Friday, March 31, 2006

Critical credibility has a fag break

OK, here's a meme. The thing is, you must only post half of it. All will become clear. Tag-ees at the bottom.

What, in your opinion, are the 10 best movies of all time? Do a list. Great.

You know the drill. Good, yes, gotta have a Scorsese. And a silent, or at least a black and white. And something foreign. Italian neo-realists? Hmm, bit passé. Wim Wenders? Fab. That one with Columbo in. And, gosh, which of the Three Colours should I pick? I'll say White. Bit perverse, most people ignore that one.

And Citizen Kane. It's compulsory, you know. Haven't seen it? It's the sled, stupid. Stick it in.

Excellent. Now, chuck that list away. And now list your 10 favourite films, which (and this is exceedingly important) MUST NOT INCLUDE ANY TITLE ON YOUR '10 BEST' LIST. Go on. Even if - especially if - you know they're really not very good by conventional critical standards.

1. The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) Before the days of VCRs, my dad taped the soundtrack off the telly on his big old open-reel machine, and we'd sit and listen and act it out. I was usually Robert Vaughn, who doesn't do much, but does it exceedingly coolly. Oh, and it's considerably less looooong than Seven Samurai.
2. Big (Penny Marshall, 1988) The best thing Tom Hanks has ever done, and ever will do.
3. Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) Everyone thinks this is a Hitchcock film, because it's got Cary Grant in, looking urbane under pressure. Truth is, it's more fun than most of the fat freak's stuff.
4. Hellzapoppin (H.C. Potter, 1941) I laughed so much at this film when I was about eight that I peed on my grandma's living-room carpet. I accidentally-on-purpose spilled some orange squash on it to disguise the fact.
5. Grosse Point Blank (George Armitage, 1997) Assassins have therapists? And unions? Wa-hey!!! Where do I sign?
6. Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987) Mickey Rourke before he went mental, De Niro as Satan, and Lisa Bonet does naked. What more on God's Earth could you desire? Oh, and voodoo. And chickens.
7. Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) I had my high school prom the same year, only in Canada we called it a 'formal'. Guess who I identified with (and it wasn't James Spader).
8. Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Steve Box & Nick Park, 2005) I agree with the critical consensus that Crash was an undeserving recipient of the Best Picture Oscar. However, I think this was the gay love story that should have got it.
9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon/Wo hu cang long (Ang Lee, 2000) What you're supposed to say: "It's Chinese cinema made digestible for Western audiences." What I say: a) Ziyi Zhang is very naughty and deserves to have her bottom smacked, and; b) "I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you. Because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit." ...sob...
10. Trading Places (John Landis, 1984) If only for the 'BLT' scene, when Eddie Murphy looks at the camera. You know the one.

Patroclus, Slaminsky, Curve. You be tagged. Scoop up this wad of cinematic Play-Do and mould it into something fine.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

See that bit of text under the blog title

New Murakami collection due in UK in July. Reminds me, must get that Pinball 1973 review up soon.

And, of course, there's the small matter of a new Morrissey album next week. So I should either post a picture of Murakami with flowers cascading from his back pocket... or...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Gas and air

Of course, when one is considering great art, questions of authenticity and verisimilitude can be set to one side.

But when one is discussing fucking hideous tat like Daniel Edwards's 'controversial' (ho-hum) Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston...


...then maybe it's appropriate to point out that back in the real world, if such a concept is useful in the Spears sphere, Britney had a Caesarean.

Colour me beautiful

Tokyo Drifter/
Tokyo nagaremono
(Dir: Seijun Suzuki, 1966)


I wrote before about Suzuki's last movie for Nikkatsu, Branded To Kill, and how the restrictions under which the studio made him work were the direct result of the lunatic excess he'd brought to his previous offerings. It makes sense to work backwards, Memento-style, and find out what it was that got his bosses choking on their tempura.

Tokyo Drifter is a yakuza (gangster) movie, but it's got the sort of set-up that could just as easily have come out of a Warner gangster flick from 30 years before. It's the story of Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), who wants to turn his back on his hoodlum past, but finds the ties of loyalty are too great.

That much I got. But once this fairly run-of-the-mill concept is in place, the viewer is cut adrift. Wild and crazy jump cuts take you from the city to the snowy north; from a funky nightclub to the inside of an incinerator; from an identikit apartment to some kind of massive, sweeping performance space occupied by a singer, a pianist, and too many men with guns. Characters appear through circular portholes or from behind pillars, and disappear through gaps where the floor should be. Each scene is colour-coded, in intense, brash hues: the kids frug groovily on a purple floor; their more sedate elders sip martinis amidst Van Gogh yellow. Anarchy is signalled by a multicoloured, cowboy-style saloon, heralding choreographed mob violence against a bunch of innocent gaijin extras that Suzuki appears to have picked up off the street. The climactic shoot-out, meanwhile, is all in white. Cleanse. Purge. Redemption.

The colour-coding extends to the main characters; Tetsu's sky-blue suit echoes the shades of the living room, and the suburban normality to which he really yearns to return. But, as the theme song puts it, he's doomed to be "a drifter, the man from Tokyo". And I want a Charm Lady hairdryer like she's got and I want one now.

Imagine if John Woo made a movie, and asked Jean-Luc Godard to edit it (while listening to Ornette Coleman on an anachronistic iPod) and Peter Greenaway to design it, using a few leftover sets from the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound. It's cartoonish, in the best sense of the word; a genre possibly flagged up by the manga comic read by the woman with the annoying laugh. Christ knows what she was doing there, but I was glad when she got shot. Oops. I mean *SPOILER ALERT*. Not that it matters, of course. Just forget the plot, because it looks as if Suzuki did. Inhale deeply and damn the suits of Nikkatsu for hobbling this deranged genius.


