Saturday, January 31, 2009

Quote of the Day

"It is folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom."
Swift, The Conduct of the Allies (1711)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Whipped up

6am this morning. High altitude eddies had whipped up a niffty little backlit sombrero for the Agua volcano.

It made me think of walnut whips.

We were watching Nadal's epic semi with Fernando Verdasco. The Argies on ESPN were speculating about Roger Federer's levels of concurrent repose. "With the duvet tucked up to his chin," speculated one, as we entered the fifth hour, already eating into Nadal's rest-day portential.

The No2 seed won't be feeling so refreshed however if, like us, he stayed up to watch the match, V commented.

Meanwhile Guatemala's top junior tenistaJulen Urigen came unstuck in the semis at Melbourne yesterday, losing to Germany's Alexandros-Ferdinandos Georgoudas: 4-6, 4-6. He had a good run...

Over the course of the past few days I've been speculating whether there might be a dry season adverse of the Canícula (dog days), the roughly week-long stretch of hot dry weather that turns up a third of the way into the wet season. We had our first proper cloudburst since October on Wednesday, with perhaps another during the course of last night. A series of clear, warmer mornings have been followed by afternoons where somber clouds have puffed up impressively behind the surrounding contours.

V has pointed out that February is known locally as the mad month (el mes loco), both a comment on its wonted climatic conditions and an unfortunate prognostication for those who happen to be born in the course of the year's shortest month.

A few hours before that dust-devitalising downpour there was a fairly strong tremor. (5.2 on the Richter scale it was eventually reported.). A clue to its origin came when we watched a charcoal grey plume billowing up from behind the woolpack then shrouding the Fuego volcano.

Quote of the Day: Hopscotch Series (2)

"En un plano de hechos cotidianos, la actitud de mi incomformista se traduce por su rechazo de todo lo que huele a idea recibida, a tradición, a estructura gregaria basada en el miedo y en las ventajas falsamente recíprocas...No es misántropo, pero sólo acepta de hombres y mujeres la parte que no ha sido plastificada por la superestructura social; él mismo tiene medio cuerpo metido en el molde y lo sabe, pero ese saber es activo y no la resignación del que marca el paso."
Julio Cortázar / Rayuela

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Quote of the Day

"To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it."
G.K. Chesterton (OP), The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Succeeding to the kingdom?

Slumdog Millionaire belongs to the pre-modern narrative genre known as the rags to riches fable.

Its literary practitioners have from ancient times been far more interested in showing us the obstacle-strewn biography of one particular underdog on his or her route to a success underwritten by a fully-realised potential, than they have been in showing how underdogs as a socioeconomic group can go about casting off their chains...thereby bettering the society around them.

But here in modern Britain, there appear to be enough people who, spotting the limited amount of realism that Danny Boyle has blended into his fable, feel that he should have gone the whole hog.

TC informed me for instance that it bothered her that the film has apparently been structured to allow audiences to have the brief thrill of exposure to the darker side of the developing world, before all that is conveniently erased by the 'feel-good' pay-off at the end.

These views reflect those of Alice Miles of the Times who has written the film off as "poverty porn", quoting Vrinda Nabar, an Indian professor at a US university, who griped that "Slumdog's eventual victory comes at a price. When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go."

Rob Lyons in Spiked-Online adds that "While there is at least some depth to the portrayal of the brothers, every other character in the film falls into one of three categories: victim, spectator or bastard...Even if we take Boyle's intended message at face value, there is something rather nauseating about glorifying the resilience of the slum-dwellers. Such a message tends to suggest that there is something noble about being poor. This is a romantic view of poverty that appeals to the middle classes in the West rather than reflecting the aspirations of the poor."

Lyons goes on to stifle any comparisons with Dickens, because he says, the latter's characters triumph against their ambient villains through hard work not simply because "it is written".

The point is however that even Dickens is too modern an author for the comparison to be useful. We need to look back to the period before the French Revolution for the appropriate antecedents. Think of Cinderella (itself dating back to an a ninth century Chinese folk tale), Aladdin, the biblical Joseph, Dick Wittington, The Ugly Duckling etc.

In The Seven Basic Plots Christopher Booker identifies this story template as one of the oldest forms of political escapism, in which "someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is dramatically shown to have been hiding the potential for a second, much more exceptional self within", a potential that will eventually permit this someone to 'succeed to a kingdom'.

Although the outward progress is from rags to riches, it is the inward progress that this tale is really charting. The true, selfless qualities of the character have been fully realised and rewarded. Dark figures representing alternative life choices that have surrounded the hero(ine) from birth (and on into their disregarded childhood) have been definitively seen off. According to Booker such individuals are "defined by their egocentricity, their blinkered vision, their incapacity for true, selfless love."

It's a story we've had told to us many times, particularly in childhood. Inevitably then, some people are going to feel that the film is either not grown-up enough for them, or that it has nothing new to say to them.

My own view is that they will be ignoring what Danny Boyle intended here. It seems certain to me that he was attempting to fabricate a bridge between traditional and modern storytelling, between our hard-edged western cinematic treatments of the underclass and India's own highly escapist underdog fantasies. I find a deliberate irony in his representation of the Mumbai cops, who can be interpreted either as simplistic pantomime villains or the grittier underside to Jamal's fairy-tale.

You can really take your pick as to whether he's upgrading an old format or downgrading a new one, whether he's being disingenuous about his ingenuousness or vice versa.

Given the choice, my vote would still be for Slumdog to get the Oscar for best film. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is also a fable, but a bizarre hybrid where we asked in essence to consider what it means when physical and intellectual maturity set off in opposite directions. It looks beautiful, but I indeed considered what it means, and the answer is not a lot.

Anyway, Danny Boyle's film and the debate it is generating, are certainly becoming something of a contemporary cultural mirror. As AA Gill noted last Sunday:

"Slumdog Millionaire is unmistakably a film that is the harbinger of hard times. Stories of poor Everymen who improbably win improbable riches and marry their improbable childhood's improbable sweetheart come straight from the Depression. Expect a lot more flicks about shop assistants who inherit titles, poor kids who put on Broadway shows, and the triumph of the little man against blunt power. Baz Luhrmann's Australia may be risibly tinny, but its cultural instinct is right on the zeitgeist."

Virtual San Fermín

This morning the A3 news carried a piece about how the authorities in Pamplona have created a virtual version of the San Fermín encierro. We saw how visitors can now practice this particularly stupid activity on a running machine wearing a VR helmet...where presumably there is greater danger of falling off the back than getting a cuerno up the orto.

Quote of the Day

"A person of bourgeois origin goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants, within reasonable limits. Hence the fact that in times of stress 'educated' people tend to come to the front."
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

En Tiempo de Vacas Flacas

AA Gill explained on Sunday why steak is suddenly back on the menu:

"Culturally, the one thing you don't want to get caught holding right now is clever irony — the market for that's going to tank. Cynicism is the luxury of a gluttonously overindulged society. And the surest sign that the times are unforgiving is the return of steak. Steak is the bellwether ingredient. Over the past decade, it almost completely disappeared from aspirational menus. Chefs don't like cooking it and smart new glossy people don't like eating it, because of the fat and the cholesterol and the blood and the bad karma and the waste of rainforest and the mad cows. But mostly because steak's common. Anyone can eat a steak and anyone does. Steak is what condemned men ask for as their last meal. There's nothing ironic about a steak, so it slipped off the board. But in the last week, three people have asked me where they should go to get the best steak, there have been half a dozen new steakhouse openings and somebody was on the wireless banging on about ageing T-bone. That's a confluence of synchronicity. That's the butterfly beat of the cultural shift."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Perfect Heist?

Thanks to Scott for this Guatemala Times article which reveals the fate of Guatemala's own late 2008 banking sector stimulus package:

"Guatemala's private banks got a stimulus package from Banco de Guatemala in November and December last year...Not the same amount of money, but with the same goal, to increase liquidity in the system and subsequently the private banks would then give loans to businesses and people to keep the economy going....

"What did the private banks in Guatemala do? They received the money from the government, but they are not giving credits to people or businesses; they invested the money back into Banco de Guatemala to get a secure return of 7.25 % of interest."

Sound familiar?

Seven Pounds

I recognised the motel from Memento.

Parts of Seven Pounds were indeed Memento-lite or even Kieslowski super-lite. It's a movie that blends the profound with the abstruse, the touching with the presumes consciously.

Will Smith's new-found interest in emotional pain is unfortnately not matched by his ability to act it. His extensive repertoir of strange stammers of voice and face (he's tried to freeze one here in the poster) goes a long way to counteract the sympathetic believability of Rosario Dawson's portrayal of dickie-hearted Emily. (But then she feeds her dog tofu...)

I'm surprised that Tim/Ben is even on the loose. The usual way people make reparations for this kind of thing (DUIB: driving under the influence of a Blackberry) is by doing jail time. And there should probably also be prison sentences for the kind of lifelong guilt trips he ultimately condemns his second set of 'victims' to.

It's still not clear to me why the movie is called 'Seven Pounds' but it's bound to be something fairly similar to the rationale behind 21 Grams.

Grade: B

Quote of the Day

"If you have been put in your place long enough, you begin to act like the place."
Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1965)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Boom Boom

Fuego contined to belch away yesterday, well into the evening.

Quote of the Day

"To a man of the world the universe is a suburb."
Elizabeth Bibesco in Haven (1951)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lovely morning

The view from my office this morning.

I read that moderate coffee drinking and sunshine — or at least the vitamin D one gets from it — are now proven ways to avoid going ga-ga in one's Autumn years.

Plenty of both round here...

Presidential Wordle

This tag cloud takes in speeches made by President Colom during his first year in office.

'Good', 'Economy', 'Civilisation' and 'Education' appear to be amongst his least favoured words....on a par with his own surname.

Lost, Season 5: Que alguien me expliiiiqueeee....

I think I may have spoken too soon when I favourably compared Lost to Heroes recently, stating that at least it doesn't fling you around alternative and parallel timelines until you end up with a nose-bleed.

But that's exactly the sort of treatment which the first episode of season five seems to presage. I'm assuming that the fact that the plot development appears to be causing this unfortunate symptom in one of the characters is something of a visual joke.

And now Desmond gets told that he's "special", just like Claire the Cheerleader. The normal rules, such as they are, don't apply to this pair. Do these shows riff off each other?

It all used to be so simple. We had the 'present' timeline on the island, interpenetrated with sequential flashbacks to key moments in the life of a single survivor, or a related group of survivors like the Koreans.

The switch to flash-forwards took a little getting used to, then came some more temporally ambiguous jumps, and now we've got dead people turning up all over the of the signature features of the narrative mayhem that is Heroes. Gnnnngh.

Still, with Lost at least, I continue to hold on to the view that someone somewhere must know what's going on...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Desde recién nacido en la casa de Aracataca había aprendido a dormir en hamaca, pero sólo en Sucre la asumí como parte de mi naturaleza. No hay nada mejor para la siesta, para vivir la hora de las estrellas, para pensar despacio, para hacer el amor sin prejuicios."
Gabriel García Márquez on the conscience-easing effect of his hammock


Is one of the more delightful words in Spanish; there's a wet cat in there somewhere.

When used in reference to private morality it is equivalent I believe to the English word prudery. But draw out a bit to the public sphere and it incorporates more explicitly the notion of hypocrisy.

García Márquez makes use of this word in his autobiography to reinforce a hypothesis that his (and other) families' domestic disturbances were somehow linked to the state of Colombian politics at the time; more gato encerrado than gato mojado.

Yesterday I listened to an interview with Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who sees people as numbers, numbers as colours etc. He has learned eleven languages, including Icelandic which he mastered in a week, and has invented one of his own: Mänti.

One of his favourite words in English is buttercup — because of the way that an object and a foodstuff have been combined to create an evocative new noun with strong visual associations.

Tammet's latest book, Embracing the Wide Sky would appear to be a fascinating interior examination of a mind capable of perceiving vast architectures of meaning in almost everything it focuses on. One to add to the wish list...

Thursday, January 22, 2009


El Volcán de Fuego erupted thunderously this morning around 10:15, sending our dogs into a bit of a frenzy. The cats all assumed WTF expressions too.

The cloudless blue sky has now been blanched by a fine mist which has drifted from west to east across the valley.

Presidential enthusiasm

On first entering the Oval Office FDR famously let out a scream which brought aides rushing in to assist him. Obama must surely also have a sense of the magnitude of the task bequeathed to him by the baby boomers, but I still imagine he had one of those poorly-contained smiles on his face when he made his way into that room for the first time as its new executive occupant.

Will he cover the walls with pictures of himself? Helen Searls has written an interesting piece in Spiked! about the preemptive iconisation of America's 44th President:

"Che Guevara, whose simple image was again just a face decoupled from a political message, used to decorate the bedrooms of the youth of America and Europe. Few who owned the poster knew very much about Che Guevara the politician, but having it on your wall signalled that you were somehow progressive and radical. Today, though, progress and radicalism have been replaced by hope and faith. And it is not simply teenagers who want to identify with this message."

Obama made several speeches on Tuesday, not just that epic set-piece at the Capitol. Perhaps the one that will stick in our minds is that which he made at the Western inauguration ball, the ninth that he and Michelle had attended. It was delivered in the 'tired and emotional' fashion made fashionable by France's teetotaling President: "Lesh Save America. I love you....Michelle loves you..."

Still, even these public moments weren't exactly ad-libbed. He repeated the same remarks about his wife's heels at every bash they graced throughout the evening of his first half day in office.

Commentators on Fox and CNN tried to locate Obama's acceptance speech appropriately within the canon. Not as good as Kennedy, some suggested, but then every judgment we make about that President is tempered by what we know of his fate. The ultimate test of Yes We Can will have to be Yes We Did. For until the results are in there is a danger that fine intentions degrade into a form of political escapism.

