Apex capitalism

The Apple Vision Pro represents the end of something. Or possibly the beginning. It’s an apex product from an apex economy.

Stylised front-on photo of Apple Vision Pro VR headset against a black background

What we know about capitalism – liberal democracy, Western economic dominance – suggests some kind of discontinuity is coming, some kind of historic break or epochal crisis. A lot of people accept this. Meanwhile, the happy plateau we were expecting from the 21st Century never materialised and the steady growth in incomes and wellbeing we were promised stopped years ago.

The exception

Except in America. Since Covid and the economic shock of the Ukraine war the US economy has essentially entirely rebounded. Growth is up, jobs are up and inflation is close to the Fed’s 2% target. This is not, of course, to say that there’s anything ideal about the US economy or permanent about this upturn. And the paradoxes of US economic power – out-of-control poverty and precarity, healthcare and housing in permanent crisis and so on – are self-evident. The American economy, though, continues to have all sorts of advantages, advantages that compound over time and help us to explain, er, the Apple Vision Pro:

The USA is the largest producer and the largest exporter of both oil and gas. Until 2016 it was literally illegal to export oil from the USA – a remarkable, unprecedented change in direction that is probably the biggest single contribution to the economy’s current robustness. The irony of the fact that the US economy is switching to renewable energy more quickly than anyone anticipated and thus needs a lot less of this oil and gas domestically is, of course, profound.

The country has the largest agricultural sector in the world and is the largest exporter of food. Huge expanses of fertile land of many different kinds, intensive production methods and light regulation (and huge federal subsidies, natch) make food in the USA cheap and accessible. This is not secondary to America’s success. Cheap calories is the most elemental fuel for a booming economy.

The US stock market is vast and getting bigger. The S&P 500, the main index of American stocks, is worth 60% of the whole world’s market capitalisation. The numbers are bonkers. As of today (9 February 2024) the largest company in the American system (Microsoft) is worth roughly the same ($3.17T) as the whole of the London stock exchange’s FTSE all-shares index ($2.91T). Every traded business in the UK added together gives you one Microsoft (or one Apple, for that matter).

The country has a larger working-age population, as a proportion of the overall population, than any other developed economy and it’ll be like that for longer. There’ll be a population crunch in the USA but it’s a lot further off than it is in Europe or Asia. Flexible, available labour will continue to drive the American economy (Southern border crisis notwithstanding).

America’s domestic economy is enormous and essentially insulates the country from the vagaries of world trade. Even the biggest world economies depend much more on the continued health of all the other economies. It’s difficult to calculate the exclusively domestic component of the US economy but, in 2022, US households spent $2.39T on food in grocery stores and on eating out – roughly the GDP of Italy. 335 Million people organised into a single economy with a very high level of integration, high disposable incomes and frictionless internal trade – and now energy independence – turns out to be a big deal. The 20th Century logic of world trade is unravelling, mercantilism is making a comeback and economies are hardening their borders. The USA will hardly notice.

Lockheed Martin Tomahawk cruise missile from from below against a blue sky

The tech economy and the warfare economy. You don’t need me to tell you that the US tech sector dominates the world (see the top five stocks above – MSFT, AAPL, AMZN, NVDA, GOOGL) but the country’s military sector – manufacturing and contracting – is also vast and has the unique advantage of not really needing an export market. Plenty of F-35s and Hummers are sold worldwide but the American military buys more kit than all the other militaries put together. Since the Authorization for use of Military Force, passed by Congress a few days after 9/11, military manufacturing in the USA has been essentially on a war footing, an unending bonanza for the contractors and manufacturers – and for the US economy. The US defence budget for this year is $842B, somewhere between the GDP of Poland and Switzerland. If you add in export income from weapons sales, aid to other countries that returns to the USA in defence contracts and space you have an economic powerhouse unprecedented in world history – a shadow nation grounded in warfare.

And all this is essentially self-sustaining, an arrangement continually renewed by a thoroughly captured Congress: a perpetual motion money printer. If Raytheon never sold another Tomahawk missile abroad they’d barely notice. This cannot be said about other warfare-dependent nations, like the UK, where a constant stream of new beligerant dictatorships must be secured to sustain the industry. The American economy has a military economy – with investment and manufacturing on an amplified, war-footing cadence, on the scale of a large developed country – inside it. America cannot help but pull ahead of those nations lodged in the older model of a civil polity that steps up to war once or twice per century. In combination with that long list of advantages, the USA looks like the unassailable world-historical superpower to end all unassailable world-historical superpowers.

I don’t want to idealise the American economy. I really don’t. And even the most basic logic of reversion to the mean must, presumably, eventually apply. Can a single economy so enormously exceed the mean forever? A quarter of a century past the end of history – and well into the end of the end of history – can an economy expect to continue to add wealth and complexity at the same pace? Can a capitalist economy indefinitely resist collapse into a more primitive shape, a less productive form?

What’s this got to do with anything?

Well, now there’s the Vision Pro, a new product from Apple that seems to stand at the junction, right on the brink of the discontinuity. It’s evidently an extraordinary bit of kit and it has the potential to jar the matrix, change the way we think about computing, in the way the Mac did forty years ago. I haven’t even met one yet but it’s giving me the kind of tingles I got when I essentially bullied my dad into buying me a Mac Plus and when I got an iPod couriered from California before they were available in the UK.