P.S. I've just discovered that, earlier in his career, Suzuki directed a B-movie called Young Breasts. I want to see this film more than I want Pompey to avoid relegation.

Update, 1.15 pm: P.P.S. For more considered perspectives on Suzuki, go here and here, at Matthew Dessem's excellent Criterion Contraption.

Update, 11.43 am, 30 March: P.P.P.S. And if you want to read about a movie that makes Suzuki's oeuvre look restrained to the point of timidity, go here. I've changed my mind. I want to see this more than I want to see Young Breasts.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Word for the day

yomitachi (Japanese): The act of reading books in bookshops for hours on end, with no intention of buying anything.

Update, 6 April: Some people, it seems, hold this practice to be a constitutional right.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Piss artist

From a piece in The Guardian about the endearingly abysmal artist Thomas Kinkade: "Two former employees, Terry Sheppard and John Dandois, told the panel of further examples of Kinkade's unpredictable behaviour: bringing disorder to a Las Vegas performance by the illusionists Siegfried and Roy by repeatedly yelling the word 'codpiece' from his audience seat, and urinating in public - in an elevator and on a model of Winnie the Pooh at a Disneyland hotel. 'This one's for you, Walt,' Mr Sheppard claimed the artist said as he did so."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The time space (bar) continuum

This is quite fun, if a little frustrating. If you've got a song buzzing around your head, but can't think what it's called, go to Song Tapper. The idea is, you tap the rhythm on the space bar, and the title of your song pops up. Older readers might remember a batty man (as in eccentric, not a Jamaican homosexualist) called Joseph Cooper, who had a similar trick on the poncy, olden-days BBC2 quiz show Face The Music. He would play some ditty by Chopin or Liszt on a piano that had had its hammers removed (ouch) and the likes of Joyce Grenfell and Richard Baker would have to guess what he was playing. Seat-of-your-pants entertainment, eh? I believe the show is being revived, with the late Mr Cooper replaced by the lovely, albeit subnormal Myleene Klass. She's a concert pianist, you know.

Well, um, yeah, OK. The first tune I committed to the mercies of Song Tapper ('Big Spender') came up OK, but then things started to go awry. Beethoven's 5th did make a showing, but the software thought it might just as easily have been 'I Was Born A Unicorn' by The Unicorns, whatever the hell that might be when it's at home. Or, of course 'Danny Boy'. 'Satisfaction' is confidently identified as 'Killing Me Softly'. 'Don't Play That Song' is supposedly that well known Bob Marley/doughnut punchline 'Jammin'', if it isn't 'Yellow Submarine'. In fact, everything seems to be bloody 'Yellow Submarine'; 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' gets the nod as well. Then I tried out 'White Room' by Cream, because I think it sounds a bit like 'Teen Spirit' - and got 'Satisfaction'. 'More Than A Feeling' (which is the song that Cobain was allegedly ripping off) is either 'Too Much Too Young' or 'Hit Me Baby One More Time'. Oh well. Whatever. Never...

Sorry. It's a fab idea, but I think the problem is that the database is user-driven. If the program can't identify your song, it asks you to identify it. So you've got the problem of thousands of users who haven't got a bloody clue what they're babbling about (the Wikipedia effect) coupled with the high proportion who have no sense of rhythm. And an entire generation grows up thinking that 'Hound Dog' and 'Hurt' are the same song.

Try it out. And let me know how wrong things can get.

Friday, March 24, 2006

That's the way to do it

Patroclus at Quinquireme has some damn sound advice on how to blog. I find myself nervously ticking the metaphorical boxes, as if I'm filling in one of those pop self-analysis questionnaires. (All A's? You are a sad fuck with no social skills and should jump off the Millennium Wheel yesterday.)

Psychotic reactionaries

Sometimes I feel uneasy, even unclean, reading the Daily Telegraph, since everyone connected with it is clearly mad and preposterously right-wing and unfeasibly old. (Old in attitude, if not years; It's disturbing to think that someone like Simon Heffer is younger than Morrissey.)

But they do have some excellent writers. Here is (the presumably pseudonymous) Dot Wordsworth, on grammar.

"A repulsive piece of grammar is like a mangled frog left by the cat in the middle of the kitchen lino. It is not necessarily ill-intentioned, but the repellent effect increases according to the frequency of the offence."

And I'm like, woah, that's good writing, izzit?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Specialist subject, the bleeding obvious

Someone's just got a PhD for working out that Goths tend to be quite middle-class.

Love me, love my blog

Following on from what I posted a few weeks ago, about bloggers seeking validation in the form of analogue success, here's a piece in Newsday that seems to back me up, although the sample seems to be exclusively made up of Americans.

"They [bloggers] often revel in their outsider status, taking pride in the snark and attitude of their postings. So it is perhaps ironic (but bloggers tend to like irony) that beneath the ultra-cool surface you're likely to find scribblers yearning to reach you the old-school way, from a TV screen or from between the covers of a book."

"Snark"? "Ultra-cool"? Jesus...

"'Every so-called professional blogger I know wants to work for print,' says Melissa Lafsky, 27, a lawyer whose popular blog at Opinionistas.com led to her finding a book agent, quitting her big law-firm job and starting a novel based on her blog. 'There's still that desire for legitimacy. I'll admit it: I'll feel like a real writer when I have something published in print. 'Til then, I feel I'm faking it. Most bloggers I've talked to feel the same way.'"

