Saturday, August 01, 2015

Films I recently watched on a plane

When I started this blog, at a time when most of you were still in nappies, the idea was that I’d use it to write about what I was reading and watching and listening to. After a while, though, I got to the stage when I didn’t have time to write so much; but later still, I realised I wasn’t even making the time to read or watch or listen, so there’d be bugger all to write about anyway.

The only exception comes when I fly, which is the time I set aside to catch up on the films I really ought to have seen over the past few months; and since I’ve been flying more than normal lately, I’ve managed to catch a few films. But I still don’t have much time to write, so please regard these as rough notes rather than full-on reviews. You know, as if you care.

Pride (Matthew Warchus). Similar to Bend it Like Beckham (but with gay people and the miner’s strike instead of feminism, Asian parents and football), this is a movie with its heart in the right place and a script that’s so grindingly banal and obvious it could almost make you vote Tory. It’s not a spoiler alert to reveal that Bill Nighy’s character turns out at the end to be gay, because if you don’t guess that within 30 seconds you’re probably a bit dim.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg) Mulholland Dr meets Magnolia, with passing references to The Shining and The Sixth Sense. Cronenberg takes the adage that you shouldn’t work with children and animals to the logical conclusion by trying to kill off all the children and animals. And Julianne Moore farts. I liked it. (By the way, KLM doesn’t censor its on-board entertainment, which in this case means there was a penis. I’m not sure the bloke in the seat next to me was ready for that.) 

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn). Somebody you don’t expect to die, dies. And somebody you don’t expect to be a baddy turns out to be a baddy. The suits are nice, though, and the extreme violence is quite amusing, especially the exploding heads at the end.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh). All competently and sensitively done, but Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking is the sort of barefaced, cynical, hey-look-at-my-disabled-face Oscar bait I thought we’d thrown out 20 years ago. And I still don’t really understand what a black hole is.

Birdman (Alexander González Iñárritu). Maybe I shouldn’t have been so sneery about Oscar bait, because this actually won the Best Picture gong and it’s utterly brilliant, with Michael Keaton  – as an actor famous for playing a superhero, attempting to resurrect his career – hovering on the crowded intersection between fantasy, madness, performance and the supernatural. But he doesn’t do a disabled face so he didn’t get a prize for himself. The ending actually left me gasping, which can be kind of embarrassing on a plane. Fortunately, this was a different flight, so the bloke who didn’t like the penis in Maps to the Stars wasn’t around to object.

PS: Oh, and in case you missed it, I wrote another thing about food in Bangkok.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

About semi-colons

You may have heard by now about the semi-colon campaign, which encourages people to get a tattoo of the punctuation mark in order to... well, I’m not sure really. It’s something to do with mental health  problems and/or addictions, and having a tattoo indicates that you’ve lived and/or overcome with these issues or you know someone who has or that you want to acknowledge that they exist. And apparently it’s a faith-based campaign, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have faith in anyone or anything. All of which seems to be so inclusive as to be near-meaningless, but at the same time, only a heartless shit could object to it. It’s like a permanent (or, in fact, semi-permanent, because that’s OK too, we’re told) version of the equal marriage stripes I was musing about a few days ago.

And I’m wary of it for much the same reason, annoyed by the notion that if I don’t get a tattoo I’m somehow dismissive or the troubles that some people live with, or that I’m holding myself up as a model of emotional equilibrium who’s never had a dark moment. (Yeah, right.) The funny thing is that I’d been pondering the idea of getting a tattoo, mainly because I’m 47. (Does a mid-life crisis count as a mental health issue within the terms of the semi-colon project? Discuss.) And I was also thinking that if I were to get inked, I might get a punctuation mark. But I would have gone for a question mark — and now I can’t because that might now be interpreted as some sort of sardonic slight against the good intentions of the semi-colon people. Wars have been waged over less.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

About not having cancer

So there was a lump. There’s always a lump first, isn’t there, when people blog about it? It was a small, slightly pointed lump on my forehead and I would have let it stay there, but then it started to hurt when anything brushed against it and then it started to bleed and I was sure it wasn’t anything particularly serious but you know, just to be sure, I went to the doctor. And the doctor said that it was almost totally certainly a wart (a filiform wart, in case you’re interested, so there’s a new word) and she could take it off there and then but afterwards, you know, just to be sure, she could send it to the lab, but only if I wanted. And I said, yeah, you know, just to be sure. So that’s what she did, took it off, sent it to the lab, just to be sure. And of course, I didn’t really think it was anything particularly serious and didn’t think very much about it at all. Except that I just received the e-mail from the lab telling me it was definitely a filiform wart and nothing else and so everything’s OK and it’s only then that I notice that nobody’s actually said the word “cancer” and suddenly it feels as if I’ve been holding my breath for the past few days without realising I was doing it. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

About not using those gay stripes on Facebook

If you’ve been in the vicinity of Facebook over the past few days, you've probably noticed that many people have taken advantage of a little gadget that enables them to overlay their profile images with rainbow stripes, to commemorate the Supreme Court’s decision last week to allow same-sex marriage in all 50 states of the union. Many of my friends, real and virtual, used it.

