Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Great American Novel?

When was the last time I read a novel of Gatsby's quality? Answer, a shockingly long time ago.

This year's best has been Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas. Last year's was The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, but neither are in the same league. The last genuine classic I had in my hands was Turgenev's Spring Torrents back in 2003.

Scanning down my list to the turn of the century I find I have highlighted Sandor Marai's Embers and his compatriot Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, and one more genuine masterpiece, Nabokov's Lolita. (also worth considering as The Great American Novel?)

While not quite being a candidate for canon-isation, Alberto Fuguet's Mala Onda made a big impression in 2002.

I picked up Gatsby because one of Haruki Murakami's characters in Norwegian Wood plugs it as a near perfect novel. I can see why this novel appeals so much to Murakami.
  • It's a tissue of mysteries and suggestion. Secondary stories are either told or hinted at using layers of narrative and symbol.
  • Nick Carraway is just the sort of ambivent, elusive narrator that Murakami himself favours: one that delivers a dispassionate commentary that avoids telling us what we most want to know at the crucial times.
Fitzgerald is however much better than Murakami at introducing his characters. The first four that manifest themselves in The Great Gatsby (narrator included) are revealed using subtly different techniques.

When Nick announces to a caller that "Mr Gatsby's dead" the notes in my edition point to parallels with Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Gatsby's debt to Conrad's doomed outsiders is even more extensive I feel. His partly accidental demise is similar to that of Nostromo and his basic flaws match those of Captain Lingard from The Rescue and Axel Hyest from Victory. (Possibly my favourite novel.)

When Gatsby was first published H L Mencken described it as "a glorified anecdote". This undoubtedly seems unfair to our generation given its symbolic intricacy (and sales are steady at 300,000 per annum), but to some extent the poetry of this book and the substance of its main character are indeed, for my tastes just a little bit over-rich for the actual plot. (Though perhaps some readers get more of a kick out of the techniques of careful omission.)

Anyway there's still a degree of flimsiness apparent underneath all the superlative literary style and structure. (Very much like Conrad's The Rescue in fact.) In the end you are being asked to believe that a man would devote all his energies (bending not a few rules along the way) to becoming the image of a successful technocrat, just in order to impress his ex!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Great Gatsby

Anyone that has enjoyed shows like Will & Grace will be familiar with the ways that America's self-critiques, especially those targeting its most aimless and superficial citizens, tend to turn into raucous celebrations. The narcisist looking at himself in the mirror one morning might think "omigod, what a minger!", but a narcisist he remains, albeit a minging one.

Having said that, eighty years after the publication of The Great Gatsby you are more likely to find Italians crying over the quality of fine shirts (as Daisy does in Gatsby's bedroom) than most straight Americans.

America (and the idea of America) has played a crucial part in the establishment of the society of the spectacle, but for all my suspicions about the American way of life, the ascendency of semiotic content over the 'real' is arguably more pronounced in the UK. (In the Sunday Times last weekend food critic AA Gill bemoaned that in Britain today "what you eat has less importance than the feeling, the emotion, the idea that you are being into when you sit down.")

Jay Gatsby is man as brand (strictly speaking a re-brand of James Gatz). A "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" is the essence of a personality that has repositioned itself beyond the authentic, that exists in order to pitch the idea of itself to others, and one particular other in particular. This woman, from whom he craves lasting adoration, tellingly compares his always "so cool" surface to "the advertisement of the man".

Even the title of the novel resonates through modern literature like a trademark.

It seems that from the moment he put on a uniform Gatsby discovered that image could be just as important as substance. His own image and reputation has been built by a judicious distribution of isolated facts and mysteries, hypertrophied by a vast and murky wealth, and by simply allowing people to believe extravagant things about him.

My feminist chums at Cambridge used to love laying into Hemingway, but Lady Brett Ashley is a far more sympathetic Jazz Age female than any Fitzgerald has to introduce us to here. Throughout the novel white is the colour of purity and yellow that of corruption, so we know exactly what he thinks of Daisy and perhaps in a sense, all of womankind.

Gatsby strikes me as a bloke's hero - narrator Nick Carraway is moved by his fate because although the object of his romantic invention is ultimately unworthy of him, what he has constructed is a transcendent fantasy which has a value beyond mundane realities. Definitely a masculine conceit.

Meet the Fockers

An invitation from Jay Roach that I wish I hadn't accepted. Dustin Hoffmann adds a great deal of charm and for some this may compensate for the lack of biting comedy.

Pilot Episodes

Have you ever seen one of those pilot episodes of a hit American show and been surprised at how lifeless your favourite characters seemed in their first outing, as if the actors haven't quite discovered the élan vital of this person they are going to have to live with for the next ten seasons?

George Lucas' Revenge of the Sith is much more like a first episode than a last one. You sit watching Obi Wan, Padme and Anikin waiting for them to come alive, to be themselves, but they don't. It's like Joey in the pilot of Friends. You can practically see the wires.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


A great little anime anthology from 1995. The first two, directed by Kôji Morimoto and Tensai Okamura respectively, are variations on classic sci-fi story archetypes. Magnetic Rose shows us what happens to a bunch of deep space dustmen that answer the siren-like call of a distress signal and Stink Bomb is an exuberant take on the bio-weapon breakout trope.

Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Akira etc.) delivers are more subtle, nostalgic animation, Cannon Fodder, in which he depicts a militarised future as it might have been imagined in the first half of the twentieth century - humans lead alienated lives in a vast mechanical metropolis at war, whose wan-looking citizens have howitzers on their rooves. Every day the biggest gun in town is prepped and fired by a general with an extravagant feathered helmet and long coat and the evening news reports on damages to the distant, unseen foe presumably living in a city beyond the wasteland that surrounds their own.

History seems to just find the right balance between technology and political culture to avoid any serious interruptions. What if the folks of 1914 had the technologies we have now?

While Magnetic Rose made me think of Alien and Ghost Ship, this last one has echoes of Brazil and Metropolis. All three of these animated manga shorts are in the tradition of Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant) minus the adolescent masturbatory fantasy material.