However, there's no question that self-evident but half-remembered truths can benefit greatly from the kind of kick up the backside they get once repeated to a mass audience by a genuinely inspirational leader.

My own enthusiasm for Obama's words was tempered by the big turn-off delivered by the effect they were clearly having on some audience members who, heads back and hands clasped in front of their faces, were murmuring strange, unenlightened political incantations. And yet, in spite of the fact that there was plenty of hope and faith in Obama's message, non-believers got a brief mention too, and the new President promised to "restore science to its rightful place."

"Hope, n. Desire and expectation rolled into one." Ambrose Bierce

Quote of the Day

"The world of finance is a mysterious world in which, incredible as the fact may appear, evaporation precedes liquidation."
Joseph Conrad, Victory

The Mist

Stephen King wrote his novella The Mist in 1980, the same year that John Carpenter released The Fog.

It's a classic King formula, too classic really. A bunch of clashing small town characters find themselves enclosed in a glass-fronted supermarket after a strange mist (rather dense and fog-like it has to be said) containing nasties from another dimension drifts in off the local lake.

Frank Darabont has been successful with his King adaptations before (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption) but there's something rather clunky about this movie. It seems determined to hide its own hackneyed soul within a screenwriter's miasma, but few of Darabont's strategems in this respect ring true and a lot of them ring dumb — including what has been described as the "Cormac McCarthy-style" ending, which appears to have been enforced in spite of the fact that it runs against the logic of the characters and their situation. Uncompromising yes, but also unnecessary. (Dr Kermode is wont to say that movies like Slumdog Millionaire have earned their upbeat endings; well, this is one that simply hasn't done enough to earn its downbeat conclusion. And tanks, gas-masks and flame throwers? Puhlease....)

Marcia Gay Harden's religious nut Mrs Carmody comes off at first as a bit of a joke, but does in fact become unnervingly scary as time passes. But her assumption of power within this trapped community plagued by periodic attacks by Doctor Who-style CGI beasties, isn't as convincing as it might have been, because the script is low on psychological insight and manages the human interactions so unrealistically — when one group of people are talking it is assumed that everyone else inside the shop is silent. (Even Lost handles its background extras less absurdly.)

And the monsters outside seem strangely unwilling to keep up a consistently imminent level of threat, which is yet another reason why the desperate decision taken at the end already seems precipitous, even before the director's final reveal.

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Banking baubles

Via FT Alphaville

Quote of the Day

“I am seriously worried that British government is losing control…The $4.4 trillion of foreign liabilities accumulated by UK banks are twice the size of the British economy. UK foreign reserves are virtually nothing at $60.6bn...We cannot even do what Iceland did to save its skin...The debts are too big. If London takes such disastrous action it will set off global panic and lead to an asset death spiral, drawing the entire world into deep depression...England has not defaulted since the Middle Ages. There is a real risk it may do so now.”
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Telegraph 's Business Editor

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Quote of the Day

"I would urge you to sell any Sterling you might have...It's finished. I hate to say it, but I would not put any money in the UK."
Investor Jim Rogers to Bloomberg

Three final out-going Bushisms

"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"
Florence, South Carolina, 11 January, 2000

"Reading is the basics for all learning."
Reston, Virginia, 28 March, 2000

"You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.''
Townsend, Tennessee, 21 February, 2001

He's now on his way back to Texas to devote himself to his Presidential Library project at the Southern Methodist University.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Coffee Smuggling...

Is becoming a bit of problem round here.

Hondurans in particular appear keen to scramble their coffee over the border in order to get a better price in Guatemala, which has an established reputation for premium quality, gourmet beans. During December of last year and the first weeks of 2009, some 230,000 60kg bags of coffee were reportedly shifted illegally to Guatemala, and if smuggling on this scale continues Honduras may not meet its forecast export quota of 3.6 million bags of coffee during the 2008/09 season.

Guatemala and the USA 2009

The Sunday edition of the Prensa Libre had an interesting piece about this country's relationship with Uncle Sam. It was backed up by the following stats:

- There are 1.2m Guatemalans resident in the USA, 40% of them legally
- 27,929 of the other 60% were deported in 2008, up from just 7,025 in 2005
- Those that remained sent back $4.3b in remittances
- Just over 40% of everything that Guatemala produces is exported to the US, but this still represents only 7% of Guatemalan GDP. Draw your own conclusions...

The economy here has been growing at 4.5% per annum but this is likely to slow to around 3% in 2009. Still, that's equivalent to the proportion that the UK economy is likely to shrink by in the same period.

Quote of the Day

"Barclays' share price has fallen again today. At the current price of 90p, this bank's entire market value is £7.5bn. And remember, this is a bank that said on Friday night that its profits for 2008 were considerably more than £5.3bn. In other words, investors currently value this giant international bank at a little over one year's profits. Which is little short of extraordinary."
Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor and blogger

The Ruins

Filmed almost entirely in tangled Australian rainforest, this enjoyable horror film is a kind of I'm an American Citizen Get Me Out of Here.

We begin at poolside, supposedly somewhere in Mexico. A quartet of college-age Yanks are working their way through a jug-load of Margaritas. One amongst them apparently thinks there might be more to this place, and that they should undertake some sort of cultural excursion on their last day.

Cue incident involving a misplaced earring which leads to a chance encounter with one of those more intellectually-curious European types. This adventurous German is called Matthias and he duly invites the two American couples to join him and a Greek lad called Dimitri on a trip to some Mayan ruins which are "off ze map".

This is to be, he adds, "a VIP trip"...and it certainly turns out to be one that tests these young Americans' sense of their own importance in the cosmic scheme of things to the full. If the people banged up inside the apartment block in [REC] were left feeling biliously exasperated by the way the authorities so quickly abandon them to their fate, the anger felt by this little group quaranteened atop a temple by impertinent indigenes is tempered by a palpable sense of disbelief. We're surely worth more than this, than them...the outside world is bound to come looking for us...why did we come to the jungle in flip-flops...?

The primary threat here is provided by some flesh-invading, cellphone-imitating enredaderas. They might look a bit like the kind of plastic flora one comes across in Spanish autoroute service stations, but they do provide the requisite amount of menace and - spoiler alert - by my count are anyway only to be directly responsible for 20% of the visitor fatalities we witness.

I was also quite surprised about how much of the nastiness ultimately occurs outside in the bright sunshine. The identity of the 'final female' came as less of a shock however.

"Ahora ya sabes porque no me gusta ir a las ruinas Mayas," noted V tersely as the end credits rolled.

I referred her to the words of a Maya priest I came across at Tikal last November: "These are not ruins...this is a sacred city."

Grade: B++

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Stuart Gordon hardly puts a foot wrong here.

This little horror gem is, one assumes, a nastiness-augmented take on the true tale of the young Texan woman called Chante Mallard, who hit a bum with her car one night, and then drove home and parked it, with the unfortunate individual still protruding from her windscreen.