Maybe what she means is, she'll feel like a real writer when she gets paid for it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Generation XX

OK, I have been tagged. In case you don’t know (I didn't) this means someone has done something on his/her site, and has asked me to do the same. In this case it's The Curve, who got it from Slaminsky. (What is this... an STD clinic?) The thing that gets passed on is called a meme. This time, the deal is to identify 20 tracks that fit given criteria. And at the bottom I'll name one or two people who have to pick up the baton, or else.

1. A track from your early childhood
Probably ‘Congratulations’ or ‘Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’ by Cliff Richard. I liked him when I was about 4. It was the flowery shirts he wore at the time, I think. I seem to recall that I thought Cliff was married to Olivia Newton-John, and Hank Marvin was their son. In retrospect, ‘Goodbye Sam’ sounds as if it’s about one of those weird Christian organisations that ‘deliver’ you from homosexuality.

2. A track that you associate with your first love
‘It’s My Party’ by Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin.

3. A track that reminds you of a holiday trip
When I was about 16, I went and stayed with my friend Alex at his farm in Herefordshire. It was a week of almost clichéd bucolic delight (sunshine, haystacks and cider) and the soundtrack was Pink Floyd’s first and only truly great album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. If I have to single out one track, it's ‘Scarecrow’.

4. A track that you like but wouldn’t want to be associated with in public
‘We Got Tonite’ by Bob Seger. Now, my family and I would like a little privacy at this difficult time.

5. A track that accompanied you when you were lovesick
‘Stay With Me, Baby’ by Lorraine Ellison. You think you know deep soul? This is deeeeeeep soul.

6. A track that you have probably listened to most often
What’s that, iTunes? You think it’s ‘The State I Am In’ by Belle and Sebastian? Well, in recent months maybe, but over a lifetime it’s probably something like the Pearl & Dean theme, or even the ‘clock’ music from Countdown.

7. A track that is your favourite instrumental
‘Get Up And Get It’ by Jackie Mittoo or Bach's Brandenburg Five.

8. A track that represents one of your favourite bands
‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby’ by a little-known beat combo from Mancunia.

9. A track which represents yourself best
Since it’s the only track I’ve ever performed at karaoke, ‘Pretty Vacant’.

10. A track that reminds you of a special occasion (which one?)
The greatest gig I ever saw was when Brian Wilson played the Royal Festival Hall in 2002. It was the one when he played Pet Sounds in full; the only difference being that when he got to track 9, instead of the wanky, Mike Love-approved ‘I Know There's An Answer’, he sang the lyrics he'd always intended, the hatchet job on Transcendental Meditation that is ‘Hang On To Your Ego’. And the audience roared its approval. And somewhere in California, Mike Love tried to work out a way that he could sue that audience.

11. A track that you can relax to
I can’t relax. I don’t think I know what the word means.

12. A track that stands for a really good time in your life
I have happy, happy memories of dancing stupidly in eighteen inches of mud in a farmyard in Devon to ‘Cool For Cats’ by Squeeze. Which might just as well go to number 4.

13. A track that is currently your favourite
Either ‘Everyone’s A VIP To Someone’ by The Go! Team or ‘Tower Of Love’ by Jim Noir. Either of which could usurp number 7 at some stage.

14. A track that you’d dedicate to your best friend
‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?’ by Al Green.

15. A track that you think nobody but you likes
‘Good Morning’ by Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Too weird for pop, too happy for rock.

16. A track that you like especially for its lyrics
‘The Gift’ by the Velvet Underground or ‘How Fucking Romantic’ by the Magnetic Fields.

17. A track that you like that’s neither English nor German
Damn you, Curve. I was going to go for ‘Birthday’, or ‘Ammæli’ as we pedants like to think of it. And if that was taken, I’d pick something from Mwng, although in my case it would probably be ‘Ymaelodi A’r Ymylon’ (and, yes, I had to look both of those up). And I don’t want to repeat myself, so none of MSHB’s Japanese stuff. OK, howzabout ‘Paloma Negra’ by Chavela Vargas, because everyone needs some Costa Rican lesbian alcoholic torch songs in amongst the shuffle. It’s on the Frida soundtrack; it’s the one playing when she cuts her hair off.

18. A track that lets you release tension best
This is suspiciously close to number 11, isn’t it? But one that does make me smile and put my little problems in perspective and occasionally bop around the room in a knot-loosening manner is the Leningrad Cowboys’ version of ‘Happy Together’.

19. A track that you want to be played on your funeral
‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ by Johnny Cash.

20. A track that you’d nominate for the ‘best of all time’ category
The one I'd keep above all others if Sue Lawley summoned me to her desert island today would be ‘Don’t Play That Song’ by Aretha Franklin.

Apologies to the Mighty Wah!, Stravinsky, Prince Buster, Pulp, Grant Green, Stereolab, Ornette Coleman, Gavin Bryars, und so weiter.

Right then. I tag... Bob Swipe, because he makes me laugh, and The Spinster, because she's distractingly wiggly, apparently, and Joel from Robotic Hat, so he can disprove my calumny that his musical tastes are 'wacky'. You go, girl. And, er, boys.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Cronies disease

Just a quick post to do that thing that literary journalists do around Christmas, in their Books of the Year spiels, and get soundly beaten up by Private Eye for their trouble; it's Plug Yr Mates' Creative Endeavour Time.

1. NME/Mojo/Rock's Backpages legend Barney Hoskyns will be reading from, and signing copies of his latest book Hotel California (4th Estate), about the LA music industry between 1967 and 1976, at Filthy McNasty's, 68 Amwell Street, London EC1 on Wednesday, 22 March. He will be joined by Steve Turner, who will be doing the same thing with his "no, nothing to do with the movie, honest" book The Man Called Cash - The Johnny Cash Story; and Daryl Easlea, author of Everybody Dance: Chic And The Politics Of Disco will, one presumes, do something similar that will get shamelessly ripped off by Queen. There will also be a musical set by folk-disco artiste Nancy Wallace. Entrance is free. Readings begin at 8.30pm.

