Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Interview: but is it art?

Until a few days ago, the Seth Rogen/James Franco movie The Interview appeared to be nothing more than a crass, schlocky, buddy movie with a bit of heavy-handed politics thrown in. But then things got interesting. First came the cyber-attack against Sony that may or may not have had something to do with North Korea (although they said “it’s not us, guv”). Then the big cinema chains in the United States, mindful of the rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang, announced that they wouldn’t be showing the film, and Obama weighed in to say that the Koreans were acting like terrorists and the Koreans said “oh yeah, well you’re the real terrorists” and then he said that he was disappointed in Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures said “it’s not us, guv” and then someone knocked out the whole internet in North Korea and most of us said “but we didn’t think they had the internet in North Korea” and now it turns out that The Interview will be shown in cinemas after all, but only in a few small independents and art houses. And Obama said, gee, I’m proud of you guys, Merry Christmas.
A few thoughts. First, I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder whether this might be the most deviously brilliant marketing campaign ever, worthy — if this isn’t getting just a tad too self-referential — of a movie in its own right. Then, if the terrorist threats were indeed credible, are we supposed to assume that a few earnest cinephiles munching vegan brownies would be a tolerable level of collateral damage whereas the loss of a packed cineplex would be beyond the pale? And finally, if The Interview is now to be shown in art houses, does its context at the centre of a geopolitical shouting match mean that it has suddenly become art?

On similar lines, it would appear that Cecilia Giménez’s cack-handed restoration of a fresco at the church in her hometown of Borja, Spain, has attracted 150,000 visitors over the past couple of years, numbers that would make many provincial galleries salivate. Maybe that’s the answer when it comes to The Interview: yes, it’s art, but nobody said it had to be good art.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On re-reading Douglas Coupland

It’s a difficult thing, falling out of love with an author (or musician or artist or chef or, for that matter, a lover, I guess). The moment you realise their last two or three books have been dull reiterations of the same bloody theme, or misguided attempts to switch genre, or half-arsed doodles that wouldn’t have been commissioned if they didn’t have an established name attached, or some combination of all of them, can be a punch in the face. It’s not just the time you’ve wasted ploughing through the tomes in the hope of finding some of the sparkle that attracted you to the author in the first place; it’s the fact that even the earlier books, the ones you do love, are a little bit tainted. The question starts to nag at the back of your skull — were they actually that good to start with? And do you really want to go back and find out?

Shortly after I gave up on Douglas Coupland, thanks to the confused farce and misfiring satire of Worst. Person. Ever., I also managed to lose my Kindle, so found myself getting reacquainted with my bookcase. Which is how I found myself leafing through Coupland’s third book, Life After God, which I think I think I first read in the dying days of the John Major administration. In the last story, the narrator tracks down the friends from his teenaged years, including Julie, who is “trying to escape from ironic hell” – perhaps embodying the shift from the sarcastic wisecracks of the author’s debut, Generation X, to the more fleshed-out characters that came in the likes of Girlfriend in a Coma. And this exchange occurs, although as the use of the future tense implies, maybe it’s all in the narrator’s wishful thinking and will never really happen.
We will talk some more. She will remind me of a night the seven of us had back in 1983. “You know — the night we drank lemon gin and we each stole a flower from the West Van graveyard for our lapels.”
I will draw a blank. I won’t remember.
“Oh, Scout, don’t blank out on me now — you weren’t that drunk. You gave me all that great advice at that restaurant downtown. I changed schools because of that advice.”
I will still draw a blank. “Sorry, Julie.”
“This is truly pathetic, Scout. Think. Markie went shirtless down Denman Street; Todd and Dana and Kristy got fake tattoos.”
“Uh – brain death here. Nothing.”
Julie will become obsessed with making me remember: “There was that horrible brown vinyl 1970s furniture in the restaurant. You ate a live fish.”
“Wait!” I’ll cry. “Brown 1970s furniture – I remember brown 1970s furniture.”
“Well thank the Lord,” Julie will say, “I thought I was going mad.”
“No, wait, it’s all coming back to me now... the flowers... the fish.” Like a thin strand of dental floss the entire evening will return to me, inch by inch, gently tugged along by Julie. Finally, I will remember the night in its entirety, but the experience will be strangely tiring. The two of us will sit on the warm concrete steps quietly. “What was the point of that story, anyhow?” I will ask.
“I can’t remember,” Julie will say.
 You know, maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Why I am no longer a clown

When I was about eight years old, each class had to put on some sort of performance once a term for the rest of the school. Our teacher, Mr Gamble, decided the theme would be “When I Grow Up” and so each of us had to write a short piece about our career aspirations. I can’t recall many of the other choices; lots of boys as footballers, girls as princesses, I suppose, although one young lady announced that she wanted to be a frog, a decision that seems ever more magnificent the older I get.

I wanted to be a clown. In retrospect, this probably derives from a memory of about five years before, one of the first things I can genuinely remember with certainty (rather than remembering the retelling of it as it seeps into family folk history). We were watching Billy Smart’s circus on TV when the kitchen suddenly erupted in flames, the result of a hyperactive chip pan, and yes, the very notion of a chip pan might hint at how bloody old I really am. My parents did everything by the book, one phoning the fire brigade, the other hustling my sister and me out of the house to a neighbour’s place, where we were plonked down in front of a telly that was also tuned to the goings-on in the big top — not such a startling coincidence in those days, as there were but three channels. I have no memory whatsoever of the fire engine or of the blackened, sodden mess into which the kitchen had turned by the time we were allowed back into our house, only of the fact that the neighbours had a colour TV, while we had a mere black and white set, and that the clowns were funnier in colour.

Back to school. I’ve written a poem about how bloody brilliant clowns are and Mr Gamble says it’s good enough to read to the assembled audience. (I’ve also started writing poetry but haven’t yet conceived of Being A Poet as a career option. That comes later.) I dress in an approximation of an auguste’s finery, including a garishly checked blazer borrowed from my grandmother, and paint on an appropriate face. Mr Gamble suggests that a suitable ending for my moment in the spotlight would be for me to get hit with a pie and so taken with the whole experience am I that I just say yes, whatever, great, do it, I’m a clown — I haven’t actually contemplated what the experience might be like.

