Friday, December 12, 2014

On re-reading Douglas Coupland

It’s a difficult thing, falling out of love with an author (or musician or artist or chef or, for that matter, a lover, I guess). The moment you realise their last two or three books have been dull reiterations of the same bloody theme, or misguided attempts to switch genre, or half-arsed doodles that wouldn’t have been commissioned if they didn’t have an established name attached, or some combination of all of them, can be a punch in the face. It’s not just the time you’ve wasted ploughing through the tomes in the hope of finding some of the sparkle that attracted you to the author in the first place; it’s the fact that even the earlier books, the ones you do love, are a little bit tainted. The question starts to nag at the back of your skull — were they actually that good to start with? And do you really want to go back and find out?

Shortly after I gave up on Douglas Coupland, thanks to the confused farce and misfiring satire of Worst. Person. Ever., I also managed to lose my Kindle, so found myself getting reacquainted with my bookcase. Which is how I found myself leafing through Coupland’s third book, Life After God, which I think I think I first read in the dying days of the John Major administration. In the last story, the narrator tracks down the friends from his teenaged years, including Julie, who is “trying to escape from ironic hell” – perhaps embodying the shift from the sarcastic wisecracks of the author’s debut, Generation X, to the more fleshed-out characters that came in the likes of Girlfriend in a Coma. And this exchange occurs, although as the use of the future tense implies, maybe it’s all in the narrator’s wishful thinking and will never really happen.
We will talk some more. She will remind me of a night the seven of us had back in 1983. “You know — the night we drank lemon gin and we each stole a flower from the West Van graveyard for our lapels.”
I will draw a blank. I won’t remember.
“Oh, Scout, don’t blank out on me now — you weren’t that drunk. You gave me all that great advice at that restaurant downtown. I changed schools because of that advice.”
I will still draw a blank. “Sorry, Julie.”
“This is truly pathetic, Scout. Think. Markie went shirtless down Denman Street; Todd and Dana and Kristy got fake tattoos.”
“Uh – brain death here. Nothing.”
Julie will become obsessed with making me remember: “There was that horrible brown vinyl 1970s furniture in the restaurant. You ate a live fish.”
“Wait!” I’ll cry. “Brown 1970s furniture – I remember brown 1970s furniture.”
“Well thank the Lord,” Julie will say, “I thought I was going mad.”
“No, wait, it’s all coming back to me now... the flowers... the fish.” Like a thin strand of dental floss the entire evening will return to me, inch by inch, gently tugged along by Julie. Finally, I will remember the night in its entirety, but the experience will be strangely tiring. The two of us will sit on the warm concrete steps quietly. “What was the point of that story, anyhow?” I will ask.
“I can’t remember,” Julie will say.
 You know, maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Why I am no longer a clown

When I was about eight years old, each class had to put on some sort of performance once a term for the rest of the school. Our teacher, Mr Gamble, decided the theme would be “When I Grow Up” and so each of us had to write a short piece about our career aspirations. I can’t recall many of the other choices; lots of boys as footballers, girls as princesses, I suppose, although one young lady announced that she wanted to be a frog, a decision that seems ever more magnificent the older I get.

I wanted to be a clown. In retrospect, this probably derives from a memory of about five years before, one of the first things I can genuinely remember with certainty (rather than remembering the retelling of it as it seeps into family folk history). We were watching Billy Smart’s circus on TV when the kitchen suddenly erupted in flames, the result of a hyperactive chip pan, and yes, the very notion of a chip pan might hint at how bloody old I really am. My parents did everything by the book, one phoning the fire brigade, the other hustling my sister and me out of the house to a neighbour’s place, where we were plonked down in front of a telly that was also tuned to the goings-on in the big top — not such a startling coincidence in those days, as there were but three channels. I have no memory whatsoever of the fire engine or of the blackened, sodden mess into which the kitchen had turned by the time we were allowed back into our house, only of the fact that the neighbours had a colour TV, while we had a mere black and white set, and that the clowns were funnier in colour.

Back to school. I’ve written a poem about how bloody brilliant clowns are and Mr Gamble says it’s good enough to read to the assembled audience. (I’ve also started writing poetry but haven’t yet conceived of Being A Poet as a career option. That comes later.) I dress in an approximation of an auguste’s finery, including a garishly checked blazer borrowed from my grandmother, and paint on an appropriate face. Mr Gamble suggests that a suitable ending for my moment in the spotlight would be for me to get hit with a pie and so taken with the whole experience am I that I just say yes, whatever, great, do it, I’m a clown — I haven’t actually contemplated what the experience might be like.

Come the morning of the performance, the various policemen and train drivers and pop stars do their schtick and frog girl sits on a lily pad and croaks and then it’s my turn. I do a few prat falls. I do my bit of bloody awful poetry. And then Mr Gamble hits me, hard, in the face, with a pie. Except it’s not really a pie, it’s just a paper plate, covered in flour-and-water paste. And instead of sliding elegantly towards the floor, leaving my eyes blinking soulfully from within the white goop, it just stays stuck to my face. I can hear my schoolmates, even if I can’t see them. And everyone is laughing, which is nice, but it’s the same sort of laughter that comes when the roly-poly headmaster, Mr Petts, calls some hapless child a ruddy lazy idiot in front of the whole school. Laughing at, not laughing with. Suddenly, I don’t want to be a clown any more.

Of course, if Mr Gamble had read this recipe for the perfect comedy pie the whole thing might have gone more successfully and my life might have taken a completely different path, clown dreams intact.

I wonder what happened to the girl who wanted to be a frog.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols

I bloody love Mike Nichols’ first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, and am quite fond of several of his later ones, without having ever thought of him as any kind of great auteur. Neither did he, if a quotation in his obituary is anything to go by. Setting himself apart from the likes of Renoir, he said:
The rest of us make entertainment. And that’s an absolutely honourable profession. Straining towards art is confusing and useless.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The crappiness of collective criticism

Received wisdom holds that the traditional top-down critic, bestowing his/her discriminating intelligence upon a grateful, adoring readership, is an endangered species, squeezed out of the arena by the voices of so-called ordinary people on sites such as TripAdvisor and Amazon, blurring together to create an incoherent choir of white noise and a score that always seems to add up to three and a half stars out of five or thereabouts.

But this crowd-sourced crit clearly has its weaknesses, not least for those who are on the receiving end. Take Bac Nguyen, a restaurateur in Cleveland, Ohio, who didn’t care much for a customer review on Yelp He did attempt to engage with the specifics of the review (mainly a matter of what should or shouldn’t be the main ingredient in ramen noodles) but pretty soon the whole thing degenerated into “You’re ugly and physically weak and your girlfriend is an ugly piece of shit.” Which doesn’t exactly make me want to eat his cooking, but at least he restricted himself to verbal abuse, unlike one Richard Brittain, who is alleged to have avenged a lukewarm GoodReads review of his self-published book by hitting the critic with a wine bottle.

Davide Cerretini, who runs Botto Bistro in Richmond, California, was less worried about what the digital Anton Egos had to say; at first he tried to get his restaurant removed from Yelp, then attempted to subvert the whole system by offering discounts to diners who awarded it a single star. (Thanks to Paul Blackwatertown for alerting me to this story.) And then of course there are the glorious one-star movie reviews of Amazon (Free Willy: “They should of killed the whale and ate it.”) although these are partly redeemed by the mass kickings sustained by such crass products as the sexy PhD costume.

So maybe the professional sneerers needn’t feel so threatened. Could it be that crowd-sourced criticism is just as crap as the old version, only in slightly different ways?

Image: Raoul Haussman, Der Kunstkritiker (The Art Critic), 1919-1920, Tate Collection

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A death in Kensington

A man has been found dead in London. Not in itself a huge news story, but the context brings it to the attention of a national publication such as the Daily Telegraph. For a start, he was impaled on railings, which adds a certain gruesome curiosity value to the event; Gothic overtones, maybe, flashbacks to Satanic spearings in movies such as The Omen.

But it’s not just the mode of his demise that matters. Apparently the railings are next to the school attended by David Cameron’s children, which is on “Kensington Church Walk, one of London’s most exclusive streets, on which the average property price is £1.6 million.” So it’s not just a death – there’s a splash of celebrity and a stiff dose of property porn in there. And the privileged setting adds a rather ironic twist to the current line of enquiry, which is that the (anonymous) deceased was homeless; the spikes can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the “hostile architecture” increasingly used in public spaces to deter undesirables from hanging around for too long. In the words of the Parks Police constable: “We do have a problem here with homeless people and the number of them has increased by 200 per cent in the last year. It is a growing problem which we are tackling.” 

Never mind. I guess this is one less “problem” for him — and for David Cameron — to tackle.

PS: The Express goes one better and brings a royal angle to the story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The dislike button

Bret Taylor, inventor of Facebook’s “like” button, has explained why it has no negative equivalent, and probably never will:

The reason we launched the [like] button in the first place was that there were a lot of times that people wanted to acknowledge something someone did, but didn't have anything to say. And a lot of comments were one word like ‘cool’ or ‘wow’ so the like button let people did that with a single click. It wasn't really just a sentiment of ‘like’. 
So the “like” button serves to save inarticulate users the trouble of hitting three keys when one will do. Fair enough. But wouldn’t a “dislike” button serve the same purpose, offering an alternative to the intellectual effort of typing out “dude, this sux”? Hell, why not offer readers three options, as I do on this blog, allowing them to indicate their joy, loathing or – worst of all – bored indifference to what I post? No, says Taylor:
I have the feeling that if there were to be a ‘dislike’ button is that you would end up with these really negative social aspects to it. If you want to dislike something, you should probably write a comment, because there’s probably a word for what you want to say. 
Really? So people who can’t be bothered to type “wow” have the time and inclination to compose a thoughtful, cogent, sensitive explanation of their own negative reactions to what their friends have posted? In the past few days, two of my Facebook friends have lost their fathers. Both have received many messages of condolence, all of which are doubtless honest, caring and heartfelt, but the majority are variants on “Sorry for your loss, thinking of you”. There’s nothing wrong with such standardised mantras, of course – but by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with a one-click acknowledgement that the post brings bad news rather than good, rather like an anonymous candle lit in someone’s memory, or a teddy bear affixed to a tree at an accident black spot. What does rather spoil the mood of kind thoughts and virtual hugs in adversity is that each announcement has also attracted a whole bunch of “like”s, which to me would suggest “cool, wow, I’m happy your dad’s dead” – not the message the sender intended, I assume.