But why all the numbers? Well, this new device is a creature of the American boom and of the spinning flywheel of the American tech innovation machine. It’s a condensation of all those advantages and all those crazy distortions. Not directly, of course – no pork bellies here, no space lasers – but the Vision Pro could not have been produced in any other economy. It combines breakthroughs in half a dozen areas. Not raw innovation – this is an Apple device after all – but brilliant integration of features developed elsewhere. And each one of these features – the gorgeous hi-res displays, the subtle and beautiful UI, the eye-tracking and gestures and all the rest – each one represents the very peak of an industrial discipline, of a software or hardware or project-management culture. There’s a level of integration and completeness that hardly any organisation could match and that really only an American organisation with access to essentially unlimited capital could fund.

In this sense, the Vision Pro seems in some way overdetermined, too richly-provisioned, too designed, too complete. And in this it really does seem like a creature of an economy at its apex, of a culture that cannot be further refined, of a state that has reached its organisational and economic peak.

But I should say that I thought this about previous Apple products too (and I have to remind you that I haven’t even seen one of these things yet so you’ll have to forgive me if when you buy yours it turns out to be a bit Russell Hobbs). I remember an uncanny feeling when I unpacked my first Mac and set it amongst all the junk on my desk in Camberwell. It seemed to possess an extra dimension of detail, of conceptual complexity. It made all the other bits of kit, even the lovely ones, like my Nikon and my Walkman, seem half-finished, barely thought-through. From another era.

On that Mac Plus I wrote my undergraduate dissertation. I’d found a quote from Jacques Derrida about nuclear war. He said that nuclear war, unlike previous kinds of conflict, would be ‘fabulously textual’, which was a phrase I loved. What he was describing, of course, was the complexity and technological density of modern weapons systems but also the layers of inscription, meaning and signification embedded in them. I remember thinking my Mac, a product of the Silicon Valley outpost of what had already been the apex economy for decades, was definitely also fabulously textual.

  • The Vision Pro has competition and some devices – from Meta, for instance – have been around for years. They’re basically simpler and cheaper, they come from a little further back down the complexity curve and will mop up billions of dollars of business from the markets and users that can’t quite stomach the cost and complexity of the apex device.
  • Over the long run, since the 1980s approximately, incomes in the most of the developed world have stagnated for working people. The USA is no exception.
  • This was really all triggered by an ep of the Vergecast. The breathless excitement about the Vision Pro launch was infectious (there was scepticism too) but what seemed really significant was something kind of hermetic about the discussion. I realised there was no discussion at all of the world beyond the USA (or beyond the product’s highly-paid, tech-literate customer base for that matter). I realised that, for these journalists, there was really no need to consider the world beyond at all. This extraordinary bit of kit, one of the most complex consumer devices ever launched, marrying half a dozen bleeding-edge technologies, will almost certainly produce big international sales but, to be honest, it doesn’t really need to.
  • Another trigger for this was an episode of the FT’s excellent Unhedged podcast.
  • Since the beginning of the year, Microsoft’s market cap has increased from $2.75T to $3.17T – an increase of $420B, approximately the value of the top three UK businesses added together.
  • Since I published this post, Apple and Microsoft have changed places at the top of the S&P and Apple’s market cap is now $128B larger than Microsoft’s – that increase alone is approximately the total value of HSBC, the third-largest company in the FTSE.

On the spectrum

Two novels, one small and mean, one vast and generous, both magnificent

Christmas-time I started a bookclub in our house – with mixed results if I’m honest. It’s called ‘The Small Book Club’ and I seeded it with a pile of cheap and second-hand novels all of which are less than 200 pages long (some less than 100). You can see what I’m trying to do here – I’m trying to overcome the collapsed attention spans and poisonous TikTok habits of my family by offering them only short books to read. Like I said, mixed results (my own collapsed attention span and poisonous TikTok habit aren’t helping).

Anyway, one of my children actually read a book from the pile – Nabokov’s ‘The Eye‘ – and, when we were chatting about it afterwards, provided a review that ought to be printed on the back of the book. She called it: ‘incel Sherlock Holmes’.

I honestly can’t argue with that. I mean this little mystery is a malignant jewel, composed of equal parts corrosive irony, elemental disdain and lofty amusement. Nabokov doesn’t have a humanist bone in his body. He’s like an aesthete Jordan Peterson. His perspective is so powerfully misanthropic – even the sympathetic characters are drawn with such withering hostility that it’s impossible to identify with anyone here. And the other characters occupy a spectrum that goes from weak and insipid, via stupid and venal all the way to cruel and murderous (also imaginary or dead or both).

I know this doesn’t come close to capturing the magnificence of Nabokov – and I wouldn’t be grand enough to think that I could – and I may have been sensitised to this little book’s nastiness and disdain by the fact that I’ve almost finished another, much bigger book – Victor Hugo’s vast, I mean really vast Les Misérables, which – at least for the minute – is the grandest, most big-hearted and humane (also silly and occasionally demented) work of art I’ve ever encountered.

In fact, I grandly conclude that the two novels define, between them, the entire universe of possibility for a novelist. The whole spectrum. Everything that is achievable in a novel must, necessarily, sit on the line between these two books – between The Eye’s perfect and hateful 80 pages and Les Misérables’ perfect and generous 1,500.

They’re as different as two novels could possibly be. The Eye embodies what must be the very end, the very end-stop, of the novelistic form – beyond which it collapses into all those shorter forms and less magically coherent shapes. And I’m sure Les Misérables must constitute the most expansive form that the novel has ever taken (seriously, it’s bigger and more inclusive than Ulysses – in fact, imagine Ulysses exploded and stretched across 17 years and every lane and back alley and upstairs room in France and you have Les Misérables).