2. A Mis-Guide To Anywhere is "a utopian project for the recasting of a bitter world by disrupted walking," created by Wrights & Sites in collaboration with Tony Weaver. No, me neither, but it sounds intriguing, and it launches at the ICA on 8 April.

3. No publication date as yet, but the fourth edition of Nicholas Pegg's monumental The Complete David Bowie, will be published by Reynolds & Hearn in the near future. This is the book that Bowie himself reads to find out what he was doing between about 1973 and last week. Only now it's bigger and definitiver. Like, almost as big as Trevor Bolder's sideburns. Almost.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Fame, fame, fatal fame

All right, you tech savants, tell me why my Google strike rate has recently gone from about 890 to nearer 15,000? It doesn't appear to be much to do with this site (although thank you to those who have bigged it up, as the young people say these days). Nor can it be entirely down to the efforts of the only namesakes I've been able to identify: an official of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Vancouver; a Christian musician in Lafayette, Indiana; and a dodgy geezer in Winter Haven, Florida.

I've got a horrible feeling that this sudden upward blip in the online barometer is thanks to a whole load of books and other product that I've written over the last decade having just been exhumed from some mouldy warehouse in Slovenia or thereabouts, and being flogged off by various on-line remainder outlets. That, as has been remarked upon before now, is showbiz. Pick up my legendary Hear'Say biography if you get the chance. It's epoch-defining, and then some.

And, just to tidy up the tattered edges of a disjointed week, in which Small Boo tried to paralyse the iBook with her amusing voltage experiments, and one of the cats chewed the head off a tree snake, we have: some cool pics of the anti-Thaksin demo in Bangkok by Richard Lloyd Parry of The Times, who was decent enough to link to CS in his blog on Thursday; a guide to making your trip to the salad buffet more efficient; dogs dressed as bees; Toby Litt on his Winona crush (but still no clear explanation about why he can't extrapolate his genius for short stories into a decent novel, but that's another thing); The Curve has tagged me, a challenge to which I will respond after a little more agonising; conclusive proof that Americans can't play baseball for toffee; pay-per-view Lennon seance; yet another bloody Smiths not to reform shock horror; on the same lines, Morrissey has a "huge Charlie Brown parade float head", according to Douglas Coupland; and here's a fun piece about the crisis in American cheerleading by Steven Wells, who was the foul-mouthed Trotskysist spleen of the NME in the days when they had one or two readers with a vague idea of who Trotsky was. I wrote him a stroppy letter once (this was in the analogue era), accusing him of plagiarising me in a Channel 4 documentary. He phoned me (slightly less analogue, but still a quaint concept these days) and told me to stop whingeing. Then, as far as I could deduce, he tried to get me to join the SWP. I like him.

God, if there's one thing worse than name-dropping, it's C-list name-dropping. People who used to be NME hacks? People who used to be Tory MPs? Next, I'll be talking about the time Peter O'Brien (who used to be Shane in Neighbours) asked me if I wanted a game of pool. Nah, the self-promotion ends here, with a piece I've done for Alistair Fitchett's sublime Tangents. Alistair's been doing this kind of thing for longer than most of us and, if anything, it's the eclectic passion (Smoosh! Pipettes! bicycles!) and wry melancholy (builders!) of his site that finally persuaded me to get off my tusch and throw Cultural Snow together. So it's all his bloody fault.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Mad correctness gone political?

Art still has the power to shock, it seems. A mental health charity has been criticised for displaying a statue of Winston Churchill in a straitjacket. His grandson, Nicholas Soames, has described the statue as "offensive and stupid" (hmmm, kitchen utensils, Nick), and the object has now been removed from the gaze of the good burghers of Norwich, but the job's already done. Publicity has been raised, and the whole affair has also provoked some significant questions. Most significantly, is it offensive to draw attention to the fact that Churchill spent most of his life jousting with manic depression (not to mention alcoholism, obesity and a cleft palate) and still pulled off the not inconsiderable stunt of facing down Hitler? And, if so, doesn't that just prove the charity's point, that mental illness still bears an unwarranted stigma?

Stepping aside from the rentaquote MP's uncharacteristic yearning for taste and decency, it's interesting that the offending work is that archetype of 'proper art', a statue, rather than some conceptual installation or happening. Maybe if artists want to get their messages to a wider constituency, they'll have to couch them in more conventional forms. Although you've still got the problem that critics will focus on the form, not the idea; witness Marc Quinn's statue of Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square. Many critics felt able to sidestep the significant issues raised about the visibility of disabled people because, let's be honest, Quinn's statue was rubbish.

Of course, if we buy Sol LeWitt's definition of conceptualism, that "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art," rather than vice versa, the Churchill statue clearly is conceptual first and foremost; albeit in a form more likely to appeal to Jo(anna) Public than, say, Tracey's mucky bed. Not that it was conventional enough to appeal to Winston's wobblebottomed kinsman, of course.

But, just when you thought you thought the real, thinking-out-of-the-white-cube, Turner-Prizey, a-child-of-five-could-do-that conceptual stuff had lost its plums, here's Santiago Sierra and his protest against the banalisation of the Holocaust: converting a synagogue into a gas chamber.