I've heard a similar story about an incident here in Guatemala in which a woman found a dead body on the palangana of her pick-up after a hit and run the previous evening, but the key point here is that Suvari's character Brandi Boski has to knowingly descend into callousness.

Her starting point is therefore that much more disconcerting. We see her going the extra mile as a nurse in an old folks home. It's literally a shitty life but her whip-cracking boss is dangling the prospect of a promotion before her, and in pre-emptive celebration, she hits the club scene with a colleague. There we see her other side, and meet her other half, Rashid, a small-time dope-dealer, who isn't exactly the most potent tablet in life's little box of Es.

Meanwhile we have been introduced to Thomas Bardo, an office worker downsized just before his benefits kicked in. Forced to flee his current digs, he is ejected from the park by a diligent cop and is absent-mindedly pushing a supermarket trolley across an empty street when Brandi, ecstasy-fuelled and preoccupied with her cell, compounds his already pretty awful day by driving straight into him.

After half-hearted attempts to deposit Bardo outside A&E and later to dial 911, Brandi quicly internalises the notion that "it wasn't my fault" and that this man, already one of life's losers, has deliberately chosen to dive headfirst into her car precisely at the moment that she herself has achieved some upward momentum. As he begs for help and promises discretion, she clubs him about the head screaming "why are you doing this to me?".

The next morning after Brandi heads off to work as usual, a young boy spies the obstinately breathing Bardo in her garage, but his father refuses to get involved; they're illegal immigrants and he doesn't want the cops poking around. This could easily be a clichéd, throw-away scene but Gordon has cast it very well, and it adds a bit more chill to the highly nuanced social circumstances surrounding the collision and its aftermath.

After this the script shifts into black comedy as Brandi discovers what Rashid gets up to while she is handling bed pans, and promptly manipulates him to live up to his gangster self-image and deal with her problem for her. "Nobody gives a shit. No big deal. Anybody can do anything to anyone and get away with it," is apparently Rashid's credo, but you can tell that he's never had to explore it so fully.

There are plenty of laughs to follow but the tension, horror and all round hatefulness never lets up.

Grade: A-

Marley and Me

According to Walter Addiego of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"This love letter to man's best friend will make dog fanciers roll over and do tricks. It's so warmhearted, you'll want to run out and hug the nearest big, sloppy mutt."

Funny, I ended up suspecting this movie was designed to make fanciers of the American Dream run out and hug the nearest adorably good looking and successful American family they could find doubt frolicking in the fake snow.

The dog is something of a side-issue. He doesn't seem to do anything I couldn't have made up myself before I ever had a dog.

At one point John Grogan, played here by Owen Wilson, describes his regular Miami newspaper column, which formed the basis of his best-selling Marley memoirs, as "everyday stuff but funnier" — which is a bit like referring to Eastenders as "everyday stuff but grottier". I'd need considerably weightier incentivies than this movie provides to really bother myself with attempting to draw life lessons from other people's everyday trivia.

It's not that the Grogans aren't a perfectly nice couple, it's just that the unconditional love of a pet animal can all too easily become a mirror for the narcissism of the culture they live in, at least as it is presented to us here by David Frankel.

So, when not numbingly boring, this film is actually a bit nauseating.

Grade: C

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Quote of the Day: Hopscotch Series (1)

"Como si la especie velara en el individuo para no dejarlo avanzar demasiado por el camino de la tolerancia, la duda inteligente, el vaivén sentimental. En un punto dado nacía el callo, la esclerosis, la definición: o negro o blanco, radical o conservador, homosexual o heterosexual, figurativo o abstracto, San Lorenzo o Boca Juniors, carne o verduras, los negocios o la poesía."
Julio Cortázar / Rayuela

Friday, January 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Peoples like Guatemala are paying the consequences of a world fraud, of financial irresponsibility with which we had nothing to do, the same way neoliberalism was imposed on us in the past...Why not have our own Latin American and Caribbean fund? Why not be independent? Why do we have to be tied to decisions that we cannot influence?"
President Álvaro Colom, yesterday

3 Días

Shortly after the start of this film, set in a sluggish southern Spanish pueblo, men in a bar watch as the UN Secretary General appears on a flickering televsion screen to announce the end of the world — a solar storm has regretably diverted a monster meteorite into the Earth's path and in spite of all of mankind's best efforts it's going to be Game Over in 3 days. Soz.

In any other movie this situation would provide the genre-defining engine of the plot. Not here however, because F. Javier Gutiérrez has elected to use the countdown to apocalypse as a filter for casting a new light on the fairly standard psycho-thriller that is his real business.

For the family whose fate we are to follow here have an even more acute problem than mass extinction — 20 years ago they helped put a pyschotic kiddy fiddler behind bars, and now this man, Lúcio aka el Soro, has broken out of jail so as to dedicate his last 72 hours to a bestial spree of vengeance.

In Spain this conscious muddling of formats has been described as 'daring' by numerous critics, but you can get a feel for just how fruitless it is by transposing another genre into the narrative nucleus....such as a romcom.

Suppose for instance, that the director of Sleepless in Seattle had daringly decided to introduce a cataclysmic celestial collision into the final scene when Tom and Meg finally hook up on top of the Empire State Building? Indeed, V and I had fun over dinner last night trying to think of any film we've watched over the past couple of years which would have been improved by the programmed arrival of a substantial chunk of interstellar debris in the last act.

It certainly makes it harder for one to care about the outcome for characters who are all scheduled to be vaporised anyway. And the tension one feels as the pyscho killer (or romantic lover...) gets closer to his goal is trounced by the 'noise' of that other ticking clock in the background.

3 Días has plenty of other defects to overcome. It's one of the most cinematographically self-regarding films I have ever come across. Show rather than tell is pretty good advice for novelists, but sometimes less so for film directors. Even if you remove the big rock this doesn't even work particularly well as a thriller, except perhaps on a purely visual level. The storytelling is all over the place and the dialogue is poor to boot.

There are a couple of other daring and pointless elements to the argumento too. Such as the fact that this we would appear to be in a parallel universe positioned technologically somewhere around 1980, and the way the director occasionally appears to be lingering on the nascent sexuality of the young adolescent girls in the family group. (This triggered another dinnertime discussion about whether Hollywood scripts generally shy away from female characters in the 13-15 age bracket.)

A crucial missed opportunity occurs early on in the movie when Abuela enters a packed church — seemingly the only place in town which isn't already patas arriba following the news — and asks for some neighbourly help in fighting off el Soro. The congregation inform her quite brutally that they have bigger problems to worry about. And of course they are right. In my view Gutiérrez could easily have improved his genre blend by examining this particular conflict of priorities a little more deeply. But he's bizarrely hampered himself even further by maintaining the conceit that the children have to be kept ignorant about the imminent meteorite strike, so that by the time el Soro shows up, 4 out of 5 of his potential victims have no way of examining their own thrilling situation in the light of the bigger picture.

