Thursday, April 28, 2005


"The Internet is a dark road to infinity potholed with links...for a writer it's like shitting where you eat"

Just one of many drole observations from Miles Raymond in Rex Pickett's Sideways, a novel I've been meaning to comment on for some time now.

In the afterword the author offers "bottomless gratitude to Alexander who, with his talented writing partner, Jim Taylor, faithfully adapted it for the screen". I wonder if Pickett really thinks the adaptation was faithful? There are a number of significant points of infidelity, some of which are worth mentioning here. In the novel for example...
  • Miles and Jack are about ten years younger. These aren't men in the midst of the menopause, they are more like siblings of Roger Dodger, self-destructive thirtysomethings letting go of the rudder. (Indeed one of Miles' unpublished works of fiction was called Circling the Drain.)
  • Jack however is a harder-edged, more successful character, a TV and Film producer rather than a bit-part actor.
  • Both are psychographically LA residents, not denizens of San Diego. This is important because long-term exposure to phoneyness has clearly fed Miles' pathology.
  • Jack offers Maya incentives to bed Miles. Sexual politics are more pronounced in the text.
  • This is one of many incidents that tests their male-to-male bonding, a theme that is also more to the forefront.
  • There's a sub-plot involving a critterman and a trip to Hearst Castle which they rate as a "cool crib".
  • The story is told from Miles' viewpoint. In a sense this may be the book that the trip produced, but Pickett doesn't obviously develop this. There's not enough evidence of later reflection to back this up.
  • You get the feeling that Pickett saw Miles as one of those guys who is more mainstream and attractive than he gives himself credit for.

And importantly Miles isn't a teacher that happens to also be a failed novelist, he's a serial failed novelist that has now arrived "at the final frontier of impecuniousness and artistic failure." His situation is rooted in a suspicion of facade and a failure to conform: "I don't do formula". This is a "high maintenance, low yield" posture of rebellion leading inexcorably to self-loathing, but also a profound aversion to "blending varietals", individuals that do have access to a lifelong formula for fitting in and moving forwards whatever other compromises that involves: "The Chard-swilling masses".

The title clearly refers to the sense that Miles has that he has ceased to progress along the track, and now no longer even understands the track itself or the other people on it. But early on in Pickett's novel I learned that in California slang, sideways also specifically means smashed, sloshed, shitfaced, etc. And this is where the two meanings meet, because Miles characterises his social life as "getting hammered every Friday night and unburdening yourself to people that you thought were your friends."

The red stuff consistently delivers the "beautiful buzz" but Miles acknowledges that it can also be a "cruel mistress in the morning". Something fleshier is thus also required. "We need to find an oasis of womanhood, otherwise we will wither on the vine". Seen through Miles' eyes however, these oases turn out to be little more than wine-snob fantasy objects. After pouring Pinot Noir over Maya as an act of foreplay Miles declares "this was the only time in my life that spirit and flesh had merged in transcendental oneness."

Yet the character of Maya is a clear example of one of the elements of the story where Payne and Taylor added some spirit to the flesh in their Oscar-winning screenplay. And taking full advantage of the ability to show us Miles and Jack depth was then added to their personalities paradoxically by culling much of the complexity and detail that Pickett had worked into these characters, and also by shearing off some of the unnecessary sub-plot. 'Realism' has been reduced or at least constrained, and the end result is that the simplified characters and themes are more immediately striking.

However, before tackling the novel I had an opportunity to re-visit the movie on a United flight and found it oddly less involving. On reflection I concluded that this is one of those stories where the location should be on the cast list, but on a tiny aircraft screen you miss out a bit on the evocation of place that's at the heart of both novel and film. (Such was Payne's success in calling forth the delights of the Santa Ynez Valley that fans have been flocking to The Hitching Post and pinching the napkins since the film's release!) These are characters that need a bit of air around them. They also need to be allowed to swear!

Norwegian Wood

I'm halfway through Norwegian Wood (Noruei No Mori) and I realise that I am becoming quite well atuned to the main elements of the Murakami style and technique.

  • He likes to introduce a new character with each main shift in time and place
  • These characters are often allowed to tell us quite a long story nestled within the main narrative
  • The speeches with which the characters reveal themselves to us are usually broken up by an outside incident
  • The main narrator character is self consciously a detached individual "devoid of special features" who is fairly reluctant to describe his internal states at key moments in the plot
  • Around him there are several troubled women working through their issues
  • These women embody alternative life choices for the central male
  • There is deliberate repetition of character names and traits across his fictional world
  • Pairs of siblings are a recurring motif as are wells.

Bach and Brahms get a few mentions in this novel, appropriately enough because Murakami himself can be very Bach in some passages and rather Brahms-like in others.

One of the main female characters, Midori, describes early on how she makes money annotating maps in a way that can only be an instance of Murakami gently mocking the way he himself always likes to draw our attention to one striking, momorable detail in every descriptive passage:

"Like you put in a little something that nobody else has written and the people at the map company think you're a literary genius and send you more work...Put in one episode like that and people love it, it's so graphic and sentimental. The usual part timer doesn't bother with stuff like that, but I can make money from what I write."

I think I'll have to return later to this topic of how the output of many artists working in different media could be characterised as a constant repackaging of the same preocupations and the same basic thematic and stylistic ingredients.

Flip it

I have come across this definition of the personal home page that is easy enough to flip into a positive description of what blogs add to the online media:

"a non-linear, non-date-stamped, not-updated regularly, unpersonalized tone, manually managed & hard-coded [page] with no purpose of social networking, knowledge sharing or linkrolling."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I wonder what percentage of the 26 thousand or so new blogs set-up today will be written under a pseudonym. Before the advent of phenomena such as the CEO blog, the use of a nickname was perhaps one of the unwritten conventions of pastime blogging. The issue is also pertinent to Niall's recent posting on 'character' blogs.

The announcement yesterday that all-round LA busybody Arianna Huffington is to launch a group blog which will compile the collected wisdom of her 300+ 'friends' is yet to be supported by the invention of a suitably ugly denomination for this kind of digital bedlam.


Frode has blogged our lunch together at Ikkyu yesterday, smoothly accentuating the more earnest aspects of our dialogue. As well as the failings of search systems Frode remarks about the failings of journalists - unless they are writing about journalism, they're writing about something they don't fully understand.

Generalised as it is, he does have a point there. Personally I am reluctant to air opinions on topics on which I would not be prepared to stand and face up to an acknowledged expert. Yet a great deal of the output of mainstream journalism (and the worst sort of weblogs) involves synthetic commentary posing as informed analysis.

Occasionally though, even the most careful reporter will fall down one of the holes in their knowledge. However hard a hack tries not to opine, a shallow understanding can lead to the transmission of fallacies and misconceptions. Frode feels that he has been on the receiving end of some of these of late.

Hidden Connections

In Socrates Cafe philosopher Christopher Phillips remarks:

"In a way, it is startling to me that otherwise rational people can give in so easily to the temptation to see a connection between independent phenomena that happen to coincide in time".

Until precisely 100 years ago when Albert Einstein published the last of the four scientific papers of his annus mirabilis (1905) on the photoelectric effect , anyone with a penchant for regarding themselves as rational was safe in the basic assumptions that underly the quotation above.