Nicholas Soames was not available for comment on that one.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

They pogo in the bedroom

Mighty peculiar article by Michael Gove in The Times, in which he identifies himself as an instinctive punk. Those who remember his appearances on Channel 4's bizarre early-90s comedy/comment hybrid A Stab In The Dark, where his buttoned-up pinstripes contrasted with David Baddiel's shambolic ennui and Tracey Macleod's dominatrix sarcasm, might beg to differ. Gove also outs fellow Times hack and Tory Matthew Parris as a McLarenista; this doesn't quite ring true, as Parris was allegedly removed as presenter of LWT's Weekend World because he was "too nice". On the other hand, he did once send me a letter claiming that in his first year at Cambridge he'd joined the Labour, Liberal and Conservative clubs. Which is either a definitive case of trying to suck up to the established order, whatever form it might take; or a subtle dig at conventional notions about ideology, an ironic inversion of a plague o' both your houses. I'm not sure which.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tomorrow blogs to me

Arianna Huffington in today's Graun describes blogs as the most vital news source in America.

I think she means 'vital' as in 'lively' rather than 'important'; at least I hope so. OK, so blogs have the benefit of immediacy, and don't have to kiss corporate bottom to survive, but that doesn't mean that bloggers are necessarily better equipped with the facts than the foot soldiers of Old Media would be. Anyone who's done any 'real' journalism will tell you that it's much easier to get to talk to people if you can tell them you're from a known news source than if you're just zis guy, y'know (there's a special prize for spotting that reference).

Blogs keep Old Media on its toes and sometimes, as with the Dan Rather debacle they can actually make things happen. But the influence of bloggers even on Rathergate may have been overstated. Their significance can only be measured in terms of the effect they have on the mainstream news sources. In and of themselves, they're still too disparate and uncoordinated, too amateur to actually change things. As I said last week, it still seems that bloggers require validation from the analogue media world in order to be able to say that they've succeeded.

And where do the bloggers get the facts about which they pontificate? With the exception of those who have extremely good inside information (and it would seem that, increasingly, insider bloggers are being squeezed out) they are informed by Old Media. They're digital parasites, or to put a more benevolent spin on things, they're something akin to those strange little birds that peck the crud out of the backs of hippopotami.

And, to add to the media/message confusion, what about blogs published as part of the online facet of analogue media? Can they really be part of Huffington's revolutionary blogverse, seeing as how they're written by the very same journalists that the bloggers seek to usurp. In fact, the only difference between the blogs on the Guardian and Telegraph sites and the 'proper' articles there is that the former are more proactive in welcoming comments, and don't appear to have been subbed. Interestingly, comments on the Graun blogs are pretty much a free-for-all. On the Telegraph, they're moderated.

I've passed my 100th post here, and I realise I've said very little in the last few months about the part of the world where I tend to rest my head. The fact that the clock is set to GMT probably indicates where my real interests lie, although I've recently added some Thailand-specific links in the right-hand column. But there is fun stuff going down in these parts, even though (going back to what I said above) I could just have easily picked it up if I were in London or Nairobi or Peoria. So here are stories from Old Media about naked Chinese wedding photos and the Korean PM pleading guilty to excessive golfing; and here, from the parallel world, the beleaguered Thai PM as you've never seen him before (if, that is, you've ever seen him).

2-1 to analogue. So far.

Murakami fans look away now

I was Googling for some data on racial discrimination legislation in Japan (my working life is soooo rich and fulfilling) and came upon this, um, interesting review of Norweigan Wood (sic).

"I wonder if the book starts off so shit because it was originally in Japanese and loses it's (sic) full effect through the translation, or just because it wasn't that good a book anyhow," opines the author, one 'Kris', before concluding, "well, for me it just didn't seem to have much more life in it as a bowl of toe-nail clippings." Fortunately, he appears to give up on Murakami at this point, handing over to his colleague Zac Craven, who informs us that A Wild Sheep Chase is "a very strange book." Thanks Zac.

But Kris isn't done; he's just put his film critic's hat on, complaining that The Scent of Green Papaya has "no babes dude" and that "you would be better off spending those 2 hours taking a dump."

I was going to offer a post about the open market on ideas provided by blogging, unfettered by commercial considerations, or editorial scruples, or intelligence, or even spellchecks. But I won't bother just now, ta. Like Kris, I've got better uses for my time.

Monday, March 13, 2006

All right for fighting

Saturday, by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 2005)

Ian McEwan's Enduring Love is the Saving Private Ryan of the Granta 1983 generation. It starts with a truly arresting scenario, of an ordinary man who saves a child from being pulled into the sky by a balloon, and is himself dragged up to his death. McEwan, like Spielberg, cannot maintain the resonance of the beginning, and the story turns into a slightly unsatisfying tale of obsession and stalking in a familiar North London middle-class milieu. Saturday takes a number of key elements from the earlier novel, almost as if the author wants to get it right this time.

His latest novel is the tale of Henry Perowne, a middle-aged, comfortable neurosurgeon, who has a run-in with an unstable young man, Baxter. The encounter seems to be uneasily resolved, until Baxter reappears at Perowne's house. The action takes place over a single day; moreover, that day is the 15th of February, 2003, when anti-war protesters filled the streets of London.

The demonstration is something of a McGuffin; its most important function is to provide the traffic situation that provokes the initial contact between the protagonists. The red meat of the novel is Perowne's various musings and reminsicences, and the violent peril in which he and his family are placed towards the end.

Or is it? Much has been made of the fact that McEwan went well beyond the normal research methodology we normally expect from British literary novelists of his generation, to ensure that the medical details in the book were correct. The acknowledgements namecheck four neurosurgeons; McEwan actually sat in on many brain operations. As a result, Perowne's internal monologue is full of bilateral extradurals and micro-dopplers and transsphenoidal hypophysectomies. He also likes Bach during surgery, and the blues that his son plays. But when it comes to literature (Perowne's daughter Daisy and his father-in-law are both poets), the brilliant surgeon is all adrift. She's reading Kafka at the age of 13; our hero manages 48 pages of Henry James (he prefers his brother) and he can't even get started with poor old Conrad. Cue F.R. Leavis rotating in his grave.