I simply don’t buy the “negative social aspects” of Taylor’s argument. Social media should reflect the lives of its users and life includes some negative stuff, whether it’s the death of a beloved parent or an annoying paper cut. His concept of Facebook as a cheery, positive, Pollyanna-ish thumbs-down-free zone is just a case of avoiding reality. Although since, as TechRadar points out, it’s probably more a case of dislikes being less useful to Facebook advertisers, he’s simply being disingenuous about the whole thing anyway. But hey, who ever looked to social media for expressions of sincerity?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bentleys, Borges, Bros and the fine art of disingenuous damage

From a letter to the Guardian about the late Jocelyn Stevens:
He was so wealthy that, when his car was written off in an accident, he instantly bought another Bentley (or whatever) and told his garage to make on it the same scratches and marks as were on the original so that his wife wouldn't know about the crash. 
Whether the tale is true or not (the correspondent believes it is but can’t be certain) there’s something deliciously Borgesian—via Baudrillard, naturally—about this, with the new car as a simulacrum to disguise the reality of the old one, and the crash. But the new car can’t just be a replica of a thing; it also has to replicate a history, events, time. Or maybe it’s just like the late 1980s, when people (OK, we) deliberately ripped holes in their Levis while insisting they’d occurred naturally.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

About ‘God Only Knows’

‘God Only Knows’ is probably my favourite Beach Boys song. So, it’s not the most crushingly obvious choice (that would be ‘Good Vibrations’ or maybe ‘California Girls’), nor is it just trying to be obnoxious for the sake of it (‘Kokomo’) but it’s not exactly out of the box either. A proper smartarse, offering his personal BB fave for a 20-page retrospective in Mojo or Uncut, would plump for something rather more obscure from Smile or Surf’s Up. But I like ‘God Only Knows’. So shoot me.

Or you could just shoot whoever decided to make ‘God Only Knows’ the latest Everyone Gets To Sing A Line, Even The Token Bloke From Senegal Or Wherever, Quite Yer Moaning It’s For Charity, Can The New John Lewis Christmas Ad Be Far Behind BBC Children in Need single. No, stop, don’t really shoot. In purely musical terms, I’m sure it’s not the most hideous version of the song ever committed to whatever it is songs are committed to these days. (The Bowie one was pretty sucky, for a start.) It’s not even the aura of smug self-satisfaction that hums off these records that’s the problem; the BBC has been getting so much politically motivated flak in recent years, any reminder of the extent of its riches has to be a good thing, even if that encompasses a cameo by old tortoise-face from Coldplay and Brian May doing the same guitar solo he’s been playing since about 1346.

No, it’s not so much what they’ve done to my song, ma, it’s more about how it changes my relationship with that particular piece of music. Within a few days, ‘God Only Knows’ will cease to be a Beach Boys song. It will become a charity single and if people chance to hear the original they’ll be confused because they’ll be expecting Emeli Sandé or One Direction or Stevie Wonder or that nice trumpet lady or the skinny choir bloke to be on there. Of course, the same thing happened with ‘Perfect Day’, which suddenly ceased to be a wistful paean to heroin and became a song about a day that was quite nice actually, with a bit by Westlife. In fact, ‘Perfect Day’ occupies a similar place in Lou Reed’s oeuvre to that of ‘God Only Knows’ in Brian Wilson’s; the mind-numbingly obvious pick would be ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, while clever-clever music critics would pick side three of Metal Machine Music.

But in both cases, the BBC has a lucky charm against any criticism of the recording. “Look, it can’t be that bad,” they’ll chide. “Brian Wilson’s playing on it. Just like Lou Reed did.” Which of course smudges over the fact that both Wilson and Reed are/were spectacularly odd and damaged individuals, a fact that is intrinsic to the weird brilliance of their music but has also led them down some pretty awful avenues (such as their collaborations with Status Quo and Metallica respectively). The cosy niceness of the BBC singles is just a minor late-period mis-step when seen in the broader context of their careers. Still, it’s a pity. ‘God Only Knows’ suddenly isn’t my favourite Beach Boys song any more.

PS: The Daily Mash gets it right, as is so often the case.

PPS: And this, by Lisa Cordaro. “A line in the sand”. Yes.

PPPS: ...and Michael Hann gives each performer on the BBC version marks out of 10.