One might also add that Cormac McCarthy's The Road indicates that more nuanced, open-ended...of the world-scenarios can provide a better backdrop for asking the kind of questions that Gutiérrez seems to have wanted to ask here.

Anyway, 3 Días might have 'triumphed' at the Malaga Film Festival, but V's conclusion — one I find it hard to disagree with — was that this is one big mushy, stinky 0rote of a movie.

Grade: C+

Quote of the Day: Adorno Series (7)

"When all actions are mathematically calculated, they also take on a stupid quality."
Theodor Adorno (1903-69)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wet op mi parratt

For Surfer and me Lovindeer's Wild Gilbert was THE track of our summer of '89 on Caye Caulker. The previous year he'd been caught on Jamaica when Hurricane Gilbert made its ferocious way across the island.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

"They photographed everything from silly-looking dogs to grim-faced children."

Woody Allen, like The Simpsons, is a whole stream of modern comedy that has largely passed me by. I am, as Kermode would say, not at all Woody Allen-literate.

But, if I am to reach any conclusions based on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, they would be that this is a state of affairs that I should start to rectify forthwith. Because this is comedy at its very best...the kind that gets under your skin.

If I've had an obstruction to overcome with Woody Allen, it has been the sense that his work is just a bit too wordily witty and knowingly clever in a very New York kind of way. The beauty of this film however is its deadpan treatment of a series of relationships from central casting, which had me thinking of Eric Rohmer and other European comedies, where you find yourself laughing precisely when things seem to be at their most serious. We both wondered how much Spanish Woody Allen knows because the exchanges between Maria Helena and Juan Antonio (and one little aside by the latter's father) have been scripted masterfully.

The line quoted above is indicative of the how Allen uses his narrator's voiceover to keep the whole tale at an apex affording a view of both irony and earnestness. (Out and out satire it isn't) The drama too operates on the cusp of real thorniness, and at the end some viewers may be disappointed that the two girls appear able to leave Spain painlessly. But this is one of those movies where you can be so dazzled by all the pretty people in the foreground and all the pretty buildings in the background that you entirely miss all the interesting stuff going on in the sideground.

If in Elegy Cruz played the New York male's ideal of serene Latin beauty, here she gets to show us the chaotic flip-side. Once again she's superb. So too is Bardem, but his character turns out to be a tad flimsier than we are first led to expect on the Oviedo jaunt. Rebecca Hall, sister of my old schoolmate Edward, deserved equal billing with Scarlett Johanson.

Grade: A-

We watched Bardem again the other night in No Country for Old Men. V hadn't seen it and I thought I'd give it a second chance and did indeed find myself more able to appreciate it for what it is this time and not fret so much about any negative comparisons with McCarthy's novel.

And so, when Juan Antonio first approaches the two Americans in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, we both imagined that he might have had in mind a lite, romantic version one of those "what time do you close?"- style interlocutions; the kind with which Anton Chigurh so tormented that poor old man in the service station.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quote of the Day: Adorno Series (6)

"He who matures early lives in anticipation."
Theodor Adorno (1903-69)

TV Viewing Diary: all sorts

TOTP - There could have been no better litmus test of my cultural estrangement from the UK than the Christmas and New Year editions of Top of the Pops. It's an almost Einsteinian effect.... as if I am now resident on a plane of existence that is travelling at a different speed relative to Great Britain, such that popular culture there appears to belong to a quaintly different time and cultural space. How hard it is not to see most of the acts there performing as essentially parochial and silly. Could anyone anywhere else in the world watch Duffy or Elbow perform and not snigger (or snarl) at British pop's retro pretensions and pervasive slacker chic? How ludicrous, how pompous, is the cultivated scruffiness of Coldplay...

The Diary of Anne Frank - all previous documentaries and dramatisations have had me in sniffles pretty quickly, but this one I had to stop watching after just one episode. Ellie Kendrick was proving to be so annoying in the lead role that I had started to entertain dark thoughts along the lines that she might have had it coming to her...

Swarm, Nature's Incredible Invasions - is a dazzling new BBC series on swarming behaviours in nature, all so beautifully shot...even the firey pogrom carried out against Africa's multitude of crop-depleting weaver birds. The stars of the first episode were the Periodic Cicadas of Cincinnati which emerge for 3 weeks every 17 years. In the second part we come across Rome's winter starling swarms, in which each bird can simultaneously monitor the location of seven others, thinking ten times faster than the average human, and the amazing shape-shifting shoals of fish which make use of their lateral line to detect small changes in pressure waves. The result is a kind of collective mind, which left me wondering what this all means for selfish gene theory? How do emerging group behaviours evolve? And Can the explanation for this be linked to Lovelock's Gaia theory?

David Tennant provides the commentary, droping the cheeky mockney personality he adopted as the Doctor. I rather think that Timelords would say vortices and not "vortexes" though.

Nip/Tuck — the show which looks at itself in the mirror of televisual postmodernity and asks "Am I gay?"Judging by what I've seen of the latest set of episodes it's becoming increasingly hard for it to answer in the negative. The careful mix of depth and superficiality is fascinating, as is the way it dips opportunistically into other genres. Christian Troy is the pivotal character here, an instinctive bastard with a troubled past who is occasionally forced to explore his inner softy. V got me into this and we'll soon have seen every episode there is to see, so I guess we're going to have to switch our attention soon to something similar like M.D. House.

Heroes Season 3 — This is becoming ever more like a web than a series. I'm getting the feeling it doesn't really matter any more what order you watch the episodes in. With each new season the main villain has been supplanted by a new, supposedly even badder one. Meanwhile in the crowd around him, the secondary heroes and villains swap roles bewilderingly. The result is a brain-ache even worse than Lost.

Yet although I can't claim to recall all the narrative redirections and misdirections within Lost, understand everything I can remember, I don't feel the need to resort to a boxed set just to re-orientate myself every time a new episode is broadcast. With Heroes the temporal
— and ethical — contexts are constantly being scrambled, and the worst part of it is that one has the suspicion that much of this is down to the writers advancing up a creative cul-de-sac and then having to ignominiously retreat out of it.

Dexter Season 3 — Had such a slow start that I was beginning to think that the show's writers had run out of new ideas for taking this character forward without re-treading old ground. But in the end this turned out to be the best Dexter yet. The way multiple sub-plots were developed and interlaced was especially masterful: each advancing at a different pace, some every episode, others every two or three episodes. One was left open from the first episode to the very last. The way that Dexter's intriguing relationship with Miguel Prado was wrapped up at haste over the course of the last three episodes was a source of disappointment however.

Antiques Rogueshow — a great little hour-long drama from the Beeb about the Greenhalg family in Bolton who hoodwinked the experts into giving them hundreds of thousands of pounds for forged artworks. These were produced in the garage by middle-aged misfit Shaun, portrayed sympathetically by Jeremy Swift. He's presented to us as a kind of naive genius living entirely under the thumb of his avaricious octogenarian parents.

