Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thailand and the racist doughnut

An advertisement for Dunkin’ Donuts in Thailand has provoked outrage and embarrassment; not in Thailand but in the United States, where accusations of racism have been levelled.

OK, let’s look at this. It’s a picture of a woman with her skin painted black. Clearly in the US and elsewhere in the West, this has connotations of blackface and minstrelsy with which we are now distinctly uncomfortable. But in Thailand it doesn’t. It’s a picture of a woman with her skin painted black, to match the colour of the product being advertised; just as a British TV presenter appeared a few days ago with her skin painted silver. If the DD ad were to run in the States or in Europe, I could see the problem. But it isn’t; it’s running in Thailand. And yet, because it offends the sensibilities of Americans, it gets pulled. It might be overstating matters to say that the withdrawal of the ad is in itself an act of racism, but it’s certainly an act of cultural imperialism, its close cousin. And yes, ultimately the Dunkin’ Donuts brand is owned by a US company; but doesn’t this whole story demonstrate the extent to which the American hegemony is maintained as much by twerking Miley and Affleck as Batman and crappy fast food as it is by threats to bomb Syria?

Of course, racism goes on in Thailand and it’s far closer to the surface; I don’t think there’s a Thai phrase analogous to “I’m not a racist but...”  Thai racism, though, is inextricably bound up with class consciousness, with a distinction between those who work in the fields and those who lounge in air-conditioned luxury. When another doughnut brand, Krispy Kreme, launched in Thailand a few years ago, rich kids sent their maids and drivers to stand in the long queues on their behalf. This is the issue that’s been dividing Thai society over the past decade, provoking those running battles and burning buildings you occasionally see on TV. And if the activities of Dunkin’ Donuts’ Thai franchisee need any moral scrutiny, maybe it’s over the fact that the model in the advert is the daughter of the CEO.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Warhol and what artists do

Is everything that an artist does, by definition, art? And is everything that Andy Warhol did A Warhol? The question arises as some photos that he took in the last 10 years of his life come up for auction; Warhol certainly created them, which is more than you can say for some of his prints. But he never intended them to be displayed in a gallery so are they really his artworks or are they just Andy-related ephemera (Warholiana?), akin to one of his wigs or a pair of his underpants?

Far more Warholian is something with which he had no conscious involvement; a webcam giving a 24/7 overview of the fact that he’s still dead. Now, he would have loved that; rather than rifling through his posthumous effects, shouldn’t we be wondering how he would have reacted to 2013? Surely he would have seen the grim aesthetic potential in the massive fatberg found in a London sewer, just as he made art out of car crashes and botulism-infected tuna? Or the dead shark on the New York subway (life trumping that mini-Andy Damien Hirst) or just bloody Miley bloody Cyrus bloody twerking (I can see it in multiple colour schemes, à la Marilyn). And, oh God, can you imagine Andy on Twitter? (I mean, there’s this, but it’s not really the same, is it?)

That said, I suspect the later Warhol, who tended to enjoy hanging around with people who were rich and powerful and famous rather than interesting, might have been a little less enthusiastic about the latest unofficial portrait of Putin and Medvedev.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Philip French: when an old critic leaves the crease

Philip French, who has been reviewing movies for The Observer for 50 years, is retiring. Back in the days when he’d only been doing it for 46 years, I quoted his distinction between critics and reviewers in an article for Drowned in Sound:
Reviewing is what writers for newspapers and weekly magazines do when they describe and pass judgement on new work for readers who haven’t read or seen it. Critics write about the established or emerging canon for readers presumed to be acquainted with the work under discussion and supposedly take a longer-term view.
Which is probably as it should be, but I can’t help but think the precarious state of any paid-for journalism means that successors to Mr French (Mark Kermode will be getting his desk) can’t be too particular; any eyebells, informed or otherwise, are good eyeballs. In a rather lovely valedictory interview, in which he is correct about Leonardo DiCaprio and popcorn, wrong about Ryan Gosling and very perceptive about how close Some Like It Hot is to not being a comedy, French says:
I don’t think that any critic in any medium will have the same influence that certain critics have had in the past. I am not anything like as influential as my longest-serving predecessors Caroline Lejeune or Dilys Powell but I think there will always be a place for good critics. I’m sure there will also be plenty of indifferent critics employed because they are personalities of kinds and write in an entertaining way but I don’t think that criticism will ever have influence in the same way again. Indeed, many newspapers in America now think they can get along perfectly well without them. But of course, most of them manage to get along without decent writing too.