Dynamic Quality Range

Chris Anderson continues to squeeze analytical models out of his Long Tail concept. His latest post concludes that niche content is often better than hit content and has the potential to be more profitable because it is inherently better suited to its audience.

Rather like Steve Johnson he sets up a straw man for himself to knock down - the notion that the Long Tail is "full of crap". Of course quality (and the signal to nosie ratio) declines as you slide down the curve, he admits, but "your noise is my signal" and the tail features a wider dynamic range of quality - "awful to great", compared to traditional stores where the range can be limited to "moderate to good".

Broadly, these are interesting points, but the usual quibbles apply:

The Long Tail argument is a spatial-economic one. It states that when the means of distribution are limited, a zero sum game commences whereby the space allocated for one product precludes its use for another. But prominence is not just spatial, it is cultural too. There's more than one kind of scarcity in play here.

There's an unchallenged underlying assumption that consumer needs are primarily individual in there too. (There's always a communal element to the creation and appreciation of popular art forms. )

Hit products are product + everything that goes into building a brand. The brand defines the product's cultural references. These cost money to establish and maintain, and are another reason why the margins on niche products can be (individually) better, but this doesn't stop the volumes being better on hits. I can forsee that the new economics will force an adjustment in where the best margins can be found, but won't dramatically undermine the culture of the hit, which is not an entirely economic phenomenon.

Pervasive Complexity

Wired's Suneel Ratan is one of the few journalists thus far prepared to poke his fingers into Steve Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You. While Ratan agrees that today's pop culture is more complex and probably also more clever, he questions whether this gives us any excuse to say that it's better for us. I made my own (more pessimistic) views clear back on May 4.

Catching some Zs

A crack team of anti-narco commandos known as Los Zetas and trained by the US at Fort Benning in Georgia cemented their change of allegiance in spectacular fashion last weekend- they murdered the Police Chief of Rosarito (12 miles south of the border) by spraying his car with more than 100 bullets. Not that we can be entirely sure which side Chief Carlos Bowser-Miret was on.

Applying Historical Perspective

Most people will give you a straight answer to the question "was the invasion of Iraq a good idea?" But try asking a historian whether they think the French Revolution was a good idea...

The events that historians deal with are not 'live' political ones and it seems more obvious to them that the overall consequences (and moral interpretations) of any historical event are always far from clearcut.

Now, I wouldn't want to suggest that we give balanced essay-style answers to today's pressing political questions, but I do think our debates would benefit from the following approach:

  • When you assert that an event is either a positive step or a necessary evil, don't be ashamed to own up to and discuss some at least of the really bad things it involves, such as the deaths of innocents etc.
  • Conversely, when you insist that it is or was an avoidable ill, please be prepared to acknowledge openly that it might actually have had some positive consequences.

This may not appear to be such a big ask, but people do seem to be more impressed with their own views the more unequivocal they are.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

More Bell Curve than Power Law

Have just jumped from Blockbuster to Screenselect.

The former were as bad at mailing me the big titles as they were the more obscure stuff, though the flow of middle-ranking films was fairly steady throughout my erstwhile subscription. Unusual titles were more likely to be housed on faulty disks of plastic too.

Not so much the long tail as the big arse!

I continue to await the arrival of Netflix in the UK with interest.

Eurovision 2005

One of those things in the calendar that isn't really about what it's about and watched largely by people with a history of watching it.

"Can anyone tell me which countries are next to Moldova?" Terry Wogan asked playfully. You would soon be able to make an educated guess from the voting patterns.

My Bulgarian friend Stefan described the spectacle as "a mirror of what the EU is becoming". It's all so New Europe - where sleaze is the new cool. Bulgaria got to vote if not contribute to the final cacophany.

Many of these countries didn't even exist when I was born. Several appeared to have deployed all the blondes they are likely to have had at their disposal that night.

Spain's cynical attempt to clone The Ketchup Song failed to put sangria in the blood of all those geopolitically-aware telephone voters.

The (deserved) Swedish Greek winner Helena Paparizou appears to have the body of a dusky Mediterranean beauty with the personality of a Scandinavian ice maiden. After she had, with unbecoming reluctance, brushed the dioxin-dented cheeks of Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko with her glossy lips, coverage leaped across to BBC3. It must have been close to 4am by then in Kiev.

The Beeb's marquee was soon infiltrated by a pair of Norwegian glam-rockers Wig Wam who proceeded to lounge lecherously on the sofa groping at leggy, stretch-faced Javine and the resident presenter Jenny Eclair.

Javine, already famously luckless in telephone-plebiscites long before this assault on non-celebrity, had only managed third from bottom and avoided the ignominy of nul points thanks to some sympathy votes from the likes of former wards Malta and Cyprus. The British sense of fair play had been predictably unsettled again, though perhaps bewildered would be the right adjective in the broad context of new improved Eurovision.

Lost in La Mancha

Hard to tell from all this what exactly has been lost. I have almost enjoyed nearly all of Terry Gilliam's previous films, but this documentary left me with the strong suspicion that this was one best left unmade. Perhaps it should have been titled 'The Man that Nearly Killed Don Quijote'.

Gilliam is undoubtedly a talented artist, but from this account at least lacks leadership skills and the ability to infect others with his singular visions before committing them to celluloid.

He pondered his approach to Cervantes for a decade before miring himself in European mediocrity. Before the overt acts of God start to flow against him he openly admits that he is undertaking a production with half the funding it really needs. This project had no sink fund, so when it started to sink, it went down very fast. But even if Gilliam had got his hands on the $60m he claimed to require, there's clearly something about the whole set-up around him that would have tended towards disintegration.

The only people in the luck here are American documentarists Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe who happened to be preparing the DVD extras when the deluge started.

The main reason that the script ended up in the hands of the insurers is the sudden infirmity that beset Gilliam's Quijote Jean Rochefort, an actor seemingly picked for his age, his look and his horseriding ability. It was this latter skill that so dramatically deserted him. His recently-acquired, Frenchly-accented English would surely have been a more chronic hindrance later on.

Johnny Depp makes an inauspiciously timely entrance and starts acting like he's trying too hard to look as if he's not trying at all - "windmills and shit".