The main conceits of the show were 1) that these crooks were in a sense working class heroes and their crimes victimless 2) that Shaun's 4-year prison term was an unfortunate fate but not as bad as what happened to proper recognised artists like Van Gogh, Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley etc and 3) that what really matters in the Art World is provenance and that this is what determines a given expert's willingness to pay rather than innate measures of quality. Shaun's father (played with a wicked glint by Peter Vaughan) is the family's resident bullshitter, informing the police at his arrest of his membership of a sect which prohibits all forms of mendacity.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


This little device, widely advertised on Latin TV channels, makes it easier to fit a 26 minute rosario into your busy schedule. (Though it has to be said most of the consumers testifying to its usefulness in the ads don't exactlly look as if they have particularly busy schedules.)

It includes 7 pre-recorded prayer settings for each day of the week and an integrated portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"For those who want the pleasure of prayer accompanied by an angelical choir."

"...only one on/off button."

The total cost is $104...a snip at just twice the price of the 1GB iPod Shuffle (240 songs).

Digital Marketing explained...

Etymologist's Atlas

This is one of a series of maps published in Der Spiegel showing 'natural' place names.

Personally I'd have translated Honduras as 'Depths' and El Salvador as 'The Saviour'.

As for 'Guatemala', there are some doubts as to its origin. You can choose between two indigenous words Quauhtemellan ('land of the eagle') and Uhatzmalha (`mountain where water gushes').

Yucatán or "I don't understand you" is apparently what the Maya said to the Spaniards who asked them "what land is this?". (You can see why they thought this was real information, as in Spain the generic term is more usually "Eeeeh?")


You could write a long and fascinating thesis about the relationship between violence and the Catholic Church in Latin America, especially gang/drug-related violence. Over the years I've mentioned in this blog the unique cult of the Virgin maintained by Colombia's sicarios (hired killers) and we saw in The Crime of Padre Amaro a fictionalised account of how members of the priesthood in Mexico have become clients of the narcos.

Another thesis idea would be how out of touch the Popes of the last century have been...

Hecho Sushi

The lesson here would seem to be don't bring a stun gun to a knife fight.

Funny, I recall you don't have to add a gratuity in French restaurants...

Quote of the Day: Adorno Series (5)

"Everybody must have projects all the time. The maximum must be extracted from leisure ... The whole of life must look like a job, and by this resemblance conceal what is not yet directly devoted to pecuniary gain."
Theodor Adorno (1903-69)

Darwin and Religion - 2

Yesterday we learned that modern practitioners of revealed religion can hold onto their faith by maintaining a distinction between believing in and believing that.

In other words one needs to believe that most of the stuff many readers of the Bible before Darwin sincerely believed in, is not necessarily true — in the sense that people who habitually handle factual information understand the concept of Truth.

For Christians this means that they can permit themselves the luxury of believing that the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection etc. are all meaningful fables, without apparently sacrificing their belief in the overall spiritual message of the New Testament.

But why torment oneself with these intellectual gymnastics?

I can see how it would be possible to simultaneously believe in an uncreated creator and that the resulting creation was not entirely random and purposeless. From that point I would try to build up a metaphysical (and an ethical) system which assumes that it's best to hold my ins and thats together as much as possible.

The alternative - reverse engineering centuries old 'authority' so that it somehow corresponds to the ideal one has of the alphas and omegas of human existence is hardly laudable.

Che Part 1

Gripping, but we were glad we didn't have to sit through Part 2 straight away after a 15 minute interval like those audiences in Cannes last year.

During the Cuban campaign sequences one gets the impression of Che that an embedded journalist might have picked up. Slighty distant, devoid of any really private moments. (The score too is used sparingly.)

Instead of the full prose of Guevara's own words from the Reminiscences, we get close-up snippets of 60s interviews which he handled like an actor at a press junket.

It's as if Soderbergh wanted to avoid the kind of explicit hagiography that Walter Salles indulged in with The Motorcycle Diaries, and deliver a more factual, eye-witness portrait, and yet what we end up with is an even more idealised agent of revolutionary action.

And, perhaps even more strangely, Che himself is the least interesting thing on screen. The movie is a collection of understated but powerful landscape vignettes and engaging snippets of Cuban banter.

Again it's as if script-writer Peter Buchman was striving to avoid a melo-dramatised account of partisan leadership (of the kind we saw just recently in Defiance) and so chose to lay down a trail of witnessed incidents, leaving his audience to gather them in sequence and to thereby intuit the undisclosed dramatic structure beneath the chronological, journalistic thrust of the story.

It was a little disorientating at first, but ultimately enthralling. Even V, who doesn't care for either war films or westerns, was giving it her full attention.

What a pity that what Soderbergh now calls the Che 'trilogy" (including Walter Salles's first installment) lacks any coverage of Che's moment of transformation in Guatemala, which would have provided a bridge between the idealistic young doctor and the mature revolutionary we see here.

Roll on Part 2...eventually.

Grade: A-

[It's a shame the IMDB page on this movie has no entry for filming locations. The final battle scene in Santa Clara stoked my curiosity in this respect.]

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Year in La Antigua Guatemala

This is how we marked the arrival of 2009 in the Calle del Arco...

Slumdog on a roll...

Time to celebrate Slumdog and Danny Boyle's triumph at the Golden Globes last night...with a big mention to A.R. Rahman for his winning soundtrack:

[This guy also does an umm.. video critique of the movie.]

Darwin and Religion

I tuned into an interesting discussion on Radio 3 the other day in which representatives of the three Abrahamic traditions explained how they had managed to achieve an accommodation with Darwin and natural selection.

Listening to them it's not hard to see the appeal of the head in the sand, "not listening" approach favoured by the majority of American Pentecostals.

The barriers that the three have erected against the agnosticism implicit in modern scientific theory had the superficial appeal of appearing watertight, but it's really not hard to see in each instance how the baby is inclined to go out with the bathwater. For example...

- The bells and smells Christian said that Creation used to be an act, but now it's a process and surely that makes it even more wonderful?

- The evangelical Christian observed that science provides the how while religion provides the why and he couldn't personally see any reason why the two should run into conflict. (He did also point out however that he has been denied full membership of his own church because this requires a statement of faith in the inerrant nature of the Bible on matters like history and science.)

- The Rabbi, predictably enough was the canniest; Jews have a long history of working within a secular tradition. She noted that the Reformation had created a serious breach between physics and metaphysics, but that now things were starting to come together again. (Was the evangelical listening and wondering what this could mean for his tidy separation?)

- The Islamic scholar (and scientist) stated proudly that medieval Muslims — the sort that actually lived in the middle ages — had anticipated evolution in their own thinking, but then went on to admit that the dominant theology within contemporary Sunni Islam is committed to atomism i.e. a pre-Newtonian take on causality. He then added that 'Science' originally meant knowledge in the widest sense, not just the kind you get from the empirical method...we do actually have other faculties for acquiring knowledge, such as Revelation.