Now it surely remains the case that the less a person understand probability the more likely they are to perceive and infer meaning to strange coincidences. Yet the prohibition on hidden connections can no longer be said to be absolute. Such is the guilty secret of all contemporary men of reason. Einstein himself realised that he had opened Pandora's Box and spent the rest of his life trying to sit on the lid.

To no avail - spookiness is here to stay. Many of his peers came round to accepting (or at least parking) the notion that the cosmos is configured to be perceived as solid when essentially it isn't, and that classical causality floats on the surface of a soup of contingency. Today most scientists accept that Quantum uncertainty is not simply the result of imperfect knowledge with the implication that at a fundamental level our world is much more ambiguous than meets the eye; in fact it's especially so when it doesn't. Unobserved reality is a miasma of connected disconnectedness, where the whole notion of independence in space and in time is incoherent.

When our ability to see is limited to events affecting large objects in four dimensions, how can we be absolutely sure that we aren't catching fleeting glimpses of connections between these at the indefinite micro-level or indeed between the dimensions we see and the ones that we don't?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Am continuing to enjoy my recent demotion to sous-chef. My most recent deputisation resulted in this delicious dish - spaghetti with king prawns, chopped carrot, mushroom, ginger, garlic and rocket with a sauce made from cream, white wine, mustard seeds and lemon juice and topped off with flakes of freshly grated parmesan. Yum.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Shall we Dansu

A film about two people that stare out the window when they should be working. One is a middle-aged accountant that has given his life to his firm in order to attain his dream of owning his own suburban home, but finds that the idea of spending the rest of his life in it with his homey wife hardly sets his soul on fire. The other is a serious, waiflike young girl that has been consigned to teaching ballroom dancing in her father's studio after splitting up with her partner as the result of an upset at the final of the world championships in Blackpool.

Both feel cooped up in their present existences and search for liberation in the open spaces beyond the window frame. He spots her at hers and, smitten by this vision, enrolls at the studio only for his infatuation to become more generalised to the world of the dance. She brushes off his awkward attempt at a pass, but ultimately finds that his growing enthusiasm for his new hobby provides the key to her own release.

This tale was of course recently re-told in the Hollywood vernacular, with Richard Gere and J-Lo in the lead roles. I enjoyed that remake. It was livelier, louder, sometimes funnier even, but the essence of its version of the story would be far less readily summarised in the way I just did above.

Not only is J-Lo hardly waiflike, but it's also difficult to imagine why someone like her would choose Blackpool as the end point of her imagination. The gentle mockery of the Japanese fascination with low-rent British sub-cultures is basically lost in the re-make.

Gere's character also gets the subway home, but is less obviously a drone-like sarariman entombed in routines and gender-role expectations. In fact, he really does seem to have it all. The submissive Japanese wife is swapped for the bolder, more independent Susan Sarandon, who is allowed her own share of the passion in the end. Perhaps US audiences would have baulked at the timidity of the Tokyo 'er indoors, but the end result is characters and situations that are less persuasive in their new context.

Overall Shall we Dansu (1996) is a less ambitious, but more subtle piece of film-making. The short prologue after the opening credits establishes our expectation for a well-observed comedy of manners - in fact a rather British a comedy of embarrassment. (Tellingly I met a Japanese guy at Surfer's party on Saturday night who declared that Shall we Dansu was his all-time favourite film, and that he'd seen both Bridget Jones movies three times!)

So while Peter Chelsom's version successfully transplanted the synopsis it left behind most of the pyschological substance of the original's theme. Yet his screenwriter Audrey Welles did manage to make more of Masayuki Suo's supporting characters and Shall we Dansu has nothing to quite match the Gere-Lopez late-night tango set to the GOTAN Project's Santa Maria. Yet the appeal of these stars is another distraction - they appear to be struggling with the incompatible objectives of exuding their full celebrity sexiness and yet at the same time somehow not getting it on.

Important Messages

The producer of ITV Sport made the career-threatening decision (hopefully) yesterday to run a commercial break during the last three laps of the San Marino GP.

Schumacher had sliced through the field from thirteenth on the grid employing the "quítese cabrón" driving technique much favoured by the late great Ayrton Senna, and ended up tail-gating Alonso's Renault with twelve laps to go. What followed was probably the most exciting Formula One racing seen this Millennium, so cutting to commercials at such a palm-sweating stage really has to be seen as the F1 equivalent of doing it during an England penalty shoot-out.

Surely none of the advertisers whose products were thus immersed in a bubbling acid pool of negative emotion will thank ITV for this sort of exposure.

Rosenthal and co. tried to make ammends by re-showing the last three laps, but this only compounded our sense of annoyance and injustice with its sheer pointlessness. They were lucky Alonso was still showing Schumie the afterburner when they returned to Imola for the last lap.

The Rocky Road to the Top

Until a few weeks ago at least the most globally visible and influential Christian and Muslim were Pope John Paul II and Osama Bin Laden respectively. Whatever else you might think of the two heavyweight monotheisms, this fact is not without its significance.

It's strangely ironic t00. Mohammed thought he had done the necessary to iron out the inconsistencies inherent in Christian thinking about the relationship between spiritual and earthly power, but his descendents couldn't keep the Caliphate going for more than a few centuries after his own death and today Islam notably lacks a 'universal' figurehead representing the majority of the faithful. Instead of a lasting theocratic model, Mohammed's legacy in the political field has been Islamic societies with weakened state authority relative to religious prescriptions.

Strangely, the Bishop of Rome can also thank Mohammed for his unlikely pre-eminence on the world stage. The frenzy of Arab expansionism after the Prophet's death put paid to three of the five main Patriarchates in Christendom - Antioch, Alexandria and most importantly Jerusalem, the see which had enjoyed nominal supremacy up to then. That left just Rome and Constantinople. The descendent of St Peter had a couple of advantages. Some vague references in the Bible to rocks and keys and the lack of a secular legitimacy in the vicinity following the demise of the Roman Empire of the West in the fifth century.

Just to make sure though, the Popes forged a document called The Donation of Constantine which laid the foundations for Vatican independence from any warlords, Kings and Emperors that might want to set up in the Eternal City. In another cunning move, on Christmas Day 800 the Papacy crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, thus establishing the principle that the most exalted secular authority around was from then on to be a sub-brand of its own.

There was just the small matter of the other Patriarch over on the Bosphorus. In 1054, one year before the accession of the last German Pope Victor II, one of his fight-picking compatriots the Papal legate Cardinal Humbertus, engineered an ugly scene in Byzantium in which the Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael slapped each other with tit-for-tat exommunications. Thus began the Great Schism. The Pope's singular position was further underwritten when the Eastern Empire was finally overrun in the sixteenth century and its great churches turned into mosques.
There was much talk last week of the "unbroken line" of Popes since St Peter. This unbroken line includes of course the Borgias and, if the myth be true, the female Pope Joan whose disguise was exposed when she died in childbirth.

As with Ronald Reagan it has been conveniently forgotten that Pope John Paul II's "standing up to communism" involved a simultaneous repression of the "standing up to exploitation and poverty" movement within his own territory.

