Monday, January 31, 2005


Outside of the Richard Curtis comedies I can't remember a 'Hollwood' film that makes such a determined effort to showcase our capital. Yet whereas in Curtis' films the London-based leads tend to enjoy an emotional safety-net provided by a troupe of eccentric friends, the four people whose lives intersect in Closer all seem mysteriously isolated. (Are lone-wolves less constant then?)

Perhaps it's this limited depth of field that betrays this story as a former stage play. That and the fact that in a number of scenes the actors come across as mere vehicles for the words they're speaking. This is a script that's a just bit narcissistic about its own coarseness - saying fuck and cunt a lot might work better when the audience can't really see through the everyday windows to the soul - the actors' faces. The camera demands better integration of dialogue with expression, body and situation.

Only Clive Owen seems to 'live' in his role (he was part of the original stage cast), though Julia Roberts does do a creditable and actually quite moving 'sad-eyed woman in her thirties'. (She deserves an Oscar more for this role than her Erin Brockovic I think.) At one point Natalie Portman has exactly the hairstyle she had in Leon (her hair is a bit of a theme in this movie) and later lies on her back with her belly exposed - surely this was intentional on Mike Nichols part?

The action moves forward in odd chunks of time that leave you missing the lights down, lights up transitions you get in the theatre.

Anyway, I did actually really enjoy this movie. I found myself laughing a lot more than anyone else around me. Maybe I'm just more cynical than most! Marber's play was awarded the Evening Standard Best Comedy award in 1997 though.

Poor old Jude Law, the only big laugh he got was his weepy scene in the surgery and I'm not sure this was intentional. Law almost wrecks this film - in his first contact scenes with both Alice and Anna he fails to convey any real sense of excitement and risk.

It is said that with this performance Clive Owen has shoed himself in as the next 007 - hmmm, I reckon he'd be a sort of dissipated Timothy Dalton, just a tad too louche, even for the part of James Bond.

In the original play Marber's dramatis personae suggests a social commentary that goes AWOL when a pair of Americans are gratuitously introduced:

A girl from the town
A man from the suburbs
A man from the city
A woman from the country

This week survey results were published showing that more of us Londoners live alone than ever before - and Closer is in some ways a bit of a bloke's take on the ups and downs of the Bridget Jones lifestyle. Dan and Larry each get to have sex with both girls and with each other, in a trailblazing cinematic cybersex session!

One of V's favourite films is another one of Mike Nichols' meditations on war as a continuation of sexual politics by other means - Carnal Knowledge - also quite mannerist in its dialogue.

Team America: World Police

You would have to be as stiff as these Gerry Anderson-style puppets not to find this film pretty hilarious. There are so many great gags - everyone is bound to come away with one or two to report back to their mates. I liked the faltering redneck voice of I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E, a computer system that sets up the inevitable line "We have no intelligence" when it goes down.

The chorus of one of the very funny songs goes: "Freedom isn't free, there's a hefty fucking fee". This is actually one of the least moronic arguments you are ever likely to hear uttered by an American moron. (i.e. "Loss of liberty is the price of freedom", Don Rumsfeld et al.) And that is why it's so dangerous - even morons can use it without blowing their cover.

In fact, intelligent debate about the toppling of Saddam will often crystalise and divide on the issue of whether we actually need some sort of world police, however flawed and wasteful of innocent life the obvious candidates under present circumstances might be.

So, although overall the joke here is really on Hollywood and how it represents world (American) politics rather than geo-politics itself, the blanketly irreverent satire also makes a concrete political point that demands consideration. Gary's speech at the end covers the full range of parameters, but in essence what he says is that you need dicks on your side when the world is full of assholes...and the pussys just get in the way.

The panel on Newsnight Review (assholes, dicks or pussys, anyone?) trotted out the lines about how Trey Parker's film attacks everybody and therefore nobody. I don't think this is in fact strictly true. For example, it does not take aim at the religious right and their messianic framing of of the War on Terror. If it did, it would be asking us to consider whether we have as many assholes on our side as the terrorists have.

There's no doubt that in terms of overall position Team America lies somewhere between infantilism and nihilism, but this is still a subtler, cleverer piss-take than you might immediately give it credit for.

The really scary thing about these puppets is how close they match 'real' Hollywood actors in terms of expressiveness! However, they've been allowed to copulate and regurgitate in ways not normally witnessed in mainstream movies - though I hear that the sex scene was censored a bit in the US. Those assholes again.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Little Otik

A bit of an oddity this. Likely to reinforce your views if you already harbour any suspicions that infants are fleshy little monsters that turn their host human beings into dangerously deranged, hysterical nitwits.

Little Otik (a.k.a. Greedy Guts) is based on a Czech fairy tale about a husband who tries to appease his sterile wife by fashioning a tree stump in the shape of a baby. The log-being comes alive as if in response to the woman's all-consuming desire for a child and starts to eat copiously, eventually adding human to its diet. (Though the one person I really wanted Otik to munch mysteriously survives!)

Jan Svankmajer's film is a couple of steps back from being either a comedy or a horror movie. I didn't watch it through in one go, but whenever I had it on I ended up a bit nauseated by the experience. Svankmajer picked actors with a quirky-creepy sort of charisma - think Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean.

The early scenes are part silent comedy with stop-action animation mixed up with performances from the live actors seemingly in sympathy with the cartoon form. Throughout the 125 minutes the action is often cropped interruptively in a way that would be more suitable in a short film and after a while, the close-ups of faces, mouths, food etc grow a little bit distracting.

Interesting and certainly memorable, but no classic.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The smell of burning atheists in the morning

This headline in the Daily Mirror today had me chuckling. You could just imagine the following sentence underneath: Richard Dawkins said to be "still fairly optimistic" about his chances in the afterlife.

Savoir Blerg

My everydary non-electronic persona generally wants to be liked. But when I married into a large Latin American family I learned an important life lesson - as Bob would say "you can't please all the people all the time". Standard-Received English sociability doesn't work over there. It won't even get you ignored.

In fact you quickly realise that the only available survival tactic is to take the plunge and take sides. "Your enemy is my enemy...except that tomorrow he might be my friend and you'll be my enemy", and so on. You're on a one way trip to the poles faster than you can say "Michael Palin".

Life in the blogosphere can sometimes feel like belonging to a large Latin American family, but without any of the actual violence.

A sense of humour is important, but it's no kevlar vest. Irony and self-parody often don't travel that well in cyberspace either.

Flushed down the Blog

I have unceremoniously removed mssrs Hughtrain and Johnny Moore from my blogroll today.

They've spent the past couple of weeks frenziedly banging nails into coffins and I just can't stand the racket any more. We have arrived, as they would no doubt be at pains to point out, at the tipping point. (or perhaps the flushing point?)

Methinks the gaping gob should stick to his quaint little business card doodles - though recently even these have been getting a bit freaky-deaky - the kind of thing some psycho with a pink slip would pop in an envelope and send to some girl that once dumped him.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Natasha's Dance - Orlando Figes

"In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves while in Asia we will be the masters" - Dostoevsky.

It's can be hard to find your soul if you are having a near-permanent out of body experience! The Russians have spent an awful long time up on history's ceiling staring down at the writhing body of European culture. This at least was one of my main take-outs from Natasha's Dance, Orlando Figes' survey of three centuries of Russian creative people and their often complex personal issues - (A book that could easily have been given the alternate title Rationalism on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.)

Before setting off for Central America with this as my only book to read, I outlined my early expectations for Figes' tome. These were in fact generally met.

For the Russians Western values have always been like those designer garements that look better in the shop window than when you actually try them on and confront your reflection in the changing room mirror. Of course they went and bought them anyway...they just had to, but they were always going to have trouble internalising the attitude they would need in order to consistently keep it real.

There are so many obvious parallels and contrasts with those other self-consciously displaced cultural backwoodsmen, the Yanks.
  • The Yanks have overcome backwater status by defining themselves as the future of the West. That Dostoevsky quote above indicates how the Russians sought to cross this threshold, but the moment you declare your chips, acknowledging your residence in the hinterland , you're basically done for.
  • For a long time the Russians were as optimistic about the steppe as the Americans were about their prairie. But let's face it, there's no Santa Barbara at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Endless opportunity putrified into endless desolation. We all know what Siberia means now, don't we?
  • "The Russian people is not just a people it is a humanity" proclaimed Aksakov. You just just imagine those Red State Neo-Cons saying something similar, can't you? (Though it seems that where the Russians are nationalistic the Americans are patriotic - an important distinction that I will spare you the details of for now)
  • It's generally bad news for everyone else when the uncouth folk living out in the wide open spaces on the frontiers of civilisation start talking about building a new Rome.