My immediate reaction was to do the same thing — after all, I support equal marriage, I think the SCOTUS decision is a good thing and I love seeing right-wing Republicans thrashing around in spasms of impotent, moronic fury. But then, as is so often the case, I started overthinking the whole phenomenon. What would I be communicating by tinting my profile? The fact that I’m a decent, egalitarian, non-homophobic, generally liberal, 21st-century sort of person? I’d hope that people already sort of get that already. (There was also the more mundane fact that I was away from my computer when I first noticed the rainbowing, and it would have been a lot of hassle to implement it on my crappy old phone and by the time I got back home I would have felt as if I was playing catch-up.)

But it was interesting seeing some of the reactions to my friends’ assumption of the spectrum. There was an element (jocular, I’m guessing) of “ooh, I thought there was something you weren’t telling us”. That’s harmless in itself but I suppose it’s just the benign end of the assumption that if you support gay rights in any form, that means you’re One Of Them, which sounds barmy but was certainly prevalent 30 years ago. And then I started considering that if people are making assumptions about those who announce their support for the SCOTUS decision in this way, are they also making assumptions about those of us who remain rainbowless? And so I felt like this:

It’s that tipping point where not wearing something – a poppy, a red ribbon, a red nose —can be taken as a statement in and of itself, even if you don’t mean anything by it. Am I by default a homophobe, an ally of the buffoon Scalia and his dimwit Supreme Court rightists? Or did I mean to buy a rainbow from the nice lady outside Waitrose but I only had a fiver and it would have looked weird to ask for change?

At least I don’t now have to contemplate the dilemma described by one of my Facebook friends:  “When is the politically correct time to return to a regular (rainbow-free) profile pic?”

PS: And yes, this is my first blog post in two months. What of it? I’ve been busy, doing stuff like this rundown of the best new restaurants in Bangkok. So there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Pete Ashton, Alvin Lucier and the futility of originality

Pete Ashton’s Sitting In Stagram is a digital art project that takes as its starting point the absence of a repost function in Instagram; users have to create a fresh screen capture when they send an image, causing subtle, cumulative deterioration each time. Ashton’s work was also inspired by Alvin Lucier’s sound piece I Am Sitting In A Room, in which the repetition of recorded speech degenerates into incoherent noise.

Of course, repetition doesn’t necessarily always mean a downturn in quality but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb — just look at the trajectory of most movie sequels. And even when a project doesn’t become objectively worse, we seem to lose interest ever more quickly. Think how fast memes die away these days; how soon did the various iterations of the Harlem Shake lose their charm? Inevitably it turns out that Ashton’s idea isn’t a new one, a fact that he readily acknowledges: “There are no original ideas and that is an awesome thing.”

So does Sitting In Stagram become less good as its originality recedes? Does it transcend the process of representation and become the very thing it’s depicting? There’s one thing to be said for it in this age of stunted attention spans, at least by comparison with the Lucier piece — it’s a damn sight shorter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lewis Hamilton pops his cork

I’m profoundly uninterested in motor sport, and also very wary of investing too much symbolic significance into silly little moments, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about Lewis Hamilton’s champagne celebrations following the Chinese Grand Prix. It’s long been pretty obvious what the uncorking and spraying of the fizz represents but we don’t need to delve too deeply into the semiotics of porn tropes to decide that there’s a big difference between a general splurging in the rough direction of the watching fans (who apparently rather like the experience) and firing it into a specific woman’s head (and she clearly didn’t). 

Talking of wankers and cars, apparently the very notion that A WOMAN, not to mention A LESBIAN WOMAN might take the place of Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear has prompted some of his halfwit catamites into wishing said woman might burn to death. Look, I’m not arguing that a deep and intimate fascination for all things automotive correlates with being a socially inept thug but, yes, well, I am really.

To be fair, though, just to prove that such levels of abject idiocy are not confined to people with penises: Jon Ronson is getting grief for a line about rape in his new book that might be misconstrued — despite the fact he removed it from the published edition, lest it be misconstrued. You know what? I need a drink.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

H&M and all the stars that never were

When I was about 13 or 14 I was in a band. We were called Yeux Bleus and we had a really great logo, with a pair of elegant, feminine eyes peering out from beneath the brows formed by the initial ‘Y’. We also had some lyrics, which were basically the poems I was already writing about nuclear war and beret-wearing girls who didn’t fancy me, with some bits repeated so we could have choruses. No recordings exist, sadly, because we never made any, because we never actually played any music, because we couldn’t. But I suspect we would have ended up doing vaguely synthy, new romantic stuff, like Visage or Depeche Mode, because they had French names too. 