Towards the end of his life Beethoven dedicated himself to the personal meditations of his late quartets. Many other writers, artists and composers have greeted their personal Autumn this way, and with little risk except perhaps to their reputations. In contrast there is something rather absurd and presumptuous about a film director taking $30m of other peoples' money to undertake what is essentially a reflective work of art.

This documentary is not only instructive about the movie business, it reveals a great deal about business in general and bad business in particular. And it demonstrates why of all the arts, the cinematic one needs to conform to commercial protocols. The young and fleety-footed can sometimes squeeze more out of economic realities than the established players, but nobody gets very far by economising on a bloated vision.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Darth Hideous

Applause all around at the start, but not the end.

In fact when Revenge of the Sith exploded onto the Odeon screen in the customary John Williams-assisted fashion my neighbour leaned over to his partner and whispered "the last time" momentously to her.

The planetary vistas and the space battles are like watching a beautiful traffic jam. In close up however, the rest is like watching a far less fetching piece of congestion.

The essence of a good story is this: find a protagonist in stasis, remove him or her from it and then show how they overcome all obstacles to return to it, or a new form of it. Stray away from this at your peril. What we now have to refer to as Episode IV fits this format precisely. Episode III tries to float down the 'tragic' canal but is swamped with the kind of unncessary detail that ironically leaves the whole thing feeling utterly superficial.

If you have a bigger tale to tell, one that (really) justifies a sequel or two, the trick is to make sure it takes the form of an expanded version of the structure that governs the narrative of the individual parts and that it doesn't end up degrading them.

Episode's IV-VI undoubtedly made some false moves, but just about held it together as a trilogy. Not so, Episodes I-III, and worse, they have at least partially undermined their predecessors in the process.

In 1977 Lucas fed our imaginations with an epic space opera peopled with likeable and memorable characters, and hinted at a darker backstory which gave the whole thing more substance. He really should have resisted the temptation to actually show us this backstory cinematically, because he is no Shakespeare and Darth Vader is no Macbeth or Brutus. A sequel made up almost entirely of background trying hard to be foreground is what we have ended up with. (And this background has no background of its own, just endless vistas of detail.)

The force deserts the dialogue very early on, as as with The Matrix sequels some of the main personalities steadily devitalise as the conclusion approaches. (Padme in particular suffers a fate appropriate to what has become of her character.)

Another similarity with the Wachowski brothers' world is that the society lying behind the aspirations of the good guys is seen to be hardly worth saving from destruction.

Gladiator proved you don't have to be Shakespeare to set up moving character interactions within an epic scenario. Like Episode IV it also successfully re-moulded a narrative template with multiple borrowings from historical and mythological archetypes. This is a trick that Lucas seems to have forgotten along the way.

Frode though "it sucked bad" too. Vader's presentation to the Orange Film Funding Board offered some compensation.


Hurricane Adrian missed Guatemala and trashed parts of El Salvador instead, but that didn't douse the mood of baneful agitation next door. The Government declared Thursday and Friday feriados (days off) and the villagers of Cruz Chich took advantage of the downtime to burn some suspected robbers alive.

Our niece Jeannette is being troubled by regular nocturnal visitations - a bat that is making quite a mess and a smell in our house.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Virulent Expression

50 Cent's new video for Just a Lil Bit is set in the Yucatan. It affords us the briefest of glimpses of the compact magnificence of Tulum, along with the crystaline waters of the Riviera Maya and the red-necked nightlife of Cancun.

The rest of the time we see Señor Cinquenta Centavos himself bobbing to the beat outside a four star bungalow complex. The video appears to have some kind of underlying story involving contraband exchanges with Mexicans of the dodgy persuasion, but I can't quite work it out. Musically the track sounds like an out-take from an early scoring of the far catchier Candy Shop.

Mexico's Presidente Vicente Fox has immersed himself in a big bubbly jacuzzi of agua caliente this week with his observation that his nation's long-term visitors to the United States do the jobs that "ni los negros harian". (that even the blacks wouldn't do)! He thereby spectacularly dispensed with the kind of obsessive caution that enfeebles almost any American journalist attempting an opinion piece with a hard-to-miss racial angle. Take for example the New York Times' recent ill-judged editorial rant about rap music:

"African-American teenagers are beset on all sides by dangerous myths about race. The most poisonous one defines middle-class normalcy and achievement as "white," while embracing violence, illiteracy and drug dealing as "authentically" black. This fiction rears its head from time to time in films and literature. But it finds its most virulent expression in rap music, which started out with a broad palette of themes but has increasingly evolved into a medium for worshiping misogyny, materialism and murder...Trends like this reach a tipping point [groan] when business as usual becomes unacceptable to the public as a whole. Judging from the rising hue and cry, hip-hop is just about there."

Is it? Why would people who make a fine living acting like perps be any more likely to toss away their handguns than the real thing, and just because the NYT tells them to?

The "hue and cry" (villagers with pitch forks?) loves to emphasis that rappers like Snoop Dog and 50 cent are former pimps and dealers. Yet would they prefer that they vacated the cultural mainstream and went back to their old trade?

This kind of high minded claptrap spreads it's own poisonous myths - that you can have useful things to say about specific aspects of the mass media without addressing their links to the wider cultural and economic set-up or indeed their relationship to specific groups within society.

Is the problem here life imitating art, art imitating life or the fact that the NYT doesn't think hip hop is art anyway?

"Greed and lack of self-control" are not uniquely African American attributes. It's just that a certain subculture within that particular community has found that the best way to grab a share of the goodies and move into that dream crib with the pool table, home cinema and fridge that makes little ice cubes is to simulate criminality through the medium of pop culture.

Yet please tell me - would there have been any quicker route to market for the individual that the NYT pompously refers to as "Mr Jackson" (50 Cent) and is it really such a bad thing that you can now make a better living pretending to be a drug dealer than actually being one?

In reality pop culture is a nexus of self-reinforcing relationships between artists, consumers and the media. The sluttier Christina Aguilera is accused of being by the tabloids, the sluttier she has to become to perpetuate her celebrity. Perhaps the problem as such, is that for many teenagers the images that these stars publicise themselves with are never pure signs that can be donned and un-donned like costumes. The blonde that goes to a frat party dressed like slaguilera won't have a team of minders around to ward off the rapidly forthcoming opportunities for living the lifestyle implied by the image.

