Monday, December 31, 2012

Hitler at Hogmanay

I did consider ending the year with a strokey-chinny meditation on Maurizio Cattelan’s praying Hitler sculpture in the Warsaw ghetto and wondering whether it was more or less offensive than the recent von Hausswolff painting and guessing that the Chapman brothers are probably a wee bit pissed off that their own Hitler crazy golf effort suddenly looks a little anodyne; and then trying somehow to link it to the fact that the most popular page on the German version of Wikipedia has been revealed as “cul de sac”. But it didn’t hang together and ultimately it’s my blog, not Hitler’s, and as such it’s all about me, isn’t it? So...

And just to remind the various disembodied bots and Charlotte Rampling fans who show up here trying to sell me Ugg boots, my Infinite Jest blog is still twitching occasionally and several of my books remain available in the usual vicinities. Have a good one, people.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Gilbert Gottfried and the decline and fall of the American empire

In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks describes the frustrations of being an English writer working for the US market, and I know what he means. It’s not just about the divergences in word use and orthography that have set in since we benevolently decided the colonial bicycle could run without stabilisers; it’s about a whole host of assumptions and inferences, about shifting expectations of what readers might know or not know. (It’s also about tone, so if any passing American Republican readers feel obliged to point out that my metaphorical analysis of the endgame of their Revolutionary War is a tad indulgent to the British, please look up “sarcasm” before commenting. Have a nice day!)

Anyway, language and content. Parks is relatively relaxed about using “gotten” where his instinct would be to put “got”, because that’s a clear cut example of how the language has developed on each side of the Atlantic. What does irk him is that he’s forced to convert to miles, fahrenheit and the twelve-hour clock, even when he’s writing about Italy:
Slowly, as well as being concerned that some sentences were now feeling clunky and odd, I began to wonder if American readers really needed or demanded this level of protection. Wouldn’t they soon figure out, if I said “the temperature was up in the sizzling thirties,” that I was talking Celsius? Or at least that in another part of the world people had another system for measuring temperature where thirty was considered warm? Mightn’t it be fascinating for them to be reminded that the twenty-four-hour clock, which Americans usually associate with military operations, has long been in standard civilian usage in Europe? Italy introduced it as early as 1893.

There are two things going on here. The first, of course, is American cultural hegemony, which means that the average Italian (or a Briton or a Malaysian or an Algerian or whatever) will almost certainly know more about American culture than a similarly random American will know about Italian culture. But there’s a rider to that; because Americans are exposed to so little unfiltered foreign culture, they’re not expected to be able to cope with it. So a Brit may not know who Gilbert Gottfried or Sandy Koufax is, but will probably be able to work out from the context a rough idea why they’re famous; the gatekeepers of US culture will feel the need to explain Norman Wisdom or Monty Panesar to consumers, or even delete the references entirely. (I discussed this a few years ago, in relation to the TV show Extras being tweaked for American viewers.) And we never know whether those consumers have the curiosity to solve the riddles, because they’re so rarely put in a situation where such ingenuity is necessary. Way back when I was working on the North American edition of the Guinness Book of Records, I was specifically ordered not to put metric equivalents alongside US measures “because it’ll only confuse them”.

Another example. I’ve got the US edition of The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of Douglas Adams’s writings. Now, someone has apparently decided that references to “Britain” or “the UK” will be too taxing to readers, so they’ve been replaced by “England”. Most of the time this doesn’t matter much, since although Adams was British, he was also English; he was born and educated in the English bit of Britain and spent most of his life there. But then you get to a sentence such as “But I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union.” Apart from the fact that this would have been a constitutional impossibility, surely an American who knew what the European Monetary Union was would also know that England and the UK were two different things?

The fact is that the US has been able to maintain this glorious aloofness because of the economic and cultural advantage it has enjoyed over much of the world for the past 60 years or so. Now that the end of that period of domination is in sight, will they be able to cope with the fact that kilometres and cricket and Norman Wisdom exist, whether they understand them or not? Or are they simply going to disengage from everyone else and celebrate their glorious post-imperial decline by watching endless clips of Gilbert Gottfried? Whoever the hell he is.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What have the Mayans ever done for us?

Well, if today goes according to plan, DJs will be playing plenty of REM and Skeeter Davis, maybe even Bobby Womack, as their decks implode before their melting eyes. If it’s all a false alarm, it’ll be the Super Furries. But if you’ve really caught the apocalypse bug, you could do far worse than watch Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), a movie so deliciously Canadian that the world can’t even be bothered to end with a whimper, let alone a bang; more like an apology. See you on the other side!