And, really, I’m ready to accept that this spectrum of novels thing is almost certainly unsupportable. I mean there are probably other axes that go off at various angles from the line at the very least – where you’ll find all the other branches of novel-writing and literary expression and involvement with life and love and death and so on.

I’ve been reading Les Misérables for over a year. It was supposed to be all over on 31 December last year (there are 365 chapters, you see, so I’d getting through it one short chapter per day in a satisfying way) but my Kindle died in October and a kind of defeated tech ennui set in so the project stalled. But I’m back into it now and in the final stretch. Hugo had some ambitions for this one, his eighth novel:

The book before the reader’s eyes at this moment is from start to finish, in its entirety and in its detail – whatever the inconsistencies, the exceptions and the failings – the progression from evil to good, from wrong to right, from night to day, from craving to conscience, from putrefaction to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Point of departure: matter. Point of arrival: spirit. Hydra at the outset, angel at the last.

Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables (Penguin Classics) (p. 1114).

Nabokov had some thoughts about the scope of his book, but they’re different – somehow meaner (this is from the 1965 foreword):

I have always been indifferent to social problems, merely using the material that happened to be near, as a voluble diner pencils a street corner on the table cloth or arranges a crumb and two olives in a diagrammatic position between menu and salt cellar.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Eye (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 2).

Of course, we enjoy Nabokov’s disdain for us: for his meal ticket, his reason for being. It’s bracing. We forgive him even the several gargantuan spoilers, right here, in the book’s foreword (added for this English edition in 1965). We must be weak.

  • Vladimir Nabokov, The Eye, 1930 (Nabokov’s own 1965 translation).
  • Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862 (Christine Donoghue’s 2015 translation).
  • All the books in The Small Book Club, so far.
  • When reading Les Misérables i was constantly getting lost (partly because of the ridiculous way Kindle eBooks are organised, it should be said. Thanks Jeff) so I – seriously – made a spreadsheet listing all 365 chapters so I could tick them off. It’s public. You’re welcome.
  • Margaret Lockwood loves Nabokov.
  • You can get this stuff on Goodreads.
  • And if you’re going to tackle Ulysses, do yourself a favour – own the book obvs but listen to the sublime audiobook, read by peerless Jim Norton (Bishop Whatsisname from Father Ted) and an uncredited (also peerless) woman for the Molly bit.


Grey-painted window frames courtyard at Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Geometric pattern of windows and wall panels creates abstract image. Bright orange panel on opposite wall is a highlight
Grey-painted window frames courtyard at Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Geometric pattern of windows and wall panels creates abstract image. Bright orange panel on opposite wall is a highlight
Grey-painted window frames courtyard at Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Geometric pattern of windows and wall panels creates abstract image. Bright orange panel on opposite wall is a highlight

More like this on old-school photo-sharing site Flickr. And, incidentally, I’ve been sharing my pics to Flickr for twenty years, which is making my head spin a bit. Still the only place that gives me the control I like over metadata, privacy and ownership, though. Seems crazy that Flickr still has essentially no competition, even from the brilliant, AI-assisted Google Photos and Apple iCloud.

Three films that are not one hundred years old

My Substack newsletter is called GROSS. I’m writing about all the top-grossing films since 1913 – but I’ve made an exception for the new year and reviewed three films from 2023.

I feel like I want subscribers to know that I occasionally watch a modern film. Normal service will resume with the next movie, 1931’s biggest hit the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein OMG.

(What you’ll get from GROSS is plain-language film reviews with some political, cultural and economic context – a materialist critique of the immaterial joys of the movies)

Animated gif from 2023 film May December. In the foreground Julianne Moore as Gracie. Over her shoulder her Natalie Portman as Elizabeth approaches

May December – never mind the quality, feel the width

Everyone loves this one. It’s in all the best-of-year lists. So you’ll probably disagree but I found it impossible to get past the acting. I mean there’s so much of it. So much in fact that the film turns in on itself and becomes hard to watch – involuted, hyper-ironic. By the time we got to the bit where one of the actors is acting the role of the actor acting the role of the real person who’s actually acted by one of the other actors, I’d essentially lost my grip on reality and found myself just randomly acting in my own house. And I’m not an actor. I understand this excess of acting may be some kind of second-order acting gag. That I might be supposed to laugh at all this acting and acting-upon-acting, that it’s a kind of actors’ in-joke. Actors laughing at themselves for all the acting. Sorry, I cannot.

Animated gif from 2023 film The Creator. Madeleine Yuna Voyles as AI robot Alpha-O/Alphie turns her head

The Creator – geopolitics in the future is hilarious and stupid

I honestly wanted to like this one. The grand imagery is persuasive, the central robot character is charming. But I ultimately couldn’t handle the ton-weight of Vietnam War analogies (and the grating analogies for American folly in general). My Lai, wartime Saigon, Abu Ghraib, Shock and Awe, Kilgore in his chopper, the highway of death, a kind of Cheney-McNamara hybrid, the Vietcong and the NVA, Condoleezza Rice, a traumatised vet with a grudge. They’re all here. And American policy in the movie seems to be essentially a Kissinger-inspired illegal bombing campaign. It’s a neocon-end of history clusterfuck. American imperial stupidity and solipsism projected forward 40 years.