Yet you won't make the problem go away in a hurry by sending out cease and desist notices to the symbols that we have collectively established through our interactions with the media.

And Roll...

The force was definitely with Guatemala yesterday as it shook and rattled to the combined effects of a strong tremor, tropical storm Adrian and the local premiere of Revenge of the Sith.

It's all been enough to prompt the abuelita (granny) of this blogger to prognosticate the nighness of the end of the local world. (His own response to this portentous state of affairs is a great little joke, which Spanish speakers will enjoy.)

Across the border the Mexicans have responded to the arrival of the final Star Wars prequel in the way they know best - every piece of promotional material not actually bolted to the ground has been misappropriated including two giant posters measuring 12.9m by 7.2 m.

There have been 6 sismos of a magnitude greater than 4 this week in Guatemala. One commentator on blog di mi Guatemala claims that the constant seismic activity is what he most misses about his homeland!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Well Rounded

Early on The Great Gatsby, a novel I'm reading for the first time, narrator Nick Carraway qualifies himself as "that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man'. The problem he admits, is that "life is much more successfully looked at from a single window after all."

Later, his cousin Daisy makes a further observation which I think is related - that the best thing to be in life is a beautiful fool.

Indeed, those that are pleasing on the eye and unchallenging to brain cells both in and outside their own heads are possibly more blessed than even the meek. One can only be envious of their bliss - well, one can be resentful too as their happiness seems to make it a lot harder for the plain and cereberal to enjoy themselves fully during their own stay on this Earth.

The next best thing to being an alluring, charismatic airhead is to act like one, a tactic employed to good effect by a female acquaintance of mine whose widely-projected self image is that of a beautiful fool, when in fact she is neither.

Many of the books I have read about marketing propagate the myth that capitalism is a game best played by rational, clever people. But you only have to note how many of its greatest boons are exclusively enjoyed by the attractive and stupid, in order to realise that there's a profoundly sub-rational, instinctual current in there too. It certainly doesn't help to be well-rounded anyway.

Piano Man

Is that Colombia or Columbia? Does this guy have an agent negotiating his movie deal with Dreamworks...and if not, why not?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Fire in the Hole

How do you dispose of this? Answer: send them to Uzbekistan so they can throw them at tanks.

Out of Body, Out of Mind

Watched most of Eternal Sunshine... again with V last night. It has her first showing and I knew she had hated Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich. And she was soon tut-tutting at some of the dialogue - such as Clementine's manufactured monologue about her ugly doll.

She found the part before the 'opening' credits "dull" and the part afterwards "scary". This third-first person journey in reverse across the map of Joel's memory reminded her of a girl in her school who claimed to be terrified of going to sleep because the moment she left normal consciousness she would sense herself leaving her physical body to go for a bit of a subjective stroll. During these astral adventures she would listen to conversations which she could later report back on and would be gripped by panic as her errant spirit was sucked back into her sleeping carcass moments before it woke up.

Stories like that acquire over time a hardened coating of myth which the darts of scepticism can't really penetrate. This was one of the key insights that Gabriel Garcia Márquez had as a boy when listening to his grandmother's astonishing anecdotes.

Time for one last observation about temporal conundra. After my posting earlier in the week, both V and my colleague Chris have reminded me that any story that admits the possibility of backwards time travel invokes the full set of paradoxes. Everything the Doctor does 'changes' time. The only difference with saving Rose's father was that they had a clear idea of the alternative before acting.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Father's Day

While Scotland's Sunday Herald offers classic texts in PDF format, the BBC has made available a number of "rare and acclaimed" Doctor Who novels in online, printer and handheld (sonic screwdriver?) versions.

This Saturday the Doctor ran into a potentially deadly enemy that he has more or less successfully avoided for 42 years - the time travel paradox.

Whether or not they realised it at the time, previous generations of writers for the series, steared clear of making a definitive statement about the nature of time i.e. is there only pathway through spacetime or are there several? Up until now the variety of different scenarios in which the Doctor has run into his old foes had favoured the latter 'many worlds' interpretation.

Now Paul Cornell has come up with a rather bizarre take on what happens when the TARDIS is used to change the 'official' version of time and future writers on the programme may just have to live with it.

Father's Day was watched by 7.4m people, easily seeing off ITV's Celebrity Wrestling, but while the story had it's gripping moments, it was let down by a supporting congregation whose reponse to the end of the world was to be about as animated as the stone giants of Easter Island.

When the TARDIS first appeared on our screens in 1963 the programme-makers thought a time machine would be a perfect way to take young minds on an educational tour of past civilisations. Then Terry Nation created the Daleks and the rest wasn't history...or at least not exclusively so.

The mind-expanding potential of the TARDIS has yet to be entirely dissipated, but if the new series continues to pander to the soapy Eastenders sensibility, missed opportunities like this are bound to reoccur with some frequency. (viz Nietsche's metaphysics of time and the doctrine of eternal recurrence!)

At the very least Cornell might have tried to get across the point that an understanding of time is essential plank in of our understanding of the wider nature of the cosmos. Instead he presented young viewers with a predetermined linear process defended by large, red-eyed flappy things, "like a virus"!

Meanwhile, Enric Folch's Tempus Fugit which I managed to see at last winter's London Sci-Fi Festival is an excellent example of how a clever treatment of time travel and its paradoxes need not be uninclusively cereberal.

Boiling Point

"Boss, what are you thinking?" squeals a Yakuza lieutenant as Beat Takeshi's messed up gangster Uehara clambers onto his exposed rear end. "Many things", is the answer he gets.

Boiling Point is a strange package of set-piece ideas, each scene like a mini-poem, with Kubrick-like attention to the set-up of each shot. It's the most brazenly experimental Kitano film I've yet seen. The Japanese title is 3-4x jugatsu (3-4xOctober) a further indication of the intention to be singularly unusual.

Wheras Kitano made such effective use of music in Violent Cop, here there is no score at all, even when the end titles run - though the trailers do feature a haunting tune and some close-ups from a canvas by Pieter Breughel.