And it's Leavis, and most specifically his bitch-fight with C.P. Snow (a.k.a. the Two Cultures controversy) that provides the real philosophical centre here, although neither 20th-century titan gets an explicit nod. It's about art and science and whether the twain will ever do more than nod politely at Oxbridge sherry parties. Perowne is a brilliant scientist, but there's still something missing, McEwan seems to say. Anyone can get to grips with this science business - you just have to hover by the elbow of this bloke doing a transsphenoidal whatnot.

But, let's face it, most of McEwan's readers won't know whether or not the minutiae of tumours and skullflaps is accurate or not. We have to accept its authenticity. Whereas, the literary references are there for the picking. So, a reference to clearing out the belongings of Henry's senile mother is "striking the set of a play" and we get a bonus for spotting a intertextual metaphor with a side order of Verfremdungseffekt. We might chuckle as Raine and Fenton and Heaney and Hughes and Motion hover briefly in the same universe as McEwan's fictional poets (and there's a further joke in that). Even the structure, with Perowne's thoughts bouncing around inside the framework of a single day, echoes Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway.

Then, when Daisy distracts Baxter's attention by stripping naked and reciting poetry (Salome meets Scheherazade?) the alert among us will know that it's a deception; the poem she claims as her own is Arnold's Dover Beach. The joke is that Perowne doesn't know it's a fake (real?) either. And then we slap our heads and gasp "D'OH!" because we didn't spot that Daisy's 'real' poems are decorated with lines borrowed from Craig Raine, the man who, on the cusp of 'reality' and 'fiction', supposedly beat her grandfather to the editorship at Faber, 22 years and 90 pages before.

By this stage, McEwan hasn't just OD'd on the Eng Lit refs and the wacky reality games; he's ladled on the middle-class smugness so thickly, that one almost sympathises with the disaffected thug who tries to destroy the Perownes' domestic idyll. Indeed, there's an analogy between the demented bullies, Baxter and Saddam; by implication, the Perownes represent Western civilisation against the encroachment of savagery. The only debate is whether to respond with force, with legality, with compassion, or something else. Maybe we should just have read Proust at Saddam, very loudly.

The implication is that Perowne, like Baxter, is an incomplete human, somehow less than civilised. He's very clever, and he can make soup, but his brilliance won't save the thug from the genetic disorder that makes him the way that he is; Baxter's only redemption, unlikely as it seems, is by way of poetry. Look at me, says McEwan to his central creation - I know what a polymodal nociceptor site looks like, but you couldn't spot "mechanical birds with many wings" if I drew you a map.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

SOUS LES PAVÉS, RIEN!!!

I was born in May, 1968, so I always feel a sentimental kind of affection for the deluded idealists who battled the goons of bourgeois autocracy in the streets of Paris during those heady days. It gives me a warm glow to know that the spirit of playful obnoxiousness hasn't entirely deserted subsequent generations of French youth, as students and riot police do battle once again in the Sorbonne (English-language here).

Meanwhile, in Thailand, students are joining the metaphorical barricades against perceived corruption.

But can anyone conceive of modern British students rousing themselves to bring down the teetering edifices of capitalism? Not when there are Little Britain re-runs to be watched.

From our fashion correspondent

Oliver Sweeney is the sort of men's shoe company that Bret Easton Ellis mocked in American Psycho. As if to demonstrate their appropriately Batemanesque disconnect from reality, they've adapted an image from the Tiananmen Square massacre to advertise their brand.

Except that, after complaints, they've pulled the ad from all media. What I want to know is, did they bow to complaints from human rights activists, who thought they were cheapening and devaluing the image by using it to sell brogues and Oxfords; or did they worry about not being able to sell said finely-tooled accoutrements in the People's Republic, and succumbed to a gentle word from the Chinese embassy?

And, on similar lines to the Danish cartoons brouhaha, am I right or wrong to put the offending image up here? And why?

Friday, March 10, 2006

That bit where Dave blows on Ken's cheek

Bangkok taxis tend to be green and yellow. Except when they're red and blue, although those tend to be a bit crap. (This is in terms of age and upkeep and ambient stinkiness. As far as the models go, 95% of them are Toyota Corollas, take it or leave it.)

In recent months, I've noticed a number of innovative, transgressive colour schemes, including vibrant orange and hot pink. But best of all are the new red ones with white stripes. I got in one of these the other day and asked where Huggy Bear was. The driver, of course, hadn't a bloody clue what I was on about.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blogbusters

Quite a bit of publicity this week for the Blooker Prize, which highlights the best books that started life as blogs.

It's always very nice to get some sort of authoritative pat on the back, of course, even if the recent Oscars proved yet again that the award-givers are quite capable of egregious error. But doesn't the existence of the Blooker just prove that, despite all the blarney about blogging being the future of journalism, a product still isn't taken seriously until it's printed, bound and in a 3-for-2 promotion at Waterstone's?

And, like any low-overheads, self-supporting, not-for-profit purveyors of cultural content (see also fanzine editors, buskers, stand-up comics at open-mic slots), aren't rather a lot of serious bloggers doing this thing chiefly to raise their own profiles? To reach a wider market and to reach a point at which they might possibly be able to make a living from what they like and/or do best; writing stuff about things and things about stuff. In fact, to keep their heads above the drift of (if it's not labouring the point too much) cultural snow? Otherwise, what's their (my/your/our) motivation? Joel? Bob? Spinster? Alistair? Curve? Anyone?

