Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Say what you see

President George W. Bush admitted last week that his notorious "bring 'em on" challenge to any potential insurgents in occupied Iraq was "kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong message to people."

"I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know,"
continued the most powerful political leader in global history, drawing gasps of admiration for his adroit negotiation of words with more than two syllables. "'Wanted, dead or alive'; that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted."

I think President Bush is possibly judging himself a bit harshly. The prime role of language should not be to make one look sophisticated; it is to communicate facts and thoughts. So, the president said "bring 'em on". And I don't think that anyone can deny that the insurgents have indeed been brought on, as the slaughter of thousands of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of coalition troops can testify. He said it. It happened. In a world where our politicians are routinely excoriated for saying things that are simply untrue, I think Dubya's adherence to the tried-and-tested concept of cause and effect makes a refreshing change. Osama bin Laden, for example, was wanted, dead or alive. And they still want him, and he is, indeed, dead or alive. More specifically, the latter.

If Bush is still concerned about all the nasty people who mock his blunt talk (some of them even going so far to suggest that he's an abject cretin who'd struggle to wipe his own bottom without Karl Rove giving step-by-step instructions on his Blackberry), he seems to have a kindred spirit in one of our most revered contemporary composers. At around the same time the president was hinting that things might have gone a wee bit pear-shaped in Mesopotamia, Sir Harrison Birtwistle was accepting an Ivor Novello award for his contribution to classical music. Here is his acceptance speech:

"Why is your music so effing loud? You must all be brain-dead. Maybe you are. I didn’t know so many clichés existed until the last half-hour. Have fun. Goodbye."

Magnificent.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

I'm burnin' it

Man tries to live a brand-free lifestyle, torching his branded possessions en route, and writes a book about it.

Advertising/marketing/branding site accuses him of hypocrisy.

Fair point? Or a sign that he's getting under someone's skin?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Notes from a dank garret

Various literary pundits and practitioners have been offering their thoughts on first novels in the latest Bookforum.

"That first novel will be like a rock in Virginia Woolf's pocket," says William H Gass. "Unless it is very bad, the author will never write anything as good again—it will be said. Critics who complained of the first novel will wish the writer would write another like it in order to complain (by comparison) of the sixth." But I don't get his next point: "Though Ulysses is a first novel, it is not a first novel."

Across the page, Craig Seligman also suggests that the true value of a first novel is only revealed in the context of history: "But we don't read in a vacuum, and, however exacting our critical faculties, we don't read the first novels of the writers we care about for their merits alone. There's also the pleasure—one part malice, nine parts love—of seeing our gorgeous friends in their gawky adolescence."

The belief that a substantial number of writers ever grow out of their adolescence is touching, if misguided.

Monday, May 22, 2006

"...the whooshing sound..."

Iraqi TV will shortly begin screening a public information film to dissuade suicide bombers. Maybe they should draw up a sort of Green Crescent Code. "Stop at the kerb, away from parked infidel Humvees..."

And there's an excellent piece by John Patterson in Saturday's Graun on why US TV today is better than US cinema. Apart for the observation that shows such as The Sopranos are essentially "soaps for men", he suggests that those who persist in watching movies on the big screen are like people who buy hardback books. And when was the last time you did that?

Also, Ian Hocking gets his Murakami homework done, beating me to the (affectionate?) punch. Although the reason for my sluggishness is best summed up by the following, from David Freedman.

And there's a virtual fun-size Milky Way for the first person to explain the post header.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Don't forget the joker

I still haven't written that review of Pinball 1973; but I'm relieved to note that Ian Hocking has been similarly slack with his Murakami-related duties. I have however, gone a bit OTT on Roxy Music 1974 at Tangents. And of course, the FA Cup Final and the Test Match (England fielders: What ball? Oh, that ball. Sorry.) have intervened. On the subject of the latter, serious question time; can anyone tell me why Sri Lankans have so many first names? In this match alone we had Denagamage Proboth Mahela de Silva Jayawardene, Kulasekara Mudiyanselage Dinesh Nuwan Kulasekara and the magnificent Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas (but his mum just calls him Chaminda). Was Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath on drinks duty, perhaps? A little Googling also unearthed this guy. Pity his poor mum when the time came to sew in his nametags for school.

Damn, I really need to do some work. Got a major business writing slog to complete in the next month, before I go back to England, and after that it's full steam ahead with the top secret indie rock book project. But there may be a bit less action at this site than you're used to. I'm sure you'll cope.

However, couldn't resist this one: Metallica frontman James Hetfield spoke about his battle with booze and drugs at a fundraiser for addiction charity MusiCares MAP in Hollywood last week. A tearful Hetfield described the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll ideal as "a horrible myth". Also in attendance and sipping alcohol-free beverages were a number of celebrities who have joined Hetfield in repudiating a lifestyle of excess and hedonism. These included members of Alice In Chains and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have lost bandmates to drugs, substance-damaged wildman Ozzy Osbourne and, uh... Lemmy. The man who only resorts to "Just Say No" when someone asks if he's sober.

And also, while I'm here: Marina Hyde (is she still intercoursing Piers Morgan, by the way?) analyses NuLab NuSpeak, with the help of TS Eliot; the ever droll David Freedman identifies the a priori of humour; the French PM turns into Louis XIV (although XVI might be more amusing); a Danish band plays the music from Commodore 64 games; Andrew Marr imagines a pub for ponces; from 3am, a pretty definitive soundtrack to depression from the guy who made Rose Royce samples cool; in Tokyo's restaurants, the Duran Duran years are back; and the president of Universities UK, we learn from an otherwise pretty uninteresting press release tarted up by a bored hack at Reuters to look like a real news story, is called Drummond Bone.

Now, obviously, nobody's really called Drummond Bone. That would just be too silly. So is this in fact a new piece of Cockney rhyming slang? (Drummond Bone = congestion zone, maybe?) Or is it a new dance music genre that people in Hoxton are pretending to like until July? Or what? Suggestions, please.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Saturday night (and a decent chunk of Sunday morning) at the movies

As I've explained before, living out in the back of nowhere means that my access to Hollywood's finest product is sometimes out of kilter with everyone else's. The best way to catch up is usually to pay a visit to my friendly neighbourhood dodgy DVD man, no questions asked, you didn't see me, right, and scoop up the best of the last few months. With Small Boo out of the country and thus unable to entertain me with her guitar heroics and Björk impressions, I hunker down in front of the widescreen with the remote control and half a bottle of Calvados. This is the result.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Dir: Shane Black)
Everything here pointed to a disappointment; Black made his name as a screenwriter with movies (The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight) that must have sounded great on paper but didn't quite come off. But, hey, call me a sucker for obvious postmodern japery, when Robert Downey Jr. is on his best terrified-but-still-sardonic form, you've got a winner. And, no, this is not just a case of the Keith Richards effect (dumbstruck admiration that the man is still alive and functioning). Incidentally, while we're on the subject, I really hope that I'll be climbing trees when I'm 62, or however old he is in Keef years.

Anyroad, the schtick here is that Harry (Downey) is a very petty NYC crook who finds himself caught up in some rather less petty dirty deeds in Hollywood. The stylistic tension comes because Harry is a real crook who finds himself to be both an innocent and a fake; Harry-as-narrator, by contrast, is an omniscient pomo smartass. Thanks to Downey's rumpled charm, however, we take a detached view of the self-referential nods to thrillerdom, and still care about what happens to the doofus - a double whammy that Tarantino's not yet managed to pull off. Add Val Kilmer as a gay PI, Michelle Monaghan being feisty in a Santa suit and Shannyn Sossamon (yum) in a pink wig and you can't really go wrong. Possibly the appearance of Lincoln and Elvis at Harry's hospital bedside is just a wee bit too Naked Gun, however.

A History Of Violence (Dir: David Cronenberg)
On the other hand, I came to this with major expectations, and felt a bit let down. It's as if someone put together a pretty ordinary family-in-peril narrative, then asked David Cronenberg to add a few, well, David Cronenberg bits (inscrutable male lead; clumsy sex; uncomfortable silences; mutilated body parts). Which he did, efficiently and (almost) anonymously. I did start questioning my own responses, though, which must indicate some sort of aesthetic value: the bit where the guy gets his nose smashed into his face left me unmoved; but when the little girl lays the table for her daddy, I felt pretty damn sick.

Jarhead (Dir: Sam Mendes)
For the last 35 years or so, American war films have rarely been about what they claim to be about. M*A*S*H was meant to be about Korea, but it was really about Vietnam. So were The Year Of Living Dangerously (Indonesia) and The Killing Fields (Cambodia). All the films that were supposedly about Vietnam were usually about something else, usually America; the exceptions were Platoon, which was about Oliver Stone; and Apocalypse Now, which was about masculinity, and the fact that Francis Coppola had read a Conrad book, albeit a short one.

By the time they did a new version of The Quiet American, which was purportedly about Vietnam (although not quite about "Vietnam" in the sense that it was set in a time before the country became a geopolitical concept, and Jimi Hendrix got involved), it was really about Iraq. That's Iraq II (the current fuckup), which is also the real subject matter of the excellent Three Kings, although that's nominally about Iraq I (the Kuwait thing). Jarhead is also apparently about Iraq I. You can tell this because not much happens, except for Jake Gyllenhaal guarding some oil fields. Geddit? See, that's what Iraq II was all about as well, only we thought it was about terrorism. Glad we got that one cleared up.

Just in case the whole guarding-oil-fields thing gets too dull (which it does, but that, it seems, is the whole point), Mendes throws in a few nods to Vietnam classics, notably the bootcamp brutality of Full Metal Jacket; and Apocalypse Now, which the grunts watch and don't quite understand (they sing along to 'The Ride Of The Valkyries'). They obviously didn't read Conrad. Gyllenhaal does read Camus on the toilet, which is terribly existential of him. But then grumpy old Staff Sergeant Jamie Foxx chucks it in the bin.

So, if nothing else, Jarhead carves out a new niche in the Hollywood war-is-hell genre: it's not actually about a war, not even a war that it's not literally about. It's a war movie about war movies. Which, in a way, makes it closer to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than anybody might have expected.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Dir: Andrew Adamson)
Apparently, Christian groups in the States have been arranging coach parties to this, thinking it was going to be Passion of the Christ II. Bad move, I reckon. It might be overstating the case to compare CS Lewis with Milton, but they were both damn good at writing villains. Face it, you'd far rather be eating Turkish Delight with a tyrannical, dreadlocked Tilda Swinton than getting a piggypack from dull old Liam Neeson in a pussycat costume, yeah?

Capote (Dir: Bennett Miller)
I'm a great admirer of Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor, but sadly I was unable to watch him or listen to him in this film without a mental image ofblotting out everything else. Sorry.

House, M.D. (First Season)
If I might be allowed to reiterate the critical consensus for a moment, yes, Hugh Laurie is as good as everyone says, finally stepping out of the capacious shadow of you-know-who. And I so want a muscular infarction so I can emulate his sexy-limp-and-popping-Vicodin-like-they're-Smarties routine. The show overall, though, is just an ungainly coagulation of CSI and Doogie Howser. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang they could have characters watching old clips of LA Law, and it was funny. Here, characters watch General Hospital and you're playing spot-the-difference. And losing.

Two thoughts: as a boss with ultimate self-knowledge and no desire to be loved, is Dr Gregory House a dramatic inversion of David Brent? And, as it has a compelling, funny performance at its centre, surrounded by dishwatery bores, is the show also a dramatic inversion of Ally McBeal, the supporting cast of which (that man Downey again!) could have made it one of the greatest TV shows ever, were it not for its profoundly slappable title character. And the shit music, of course.

Well, we can at least thank House for provoking this gem, from the IMDb discussion board: "Do Americans really have a recognizable/specific accent, like English, Australian, etc.? I'm American so I can't really notice that we have one."

You know, that gets better every time I read it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lager shouting


Budweiser is one of the official sponsors of next month's World Cup, but it's run into a fairly substantial stumbling block. In Germany, where the tournament is taking place, they know a bit about beer, and the American brew is a bit of a joke, albeit a weak one.

"We understand that taste is an important part of the product beer," says Tony Ponturo, vice president of Anheuser-Busch, "and Europeans, particularly Germans, like a stronger, more bitter kind of product." Well it's jolly good that a senior executive of a beer company has sussed that it's quite important what a beer tastes like, but why the hell are you trying to sell them Budweiser then, Tony? It tastes of nothing. It's not even strong enough to be unpleasant. It isn't the King of Beers, it's the Prince Edward (bland, nondescript and pointless). In Europe, maybe, just maybe, people drink beer because they like drinking beer, not because some marketing catamite has decided that they want to buy into an aspirational lifestyle or somesuch witless drool. Maybe people are finally waking up to the fact that the whole branding phenomenon is an attempt to make us pay extra for less.

And please don't get me started on "WHASSUP???" or I'll give Mr Ponturo a "stronger, more bitter kind of product" that will really make his head spin.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Communication problems

I know how difficult it is to get media coverage these days, especially for worthy but unsexy causes such as hearing impairment. So when the RNID staged the photo opportunity above, I was at first prepared to be tolerant. I mean, at least it wasn't one of those bodged-together, statistically nonsensical 'surveys' to publicise a new brand of lager or car or no-fee legal assistance. (You know, the type that asks a sample of ordinary Brits: "If you'd just crashed your car after drinking 10 pints of lager, which sexy celebrity would you like to represent you in court?" The answer is always Angelina Jolie.)

But back to the picture. The fact that the subjects are in the vicinity of red phone boxes might suggest some tangential reference to hearing loss, but is probably more likely to trigger thoughts of English Heritage. I mean, when was the last time you used one of these things, unless you're a Japanese tourist? And look at the people themselves. We have a man who doesn't look very much like Albert Einstein, another man who doesn't look in the slightest bit like Del Boy, and people whose resemblance to Madonna, Winston Churchill and Elvis Presley is, to put it gently, fleeting. If there's any implied message or meaning here, it's probably more related to blindness, since only someone with severely restricted sight would associate these people with the figures they are puported to represent. Baudrillard appropriated the word simulacrum to describe a representation that continues to have currency, even when its link to the thing it represented is severed. So, to stick with the public telephone idea, Dr Who's Tardis is now better known than the police box it hijacked. I've got a horrible feeling that these gurning parasites will continue to appear even after we've forgotten what Elvis sounded like.

There's a tired old line trotted out by desperate PR hacks when something's gone utterly tits-up: "There is no such thing as bad publicity." It's utter bollocks, I'm afraid; look at John Prescott, or DFS commercials. It's not polite to say it, but desperate, naff, lame, cheap, bland, banal, amateurish stunts like the one above make me want to follow Basil Fawlty's lead. The next time I meet a deaf person, I'll move my lips as if I'm speaking, and when she adjusts her hearing aid, I'll just scream "POSTMODERNISM" into it.

And, while we're in the goods yard of prevailing mediocrity: Miss Prism, in her Capacious Handbag blog, elegantly sums up the whole, fraught issue of 'dumbing down':

"It's simply not feasible to explain complex issues to the public one soundbite at a time - the general level of background knowledge is far too low. I'm no defeatist, but I think the problem should not be 'How do we explain this in 100 words or less?' but 'How do we make people want to read 10,000 words?'"

Couldn't have said it better myself (which is why I nicked it).

Friday, May 05, 2006

The love song of Judge Leonie Brinkema

Zacarias Moussaoui, the Mr Bean of Al-Quaeda, has been sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole. Judge Leonie Brinkema told Moussaoui: "You came here to be a martyr in a great big bang of glory, but to paraphrase the poet TS Eliot, instead you will die with a whimper."

This is an interesting choice of words. Not the quotation itself - that's pretty obvious. It's the linguistic furniture that's peculiar. She could simply have said that Moussaoui would end, not with a bang, but a whimper. Many people know the expression, even if they don't know where it comes from. Even those who didn't know the phrase beforehand must surely be able to understand what she's getting at. Not bang - whimper. Capisce?

But Judge Leonie, being a fine, upstanding woman, did what all good quoters should do, and attributed her reference. In case anybody might think that Judge Brinkema has literary talents that match her jurisprudential aptitudes, she notes that it's a line by Eliot.

Hang on, though - what if someone out there doesn't know who TS Eliot is? Better flag up the fact that it's "the poet TS Eliot" (rather than the actuary or the welder). Presumably, then, this is for the benefit of people who hadn't heard of TS Eliot before - otherwise the job title would be extraneous. And, if this is the first time they've heard of the poet TS Eliot, they can't have any idea whether he's a good, bad or could-do-better versifier. And why leave it there? Why not remind them that it's from 'The Hollow Men'? Tell them the year it was written, and who the publisher was? Give a brief summary of ol' Tom's works and attempt to define his place within the Modernist pantheon? With specific reference to Ezra bloody Pound?

And, in any case, what effect does all this have? If a judge alerts a criminal to the fact that his fate can be encapsulated in a few words from a poet, does this make him feel better or worse? What will the 9/11 relatives think? "I really wanted to see the bastard fry, but at least his sentence has been endorsed by a Nobel Prize-winning poet." I have this image of crims trundling into Shawshank, getting the bug powder and the hosing down, the Bible talk from the governor, and all the while whispering to each other:

"Who d'ya get?"
"I got the poet Walt Whitman."
"That faggot! I got the poet John Milton. What about you, fatso?"
"Oh, I got the poet Dylan Thomas."
"Yeah? What line?"
"Something about not goin' gentle into no good night."
"Uh-oh. Been nice knowin' ya, fatso."


Ah, what the hell? I bet she Googled it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Music lesson

Maher Shalal Hash Baz/Bill Wells: How's Your Bassoon, Turquoirs? (Geographic, 2006)

Maher Shalal Hash Baz is one of those bands that really ought to be huge, if there were any justice, but then they'd be big and smooth and dull, and justice is boring anyway. MSHB is essentially the musical expression of Tori Kudo, Japan's greatest revolutionary anti-Darwinist potter. The closest comparison I could suggest from the Western rock canon is Syd Barrett, but with the Pink One's mad-eyed stare replaced by a mood of self-effacement; rather than the tortured-artist-out-on-a-limb thang, Tori is usually surrounded by a fluctuating cast of friendly musicians whose abilities range from excellent to enthusiastic. He's also fond of impenetrable musical jokes, so the reference to a bassoon in the title is a sure sign that there's no bassoon on this track. Except there is. And recorders. And some folk-jazz guitar. And a spoken-word bit. Like Barry White. If he were Japanese. It's in English, but it would probably make more sense if it weren't. Tori claims (I warned you about the jokes) that the whole thing's influenced by The Only Ones, via his compatriate Keiji Haino, a man so cool he refuses to take off his shades, even in front of his cat. It's already my favourite track of the year.

The b-side, 'Banned Announcement', is a live offering. It sounds like an autistic school choir mugging a one-man band and fiddling suggestively with his instruments as he lies bleeding in the gutter. The music is heightened by background noises of applause and clinking crockery that (if this were a 'normal' artist) would suggest a knowing nod to the intro to 'Re-Make/Re-Model' on the first Roxy Music album. But MSHB don't do knowing nods, and nor does their accomplice, Scottish sort-of-jazz enigma Bill Wells. It's not the knowing bit they avoid; it's the nod. This means that they bypass any lazy notions of irony or camp and leap straight into an aesthetic that's utterly real - so real, in fact, that we jaded listeners, so used to the archness of Franz Ferdinand or the Kaiser Chiefs, don't immediately experience it for what it is. It's as if you've been drinking Gold Blend all your life, and somebody wafts a perfect espresso past your nose. For a few seconds, maybe more, you simply don't get it, don't get the connection between this nugget of heady aromas and the stuff that you've been chugging blindly since your teens.

And then, eventually, you get it.

Maher Shalal Hash Baz are damn fine coffee. Smell them.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Meme: seven things you didn't know about me

From a tag by Joel at Robotic Hat.

1. I do not own a iPod. I did have a Walkman once, in the old days, but it never got much use. The problem is headphones - I've never been able to find a set that don't fall out/off. I think my ears are a funny shape.
2. I'm supposedly training for a marathon at the end of this year, but it's not going too well.
3. When I was about 14, I was bitten on the hip by a horsefly. The bite became badly infected, and I had to have daily salt baths. Then my mother would clean the wound and apply some kind of industrial-strength antiseptic cream. Once, I was sitting on the sofa, naked from the waist down, while my mother swabbed pus and ooze out of me, and a naked (from the waist up and down) woman appeared on the telly. I was terrified I was going to get an erection as my mother dabbed away. But I didn't. So then I thought I might be gay.
4. My father resembles the entertainer Richard Stilgoe.
5. I have never broken a bone in my body.
6. My wife sang on the original studio recording of Evita. I should point out that she was very young at the time. And she wasn't my wife.
7. I don't like cauliflower, but I love broccoli, and I don't know why. They're so similar, it seems odd that my response to the two should be so different.

Off you go: Billy, Betty, Wyndham.