Trees, films and yes: still, the pub.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre…
W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming
I thought about enshittification again last night.
We watched the new Napoleon movie. Actually, technically: we watched half. It was so bad we decided to stagger the experience over two nights rather than subject ourselves mercilessly to the whole awful two and a half hours in one sitting.
Because Napoleon is AWFUL. Not the man, the movie. The man maybe too, who knows, I wasn’t there.
But the movie? I was there. Convince me that ChatGPT didn’t write most of this script. Go on, I dare you.
This is what happens when Apple decides it needs a movie (ooh, let’s do a Napoleon biopic! Great idea, Chad!) and the script is an afterthought.
I’ve never seen such an expensively-produced pile of dog shit.
This is how the dialogue goes in Napoleon:
“Oh!” Look alarmed. “Obvious thing?”
Nod sagely. “Repeat obvious thing.”
“Oh no. Sarcastic and inappropriately modern turn of phrase.”
“Indeed. Also: other obvious thing.”
No one — repeat, no one — talks like this. Not now, not in France in 1795, not ever. Humans, I find, usually have at least a modicum of humour and nuance.
I’m sorry, David Scarpa, screenwriter of such other luminous hits as … The Last Castle? Gladiator 2? You are a walking case study of misplaced White Male Confidence. Please find another profession. You are not a writer. Certainly: you are not a writer of dialogue.
The only good bits in the movie? Costumes. Shots of the pyramids. Prussian soldiers marching like orcs in the Lord of the Rings.
In a word: all of the scenes without words. Any scene with zero dialogue. When there’s no talking, no one needs to deliver any turgid lines or hound to misery any elusive plot points.
Those moody battles, troops emerging from mists? Great. Soldiers silently light-signalling secret messages? Epic. I’ve never had a hankering to be present at the Battle of Austerlitz but this is brilliant.
Until they open their mouths. As soon as the characters start moving their jaws, the whole thing vanishes like a horse through cannon-smashed ice. Even actors like Joaquin Phoenix — actors who could light up even the grimmest lines — become puppets, wooden as fuck.
This movie represents a great idea, a shit load of money, and somebody eventually remembering, several months into production, oh right, we need a script. Hey, how about the guy who wrote Gladiator 2? Remember Gladiator 2?1 No? Well, that’s good. He’ll write us a script on the cheap because we already spent most of our ludicrously outsized budget on amazing costumery, blowing up fake horses and filming cool battle scenes on frozen lakes.
Don’t believe me?
Napoleon at breakfast: “Why aren’t you pregnant?”
Napoleon at dinner: “Get pregnant.” [Throws lamb chop]
His mother, interrupting him with a bunch of officers in an after-dinner salon:
“The girl is pregnant.” Once more, for the cheap seats at the back. “You’ve made the girl pregnant.”
Did everyone catch that? The girl, she’s pregnant.
If this isn’t enshittification, I don’t know what is. It’s as subtle as a cannonball in the groin.
I’m angry at myself. They know people will still pay. We did. Mission accomplished. Your screenplay is garbage but it doesn’t matter. I just helped you prove that good writing doesn’t matter.
I had a boyfriend once who gifted me a valuable truism.
When people want to distance themselves from someone else’s fuck-up, they say “it is what it is” — but when people want to dilute their own fuckuppery, they include you in it. “We are where we are”.2
That boyfriend exhausted his use quickly but the truism has staying power.
I imagine the Napoleon costumier — or the sound effects guy, maybe — talking to the screenwriter, possibly blowing a cloud of smoke in his face.
“Don’t shrug at me and say ‘we are where we are’. No, bitch. You are where you are. Leave me the fuck out of it.”
Feeling despondent, I went for a lunchtime walk today.
It looks cold: marsh-studded fields under a Turner sky, all purple and orange bruises.
The ice is thick enough that it doesn’t crack when I dab it with an exploratory boot toe. Nor when I go a bit harder. It’s glassy where shallow, and firm, three quarters of an inch thick. A scrap of new moon like a fingernail clipping, pasted on a blue sky.
Below it, the pub. Still empty, still for sale.
Up the lane, across the river, somebody’s Christmas tree is out for collection. The clank of machinery where some wealthy newcomer is gutting their cottage for a kitchen extension.
The newcomers are always putting up new fake stone walls. The new walls are always tumbling down. They’re made out of blocks of uniform size, machine-cut. Not like the old walls, of wonky hand-cut pieces, each one selected from a vast pile for suitability.
Those old walls stand for hundreds of years. Someone spent time finding the right stone each time. Each one fits perfectly. Slightly uneven, they make a perfect join. Not like the new Jenga block towers of rectangles slapped up quickly, efficiently — only to freeze-thaw-bulge and tumble.
The river is sluggish. It spent itself last week when it was a raging churn. Now it sounds slow, and cold.
We had the bridge inspector round checking to see whether the bridge had been compromised in the flooding (it hadn’t: it was built before machine-cut stones). I told the story in the pub on Friday.
“I was at the kitchen window in my bathrobe and looked up and there was a man standing in our river. Scared the shit out of me.”