So, the Russians were blessed with the same tradition of chauvinistic exceptionalism that the Americans have recently familiarised the rest of humanity with. It was ultimately just that much harder for them to turn a blind eye to their own coarseness.

There's something about the Russian neuroses about falsehood and insincerity in the eighteenth century that presages the writings of postmodern thinkers like Derrida and Baudrillard. Gogol for instance wrote of wandering down Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt "when the devil himself is abroad, kindling the street lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light". These are scarily familiar anxieties about lost authenticity, coupled with concerns that the prevaling aspirations of society force people to behave "like actors on a stage", prisoners of ambient symbols. And in Russia being a prisoner almost inevitably meant exile.

As we see around us today, many people choose to embrace artifice and soullessness, celebrate it even. Vanity is fun, greed is good. Yet temperamentally the Russians have always been more inclined to "live in truth". The they appear to have discovered before most of us that the Enlightenment project was ludicrously over-optimistic - hardly surprising in what AA Gill has described as "a nation of chronic masochists". Indeed, miserable old died-again atheist Dostoevsky eventually concluded that he "would prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the Truth."

There were times when Figes' account of this mentality reminded me of my old chums the Argies. There's that same feeling of unrewarded superiority matched with profound melancholy, that hankering after a lost European utopia - in both instances Paris - idealised as a paradise of fine manners and conspicuous consumption.

But you can't really claim that if cross an American with an Argentine you get a Russian, because the Russkies had a regional card up their sleeve - an indigenous culture they could call their own, and even make out that they cared about. (The Americans and the Argies had of course genocided theirs.) Even when they felt most excluded by the West, with this they could remain defiantly, obtusely Scythian.

In the nineteenth century, Russian creative-escapologists eagerly mined their popular cultural heritage for meaning, mythologising their humblest, folkloric fellow-travellers. Believe me, this is where this book made most sense on a ride through Central America. Organised teams of Russian intellectuals dedicated their lives to the mission of figuring out the moral status of the masses and the implications of their all-too-obvious suffering. From the outset indifference wasn't an option. (In contrast Mexico and Guatemala found ways of burying the claims of their indigenous peoples. Perhaps the more bizarre was Mexico's - a revolution in the name of the Mexica that served only to dilute native identity, and then froze it within a monolithic political mythology - a Revolution without intellectuals.)

Russia's narodniki met pretty much the same fate that that other great populist and instigator of trans-national clodhopper culture Che Guevara (another Argie!) would meet exactly 100 years later - their host peasants dobbed them in to the authorities. It seems the Russian intelligentsia were perpetually sandwiched between two premonitions of resurgent barbarism - peasant ignorance and urban banality.

Figes's narrative constantly returns to the profound sensitivity of the Russian artist. This is a story about possibility experienced on the grand scale, and about the emotional response of a whole culture to a life lived in "interesting times".

When Trotsky considered the possibilities arising from the notion that human beings are "semi-manufactured", he could really have been referring specifically to his own countrymen. It is this flexible, unfinished quality of the Russians, these associate members of the Western country club, that gives them the opportunity to achieve something that the rest of us corrupt and cynical old-worlders might never even imagine - the "hyperbolic attitude to life" . (There was a time when the same could have been said about the Yanks.)

Yet some of the worst abuses of the last century arose from this Russian inclination to re-position the human soul. Within this extended tale of mass tragedy and the more acute voiding of the Soviet avant-garde, there was one individual tale that will stick with me - that of Prokofiev's Spanish wife Lina who followed him back to Stalin's house of horrors and paid for her misguided loyalty with twenty years in a labour camp.

Blockbuster probably thought they could slow down my currently frenetic rate of DVD viewing by sending me Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 and 2 - titles they found quite low down my online list. After reading Natasha's Dance however, I'm very much up for it!

Another film I'd like to watch again now is Russian Ark, which I reviewed midway through last year's blog.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Dumbing-up: Why Blog? (Part 3)

"Now we are living in the age of comics as air" observed legendary manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka on dicovering that he had suddenly acquired thousands of new colleagues. That weblogs now share this quality of atmospheric abundance is suggested by the term coined to describe them collectively - blogosphere.

There's a pattern here surely? Once established, creative media find they must persist over time as fragile ecologies in constant danger of being overgrown by the cheap, the formulaic and the opportunistic. Almost everyone has heard about the process of dumbing down said to afflict the traditional media. In the case of blogs though, you could argue that this essential cheapness and dumbness was there from the start. There are plenty of early-adopters and there are a few genuine innovators in the blogosphere, but no Masters of unblemished reputation that the rest must follow.

Charles Darwin's achievement was to show how you could get from the very dumb to the very clever without the intervention of an outside intelligence. So, when the selection model is Darwinian, the prevalence of losers might actually be a sign that things are working properly. (After all we all owe our health and good looks today to the selfless sacrifice of all those sick, ugly people who didn't quite get to be our ancestors!)

On the other hand, when you have a rational, gatekeeper mind or a committee of such minds deciding what we all get to see, hear and read, then a surge of stupidity is indeed a major cause for concern. Minds alone or linked up in committee rarely evince the peculiar selective qualities of truly networked intelligence.

Does this mean that none of us need worry if our blogs are crap? Sort of. The Internet has a number of acknowledged weaknesses as a neural network capable of actively filtering out the dross based on the record of user choices and behaviours. (Bad links don't self-destruct for example.)

Anyway, another snag with Darwinian design, as biologists have been at pains to point out since The Origin of the Species was first published, is that with natural selection you don't necessarily get the best solution, just one that works - one that meets the current selection criteria. To get to the ideal solution you might have to clamber down off your own fitness peak in order to ascend another one nearby - something which Nature at least, finds almost impossible to do.

In my earlier posting I commented on the complexities of blog-sociology, observing that "In blogs, rather like all creative endeavours, some postings are like lonesome particles while a select few sing like vibrating strings". While the so-called new media remain an odd hybrid between the old and the new, between quantity and quality, between human and robot, and between Darwin and Marx, the blogosphere will function as a meritocracy that self-selects using sometimes conflicting criteria. And as such it will remain a place where the unconventional has a better chance of clearing the bar than in the traditional gene pool or marketplace. This is no bad thing.

Meanwhile, it looks like all media are being retro-fitted to the new expressive, conversational model. Blogging will no longer appear so incongruously idiosyncratic and vain once these modifications have been completed. In October 2004 Wired published a fascinating article entitled The Long Tail, in which Chris Anderson suggested that "the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream." Essentially he argues that up until now taste has been an artefact of the "poor demand-supply matching" of hit-driven economics". Not any more however.

If you want to understand the potential importance of the blogger in a reformed media space where the power of the tyrrannical Trinity of scarcity, geography and the lowest common denominator has been significantly diluted, consider the sadly forshortened career of John Peel. Not a blogger per se, but a man whose daily choices accurately reflected the power of a well-situated, highly-opinionated yet trusted commentator to help thousands to negotiate their own personal tastes in an environment that is inherently overloaded with diversity.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Metal Detector Man

"Every story has a key, an image that unlocks everything else" confides AA Gill in the introduction to his anthology of 'interviews' with far-flung places.

Well, my image from Playa del Carmen is less of a universal key and more of a metal ring in the wall. The kind that in old-style mystery stories you twist and promptly discover a hidden, and usually quite unpleasant reality lying at the far end of a dark passageway.

As a visitor to Mexico there are people watching you, waiting for your debris, like the ultra-devoted in the Middle Ages used to wait for stuff to drop off their Holy, nails, teeth etc. The moment you are separated from something it ceases to be yours; there's no comeback, no lost property box.

At around 5pm every afternoon when the winter sunshine was waning and the beach boys had started to stack the sunbeds Metal Detector Man would arrive on our patch of beach, moving in from the south.

With the methodical approach of a lawnmower operator at the All England Club he crisscrosses the white sands perpendicular to the shoreline. A few minutes after he starts his sweep a couple of pre-teens with Made in China backpacks start to scan the sand a little less rigorously in amongst the palm shades. They follow in Metal Detector Man's wake, always maintaining a discreet distance, but they're obviously his flesh and blood. Metal Detector Man's face is locked in a perma-snarl, but every so often he surreptitiously jerks his head at his little assistants as if to say "have a good dig around over there m'ijos."

I have to say I found this daily spectacle pretty disheartening at first. Then I tried to rationalise it away. After all the beach is the natural habitat of scavengers. Us belly-warmers are the oddities here surely? But...the snazziness of his gear, the youngness of his acolytes; something's just not right. I've seen people with metal detectors on the beach at Biarritz too. But that was at first light, and they generally had the cheerful expression of happygolucky hobbyists not the ruthless demeanor of the niche-exploiter.