V recently wrote off Tatantino off as a "wigger", and I was recently reminded by a re-watching of Kill Bill Vol. 1 how much less powerful his version of Asian Cinema is than the very best of the stuff he plunders. With Kitano genre style and the darkly funny side of cruelty are always just a cunning camouflage for interesting thematic content - Kitano, himself thrown out of school for rebellious behaviour, is said to hold a dim view of Japanese youth and this would seem to be one of the more prominent themes running through Boiling Point.

The ending has a certain Bobby Ewing in the shower-ness about it, but given the fact that everything that has come before is hardly a sequential story of the traditional kind, you are bound to forgive it this final lapse into unaccountability.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Tale of Two Sisters

I'm going to stick my neck out and call this sumptuous Korean chiller a masterpiece.

However, as with the equally singular Last Life in the Universe I wouldn't be that surprised if the rank and file of the un-beguiled line up against me on this. They'll point out how self-consciously beautiful it is, how it's more tasty than it is nutritious, and so on.

Ok, the production values are a bit Merchant Ivoryu, but there are other comparisons with Last Life in the Universe which suggest why the beauty of Janghwa, Hongryeon is more than skin deep.

It's clear that both directors set about their task with the knowledge that their chosen plotlines involved both serious ambiguities and major technical hurdles and that success would depend on translating their own active curiosity about these into compelling cinematic drama. And Ji-Woon Kim's paricular achievement here is the way he has addressed one of the major challenges of the psychological horror genre in a genuinely novel way.

Earlier in the year when I reviewed Taichi Yamada's Strangers , I went on about the ways that tales of the supernatural tackle the thorny issue of underlying explanation - first how to camouflage it, then whether and how to reveal it.

In The Shining for instance, Kubrick got away with blending subjective and objective perception, natural and supernatural horror and then closed out without really providing a proper solution. (He even tossed in another curveball just before the end credits!)

Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is another riddle which cleverly never fully commits to one level of interpretation.

Another increasingly frequent technique is the fish in the face twist at the end. M. Night Shyamalan delivered this slap better than any with Sixth Sense, but Almenabar's The Others has a good swing at it too. Even if you don't believe in spooks, being the victim of a grand artistic deception can be highly entertaining.

Asian horror narratives have generally been less skillfull. Ju-On: The Grudge, Ringu and Dark Water both suffer from silly premise syndrome.

Ji-Woon Kim however, has managed to have his cake and eat it in the Jamesean manner, yet has opted for an intriguingly riskier route. He delivers a controlled twist about two thirds of the way in, after which we have to quickly adapt our map of the story and the characters to accommodate the fact that most of what we have so far seen has been a projection from a very troubled mind.

The first major film to show as live action events remembered subjectively was Kurosawa's Rashômon. It's a technique that can lead to audiences feeling seriously swizzed as in Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003). But Ji-Woon Kim began his film showing us Soo-mi in an asylum responding to a doctor's request to remember, so the sense of having been conned is thus more contained.

Janghwa, Hongryeon is based on an old Korean fairy tale that has been adapted for cinema several times. The title means Rose Flower, Red Lotus, as do the names of the sisters Soo-mi and Soo-yeon in the film. I'd love whether the partial reveal achieved here by Kim was part of the original story. I suspect it wasn't. A horror story with two distinct and yet carefully entwined sets of premises, subjective and objective, seems like a strikingly original treatment. Once we know that much of the deeply scary stuff we have seen has crept out of Soo-mi's unconscious, we are granted a few moments of calm and comprehension before Kim begins to reveal to us glimpses of the real events and personalities that might have prompted those visceral imaginings.

The real 'evil stepmother' Eun-Joo arrives late in the action, but we soon understand that she is potentially as wicked as Soo-mi's alter ego. Moo-hyeon the father has been a shifty presence from the start, and Kim hints at something dark and incestuous in his backstory.

Overall, this two-tier structure allows the director to set up some major frights in the first section which can be explained away in the second - but only partially, we then come to realise. It's as if clouds have drifted in to obscure the sense of sudden clarification that we earlier experienced.

There are bound to be some people that find it hard to keep their heads above the water, especially when the flow suddenly switches direction. But I was left with the conviction that from a storyteller's perspective the movie's structure is a stroke of genius. Kim appears to have found a unique way to divide his story's secrets into those that need to be outed and the ones that can remain chillingly un-revealed.

There are two and a half hours of extras on the Tartan DVD, including some intimate and penetrating cast interviews conducted by the director with a camcorder which are practically mini-works of art in themselves.

Story Arcs

"The world is in fragments, sir. My job is to put it back together", (Peter Stillman in Paul Auster's City of Glass.)

I read in the Guardian Review last weekend that whilst 125,000 books are published in the UK, only 1% are ever reviewed. Blogs are bound to widen the critical spotlight, provided that the long tail proceeds to broaden tastes as planned. Steve Johnson's contrarian theory that junk culture is good for us continues to get more than its fair share of column inches.

Everything Bad is Good for You floats along on one of those sneaky little arguments (remember James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy?) that kicks off with some apparently reasonable observations few will have any trouble agreeing with, then leads you on inexorably to conclusions that don't follow from them.

Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker suggests that he might have been suckered here too. In it, he appears to accept that contemporary TV is better because it is harder, and agrees with Johnson that from this it follows that it is a hidden source of cereberal nutrition. There are a couple of obvious objections to this:

  • No pain no gain? The relationship between time spent exercising in the gym and performance improvement is clear and linear. Yet just because you can describe watching The West Wing as a "cognitive work-out" doesn't make the analogy a valid one.
  • Most people that grow to enjoy many different kinds of serious music start with the most accessible forms. After hours of listening to Mozart their taste might become more sophisticated and eventually they may come to appreciate modernist tunes (or not so tunes) by the likes of Schoenberg, Britten, Birtwhistle and who knows, even Alexander Goehr. Experimental contemporary compositions might be harder, but can we really say they are better than the classics or that forcing ourselves to listen to them improves our intellects? (Some have pinpointed Mozart in particular as an IQ-booster.)
  • Johnson sees a feedback loop - today's junk culture is smarter because yesterday's made us smart in the first place. Yet while increasing cultural sophistication is practically inevitable, increased meaningfulness isn't.
Johnson's points about story arcs and multithreaded narratives are interesting, but don't necessarily lead to such straightforward conclusions. He points out that Dukes of Hazard was "linear" and Dallas "glacial". (Dallas was a classic American soap, rolling narratives that deliberately break most of the rules of storytelling, not least the one that says characters ought to change and develop as opposed to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.) Yet is linear really so wrong? The fact that you have to think hard to make sense of a cultural experience may not mean that it's doing its job properly. Plot difficulty or inaccessibility is often a sign that the writer is trying to make a little go a lot further than it otherwise would. Ambiguity is not the same thing as depth; and as we saw with the Mozart example, neither are complexity and accessibility identical.