The future world (we’re in the 2060s) seems to have been divided up using something resembling Orwell’s old map – the ‘New Asian Republic’ is the embodiment of the various paranoid Westen ‘Greater China’ fantasies – it seems to take in a large part of the Continent.

The story’s laboured AI parable is hardly less grating. The film wants us to believe that all the American corporate AI hysteria of the present day evolves into a lethal and deceptive military-industrial conspiracy (not, in itself, implausible). And that this machine is intent on destroying the benign AI settlement arrrived at in New Asia – where robots and humans (and ‘simulants’) co-exist happily, working in rice paddies and robot factories in happy mixed crews. In one establishing scene, a subtitled villager, about to be mown down by a stupid American special forces grunt, shouts something like “you can’t fight AI, it’s evolution!”

In fact, the stupidity and wickedness of the American forces is a theme. The squad sent to recover ‘the weapon’, a device thought to have world-ending power, is so inadequate as to be laughable. At one point, a distracted sergeant and ‘the new guy’ (our equally distracted hero, a human who has sympathy for the AIs because he’s going out with one) are left to recover it from an underground mega-vault. The sergeant is soon dispatched, of course.

Meanwhile, the weapon (actually a cute child-robot hybrid engineered to end all weapons) and our hero basically wander off. This happens multiple times. Vast American resources, er, miss the target, fall into the sea, get blown up by their own bombs (later on we learn that the destruction of Los Angeles – blamed on the AIs – that triggered all this argie-bargie in the first place might even have been American nuclear ‘human error’ – by this point we are not surprised).

I can’t tell if this focus on American incompetence is a deep critique of US military hubris or a cheap way to advance the story. You could easily decompose The Creator’s script into a series of material errors – oops – each of which terminates a scene and sets up the next. It’s mechanical. I won’t tell you how the film ends. I think you can probably work it out. It might be a metaphor for Taiwan or Ukraine or ChatGPT or Elon Musk or something.

Animated gif from 2023 animated film The Boy and the Heron. Frogs climb over a boy

The Boy and the Heron – dark swansong

It’s Miyazaki Hayao’s twelfth feature as a director (and his first in ten years). Most people had assumed he’d retired. If it were a live action film it would be in the horror section. Large parts of the movie, especially the middle section, take the form of an arbitrary sequence of inexplicable events, structured like a dream – a nightmare, in fact. In the cinema where I saw it people were laughing at the giant parakeets. This was a nervous reaction. The parakeets are terrifying and obviously the product of a nightmare (I read that they stand for the fascist bootboys of the wartime regime in Japan).

Likewise the bitter little old man who’s somehow lodged inside the beautifully-drawn heron of the title and the endless corridor of randomly numbered doors (I’m pretty sure I’ve had that dream) and the series of portals linking one unlikely location with the next and the ravenous pelicans and the long corridor that ends in a bright light and the tiny wooden dolls and the spooky stacking stones and the frightening avatar for the hero’s dead mother who haunts the film (and don’t get me started on the frogs).

And this nightmare is a profound one that begins in the trauma of a child’s experience of fire bombing. The war is present – floating embers and fierce flames recall the raid that killed our hero Mahito’s mother and we see the the fighter plane parts that his boorish father’s factory makes – fighter plane cockpit farings inexplicably shipped hither and thither on donkey carts – themselves from a bad dream.

We’re in a recognisably Ghibli world – the gorgeous clouds, the fields, the steam trains, the cute Datsun. But this is not Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. The boy is on his own (his father’s a bore), the characters he meets are more likely to mean him ill than to help. Chaos and confusion are not resolved. It’s a dark and disorienting world. This one’s going to be with me for a while.

Final act for the streamers

Netflix introduced ads and now Amazon Prime too. It’s your fault.

Screenshot of Amazon Prime home page on 4 January 2024. Prominent at the top is Saltburn

It’s a three-act drama

In act one it’s about growth—extravagent, out-of-control, venture-funded growth—you remember that. Piling on millions—hundreds of millions—of users as quickly as possible. And in this act the product improves. It has to. Features are added with no concern for cost—bigger libraries, 4K and HDR video, better sound. Data centres blossom everywhere, fast caches and CDNs eliminate latency. Distribution partners are falling over themselves to sign up, production budgets are lavish—insane, in fact (how about $58M per episode?). This is how you acquire a big audience and a chunky annuity income fast.

In act two—in the classical model—it’s crisis. Cheap money is over, we’re told, capital is withdrawn, invested elsewhere, exit horizons shorten. Services collapse or are quietly closed. Even the biggest corporations—the heroes of previous eras—admit defeat: their shabby content libraries and derivative branding weren’t up to the job. And the sheer profusion of competing services with impenetrable offers and stupid names was bound to produce a shake-out. Carnage.

Act three brings resolution—consolidation. Services are merged, prices increased and catalogues simplified. And, for users, everything gets worse. Say goodbye to 4K and password sharing. And, worse, ads are inserted. For a CFO or an investor the logic of the last one is absolutely unarguable. A huge library of video files, sitting on expensive, top-tier servers all over the world, begins to look like an under-exploited asset—or, worse, a liability. I mean they’re really not paying their way are they, all those MP4s? Just sat there, earning a bit of subscription income.

In this phase, that precious movie library is redefined as a vast store of unsold advertising inventory. And, as the economics gets nastier, not inserting ads—not sweating your asset properly—begins to look like a mug’s game. Especially when everyone else is doing it. Investors will only have one question—when are we introducing ads? In this world, the audience is also redefined.