During the weekend it's harder for MDM to cover the terrain without attracting increased levels of unwanted attention. On the Sunday afternoon we observed with interest when a large departing Mexican family accosted him and asked what exactly it was that he was looking for. He duly told them that the state paid him to search for lost property. His compatriots seemed satisfied with the lie and continued to depart. It's almost believable really. MDM didn't say he gives back everything he finds, did he? Even if the state doesn't actually provide him with a salary, ever since the Revolution, Mexico has been a society run by scavengers for scavengers. It's a culture that stretches far inland from the beach.

There's perhaps no better illustration of this than the way the airport at Cancun is managed. Every other booth in the arrivals concourse is labelled INFORMATION, though that's the least you'll get from any of them. If you dare to approach one with a question you will soon be locked in complex negotiations for stuff you didn't know you needed, all the while fending off information that you don't actually want. The signs ought to say Info-Trap.

Avoiding this kind of entrapment is not simply a matter of hot-footing it for the salida without requesting any help or advice. You de-plane, collect your bags, put them on a trolley and head in the direction of the balmy outdoor air, enticingly only a few metres from the baggage reclaim belt. But at the terminal exit you are stopped by a whistle and a wagging finger from the sidelines - you can't take the trolley outside.

Just think about this - imagine ASDA didn't allow you to push your trolley the 50m or so between the cashier and your parked car. It's possible that in this particular instance we're dealing with simple third world bloodymindedness, but I don't think so. The layout beyond those sliding doors has been given more careful thought by students of human dynamics than most UK town centres. Between the terminal and the car park there's a controlled ecosystem populated by many different species of scavenger.

I watched as Italians attempting to wheel out small towers of big primary-coloured suitcases covered in plastic wrap hit the no-trolley force field like flies trying to exit a room via a closed veranda window. Dazed, they struggled to unload their bags and stumbled out, off balance, into the hawker-patrolled DMZ, still a desperate 20m from the relative safety of the car park. Advantage scavengers.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Phone Booth

Writer Larry Cohen allegedly first had the idea for a film about an ethically-challenged PR man pinned in a phone booth by a sniper some twenty years ago. By the time he finally saw his script given the Joel Schumacher treatment, there was only one phone booth left in New York, or so we are told. Cohen had to wait a bit longer still for the film's premiere as the Washington Beltway sniper briefly put his fictional counterparts out of business.

The creepy voice on the other end of the line is played by Keifer Sutherland. On my reading of the bible, this is just how the God of the Old Testament must have sounded to Moses; it's also uncannily similar to the "what's your favourite scary movie?" voice in the opening scene of Scream.

There are some obvious missed opportunities for developing further dialogue and comic drama amongst the police and onlookers. Given the tightness of the spot that Colin Farrell finds himself in, it's real a pity that Cohen couldn't think up a more credible and ingenious way for him to wriggle out of it.

Phone Booth somehow feels like one of those American re-makes of a better, deeper, subtitled original. In fact I can just imagine a quirky German take on this from Tom Twyker. Perhaps it's time for European cinema to start ripping off Tinseltown?

Anyway, the US Entertainment industry's cinematic self-examinations never come across as wholly sincere. In the end Colin Farrell is just a bit too wimpy and the background characters too indistinct to get anything more out of this plot other than a brief 80 minutes of mainstream movie entertainment. Yet a smarter director could have turned this situation into a thought-provoking metaphor for the whole religious mindset.

Telephones and mind-fucks go back a long way in the history of cinema. As I mentioned in my review of L'Appartement, mobile technologies are acting to constrict some of the traditional possibilities, yet new plot devices are emerging onto the market all the time. A couple of Sundays ago. in BBC3's excellent Twisted Tales: Txt Msg Rcvd, another professional male of questionable moral standards was tormented and ultimately terminated by his supernaturally-possessed handset.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Lang Lang

Another artist who has acquired a reputation for having more pumpin' Saturday nights in him than rainy, jilted Sunday afternoons is Chinese pianist Lang Lang. I guess I went along to the RFH today just to hear the 21-year-old 'phenomenon' play, unmindful of the specific programme he'd picked, which kicked off with Mozart's piano sonata in C, delivered with a delicate finesse. This was followed by Chopin's sonata No3 in B minor which I tuned in and out of, alternatively fascinated by the members of China's gilded youth sitting around me, the boys with African beads on their wrists, the girls with Luis Vuitton handbags.

The real party pieces were after the interval, though first I had a grin and bear it through Schumann's dreary Kinderscenen. Rachmaninov's Preludes on the other hand, are amongst my favourite flauntable pieces of piano swagger. Lang Lang's interpretation of No2 was pretty ear-catching but he varied the tempo a little too preciously in No5.

I'm not a huge fan of Liszt either, but LL kept the mood at cruising altitude with first the Hungarian Rhapsody No2 and then the Petrarch Sonnet No 104, which tends to remind most people of that Bugs Bunny cartoon. For his encore he played a Chinese composition (he did say what it was, but I was too far back in the rear stalls to catch the name), and The Flight of the Bumblebee.

On a Sunday afternoon the RFH resembles a cafeteria for the over 60s that just happens to have a concert hall attached to it. Here we are in 2005 and the South Bank complex is teetering on the brink of improvement. However, it seems we are currently in a two steps back phase. The spiral concrete staircase that used to lead up to Mandela's bust has gone, replaced with something less likely to be urinated on. The one round the other side leading to the Hayward has instead been painted white - as if that made things better. They must have got some work-experience painter to carry out this particular piece of de-brutalisation because he or she seems to have slouched away from the job dripping white paint all over the concrete walkway before a second coat could be applied.

I have seen some special pianists in this auditorium - none more so than Sviatoslav Richter back in '87. He used to play with the lights down so low you couldn't see the jammy cheapskates on the choir seats behind the piano. There was just a small light on the instrument itself to light up the score - a truly rare quirk for a legendary concert pianist. Beside him in the shadows an assistant turned the pages while he appeared to stare at the notes through his thick-lensed specs as if encountering the music for the first time. V and I saw him again there in the early nineties, but I suspect his fingers must have been a tiny bit more arthritic by then.

Bangkok Dangerous

The Pang brothers are masters of the visual set piece. They're not afraid to stop the plot and milk a moment for all its worth. The explosion at the end of The Eye was one such incident with a stand-alone cinematic life of its own. Bangkok Dangerous has a few more, though on a smaller scale. It's a showboating technique that reminds me of AA Gill's articles in The Sunday Times - a string of intermittently wonderful, gobsmacking observations that you suspect would somehow read better if rendered as bullet points. Once the prose padding has been added, something else gets mislaid.

The emotional lives of the characters in Bangkok Dangerous are mostly shrouded by a thick veil of style. Yet underneath the slick gangster formula I detected that there's actually an interesting arthouse film struggling to get out - all about the loneliness of life in the developing world's urban jungles.

Deaf and mute hitman Kong and his young friend Fon are like contrasting portraits of innocence. Hers is of the traditional sort - the kind that results from not getting out enough. His is a more disturbing, sociopathic naivety. It's as if the Pangs are trying to tell us that humanity is an unnatural condition in the Asian metropolis, something that can be acquired only if you are lucky enough to stumble across one of the isolated niches where it struggling to survive. Brute ignorance and indecency are the norm.

Zatoichi Meets the One-armed Swordsman

This is more like it - slashtastic sashimi-Western entertainment. The gymnastically-challenged swordsman is Wang Kang or To-jin-san, a Chinese 'outside person' who falls spectacularly foul of Shogun etiquette almost as soon as he arrives in the land of the rising bodycount (It goes up much faster and earlier here than it did in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo.)

The visitor brings a fighting technique akin to wire-free wire fu, sort of Buzz Aldrin meets Jet Li, a spectacle of sheer silliness that took me back to Monkey and The Water Margin. (There's one amusing moment when he's fighting with his empty left sleeve on fire.) The Martial Arts genre has certainly come a long way since the seventies!

Soon Wang Kang has teamed up with Ichi the blind masseur, that mostly deadly of ill-mannered buffoons, a partnership differently-able to take on all of bosses Sugita and Tobei's yakuza goons and the entire Nambu samurai clan. However, due to unresolved linguistic difficulties that unfortunately peak just when anyone who might have translated for them is already dead, the two embark on a fight to the death. (Apparently Wang Kang wins in the Hong Kong version. Not in this one though - the literal transaltion of the title is Zatoichi: Destroy the Chinese Sword! Poor Wang Kang's sword is broken to start with.)