My new chums the Zoroastrians are in better shape really, because they claim to believe in a fundamental conflict between the truth and order of Creation with background forces of chaos and disorder. It's an eschatology which allowed for process from the outset.

The others can't change the fundamental tenets of their system, so instead they resort to all kinds of specious nonsense to convince us that the theological ship hasn't really been holed beneath the water-line: i.e. there's a difference between believing in and believing that, opined the Rabbi. You don't have to believe in the literal truth of Genesis, but you need to believe that it more or less encapsulates your value system.

Perhaps Evolution as Darwin explained it isn't fully incompatible with an uncreated creator. What;s certain however, is that's it's incompatible with the type of uncreated creator described in the revealed texts of the three main monotheistic religions.


I have a new favourite tropical fruit...the anona.

This one was plucked from a tree at the finca by my nephew just before New Year. (The parasita on the right was one of many that cover the branches of the anonales up there.)

The pulpy flesh inside is thick and creamy, slightly lumpy or even gritty on the tongue, hence the English name, custard apple. At their best, the taste might be compared to that of an oddly lukewarm ice-cream.

It's rich in carbohydrates, potassium, phosphorous and calcium.

Supposedly first cultivated in the Yautepec river region (in modern Mexico) around 1000BC, the name anona comes from the Taíno word annon.

My Chilean friend tells me that down there they call them chirimoyas. (I've seen some sources which assert an Andean origin for the fruit. There are certainly many different varieties.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009


This is Daniel Craig's second stint as a vengeful Jewish warrior following his portrayal of Steve in Spielberg's Munich.

He's since become a much bigger star and fully justifies this status in Defiance with a superb performance which camouflages some of the made-for-TV production values, especially in the combat scenes.

Liev Schrieber and Jamie Bell also fully contribute to the quality topping.

Director Edward Zwick is also something of a specialist: action movies with a conscience. His portfolio prior to this having included Blood Diamond, Glory and The Last Samurai. This is yet another one of those stories which somehow needed to be told, though I understand that the version we're given is a little free with the facts.

Here the underlying matter of concern has more to do with the history of Hollywood than the history of WWII — the fact that we hardly ever get to see Jews kicking Nazi butt. And as a result it feels less like modern-day issue-tainment than a good old fashioned war yarn.

I'd have to say that as with Blood Diamond this movie just worked for me, in spite of the various flaws which occasionally poke through.

Grade: A--

A further point of note: The Jews here speak the local Slavic lingo (Belarusian/Russian) with the local Slavs but their own dialect (Yiddish) has been rendered as English. Mark Kermode didn't seem to get this when he reviewed the film on Friday...

Zwick might have done a Gibson and put together a cast of little-known Yiddish speakers, but this movie really needed a mainstream star like Craig to function properly.

Quote of the Day

"Some seem to have a deeper understanding of the mess than is believable."
Carlos Fuentes on his country's politicians, in The Eagle's Throne

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Julia Ormond. (Remember her?)

The plot comes from a 1921 comic short story by Scott Fitzgerald in which a man is born old and goes through life, physically at least, backwards.

I found myself zoning in and out of wonderment here — more out of it than in during the last hour. Compared to say Brokeback Mountain, this probably wasn't the sort of short story with narrative potential that naturally expands to 159 minutes of feature length entertainment.

Director David Finch (Fight Club, Zodiac) appears not to have been entirely sure whether to pursue a fantasy or a realist aesthetic, and so we get a bit of each...both done beautifully for sure. But V and I both ended up feeling that this is one of those movies where the lights are on but nobody's home.

What's the message here exactly? We see Benjamin as an old-young man discovering himself in India and hear him pontificating in his diary about how it's never too late or too early to do something with your life. But does going round the life-cycle counter-clockwise really alter the way possibility presents itself to us?

There simply weren't enough moments where the conceit was put to effective use to make us think about the existential issues it might be packing as a payload. The only one that has stuck in my mind is the scene where the wrinkly adolescent surprises a hooker with his enthusiasm in the sack. Is a man's vitality at base physical or mental seemed to be the question being asked there.

The romantic component to this tale didn't really work for us either, in part because Blanchett's mumbling old lady was such a tiresome presence. The script also seemed less awkward about an old man hitting it off with a young girl than vice versa, which helped to dull our interest in the origin of these love-lines fated to converge somewhere in the middle.

As Hurricane Katrina drew ever closer I was convinced it was going to have some relevance to both plot and meaning...but then it didn't. By then I was seriously disinclined to think deeply about the significance of that ruddy hummingbird.

Grade B+

Quote of the Day

"If there are ten worse films than Bride Wars this year then... I quit."
Mark Kermode (9/1/09)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Chekhov's Stories (2): The Kiss

At the start of this story it is May, and "all six batteries" of a Cossack artillery brigade have halted for the night in a village called Myestetchki. Following an invitation delivered by a servant on horseback, nineteen officers make their way to the home of retired general Von Rabbek.

Chekhov gradually introduces us to certain individuals within this pack. There's Lieutenant Lobytko, "renowned in the brigade for his peculiar faculty for divining the presence of women at a distance", and the lynx-whiskered Ryabovitch, whose conduct in company betrays his consciousness of a lack of physical distinction.

At one point in the evening Ryabovitch slouches after two of his fellow officers who have been invited to play billiards in another part of the house. He watches a while but feeling somewhat ignored, decides to head back to the drawing room, but manages to take a wrong turn and winds up in a darkened room.

Suddenly there's a feminine presence in there with him. She whispers "at last", throws her arms around him and kisses him, before recoiling with a shriek. He too flees the scene in haste.

It's a chance event, most probably experienced as an embarrassing mishap by the lady in question. But for Ryabovitch it is transforming.

"Something strange was happening to him...His neck, round which soft, fragant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be annointed with oil; on his left cheek near his moustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger..."

The 'unknown' is clearly something more than just an anonymous young woman. Emerging from the dark room, his whole outlook on the life he has yet to lead has been touched with some powerful positive magic.

For Ryabovitch his first kiss has awakened within him Love, but as this emotion is to have no definite object - rather an imaginary compound of all the women he finds back in the drawing room on his return there - Chekhov is able to show how we often experience love as a heightening of our senses, which alters our perceptions of time and space and our scale of meaning.

Ryabovitch and the other officers move off with their batteries the next day. Eventually the awkward young officer summons up the courage to share his story with his peers, but however minutely he describes the incident, its magnitude evades his narrative capabilities.

"In the course of that moment he had told everything, and it surprised him dreadfully to find how short a time it took him to tell it."

Worse still, Lieutenant Lobytko then lets on that "a similar thing once happened to me." He was on a train and had drifted off beneath his rug. "I opened my eyes and only imagine - a woman. Black eyes, lips red as a prime salmon, nostrils breathing passionately - a bosom like a buffer..." This analogue of course serves only to debase the founding myth behind Ryabovitch's own passion.

The brigade eventually makes its way back to Myestetchki, presumably in the Autumn, and Ryabovitch's sense that a return to the point of origin will allow him to re-kindle the flame within his soul is destined for disappointment.