Friday, August 23, 2013

On not watching television

(These are just some unformed, probably unoriginal thoughts prompted by recent readings of Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, a Guardian article by Joe Moran, a blog post by David Hepworth and what Kevin Spacey said at Edinburgh, plus everyone going on and on about the last series of Breaking Bad and a Facebook conversation about Siouxsie and the Banshees on Top of the Pops that soon developed into an uncontested assertion that 1979 was the best year for telly ever.)

We are apparently in a golden age of TV with [insert any two or three from Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, all those fake trailers for the Doctor Who anniversary show] representing the Citizen Kane, the Hamlet, the Ring Cycle of the medium. But I do wonder whether this is more about the way we consume the product than how good the product is. Way back when I first saw I, Claudius or The Singing Detective, Twin Peaks or Blackadder, I was inescapably aware of the bad stuff before and after, the now-forgotten failed sitcoms and self-indulgent chat shows that don’t get BFI retrospectives dedicated to them. Even if you were terribly organised and taped these landmark shows on your clunky old VHS behemoth, you’d get unwanted slivers of drivel on either side; this also explains the morbid fascination some of us have for old copies of the Radio Times, enabling us to recall the failures that bookended these triumphs in the schedules. And the failures are still with us. Sturgeon’s revelation still applies, and 90 per cent of everything is still abject crud; The Sopranos and its ilk have been bestowed upon us at the same time as innumerable talent shows, reality shows, home improvement shows and variations on Jeremy bloody Kyle. Golden age? Seen as a high-definition whole, it’s barely tinfoil, as it’s always been. As everything’s always been. 

But now box sets and Netflix and dodgy downloads mean that it’s possible to isolate oneself from that crud, creating a gated community for one’s viewing, away from the riff-raff. Nobody watching the original House of Cards when it first came out would have been able to ignore the presence of other, rather less sublime manifestations of the form; today, you can mainline the Kevin Spacey remake without being aware that Simon Cowell even exists. Indeed, there may grow to be a (class-based?) distinction regarding the ways in which we describe our televisual habits. The connoisseurs proudly announce that they spent their weekend watching something specific, season five of whatever innovative retooling of American sociopathy is fashionable with Guardian critics; while the uncritical, passive state of simply “watching television” is left to the proles.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The appropriation of the alternative, episode 44,173

Along with many others, I sneered at this WikiHow article entitled How to Be Indie (for Girls), with its recommendations of “curly or wavy hair”, “old comics”, “indie celebrities” and with – oh, yeah – music as a 10th-place afterthought. And then I found myself editing a fashion spread that namechecked the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux, Ian Curtis and the Cocteau Twins, filleting my own adolescence to flog the autumn/winter collections. God, have I finally recuperated myself?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cirque du Soleil and the Tiananmen cliché

Canadian acrobats Cirque du Soleil have created a bit of a kerfuffle in Beijing by using an image of the Tiananmen Square massacre during a show. Any discussion of the events of June 1989 is proscribed in China, so some have interpreted the four-second projection as a shocking piece of agitprop. I’m not so sure. The picture of the man and the tanks has become a visual cliché in the West, almost divorced from the reality it portrays. Like the running girl or the burning monk or the falling soldier, it’s just part of our visual dictionary, used to represent bad stuff going on, even if we’re a bit vague about the context in which that stuff was happening. Lazy people use that horribly debased word “iconic” which really means that it’s a cliché but we can’t bring ourselves to say so. And as such, it’s ripe for modification and pastiche:

My guess is that whoever was responsible for including the shot knew it was a powerful image but didn’t really know why; it’s just become shorthand for repression and similar bad stuff. In fact, rather like all those Asian kids flaunting Nazi imagery for purportedly comic effect. I await the next visit to Montreal by the Chinese State Circus with some trepidation.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I just can’t be happy today

I’ve long had a tendency to anhedonia, the inability to derive pleasure, to enjoy. Mine’s by no means the worst of cases. I can be happy for a while, in the moment; but then I find myself thinking too hard about the situation I’m in and I start to feel guilty or self-conscious or just plain bored. I suppose I could stop thinking, but I’d rather be sad than stupid, to be honest.