And you, the happy punter, originally thought to be literally the ideal customer because you were ready to give Netflix or Amazon or Hulu money every month whether you used the service or not (basically a mug) begin to look a bit ‘low-yield’. Not really working hard enough for a decent return on investment. You are now the problem.

‘Working class golf’ – the posh media will never understand it

A close-up image of a dart, against a white background. It's one of the darts used by Luke Littler, 16 year-old runner-up in the 2024 PDC world darts championship. On the flight the words 'The Nuke' are reproduced.

Broadcasters and journalists – please stop trying to explain darts.

I know you were privately educated and find darts to be kind of exotic – like chicken shops or pigeon racing – but when you invite a contributor to answer the question “…but is darts a sport?” or laughingly ask what “one-hundred-and-eighty!” means, you’re embarrassing yourself and your profession.

Every now and then we’re offered a vivid snapshot of the class composition of the British media and the instinctive prejudices of reporters, producers, editors and presenters. 16 year-old darts prodigy Luke Littler has given us a fresh illustration of the intractable and tedious ruling-class domination of the media in Britain, of the narrow and backward and tragically involuted interests of the major outlets.

Text from the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper 3 January 2024 - Sorry to all Luke Littler fans but darts is not a real sport. Comparing Littler to Tiger Woods is absurd as the teenage darts sensation does not lead the life of a professional athlete. Oliver Brown
Chief Sports Writer
Telegraph sports writer stays on message.

Darts has been a recognised, international sport for decades (although Sport England, the official body, dominated by the men in blazers, only offered darts formal recognition in 2005). The famous players of my youth – Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow, John Lowe – all went pro in the 1970s and were wealthy celebrities by the mid-eighties.

Black and white photograph of a group of men playing darts outside a pub in Wales. Details from the archive page: Mr Ifor Williams, the carpenter from Cynwyd near Corwen and his workers playing darts at lunchtime. Photographer: Geoff Charles. Date: 17/12/1964
Darts in 1964. From the Geoff Charles Collection at the National Library of Wales

Playing darts – and the various grassroots championships and tournaments – has been a vital platform for working class men and women to enjoy themselves, to compete, to win fame and even to make some money – for a hundred years. But as a proletarian sport darts has been labelled as aberrant, a permanent outsider to the real sports. Here the chief sports writer from the posh people’s paper explains that darts can’t be a sport because its latest superstar doesn’t work out like Tiger Woods did, dodging the more salient comparison between golf and darts—that when you think about them for more than about a minute they’re both splendidly, indefensibly ridiculous activities.

Real sports in Britain were invented on the playing fields of Eton (and Rugby obvs) and codified by aristocratic amateurs. A pastime that emerged from the pubs and clubs of working people, played in precious time off by people who worked six days a week, couldn’t possibly be elevated to the status of a sport. The very idea that a sport might emerge in a wholly working-class environment, in the total absence of middle-class officials or governing bodies (or PE teachers and headmasters) was anathema. It literally could not be a sport.

So when reporters sent off to attend darts matches amusedly observe the scenes at the back of the crowd, ask fans why on earth they’ve come all the way from Holland and ‘share the atmosphere’ like clever anthropologists who’ve noticed something interesting happening amongst the lower classes, they’re perpetuating the stupid, backward class hostility that still structures life in Britain. They should stay away (send someone from the sports desk).

Cover of paperback edition of Martin Amis's 1989 novel 'London Fields'. The cover is white with a large dart with red flights overlaid.
Posh literary dweeb Martin Amis wrote a whole novel about darts in 1989.

There have been quiet periods in the history of darts but the PDC world championship is now thirty years old (a break-away championship first contested by 16 leading players in 1994). Prize money was, from the very beginning – if not exactly Formula 1 – at least comparable to other world sports. Games were carried on live TV, winners were celebrated everywhere in the pop media. I once saw 1980s prodigy Phil “The Power” Taylor mobbed by fans and autograph hunters in an Irish airport. He was so chill.

The annual championship meeting has been filling the huge, main hall at Alexandra Palace for over 15 years. Every match sells out. I tried to get tickets for this year’s event months ago and evenings were going for over £250/ticket. Premier League footballers and soap stars fill the front tables.

Darts fans wearing traffic cone hats at the PDC world championship

PDC events have been noisy and chaotic – with crowds encouraged to dress up, bring signs and banners and come up with inventive chants – since at least the switch from Essex to Ally Pally in 2007. It’s one of the most entertaining sporting events you can watch live. Players enjoy the racket, play up to the audience and get extra energy from the noise behind them. Fans from Holland, Canada, the Baltics and elsewhere attend.

And to finish, the rules are really simple (there’s a handy one-page summary) and scoring is easy to understand (honestly, you could be an expert in ten minutes). Print them out and put them on the wall near the coffee machine.

  • This scientific study compares scoring results from historic matches with those from the period when matches were played without audiences during the pandemic and actually concludes that there’s a (slight) negative effect from having a noisy crowd in the room.
  • If you’re my age you may sometimes find yourself experiencing flashbacks to a 1970s ITV programme called The Indoor League, presented by retired cricketer Fred Trueman. On this 1975 episode you’ll see a 19 year-old Swedish prodigy Stefan Lord piling on the 180s and a tense women’s competition.
  • Women have probably played darts for as long as the men (see The Indoor League for examples of competitive women, some travelling from other countries to play, back in the seventies). The women’s World series has been played for over twenty years and there are now dozens of professional players.
  • Bullseye carried darts mania right through to the mid-nineties. It was a sweet show. Big-hearted entertainment from another era. Here’s a 1985 episode.
  • It was mega-promoter Barry Hearn who perceptively called darts ‘working class golf’—a game played by ordinary people with extraordinary skills.