That raised some hackles.
“It’s not your river. You can’t own a river.”
He’s right, of course you can’t. It’s not my river. It belongs to the trout. The blackbirds. A pair of ducks with seasonal ducklings, and the occasional otter.
I know it is cold though. Joel and I get in it sometimes, for a dare, when we lose a bet.
The first time we did it was for the Great British Bake Off winner. I picked one guy and Joel another, on the understanding that the loser would get in the river. We both agreed there was no chance the third would win — and that we would both take a dip if he pulled it off.
Well, spoiler: the third guy won. Joel and I both went in the river that night.
It’s not our river. We take care of it — pull the nettles, let the marsh lilies spill unchecked and bolster the bank — and we enjoy it sometimes. But it’s not ours.
Still walking, I came upon an oak. It’s thicker around than my car, a new orange paint splodge on it roadside.
That orange fills me with dread.
They will chop it down, I think. They will come with machines and chainsaws and they will take it down, in gouts of sawdust and wood pith. Hundreds of years of oak life will be gone in minutes. Like the pub, like quality original screenplays. Gone.
I look up. The branches are a city, I think. I could live on planks up there, like the Swiss Family Robinson. Pulleys would carry up my water and wooden tubes to a makeshift bathroom for the shower. I’d never have to watch terrible movies again.
I take a picture, several pictures, of the tree.
Then, I am not alone. An older man with boots like mine and a beanie with a cow’s head on it.
“Did they smile for you?”
I’m still thinking about the tree. “Sorry, what?”
He indicates the shaggy, rare-breed goats lurking in the field. “The goats. Did they smile?”
I tell him all about the orange splodge and how worried I am that it means they will chop down the tree.
“Yes, probably. Although they could just take off that branch.” He indicates the one overhanging the road and power lines. “But I’m afraid they can be very heavy-handed.”
He tells me where in the village he lives. “The one with the conifers in the front garden,” he says. “They used to be Christmas trees, imagine that! In little pots.”
“Ah, they’ve escaped!” I love tales of Christmas trees gone rogue.
“Yes, we planted them out decades ago. One of them is a Norway blue. It has the longest needles you’ve ever seen… ”
I tell him about the stump in our back garden, big enough for all four children to sit on. The lady who sold me the house said it was a Christmas tree she planted out fifty years ago. It was a hundred feet high and the neighbours complained to the council. The council came round and took it down.
I told him how, when we first moved in, that same neighbour asked me what I was planning on doing about the massive linden tree on our corner.
I genuinely had no idea what she meant.
Eyebrows raised almost to back of head.
“You know there’s no preservation order on it, right? There would be a lot of support on this street if you wanted to take it down.”
“Take it down? Why would I do that? It’s beautiful. I love it.”
Eyebrows raised even further, which hadn’t seemed possible.
“Well. Wait til the summer when it’s dripping all over your car.”
In the summer, it drips all over my car.3 I still love it.
These same neighbours also came round once to tell me I had to keep the children quiet in the garden.
At the time, I was amused. I couldn’t believe anyone could be such a Roald Dahl villain, the kind of grouchy child-hating adult that George brews medicine for or who gets the shrinks or has chalk fly at them from across the classroom.
“They’re children. It’s summer. They’re playing outside. They’re not fighting, they’re not arguing. They’re playing and having fun in their own garden. I’m not going to tell them to be quiet.”
“Oh!” Triumphant exchange of glances. “Now we know what kind of people you are.”
I was bemused. Joel and I looked at each other. What kind of people are we?
I shrugged. “I’m a lawyer. He’s a software engineer.”
My new friend at the oak tree tells me there are plenty who would like to take down his magnificent conifers. He tells me about a neighbour near him who moved in to a house with an enormous walnut tree: an ancient, massive one with a tree preservation order on it.
“I don’t know how he got around that TPO but, one morning... .” He draws a line across his throat. “Gone.”
We talk about some more locally magnificent trees. My particularly fine linden. A handsome and protected grove of horse chestnuts.
Eventually we part, having agreed roundly on the need to protect our fine local trees.
And pubs, I think.
By the time I’m rounding for home the light has faded to pink. A lone male pheasant, plump and swift, races to beat me to a clump of brush down in the vale of the river. The mud of the path stands out in firm lumps, semi-frozen.
Across the valley, on the other side, I can see the back of the pub, warm in the fading light.
My ears are numb, and my nose.
I am suffused with a great foreboding. We try, and we try, and we try — and, ultimately, we mostly fail to resist the rising tide of shit.
We didn’t get the grant funding to buy the pub. It’s an election year, the Tories are on their way out and no one gives a fuck about saving a village pub.
It is what it is.
We’re still trying though. We’ve raised £120k. The share offer is still open. We’re exploring other options.
It is still always worth trying.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Post-facto editorial: Turns out Gladiator 2 is slated for release later this year. Guess which movie I won’t be paying to stream. Learned my lesson.
Point of fact: it isn’t the tree that drips. It’s the tiny aphids that shit a juicy, sticky kind of sap that falls in a fine mist all summer long. The aphid-juice is called ‘honeydew’.