Perhaps the author is suggesting that love can be rather like the disciplined and insincere smile of La Señora Von Rabbek "which instantly vanished from her face every time she turned away from her guests."

Chekhov wrote this story when he was 27.

Quote of the Day

"It takes real guts to see the hopelessness."
John Givings in Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road

After the way that poor old Anthony Mingella crapped on Cold Mountain I am hardly going to take the trouble to read Charles Frazier's novel.

This is the trouble with movie-adaptations of well-loved books, especially keenly felt here I suspect, because Revolutionary Road is one of those perpetually nearly discovered gems of twentieth century literature, the kind which both readers and writers cherish and pass on in a chain of word-of-mouth recommendations. Now it will be fixed in the mainstream consciousness as thjat middling to good movie where Kate and Leo got back together.

This isn't an entirely unlikeable film, but it belongs to a class of movie-making that generally repels me. It's an even more hyper-stylised period piece than Changeling, but in Clint's flick the stylisation wasn't trying to fill the gap left by literature.

In Cortázar's Rayuela (it too set in the 50s) Horacio claims to have had enough of purely descriptive literature, which for him is like a script without the rescate of images. But here Sam Mendes provides enough proof that ficiton doesn't have to bend itself into something unrecognisable in order to escape the challenge of the all-powerful moving image. Indeed it is the latter which shows itself as inadequate here — meros imágenes sin el rescate de la literatura.

In truth I sensed that the drama of the piece was getting steadily better as it progressed, but the mis-steps at the start were always going to be hard to overcome. For instance, the fight in the car - Chapter 2 of the novel - is absolutely crucial. It has to be properly nasty. As Yates put it:

"Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into each other's weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other's strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint and strike again."

The author doesn't need to provide us with the actual dialogue and that of course presents a serious challenge for the would-be screenwriter. Justin Haythe simply dodges it, leaving April a rather passive figure in the tumult, which in turn means that Frank has to be made to be more constrained.

The director needed to make the audience feel uncomfortable in their seats, but in this he fails, and then he skips the equally excruciating silence that follows this squall the next day. So when Frank goes back to work and into bed with Maureen we haven't seen much of the lingering "stare of pitying boredom" that April has been treating him to during their first gathering with Shep and Milly, a scene that Haythe has omitted entirely. Viewers could be forgiven at this stage for thinking this is a story about a neglected housewife and her slimebag husband.

April's proposal for a move to Paris also comes out of the blue, because the script hasn't worked hard enough to show us why both Frank and April suspect that their essence is entirely out of step with the post-war American dream, that "they alone were painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture." Mendes actually makes the suburban life look appealing. (Was he afraid to repeat himself after American Beauty?)

The scene where Frank marches through the Grand Central concourse amidst a host of similarly atired and behatted salary-men is memorable, but for me also encapsulated the way Mendes has emphasised the temporal distance between us and Frank's working existence, when in fact one of the great pleasures of the novel is the contemporary resonance of Yates's satire on cubicle life. And it's incredibly funny; whereas I don't think I even sniggered once in this movie. (Frank's celluloid workmates here barely register as worthy of our attention.)

Michael Shannon from Bug has a nice turn as John Givings; he seems to specialise in engaging loons. Somehow I felt these two interventions in the Wheelers' lives may even have worked better in the film than they did in the novel.

Still, it seemed an appropriate sort of book to be reading very shortly after finally extricating myself from "a life I couldn't stand", and the messed-up mathmo's weary opener that "if you want to play house you have to have a job" is really just the beginning of the journey of self-examination that Yates is usually able to send his readers on. Mendes meanwhile seems oddly reluctant to unsettle his 2009 audience in quite the same way.

One last observation. The funny thing about Di Caprio is that with each movie he does, I always seem to start off thinking he's been horribly mis-cast and end up more or less completely convinced how right he was for the role. Winslet is perhaps a bit too soft for April, but then she's the director's moll.

Grade B

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Quote of the Day: Adorno Series (4)

"For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live."
Theodor Adorno (1903-69)

The Bible, The Biography (1)

Whatever one's views on religion, this fascinating book provides considerable insight into one of the abiding dichotomies in human psychology — that some people see the wood while others can only spot the trees.

Karen Armstrong was briefly a member of a teaching order of Catholic nuns before ducking out of it as an undergrad. She has since become a leading academic voice in the field of "comparative religion", an admirable but probably pointless effort to demonstrate that we can all be made to see the trees.

Three pages in and the lapsed monja delivers the the eye-catching statement that "until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life," one of those over-broad and actually rather falsifiable historical generalisations - like 'before Colombus hardly anyone suspected that the world was spherical' - which here serves to announce her broader intention of taking on those perennial wood-seers, the fundamentalists, and perhaps also the very notion that all we can ask of the Bible is how much factual information it might contain.

She insists that the holy book's earliest writers and readers saw it as a handy gadget for assisting exegesis, then considered "a spiritual discipline rather than an academic pursuit." Their goal was a glimpse of transcendence, the so-called coincidentia oppositorum, an ecstatic sense of wholeness.

Students of comparative religion will no doubt thus start pondering whether Eastern and Western spiritual traditions can be reconciled as easily as the wood and the trees. But then they might also recall that this is a Latin term deriving from Platonism, itself not to be taken up once more by Western monotheists until Christendom's re-encounter with ancient wisdom via Islamic scholarship...but Armstrong isn't really interested in these sort of historical niceties.

She explains that the ancient Israelites appear to have had two separate monarchies each with its own scriptural tradition. Israel called its principal deity Elohim, while Judah in the south referred to Him as Yahweh. The former presided over a more 'transcendent' kind of religion but was ultimately to be ousted by Yahweh as chairman of the Divine Assembly. "But the Bible shows that right up to the destruction of the temple by Nebudchadnezzar in 586BC Israelites also worshipped a host of other deities", Armstrong asserts. These included the fertility god Baal and his sister-spouse Anat, agricultural experts who effectively compensated for Yahweh's over-specialisation in the martial arts.

And, Fundamentalists please note, Genesis wasn't the part of the Bible that was written first.

After the destruction of the temple a priest (or maybe en entire new school of priests) emerged that scholars have dubbed "P". He revised the Israelites' concept of God to permit Him to reside wherever his people were, and not just in a purpose-built place of worship. Unlike the Deuteronomists before him P's religious vision was inclusive with a strong stress on reconciliation.

Armstrong feels that P deliberately contrasted Yahweh's creation of the cosmos with that of Marduk, God of the then gloatingly victorious Babylonians. Instead of creation emerging from conflict - and needing to be renewed annually - P insisted that it was all done and dusted in six days.

Creation myths had a practical value for the Bible-bashers of antiquity, Armstrong advises, tending to be recited at the start of the new year or when individuals undertook a new project. "In the ancient world cosmogony was a therapeutic rather than a factual genre". There she goes again.

More to follow....