On Breakfast with Frost yesterday Ken Follett was wringing his hands on behalf of all devoutly Catholic lefties who have recently been rudely disabused of the notion that the Papacy is a kind of otherworldly NGO that will be a natural ally in their quest for an incrementally more equitable world, and one that won't put too many strains on their ability to juggle their two basically incompatible worldviews.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Going Medieval

The whingerati have been looking for a label that expresses their anxieties about the likely doctrinal stance of Pope Benedict XVI, and one that has cropped up all over the place is "Medieval" - an epithet previously reserved for the likes of Osama Bin Laden.

It's the kind of thing that gives the Middle Ages a bad name, suggestive as it is that most medieval people were more likely to have minty fresh breath than an open mind. Yet of course it was actually quite difficult to be a hardline traditionalist in an era when going backwards actually meant going forwards, and most people died before they were old enough to become conservative.

Papa Ratzi's style of cleric actually emerged in the period of the Counter Reformation when the Catholic church lost its spiritual monopoly and needed institutions like the Inquisition to maintain its competitive positioning in the new multi-denominational environment. These were the days when you literally fired your off-message bloggers.

One such unfortunate internal commentator was theologian Michael Servetus, churrasco'd in 1553 along with all copies of his book The Reconstitution of Christianity, in which he rather stupidly (all bloggers that openly criticise their employers are a bit duh! aren't they?) questioned one of the key elements of the Church's brand - the Holy Trinity. It was he said, an irrational doctrinal fudge concocted by the Council of Nicea in AD325 and one for which the bible provides no support whatsoever.

Educated Greeks at the time of the Council liked a bit of theological argy-bargy. Indeed, public debate on matters of doctrine was generally considered culturally healthy and not the first step on the muddy road to relativism. But a priest called Arius was causing more than the usual ammount of controversy by insisting that if God was God, Jesus couldn't be God at the same time. Emperor Constantine, being the supreme secular authority in the land and the man that brought the faith out of the backstreets, wanted to establish an ecclesiastical authority to parallel his own - one that was similarly one size fits all, yet expressive of the local flair for flexibility. The doctrine of the Trinity set a wishy-washy framework for the debate on the nature of the Divine. Over time though, the Western spin-off version of Constantine's Church built up a great deal of theology and ritual around the compromise decreed by these cunning, ecclectic Greeks. An artefact of disingenuous spin became one of the cornerstones of the whole edifice of Catholicism.

Anyway, if we were to call the new Pope "pre-Enlightenment" as opposed to "Medieval", we would have a better chance of saying something positive about the worldview that he stands against. "Medieval" is used laxly and negatively, in the same way that Bush used "Liberal" to stain his rival John Kerry.

Many thinkers of the Enlightenment considered the whole institution of the Church to be grounded in irrationality and worth dispensing with. But the Enlightenment helped foster a modern world in which people are inclined to feel spiritually deprived. Last week our TV screens were full of triumphalist prelates crowing about how empty the world would be without them.

Yet as Benedict XVI obviously understands, the biggest threat to his institution now is not outright atheism and anti-clericalism, but the modern limp-wristed version of ecclecticism, which would tranform it along Liberal lines into an unrecognisable collective of liberal-agnostics, feminists, relativists and re-badged Marxists. This kind of Church would be encouraged to stand up against contemporary secular evils like communism and consumerism, to promote morality with a small "m" and to generally avoid the kind of divisive remarks that the erstwhile Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made quite a name for.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of the cake-and-eat-it bunch. They are the sort of people that would modernise the Monarchy by having the Royals all go round town on bicycles. They appear to want to incrementally soften the edges of life until there's nothing left worth caring about, until the only form of change that remains is re-positioning. Rather than have us confront the serious and difficult issues, they would have us merely re-imagine them. Yet is a lesbian Pope really the way the make the Vatican relevant to future generations or are we better off creating new and better institutions?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Fulltime Killer

Directorial and screenwriting talent aside, Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai must be the Asian equivalents of Quentin Tarantino - men that spent the greater part of their formative years watching rented copies of Western action movies! In a sense then Fulltime Killer is the oriental Kill Bill - a film that primarily cares about showing off its influences. Its characters and action sequences openly refer to movies like Leon and El Mariachi. Of the latter, Andy Lau's showman-hitman Tok observes "not a very good movie, but I liked its style". And that's roughly how I felt about this one.

The trailer involves 30 seconds of gunshots and explosions. The other 100 minutes you get to see when you have paid for your ticket scratch a story on the endless surface of this movie - about the adolesecent mentality of epileptic Chinese gunman Tok and his persistent attempts to kick-start a deadly rivalry with jaded Japanese assassin, "O".

The stunning Kelly Lin plays the video store worker that would like to be the love interest of one or both of these killers. There's a backstory involving an Interpol quest to arrest "O" that never quite breaks through, and once most of his colleagues have ended up as collateral damage, Hong Kong copper Lee seamlessly tranforms himself into a washed-up hobo novelist in search of the end of the story.

Talking of El Mariachi I re-visited the last (hopefully) in the series this week. Once Upon a Time in Mexico looks like it wants to be a fresh, latino take on a familiar cinematic archetype but ends up a fiesta of camp firefights packed with a throng of flat stereotypes. General Marquez is the worst - he doesn't even get one good line of dialogue. Johnny Depp's Agent Sands is at the other end of the scale. Without his scene-stealing performance, the whole thing would have been truly awful. The Day of the Dead arrives in time for the 'climax', but on the wrong date - it's November 1st not 2nd. Looking back, I had more time for this film when I saw it in the cinema. It's entertaining enough I suppose. It's clear however, that as the Mariachi budgets grew Robert Rodriguez lost sight of his original gem of an idea - that one of the most familiar and lowly characters of Mexican streetlife could find himself transformed into a mythic gunman.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Soldiers of Salamis

This is a very good novel - probably the best I've read by a writer not previously known to me in many years. It earned Catalan author Javier Cercas a number of literary prizes in Spain and has sold 500,000 copies worldwide. I'd recommend it to anyone, with the sole caveat that a knowledge of, and interest in, the Spanish Civil War might be a requirement for its full enjoyment. Though if this sounds like a deterrent, it shouldn't be.

Superficially this is a tale about its own genesis; a rather clever trick really, which allows Cercas to overcome some of the potential limitations of his sources.

A narrator (also called Javier Cercas) relates how both professionally and romantically he found himself in the doldrums, unable to locate what Henry James used to call his donné - the gift of a story idea that would set him in motion again. ("A person doesn't write about what he wants to write about but what he's capable of writing about.", the narrator reflects.)

An opportunity to interview a contemporary Spanish literary figure called Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio unearths an interesting anecdote about that writer's father, "Spain's first fascist" Rafael Sanchez Mazas, co-founder of the Falange and a key instigator of the conflict.

Mazas was a good if not great poet, a physically-cowardly aesthete that dreamed of fashioning a reactionary paradise in his homeland. As luck would have it he sat out most of the war either in hiding or in captivity and as Cercas discovers, had a most fortuitous escape from a firing squad set up by the fleeing Republicans after Barcelona had fallen to Franco.