And in case anybody thinks I'm being hypocritically pious here; six-figure book deals to the usual address, please.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sorry, ladies, they're all spoken for


(Thanks to Shelley Flacks Michalska, the world's most amusingly obnoxious nutritionist, for sending this.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

LA Inconsequential Part 2: the post-Oscar post mortem

Fucking hell. What was that all about?

LA Inconsequential


Crash (Dir: Paul Haggis, 2004)

O Robert Altman of blessed memory, see what thou hast wrought...

Since cinema is a collaborative art form (auteur theory or no auteur theory) you'd think the multi-stranded, no-stars-but-loads-of-meaty-cameos model that Altman gave to the world in Nashville would have attracted swathes of imitators, upending the pecking order in the awards season so that the supporting gongs are the ones that add big bucks to B.O. Well, a few have tried, but many have failed, including, sadly, Altman himself. (Have you actually seen Gosford Park lately? Ryan Phillippe? Stephen Fry??) Only Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia has approached what Altman managed with Nashville and Short Cuts; indeed, in my experience, 8 out of 10 multiplex droolers said they thought it was an Altman movie all along. The magnificent Amores Perros came close, but is more strictly a linked portmanteau movie, with three stories in sequence rather than intertwining. More common are the likes of Traffic and Syriana (both from the pen of Stephen Gaghan), which wrestled more with issues than with characters, leaving both unresolved.

The same can be said for Crash, the film Paul Haggis was allowed to direct after the collective Gumpery that saw Million Dollar Baby beat The Aviator and Sideways to the big 2004 hardware. If Traffic and Syriana were 'about' drugs and US foreign policy respectively, Crash is 'about' racism. Which surely shouldn't be such a shocker for the good folks of Bev Hills, seeing as how the entire country is facing an emotional meltdown about race and poverty and immigration and Islam and slavery and all the associated baggage. But for some reason, Crash was taken as something new and challenging, by a critical consensus that still seems to think that Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is edgy and kinda streetwise. America has been so clogged up by a mix of denial and PC about this issue that the use of racial epithets in a Hollywood movie seems to be enough to create some kind of controversy.

It would take too long to precis the various plot strands, but this is the deal, OK? Wait for it... Lots of people, and not just white people, can be a bit racist! There. That's shaken your world to rubble, hasn't it? But wait, there's more. Are you ready? OK... Most people are flawed... but, deep down, they're probably fundamentally OK! That's it. That's the philosophical keeper in the goodie bag that you can take away from Crash. If it's in any way startling to you, I don't think you're a fit person to choose whether you want your popcorn sweet or salty, let alone to watch a movie.

In amongst the platitudes, there's some pretty good acting: the constantly underrated Matt Dillon as the racist cop who is redeemed; Don Cheadle as the good cop who becomes disillusioned; Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard as the middle-class black couple who are forced to remember that there's no such thing. Indeed, Dillon's role offers the only real challenge to mainstream liberal values, when his attitudes are explained (but not excused) by a back story about the iniquities of affirmative action.

But it's all so neat, and all so balanced that you feel like ticking boxes to ensure each character achieves an appropriate darkside/lightside balance. In fact, I strongly suspect that the only characters to be wholly good (a Hispanic locksmith) and wholly bad (a Korean people-smuggler) were just administrative oversights on the part of Haggis. And while we're at it, that really is a silly name now, isn't it?

Hollywood has dealt with race as a complex, equivocal thing before, and has had flawed heroes whose views are less than PC; think Taxi Driver and The Searchers, although since John Wayne really was a swivel-eyed bigot, albeit one who fancied Mexicans, maybe the latter isn't such a good call. Indeed, the best portrayer of racial interaction in America, with all its complexities, is Spike Lee: consider the ambivalent Danny Aiello character in Do The Right Thing, torn between the attitudes of his two sons; or Edward Norton's equal opportunities invective in 25th Hour. Now, if he'd taken this job on, we might have had a movie that was worthy of the bien-pensant gasps. Rather than yet another attempt to copy Bob Altman - which, to be fair, is something that even Bob Altman can't do these days.

Btw, this is going out just as the beeyootiful people shuffle into their seats for the Oscars. Not that it's important, of course. Here are my tips, having seen about half the nominated films; deeply unimaginative, sorry.

Picture: Brokeback Mountain
Director: Ang Lee
Actor: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Actress: Reese Witherspoon
S/Actor: Paul Giamatti
S/Actress: Rachel Weisz
Original Screenplay: Crash
Adapted Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain

Watch me crash and burn.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Coming along nicely

The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Memphis Industries, 2005)

Apologies to those of you for who've known about these guys for aeons, but this album is as mad as a box of hyperactive cane toads and rather more nutritious.

Banjos! Bass harmonicas! Strings! Shouting! What more could you ask for? 'Hold Yr Terror Close' possesses that Moe Tucker pout that the Moldy Peaches always seem to be aiming for, while 'Feelgood By Numbers' is Vince Guaraldi reincarnated in Brighton. 'Everyone's A V.I.P. To Someone' is simply swoonsome, there's no other word. The whole package sounds like the Portsmouth Sinfonia playing 'Reward' by The Teardrop Explodes while The Langley Schools Music Project interjects the "hai! hai!" bit from 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1' by The Flaming Lips. Or, to take it to another level, the brass band on 'Jugband Blues' from Pink Floyd's 'Saucerful Of Secrets' copping a feel off the people who yell "SOUL FINGER!!!" on 'Soul Finger' by the Bar-Kays.

Which can only be a good thing, surely?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Correctional facility

Anal? Obsessive and/or compulsive? Think Lynn Truss is a bit of an airy-fairy wimp when it comes to punctuation? Did you notice then that I spelled her name without an 'e' and were you going to write me a stern letter admonishing me for my sloppiness?