No not that one, the other one


Animated gif - Napoleon, on the platform in the National Convention in 1795, still against the excited crowd behind him, from Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon

I’m publishing the occasional post from my newsletter about the history of film here on the blog. This one concerns the biggest international release of 1927. Not the biggest Hollywood release – that was The Jazz Singer. I’m reviewing that one separately. I really didn’t think I should miss the Napoléon opportunity, though, what with the Ridley Scott version soaring up the charts as we speak and everything. And this one is a very special film.

To start with, what is this film? It’s a biopic, it’s a love story, it’s pure mythography. It’s not a history. It runs to five-and-a-half hours but stops before we get to fully Continental Napoléon. In fact, he’s 27 when the film ends and still a second-ranking General making a name for himself in Italy. Gance wanted to finish the story but the talkies killed the project (the biggest Hollywood film of the same year was The Jazz Singer). We also wonder how on earth he’d have captured the peaks and troughs of the Emperor’s mighty narrative arc when he’s already given us the most dazzling, 4:1 wide-screen finale yet seen in a cinema.

Still from the finale of Abel Gance's Napoleon, showing the split-screen format tinted in the colours of the tricolour flag

What else? Continental Napoléon is present – he’s foreshadowed in a kind of dream-sequence speech he makes to all the dead revolutionaries in the empty hall of the Convention. Dead Marat asks “what are your plans, Napoléon?” and he replies “…the liberation of oppressed peoples, the fusion of great European interests, the suppression of frontiers… THE UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC!” This is the Napoléon loved by Beethoven and Goethe – but, if we’re honest, we know already that when he says ‘republic’ he means something more like “you know, a kind of Empire with a single, unquestioned Alexander-the-Great-type leader…” We learn also of his dastardly totalising ambitions for a European super-state with the free movement of persons and presumably nice burgundy Napoleonic passports – “Europe will beome a single people, and anyone, wherever he travels, will always find himself in a common father-land.”

Animated gif - in Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon, hastening to the Italian campaign by carriage, writes a note using a quill pen
On his way to the Italian campaign Napoléon writes orders for amunition and supplies – and love notes to Joséphine, all dispatched by fast horse to Paris.

Also, he’s lovelorn, passionate, more self-confident than the most self-confident person you’ve ever met. Generals hardened by revolution and women by the Terror crumble before him. Within minutes of his arrival at the chaotic HQ of the Italian campaign (“the Army of Italy, without food, without clothes and without discipline”), all the grizzled Generals who’d made it clear in advance that they wouldn’t let the Corsican wipe their boots are doffing their huge, dusty hats to the new boss. One of them puts it well: “with his piercing eyes, this little stump of a man frightens me.”

Albert Dieudonné, playing the stump of a man, concerns himself with Napoléon’s authority, with his staggering resilience, his imperious, outsider presence but also with his fragility (the child actor chosen for the school scenes, Vladimir Roudenko, somehow musters the same wobbly-lower-lip grandeur – bullied but never bowed – we are already sobbing in the first reel).

History v biopic

And now some historiography. At the time of this film’s release a group of young historians in France was getting ready to turn the whole discipline upside-down. Led by Fernand Braudel, they wanted to find the long-term patterns in the histories they were telling by pulling back (zooming out?) from the stream of events and the personalities to focus on what they called the ‘longue durée’. This approach aimed to put the actions of historic figures into the social, economic and technological context and inevitably reduced the importance of individual actors – essentially the opposite of the ‘great man’ model of history that had dominated until the 20th Century (and that still dominates in more parochial British history writing).

Animated gif - close-up of Napoleon with a blue tint from Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon. As he speaks his halo intensifies
With each victory Napoléon’s halo intensifies

For these historians, mostly direct contemporaries of Gance, all the conditions for a Napoléon to emerge already existed in the late 18th Century and if the coarse kid from Corsica hadn’t come along to fill the role, somebody else would have done. It’s safe to assume that Gance (and Ridley Scott) would not tolerate this very dry understanding and would rather die than demote their lead characters to mere instruments of world history. To be honest, it’s not what we want from our biopics either. This Napoléon must bestride history, colossus-like, not obey its logic.

Get on with it Gance!

Gance’s canvas is vast – he gives himself almost three standard-length features to tell the story of Napoléon’s first 27 years. Consequently, from time to time, the action slows from magisterial to ponderous. The first major battle – the siege of Toulon – where Napoléon overcomes a lazy and decadent French command and a complacent English one to take back the impregnable port, takes almost an hour. We’re given half an hour of continuous moping and adoring from afar as Napoléon develops his bid for the love of Joséphine de Beauharnais, widowed tragically during the Terror but obviously enjoying the single life in revolutionary Paris where, by the look of it, anything goes. Our hero is even trained in the art of courtship by star of the Comédie-Française (and hair innovator) Talma. The party scenes in this section of the film are like something from the Great Gatsby – there’s nudity and drunkenness – a near-orgy. We fall through a flapper wormhole and spend 15 minutes in another Paris.

Animated gif - big close-up of Josephine de Beauharnais, in a deep purple tint, played by Gina Manes in 1927 film Napoleon. She looks out from behind a fan flirtatiously
Joséphine- “What weapons do you fear most, General?” Napoléon- “Fans, Madame.”