Come the morning of the performance, the various policemen and train drivers and pop stars do their schtick and frog girl sits on a lily pad and croaks and then it’s my turn. I do a few prat falls. I do my bit of bloody awful poetry. And then Mr Gamble hits me, hard, in the face, with a pie. Except it’s not really a pie, it’s just a paper plate, covered in flour-and-water paste. And instead of sliding elegantly towards the floor, leaving my eyes blinking soulfully from within the white goop, it just stays stuck to my face. I can hear my schoolmates, even if I can’t see them. And everyone is laughing, which is nice, but it’s the same sort of laughter that comes when the roly-poly headmaster, Mr Petts, calls some hapless child a ruddy lazy idiot in front of the whole school. Laughing at, not laughing with. Suddenly, I don’t want to be a clown any more.

Of course, if Mr Gamble had read this recipe for the perfect comedy pie the whole thing might have gone more successfully and my life might have taken a completely different path, clown dreams intact.

I wonder what happened to the girl who wanted to be a frog.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols

I bloody love Mike Nichols’ first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, and am quite fond of several of his later ones, without having ever thought of him as any kind of great auteur. Neither did he, if a quotation in his obituary is anything to go by. Setting himself apart from the likes of Renoir, he said:
The rest of us make entertainment. And that’s an absolutely honourable profession. Straining towards art is confusing and useless.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The crappiness of collective criticism

Received wisdom holds that the traditional top-down critic, bestowing his/her discriminating intelligence upon a grateful, adoring readership, is an endangered species, squeezed out of the arena by the voices of so-called ordinary people on sites such as TripAdvisor and Amazon, blurring together to create an incoherent choir of white noise and a score that always seems to add up to three and a half stars out of five or thereabouts.

But this crowd-sourced crit clearly has its weaknesses, not least for those who are on the receiving end. Take Bac Nguyen, a restaurateur in Cleveland, Ohio, who didn’t care much for a customer review on Yelp. He did attempt to engage with the specifics of the review (mainly a matter of what should or shouldn’t be the main ingredient in ramen noodles) but pretty soon the whole thing degenerated into “You’re ugly and physically weak and your girlfriend is an ugly piece of shit.” Which doesn’t exactly make me want to eat his cooking, but at least he restricted himself to verbal abuse, unlike one Richard Brittain, who is alleged to have avenged a lukewarm GoodReads review of his self-published book by hitting the critic with a wine bottle.

Davide Cerretini, who runs Botto Bistro in Richmond, California, was less worried about what the digital Anton Egos had to say; at first he tried to get his restaurant removed from Yelp, then attempted to subvert the whole system by offering discounts to diners who awarded it a single star. (Thanks to Paul Blackwatertown for alerting me to this story.) And then of course there are the glorious one-star movie reviews of Amazon (Free Willy: “They should of killed the whale and ate it.”) although these are partly redeemed by the mass kickings sustained by such crass products as the sexy PhD costume.

So maybe the professional sneerers needn’t feel so threatened. Could it be that crowd-sourced criticism is just as crap as the old version, only in slightly different ways?

Image: Raoul Haussman, Der Kunstkritiker (The Art Critic), 1919-1920, Tate Collection

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A death in Kensington

A man has been found dead in London. Not in itself a huge news story, but the context brings it to the attention of a national publication such as the Daily Telegraph. For a start, he was impaled on railings, which adds a certain gruesome curiosity value to the event; Gothic overtones, maybe, flashbacks to Satanic spearings in movies such as The Omen.

But it’s not just the mode of his demise that matters. Apparently the railings are next to the school attended by David Cameron’s children, which is on “Kensington Church Walk, one of London’s most exclusive streets, on which the average property price is £1.6 million.” So it’s not just a death – there’s a splash of celebrity and a stiff dose of property porn in there. And the privileged setting adds a rather ironic twist to the current line of enquiry, which is that the (anonymous) deceased was homeless; the spikes can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the “hostile architecture” increasingly used in public spaces to deter undesirables from hanging around for too long. In the words of the Parks Police constable: “We do have a problem here with homeless people and the number of them has increased by 200 per cent in the last year. It is a growing problem which we are tackling.” 

Never mind. I guess this is one less “problem” for him — and for David Cameron — to tackle.

PS: The Express goes one better and brings a royal angle to the story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The dislike button

Bret Taylor, inventor of Facebook’s “like” button, has explained why it has no negative equivalent, and probably never will:

The reason we launched the [like] button in the first place was that there were a lot of times that people wanted to acknowledge something someone did, but didn't have anything to say. And a lot of comments were one word like ‘cool’ or ‘wow’ so the like button let people did that with a single click. It wasn't really just a sentiment of ‘like’. 
So the “like” button serves to save inarticulate users the trouble of hitting three keys when one will do. Fair enough. But wouldn’t a “dislike” button serve the same purpose, offering an alternative to the intellectual effort of typing out “dude, this sux”? Hell, why not offer readers three options, as I do on this blog, allowing them to indicate their joy, loathing or – worst of all – bored indifference to what I post? No, says Taylor:
I have the feeling that if there were to be a ‘dislike’ button is that you would end up with these really negative social aspects to it. If you want to dislike something, you should probably write a comment, because there’s probably a word for what you want to say. 
Really? So people who can’t be bothered to type “wow” have the time and inclination to compose a thoughtful, cogent, sensitive explanation of their own negative reactions to what their friends have posted? In the past few days, two of my Facebook friends have lost their fathers. Both have received many messages of condolence, all of which are doubtless honest, caring and heartfelt, but the majority are variants on “Sorry for your loss, thinking of you”. There’s nothing wrong with such standardised mantras, of course – but by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with a one-click acknowledgement that the post brings bad news rather than good, rather like an anonymous candle lit in someone’s memory, or a teddy bear affixed to a tree at an accident black spot. What does rather spoil the mood of kind thoughts and virtual hugs in adversity is that each announcement has also attracted a whole bunch of “like”s, which to me would suggest “cool, wow, I’m happy your dad’s dead” – not the message the sender intended, I assume.

I simply don’t buy the “negative social aspects” of Taylor’s argument. Social media should reflect the lives of its users and life includes some negative stuff, whether it’s the death of a beloved parent or an annoying paper cut. His concept of Facebook as a cheery, positive, Pollyanna-ish thumbs-down-free zone is just a case of avoiding reality. Although since, as TechRadar points out, it’s probably more a case of dislikes being less useful to Facebook advertisers, he’s simply being disingenuous about the whole thing anyway. But hey, who ever looked to social media for expressions of sincerity?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bentleys, Borges, Bros and the fine art of disingenuous damage

From a letter to the Guardian about the late Jocelyn Stevens:
He was so wealthy that, when his car was written off in an accident, he instantly bought another Bentley (or whatever) and told his garage to make on it the same scratches and marks as were on the original so that his wife wouldn't know about the crash. 
Whether the tale is true or not (the correspondent believes it is but can’t be certain) there’s something deliciously Borgesian—via Baudrillard, naturally—about this, with the new car as a simulacrum to disguise the reality of the old one, and the crash. But the new car can’t just be a replica of a thing; it also has to replicate a history, events, time. Or maybe it’s just like the late 1980s, when people (OK, we) deliberately ripped holes in their Levis while insisting they’d occurred naturally.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

About ‘God Only Knows’

‘God Only Knows’ is probably my favourite Beach Boys song. So, it’s not the most crushingly obvious choice (that would be ‘Good Vibrations’ or maybe ‘California Girls’), nor is it just trying to be obnoxious for the sake of it (‘Kokomo’) but it’s not exactly out of the box either. A proper smartarse, offering his personal BB fave for a 20-page retrospective in Mojo or Uncut, would plump for something rather more obscure from Smile or Surf’s Up. But I like ‘God Only Knows’. So shoot me.

Or you could just shoot whoever decided to make ‘God Only Knows’ the latest Everyone Gets To Sing A Line, Even The Token Bloke From Senegal Or Wherever, Quite Yer Moaning It’s For Charity, Can The New John Lewis Christmas Ad Be Far Behind BBC Children in Need single. No, stop, don’t really shoot. In purely musical terms, I’m sure it’s not the most hideous version of the song ever committed to whatever it is songs are committed to these days. (The Bowie one was pretty sucky, for a start.) It’s not even the aura of smug self-satisfaction that hums off these records that’s the problem; the BBC has been getting so much politically motivated flak in recent years, any reminder of the extent of its riches has to be a good thing, even if that encompasses a cameo by old tortoise-face from Coldplay and Brian May doing the same guitar solo he’s been playing since about 1346.

No, it’s not so much what they’ve done to my song, ma, it’s more about how it changes my relationship with that particular piece of music. Within a few days, ‘God Only Knows’ will cease to be a Beach Boys song. It will become a charity single and if people chance to hear the original they’ll be confused because they’ll be expecting Emeli Sandé or One Direction or Stevie Wonder or that nice trumpet lady or the skinny choir bloke to be on there. Of course, the same thing happened with ‘Perfect Day’, which suddenly ceased to be a wistful paean to heroin and became a song about a day that was quite nice actually, with a bit by Westlife. In fact, ‘Perfect Day’ occupies a similar place in Lou Reed’s oeuvre to that of ‘God Only Knows’ in Brian Wilson’s; the mind-numbingly obvious pick would be ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, while clever-clever music critics would pick side three of Metal Machine Music.

But in both cases, the BBC has a lucky charm against any criticism of the recording. “Look, it can’t be that bad,” they’ll chide. “Brian Wilson’s playing on it. Just like Lou Reed did.” Which of course smudges over the fact that both Wilson and Reed are/were spectacularly odd and damaged individuals, a fact that is intrinsic to the weird brilliance of their music but has also led them down some pretty awful avenues (such as their collaborations with Status Quo and Metallica respectively). The cosy niceness of the BBC singles is just a minor late-period mis-step when seen in the broader context of their careers. Still, it’s a pity. ‘God Only Knows’ suddenly isn’t my favourite Beach Boys song any more.

PS: The Daily Mash gets it right, as is so often the case.

PPS: And this, by Lisa Cordaro. “A line in the sand”. Yes.

PPPS: ...and Michael Hann gives each performer on the BBC version marks out of 10.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bailey, Banksy and the thing too horrible even to be mentioned

Racism is bad. I trust we’re all on the same page as far as that’s concerned. But what to do about racism, how to respond to it, how to discuss it — these seem to be rather more divisive questions.

Take, for example, the installation Exhibit B by Brett Bailey, which features chained black actors in an effort to represent the true horror of human slavery. Or rather, it featured them, until protests against the “complicit racism” of the show forced it to close. The artist wasn’t actually suggesting that slavery or 19th-century human zoos were in any way a good thing; but people were offended by the scenes of degradation on view (or not on view — it’s not clear how many of them had in fact seen the show) and blockaded the venue and that was that.

Then, the good burghers of Clacton-on-Sea took against a new piece by the artist Banksy. Here it is:

OK, not one of his best works, maybe, but the message is pretty clear, I would have thought. Racism, including the disingenuous I’m-not-a-racist-but anti-immigration message being touted by the likes of UKIP (widely expected to win the imminent by-election in Clacton) is pretty bird-brained. But the image disappeared within hours and Nigel Brown, the council’s communications manager, said: 
The site was inspected by staff who agreed that it could be seen as offensive and it was removed this morning in line with our policy to remove this type of material within 48 hours. 
Get that: “it could be seen as offensive”. Presumably they understood that the artist’s intentions were entirely right and proper, but on the offchance that someone, somewhere, somehow might misinterpret them, the image was destroyed. The eternally sage and perceptive Annie pondered on Twitter whether the fact that the artists in these cases were white may have had a bearing in the case (although there’s no evidence that the factotum who erased the bird mural even guessed who’d created in, which adds another level of dumbness to the equation). But then I discovered that US school students’ access to novels by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker has been restricted because of their depictions of racism.