This is your site.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What, fisticuffs?



Jack Wild
1952-2006

Chips with everything

Central Food Hall, Bangkok's self-appointed answer to Fortnum & Mason, is running a "Tastes of Great Britain" extravaganza. So I was a little surprised to find, under the shadow of an ostentatious Union Flag, an impressive selection of balsamic vingegars.

I pointed out to a passing assistant that the vinegar, as all good balsamic should do, came from Modena. If that wasn't enough, it had "MADE IN ITALY" on the label. I know the Dear Leader likes to sun himself in Tuscany, but I didn't know he'd annexed the country.

The assistant looked baffled for a moment, then pointed out that the label also said "WAITROSE".

So that's all right, then.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Barney McGrew goes to the Darkside

Fahrenheit 451 (Dir: Francois Truffaut, 1966)

Someone once told me, probably in a pub, that he distrusted intellectuals, especially writers, because they get so angry at the notion that the Nazis burned books. When you consider that they burned quite a few people as well, he argued, isn't the incineration of a few tons of woodpulp a minor detail? The counter-argument is that if someone had stepped in when the Brownshirts were torching Heine and Mann, the Holocaust (of humans) might have been prevented. By the same (book) token, if someone had had the cojones in 1989 to tell people to stop burning copies of The Satanic Verses, a whole pile of grief might have been prevented. Or maybe not.

The Nazi book-burnings were an obvious inspiration to Ray Bradbury when he penned Fahrenheit 451, but the context in which he places his 'firemen' is a plausibly benevolent dictatorship, and Truffaut maintains this scenario. Sure, there are compulsory haircuts, and a mysterious war going on somewhere off-screen, but the unnamed state is clearly closer to contemporary suburbia than to the Third Reich. Which, of course, is the whole point; we can't complain about a dictator if he's ruling by general consent, even if that consent is passive.

Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman; his job is to burn books. He lives with his wife Linda (Julie Christie) who pops pills and lives for the interactive entertainment piped into their 'wall screen'. When he tells her that he's been offered a promotion, her immediate response is that they can get a second wall screen. Unfortunately for Linda's home cinema dreams, Montag gets to know Clarisse (also played by Christie), an encounter that nudges him into saving the books that he should be destroying, and (uh-oh) reading them.

It's a superficially 'normal' world. People live in detached houses, not faceless, Soviet apartments. There are trees and cafes and playgrounds for the children. Everyone is 'cousin', not 'citizen' or 'comrade'. Airstrip One this ain't. So the odd touches, the commuter monorail, the funny salutes and handshakes that the firemen give, the obsession with everyone having the backs of their heads photographed (shades of Magritte?) only appear odder by their incongruity with the 'normal surrounding'. The firemen themselves, a peculiar amalgam of the Gestapo, the French CRS and the Trumptonshire Fire Brigade, just look a bit gay. This is reinforced when Montag's off-duty headwear is revealed to be a leather biker cap.

As a piece of entertainment, it's a little stilted. Werner is an unsympathetic hero, shifting from being an unthinking factotum of the state on minute, to a hectoring, holier-than-thou revolutionary the next. "She cried because it is true!" he snaps after he upsets one of Linda's vacuous friends with his dangerous new ideas. Christie is given little to work with in either role; this dystopic future clearly escapes the influence of feminism. The best performances come from Anton Diffring as Montag's jealous colleague/nemesis, bizarrely doubling as the headmistress of the school from which Clarisse is fired; and Cyril Cusack as their boss, who gets the best lines. "All this philosophy," he sighs before he incinerates an attic library. "Let's get rid of it."

Truffaut gets his philosophical serve in from the start; the title sequence is done as a voiceover, rather than on-screen text. This is what a book-free life is like, we are to infer. In this deprived environment, the closest thing to books that people have is Montag's text-free comic strip. Which does rather beg the question of how he is able to read David Copperfield (albeit haltingly) when he turns traitor.

Of course, Truffaut (as Bradbury did before him) loads the dice in his own favour. The TV available on the Montags' wallscreen nothing but inane pap. The books that get destroyed, meanwhile, are mostly 'serious' tomes, Dickens, Thackeray, Cervantes, Flaubert, Genet, Nietzche, Aristotle (although a stray MAD magazine and, cutely, a copy of Cahiers du Cinema do get tossed on the pyre as well). When a book-lover chooses to be burned along with her volumes, she intones the words of the Protestant martyr Bishop Latimer. Are we supposed to give ourselves a little self-congratulatory hug if we spot the reference, because it shows we've probably read a book or two, rather than slobbing out in front of EastEnders or Wheel of Fortune?

The problem is that there's no real explanation or even discussion of why books are more dangerous to an intrusive state than other media. Surely, rather than ban books outright, the authorities could simply produce their own, just as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union could do. The only state, as far as I recall, that actually took steps to wipe out reading as an intellectual activity was the Khmer Rouge - and they got rid of television as well.

The final scenes of disaffected intellectuals pacing about in the snow, reciting the texts they've memorised to ensure that they survive, are as disturbing as those of the stupefied suburban wives watching the wall-screen. A world run by TV executives is a grisly prospect, but so is a world run by a self-righteous book group. We're back to Ed Murrow's 'wires and lights'. No medium is 'good' or 'bad' in and of itself; it all depends on the content. Surely a bad book is worse than good TV? Cervantes vs. Celebrity Love Island is a no-brainer but so, surely, is Dan Brown vs. Dennis Potter. And since Play For Today has been tapped for revival, getting another wall screen may not be such an indicator of philistinism after all.