So I was intrigued to read today of Malcolm Myatt, who in 2004 suffered a stroke that left him unable to feel sadness. Which all sounds lovely, but surely without at least an occasional spasm of sadness you cease to recognise joy? Am I reading too much into Mr Myatt’s pathological cheeriness if I claim to detect a hint of quiet desperation behind his eyes? It all reminds me of Marcel Marceau’s routine The Mask Maker, in which he’s trapped in a rictus of happiness, able to communicate his anguish only through his body movements. I saw Marceau perform it live over 30 years ago and hadn’t realised there was a filmed version available; nor that it was scripted (can a mime routine be scripted) by maverick movie director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who went on to make El Topo, Santa Sangre and other slabs of cinematic grand guignol. Not that that would have meant much to me when I saw it, at the age of 12 or so. Anyway, enjoy the clip; or don’t.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The guilty bibliophile (TIMATOV)

Two or three years too late, I’ve just finished Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. It’s set in a dystopic near future with the US economy on the verge of meltdown and picks up on some of the same concerns – such as the interconnection of fear and technology – that I addressed in my book about the Noughties. It also depicts an era where post-literacy is the norm; but rather than facing the legal sanctions under which readers operated in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they have to cope with the more insidious pressure of social disapproval. Bibliophiles receive the same sort of treatment we mete out to smokers, languishing under a combination of contempt, pity and incomprehension, forced to spray their books with air freshener to disguise their defiantly analogue smell; normal people are instead in thrall to devices called äppärats, a sort of high concept smartphone that also communicates a user’s age, credit rating and sexual attractiveness. When the hapless hero Lenny Abramov explains that his precious books are in a building that’s been condemned, a surly, disgusted security guard responds, “I think I just refluxed my lunch.” Of course I’m on Lenny’s side in this fight. Although I have to admit, I read the novel on a Kindle. Does that make me a bad person?

PS: “TIMATOV”, one of the creative äppärat-based acronyms with which Shyengart peppers his text, means “Think I’m about to openly vomit”.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Twitter: enjoying the silence

I like Twitter. I like it because it’s the perfect environment for smartarse one-liners; and smartarse one-liners make me laugh. I don’t buy the argument that it’s a symptom of shortened attention spans; as Pascal said, “I’m sorry to weary you with such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a short one.” And in any case, suggesting that a fondness for short, punchy things precludes an appreciation of more sustained efforts is like saying you can’t enjoy the Ramones and Shostakovich.

This is not to say that Twitter is perfect, of course. In recent weeks, some users of the service have said some downright vile things about certain high-profile women; wherever we might draw the line in limits on free speech, direct threats to kill or rape individuals fall on the wrong side of it. OK, Twitter has been lackadaisical in its attitude to such abuses and has now been shamed into some sort of action. But surely the main blame for such activities lies with the perpetrators rather than with any particular social media platform; we may as well demand the English language be called to account.

So I don’t agree with Caitlin Moran’s campaign to make today a day of #twittersilence, although I appreciate the anger that lies behind it. Apart from anything, what with The Archers omnibus, a crucial day in the Test Match and the revelation of the new Doctor, it’s a bloody silly time to do it. And I suppose there’s a sound argument that, as a man, I can’t properly appreciate the true impact of the misogynistic bile that the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez and Mary Beard have had to face. It’s all about the patriarchy, innit.

Well, fair enough. But if we’re talking about inequalities of power, it does seem a little rum that #twittersilence has come from individuals, such as Moran, who have plenty of other avenues through which they can communicate to the wider public. She uses Twitter, and uses it well, but she doesn’t need it, what with her Times column and best-selling book and TV and radio appearances and all that. The same goes for India Knight, who demonstrated just how little she needs it by closing her account yesterday. But not before leaving the following message (and thanks to Mic Wright for flagging this one up).

Well, yes. I suppose that means if I say something horrid about India Knight she wouldn’t even notice it, what with this being a mere, forelock-tugging blog and all. Which leads us to the fundamental question raised by Moran’s boycott; if someone takes to Twitter to say something revolting about Criado-Perez or Beard, Moran or Knight or any other man, woman or blogger and nobody notices because everyone else is boycotting Twitter, does that person automatically become the new Doctor?

PS: In the Standard, Sam Leith says: 
Twitter is the Pub. It’s a private space where the landlord’s rules go. No principles are at stake, and your best hope of persuading the landlord to chuck out the obnoxious drunks is to persuade him that he’ll lose more customers if he doesn’t. Twittersilence is a consumer boycott in which, technically, we’re the drinks rather than the customers.