Sometimes the number of different story arcs represents a weakness not a strength, even if it does mean you go out to buy the DVD just to make sure you understood what was going on! Wooliness sure sells them plastic discs!

Some comparisons between American comedies that I recently mulled over are perhaps worth stating here:
  • Friends successfully used a two apartment-six person formula to blend together a number of different short, medium and long-term narrative strands, the latter not unlike that of a soap.
  • Will & Grace tries to do something similar but two of four main characters are flatter and the living arrangements are less congenial to the techniques. Some episodes feature two entirely separate storylines which hardly connect at all.
  • King of Queens often kicks off with a great idea, but the writers seem averse to having 'spare' characters on screen at the same time and the constant well-timed entrances and exits are highly artificial.
  • Perhaps the best of the bunch from a writing perspective is Everybody Loves Raymond. One funny idea is usually explored through different combinations of the five main characters and the writers seem to enjoy piling new people into a scene to ramp up the comic potential. The one drawback of the format is that the characters (in the later series at least) are comparatively complex and the comedy depends to a large extent on our familiarity with them.

Steve Johnson ask us to imagine how critics would have responded if books arrived on our cultural scene thousands of years before we gave our minds a regular work out with complex video games:

"You can't control the narratives - reading is not an active, participatory process, it's a submissive one".

Sound familiar? This argument against the written word is ancient and crusty. Books "stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain the most majestic silence...if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on saying the same thing forever." (Socrates)

When did you last enjoy reading a book that tried to reach all the right conclusions for you? In fact, how many of your favourite stories are seriously multi-threaded?

Anyway, in the light of all these thoughts I'm still fretting about the validity of my recent dig at Paul Auster and the postmodern style. Call me old fashioned but I believe the writer's primary job is to explore for truth in Nature's murkiest forests.

"The noveslist works with things that pass unobserved by others, captures them in motion, bring them out into the open." (Jão Guimaraes Rosa)

Yet if the environment explored is itself at least partly artificial, surely all the truths that are revealed share to some extent in that un-reality? It's all too easy to give the reader the sense of revelation when you lead your protagonists through a labyrinth of your own creation.

What then of the horror genre? Unreality is a given here surely; and yet some inner truths of human psychology and imagination are certainly touched on. More on this another time perhaps.

Mind the Gap

Shiny Kit Syndrome - an SAS term for a phenomenon that has become all too familiar to me in my position at the intersection of communications and technology-based service lines.

The makers of shiny new kit tend to care more that there is a gap in the market than if there is a market in the gap. Why? Because in a sense the real market they are in is the one for gaps in the market.

That other market, the one with actual customers with real needs that have to be engaged with, often represents more of a threat than an opportunity for their business model (or at least its market value).

The bubble may have popped, but acknowledged occupation of a market gap still often counts for more than actual sales, especially if the would-be occupiers can insinuate that there is an underlying dynamic process pushing apparently stable and profitable companies in the same sector towards a life and death struggle in the very near future. "They just dont get it" etc.

Communications companies partner up with the purveyors of shiny new kit at their own peril.

The most successful interactions between client service and technical functionality that I have personally been involved with, were those where the strategy was formulated (and re-formulated) by the people closest to the end customer, with an emphasis on flexible adaptation to different needs. Needless to say, the least successful ones originated in precisely the opposite circumstances.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Bollywood or Bust

As a paid up member of one of the Netflix clones, I do appreciate the way that each title is allocated almost equal virtual shelf space and that my own ability to drift away from the standard canon of hits is thereby facilitated. (Netflix carry 40,000 titles and claim to rent each of these at least once a month.)

Yet I've been a little surprised by some of the loose thinking that seems to thrive whenever the Long Tail model is enthused about. For example:

"The idea of a shared popular culture is a relatively recent one", Tom Standage informed us in the Economist recently. Huh? (Better still, Seth Godin's deeply ambiguous proclamation:"Give people 1m books to read and they won't all want to read a bestseller". )

In their determination to promote the existence of a one-dimensional link between certain constraints (mainly spatial) and consumer taste, a number of commentators are blinding themselves to some of the (actually quite interesting) contradictions they thereby set up. Take Chris Anderson's recent post on the Indian film industry - "a perfect Long Tail candidate".

Such is the geographical spread of the 1.7m first or second generation Indians in the US, he asserts, that up until now the 800 films a year churned out by Bollywood have never really been able to fill American cinemas or support specialist DVD rental stores, except "in urban Indian neighbourhoods".

Yet in another posting Anderson makes the following observation: "Head content satisfies us in areas where we are similar; Tail content satisfies us in areas where we are different".

Now do we really think that the primary market for Bollywood movies is driven by a geeky subculture that wants to be different, or whether in the context of dense concentrations of people with a shared cultural heritage it's actually bound up with the reinforcement of similarities?

I'm not denying that non-Hindi speakers can help to expand the market for these movies along with the range of their own tastes, but I would also expect the relationship between culture and geography to be more complex and entwined than that of liquid and bottleneck. Distributed demand has pyschographical lumps in it and it would be wrong to assume that these are all out of the same mould.

One man's niche is another man's cultural block?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Election Notes

Perhaps the most interesting thing that can be said about the election campaign that concluded last night is that all parties seemed to be aware that it was more about reconfiguration than change from the get-go - more of a Sunday afternoon, mid-table Fulham v Spurs type clash than a confrontational Real v Barca classico like the last two US elections. The latter made more compulsive viewing, but do they represent better democracy?

The Paxman-Galloway interview provided the only gob of real venom.

Live by the sword, die by the sword - Stephen Twigg, the man that famously de-railed Portillo's career back in '97, had his own ministerial career decapitated on the very same Enfield Southgate platform.

Passengers on the Tory Train may have experienced that strange sensation of forward motion from watching the next door New Labour train sliding backwards. The driver knows it's safe enough to jump though.

There was ample evidence of how professional politicians in the UK typically graduate out of a nerdy university clique - individuals that in most other walks of life would end up as marginal as they were back in college.

Bliar's style might be Presidential but he has the advantage that it's harder for UK voters to unbundle the man from the legislative programme.

City of Glass

It's taken a decade for Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli's graphical adaptation of Auster's novel to make it across the pond. In the introduction Art Spiegelman explains how they originally tried to solicit brand new material from a number of leading novelists. They were determined to break some ground and the fact that City of Glass had been the subject of three unsuccessful screenplay attempts eventually convinced them not to turn their nose up at Auster's offer of one of this particular existing text for their exercise.

In a bid to locate this kind of comic on a shelf apart from the role-playing game guides, they prefer to describe it as Neon Lit as opposed to Graphical Novel. It's a format that allows them to indulge in the kind of visual experimentation that would become very annoying indeed on the silver screen. The narrator's observations are qualitative different here too, as they are excused from sitting inside speech bubbles and are therefore less interruptive than they are within a page of undifferentiated text.

Who knows, I may even read The New York Trilogy now. In an earlier post I was a touch over-scathing about the erudite games Auster likes to play in his books. I do enjoy reading them, it's just that the style is something I wouldn't care to reproduce. He shoves us into a nice little hall of mirrors involving Cervantes and Borges - Cervantes teasingly claimed not to be the author of his famous tale, while Borges wrote a short story called Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote about a man that wrote the same words while intending something completely different. So, in City of God Auster appears in his own story to talk about Don Quijote and there's another character called Menard. It's all so ooh aren't I smart. He is a New Yorker though.

Borges was generally better at this sort of thing.

Violent Cop

Does exactly what it says on the tin...

And yet it must also do a whole lot more as well, because on the basis of the genre and story outline Violent Cop would normally be the last sort of flick to tickle V's fancy; but when the titles rolled she too felt the urge to applaud.

As a directorial debut this was remarkable. And also accidental. Kinji Fukasaku was to have directed but Kitano (already cast as Azuma) took over after re-working the screenplay significantly.

Kitano has a great sense of the little details that reveal character, such as the moment where he shrugs off paying for the taxi he's hired to follow a squad car to a crime scene. When he then asks the colleague that had to settle up with the drive to hand over yet more cash, the unfortunate man makes a noise rather like the sound Yoda woukd make doing one of Ali G's "aiiiiiieeee"s. Very amusing.

V was captivated by Azuma's me pela attitude, and by his oddly dispassionate fits of violence. Last Saturday the beeb aired an episode of Doctor Who that might have been titled 'Violent Pepperpot'. It featured a lone Dalek troubled by the thought that there might be more to life than the endless routine of extermination.

The Daleks and the Japanese are impassive by design, but Takeshi Kitano has an enormous range of non-verbal tricks for expressing existential apprehension. All the Dalek could do was droop its eyestalk, flicker its lights weakly and enunciate with haulting diction...a rather lame spectacle it was too. Kitano's angsters retain their brutal vitality.

The soundtrack of Violent Cop is superb - the electronic version of Satie's Gnossienne No.1 that runs with the titles and the smooth, relaxed dinner jazz that incongruously supports a frenzied chase scene.

Alien v Predator

So, how much of a cognitive workout does AVP: Alien v Predator provide?

Many years ago Surfer and I were sitting on the top step of Temple Two at Tikal, amidst a group of Danish travellers observing little figures attempting the precarious (and now prohibited) ascent of Temple One directly across the main acropolis from our comfortable vantage point.

"What is this place?" one suddenly queried, disturbing the mood of vacant detachment. Her companion reckoned he had the answer: "It is a temple. A temple for the sacrificing of human peoples...und mice"

I dread to think what strange thoughts will be swilling around in the heads of future visitors to the great archaeological sites of Central America, and especially those that have seen this movie.

I rather think that audience enjoyment of this movie will be boosted in inverse proportion to their background knowledge of anything except the two competing monster franchises. Knowing for example that the Aztecs were an early-modern not an ancient civilisation and that, unlike the Maya, they lacked a coherent glyphic writing system is one of those pieces of knowledge best left behind in the foyer.

About midway through the film Sebastian, the Italian archaeologist with the hopeless task of filling in the plot-holes, brightly observes "It's starting to make sense now". Perhaps it is, but only because most of the other human characters have just been rather rapidly despatched, as they collectively represent a half-hearted backstory that is best terminated with extreme prejudice. This hopeless bunch marched to their doom without asking even the most basic questions of their situation along the way.

We first encounter Sebastian at Teotihuacan, which unlike the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was indeed (comparatively) ancient and mysterious. A missed opportunity? The makers must have decided that the only Mesoamericans that would be spontaneously recalled by their target demographic would be Moctezuma's lot. But personally I find that the assumption of ignorance upsets my ability to enjoy the parts of this film that are undoubtedly very entertaining, such as the head-to-head fight scenes between the two sets of dentist's nightmares.

AVP could have been so much better if the screenwriters had at least tried to construct the story as it it were the first outing for these inter-galactic über-nasties. They wouldn't have had to be unfaithful to either tradition to do this, and they might even have established a new spin off sci-fi deathmatch franchise in the process.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


One of the most obviously suspect claims made for new media technologies over the past decade has been the one that pretends our imminent consignment to isolated cultural niches.

Fragmentation: "The scattering of the fragments of an exploding bomb or other projectile." When your hard disk is fragmented it ceases to perform as it should.