Mayhem seems to cling to Zatoichi like an American to the notion that his country is a force for good in the world. If I saw him shuffling into my town I know what I'd do...get out quick.

Ah, the Japanese - you either love them or loathe them. I'm definitely in the former category, though I can see why some people can get a bit weirded out. Over the weekend I was reading Haruki Murakami's collection of stories entitled The Elephant Vanishes and I came across a metaphor which reminded me of AA Gill's quip that the Japanese are "the people that aliens might be if they learnt Human by correspondence course and wanted to slip in unnoticed.":

"Time oozed through the dark like a lead weight in a fish's gut". huh?

Saturday, January 22, 2005


First impressions count with actresses. It really does make a difference which role they happen to be playing when you first come across them. I could never quite forgive Audrey Tautou for Amèlie for example. Monica Belluci meanwhile, will always be for me the elusive yet doomed Lisa. There's nothing that the graphic rape scene in Irrevèrsible could ever do to change that, but I decided it was time to re-watch Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement, as if to purge that still vivid phantasmagoria from my system.

Bellucci has all the makings of a femme fatale, yet somehow usually ends up a victim herself. Vince Cassel's character Max's sums up his own first impression thus: "She has something special. I don't know. Something sad, something tragic in her eyes." And unless you agree with Max, and come to share his fascination, L'Appartement will be little more to you than a Hitchcock-esque thriller that plays out in a series of elegant, masterfully-selected Parisian locations. The vision of black-eyed Bellucci staring curiously, yet defiantly through the shoe-shop window needs to leave the same sort of indelible impression on every male audience-member that it does with Max - and I think it is something that Bellucci does especially well here. (The fact that Vince Cassel married her afterwards only seems to confirm this!)

Like Vertigo this is a movie that plays on male obsession. Indeed I used to wonder whether the ladies could ever really fully appreciate it, but watching it again it occurred to me that perhaps the softly psychotic Alice holds up a mirror to the opposite sex's self-destructive compulsions. Only at the end do you realise that you've pinned your anxieties to the wrong romance and that this is after all, Alice's tale. Or maybe it is poor Lucien's. There are even several candidates for the the eponymous apartment. This rich and tasty ambiguity is delightfully French.

L'Appartement is also one of those dramas of narrowly missed communication opportunities. (Remember the unread note that slips under the doormat in Tess of the D'Urbervilles?) Without doubt modern technology is making these increasingly hard for writers to craft; very little in this story would have worked out this way if the characters carried mobiles (or worse still Blackberries), starting from the crucial early scene around the payphone in the basement of the cafe.

Unfortunately in 2004 Hollywood saw fit to produce an English-language remake called Wicker Park starring Josh Hartnett and featuring a cafe called Belluci's. The charima-free Diane Kruger (Helen in Troy) plays Lisa. The absence of mobile phones was somehow more credible back in 1996. One to avoid I think.

(I noticed afterwards that Romane Bohringer's filmography includes the intriguingly titled He died with a felafel in his hand. )

Borough Market

On the subject of near-miss authenticity I was down in Borough Market this morning.

This was actually a bit of a recce because Maggie tipped me off last weekend that there was nothing less then a gen-yu-ine Jamoneria called Brindisa on the corner of Stoney Street that I should check out as part of the preliminary research I'm doing for my Guatemalan eatery-drinkery concept. I found it easily enough. Sure, there was a lone pork limb dangling in the window and the place was packed with punters at tiny tables decked out with fluted sherry glasses...but they all looked so GLUM. Nice try though. I guess I should have another peek during the week. Maybe even stop for a glass of fino.

As for the market, I need to come back another Saturday...but earlier. I was deterred from arriving within an hour of dawn this morning by Maggie's characterisation of Borough Market at 8am as a notorious open-air pick-up joint! Literally a meat market..without the trance anthems.

I can't really recommend it at lunchtime either. It's really just a tawdrier outdoor version of Selfridges Food Hall (with fewer bargains), where you have to constantly brush shoulders with solid clumps of zombie-like individuals stuffing their faces with greasy rocket-burgers.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Last night I hooked up with Baksheesh and Miseryguts in Destino. This used to be Down Mexico Way, an old haunt of ours - not quite the Titty Twister, but a south-of-the-border bar-restaurant that was just seedy enough to be authentic.

This was also the place that Christofer once famously threatened the staff with the Trades Descriptions Act when they served up a ceviche that didn't seem to look anything like what a ceviche in a place called Down Mexico Way ought to look like. When the Serbian waiter just glowered at him he called for the manager, who attempted to patronise him into submission. Never a smart move. Next up - the chef in full regalia, a passionate Venezuelan who delivered a moving little speech in hyperventilated Spanish about how he had discovered this particular recipe for ceviche in an isolated Ecuadorian coastal village, followed by a concise history of the etymology of the term ceviche, and concluding with a few bullet points on why he should be allowed some artistic license. Needless to say he was soon back in the kitchen preparing a proper ceviche. No maaaames cabrón!

By the way, V's cousin Hugo is the ceviche entrepreneur of Antigua, Guatemala. During a brief exile in los estados unidos he learned how to combine a simple, standardised fast food product with smart branding. Thus was born Hugo's Ceviches, for many years served by Hugo and his t-shirted crew from a pick-up parked beside the Calzada, but now also available from a proper sit-down diner at the kitschy little Texaco gas station opposite the Radisson (not actually part of said chain any longer, but the name has stuck.)

On Thursday night Baksheesh and I had time for a couple of cocktails before MG showed up. First some Caipirinhas that contained more crushed ice than a Slush Puppy then a pair of Margaritas that had the colour and consistency of our swimming pool when the chlorine is running a bit low!

That these cost £6.50 is symptomatic of the unfortunate makeover that this place has had. As something of an expert of the hacienda style and its key components, hand-painted tiles, wrought-iron balconies et al., I can only praise the architect responsible for the original re-fit - completed in 1926 when the first Spanish restaurant outside of Iberia opened on this site in Swallow Street . (The work was commissioned by the soon-to-be-deposed King of Spain.) But now there are joss sticks in the bogs and the staff are dressed like disciples of Dr No.

Most sorely missed is the disco. This was one of the few places in London you could actually imagine that you were on holiday. There were gangs of dusky Ecuadorian ladies (probably from the same village as that ceviche) dancing around their handbags, while the outer rim of the dance floor was prowled by shiny-shirted opportunists craning their necks like meerkats. Tourists, office workers, office cleaners...all swaying to a Macarena-Merengue kind of mix. The kind of place that made you feel a bit like you've scored just by being there. Now there's no dance floor, just a 'DJ' in a box in the bar area wearing a Craig David tea-cosy and headphones spinning the sort of anodyne trippy muzak that makes you wish you'd brought your own iPod. ('Craig' probably just plugs in his own one anyway.) The crowd around us were the precisely the featureless urbanites you'd expect to be listening to this electro-dross while drinking Sloshed Puppies. The illusion of displacement has gone - there's only on place you could be...London.

Salsa! with its shabby crowd of on-the-make Brazilians (the kind of people that give 'eclectic' a bad name) is sadly no substitute...and even that smelly dive will probably get the Conran treatment in the end.

MG is back in London after a comparatively brief six month disappearance. This time he was holed up in Gibraltar sailing up and down the coast either side of the Pillars of Hercules. He reported having just rented out his gaff in the Swiss alps to a former England footballer and his "bit on the side". I could certainly improve my Google ranking a bit by naming and shaming this individual, but I think I'd better stick to gags about Argies and anal sex, don't you?

Anyway, Baksheesh widened our eyes with the telling of his plans for an Autumn wedding. In Switzerland both of the betrothed are obliged to fill out a form in which they must describe the precise circumstances of their first meeting. This time though he's done his homework right - the future Madame Baksheesh is his bank manager and they met in her place of employment in Geneva. He couldn't stay long on Thursday- he had to trot off to the Colony Club to meet up with one of his flakier clients - a man that draws a fine ethical distinction between smuggling and contraband.

Afterwards MG and I had a bite at Chowki. I've been meaning to try this place out for ages, and I'd certainly recommend it now, though it's not really the sort of Indian restaurant you ought to go to when you're a bit lagered up.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Perils of Simple

When you have to sell solutions to external clients via an internal channel there is enormous pressure to commodify - that at least is what the internal people will tell you is the problem they face getting you into the market. "If only it was really simple.."

What they mean is that as they will only be re-selling your solution (invariably without using it themselves) they just can't be bothered to invest the time to understand it enough to sell anything other than a vanilla product.

Yet all the effort that goes into simplification is then unravelled as soon as you get in front of a client for whom your solution encapsulates a potential for some serious utility. It's not unreasonable for them to expect something that fits pretty snugly with their requirements.