PS: And if you haven’t completely given up hope, I’ve even written another post for my not-dead-yet Infinite Jest blog.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cuts in arts funding

The National Portrait Gallery has purchased a self-portrait by the late Craigie Aitchison, complete with slashes that the artist inflicted on it after an acquaintance described it as “flattering”. This comes in the wake of a two-year sentence handed down to Wlodzimierz Umaniec, who defaced a Rothko at Tate Modern as a means of publicising his Yellowist ideology. Now, since the painting was Aitchison’s own work and property, no charges were levelled when he indulged in his own bout of practical self-criticism, but one does wonder whether his amendments have added to or detracted from the monetary value of the piece. Also, taking into account Duchamp’s desecration of the Mona Lisa and the Chapman brothers having their wicked way with Goya, it must be asked whether there’s some sort of hierarchy at work. If a more exalted artist than Mr Umaniec were to whip out the felt tips and improve an existing work, would there be a different reaction. An Aitchison slashed by Aitchison costs £36,512; how much for an Aitchison slashed by Rothko?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kim Wilde: you took my dreams from me

Yesterday, somebody posted a video of 80s songstress Kim Wilde and her brother Ricky drunkenly performing two of her old hits on a commuter train coming out of London. It went, as they say, viral, as the YouTube clip migrated to Facebook, Twitter and then to the mainstream media.

What was its appeal? Three things, I think. One is a persistent affection for Ms Wilde herself; never a great singer in a technical sense, she has forged a career with a combination of looks, charisma and self-deprecating good humour. She’s a trouper, a sex symbol who’s also one of the lads. If an American equivalent of Kim Wilde (Debbie Gibson? Cyndi Lauper? Tiffany?) had started belting out her back catalogue on the New York subway after a few too many tequilas, she would have been in rehab by the time the networks got hold of it. Not in Britain. So Kim Wilde likes a pint. What’s not to love?

The second is that the clip reinforces a stereotype about the uptight British not wanting to get involved, not wanting to join in, not wanting to show themselves up, especially on public transport. One or two of her fellow passengers get the joke (“It’s actually her!”), a few join in with the chorus (“Woh-oh!”) but those in camera shot just try to pretend the whole thing’s not really happening. Although to be fair, maybe some of them were too young to have remembered Kim in her hit-making days. Or maybe they were foreign. If they are going to rewrite the test that newcomers to the UK have to take before they become citizens, perhaps they ought to demand a knowledge of the lyrics of ‘Kids in America’. Or, as I’ve long argued, the theme song to It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, complete with bellowed “SHUT UP!” and sitar obbligato.

But ultimately it fits the modern mood of Christmas, the bitter, battered, rueful, ‘Fairytale of New York’ attitude. Kim could have been someone, but instead she’s (metaphorically at least), the old slut on junk and Ricky’s the scumbag, the maggot; while Beyoncé might be sipping Moët in the back of a limo with Mr Z, Kim’s on the train, a bit pissed, wearing antlers, with her bald, chubby brother, and she gets off at Potters Bar. Happy Christmas your arse.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the clip became popular. “This is the best thing on the internet, ever,” typed some. “Made my day,” was the more restrained response of others. And then, pretty soon, people were taking to Twitter to say how bored they were of Kim Wilde drunk on a train and they wished their friends would stop posting the link. We’re talking minutes, not hours; not even ‘Gangnam Style’ became so annoying so quickly. And at about the same time, I started to wonder aloud – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one – whether the whole thing wasn’t just a stunt staged for the benefit of the radio station where she works. The person who posted the clip, who supposedly just happened to be in the carriage at the same time, specifically mentioned that the Wildes are on the way back from the Magic FM Christmas party. How did she know? In any case, why should she mention such a thing unless it’s all part of the publicity game? When Ms Wilde took to Twitter to admit that she was recovering from her exertions, she also took the trouble to keep the message on-brand. Something apparently so spontaneous, so daft and fun, was just another cold serving of capitalism gruel; in Situationist terms, an act of recuperation. It was that moment when you realise a flash mob is an advert with ideas above its station. Happy Christmas right up your arse.

So the needles were already beginning to fall from the tree, even as the horrible news started to trickle in from an elementary school in Connecticut. And at that point, we all got off at Potters Bar.