What unites these cases is that the intention of the artists is entirely irrelevant. The protesters and censors and council scrubbers seem to be worried that the very subject of racism is being raised in anything but the blandest, most nuance-free terms. Racism has become Voldemort. And although they don’t specify who is liable to be harmed by these artworks and books, I’d infer that its members of the ethnic minorities who are foremost in their minds. Which in turn suggests a rather patronising frame of mind, an assumption that non-white people are intellectually or emotionally incapable of coping with the subtleties and ambiguities of creative communication. And there’s a word for that.

For a more sensible approach to the whole subject, here’s Tom and Jerry. No, seriously. Aware that some people are uneasy about the depiction of the character Mammy Two-shoes in the evergreen cartoons, Amazon and iTunes have added a disclaimer:
Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.
There you are. Nothing censored, nothing prohibited, nothing scrubbed off the wall. Just a pale amber alert, a gentle acknowledgement that some people may not like something included in the product, like a “MAY CONTAIN NUTS” warning. It would be nice if some of those who’ve objected to the works of Bailey and Banksy, Morrison and Walker could take the same attitude; but I’m not holding my breath.

PS: More on this by Laura Mallonee at Hyperallergic, with specific reference to Scandinavia.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Post to ensure that I don’t feel obliged to say anything about the Scottish referendum result

Apologies to people who follow me on various social media thingies, as you may have seen these already. I don’t know whether this is original but I do rather like it:

And, on the same lines, these may or may not be the authentic musings of a teenage girl, but they still made me smile anyway:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That Kent State shirt and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism

Back when I was young and halfway pretty, I got myself involved in a bit of studenty politicsy shenanigans that ended up with a bunch of us barricaded inside the offices of the university vice-chancellor. (He’d attempted to carry on working for half an hour or so while various middle-class Trots and greboes glowered at him, but in the end gave up and vacated his space, presumably deciding that he’d get more done somewhere that didn’t smell of an army surplus store.) 

After a brief period during which we luxuriated in our triumph over The Man, the realisation began to sink in that: a) we weren’t quite sure what to do next; and b) we were breaking all sorts of laws and were running the risk of getting arrested and/or chucked out of university. Damn, we were political agitators, a threat to global capitalism itself — they’d probably send in the SAS to get us out. That was when I, working on the principle that the best way to get to know someone is to check out his/her bookshelf, noticed that our unwilling host owned a copy of the official report into the Kent State University shootings that resulted in the deaths of four students after the Ohio National Guard opened fire in 1970. Shit, as I don’t think we said back then, suddenly got real.

Which is a roundabout and slightly self-indulgent way of acknowledging the brouhaha created by Urban Outfitters’ decision to market a sweatshirt that seems to nod to the Kent State tragedy. And yes, they’ve been forced to apologise, but that’s not the point: we’re talking about Urban Outfitters without them paying us to. That’s the point. It’s a perfect example of recuperation, the process in which radical images and concepts are co-opted to reinforce the status quo. They won, comrades. We lost. And they didn’t even need to send in the SAS.

But while we’re here, do people really still wear sweatshirts?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Her, by Harriet Lane

The late Joan Rivers was known for a comedic style apparently uninhibited by moral qualms or social taboos but when asked if there might be any subject unsuitable for a joke, she responded: “the death of a child”. I’ve often wondered how far she might have stretched this self-imposed restriction: do adolescents count, for example? And now, unless she’s left us a few surprises in her posthumous archive, we’ll never know.

Rivers died while I was reading Her, the second novel by Harriet Lane. If we place it alongside her debut, Alys, Always, it would appear that Lane has a certain fascination for women doing damage. Not in the Hollywood model of psychopathic nannies and bunny-boiling spurned lovers, but more subtle, slow-acting, psychological poison that tears individuals and families apart without them realising what’s going on until it’s too late.

The newer book tells the story, in alternating first-person chapters, of two middle-class women in the early 40s. The apparently happier and more confident Nina bears some long-standing grudge against Emma, the true nature of which is not revealed to the reader until the closing pages; and Emma herself remains unaware that she might have done anything wrong, even at the end of the story. Indeed, she has no memory of her fleeting acquaintance with the other woman when both were teenagers, so when Nina chances to see her and engineers a meeting, she just thinks she’s made a new friend among the London yummy-mummy set in which she finds herself an uncomfortable inhabitant.

Nina ingratiates herself with Emma’s family and begins to exact a slow, subtle revenge. Some of this is simply deliciously banal — ensuring that Emma’s husband Ben sees the receipt for an expensive pair of shoes that his wife bought without telling him — and some subtly monstrous: she lures away the couple’s elder child Christopher while they are walking in the park and takes him home with her for a few hours, then claims to have found him, lost. The key point here is that there doesn’t appear to be any intention on Nina’s part to inflict any mental or physical harm to the boy, at first at least — she just wants to make Emma suffer the agony of imagining the danger he may be in.

Lane’s brilliant stroke here is that she doesn’t make Christopher an adorable moppet whose welfare we feel obliged to hold sacrosanct. Instead, he’s whiny, needy, apparently slightly dim three-year-old, whose presence, alongside that of his infant sister Cecily, is clearly grinding his parents down. They love him, but... As Nina finds increasingly ingenious ways to ratchet up the pressure on the oblivious Emma and her family we are never placed under the illusion that Christopher himself is anything other than a snot-encrusted pain in the arse. As such, even though Nina’s motivation for tormenting Emma turns out to be remarkably specious, we don’t see her as an entirely cold-blooded monster; let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to slap the hell out of someone else’s obnoxious brat at some point, if only to get back at the parents whose fault the child is? As the tension becomes all but unbearable in the final chapter, we don’t necessarily actively want the boy to come to any physical harm, but we can enjoy a certain detached ambivalence as Nina’s plotting comes to fruition. Although Joan Rivers might not have approved.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A cock and ball story

As far as I can deduce from my infidel’s grasp of Christian theology, Satan is the source and summation of all that is evil, the sine qua non of moral wrongness, the do-badder to outdo them all. You think Voldemort’s a rotter? By comparison, he’s still nicking sweets from the pick-and-mix. So I was interested to see that when a statue of Beelzebub appeared recently in Vancouver, what troubled the locals was not the artistic representation of all that offends God’s will but the fact that the erection was sporting an erection. Moreover, when it was reported in the mainstream media, although the statue’s priapic appendage was the main point of the story, it was demurely blacked out in the photos. 