Woe to you if you persist with trying to shove that big square peg through that tiny round hole.
This usually results in a lose-lose situation for everyone, as retro-customising the vanilla product generally wastes everyone's time and leads to an unprofitable engagement via all sorts of expectation gaps.

Why Blog? (Part 2)

This was to have been the concluding posting of this particular topic, but I now feel the need for a reflective pause in between the "to hell with you anyway" approach set out yesterday and the more commercially-minded conclusions that will now have to wait their turn in the final part of the trilogy. This change of structure was brought about by a timely realisation that I had short-changed Kieslowski's Camera Buff (1979) in my review last week. When I finally gave it my undivided attention I realised that it contained some powerful, and quite cautionary lessons for all budding bloggers.

In fact I think it is the Polish title Amator that is the key to understanding why this film is an important, universal parable about artistic awakening and not just a quaintly drab local story about a brown-tie comrade whose life is complicated by a new hobby. Consider the following elements of the story:

  • Filip purchases a 16mm camera in order to film the first months of his baby daughter - a personal diary
  • His wife objects when he starts filming his daughter naked - his first brush with censorship
  • One of the first non-baby things we see him filming is the television
  • His boss recruits him to record company events- his vBlog goes corporate
  • His boss buys a pen with a built-in light so he can make notes on the bits he wants cut out while watching Filip's films - more censorship
  • Filip enters for a nationwide competition where one of the judges expounds on how the traditional media are bound by certain duties, yet amateurs like him could and should focus on their personal experience: "You can do what you want, that is your strength"
  • It's precisely the material that wins him the attention of his peers and the Amateur Film-makers' Federation that most makes his boss most uncomfortable
  • Filip's growing relationship and reputation with the wider creative community means that his company starts to lose control of him
  • The film club and much of its cine equipment are paid for by his company. Later on Filip accepts film stock from the TV company. The films are certainly his creatively, but he has to confront the fact that ownership of the end product will never be wholly his own
  • Filip's creative awakening comes packaged with a poltical awakening - he finds that it's very hard to report things around you without taking a position
  • Yet he learns the hard way that things are not always as they seem and that there are sometimes disturbing moral consequences when you turn your camera on the world
  • "Before opening your mouth you must think of the damage you can do" cautions the boss of the plant belatedly when these consequences already have been felt
  • "Only Nature can be shown as it really is" muses Filip in response, and then finds the motivation to overcome this quandry: "If you feel right, nothing else matters"
  • The film ends when Filip, alone at home after his wife has taken his daughter and gone back to live with her mother, turns the camera back on himself.

Kieslowski made a critical switch to fictional film-making shortly before writing the script for Camera Buff. He later admitted that some of the real-life documentaries that Filip makes in the story are projects that he had abandonned un-realised when he himself had come to understand that the documentary film-maker was usually a dangerously intrusive presence in the lives of his subjects.

Amator won a prize in Moscow and garnered some international attention, but it wasn't until the Decalogue was widely broadcast ten years later that the Pole was admitted to the Pantheon of European cinema. For most of his prime he was paddling in the backwater - in blogging terms, a humble node rather than a privileged hub. (Or what Steve Rubel calls a vocal yokel)

In an interview on the DVD's extra features menu Kieslowski's friend and fellow acclaimed Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi attributes this neglect to the fact that "perception is hard".

In blogs, rather like all creative endeavours, some postings are like lonesome particles while a select few sing like vibrating strings. These qualitative distinctions cut across the standard sociology of the blogosphere. Nodes take heart - you don't have to be one of the most widely read and syndicated bloggers to aspire to stringiness!

Before I go, I think it's worth relating one rather good gag in Camera Buff. One of Filip's supervisors attempts to warn him of the dangers of his irrepressible vocation, recounting how his own brother discovered God at thirty and came to no good. "What happened?" asks Filip. "He became a priest" replies the supervisor wryly.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Why Blog? (Part 1)

It's been said of Jean Baudrillard that his writing style is where thought meets performance art. It's a distinctive voice - which is a polite way of saying that he annoys an awful lot of people.

To the best of my knowledge Baudrillard doesn't maintain a Carnet Web (blerg), but his personal notebooks (published in English as the series entitled Fragments) are one of the best examples of the style and form of fragmentary exposition available in a paper format. In short, a hypertextually-challenged blog.

In one entry from his diaries Baudrillard wrote "I don't pretend to be an intellectual who has a privileged right to know and to write. I write for myself".

Indeed, for many micro-publishers the blog is not really an end in itself - it is like the skeleton of a fleshy body that only they can perceive. Each posting is a reference point in the development of their thinking (and sometimes also a record of how it spontaneously connected up with other people's thinking) not the intended final output. Like scaffolding that is never taken down.

An article in Fortune last December revealed why this aspect at least of the blog phenomenon appeals to the legal profession: When Google redesigned its search home page, a staffer blogged notes from every brainstorm session. "With a company like Google that's growing this fast, the verbal history can't be passed along fast enough," says Marissa Mayer, who oversees the search site and all of Google's consumer web products. "Our legal department loves the blogs, because it basically is a written-down, backed-up, permanent time-stamped version of the scientist's notebook. When you want to file a patent, you can now show in blogs where this idea happened."

Frode and Doug would probably recognise this as a useful augmentation of memory. (I guess we could debate whether, confronted with the prodigious marvel that is permalinks, Socrates would still beg to differ. He could certainly have a more timely dialogue with a blog than he could with a book.)

My own education helped me fine-tune an important cognitive trick. I had to memorise a lot of stuff in the course of learning, but at the crucial moment when that knowledge was to be put to use, I made use of the mental habit of suppressing my recollection of the specific facts (indexical) in favour of the relationships between them (symbolic). As you grow older, memory suppression comes more naturally of course, but to less productive effect. Blogging is a practical way of keeping mentally fit. In my case associative thinking is not only my primary mind-skill it also forms a major part of my self-esteem.

"Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know" pronounced Lao Tzu. Yes, the apparent ease of blogging has added a great deal of incoherent waffle to the digital conversation. But done well, perhaps there's something a little more upmarket about blogging than mere talking!


After the red raw experience of Irréversible I decided to take myself out to see something a bit more, shall we say...elegaic. Trouble is, when you have grown aclimatised to more visceral cinematic experiences, movies like 2046 can have you fidgeting in your seat from quite early on.

Joel went to see it at the Curzon last Friday and afterwards texted me a short review, giving it a 6.75, and adding that it was "a bit long and dragging, but very sad". I discovered last night that you become aware of this impedance effect pretty much from the outset, but fortunately the ratio of motion to drag varies a bit as the film progresses.

Zhang Ziyi certainly livens up proceedings whenever she's on screen. At first she appears to be back in her type-cast role of coiled spring. She plays hard to get, foxy yet oddly disengaged, before suddenly exploding with wild man-eating passion. With her ventriloquist's diction and lively eyes she's utterly fascinating to watch. Whenever she whispers in a man's ear it's practically a sexual act.

She even gets to slap Mr Chow - a brief reminder of her butt-kicking prowess from recent Asian films of more martial artiness. (Though bizarrely the trivia page on the IMDB reveals that 2046 was originally conceived of as the story of a hitman in Bangkok!) However, Chow is determined not to enjoy himself too deeply and soon she's just another melancholic wreck in his tawdry biography.

It seems to me that both Tony Leung and his co-star from Infernal Affairs Andy Lau sport a naturally wounded look on screen, but while Lau's default expression is one of bug-eyed tension, as if permanently on the brink of the direst anguish, Leung's is more rueful, as if he has learned to simply absorb the punches.

Actually I was again reminded that Leung could quite easily pass himself off as a Mexican. Won Kar Wai's films undoubtedly feature the immoderate romantic sensibility of boleros, and like many works of Latin American cinema the background music often pushes to the front, blatantly captivating our attention and conducting our emotions with its dance. Bellini and Nat King Cole are laid on thick and repetitively. The 2046 Main Theme sounds a lot like the theme from Leon and there's a tune by Zbignieuw Preisner, who composed so much of the music for that other ponderous poet of the modern cinema, Krzysztof Kieslowski.

In the Sunday Times this week Cosmo Landessman observed that Wong Kar Wai's films are "a passionate postmodern mix of Gustav Klimt, Edward Hopper, Frank Sinatra and God knows what." Now Hopper's work is often cited as having been very influential on the cinema of his day, but his canvasses are frozen moments, studies of the transcendent gaps in human existence, and hence possibly not the best ingredients for full-length feature presentations. In the film-maker's art, when your underlying subjects are things unsaid and actions misplaced you can all too easily end up with over-nuanced interactions; and indeed by the end of 2046 you're hoping that someone, somewhere will get something off their chest just a tad more directly.

