The power of gusto

A documentary about a heavy metal prodigy tugs at the heart.

What an emotionally exhausting week this is for UK cinemagoers. Whichever way you slice it, whichever demographic you belong to, handkerchiefs will be called for. I don’t care whether you’re at a genteel arthouse cinema or a 29-screen megaplex, this is going to be tough. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour, which I review in this week’s magazine, surely has the greatest claim on the nation’s tear-ducts, focusing as it does on an elderly man caring for his wife, who has suffered a stroke. But let’s not discount the final instalment in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn Part 2, which is going to break the hearts of those same teenagers who have only just recovered from bidding farewell to their childhoods a few years back with Toy Story 3. How will they survive without Edward, Bella, Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Tich?

Also released this week is Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. Don’t be scared off by the title. Before seeing it, I had no idea who Jason Becker was or whether he was living or deceased. Nor did I expect to be giving any time to a documentary about a young guitar virtuoso drawn to the poodle-permed, tight-jeaned heavy metal scene and prone to performing protracted, squealing solos that last for several months at a time. Becker was a true prodigy, largely self-taught and with an intrinsic grasp on technique and theory that left veterans dazed. At 16, he recorded with Marty Friedman, later of arena-friendly metal giants Megadeth, under the name Cacophony. When they broke up after their second album, he was recruited into David Lee Roth’s band.

Before he could relish fully this coveted appointment, he was diagnosed with the degenerative disease ALS. His musical career, and his life, hit the buffers. He went from walking with canes to using a wheelchair to being completely paralysed, able only to move his eyes. Even these obstacles didn’t halt him.

The picture is cleverly assembled from archive footage and modern interviews by the director, Jesse Vile: such an inappropriate name for so compassionate a filmmaker. Vile has put into his movie exactly the right measures of pain and hope. For its first 40 minutes or so, we get to savour Jason Becker’s dazzling early years—the talent show footage, the home videos with that distinctive 1980s optical fuzz that makes you think Matt Dillon and Tatum O’Neal are just out of shot, wearing crop-tops and chewing Juicy Fruit. A single shot of Becker as he is today, his still-cherubic face framed with the same cascades of hair that advertise his fidelity to metal, is inserted into this early section, perhaps so that the shock to come won’t feel like a calculated ambush. But the foundations for the rest of the film are laid successfully by the poignant archive material: by the time Becker is savaged by ALS, we have a strong sense of his talent and potential against which to place the devastating diagnosis.

The wonder of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is that it mirrors its subject in refusing to become bogged down in the maudlin. As well as being deftly edited, it draws a lot of its energy from the extraordinary optimism and gusto of Becker’s family and friends. (His parents had already devoted their lives to him even before his illness, and he seems to have an entire network of ex-girlfriends willing to tend to him.) I also liked the use of Becker’s father’s paintings as both palate-cleansers and narrative stopgaps. They contribute to a continuity of thought and emotion on screen. The movie flows much as Becker’s life has done, interrupted but not derailed by the catastrophe at its centre.

"Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet" opens in the UK on 16 November.

Jason Becker. Credit: "Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet"

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.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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