Last dance: Barry Ward and Simone Kirby in Jimmy's Hall by Ken Loach
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Emotional blackmail on the Emerald Isle: Jimmy’s Hall by Ken Loach

Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley IIThis Time It’s Heart-Warming.

Ken Loach in his heyday was tough and uncompromising, so it’s odd that he has inspired so many films with runny centres (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot). His best work – Kes, Family Life, Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe – has a knack for expressing tenderness and hope without pretending that those qualities alone will make everything peachy. But Jimmy’s Hall proves that Loach is more than capable of making his own runny-centred movies. It is less a portrait of the Irish communist leader Jimmy Gralton than a big, dopey kiss blown at him. Unconditional love is a joyous thing when extended from a parent to a child. Between a film-maker and his subject, it is more problematic.

Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach and his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success of theirs. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley II: This Time It’s Heart-Warming. The battle here is not between the emergent IRA and the British but between Gralton and the Church, which is vehemently opposed to him establishing the Pearse-Connolly Hall as a social and educational centre for his community.

As the film begins, Gralton (Barry Ward) is returning home to County Leitrim from New York, where he fled to a decade earlier to avoid arrest. The hall’s dilapidated interior is now good for nothing except acting as a trigger for damp-eyed flashbacks to a lovelier time.

But what’s this? The local youngsters, firebrands to a girl and boy, have heard tell of the hall and its liberating philosophy. They’re bored of knitting flat caps and tank tops from twigs, or whatever it is they do to pass the hours. They want to dance, recite poetry and box, though presumably not at the same time. They implore Jimmy to open the hall again. The twinkle in his eye will be familiar from every film in which someone has ever decided to put the show on right here or get the band back together to save the llama sanctuary from foreclosure.

Jimmy’s chief antagonist is the parish priest Father Sheridan, played by Jim Norton with beady-eyed relish and wit. It is only a minor hindrance that Norton played Bishop Brennan in the sitcom Father Ted. Viewers for whom the episode “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” remains a source of ongoing joy may find it hard not to call for the same to be dished out to Father Sheridan. Some distraction comes from the old-school movie-star panache of Barry Ward, who looks like Aidan Gillen might if he wanted to caress you in your sleep, rather than kill you.

Laverty admits that much of the film is speculation – Jimmy’s sweetheart is one of several characters to have sprung from the screenwriter’s mind. What’s difficult to stomach is the level of emotional blackmail. Though there is grudging respect towards Jimmy late in the day from the clergy, generally those who disagree with him are unfeeling brutes. Even the violent raids on the hall are staged with a curious sentimentality. The police are always bursting in during Gaelic singing lessons or dancing classes to slap women to the ground. They never seem to call when the boxing is in full swing.

If his opponents are sadists, Jimmy is nothing short of saintly. Hungry for character flaws, you may alight upon the scene in which his mother complains that she can’t see well enough to sew his shirt. Jimmy walks over and pokes the cotton through the eye of the needle, then hands it back to her. A true hero would have said: “I’m a grown man, Ma. I can sew my own clothes, so I can.” But that’s the closest the film gets to admitting that Jimmy is as fallible as the rest of us. Those looking for a bit more balance and a good deal less soppiness are unlikely to be placated by the revelation: “Communist leader in ‘never helped mum with housework’ shock!”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution