Wednesday, July 31, 2013

#EDL, #LFC, #PC, etc

OK, back to that PS at the end of the previous post. In the Word of Mouth discussion, one Movingtoyshop says:
I tend to take anything that’s littered with spelling and grammatical errors and written by someone who’s a stranger to paragraphs and punctuation with an extremely big pinch of salt.
And so, to be honest, do I. Are we wrong? Well yes, according to some of Sunny Hundal’s friends when he posted the following on Facebook:

Some suggested that Robinson (leader of the populist, anti-Muslim protest movement the English Defence League) was in fact deliberately playing up his own linguistic ineptitude, in an effort to attract sneering putdowns from middle-class lefties and enhance his own credentials as a man of the people. Others felt that it was wrong of Hundal and crew to mock someone deficient in “cultural capital”. I’m torn. Yes, there’s a certain sneery superiority at work if we poke fun at Robinson’s spelling when we should be dealing with his arguments; but at the same time, shouldn’t those who seek to defend what they see as traditional English culture be treating the English language with more reverence? (And if you’re so proud of your handiness with an apostrophe, have a go at this.)

At least with grammar and spelling, there’s a degree of unanimity about what’s right and what’s wrong, even if the likes of Robinson (pretend to?) forget. When it comes to the content, the words themselves, we all seem to be running around like headless clichés. The magnificent Mary Beard seems to have come up with a pretty good rule of thumb; if it’s not something you’d want your mother to hear, don’t say it on Twitter. Liverpool FC, meanwhile, are rather more specific in their efforts to rid the beautiful game of ugly attitudes:

That said, such a list wouldn’t have helped Barbara Morgan, the communications director for Anthony Weiner’s increasingly preposterous bid to become mayor of New York. When asked to comment on an intern who had written about her time on Weiner’s team, Morgan refrained from using any of the proscribed words on the Anfield list but did manage to call her a “bitch”, a “slutbag”, a “twat” and a “cunt”. Does anyone have her mum’s number? Or my mum’s, for that matter, because she certainly won’t like that last bit.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Oscar’s: ceci n’est pas un restaurant

Swivel-eyed climate change contrarian James Delingpole once wrote a moderately amusing satire called Fish Show, about a restaurant critic who invented restaurants; no sooner were his spoof reviews published, said restaurants miraculously came into being. (This was presumably a nod to the character of Simon Balcairn, the gossip columnist in Waugh’s Vile Bodies, who concocted people and events to fill his columns, with ultimately tragic results.) One Oscar Parrot has taken this valiant tradition into the digital age, creating a restaurant that existed amidst the ones and zeroes of TripAdvisor but not in its purported location of Brixham in Devon. Not only that, but in its few months of quasi-existence, Oscar’s was dubbed the 27th best of the town’s 64 eateries – which does raise some uncomfortable questions for the establishments that placed lower.

It’s a bloody good stunt and I salute the mysterious Mr Parrot, but it does raise some serious questions about the state of criticism in all sectors; coming as it does at a time when The Independent is closing its arts section and Lonely Planet announces that it is “no longer in the business of content creation”. Where do we go now for objective, informed advice on a place to eat, a book to read, a kayaking tour to take down the Orinoco? I’ve been heartily critical of Andrew Keen’s anti-web, elitist jeremiads in the past and I still maintain that offering platforms for ordinary people to say what think about stuff – even if they’re misguided — is ultimately a good thing. And the list of professional critics whose opinions have been swayed by favours or discredited by their own sheer wrongness is mighty long. But if TripAdvisor can be so comprehensively gulled by an amateur prankster, it should make us all check the batteries in our bullshit detectors the next time we read it.

PS: Interesting discussion in the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog on how best to tap into the TripAdvisor hive mind

PPS: And more TripAdvisor reviews with questionable connections to reality.

PPPS: ...and here’s something for the Amazon reviewers.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Only God Forgives: butchering Bangkok

A few days ago I was discussing with a friend why most attempts to depict Bangkok in fiction (novels, films, whatever) seem doomed to failure, whether they’re the work of locals or outsiders. Look at what Wong Kar-Wai did for Hong Kong; he’s created a city that is at the same time authentic to people who knew it and compelling to those who’ve never set foot there. Graham Greene wove together the realities of roads and buildings and dodgy policemen in Saigon or Havana or London with another, imaginary world that became known as Greeneland. But BK always seems to be a backdrop, whether it’s for high-octane shoot-outs (eg Bangkok Dangerous) or drunken mishaps (The Hangover II). I don’t recall ever watching a movie or reading a book that couldn’t plausibly have been set in any other city that’s hot and a bit sleazy.

So I came to Only God Forgives with some trepidation. There were some positive indicators; apparently Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest provoked a real Marmite response at Cannes, with half the audience walking out and the rest giving a standing ovation, which suggests that it at least makes an effort. And although the central character Julian is an American, he’s supposedly lived in the city for a decade, which should place him closer to a Greene anti-hero in terms of his perspective on the city; not a complete newbie like the Hangover II’s amiable idiots but still culturally an outsider. He runs a boxing gym as a front for his successful drug smuggling business; but when his brother is murdered and his appalling mother comes to town (a foul-mouthed Kristin Scott Thomas, channelling Cruella de Vil and Bet Lynch), things begin to go awry.

Unfortunately, Julian is played by Ryan Gosling, who spends most of his time staring into the middle distance with a blank look that could represent spiritual contemplation or extreme boredom or both. The real heart of the movie, and the best acting performance, comes in the form of Vitaya Pansringarm as Chang, a local policeman who bypasses due process by acting as a dispassionate angel of vengeance. The closest analogy with Hollywood is probably Dirty Harry, although really he’s a personification of karmic retribution, coolly deciding who will die and who is merely maimed, based on the gravity of their own misdeeds. While we’re on the subject, orthodox Buddhist doctrine has no need for a personalised God to dish out justice, so I’m not entirely clear where the title comes from.

That aside, does the film encapsulate Bangkok any better than previous efforts have managed? Well, let’s tick off the good points first; Refn doesn’t massage the linguistic reality to make things easier for Anglophone audiences. Most Thais, even in Bangkok, don’t speak much English, if any; the film reflects this, rather than – as most Hollywood takes on the city do – allowing every noodle vendor and transsexual hooker who interacts with a farang a workable grasp of cheerful pidgin, so we don’t need any of those dreaded subtitles. Refn doesn’t make concessions for the post-literate generation of moviegoers.

Moreover, in a very violent movie, it gets the violence right. The muay thai scenes look pretty authentic; and the sword that Chang wields is a proper Thai darb rather than a Japanese blade that would be more familiar to Westerners. These seem like minor points, but high-profile, big-budget movies such as The Man With The Golden Gun (much of which is set in Bangkok) have got these things wrong in the past, mashing multiple traditions together into a mess of pan-oriental bloodlust.

So this is the real Bangkok, right? Well, not really. For a start, the bulk of the action takes place indoors. I have no doubt these were all authentic Krung Thep locations but if there are no windows they may as well be sound stages. When we do venture outside, it’s usually in the dead of night and although the omnipresent chirrup of cicadas rings true, the cacophony of car horns and luk thung music is absent. OK, you can’t expect Refn to conjure up that signature scent of frying chillis and blocked drains but there’s little feeling of how busy the city is, and how many people are crammed into a relatively limited space.

Instead, the world Refn creates is almost exclusively filmic, with multiple nods and winks to other directors. Many of the scenes in brothels and karaoke bars feel like love letters to David Lynch, all dreamy ambiguity in long shot; and the demise of Julian’s brother Billy echoes Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. The blood-spurting violence, some of it pretty anatomically explicit, nods to the inventive nastiness of much recent Korean cinema, with one victim left resembling a side of beef in a butcher’s cold store. Of course it’s possible to take these perceived connections too far; when Chang slices open a man’s eyeballs I’m immediately reminded of a similar scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, but maybe Refn just likes the idea of sliced eyeballs. Chang is equally inventive with steel chopsticks and a pan of hot fat; only when he relies on his police-issue pistol do his deadly skills desert him. He’s pretty cool; but his even-handed righteousness, untainted by favouritism or graft, will provoke raised eyebrows among those who come into regular contact with Bangkok’s boys in brown.

So no, Only God Forgives doesn’t get Bangkok right. Instead, it creates a cinematic theme park that picks out a few elements, something akin to those Chinese simulacra of English village life. But back to that conversation I was having about Refn’s equally inept predecessors. It took place in a restaurant called Hemingway’s, a traditional Thai house fitted up to serve as a tribute to the archetype of gruffly ruminative machismo, drawing a gentle veil over the fact that Hemingway never actually visited the city. But the proprietors have created a reality in which he might have done, an alternative Bangkok to flatter the vanity of many a grizzled expat who can still see himself chasing bulls and climbing Kilimanjaro even if nobody else is in on the joke. It’s not the real Bangkok, and neither is Refn’s and neither is mine or yours. Maybe the real Bangkok doesn’t exist.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Swastikas over Asia (and the royal baby, obviously)

A few months ago, walking down Sathorn Road, one of the poshest thoroughfares in Bangkok, I passed a young Thai man wearing a t-shirt. It bore a swastika, the name and image of George Lincoln Rockwell, founder and leader of the American Nazi Party, and the slogan “WHITE POWER”.

Of course, it’s very easy to read too much into such things. In Thailand and beyond I’ve often seen people sporting texts that they clearly don’t understand; my favourite was a septuagenarian lady whose shirt was emblazoned with a Pepsi logo tweaked to say “PENIS”. But that sort of occurrence prompts nothing more than sniggering condescension on the part of farang, aka gweilo, gaijin, etc; the same westerners, incidentally, who will happily (albeit ignorantly) acquire a Chinese tattoo that proclaims their own intellectual limitations. They’re less relaxed when they see a young Asian decked out in the imagery of the Third Reich. And sometimes they voice their disapproval. In recent years, various levels of brouhaha have been provoked by a school in northern Thailand staging a Nazi-themed parade; a billboard featuring Hitler at a graduation ceremony in Bangkok; Nazi cosplay in Japan and elsewhere; and restaurants in India, Korea, Thailand and most recently Indonesia appropriating a Nazi aesthetic to promote their wares.

So is Asia a time-bomb of neo-Nazi sympathies? No, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Certainly there are widely held and openly aired attitudes to racial difference that would make many good western liberals feel slightly nauseous; and in Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia, anti-Jewish polemic is accepted as part of the political discourse. Moreover, the historical perspective on World War II and its outcomes is different from that generally held in Europe or North America. Countries such as Britain and France were colonial occupiers and the Indian independence campaigner Subhas Chandra Bose was certainly not the only one to favour a pragmatic alliance with the Axis powers as a means of securing self-determination. The concept of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which would supposedly have replaced the economic infrastuctures of the western empires had Japan prevailed, must have looked like an attractive alternative to being ordered around by some whey-faced product of Eton and Oxbridge.

But for the majority of people who wear swastika t-shirts or carry cuddly Hitler dolls or perform Nazi salutes at inopportune moments, it’s nothing to do with wresting the historical narrative away from its Eurocentric perspective. It’s pure, honest-to-goodness ignorance, with a side-order of not giving a shit. When Sid Vicious or Siouxsie Sioux wore the hakenkreuz, it was a conscious decision to provoke and outrage. But Asian teens today know as little about der Führer as their counterparts in London or New York know of Chairman Mao, General Tojo or Pandit Nehru. Adolf’s just this funny-looking guy from the olden days who did this wacky thing with his arm and had a bad hipster haircut. And in some ways that’s even more disconcerting to a westerner than the thought that the kids might have absorbed his ideology.

Which leads – no, bear with me for a moment – to the as-yet unnamed offspring of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Now, I wish the child no particular ill; but I’m already thoroughly sick of the media’s obsession with his gestation, birth and now his existence. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the likes of the Mail and Telegraph have gone batshit for this, but I couldn’t find any respite from the coverage on Radio 4. The next time someone bleats about the left-wing bias of the BBC, ask them why they couldn’t dredge up a single republican voice to counter the sentimental wittering. Not that I’m a particularly trenchant anti-monarchist; to me, it’s just another manifestation of tacky celebrity culture, which other people are more than welcome to enjoy but I get annoyed if it impinges on my own consciousness too much and too often. However, even the expression of this state of disgruntled apathy is too much for some of the starry-eyed supplicants; “If you really don’t care, why are you going on about it so much?” seems to be a consistent refrain on social media when commentators such as Brian Reade and Andrew Collins articulate the extent of their apathy. Well, why shouldn’t they? Why does it perturb you so? Possibly because you know that the British monarchy will never succumb to the threat of pitchforks and guillotines because that’s not the way we do things; but not caring one way or another is a psychological weapon with its own special potency.

PS: The last word on media coverage.

PPS: This is quite good as well.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

William Faulkner and Whitney Houston

A court in Mississippi has ruled that Woody Allen was not committing an act of plagiarism when he interpolated a nine-word quotation by William Faulkner into the script of his 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. It seems like a pretty sensible decision overall; it’s not as if Allen was ripping off a whole book. It was more of an epigram, a verbal sample; and since the phrase was immediately attributed within the script, thus alerting viewers to its provenance, it may well have boosted sales of Faulkner’s books. (Faulkner died in 1962, by the way; is it just me, or does it seem that the estates of dead authors are far more sensitive and litigious in instances such as this than living writers ever are?)

Maybe they were just taking advantage of the fact that it was a direct quotation rather than the appropriation of a plot device or a philosophical idea. I’ve just started reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which includes this passage:
The ritual passing of the DBA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, ah buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love of All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.
It contains seven words from the song in question, albeit rendered phonetically for comic effect, but I doubt whether the copyright holders would be considering legal action. If Shteyngart’s really lifted anything from another source, surely it’s from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, in which Patrick Bateman describes the same song as “ of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity.” It’s a quote about a quote about a quote. And since the target markets for Ellis’s and Shteyngart’s respective products are probably pretty similar (consumers of witty, deadpan, pop-culture-referencing lit fic) I’m pretty certain that plenty of readers of the latter spotted a nod to the former. But if Ellis had taken exception to the apparent borrowing, could he have done anything about it?

Digital technology has made the wholesale purloining of music and movies and other works very easy, but well before that, droll, nose-tapping intertextuality had become an inescapable part of the creative process. The problem now is how to clamp down on the former without squashing the latter. What do you think, Whitney?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Damien Hirst and Olga Dogaru: but is it art?

Damien Hirst is in trouble again, but not for a new piece of art. It’s an old piece of art; although I’m not clear whether the art is the head, or the two heads, or the photo of the two. OK, it’s some permutation of Damien himself with the head of a cadaver from a Leeds mortuary; and according to some concocted code of archaeological ethics, there have been calls for it to be removed from public view. This has led to the critic Jonathan Jones, whose exasperated contempt for Hirst’s recent stuff is well known, to defend the King of the YBAs. So in some shape or form this is art, maybe even good (qualitatively) art; but some people have decided that it’s bad (morally) art, so shouldn’t be seen out in public. OK, glad that one’s sorted.

And then we move on to the story of Olga Dogaru, who claims to have burned seven pictures that had been stolen from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Now, these certainly were art, because they were by the likes of Picasso and Monet, and were in the Kunsthal. But what happened to them after they were burned? Are the ashes art, whether because of some sort of aesthetic essence that pervades the charred scraps of painty canvas or because Dogaru’s act of burning itself can be perceived as some sort of Situationist prank, a sort of outsider take on what the Chapman brothers did to poor old Goya? Munch’s The Scream was badly damaged after it was stolen in 2004; how damaged does a work have to get before it ceases to be the work?

Or does their identity as art remain intact even after they’re gone, like the Colossus of Rhodes? Can we retrospectively apply conceptualist credentials to, say, Picasso’s Harlequin Head, because the idea behind it is stronger than the picture itself (the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak)? Or maybe the real art lies in the absence itself; in the gap where the pictures once existed.

PS: More about reflecting absence here.

PPS: And the always interesting Tim Gashead directs me to more bits of dead folk at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

New art from Thailand

Background stories from Coconuts Bangkok here and here.

PS: And more on the Hitler meme here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Two songs from the late 1970s

All that potentially racist musing about funny foreigners making a desperate stab at authenticity raises all sorts of questions about perspective. Since the Englishness they are aiming for only truly exists in the collective id of a few thousand UKIP members, who’s to say they’re wrong? Maybe an England concocted from repeat viewings of Miss Marple and a frenzied dash round Bicester Village has just as much claim to be real, whatever that means. And the same, of course, goes for Brits who visit China, sample the wonders of the cuisine, but still yearn for the crappy chow mein from their local takeaway.

However wrong it is, that first experience has a hold on the soul that doesn’t let go easily. An example from another medium; the first time I consciously heard the song ‘Money’, it sounded like this:

Of course, subsequently I heard the famous version, by the Beatles; and after that, the original, by co-writer Barrett Strong. I know the history, the official version. But deep down, I’m still 11 years old, watching Top of the Pops, and this may not be *the* original, but it’s *my* original, just as Thames Town is the real deal to the people who want it to be.

And then YouTube has its rhizomatic way with me and I happen across this (probably because the Marshall out of Marshall Hain went on to be a Flying Lizard for a bit):

And I remember what an extraordinarily bleak and depressing record this is, in an entirely good way. Has the phrase “have fun tonight” ever been uttered with such a sense of foreboding? Has a handclap ever been less celebratory? Has a song with the word “dancing” in the title ever made you feel less like dancing?

And I’m not sure whether any of this is relevant to anything, apart from the fact that both songs were released in the late 1970s, just as the great experiment of capitalism with Chinese characteristics was shuddering into shape, a phenomenon that leads us to Thames Town.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Thames Town: Dreaming of Britain

Westerners may mock the Chinese tendency to recreate manifestations of Western culture in their own back yard, but it’s a common trait of burgeoning empires that they need to demonstrate their global reach. Think of 18th-century British architects incorporating pineapples into their designs, to imply that their clients could afford such expensive delicacies; or a pseudo-oriental pastiche such as the Brighton Pavilion. But it’s still tempting to mock the earnest attempts to create a perfect simulacrum of some English utopia that probably never really existed in the first place; even the architect of Thames Town, on the outskirts of Shanghai, feels compelled to voice his misgivings:
It doesn’t look quite right. It looks false. The proportions are wrong. The use of the different stones is all wrong. It would never be used like that in the genuine English church...
But surely it’s that not-quite-rightness, that sense of close-but-no-cigar, that makes things special. A development such as Thames Town should be like an English village where the Doctor alights, takes in the sights, enjoys a nice pint and only then realises that the whole thing’s made of plastic and Sarah Jane’s been replaced by an android. And what is it that tips him off? It’s somebody saying something ever so slightly wrong such as:
I really hope I can visit the real Thames River one day, sit along the banks, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the British sunshine.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Let’s get serious (or at least pretend to)

According to a recent survey, a fifth of adults admit to pretending to be more cultured than they are, although the ways in which this pretence manifest themselves seem to be a bit of a ragbag. OK, there’s the straightforward fakery of pretending to know about wine, a classic indicator of social one-upmanship. And there’s also the crime of reading an intellectually demanding tome on the beach or on public transport, although I don’t see why wielding a book as an accessory with which to define one’s own projected image is any worse than using a t-shirt or a handbag; and in any case, aren’t Kindles and iPads working towards making such display rituals essentially meaningless?

But then things get really silly. Apparently it’s pretentious to retweet something clever on Twitter. Not to tweet something clever; but to identify something else as clever and recommend it to one’s friends. So intelligence is OK, but a discriminating critical intelligence (coupled with an instinct for digital evangelism) isn’t. And quoting Shakespeare is bad as well, we’re told; although is it acceptable to quote Shakespeare if you don’t know you’re doing it?

In fact, the exceedingly clever people behind this survey (apparently commissioned in the name of a brand that used to be a search engine but gave up trying) seem to believe that we occupy a strictly binary universe composed on the one hand of people pretending to be clever and on the other people who don’t bother to pretend. Regarding the admirable 80% of individuals who claim not to fake their knowledge of wine, nobody has seen fit to ask how many of them don’t fake it for the simple reason that they do actually know quite a bit about wine, thank you, or Shakespeare or jazz or any of the other things that some people supposedly pretend to know about to impress others, and as such have no reason to bluff. Come to think of it, one of the areas of intellectual pretence the survey doesn’t cover is the act of banging out a series of spuriously authoritative opinion poll devoid of scientific or statistical merit, that exists solely to offer cheap filler to impecunious newspapers. Which in my book is almost as bad as the grievous sin of quoting Shakespeare.

PS: Another perspective on the same survey; from someone apparently pretending to be a fictional character, which is a level of bluff that the original article didn’t cover.

PPS: And some more examples of people trying too hard, from Buzzfeed.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Google: don’t be dirty

I’ll admit it; I’m feeling a wee bit left out. A few days ago, Google sent out thousands of letters to bloggers threatening to delete their digital babies as part of a crackdown on pornographic advertising. The recipients include such luminaries as Girl With A One-Track Mind, who you may remember from that weird moment a few years ago when we honestly thought blogging was going to make us all extremely rich. Yeah, that.

Of course, the whole brouhaha is really a symptom of a wider panic about online porn, which has been exacerbated by the woeful ignorance of most politicians about how the internet actually works, not to mention the difficulty in defining pornography in the first place. But still, given my past brazen efforts to increase traffic to this site by posting saucy images of underclad actresses d’un certain age, I would have hoped for at least a gentle warning. Clearly I’m just too nice.