This torrent of repressed happenings ultimately feeds the aforementioned fidgeting , especially when you start to factor in your recollections of the earlier Chow Mo Wan film In the Mood for Love. (In fact, appropriately enough, I remember is that is was a beautiful, and indeed very moody film, but not much else.)

"When in doubt, gross'em out", proclaims a character in a Manga comic I read recently- an approach that Gaspar Noé for one might agree with. Wong Kar Wai on the other hand opts for the opposite aesthetic strategem; I guess you could call it "When in doubt, grace'em out". In 2046, even the doorknobs are achingly evocative.

The futuristic scenes from Chow's science fiction stories meanwhile are somewhat incongruously styled like a bad 80s pop video. (Does anyone else remember Drowning in Berlin? A classic of the genre!)

Anyway, if it finds you in the right mood 2046, like its predecessor, will most likely be an indulgent pleasure, poignant and never quite pretentious. However, unlike that other recent romantic sequel, Before Sunset, personally I have no immediate desire for a repeat viewing.

Incidentally, Jason commented to me yesterday that my review of Irréversible contained a few choice keywords likely to assist my Google ranking. Here's to that!

Monday, January 17, 2005

Blogs and Expertise

There's probably more skill than expertise in traditional PR. Most of my colleagues can make very good careers for themselves simply by learning from experience. (Theirs or their superiors'.) The trouble with interactive communications is that you couldn't survive simply on the opportunities and knowledge available to your predecessors five or ten years ago.

Having floated around for a couple of years on one of the lifeboats that just made it to a safe distance away from the dotcom shipwreck, Blogs represent, if not the sight of palm trees on the horizon, at the very least a cloud of buzzing insects around me and my famished fellow passengers.

In a field which requires regular, small doses of expertise the apparent ascendancy of micro-publishing is a major change in our professional circumstances. Books are too slow, magazine articles too narrow (and often rather rigid in style.) A blog that establishes itself as a knowledge aggregator for a particular field of expertise is the best way for us to refuel with information on the go, and to quickly convert this into the energy of insight.

Shot of Relief

The front cover of PR Week this week includes a piece titled "Starbucks reviews PR to build ethical image". When you read Frode's posting from MacWorld you can see that their agency will have their job cut out for them: "Starbucks upset me quite a bit, with a promotion that if you buy a specific product they will donate money to the relief effort. No general donation, no bucket for cash, just a way to push a product. Tacky, manipulative just bad. Yes, I emailed them."


This project apparently began as an attempt to mirror Eyes Wide Shut - director Gaspar Noé wanted to explore a marriage by filming a story acted out by a real life thespian couple, in this case Cassel and Bellucci. Somehow he ended up making the most compelling advert for escaping to the countryside ever made. (Though Peckinpah showed in Straw Dogs that even the rural idyll has a demi-monde and that nasty things happen to your loved ones there too.)

This was the most walked-out-of film of 2002, a distinction the director apparently strove to achieve. The first half hour has a background noise with a frequency of 28Hz (low frequency, almost inaudible), reportedly similar to the noise produced by an earthquake which in humans has a tendency to cause nausea and vertigo.

'Controversial' won't quite cut the mustard here. These are the most frank depictions of rape and murder you are ever likely to witness from a position of relative comfort. Definitely a movie to watch on your own. You would have to be a very self-confident sort indeed to take a date to see Irréversible. Noé was himself inevitably accused of outrageous posturing by critics, and it's hard not to look beyond the brute honesty of the facts on screen to the motives of the filmmaker, who deliberately chose for his subject matter that which is most likely to simultaneously fascinate and revolt us.

Irréversible re-deploys a technique that Memento familiarised smarter audiences with - starting with the end; represented here literally as the end of all decency, meaning's shithole - the RECTUM club. It just about manages to find a way of scraping a conclusion out of the beginning by ending up with Bellucci reclining with a book in the midst of a summer scene of rather contrived innocence. Unlike Memento, Irréversible delivers its biggest twist in mid-retreat. (Though this is quite easily missable, rather like the sudden switch to Guy Pearce's face on the mental patient in Christopher Nolan's film.)

It's worth seeing the film 'blind' as I did, with no prior expectations and not having seen the trailer which undermines Noé's efforts to take measured steps backwards from hell. Crucially we are shown little of Monica Belluci's face and learn nothing of her character Alex's personality before we have to watch her being sodomised. If the violation scene in Straw Dogs offended because Susan George looked as if she might actually be enjoying it, Noé strives to make sure that we depart this film with life-lasting comprehension of the full meaning of Rape. (Though you suspect that poor Alex might have saved herself a lot of trouble if only she had left the party wearing the sweater that she arrived in and ignored the advice of the hooker that advised her that the subway was safer than the pavement above ground.)

There are patches of rather heavy symbolism, which in my view don't provide that much additional explanatory power. While the narrative toys with our sense of linear sequence, the titles play with the appearance of inversion, and the swirling camera technique (and accompanying soundtrack) plus the spinning objects its occasionally dwells on seem to suggest a treacherous wheel of fortune motif.

Yet "Time destroys everything", a stress on more linear nihilism from the short prologue sequence, is repeated for good measure at the end. Alex herself talks of reading up on determinism and reports a dream that by then we know is a clear premonition of her own fate. In the background the Adagio from Beethoven's fourth symphony underscores a growing sense of relentlessness, perhaps ironically because we are experiencing the narrowing of possibility in reverse...which arguably makes the logic of determism that much starker. Noé also appears to have a fixation on anal penetration worthy of an Argentine. (PS: this morning I discovered that his father was Argentine - mystery solved!)

Irréversible joins the ranks of stories that show us what Johnnie Surfer refers to as the "soft underbelly". After Hours was a more gentle, comic treatment of the theme, but left you with a powerful sense of the chaos lurking in the urban penumbra. Blue Velvet directed its suspicions at the suburbs. In other tales like Malcolm Lowrie's Under the Volcano and more recently Roger Dodger, the gaping jaws of the underworld open up to those whose psychological state is already in descent.

Maybe the shark metaphor isn't so misplaced - Latin Americans alone and illegal in foreign cities that have suburbs instead of shanty-towns often describe their status as bajo agua, underwater. We affluent city-dwellers are lying on the surfboard of civilisation waiting for our next thrill. If we take the time to gaze downwards we can glimpse the fleeting shadows of the myriad life-forms that inhabit this element beneath us. An unlucky few of us though will end up with bite marks from passing predators.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Camera Buff

It was always going to be fairly hard to get up on time this morning, but my cause was not assisted by a substantial firework display at 4am just over the river in Deptford. Whatever it is they were celebrating, lets hope for their sake that it was a matter of broad interest and appeal in south east London.

The news item of the moment reminds me of someone I know in Guatemala who, on spotting any 'Germans' (blond, not obviously American) on the move along the pavement, likes to pull up in his car in order to give them an exuberantly friendly Nazi salute. Remarkably he is yet to be disabused of the conviction that his heartwarming gesture will ensure that the canches feel right at home in Antigua.

It's a shame that it had to be Prince Harry and not Tony Blair that made this fancy dress faux pas, but after three weeks of global catastrophe mania only a high cresting roller of a story of this magnitude was capable of driving the tsunami from our front pages.

Anyway, my late night was topped off by a renewed attempt to get through to the end of Camera Buff (1979), a film that marked Kieslowski's point of transformation from documentary film-maker into cinematic poet.

Appropriately enough it is a tale about a denizen of Warsaw called Filip who buys a cine camera to record his daughter's first few months only to become obsessed with recording almost everything he observes. As a result his domestic relationships are ruined, and his professional (which segue into his political) ones complicated. This vocational urge to represent and then to narrate is shown to be essentially destablising even if, like Filip, the budding amateur artist otherwise has life quite well sorted out.

Camera Buff is more light-hearted and possibly also more light-weighted than Kieslowski's later works. Superficially nothing much happens in these either, but they benefit from a mood of otherworldly profundity that somehow keeps you a bit more rivetted.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Siesta Time

Spaniards work more hours per week than the average European, but are rumoured to achieve less in the time. A partial explanation for this apparent productivity gap is suggested by a factoid which reveals that they also sleep on average 40 minutes less per day than those average Europeans.

The traditional siesta used to be the time when they caught some Zs. (I say traditional because those that would align the pattern of the Spanish working day with the EU standard are loudly insisting that the long midday break was actually only introduced after the Civil War.) These days few can be bothered to go home for a nap, so lunchtime has been stretched instead. With both partners more likely to be working, it also means that many children don't see their parents for several hours after they come home from school.