There seems to be a similar level of prudishness elsewhere in Her Maj’s Commonwealth, as a confectionery company in New Zealand has withdrawn gummy sweets in the shape of, well, what do you think?

Outside the Anglosphere, however, it seems that they’re rather more relaxed about such matters.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The royal baby, the Society of the Spectacle and some adorable old lesbians

OK, so Kate and William are doing another baby. My immediate reaction is... well, not much, really, but apparently that’s not an option. I blame The Archers.

Allow me to explain. There I was, on a Facebook page devoted to discussing the resilient radio soap opera about sexually incontinent country folk when I raised the question of how the scriptwriters might deal with the news of the forthcoming junior royal. I also wondered aloud whether any character on the soap had ever expressed an opinion relating to the monarchy that was anything other than deliriously obsequious. For example, when the Duchess of Cornwall visited Ambridge (it being that sort of show) not a single soul made any half-jokey remark about how she’d probably murdered Diana, thus rather denting the programme’s claims to verisimilitude. Meanwhile, Linda Snell practically wet herself with delight when she came into vague proximity with the royal consort.

Someone asked whether this meant that I wanted a character to say that it was a terrible thing that a new baby is on the way. Of course not, I explained; any healthy, wanted new child should be a cause for happiness. What I might expect from one or more residents of Ambridge (I’m thinking Jim or Jazza, Pat or Matt) is at least a raised eyebrow at the torrent of media coverage, at once demented and banal, that this pregnancy will undoubtedly attract. I did try to float the idea that the people we know as “the royal family” are in fact characters in a hugely complex soap opera with more than a hint of reality TV, a Truman Show with tiaras. This may have been pushing things too far (and yes, I did drop Baudrillard and Debord into the conversation) but was it not telling that a speech by the general secretary of the TUC about the return of a Downton Abbey-era Britain was interrupted by a newsflash announcing the new tenant in the Duchess’s uterus? And that’s before we get to the timing of the announcement vis-à-vis the Scottish referendum.

“Oh, why do you have to make it so political?” they ask, implying that to question the monarchy is a political stance, whereas to support it isn’t. “You’re just being divisive. Why can’t you just let people be happy for a change?” But the thing is, if we really want something to bring us all together, to make us happy, we don’t need to seize on the fact that two rich people have created another rich person. On the same day the news came through of Kate’s pregnancy, I came across this story, from the Quad-City Times, about two women in Davenport, Iowa, who are finally able to marry each other after a relationship of – so far – 72 years. And that’s what makes me happy (albeit in a slightly choked-up, salty-eyed, I’ll-be-all-right-in-a-moment way). I wonder if they’ll mention it on The Archers.

PS: Then there’s this, via Jon Russell:

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The music press: waiting for Wednesday

Reading Simon Reynolds’ glorious piece in Pitchfork about the golden era of the UK music weeklies fills me with melancholy nostalgia. His focus isn’t so much on the writing itself, even less on the music that was being written about, but about his and others’ experience as consumers, of waiting for Wednesday, when a whole week’s worth of cultural snow would drop on your head in one analogue chunk. I empathise entirely, although our specific circumstances differed a little: he’s a few years older than me, so for his Burchill/Parsons and the Delta 5, I’d substitute the likes of Biba Kopf, Steven Wells and Nick Cave; and when he remembers WH Smith in Berkhamsted, I’m thinking John Menzies in Petersfield.

Yeah, yeah, I know, Rentaghost and deely boppers, free school milk and white dog poo, let’s ask Kate Thornton what she can pretend to remember. I get Reynolds’s gist, though. Because there was so little information available back then, you had to ration yourself, attempting to eke out your precious NME (other publications were available, but I’d borrow a read of someone else’s) until Friday or Saturday, like an oversized capon; whereas now, you’re constantly bombarded by bulletins and teasers and nuggets and listicles and there’s no build-up, no anticipation, no clock-watching. I also feel a frisson of recognition when he describes passages from the papers that still remain in his memory 30 years on, because he cut them out and saved them and went back to them time and time again. But, as he asks, “Who has time to reread anything these days?”

So, yeah, we’re both of us getting a bit dewy-eyed about the times when the ink stuck to your fingers (literally) and to your head (metaphorically, although I already had the habit of reading with my forehead resting on my hand, so the smears often ended up there as well). On the other hand, Reynolds’ article was apparently published first in The Pitchfork Review, a print publication, which I didn’t even know existed. So if it weren’t for the modern, evil, shiny, short-attention-span, no-time-to-reread, tiresomely clean-fingered online version, I wouldn’t have read the piece at all. And if it weren’t for the phenomenon that killed the Waiting For Wednesday thing stone dead, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about it anyway. Take that, John Menzies in Petersfield.

Now, please wash your hands.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Check out this picture of a famous actress not naked

I was a bit behind the curve when it came to the news that photographs of an underclothed Jennifer Lawrence, along with several other actresses in a similar condition, had suddenly appeared in the digital ether without said actresses’ bidding. The first I heard of it was when I was directed to an article by Clementine Ford that said that this was a bad thing (yup), that it was a gross violation of said women’s privacy (agreed) and that people who went out of that way to look at the pictures were complicit in the said violation (on board with that as well). I then remarked, under the social media post that had pointed me to the article, that, while I couldn’t fault the author’s logic, this was indeed the first time I’d been aware of said pics of Ms Lawrence, and that in a tiny way, the article was helping to fan the flames, by letting people know that they were out there to be gawped at, if one so wished. I was immediately shot down, apparently because I was attempting to shut down women’s voices in the argument. So presumably had the article been written by a man making the self-same points — with which, as I said, I agree — I’d have been in the clear. Whatever. In the event, I suddenly became so jaded with the direction in which certain strands of modern feminism seem to be progressing that I was almost tempted to search for said pics of J-Law in the rudey nude, just to be obnoxious, until I remembered that she’s apparently going out with Chris Martin out of lame, bedwetting beat combo Coldplay so I don’t fancy her any more.