When the bullets started to tear into his fellow prisoners' flesh Mazas sprinted into the trees. Shortly afterwards however his hiding place was discovered by a lone Republican soldier, but this man just stared at him with a strangely joyful expression then turned away leaving him to flee further into the forest. There he was aided by local farmers and a group of Republican deserters that he was later able to protect from the Nationalist revenge machine during an undistinguished career in el Caudillo's government as Minister without Portfolio. Mazas was "always...a haughty, brittle and melancholic genius" and "a failed Autumnal gentleman", whose intellectual stance was ultimately a bit too ironic for Franco's post-war regime.

So at first it seems that Cercas' intent is to investigate this story in order to see what he can learn about men such as Mazas who "won the war, but lost the history of literature". He finds and interrogates a number of individuals with more direct knowledge of actual events and in the middle section the narrator steps back entirely leaving us with a straight third-person novelistic account of the Falangist's escape from the massacre.

Then at the start of the last third of the book, Cercas re-appears and admits that something significant is missing from his story. However, another chance exchange with a Chilean writer called Roberto Bolaño (a real person who died in 2003 from liver disease) subsequently leads him to an old people's home in Dijon and a moving encounter with Antoni Miralles, a battle-scarred old Republican who just might be the man who spared the cowering writer in the woods.

Mazas told his "forest friends" that he would write his own account of his (mis-) adventure and title it Soldiers of Salamis, probably in reference to Oswald Spengler's declaration that at the eleventh hour Civilisation has always needed saving by a "squad of soldiers", like the Athenians at Salamis. He never wrote his book, but Cercas steals its title in order to make the point that instead it was un-sung heroes on the other side, in paricular men like Miralles, that saved the world that we now inhabit.

Whenever challenged, Cercas the factitious narrator insists that he is working on a "true story" as opposed to a novel. ("You have to be an out-and-out liar to be a good novelist don't you?", Miralles quips at him.) Across all the different strands, Cercas the author playfully manages all the resulting tensions between fact and fiction, recollection and imagination and delivers a deceptively clever and nuanced literary work that sets you thinking about the nature of historical memory and myth-making. And it's all held together by subtle thematic and symbolic glue.

Towards the end of the book Cercas appears to step up the urgency of his tone, perhaps in an effort to squeeze every last drop of value-added meanings out of his factual material. Some might conclude that the text swells with sentimentality here, but I think Cercas has more or less prevented an overflow. He would have known that his story would have to pack a strong emotional payload to overcome generations of collective amnesia in his homeland. Indeed, Miralles expresses this obstacle with the words "those stories don't interest anyone any more, not even those of us that lived through them".

Cercas' main conceit here is to set himself up as the key protagonist with the stated quest of extracting more from these related eye-witness accounts than a purely non-fictional treatment could achieve. Perhaps it's surprising that this book ultimately provides such a satisfying read, because Cercas stops short of providing complete answers to many of the questions he raises. Yet when the main question is how much factual content does the Truth require, perhaps that is understandable. As another Spaniard of the era once said, "Art is the lie that reveals the truth". (Pablo Picasso).

It is certainly worth brushing up on the Spanish Civil War. I have always felt it was one of the most significant macro-events in twentieth century history, largely because the most entrenched and extreme ideologies in Europe at that time emerged suddenly into a direct confrontation that was throughout relatively uncomplicated by more moderate representative models and the usual revolutionary background process of state deconstruction and reconstruction. You can read a lot about World War II without having to seriously engage with the ideological background. Not so the conflict in Spain.

Above Antigua

Found this impressive satellite image taken above Antigua, Guatemala and surrounding volcanoes Agua, Pacaya, Fuego and Acatenango on Google.

Ju-On: The Grudge

Caught Takashi Shimisu's Japanese-language original on Friday night. It cares even less about its characters and about providing a coherent framework than his American version. It's really not much more than a series of supernatural termination scenes designed to imprint directly onto our subconscious - a movie made to scare you more when you leave the cinema than inside it.


Contrary to earlier forecasts the Marathon runners enjoyed a resplendent yet relatively cool Sunday morning. For the first time since at least 1990 the runners took the anti-clockwise route around the Island. From behind the iron gates of SPACE DJ Bliss provided the soundtrack to the stream of of sweaty, striving humanity in which many of the usual oddballs floated along.

The night before V created her first new dish since she returned. Chicken breast was chopped and fried with slices of red onion, celery and an orange pepper. After a while small quantities of dark soy and Thai fish sauces were added, followed by a dollop of honey and the juice of one mandarin. This was served onto a bed of thin strips of cucumber alongside cylinders of Japanese sushi rice rolled around slices of mango. The rice was cooked with a native Guatemalan plant called Chipilín which V had gathered a couple of weeks ago from our land near Parramos. (Christophe Pache, the amiable Swiss chef at the Panzón Verde makes a delicious soup from Chipilín. It has the qualities of both herb and vegetable and renders a vivid flavour and aroma.)

We accompanied this scrumptious invention with an extremely good Porta Reserva (Chilean Pinot Noir) from Oddbins, which may have fallen a bit short of "ethereal", but was nonetheless pretty smooth.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Hold the Loin

Never a dull day in Antigua. A selection of V's photographs taken during Semana Santa.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

"Anna Kournikova would have been good in this " commented V out of the blue about halfway into the film and we both laughed. Certainly, there's little she could have done to make it any worse.

A determination to cinematically re-create both the stillness and the peculiar illumination of Jan Vermeer's art has resulted in a decidedly limp piece of film-making. The surely unintended irony is that you will experience greater drama sitting and watching one of Vermeer's paintings for a couple of hours.

Eduardo Serra's cinematography, and Ben Van Os' production design are first rate and very much faithful to the artist at the centre of the story, but the efforts that Tracy Chevalier put into creating subtle yet complex characters and a story that compelled on many different levels have been significantly diluted here. Tom Wilkinson's Van Ruijven is perhaps the one character that is equally alive on screen as he was on the page.

Alexander Desplat's dreadful original score announces its intention to further ruin things from the outset.

Perhaps this is one of those tales that has to be told in the first person? I will come back to this phenomenon, or rather the opposite of it, when I blog on Rex Pickett's Sideways sometime next week.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


V's seven-year-old niece Amy said something really sweet to me on the phone last Tuesday: "Tio, sentiste el temblor anoche?" (Uncle, did you feel the tremor last night?) She knows I'm in another country, but clearly can't visualise the distance of thousands of nautical and territorial miles that this involves.

On Monday night Antigua shook for 27.4 seconds to the rhythm of a seismic event measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale and epicentred 81km from the capital to the north east of Totonicapán. V says it was the most violent she recalls during her four month stay in Guatemala.

At the time she was enjoying a farewell dinner at her sister in-law's house. Some people got up and ran to the door, but V felt loosely fastened into her seat by the recently-imbibed contents of a bottle of Undurraga Reserva - a temporary sensation of increased body mass that allowed her to face up to the contrasting lateral movements of chair and house. The tropical fish in the tank looked as anxious as it is possible for fish to look.