And the object of Napoléon’s desire is a complicated woman. We’re asked to admire Joséphine’s canny navigation of the post-revolutionary hierarchy, her careful use of the elite men who fall at her feet. She is very much in control of her destiny and in no way a sure thing, even for leading suitor and man-of-the-moment Napoléon Bonaparte. Where another woman of her status – a single mother in her thirties who had only narrowly avoided the guillotine – might have yielded to Napoléon’s advances when he saved Paris from the Royalists in 1795, she holds him off until the following Spring (cue moping and adoring from afar). Hers is a character I’d love to have seen Gance develop in the sequels (Anita Brookner puts it in terms we understand: “Josephine, flirting heavily with her fan, is a vamp.”).

Split-screen destiny

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon on a horse in the centre frame and advancing cavalry soldiers across all three outer frames

It’s not easy to decompose this movie into the standard three acts of the hero’s journey. And besides, the final act would surely belong to the next film in the sequence – part five – which was never made (and, spoiler alert, it wouldn’t have ended well). But this film’s final act is the most spectacular by far and for audiences at the end of the twenties, who didn’t want for spectacle after all, in the era of De Mille, Chaplin and Griffith, it must have been enormously exciting.

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in the centre frames and advancing cavalry soldiers in the outer frames - a red tint across the whole sequence

Gance and his cinematographer Jules Kruger lash together three cameras and produce something as grand as Cinemascope – twenty years before it becomes widespread – but also something that in its complexity makes ‘scope look like something primitive – a crude smearing of the image across the visual plane when set against Gance’s profound spectacle of relatedness and contrast.

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in the outer two frames and marching soldiers in the centre frame

And once they’ve invented the device (a critic named it Polyvision), they play with it and insert shots to create sliding and rotating tableaux as rich as a work by any contemporary IMAX artist. In one scene, Napoléon, on horseback, is flipped horizontally to provide left- and right-hand bookends to a central shot of dusty soldiers marching to their fate – it’s sophisticated storytelling but also emotionally complex – a tableau not just of events but also, somehow, of juxtaposed, contrasted and reinforcing affect. It’s a disorienting, almost delirious experience soaking up all this action – and on so many levels. In this final section, which is half an hour long, the narrative is set aside almost entirely, in favour of this unarguably new language – of spectacle but also of kaleidoscopic emotional drama – never still. I couldn’t tell you the order of events here, only that I was in awe throughout.

  • I’d love to know more about young Bonaparte Vladimir Roudenko. Looks like he never made another film and died in Paris in 1976 but there’s little else online.
  • One admiring British historian, of the more orthodox kind, has called Bonaparte ‘the enlightenment on horseback’. Hegel once saw him in person and wrote later “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”
  • The 335-minute restoration that’s on Amazon Prime and on Blu-Ray is essentially the 1981 Kevin Brownlow restoration, digitised in 2016. If you search the archives you’ll find plenty of reviews of the 1981 release in the smart papers. Brownlow’s extraordinary achievement in locating and then putting together coherently the film’s scattered fragments was recognised. It’s a masterpiece in itself. The best review I’ve read from that cycle is Anita Brookner’s in the LRB.
  • I really shouldn’t have left the music out of this review. The 1981 score is by Carl Davis and it’s a work of art in itself – linking Beethoven’s Eroica in multiple variations and a dozen other mostly French composers of the period with specially-composed material. Davis conducted the score live in the cinema for the restoration’s all-day premiere. I cannot think of a more stressful and exhausting task.
  • Jules Kruger, who photographed this extraordinary film, made dozens more and worked for over twenty years in the sound era too, all around the world.
  • Sign up for GROSS, my email newsletter journey through the history of cinema. There’s a free option for you cheapskates.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

Hollywood Babylon – a two-part aside

Crime, sex, addiction, murder and suicide – the golden age of the movies

Front cover from the first French edition of Kenneth Anger's 1965 book Hollywood Babylone. The book's title in pink boldface lettering over a black and white photograph of Jayne Mansfield in a low-cut dress

Cinema is a mature form. Cinema is also, of course, the least mature form there’s ever been. It’s art but it’s also sex and crime and addiction and untimely death. We now know that Hollywood in the 1920s was the absolute apex of American transgression (there’s a film about it). I won’t try to put forward an explanation here. I’ve read many and they’re all pretty thin. There’s nothing intrinsically naughty or fallible about the movies or movie people. Nothing in the Californian water.

We can probably agree that it’s got something to do with the collision of money, ambition and desperation that often accompanies a gold rush. The fact that the movies essentially carried over the economics and the culture and the relaxed morality of Broadway and the circus and the burlesque must be a factor.

But there’s no complete explanation. How come, for instance, that the equally consequential revolution in business and technology centred a few hundred miles north in what we now know as Silicon Valley seems to have produced nothing more transgressive than a wide range of healthful smoothies and several important new meditation techniques? And no, epic financial fraud and weird libertarian cults do not count.

Hollywood’s deep well of wickedness and vanity was essentially a secret until the mid-sixties. It’s not that anyone thought Tinseltown was a church picnic or even as respectable as the other branches of show-business. Audiences were soaking up stories of desperate, unrequited love, divorce and tragic loss in Photoplay and Movie Weekly and in the trashier sections of their daily newspapers, but the truth was hardly present. Wrong-doing was laundered until it resembled ordinary naughtiness, so as to preserve the fragile box-office value of the stars involved. The darker stories had always circulated too – occasionally surfacing in courtrooms and in autobiographies written in old age – but the iron grip of the studios’ publicity departments and the malign control exercised by the moguls over cities and police departments and legislators kept the lid on the darkness for decades.