This notion that the long technology tail is wagging the socio-cultural dog is essentially a Marxist one - though many of its proponents might be quite alarmed to know this! (They are more often than not the sort of people that understand technology a whole lot better than they do mass culture. )

Fragmentation is of course just a one-dimensional aspect of a three-dimensional process - increasing complexity. As well as increasing the number of nodes in the network, greater complexity also implies an increase in the number of connections between them.

The iPod and Playstation PSP are the sort of modern devices that best embody this potential for increased complexity. I can only recommend this article by Kelefa Sanneh, Embracing the Random, which traces a tendency towards eclecticism, the most probable cultural outcome from the increasingly complex web of interconnected tastes.

"A few years ago, some music festivals seemed to reflect a world that was increasingly organized around obsessive fan Web sites...But this year's Coachella festival suggested a different model: narrow obsession has come to seem less appealing than broad familiarity. Insular Web sites seem positively old-fashioned compared to the scrupulously eclectic world of MP3 bloggers and iPod Shuffle owners, all of them finding ways to make chaos part of their listening experience. "

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Sleeper Curve

Steven Johnson has certainly created a big kerfuffle with his recent NY Times Magazine article, Watching TV Makes You Smarter, which began by outlining how shows like 24 feature a greater number of distinct story arcs, supposedly making them more like Middlemarch than standard 60s TV fare like Bonanza.

The conclusion Johnson reaches is that the stuff the media is chucking at us is actually becoming more cognitively demanding, not less. So-called debased mass diversion, what Johnson calls the Sleeper Curve, turns out to be unexpectedly "nutritional", he insists. (This argument will shortly assume book form as Everything Is Bad for You. How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.)

However, the way that this story has been picked up across the mass media, does perhaps suggest that the harbingers of cultural doom need not throw in the towel just yet.

In the same week that Johnson published his article another piece of research revealed that our IQs decline in proportion to the ammount of incoming information we have to deal with. So the fact that "to make sense of an episode of 24 you have to integrate far more information" may not necessarily mean that we get smarter when we watch this kind of convoluted drama.

A labyrinth is indeed "a cognitive workout" but is it a good thing if all our pathways in the cultural web assume the form of a maze?

I'm currently 'reading' the 1995 graphical novel version of Paul Auster's City of Glass and have no doubt that Johnson would celebrate the up-its-own-arse nature of this narrative.

The fashion for smugly self-referential literary tangles is a consequence of what is more widely known as Postmodernism. Writers of this school get to ask all sorts of questions about the nature of this and that without actually having to answer any of them. The resulting three dimensional snafu of symbols will consistently give the reader the impression of having discovered significant hidden connections in the outside world, but in fact all that has happened is that some dotted lines have been drawn between surface signs in the text. It's ultimately artificial and, I would argue, perhaps makes it harder for the reader to recognise 'real' meaning when they see it.

Ernst Cassirer put it this way: "Instead of dealing with things themselves man is in a sense conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of an artifical medium."

I'm also reminded of the words of celebrity Luddite Neil Postman: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be noone who wanted to read one. Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture, Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. In Brave New World the problem was not that people were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and they had stopped thinking."

Postman's understanding of the term "dumb" would undoubtedly differ from Johnson's. He used to say that 60 Minutes posed a bigger threat to public discourse than the A Team! What bothers him is "Man's almost infinite appetite for distractions" which he feels has led to a "descent into a vast triviality".

For me the interesting thing is how a society that has consistently allowed its members to become more educated and better off has also found a way to warp these material and cognitive gains away from the kinds of application that Postman hankers after.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Dark Water

Hideo Nakata's Dark Water perhaps has fewer outright scary moments than the American remake of The Grudge, but it more successfully swells the ambient chill that characterised the Japanese original.

Newly-divorced translator Yoshimi Matsubara and daughter Ikuko move into what would have to be described as one of the most intimidating block of flats on the planet even if there were no supernatural damp spots on the ceiling. At the root of all the shuddersome events that subsequently befall them in their new abode is the resentful spirit of a little girl abandonned outside her kindergarten. She wears a bright yellow hooded raincoat - a costume prop which will resonate with anyone that has seen Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now.

I understand that Dark Water began as a short story penned by Koji Suzuki (whose Ring stories Nakata has turned into a sprawling franchise), which explains why the starting point ultimately feels a little stretched at feature length. As with The Grudge this premise is ultimately a rather weak engine for generating this much creepiness, but Nakata has done such a superb job setting the scene you probably won't really notice.

There's another one of those lifts - almost as essential to the Asian pyschological thriller as the 'Lacandon' over the face hairdo.

As fast as the Japanese can make these films, Hollywood is turning out the ersatz replicas. Dreamworks has the rights to this one.


V and I have now been learning Japanese together for just over a week and we're extremely proud of our rapid progress. She tends to rush on ahead while I take my time making sure that I have correctly mastered the grammar and vocab, but these contrasting methods end up being fairly complementary when they come together. Having someone to practice and revise with makes a huge difference. In some ways though V's achievement is the greater because she's learning a third language using her second.

Strangely we both have the sensation that this was the language we were born to speak!

Meanwhile, I caught myself voicing a Spanish thought in English the other day. An English-speaking interlocutor wouldn't have noticed the difference, but it felt weird to me. I was semi-conscious of the translation going on iny my head as the words came out. This has happened before and occasionally results in some odd sentence structure or word selection.

We were down on the farm on Sunday. The dog came charging over to greet V and completely ignored me! They hadn't seen each other for four months. Spring has definitely taken hold down there now - the lower half of my favourite tree (the Japanese cherry) was in blossom. The pool will be opened up later this week. We toured the kiddies' jumps that Maggie designed herself and had constructed by the man that makes the obstacles for the leading horse trials, such as Badminton.

Over lunch D recounted how, many years ago, he lost the Toyota account when he was deemed to have ill-manneredly interrupted the leader of the visiting delegation from Tokyo while they were enjoying his hospitality at the Neal's Yard office!

V prepared a couple of hybrid dishes over the bank holiday weekend. Bratwürst with Thai red curry sauce for brunch on Saturday and later that evening some sushi-style rolls wrapped in serrano ham.