Spanish PM Zapatero has recently pointed out that "the work schedule is what distinguishes Spaniards, but it is also what defines us". That and poking swords into domesticated ungulates, but he has a point, and it's one I sympathise with. Whenever I'm over there I soon get with the late nights and the intermittent snacking, whilst recognising that it must be debilitating for conscientious Protestants in the long run.

Just time to sneak in a few last comments on the tsunami aftermath (promise...)

An article in yesterday's New York Times picked up on fears that aid to wave-stricken communities might last only as long as the media attention, citing the experience of Honduras post-Mitch. (Three years after the hurricane 20,000 people were still homeless and living in temporary shelters. ) Perhaps in the case of the current disaster response the apparently endless duration of the media attention is itself possibly worth some analysis by itself?

Jennie Bristow of Spiked! takes the bah humbug approach to the current mood: "It is presumed that we cannot be expected to relate to any world event unless it can be given direct relevance to our lives" and "What started as a sentiment of compassion is in danger of becoming another exercise in self-flattery, as we are encouraged to give, not to do good, but to feel good."

Yet her colleague Frank Furedi is more circumspect. He suggests that the meanings we assign to catastrophes go deeper than their magnitude.

Maybe the key thing is that neither God(s) nor Men can be imediately blamed in this instance. The unequivocable senselessness of the tsunami might actually be a cause for celebration. This disaster affected many places and many peoples and for those that are used to recent (and less arbitrary) human tragedies being followed by an epidemic of more divisive moods, there might actually be reason for thinking that this could be one of those global events with lasting historical significance of the positive sort.

The only trouble with the spirit of unity is that it is nearly always accompanied by tunnel vision - for example, I was a little surprised to find that Time magazine's tsunami post-edition carried almost no news or comments about the situation in Iraq.

House of Flying Daggers

Sounds a bit like our local bloggerhood doesn't it? (The literal English translation of the film's Chinese title Shi mian mai fu is "Ambushed From Ten Directions"!)

It looks like Zhang Yimou made Daggers with the spare change left over from Hero. And for much of the film this bijoux budget seems to be providing a bit more bang for your buck. There's no shortage of operatic drama, ultra-stylised combat and overblown scenery, but this time the director has planted a compelling, complex romance at the heart of it all, and amongst characters you can even begin to care about.

Indeed, it all seems to be boiling up rather nicely until the last 15 minutes. Then, mysteriously, the context crumbles and falls away leaving the three leads looking rather exposed. Zhang Yimou twists the knob up a notch or two and the whole thing ends up disappointingly overcooked.

Even before the final confrontation the principal protagonists often appear in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the richly-visualised landscapes and the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Ultimately we learn very little about them other than their names, their faces and their role in the action we witness. This sense of superficiality seems to creep into the dialogue - "Are you real?", Mei repeatedly demands of Jin. (Having said that, the central performances are all of the highest quality.)

Once again the problem may be that Western plot-resolution expectations are being confounded. The ending appears "tragic", but exactly whose tragedy is it? If you asked any competent storyteller literate in our own tradition to construct a mythic-historical tale based on the three basic plot ingredients below, few if any would sort things out in the way that this particular narrative does:

  • two friends or colleagues in love with the same girl
  • evil empire plotting to uncover secret rebel hideout
  • everyone is hiding something and noone's identity is secure

I'd wager that most would dedicate more of the 119 minutes to fleshing out the relationship between the two men and less time worrying about the shade of the the autumn leaves.

The oddly vanishing political background and support cast may be attributable to the death of veteran actress Anita Mui from cervical cancer. The director is rumoured to have made some late adjustments to the script.

You have to suspect though that Zhang Yimou would have made a better job of Troy. Zhang Ziyi certainly has the ship-launching sort of face. What would the world of wire-fu wuxia be like without her evanescent, extraterrestrial beauty? If she didn't exist they'd surely have to invent her.

So much elegance and spectacle, yet the budget didn't seem to quite stretch to giving Andy Lau's character Leo a life of his own...or even a horse of his own. You are left with the impression that wherever you are in the vast expanse of China's woodlands and wheatfields, you can walk off in any direction for around 200m and there you will find an agitated-looking Leo skulking around in his purple policeman's outfit!

Monday, January 10, 2005

Humanists Unite!

In his About Me piece my colleague Joel has proclaimed himself a humanist. I guess it's the nearest you can get to describing yourself as an intellectual or even a philosopher in the anglophone world without sounding like a bit of a twat.

Some of you might think that making public statements about private inclinations like this is a bit like announcing to the world that you wear clean underwear every day. Very admirable, but so what? Unless one goes on to explain the relevance to your life's projects it could also be taken as a mark of decadence, rather like informing colleagues that under your suit you habitually wear red satin boxer shorts. (or have a diamond up your nostril!)

I'm not so sure that I have ever (up to now at least) openly described myself as a humanist, yet there's no denying that my education was broadly humanist in flavour and that this is as good an adjective as any for describing my everyday intellectual inclinations. It can of course mean any number of different things. Undogmatic feels quite comfy, but this shades quickly into uncontroversial, uncommitted even. Those humanistic underpants can be worn so tightly as to induce sterility.

Conversely anti-authoritarian sounds unreformably bolshy. Yet there are some powerful and dangerous new authorities in the modern workplace that operate on a different plane to the traditional corporate hierarchy and it is perhaps it is these that those of us of humanistic disposition are best placed to confront and reject.

Last Autumn Spiked!'s Frank Furedi spoke in our company bar about twenty first century philistinism, referring to a process of dumbing down in both academic and public life whereby anyobody that seeks knowledge for its own sake is considered somehow deviant. Back in the 80s Richard Rorty wrote that while primary and secondary education should properly feature an information dump geared towards the socialisation of the individual, further education should then be where the socialisation stops and criticism commences. It is also the beginning of the self-individualisation of the student who is ideally provoked into a lifelong tension with received wisdom. Non-vocational higher education fosters this kind of enormously valuable scepticism much better than the purely vocational variety. The latter is much more about being shaped than about assuming the task of shaping yourself. The current emphasis on vocational training over the study of 'the humanities' therefore presents a more significant danger than the growing prevalence of boorish philistines in a cubicle near you. It is starving our society of doubt.

On the flight to Houston in December I watched I, Robot once more and ended up slightly revising my opinion of the film. It was still a very mediocre piece of entertainment, but perhaps I was wrong to think it played exclusively on the technological anxieties of a bygone era. As well as highlighting the inevitable consequences of creating new tools simply because we can, and asking the now familiar questions about what happens when machines start thinking like human beings, on second viewing I detected a more interesting and certainly more immediate concern - what if, as a result of working with ever more 'intelligent' machines, we start to be overcome by machine logic ourselves? We probably won't have to wait another 50 years for this threat to manifest itself. I'm already rather disturbed by the number of my colleagues that actually seem to be trying to think like difference engines.

If humanism used to mean a belief in the potential of human beings to forge their own destiny rather than surrender to the will of God, in the future it may come to signify a belief in the potential of human beings to forge their own destiny rather than surrender to the logic of computers.

It may not be the machines themselves that pose the greatest threat, but rather the technological formalists for whom 'solutions' are always an end in themselves and the 'algorithmics' that would have us believe that all human output can be mapped against (and therefore comprehended by) a set of underlying rules. ("My logic is undeniable" insists V.I.K.I in I, Robot.)

Anyway, there's no end to the amount of arrant nonsense and economic waste being generated by these people. It is against such dangerously misinformed individuals that the humanists must stand - with a view to disenchanting this pernicious new form of mumbo-jumbo. (This is not some sort of neo-Luddite crusade in disguise. Those with a genuine familiarity with the potential for technology to complement and ultimately augment human capacities are amongst the least likely to be found spouting robo-babble. )

The weapons at our disposal include the following:

  • A preference for inferences over equivalences - the conviction that metaphor and association are often more revealing than what is learned by breaking down complex wholes into their simple parts.
  • A suspicion of pseudo-analytic approaches which consider practice as a mere instrument of theory, ignoring context in the name of one or other signature methodology.
  • A dedication to finding the blind-spots in all organised systems of thought.
  • The notion that intersubjectivity is nearly always preferable to so-called objectivity.
  • Pluralism. (You can always tell an honest pluralist by how many incompatible beliefs and opinions they harbour. Those that are ruthlessly consistent are nearly always fraudulent and potentially dangerous too.)
  • A commitment to the provision of original content (or else useful redescriptions) in our blogs. (Joel has promised…)

So, we humanists are "intellectually squishy" and proud of it. We are reflective sorts that, as Rorty would put it, constantly seek to enlarge our own sense of what is possible and important - individuals that are happy to occasionally prioritise becoming a different person over changing our material circumstances.