And the conspiracy of silence was real. No journalist at a respected outlet would go near the stories of drug use, sexual licence, rape and abuse, cruelty and corruption that insiders were aware of, for fear of permanent exile or, worse, losing access to the after-party. Even the famous gossip columnists of the era were essentially authorised chroniclers.

Photograph of film-maker and writer Kenneth Anger, wearing an elaborate brocade cape in the street outside the famous Hollywood Hotel Chateau Marmont. Wikimedia Commons.
Kenneth Anger doing Kenneth Anger

Hollywood Babylon

So it took the passage of several decades and the fearless prurience of a genuine film outsider to bring these stories to light. Kenneth Anger, avant-garde filmmaker, occultist and queer icon, was the man for the job. He wrote a book called Hollywood Babylon. Looking back, it makes perfect sense. Anger was by definition beyond the reach of the studios and the PR machines. He was so far outside the mainstream he was essentially untouchable. We might call him uncancellable. And Anger circumvented the problem of how to get such a book printed by taking it straight to the house of a man known for publishing the unpublishable – Jean-Jacques Pauvert in Paris – the man who brought you the Marquis de Sade and Story of O. Pauvert published various editions of Hollywood Babylone, starting in 1959 (an early French edition will cost you a few quid).

The book’s 1965 American debut, as a ‘brown-wrapper’ edition sold alongside the dirty books, was a disaster – the US edition was banned ten days after publication and was unavailable in its home market for another ten years, when it was published in Rolling Stone Magazine’s imprint – it was by then a hip, transgressive classic (some of the more speculative and/or actionable stories were gone) and began to acquire an audience. I remember the book was a fixture in the small selection of books thought to be a bit edgy – alongside the ‘poetry’ of Jim Morrison and the SCUM Manifesto – that most record shops used to keep at the back when I began frequenting such places.

Anger’s book is not a conventional history. He is not troubled by the niceties of citation or by silly fact-checking. It’s a stream of pithy assertions, usually attributed to sources that can’t possibly be checked (because they’re dead) or to profoundly disreputable publications, lovers, drivers, hat-check girls, various has-beens with an axe to grind and untrustworthy hangers-on. It’s written in the snappy, pulp style of a tabloid:

Professional do-gooders would brand Hollywood a New Babylon whose evil influence rivaled the legendary depravity of the old; banner headlines and holier-than-thou editorials would equate Sex, Dope and Movie Stars. Yet while the country’s organized cranks screamed for blood and boycott, the public, unfazed, flocked to the movies in ever-increasing multitudes.

Respectable film people were scornful. The reviews were awful: “…here is a book without one single redeeming merit. It panders to the absolutely lowest element of the reader. By holding up a mirror to this darker part of ourselves, Mr. Anger has performed a service of sorts, I suppose.” – New York Times, 31 August 1975.

Photograph from Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon showing a scene from Our Dancing Daughters. Joan Crawford, at a crowded black-tie party, dances the Charlston on a table

It opens, though, with what I consider to be the best short essay about the origins of the dream factory, its explosive rate of innovation and its tendency to create and then destroy the stars it depended on that I’ve ever read – worth haunting the charity shops for this bit alone.

When word reached [the filmmakers] that nickelodeon crowds all over the country seemed to be flocking to see favorite movie performers known only as “Little Mary,” “The Biograph Boy” or “The Vitagraph Girl,” the disdained actors, until then thought of as little more than hired help, suddenly acquired ticket-selling importance. The already-famous faces took on names and rapidly-rising salaries: the Star System – a decidedly mixed blessing – was born. For better or for worse, Hollywood would henceforth have to contend with that fatal chimera – the STAR. Overnight the obscure and somewhat disreputable movie performers found themselves propelled to adulation, fame and fortune. They were the new royalty, the Golden People. Some managed to cope and took it in their stride; some did not.

Filmmaker and (rather more careful) historian of the same period Kevin Brownlow – not unused to controversy himself – said he asked Anger what research method he used and was told “mental telepathy, mostly.” Hollywood Babylon is illustrated unevenly but with absolute authenticity, using often jaw-dropping, presumably out-of-copyright photographs, private snapshots and publicity stills that are grainy and poorly-composed but always absolutely compelling.

It’s an unconventional and iconoclastic history of the golden age and its thesis – that human vanity and corruption are not incidental to the Hollywood project but essential to it, that it wasn’t the movies that produced the wickedness but the other way around – is utterly convincing.

  • In part two of this little aside I’ll bring you some excerpts from Hollywood Babylon as they relate to the people discussed in the GROSS reviews so far. There might be some D.W. Griffith, some Lillian Gish, some Mary Pickford…
  • Remarkably, the book is still pretty hard to come by. Both part one and part two – published in 1984 – are out of print. You’ll still find part one in the shops but part two is elusive.
  • Anger’s filmmaking has gained in stature and, when he died earlier this year, aged 96, there were obits in all the respectable outlets.
  • Here’s Anger talking to UCLA students about Aleister Crowley. I desperately want one of those ‘ANGER’ jumpers.
  • There’s not much on the streaming services but there are some Blu-Rays. Scorpio Rising, his much-banned biker bacchanal, is on YouTube. It’s actually quite sweet – and the soundtrack is exceptional.