Meme Counters

Last Sunday's New York Times magazine had an article about some boardroom-shaking technological innovations in the field of broadcast ratings. The author Jon Gertner suggests that if you "change the way you measure America's culture change America's culture business. And maybe even the culture itself. Change the way you count, and potentially you change the comparative value of entire genres as well as entire demographic segments."

When the US charts started incorporating sales data back in 1991, backwoods and backstreet beats like country and hip-hop were revealed to be more popular than the suits had previously imagined. This week in the UK, the intention to incorporate download statistics in our own charts was announced, and again the suspicion is that careers and lifestyles will be affected by this methodological switch.

Gertner's article also briefly alludes to the fear that his nation is "becoming weightless, an agglomeration of data about who we are and how we behave that seems to have more substance (and certainly more financial value) than our actual selves."

Such anxieties have considerable pedigree. Jorge Luis Borges told a famous tale about a map "so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory" it represents. The people of the Empire whose cartographers produced this marvel end up relating more to the map than the territory beneath. Baudrillard found this story very useful for illustrating his concept of simulation - the process whereby representations of things come to supecede the things being represented. "The death of the Real".

Borges was an Idealist, and therefore might be said to have believed that map and territory are interchangeable in a meaningful way. I'm not so sure about this. In an early post on this blog I outlined my suspicion that a granular approach to media measurement does indeed resemble the process by which coffee is freeze-dried and turned into granules before water and the suggestion of more or less accurate correspondence to the original are added back and the consumption begins.

In yesterday's post, I borrowed from John Berger to suggest that any cultural activity that derives purely and simply from economic motivations is usually less valuable (financially as well as creatively), than that which sets about to transcend them. There are powerful, densely-packed 'premium' meanings in top tier output that can't really be approached and understood in the same way as the hack stuff. Thus a perfect map created anywhere inside the territory, will never be anything other than a projection of it, because the transcendent qualities of the original channel into other less calculable and representable dimensions.

Anyway, what are these new bits of kit that the meme counters are getting excited about?

The PPM or Personal People Meter by Arbitron is a device worn by volunteers which monitors any media they hear, or at least any media featuring a psychoacoustically-masked signal encoded at a frequency just below the transmitted sound. Unlike ratings measurement the PPM can record when the wearer has been within earshot of media in hospitals, hotels and in the workplace. It can handle the time-shifting effects associated with devices like TiVo and it knows when the wearer leaves the room during a commercial break. By focussing on the audible signal as opposed to the emitting device, PPM is better placed to cope with the rapidly diversifying "zoo" of digital media. Apparently it won't freak out your pets either.

Arbitron and VNU (Nielsen's parent company) are collaborating on Project Apollo which will track 70,000 PPM volunteers across the USA identifying all the advertisements and messages these people see, hear, read, or simply hang around, and mapping them onto the purchases they subsequently (I think) make. Gertner observes: "You could say it's a massive scientific trial of cause (marketing) and effect (buying). Or you could say with some trepidation that it's about creating a more perfect, more efficient consumer society."

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Ways of Seeing

An interesting little book written back in 1972 and based on a BBC TV series in which John Berger strongly suggests that Fine Art is an age-old conspiracy against the common man.

It's lighter and leftier stuff than Baudrillard, but likewise suggests that all images express conventions and make use of devices that lead us to certain conclusions, and that these generally tend to reinforce the worldview of the owning classes.

He draws some interesting parallels between publicity images and traditional oil painting. For intance, he suggests that Hans Holbein's Ambassadors are early examples of subjects portrayed in order to make us feel envious of (or socially inferior to) them, and also of our future selves, who might perhaps be like them. They are observed with interest by the artist, yet patently decline to return that interest with their gaze. Berger also says that the famous anamorphic skull at the base of the two figures was painted that way to preserve its metaphysical message. A 'natural' skull would have become yet another materially possessable object in their collection, polluted by mundane, secular meanings, absorbed into the aesthetic of desirability.

According to Berger, publicity images steal our love of ourselves for what we are and sell it back to us for the price of the product or service in question. They propose that we transform ourselves through its purchase. "Glamour cannot exist without social envy being a common and widespread phenomenon."

One distinction he makes between the two traditions is that oil painting consolidated the owner's "sense of his own value", whilst publicity tends to shake it. Yet I'm sure that a lot of people that subscribe to glossy magazines for the high-net-worthy, as well as being tempted by advertising to part with chunks of their wealth, also find images of expensive property that they don't own quite reassuring.

For the rest of us drones, publicity encourages us to live in a dreamt future where "imaginary activity replaces the passivity of the moment." Before it was deprivation that forced us to define our interests quite narrowly; now it is the media and the communications industry that undertakes this important role for the capitalist economy.

For me the most striking idea in the book was the notion that great artists are more often those that transcend the norms they grew up with, rather than rejecting them completely and establishing alternatives. (NPPs - New Paradigm Poseurs?) Such men have many superficial imitators, says Berger, but hardly any followers. Meanwhile, hack creativity results whenever the cheque is more meaningful to the artist than the values that the work expresses.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


There's something chillingly "Based on a true story..." in the make-up of Downfall. (Der Untergang) The historical distancing of WWII is one reason this film was made, and it is a phenomenon I know I will continue to be a little disturbed by as the years march on.

Amidst all these wan, grey, barking men in uniforms the scariest Germans on show here are the women! Nazi men were human grotesques, but the women were all straight out of a fascist wet nightmare. (However, I can't imagine what Anne Widecombe would have said about Ulrich Mathes who plays Joseph Goebbels!)

Antony Beevor has written a pair of bestselling history books about the two most significant downturns for the Nazis, Stalingrad and Berlin the Downfall 1945, and German film-makers have now made two powerful films that cover events from the German perspective - one which might be characterised as bewildered in both.

Beevor's brand of historical storytelling, an oddly balanced mix of excessive military detail and individual eye-witness accounts wouldn't translate well to the screen, but I was surprised that some of his more striking anecdotes have been passed over by the writers of Downfall. For instance, whilst the corpses of Adolf and Eva Hitler burned and Goebbels, Bormann, Krebs and Burgdorf saluted, Beevor reports that one of the drunken SS guards from the party in the Reich Chancellery canteen was watching from the bunker entrance. He turned and hurried back to his mates shouting "The Chief's on fire!" to Rochus Misch, the SS telephonist who had earlier called up to the revelling Nazis to keep the noise down while Hitler took his own life. The racket generated by these apocalyptic festivities prevented anyone from hearing the shot that the cornered Führer fired into his own head.

Downfall often has you on the edge of your seat, such that as the camera follows a figure leaving the bunker a salute by a Nazi hidden just across the threshold of an iron door delivers a sudden jolt. The effects are impressive and the battle scenes are pretty terrifying because you feel like you have been teleported into the middle of them without a weapon far from cover.

As Adolf, Bruno Ganz is charismatic and demented, possibly an accurate portrayal, though at times I couldn't help but think...Basil Fawlty. You will find yourself pitying this demented man and for many I suppose, that's just not on at all. Ganz's Adolf is complex and charismatic precisely because all the other men around him, with the possible exception of Albert Speer, amply demonstrate that Germans can do cardboard Nazi stereotypes too.