Holiday Viewing

A quick run-through of all the films I saw on my recent travels. I'll cover off I,Robot in my next posting. Shark Tale was on offer on the same Continental flight. This was actually more amusing in Spanish than in English. In the latter version Will Smith was a bit too...well, himself, and the alternative cast made more of the possibility of using different accents to shade their caricatures. The Godfather shark Don Lino (De Niro's part in the original) was inevitably played by an Argentine. Godzilla was shown on the ADO bus from Playa to Chetumal. Unwatchable; the bus arrived before it ended anyway.

On the same ride I caught the trailer for The Forgotten, a movie that is in fact best appreciated as a trailer. When I actually got to see the full movie on the flight back from Houston I quickly realised that the plot is based on a premise that the producers should have had the good sense to keep as a premise. My neighbour quite accurately described it as "well-acted, unintentional comedy". Another piece of Americana on the same flight was First Daughter starring Katie Holmes as the freshman offspring of the US commander in chief - an unlikely character played by Michael Keaton. It takes the American fairytale formula to the same absurd and predictable lengths that The Forgotten takes the American paranoid nightmare. Having said that, both films were fairly entertaining. Much the same can be said of Spiderman 2, which I eventually saw all of after three separate partial sittings with a collection of V's nephews and nieces gathered around the DVD player over Christmas. The scenes where Spiderman is doing his signature swinging between the skyscrapers are especially well realised, unlike the CGI-enhanced feline leapings of Catwoman, which played on the flight from Guatemala to Houston. You wouldn't need extraterrestrial assistance to forget that one.

Then there's Troy. I was actually expecting this to be worse than it ended up being. It was certainly quite hard work and I'm still not sure exactly how ridiculous Brad Pritt was as Achilles, but at the end I felt I had been just a little bit thrilled and moved. Eric Bana's Hector is certainly the heart of this. Perhaps the biggest deviation from Homer was the secularisation - which made the prospect of bulked up Brad dying from a single arrow to the heel a bit tricky, so Paris had to finish him off by pumping him with almost as many arrows as Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring. Apparently there were a bunch of condom gags (Trojans!) that went completely over my head.

Last week's movie on FilmFour Weekly was the superb Infernal Affairs. Possibly the best Hong Kong crime movie I've ever seen. I immediately decided to watch it through again the following night. There's so much detail and depth to revel in. My only quibble would be that the writers could have made the two alternative worlds of policeman and Triad brother more vivid by showing us a bit more of the other social exchanges and rituals in their lives, but maybe that it what Infernal Affairs 2 & 3 set out to do. We shall see.

Over the weekend I watched Zatoichi meets Yojimbo, one of the original series starring Shintaro Katsu from 1970. Toshiro Mifune reprises his Yojimbo role from Kurosawa's films. The build-up is fairly slow and uneven and the blind masseur-swordsman much less uncomplicatedly cool than Takeshi's updated version. The mood is relentlessly grim - High Plains Drifter is jolly in comparison. Director Okamoto Kihachi participated in some of the worst fighting in the Pacific as the second world war reached its conclusion and it is said that this profoundly influenced his later career and general outlook on the violence within mankind.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Jump Seat

Landing in Guatemala is always a bit hair-raising. Aurora International airport is fairly centrally located in the middle of Guatemala city, right next to the high rise commercial district in fact. This city of over 2 million inhabitants is squeezed into a deep valley in the Sierra Madre. You can see from this picture that the airport's designers even factored in a substantial and active volcano (Pacaya) directly on the flight path of descending aircraft.

The runway is strictly a bit too short for wide-bodied jets to take off and land safely. KLM didn't seem to mind though and flew in 747s daily from Amsterdam until about 4 years ago when one of its pilots, apparently new to this route, took one look at the final approach from his cockpit window and decided to go somewhere else. His colleagues obviously supported him and the Dutch airline has never returned.

Regional carrier TACA prides itself on the most modern fleet of aircraft in the commercial skies. Any reassurances this might provide have to be tempered by the knowledge that their pilots are temperamentally indistinguishable from the local bus drivers, whose safety record speaks for itself. It's a bit like the RAF crowing about how many factory-fresh Spitfires they had on their airfields by the end of 1941.

V's brother Oscar used to work for Mexicana, a position which afforded him the dubious privelege of flying in the jump seat in the cockpit of his employers' aircraft. He says that from take-off through to landing alarms were going off on the dashboard every few minutes. In the moments of relative calm between these 'situations' he could reflect on the fact that if the cabin depressurised the occupant of the jump seat would be the only passenger left without an oxygen mask. (Only the crew get 'air' anyway.)

Once the pilot and co-pilot of a DC-10 decided to play a cruel joke on him. As the plane touched down they made out that the brakes had failed. "ayyy, esta vez nos chingó la madre!" screamed the pilot. (In fairness to the Spanish national soccer coach the blasphemo-obscenities of this language defy literal translation. "This time we're really fucked!" will suffice here.)

The Guatemalans have given due consideration to even this eventuality. On the picture before you may also have noticed a landscape design feature implemented to dramatically slow down any aircraft that happen to misjudge their landings at Aurora International - a sheer drop at the end of the short runway. The ditch below is packed with ramshackle dwellings. These homes are "illegal" according to the authorities, which in effect means that residents are themselves responsible for the deaths and injury that occur each time a large commercial aircraft lands on top of them.

After another crash involving a Cuban cargo jet (on which Oscar observed a cracked windscreen before its fateful take-off), all Mexicana employees at the airport were treated to mandatory psychological counselling. Bizarrely this involved listening to the cockpit recording from another Mexicana flight, which came down earlier that year with the loss of all hands. In the minutes before disaster struck the crew, delightfully blasé about the fact that their every word was being recorded for posterity, engaged in a colourful banter about their tequila benders. This conversation alone might have made the black box recording something of a collector's item, but in the end it was cut rudely short by the sudden unexpected arrival of another volcano. "Chinga su..."


Last night both the BBC and SKY referred to the recent tsunami as the worst natural disaster in living memory. It isn't - around 250,000 Chinese died as a result of an earthquake in '76. (There were several more with bigger death tolls in the twentieth century.) It is instead, and perhaps more importantly, the first natural disaster that we remember giving such a damn about.

Not being susceptible to eathquakes, hurricanes and the like, the Brits in particular feel more involved this time. I suspect that the fact that the victims included countless Western tourists enjoying a sunny day in paradise has increased the overall sense of immediacy. (And over Christmas to boot.)

On the other side of the Atlantic last week the prevailing attitudes seemed comparatively uncompassionate. In Guatemala a report of the catastrophe was given equal billing on the local news channel in their short internacionales section with a piece about a rogue monkey on the rooftops of Barranquilla, Colombia.

At least 85% of Guatemalans of course have no concept of the holiday abroad and are hardened to the daily possibility of being massacred by Mother Nature. The last major quake there killed over 30,000. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 across Central America causing $9bn of economic damage. Less than a third of the aid promised by the World Bank and other governments ever materialised. The agriculture of northern Honduras remains devastated. (It wasn't that great to start with. )

How long will the current surge in our good intentions last? Significantly they would appear to be being driven from the bottom up on this occasion, much like the response to the famine in Ethiopia. The impact of the maremoto on the popular imagination at least equals that of 9-11 and once again Hollywood would appear to have prepped our imaginations for human tragedy on this scale. There's a good chance that the money will reach the people it's being collected for.

The Septics, somewhat typically, have combined a lukewarm compassion for the victims of the Indian Ocean disaster with a frantic concern for the possibility that they themselves might be like totally vulnerable to to something similar. The probable final death toll associated with use of shamed drug Vioxx has also been dramatically inflated in the last week, as if by way of one-upmanship.

Back in '97 I was indeed upset when Diana died in Paris, but soon found myself even more distrurbed by the fermenting mob sentiment. After the Boxing Day wave I find both the apparent lack of feeling over there and the apparent excess of it over here almost equally distasteful.

Yet there's no denying that it has been depressing my mood at the start of the year - I'm not sure how much of this can be attributed to the fact that V and I were so nearly on that plane to Thailand before Christmas and that I have since learned that the best friend of a family member was washed away at Phuket.

I've been feeling guilty that my obstinate insistence on a trip to the far east could have endangered V. It's small comfort that we are unlikely to have been anywhere near the beach at 8am in the morning. When I look at the photos of her standing on the white sands in Mexico with her back to the sea I can imagine that I see the spectre of the maremoto gushing in at 400mph behind her.