But still, I agree with what Ms Ford was saying, regardless of her chromosomes. It’s all about having control over your own body, innit? If Jennifer Lawrence wishes to flash her various inny and/or outy bits to the world, she should be permitted and if she doesn’t, it must not happen without her permission. And if she wants to show a lot of her body in a bikini, or not very much of it in a burqa, that’s up to her, and the same goes for men, so there. And then I read another article about another actress.

It’s Keira Knightley this time, who is lauded in the Telegraph for striking a blow for small-breasted women by, well showing off her small breasts in a magazine article. And there may well be a debate about whether this is a wise thing to do, or a moral thing, or even whether the pictures are any good. But I hope nobody would disagree that they’re Ms Knightley’s own small breasts and it’s bloody well up to her to cover them or uncover them as she sees fit. Except, apparently, whoever makes these decisions at the Telegraph; since, alongside the article (by a woman, incidentally, not that it should matter, although apparently it does) saying what a good thing it is she bared her small breasts, the only pictures have said small breasts obscured by a strip of the dullest grey.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is an outrage against Ms Knightley’s dignity on a par with what Ms Lawrence and her colleagues have suffered. Just because KK elects to get them out, the Telegraph isn’t obliged to show them. It just seems that once again, a woman’s decision to do what she wants with her body is being overruled.

Except that now I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that.

PS: Further perspectives on the Lawrence thing from Fleet Street Fox and Anne Helen Petersen.

PPS: And this from the Daily Mash.

PPPS: Stuart Jeffries brings Slavoj Žižek to the party, as you do. (Žižek isn’t naked.)

PPPPS: And now it’s art.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cats and guns and MK Dons

Meanwhile, it’s still August, and reality is in retreat. We learn that Hello Kitty is not a cat (she’s actually a 40-something woman who lives in the Home Counties); China tries to calm down its fractious minorities with a cartoon concubine; the strange tale of the Japanese oddball who joined ISIS; the newsroom at The Times is alive with the sound of typewriters; and, hot on the heels of a 9-year-old girl killing her shooting instructor with an uzi, an audio technician on the TV show Cops is killed by, uh, cops. And Manchester United getting beaten by a team that, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t really exist. And Kate Bush. Oh, and this:

PS: And this, by Jopsy, via Valerie:

PPS: The New Yorker responds to the Kitty bombshell.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The partial redemption of Douglas Coupland

I’ve been reading a book. Yes, a book, a book book, a codex, a book that looks like a book, with covers and pages and things. OK, granted, I’m only reading it in such a form because the publisher, has seen fit not to produce a Kindle version. But I do start to remember the advantages of analogue text – for a start, you can use it to reserve your table in Starbucks and be pretty certain that nobody will nick it.

This is despite the fact that the tome in question – Shopping in Jail, by Douglas Coupland – is the sort of minimalist, functional, slim (92 pages) volume that exudes a sort of utilitarian panache in its cover of Guantánamo jumpsuit orange, the sort of book for which ponces such as myself are prepared to pay over the odds in the gift shops of the ICA and the Pompidou and MoMA; which is, of course, exactly the sort of shallow, facetious aperçu about 21st-century consumerism that Coupland might have included in his book of essays. In fact, I bought it because although I’ve pretty much given up on Coupland as a novelist, I can still acknowledge that he’s a good writer. Older readers may recall my review of JPod, which essentially degenerated into curating a list of the book’s best one-liners. 

I’d already deduced that the best line connected with the book occurs among its Amazon reviews but Coupland can still come up with the goods. First he quotes Paul Valéry – “Any view of things that is not strange is false” – with a studied insouciance that precludes him having to explain who Paul Valéry is, thereby leaving the reader wondering whether she really ought to know and, if not, whether she needs to pretend. And then there’s this:
I start to tune out the statistics I’m being told about the future of China’s consumers, which largely have to do with Chinese advertisers targeting the right Chinese consumers. This is depressing, and one would hope China might do something different with targeted data than just nurture shopping — possibly something gruesome and eye opening, but different nonetheless, Seated on a comfy leather sofa, watching the end of a reality series, I muse on the 7 billion people on earth and how almost everybody these days voraciously devours countless unbundled fragments of our creative past, either by watching it as a YouTube clip or by sticking it in a plastic envelope for sale on eBay, and how we seem to be consuming far more culture than we create. I’m wondering if everything before 2001 will be considered the Age of Content, and all the time thereafter as the Age of Devouring.
Which is good and true but is also pretty much what I was trying to say in my book about the Noughties. Although, according to Coupland’s analysis, by recycling his words I’ve come fairly close. Maybe I should give up on this whole shallow, facetious cultural commentary lark and write a shallow, facetious novel instead.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Murakami takes a trip

There’s a joke about two-thirds of the way through Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. At least I think it’s a joke. Tsukuru is in southern Finland, sitting on a bench, eating cherries, when he is accosted by two local girls who ask where he’s come from. He explains that he’s come from Japan and the flight took 11 hours.
“During that time I ate two meals and watched one movie.”
“What movie?”

“Die Hard 12.”
This seemed to satisfy them.
Now, it could be that Tsukuru is just making a facetious, smartarse remark that sails over the girls’ heads, but that doesn’t seem likely. In common with most of Murakami’s central characters (neither “hero” nor even “protagonist” sufficiently addresses their essential passivity), he’s not a smartarse. Instead, because the exchange is so deadpan, so matter-of-fact, the reader could reasonably infer that in the fictional universe that Tsukuru inhabits, there really is a 12th instalment of the John McClane franchise.

Or is it something deeper? The set-up of the story is that Tsukuru finds himself ostracised from his tight-knit group of high-school friends, for reasons they won’t explain. Many years later, when he finally plucks up courage to ask what provoked this expulsion he finds himself retrospectively accused of a heinous crime and once he’s recovered from the shock, he starts to wonder whether there’s some alternative plane of reality in which he might actually have been capable of committing it, even though he has no memory of the act.

This notion of parallel existences harks back to Murakami’s previous book, the behemoth 1Q84, in which the heroine accidentally enters another version of the world without at first realising it. Only when she starts noticing random incongruities both small (Tokyo policemen suddenly appear to be carrying a different model of revolver) and substantial (there are two moons) does it sink in that something’s different. So maybe Tsukuru has entered another realm, one in which everything is as we know it in our own world, except that Bruce Willis got divorced again and really needed the money. Incidentally, the reference to a non-existent film did make me think of a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, an author who is sometimes lazily bracketed with Murakami simply because they were born in the same country. In The Unconsoled, the narrator, Ryder, visits a cinema where 2001: A Space Odyssey is playing and notes without surprise the performances of Yul Brynner and Clint Eastwood. This lurch from reality is one of the first suggestions (it’s never explicitly confirmed) that Ryder is dreaming: and Murakami’s penchant for vivid, often erotic dreams that may or may not be real is maintained in Colorless Tsukuru.

Of course, in the new book Murakami gives rein to many of his other habitual tropes, without which his fans would feel short-changed: music, enigmatic women, telephones and – very tangentially and only towards the end – religious cults. The cats, one suspects, are merely resting. Ultimately, though, his theme is the state of his central characters, the state of being slightly apart from the rest of the world. This is especially resonant for Tsukuru because, unlike most of Murakami’s characters, he leaves Japan, if only for a few days. (As far as I recall, the only time this has happened before was in what I regard as his weakest effort, Sputnik Sweetheart, which involves a sojourn in Greece.) When Tsukuru reaches Finland, the author hammers home his otherness in uncharacteristically explicit terms, heavy-handed, even:
It finally struck him: he was far from Japan, in another country. No matter where he was, he almost always ate alone, so that didn’t particularly bother him. But here he wasn’t simply alone. He was alone in two senses of the word. He was also a foreigner, the people speaking a language he couldn’t understand. It was a different sense of isolation from what he normally felt in Japan.
But, possibly coincidentally, there’s another aspect of the novel that makes the reader empathise with this sense of isolation. To a degree that doesn’t happen in Murakami’s other books, the specific peculiarities of the Japanese language are mentioned several times. The other members of the high-school gang that rejected Tsukuru all have names that refer in some way to colours, whereas his doesn’t, hence the first word of the title. However, it is significant that his own name refers to construction, as he gets an engineering job, building train stations. Later, it is remarked that a character uses high-flown honorifics to address Tsukuru; whereas another character uses informal, even rough pronouns. Later still, a Finnish character finds himself searching for the right word in Japanese. The translator, Philip Gabriel, deals with these potential pitfalls elegantly but each time they occur you are inescapably reminded that you are reading a translation, that you are not Japanese, that you are somehow isolated, apart, other from the absolute essence of what’s going on. Just as Tsukuru can safely eat his pizza in Helsinki but will probably never feel entirely part of the action, we as gaijin are always on the outside of Murakami’s world of outsiders, looking in. If you’ve never before fully identified with the archetypal Murakami not-quite-hero, here’s your chance.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Alfred Hitchcock as a middle-class pleasure

I spent a few hours yesterday watching a couple of silent movies made by a young whippersnapper called Alfred Hitchcock. It was part of Bangkok’s first ever festival devoted to the cinema before sound and it was gratifying to see a good turnout. Well, it was good in terms of numbers, but the bulk of punters seemed to fall into one of two groups, namely young, faintly beatniky Thais of both genders; and farang gentlemen d’un certain âge. It was essentially a middle-class event. Which is sad, because both the films (The Pleasure Garden and The Ring) were intended to be commercial crowd-pleasers aimed at all strata of society in their day; they each took as their milieu a form of popular entertainment (music hall and boxing respectively); and since they were silent movies, shown here with bilingual intertitles, the language barrier that can often discourage locals from enjoying a wider range of entertainment was considerably lowered. But no, it was all skinny-jeaned hipsters and old farts who are starting to look more than a little like Hitch himself. The lady selling little packets of tissues outside the ladies wasn’t interested, nor were the people offering all manner of stuff in the foyer. (Is Bangkok the only place where a legitimate cinema can host a stall flogging bootleg DVDs?)

Of course, things are much healthier in the relatively classless West, aren’t they? Aren’t they? I came home to a Facebook post by my (virtual) chum the arts editor of a mid-market tabloid, wondering why people who make much noise about the need to have art that reaches out to the masses can’t be arsed to talk to her paper. And then there was this article by Mark Cousins in The Observer, complaining about the way that so many British arts venues — presumably inadvertently — conspire to make working-class people feel unwelcome. As he puts it: “But so often, their sleek lines, or facades that look like office buildings, their malbecs and chorizo-studded menus are too culturally thin.” Against this, of course, is what happens when art becomes too popular for its own good, as expressed in Rachel Donadio’s piece in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago: “People now swarm the paintings, step on anyone to get to them, push, shove, snap a photo, and move quickly on without looking at the painting,” says a Florence-based travel guide. When I first moved to London it was genuinely exciting to go to the Streatham Odeon and watch something like What’s Love Got To Do With It in the midst of an audience that was for the most part young, working-class and African-Caribbean as they bellowed abuse at Laurence Fishburne in the guise of Ike Turner. Would I have been so delighted if they’d followed me up the hill to the Ritzy and given the same treatment to a Peter Greenaway double bill? Cousins argues for fish finger sarnies alongside the chorizo but it’s not quite that straightforward, is it?

(Class is tied up with money, of course, but they aren’t the same thing. People with unlimited funds can also make the oddest cultural choices — like the Brazilian plutocrat who set about buying up pretty much every record ever released, although he isn’t quite sure why.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Literally ironic, uniquely iconic

So, language changes. I get that. I use words differently from the way my parents did and they use them differently from their parents before them. They probably wouldn’t have begun a blog post with “so” for a start. And once upon a time “awful” meant inspiring reverential fear (so it’s weaker now, as well as more derogatory) and “decimated” meant losing a tenth of your forces (so it’s stronger now, if less precise) and if you used them like that today (which used to be hypenated – to-day) it wouldn’t simply be archaic, it would be downright wrong.

But – and I suspect that my grandparents, if not my parents, were taught never to begin a sentence with “but” – some changes grate. Loud and mighty was the outrage when dictionaries began to acknowledge that “literally” was frequently used to mean, well, “not literally”. It was unfair that the opprobrium was directed against the dictionaries, which rightly describe the way of the word rather than prescribe or proscribe but I did and do share the annoyance. For a start, there’s already a word meaning “not literally” and that’s “figuratively”. It’s different from “literally” because they mean different, opposite things. When I use a phrase and want to clarify that I don’t mean it to be taken literally, I’ll say “figuratively” and people will understand. But what if I want to ensure that what I say is to be taken at face value? If I say “literally” how many of the people will think I’m using the newer meaning and understand the precise opposite of what I intended? The shift has effectively made “literally” useless as a word because it ceases to have anything like a fixed meaning. Until things have settled down (probably at a point when the original meaning is relegated by the dictionaries to being a quaint archaism) it’s pretty much unusable. And if and when that does happen, we still don’t have a good word to mean that someone didn’t just make a social gaffe, he really did physically insert his foot into his mouth.

The change affecting “unique” is less of a problem as it’s more of a weakening than a complete reversal of meaning. I regularly see it being used to suggest “unusual” or “different” or “special” or “rare” and if this happens often enough, that’s what it will come to mean. But “unique” means something specific: there is only one of these things in existence. And again, if it’s diluted to mean that there aren’t very many of these things in existence, but maybe a bit more than one, what word do we use when we want to indicate that, no, there’s only one, and that’s your lot? The same goes for “ironic”, which now apparently means anything from “coincidental” to “a bit unusual”; and “iconic”, which means “something from a few years back that with the aid of a massive marketing budget and a bit of false consciousness we hope will acquire a historic resonance that it really doesn’t deserve”.

Change in language is good. It can expand our vocabularies, offering us ways to discuss concepts and things that we would previously have had difficulty addressing. But these particular changes, where a word’s meaning becomes blurred from something to pretty much anything, actually constrict language because when a word means anything, it means nothing. And for the time being, while we’re in this state of flux, I’ll refrain from using these four words. They’ve become meaningless.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Wikifibs, Jarvis cakes and the memorial scarecrows of Nagoro

Way back when blogging was still A Thing, I’d actually worry if I hadn’t posted in the past two or three days. Now it can slide to a week or more before I get an itch of guilt. Of course, in those olden days, if I couldn’t think of anything compelling enough to use as raw material I’d just put up a few links to stuff that had recently interested or amused me and then maybe top it off with an equally random YouTube clip and I’d feel a bit better.

Well, I haven’t posted anything for nearly a week and I feel not so much worry as a vague sense that if I don’t make use of this thing once in a while that it will atrophy and die like an inactive limb, or I’ll forget the password, whichever is the worse. So, without indulging in any further self-analysis, I offer up: an excoriating review of a project with which I was involved several lifetimes ago, which generously describes my own modest contribution as “entertainingly prissy”; musing on what it feels like to be the original for a fictional character (and I point once again to my own form in this area); the tale of a Wikipedia fib that took on a life of its own; Jarvis Cocker in cake form; a debate on whether the highbrow/lowbrow divide has any particular meaning any more; which leads in a roundabout way to the fact that the new Murakami novel will hit the shelves—digital or otherwise—in a matter of days; and from there, it seems to be a short hop to the Japanese woman who found a new way to replace absent friends.

Seems almost like old times.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A 21st-century desert island

The format of the radio programme Desert Island Discs has remained pretty much unchanged since it started over 70 years ago. The guest is asked to imagine that s/he will be stranded for an indeterminate period on a desert island and is allowed to take eight records, a book and a luxury item of no practical use. The only real element to have changed is that for most of its duration, it was assumed that the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare would already be there; now one can have an alternative religious text in place of the former.

That’s about it, though. Castaways are no longer told they would be provided with an unlimited supply of needles for the island’s (presumably wind-up) gramophone but the arrival of LPs and then CDs has barely been acknowledged: the selections are usually individual songs rather than whole albums, so one wonders how someone might physically be able to take, say, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band without bringing the rest of the record. Oddly, this didn’t apply to classical works, so a guest would be able to select Beethoven’s Ninth, not just the hummable bit at the end.

The whole idea now seems even more anachronistic as the very concept of records — as the show’s originator, Roy Plomley might have thought of them — is in danger. Nick Hornby subtly pointed out the daftness of the situation as long ago as 2003, when, in addition to his eight discs, he picked an iPod as his luxury, and Sue Lawley, the presenter at the time, had to explain to listeners what it was. I don’t know whether guests are discouraged from such smartarsery these days, but I can’t remember anyone pulling a similar stunt since.

Until today, that is, when the web scientist Wendy Hall made her choice of book: Wikipedia, loaded onto a (wi-fi disabled, for the sake of propriety) Kindle. In a desperate attempt to maintain the privileged sanctity of the codex, Kirsty Young said that such a thing could only be allowed if it were printed on paper. Hall sensibly pointed out that this would make negotiating the links between articles a chore, but ultimately accepted that DID is bigger than any one castaway. I suspect she’s raised a few uncomfortable questions in the production office, though. Sure, the format is based on a fantasy; but there’s a generation coming up for whom the rules and restrictions of the programme are genuinely unimaginable.