Much has been made of the fact that this film emphasises how the agonising Nazi regime betrayed der folk at this critical time. Yet perhaps for budgetary reasons the depiction of the suffering of the city is less convincing than the re-creation of the claustrophobia of the drab underground inner sanctum, with its emblematic waiting room. Downfall is about the stress of waiting for the inevitable end. If Beevor's vision is epic and apocalyptic, director Otto Hirschbiegel's is comparatively domestic. The systematic slaughter of the Goebbels children by their mother Magda is the immoral centre of a movie which is otherwise an unsual mix of cinematic and televisual dramatic styles.

Another reason the film is a disconcerting experience is because although some effort has been made to create characters we can have a degree of sympathy with (as in Stalingrad there is the good German, bad German confrontation) even the principal witness to events, Traudl Junge, is a figure of ambiguity and the interview recorded shortly before her death in 2002 confirms this. I could have known about what was really going on around me, but somehow I didn't, she said. Both Traudl and Albert Speer are made to give a quizzical expression when Hitler says he's pleased that at least he managed to deal with the Jews. Speer went on to become the most canny of the defendants at Nuremberg.

At the end I was surprised by how many of the characters had died quite recently in old age, including Hitler's personal adjutant Otto Günsche. The made-for-tv style "what happened to..." slides that run before the credits suggest that Martin Bormann also took his own life. Beevor however insists that "Martin Bormann, although not of his own volition, was the only major Nazi party leader to have faced the bullets of the Bolshevik enemy." Many people still believe he made it to Buenos Aires.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Pope and Condoms

Spiked's Brendan O'Neill appears to share my misgivings about the line of argument in Michela Wrong's article in the New Statesman, the cover of which last week proclaimed that the Pope "did more to spread AIDS around Africa than 'prostitution and the trucking industry combined".

Firstly be points to a lack of correlation between the prevalence of HIV in the some of the worst hit parts of southern Africa and the number of observant catholics in those same countries: fewer than 5% in Botswana, around 7% in South Africa and 10-20% in Swaziland. Next he suggests that the catholic minorities in these societies are probably not comparatively more HIV-prone than their ancestor worshipping compatriots.

This kind of data alone should be enough to undermine Wrong's damnation of the late pontiff, but O'Neill presses on into the heart of darkness, strongly suggesting (without actually scribbling the words) that people that desire Africans to use more condoms might secretly also like to have them sterilised - for them the problems of poverty and starvation are in some sense 'caused' by an excess of black babies. The same individuals also tend to harbour the prejudice that "Africans are gullible, fickle, easily led astray by wicked men and incapable of working out for themselves what a condom does and doesn't do." Apparently, they would prefer it if the whole world was more like theirs, one where you can cover the average 75 year lifespan in relative comfort, and thus find the spectacle of old fashioned Human evolution down in Africa rather disconcerting.

However, O'Neill skirts around these issues a bit, to say the least: "In underdeveloped countries it is often important to have large families, so that there are more individuals who can work and take care of their parents as they get older and can no longer work."

True enough, reproduction rather than contented consumerism is Nature's underlying response to death. Human societies throughout history have responded to the selection pressures of disease and premature death by starvation by producing more not less children. Indeed, there can be few families in any part of the world that reproduce for the socio-economic benefit of their tribe, nation or continent. Generally they do so in order to guarantee their own descent. Left to their own devices without state interference hardly any parents would choose to limit their family size to one child if there was a substantial risk of that child not reaching reproductive age.

O'Neill quotes a recent survey which found that 90% of people in Mexico and Brazil support sex education for the under 14s. Yet in practice the majority of Latin American women will still start families much earlier than their Western equivalents and the size of families is larger too. This suggests that cultural factors are combining with the economic and the 'natural' ones to limit the use of birth control.

In my own experience of Latin America, macho culture plays a key role in this. The more 'folkloric' the demographic, the more likely the males are to regard the use of condoms and other forms of birth control as a potential threat to the prevailing sexual-political order in their village. Divorcing sex from reproduction wreaks havoc with traditional value-systems as we have seen in our own society. Condoms come with a cultural payload and it may not be such a good idea for the Church, of all public institutions, to become deeply embroiled in the issue of their use. The problem is that secular, consumerist society expects the Church to act like some sort of guardian of all the ideals that we otherwise disrespect on a daily basis.

O'Neill's piece ends with another important observation: "These hollow attacks on the Pope are merely the flipside of the hollow canonisation of the Pope that is taking place elsewhere. Both sides have made the Pope into something he was not, in order to peddle their own ideas and prejudices."

True enough again, but strictly speaking what the Pope actually was was an old man in a funny white outfit reputedly based on late Roman secular garb whose vocation involved professing an essentially old-fashioned moral code, some of which would make us think he was serenely brave and spiritual, while a lot of it bordered on offensive bigotry.

Suppose we could see things for what they are before all the complex ideas and associations get in the way, all those symbolic references, the politics, economics, metaphysics and a host of other ics, the world would indeed be a different place, but not necessarily a more bearable/enjoyable one.

Meanwhile my mother watched the funeral and said that "the chanting" was enough to make her want to convert to catholicism. True to form, my father complained that the choir and the orchestra were mediocre and the whole thing rather less grand than the setting suggested. Whoever decided to put Prince Charles next to Robert Mugabe deserves canonisation.

Friday, April 08, 2005


At the beginning of Collateral we are introduced to Max, a smart and sensitive LA cabbie who is somehow failing to live up to his full potential. Yet his luck suddenly seems to be in. A beautiful Federal Prosecutor climbs into his cab and by the end of the ride has been so charmed by the efforts of her soft-spoken driver to establish his character, that she can't help but slip him her business card through the window after settling the fare. Max must be thinking "that was a smooth ride to a first date"! The rest of the film is all about how wrong he is.

It's almost surprising that it has taken so long to bring together in one plot those two great American noirish character types, the hired assassin and the taxi-driver. This project must have had legs from the moment screenwriter Stuart Beattie said "it's about a cabbie with a philosophising hitman doing the night-shift in the back of his cab". The story could practically write itself and that maybe part of the reason this movie is ultimately only great for what it is.

Surfer and I both had the sense that there's a more interesting story trapped under layers of Hollywood convention here. Collateral ticks all the boxes of Hollywood script structure and pacing and in so doing delivers stylish entertainment that does a disservice to some of the movie's more interesting underlying themes. Such as, what good can come out of an encounter between a somewhat un-happening man with a great deal of soul and another that has vitality, wit and wisdom, but long ago parted company with his own immortal alter-ego?

There does seem to be some excellent dialogue, but it is often quite hard to follow, partly because it runs against the tension-building flow of the action. There is one short, incongrous moment involving a dog crossing the street next to the taxi. Otherwise the symbolism follows a strict set of formulaic genre guidelines.

Even when the screenplay tries to surprise us, such as the moment when Mark Ruffalo's cop character Fanning is unexpectedly removed from the storyline, it's really just a scheduled plot watershed moment. In this case the kick-off point for the last act in which Max will have to save the girl and deal with his client without any outside assistance. The earlier shock when the first body lands on Max's taxi is another one of those watershed moments where the opening act gives way to the middle section. Inevitably Max and Vincent are drawn into each other's worlds and bond to a point where only a girl can come between them. The last act, essentially a conventional chase sequence, therefore feels like a bit of a let down after the earlier set-up.

Javier Bardem has a good turn as a Mexican kingpin. Shortly after this there's the inevitable night-club scene, one of many 80s motifs that Michael Mann brings to the movie. Surfer and I saw echoes not just of Miami Vice, but also of Blade Runner and After Hours. At the beginning at least Mann also treats us to some of those slow helicopter shots taken from just above the downtown skyscrapers looking down. I seem to recall this was a technique used by Andrew Davis in The Fugitive. By the end of the film the neon-soaked streets of LA are eerily deserted.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pedro Páramo

"Sometimes when I get into a space that is too small I weep", says that annoying designer in the Ford Focus ads.

Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is a small book and it does get a bit cramped in there. It's 120 pages are not at all an easy read, and yet it was probably one of the most influential Latin American novels of the last century. Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias singled it out as the novel he himself would have most liked to have written, and fellow Nobel prize-winner Garcia Márquez transcribed a sentence from it in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The novel starts in the first person and you are led to believe that the story will revolve around this narrator's quest for his father back in the town where he was conceived. But very quickly this starting premise is entirely overrun by the backstory, and the narrative centre crumbles into a multiplicity of different perspectives, dreams and memories. This disconcerting decay of plot order is more or less the opposite of what happens in that later Mexican fiction 21 Grams.

It's said that when the early pioneers of film discovered that their new toys had the potential to undermine the central position of the single observer in the Western artistic convention of perspective, they began to set up their mechanical eyes with viewpoints that no squidgy human lens yet experienced. In so doing they demonstrated that motion pictures could drop the pretence of the lone pair of eyes tracking every piece of action. Perhaps Rulfo was trying to bring the same techniques across into literature. He doesn't just present us with different viewpoints though, we also get different states of consciousness. Personally, I find that it all gets a bit tiresome by the end. One trick I did like though was signalling one character's interior commentary in italics as an aside during anm otherwise verbalsied exchange.

Rulfo's sensual, almost audio-visual metaphors are often highly arresting:

  • "Rain hissing like the murmur of crickets",
  • "He heard the whirring of their wings in blossom-heavy jasmine" (Hummingbirds)
And he describes how one character is beset with memories "as if a bulging sack of grain had burst and he was trying to keep the kernels from spilling out".

Most of the events described take place in Comala, a mythic urban space seemingly entombed in purgatory, its adobe dwellings crumbling in the airless heat; a treeless place which is nonetheless full of drifting leaves, "a town that smelled like spilled honey...the smell of misfortune". "They say that when people from there die and go to hell they come back for a blanket", the narrator is informed on arrival.

Comala is full of Mexican archetypes such the cynical patrón, his loyal capataz (fix-it man) and the local priest who admits to being "afraid to offend the people who provide for me". (See also The Crime of Father Amaro) . There's also a supporting cast of sombrero'd revolutionaries and deranged women.

One such tells the priest that when she lay down to die "My soul prayed for me to get up and get on with life as if it still expected some miracle to cleanse me of my sins". These involved arranging for young girls to be violated by the patrón, Pedro Páramo. His parting words to his conquests would typically be "you should be thankful that you'll be having a fair-skinned baby".

When the revolution arrives outside Comala, Pedro tells his henchmen "We have to be on the side of whoever's winning". Part of the problem with Latin American politics is that this view is widely shared.

Nano Nano

Japanese firm Bridgestone aren't content with soaking up all the plaudits that go with having prevented Michael Schumacher winning a single GP this season. They have also just launched an electronic paper-based system called Electro-Liquid Powder which is being trialled in certain Tokyo stores. Posted prices on items on the shelves can be modified from a back-end data entry system.

Once this system has spread, in places like Argentina you will have to grab your cheese slices and dash to the cashier before the effects of hyperinflation are punched in on the server. And what happens when there's a big queue? Quilombo time. I can forsee an underground market for nano-electronic devices that hand back a bit of pricing control to the customer!

One thing this sort of technology might allow the supermarkets to do is to offer two for one type deals on products that find themselves in the same basket even when their original location within the store itself was quite separate.

All this also made me think about a updateable chip that would provide your car with a real-time record of its market value. "Good Morning! Today I have depreciated by...FIFTEEN...pounds".

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

21 Grams

The first half hour of 21 Grams gives you the impression that the production team scribbled the contents of each scene on a separate index card, dropped the lot on the floor, then decided to plot the movie according to the order they gathered them up in.

In fact, the scrambled scenes were eventually shot in chronological order, and as this fragmented narrative is a presumably a feature of his collaborator Guillermo Arriaga's original DF-based novel, a considerable amount of plot straightening must have been required before the cameras rolled. No doubt this helped the actors understand the sequencing and the development of their characters better.

The first thing most reviews of this labyrinthine movie do is question the relationship between style and content. Some have suggested that Alejandro González Iñárritu (a Mexican ex-DJ with a Basque surname) would have been better off to leave Arriaga's plot in its straightened-out format. (Ebert: "You wonder if Iñárritu took the long way round, running up mileage on his storyteller's taxi meter.")

My own view is that generally you shouldn't mess with standard chronology unless you have something interesting to say about the nature of time. However, there was a motor accident at the intersection of the various story strands in Iñárritu's debut film Amores Perros as well, so perhaps it would be unfair to write off the non-linear technique as a showy stylistic quirk. In such stories characters and events orbit a high gravity incident that lies at the centre of their fictional universe. This contrasts with stories which rely on an "inciting incident" in Act One to set them in motion. There are also a number of important precedents in Latin American literature (such as Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, which I'm currently negotiating). After all my recent cinematic and literary jaunts I'm starting to yearn after a story with a conventional beginning, middle and end...and in that order!

Like a choppy sea that calms as you approach the harbour, the scene structure of 21 Grams smoothens out in the final third of the movie. By that time the surface style is much less in your face than the outstanding and moving performances of all three main leads, Penn, Watts and del Toro. These people struggle with themes of birth, death and redemption that are often signalled by symmetrical pairs of symbols.

Iñárritu also puts the haunting soundtrack to work as a gelling agent. Indeed musically at least, there is a suggestion of compositional unity not just between the various narrative shards on display here, but also with Amores Perros, which was similarly scored.

We learn at the end that 21g is in fact the weight of one human soul. This important piece of trivia was determined by the highly dubious experimental work conducted by Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts in the early twentieth century. MacDougall weighed dying subjects in order to show that the soul had measurable materiality.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The moniker 'wind-up bird' was coined by Alfred Birnbaum, the original English translator of The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women, the tantalising short story at the front end of the Haruki Murakami's earlier collection, The Elephant Vanishes. I wonder if the connotations are the same in Japanese? With its suggestion that everyday reality is a bit of a practical joke, the wind-up bird is the perfect mascot for Murakami's sphinxlike realities.

The opening chapter of the novel is a near facsimile of that pilot episode. It's hard to convey the sense of excitement and densely-packed promise that it generates. It's rather like the first sip of an alluring wine. Yet I've contemplated empty bottles which on final analysis, much like this 600 page novel, haven't quite delivered on their prodigal potential.

Long before I read my first line of Murakami, the notion of misplaced destinies was one that insistently beguiled me. Narrator Toru Okada has ostensibly lost only his cat, but this misadventure is symbolic of a blockage in the flow of his existence; or so he is told by one of the eccentric females that force their way into it, and in so doing further mess with his flow.

Like many other Murakami characters Okada frets a lot about his selfhood. He considers whether he is only "a pathway for the person known as me". Another character in the novel, a retired lieutenant scorched by a monstrously macabre wartime experience suggests to Okada that a moment of revelation in his darkest hour somehow burned away his ties to the human world. He recounts his story at a time Okada himself feels abandonned by his increasingly recondite reality.

All of this echoes the ancient Asian intuition that life is just one dyanamic process amongst many. "When there's no flow, stay still" Okada has been advised. Wait for things to "firm up".

His problem is that he's one of those men that finds it easier to form an image of what he doesn't want to do rather than locate the one thing he does want to do. With this I can sympathise. He defines himself in opposition to men for whom "the only principle which governs their minds is the question how do I look?", and who raise themselves using scaffolding constructed from combinations of one dimensional systems of thought. Yet he recognises that these egotists are basically more capable individuals than himself.

However, Murakami's metaphysical explorations can be fairly trite - "truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth". As a philosopher he sports some of the dilettante characteristics of his protagonists. In contrast, the existential paranoia of men like Jorge Luis Borges and Phillip K. Dick belonged to a more formal system.

The novel was originally published in three distinct chunks, which gives the narrative structure the quality of a serial rather than that a feature film. Along the way I was reminded of Sophie's World, The Alchemist (unfortunately) and The Magus, but most obviously of Twin Peaks. This is a debt that Murakami openly acknowledges, and like Lynch's groundbreaking production, Wind-Up Bird's third set of episodes is a patchier experience, in which the geometry of internal connections has become just a little too arch.

Only one of the aforementioned female oddballs is really a fully-developed character - May Kasahara. Without her interventions the novel would be significantly diminished. She is allowed to make a number of darkly insightful observations that belie her youth (such as "If there was no such thing as death...complicated thoughts and ideas would never come into the world") and her presence invariably sparks some wicked sexual tension with hangdog Okada, who she playfully refers to as "Mr Wind-Up Bird".

Anyway, if you read nothing else by this eccentric Japanese author, go for the short story. Take it from me though, it will be hard to avoid the temptation to press on with the wayward flow of feckless Mr Okada, his elusive spouse Kumiko, her even more elusive cat Noburo Wataya, her messed-up brother of the same name, and May Kasahara, a misplaced sixteen-year-old with downy-fringed ear-lobes.

Treading on the Long Tail

Cult members will no doubt choose to shun me, but one important quibble I have always had with Long Tail theory is the notion that the flow of the mainstream is primarily determined by a combination of old economics and the marketing dollar. I do understand that taste is influenced by the constraints imposed by geography, shelf-space and the whims of wily marketeers, but there are surely also cultural forces at work which operate at the consumer demand level and these also help to preserve the traditional 80:20 dynamic.

Film production companies speak of low and high concept movies. Most Hollywood movies fall into the latter category. These are movies whose premise alone (and maybe also the cast) should be enough to guarantee an audience. European cinema often is more televisual and low concept scripts depend more on character and on the quality of their implementation.

To some extent something quite similar operates in the Music industry. People don't just buy records in order to listen to musical notes. There are some strong genre preferences in the marketplace (as there are in the Cinema) and these are often modulated by the charge of celebrity.

Excitement about the potential represented by Chris Anderson's model needs to be tempered by the recognition that the consumer who throws off the rusty old shackles of storage and distribution is not thereafter a born-again free spirit.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Cinque Fois Deux is yet another reverse reveal which, rather like Irréversible kicks off with some uncomfortably cruel carnality and then shows us episodes from the time of simmer before the pot finally boiled over. But François Ozon's intriguing film distinguishes itself from both Irréversible and Memento in that there are serious gaps between the segments we are led back through - a ploy no doubt designed to provide the audience's imagination with quite a serious work-out.

Backwards narratives typically feature a twist that, appropriately enough, reverses your expectations of the characters based on their end-point attitudes and activities. In 5x2 this twist is quite gentle, and perhaps depends on a subjective reading of events. Suffice to say, Gilles isn't quite the vicious brute he appears just after the divorce has been signed. Marion however, is enigmatic and ambivalent at each stage of the relationship. Both spend a lot of screen time silently lost in thought, further encouraging us to fret about the key plot watersheds that we are not witness to.

I enjoyed Ozon's Swimming Pool more than many. There he let his lens linger on Ludivine Sagnier's chest for longer than was strictly necessary. Here however, the director has chosen a pair of leads whose screen personae are more grottily antipathetic the closer and longer we approach them.

Modelling Gig

An early lunch on Sunday at The Crooked Billet. We were the first to take our seats inside the claret-coloured interior, but at a nearby table there was a photographer busy snapping a series of well conceived dishes that arrived in short sequence from the kitchen.

Having exhausted the possibilities of the menu and the blossoming marigold tree outside, he coyly approached us and asked if we'd mind appearing "not very prominently" in Waitrose Food and Wine magazine. Clearly not a very discriminating photographer.

I had the hake, a fish that is practically unavoidable in Spain and appropriately enough was served here with a gunky chorizo salad. D had roast beef, comme d'habitude. During the meal the photographer stalked us from the corners. I registered bursts of shutter clicks every time I picked up my glass of Wild Pig, which made me more than a little self-conscious.

Behind us a long table had been decked out for a big family celebration. When they arrived (noisily) it was obvious that they were far more 'Waitrose' than we were. Three generations of good looking, jovial, affluent yet unostentatious Thames Valley folk. "Handsome" was D's way of describing them.

The early lunch was in aid of my speeding back to London to meet up with Surfer and Catherine for an early evening showing of Downfall. But the pleasant afternoon sunshine pushed the movie plan back to 8pm and by the time we reached the Curzon in Mayfair three hours of gruesome Nazi Gotterdamerüng no longer seemed like the best way of spending this particular Sunday evening. The expressions on the faces of the crowd exiting the auditorium only served to confirm this. I recall that Trevor Beevor's account of the last days of the Nazi regime in Berlin had left me feeling surprised that I was actually alive and that the world had not wound itself up at the conclusion of that apocalyptic battle.

Trouble was that we had dragged Catherine all the way down from Highbury, so we attempted to make it up to her by inviting her for a cocktail at Windows, the bar at the top of the London Hilton. In the bright and shiny lift we were joined by V's favourite spiky-haired, lackadaisically laid-back Australian TV chef and his partner for the evening, a Sheila that my mother would not have hesitated to describe as "an out and out scrubber".

After one drink we descended the 28 floors, traversed the subway beneath Constitution Hill and arrived at The Grenadier, where we entertained Catherine with tales of our misspent youth, many of which had coincided with an outing to this semi-hidden, semi-haunted pub.