrading to women both directly involved and indirectly associated as well as slowing the decline of chauvinist attitudes. Then there is sex tourism (aka travelling to somewhere like Thailand to hire prostitutes because at home people might see you coming out), which is rapidly becoming one of the most distasteful, as well as dangerous & counter-productive, aspects of 21st century tourism. And then, of course, there is sex trafficking, perhaps the lowest of the low as far as all human activities go. Sex trafficking is the practice of abducting young women to sell into slavery as prostitutes, both within a country and across international borders, which would be morally repugnant enough if it wasn’t for the fact that a significant proportion of those trafficked are children, sometimes sold even by their own families. Around three-quarters of human trafficking today, the largest slavery operation in the history of the world, is concerned with the global sex trade, and is the fastest growing criminal activity on the planet. Much of it is connected to other aspects of organised crime, such as the drugs wars in Mexico, and can therefore be directly linked to large-scale theft, murder and smuggling, amongst other crimes. In India & Bangaladesh, some 40% of prostitutes are thought to be children, many of whom use a highly addictive drug linked to diabetes and high blood pressure to make them seem older & fatter (research suggests that men find fuller physiques more attractive when under stress or hardship). Looking through some of these figures & reading some of the stories surrounding them, it’s hard not to be struck by how low humanity has the potential to stoop when it ceases to think or care.

Over the last 100 or so years, as life has got less hard for the average woman and job opportunities have expanded, prevailing attitudes towards, and the prevalence & amount of, prostitution have declined heavily, and it is now frequently seen more as a rather distasteful sideshow to modern living that most would rather avoid. But to contrast against this we have the fact that the industry is both very much alive across the world, but could even be said to be thriving- the ‘labour’ of slave prostitutes is worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. The trouble is, because it is an inherently seedy sideshow, it is impossible to get rid of, with legislation usually causing it to merely go underground and leading to further degradation in living conditions and welfare of sex workers, and regulating it is similarly tricky. Thus, it’s very hard for governments to know what to do about an industry that they recognise will always be there but is immensely prone to crime, human rights abuse and health issues. Unless the world, in a rather unlikely twist learns to live largely without prostitutes, a black stain is unfortunately likely to remain on our pride and dignity as a race. Exactly how this should be dealt with is still a little unclear.