PS: The Daily Mail even mentions the radio station in the bloody headline. Which suggests that they know it’s a stunt, but they’re quite happy about the fact.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Raymond Briggs: everything melts in the end

I never properly got the bug for comics and/or graphic novels, but my childhood was definitely enhanced by the mordant brilliance of Raymond Briggs. I think his masterpieces are Fungus the Bogeyman and When the Wind Blows (with the later, heartbreaking Ethel and Ernest coming up behind) but usually when I mention his name I have to explain that he was the man behind The Snowman. It’s a good story but the lack of text means we’re deprived of Briggs’s facility for verbal wit and irony. And although the film is perfectly watchable, I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about the Yuletide add-ons that have made it a seasonal favourite (although they do allow us to point and laugh at dunderheads such as this bloke). It’s not about Christmas; it’s about death and loss and the end of innocence. All the stuff that really matters to kids, in fact. And Briggs himself agrees, it seems.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Friday, December 07, 2012

Carl Michael von Hausswolff and the value of bad publicity

The Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff has claimed that he used ashes from the Majdanek concentration camp in one of his paintings. Of course, this has provoked outrage, which was probably the whole point; it makes dead sharks and elephant poo seem positively sedate. The question is, would it be more or less outrageous if he subsequently announced that he’d been making the whole thing up?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Descendants: muck this for a laugh

I’ve only just got round to seeing last year’s The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne and featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by George Clooney as a man facing up to the imminent death of his wife. And it was good; sensitive without being sentimental and peopled with flawed but ultimately sympathetic characters. But either you know that already, having seen it, or don’t care, having decided not to; I’m assuming that I’m the last person on the planet who did want to see the thing but was too idle to do anything about it. The only serious flaw was ultimately my own fault; I watched it on a plane.

It wasn’t the small screen size that disrupted my enjoyment, nor the guy in front of me experimenting with his seat incline. Nor was it even the nasty, rigid headphones. No, it was yet another example of the infantilisation that everyone has to undergo when they step on a plane these days. OK, plastic cutlery and having your toothpaste confiscated, I can grudgingly see the point of that. but censoring every film to make it suitable viewing for a Victorian maiden aunt doesn’t make me feel safer; it makes me want to commit acts of random violence, possibly involving duty free goods.

OK, let’s deal with the obvious ones. Air passengers aren’t allowed to hear the word “fuck” or variations thereon, even though I’m sure they get muttered sotto voce every time someone is told to remove his belt at security. In this version of The Descendants, there are two alternatives. When it’s used as an all-purpose modifier (eg “What’s your fucking problem?”), the syllable is replaced by “freak”. When it’s a transitive verb, however (a usage that comes into play when Clooney’s character discovers his comatose wife had been unfaithful to him) we get “Did you muck my wife?”

So far, so Harry Enfield. But the swearing in The Descendants actually serves a purpose, indicating Clooney’s clumsy attempts to impose a little discipline on his variously dysfunctional offspring. So when his younger daughter calls her sister something odd but innocuous like “motherless girl”, Clooney’s response is to berate her for her bad language; an exchange that only makes sense if you know the phrase is a stand-in for “motherfucker”. And if you know language like that, surely you’re already corrupted.

That said, it’s not just George Carlin’s seven words that cause problems for the inflight Bowdlers. They also have to contend with the warriors/worriers of political correctness, such as this blogger who objected to the use of “retarded”. Again the word becomes the subject of an exchange about appropriate usage, although Clooney’s character is the bad guy here; but because the word itself isn’t heard, the whole scene is effectively meaningless. (The dubbing is particularly inept here; I assume they tried to replace “retarded” with “repugnant” but it ends up as something like “retugnant”. Which is potentially a good word, and I must think of a meaning for it some time.)

But the best moment comes when the elder daughter is trying to convince Clooney of his wife’s infidelity, explaining that she saw her going into a house with a man. Clooney suggests there must be an innocent explanation, but the girl’s having none of it: “He had his hand on her arm,” she says. But I don’t think she really said “arm”.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Bullshit defective

I am grateful to Mikaloguer for alerting me to the existence of the Blablameter, which exists, it says here, to determine the level of bullshit in a piece of text. That said, when I enter anything that I’ve written, it judges the BS level to be low-to-non-existent. The only possible explanations I can think of are that the thing doesn’t work; or that I genuinely don’t write bullshit (unlikely); or that my bullshit is just really, really effective.