I only mention this because it appears that the clothing brand H&M, following on from the craze of adorning t-shirts with the names of punk and metal bands of which the wearer has never heard, has taken things to the next level, using the names of bands that somebody in the marketing department has just made up. To be fair, they’ve put more effort into this than we ever did, retrospectively creating band histories, album artwork and even some suitably gruesome music for these non-existent combos.

But here’s the thing. There must be hundreds of thousands of bands that never happened, just like ours. And probability states that at least some of those band names will coincidentally pop up again on an H&M garment — there are only 26 letters in the alphabet after all, although this is metal, so we have to take umlauts into account. Just imagine what it might be like to be walking down the street and be confronted by some kid whose fashion choice pledges allegiance to a band that you never quite got started more than three decades ago. The feeling would surely be something like stepping into a parallel world where all those primal adolescent dreams of power chords and groupies and difficult third albums and woooh, hello Leipzig had come to fruition and you hadn’t ended up selling patio heaters in Shropshire after all. And if you do see some kid whose t-shirt announces slavish devotion to the back catalogue of Yeux Bleus, please let me know, because we were bloody brilliant.

PS: Turns out it’s not that straightforward. The t-shirts were real but the back stories (including the dodgy neo-Nazi connections of some of the bands) and the music were conjured up as a subversive prank by a production company that was fed up with the high-street commodification of metal. One unreality on top of another. I can’t keep up.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Unsafe space: a message to students

It’s a very, very long time since I was a student in the conventional sense. I did have a sort of extended virtual postgraduate moment in the mid-1990s, when I was working on a guidebook for prospective university entrants, but that’s about it. So I’m a bit late in the day when it comes to the concept of safe space and my response to it may be old hat but I’m so astounded by some of the things I’m reading, however belatedly, I’ve just got to respond.

When I first heard the phrase “safe space”, I assumed it was some sort of policy to ensure students didn’t come to physical harm; possibly akin to the reclaim the night protests against sexual violence that I remember from my own university days. Apparently not, though. It isn’t physical harm that safe space seeks to prevent; it’s the emotional harm of that might occur if you happen to hear someone say something you don’t think is very nice. A recent high-profile example came last month when a show at Goldsmiths College by comedian Kate Smurthwaite was cancelled because some people didn’t like her opinions about sex work. As one protestor complained, “They want really controversial speakers to come to campuses, over the heads of students who are hurt by that or disagree with their politics.”

Now, just let that sink in for a few minutes. This person thinks that university students – for the most part, young, intelligent adults, or that’s what we hope they are — need to be protected from controversial opinions with which they disagree because they might get hurt. Fortunately I’m not at Goldsmiths, because I rather suspect its safe space policy would prevent me from explaining what a colossal sack of horse shit such an attitude represents and that that the person expressing it is evidently barely bright enough to be in kindergarten, let alone at an institution of higher learning.

Listen, hurty person. Listen, even if it bruises your flabby, blancmange-like brain. University should not, must not, be a safe space. In fact, quite the opposite. It. Should. Hurt. In your three or four years at university, you should expect to have your political opinions and religious beliefs completely upended at least once a term. You should question your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your musical tastes and your preferred hairstyle. You should have your heart broken, crushed, pulverised, ripped into tiny pieces and blown forcefully into your tearstained face, five times, minimum. You or a person close to you should undergo a pregnancy scare, a bout of food poisoning and a trip to the casualty department. You should go vegan for at least a week. Overdoses are not compulsory but you should go through several ghastly mornings after, vowing never to drink again. If you don’t regularly find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 am wondering what the hell it’s all about, you’re doing it wrong. It’s quite possible that you’ll come out at the close of your university career with the same politics, religion and liver as when you arrived, and that’s OK; the point is the experiences you have on the journey, even if you end up in the same place. And if such a prospect is so terrifying that it puts you off the notion of applying to university, well perhaps you’re not quite ready, emotionally, socially or intellectually, to make that leap just yet and perhaps you never will be. And if you insist on going to university but don’t wish to avail yourself of these productive traumas, then don’t you dare, don’t you fucking dare try to stop other people experiencing them.

This is me, at university, with unsafe hair. Photo by Susannah Davis

PS: Via Clair Woodward, by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Play-Doh? Really?

PPS: And now this, also from Clair: