Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Revenge is a dish best served...alive and squirming.

Here's a genuinely original piece of Asian cinema that's unlikely to go through the Hollywood facsimile process anytime soon due to scenes of sushi-porn and amateur dentistry plus the twisted underlying erotic theme, but unquestionably worthy of the Grand Prix du Jury it received at Cannes in 2004 - a prize that is usually awarded to the film in competition that most advances the art of cinema.

Chanwook Park's stunningly inventive revenge-tragedy tracks the unfortunate destiny of underachieving Oh Dae-Su who is encarcerated in a bedsit by a private prison contractor for 15 years apparently for the crime of talking too much. The man that emerges is a wounded but determined weapon of retribution that begins the search for his tormentor by tracking down the restaurant that delivered all his take-away meals.

Crucially however, he has failed to grasp that his release is as much a part of his unpleasantly Greek fate as the years of daytime TV that preceeded it. Too late he comes to appreciate that (octopus aside) he might have bitten off more than he can chew when when his doom finally intersects with that of the eerily handsome sociopath Woo-jin Lee, another vengeful oldboy from the Evergreen secondary school.

You'll need a strong stomach, but still the most shocking thing about it is its creativity.

Katrina and the Waves

"You saw the live coverage, now the aftermath..."

Fox News has definitely been the place for continuing Hurricane coverage these past few days. Last night they welcomed Professor Jack Chambless (see The Moral Case for Capitalism), exactly the kind of slightly deranged and insensitive white-collar ideologue that likes to make a home on this channel.

Chambless reckons that it would be "unconstitutional" for the Federal Government to offer charity to people living in low lying areas along America's storm prone coastlines. In the past, he argued, middle income folk took up residence in places like Florida and New Orleans at their own (insurance) risk, but now they just sit there waiting for taxpayers' dollars every time they get their asses whipped by some natural calamity. And if Washington keeps picking up the tab, there's no incentive for these people to relocate, he concluded.

"Well, that's a point of view we don't often hear espoused" the anchorman told him, before moving to some more footage of wrecked building and submerged cars.

Given the choice, most Louisiana residents at the time of the drafting of the US Constitution would no doubt have chosen to relocate back to West Africa.

Elephant Royale

V has said on a number of occasions that if she were ever to become obscenely rich, the only "unnecessary luxury" that she would permit herself would be a private chef, preferably a Thai one.

Situated along the ground floor of Locke's Wharf with a riverside terrace overlooking the Cutty Sark, Elephant Royal is the Island's most ambitious (i.e. expensive) eatery. It's been around for several years, but up until last Sunday our feet had remained cold, largely because we are still a several 0s short of scatological wealth and have also found it remarkably difficult to discover fully satisfying Thai restaurants within a reasonable distance of home.

The grub at the Mango Tree in Belgravia may be of a superior look and taste, but I resent the blatant efforts of the staff to cajole you into spending more at every available opportunity. (The unctious little 'sommelier' that once chided me that the wine I had selected didn't go at all well with Thai food, appeared amusingly flapped when I asked him what its role was in that case on their very limited wine list - I was in no mood to be patronised into drinking Chardonnay that night.)

By far my favourite Thai restaurant in London, superb on almost every level, is Thai on the River upstream in Battersea village. Elephant Royale also advertises a Sunday buffet, which at £14:50 a head is around £3 more expensive, but it seemed like a good way to sample the general quality of the menu. The buffet experience also amplifies the ambience of quality hotel restaurant grounded in the Siamese-lite decor of the main dining room.

The results were mixed. The yellow curry, pork dim sum and a mixed seafood dish were all excellent, but then there were the leathery slabs of duck, the effluent Tom Yam soups, and the tooth-crunching chicken parcels. And rice in these joints really ought to be steamed and fragrant not tutti-frutti, tutti-greasi. The best part would have been the desserts, but it's hard to reach that stage without over-grazing on the spicy stuff. The coconut flan was melt-in-the-mouth yummy, and we both enjoyed the "Tako", a mix of jelly balls and sweetcorn covered in a whipped coconut custard.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wicker Park

I suppose the happy ending was always a given, but it sits as uncomfortably with Gilles Mimouni's twisty tale as it would with Hitchcock's Vertigo, to which it was something of a tribute. As with Vanilla Sky, these kind of "faithful" American transpositions of European films leave you wondering what it was that so affected you when you first saw the original, because it must have hit an iceberg and sunk midway across the Atlantic.

Yet many of us that saw and enjoyed L'appartment will probably have felt a twinge of disappointment when that nice Parisian pad and its beautiful occupant were engulfed in flames shortly before the end. So perhaps Scottish director Paul McGuigan's re-treading of this baroque plotline sets out to give us the upbeat conclusion we all would have wanted. Except that ironically it doesn't really- because if in the original we craved a cathartic collision between Max and Lisa, here we're not really given enough reasons to care. If anything sympathies will tend towards Rose Byrne's Alex, by far the strongest and most appealing character in the remake, so we end up feeling a bit disappointed yet again. An interesting case of ambiguity, albeit accidental, triumphing over the imposition of closure.

It took me three viewings of L'appartment to realise that it was essentially telling the tale of Romane Bohringer's brittle loon Alice, a fact which Mimouni cleverly disguised with by deploying the searing sensuality of Monica Bellucci and by making Max a bit of a scoundrel at heart. The trick was to make his male audience-members as obsessed with the lost feminine ideal as Max was. Josh Hartnett's attempt to duplicate the "her eyes" speech falls completely flat, A) because he can't act, and B) because Diane Kruger has already demonstrated conclusively that she's no Helen of Troy. Wicker Park's target market is clearly more female, so the schemer has to come unstuck and Matt can't really be firmly pre-engaged to a third girl before the whole run around kicks off.

Back in the mid-nineties we didn't care all that much that mobile phones would have solved the whole problem either.

The Red Squirrel

Scrutinise the label of any Julio Medem feature and you'll find that levels of mamadas are dangerously high. In La Ardilla Roja there's so much undercurrent, you would be hard pressed to say what the actual current is.

The basic premise has a lot of promise: One lonely night "J", a faded rock star, stands looking down at the surf-battered rocks at San Sebastián with suicidal intent. A motorcycle suddenly appears and hits the barrier at speed, spilling its rider onto the beach below. "J" runs over and opens the visor to find the alluring eyes of the lovely Emma Suárez staring up at him as flirtatiously as it is possible to be after a disorientating five metre ranazo. She appears to have survived the accident physically unscathed, but with a total loss of pre-crash memory. "J" resourcefully takes advantage of the situation, declaring himself her boyfriend and claiming that he was also on the bike with her.

The possibility that she is faking the amnesia is open from the start, and frankly also at the end. The couple flee the hospital to a camping centre called La Ardilla Roja set in one of Menem's characteristically evocative landscapes. "J" just wants some quality time with his 'girlfriend' but she seems determined to get pally with the disfunctional family of a taxi driver in the neighbouring tent.

We discover that "Lisa" has a good command of German, a language in which she can sing opera, but this turns out to have little or no relevance to the unfolding drama. Meanwhile, the attractively quizzical improvisor "J" (played by Nancho Novo) also demonstrates what appear to be near superhuman reactions, which do come in quite handy at one crucial moment.

You're never quite sure with Medem how much of his offbeat melodrama should be taken as intentionally funny. In Lucia y el Sexo for example there was a well-endowed Argentine that struck us as representative of a joke on the argies without actually delivering any comedy himself in either word or deed.

At the end V was far less charitable about this film that I was. After Enduring Love last week, she's a bit sick of stories that begin with a great set-up and proceed to go nowhere very interesting. "Strange" I will give it.

On Sunday 53 people were injured in the town of San Sebastian de los Reyes (15m north of Madrid) in a San Fermines-style running of the bulls. A couple of the runners managed to trip over in the narrow entrance to the bullring causing a human pile-up which the bulls traversed by clambering over the top of it. Here in London this last weekend of Summer, we had that festival of gyrating schoolchildren and intestinal tracts known as the Notting Hill Carnival.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Interpreter

An awkward combination of the real UN building and a fake Robert Mugabe, but nowhere near as silly as some of the critics have made out.

Back in '85 I spent a few days helping out a friend that was working in the NGO section at the UN, and quickly reached the conclusion that the building itself is a whole lot less interesting than the people that make a living within it.

Strangely, Nicole Kidman's character is the only UN employee with a significant role in this convoluted plot. I tend to disagree with Roger Ebert that the role could just as easily have been played by a black actress, as I think some of the cleverer nuances of the script would have been lost that way. At times Kidman and Penn appear awash in a sea of cliches, but the fact that they successfully avoid the classic falling onto the bed scene is highly commendable.

I also caught the first two thirds of Hotel Rwanda on the plane, which has strong echoes of Oliver Stone's Salvador.

Both The Interpreter and this one are condescending towards Africa in their own way. Hotel Rwanda imagines that the less-racist way of telling the story is to blame the origins of the whole mess on the Belgian colonists, and goes on to emphasise the cowardice of the international (i.e. white) community in the face of "acts of genocide". I will have to rent the DVD and watch through to the end in order to discover if there's anything more to say about this film. It has the one thing The Interpreter conspicuously lacks, the "based on a true story" shock-factor.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


The August sea breeze in Dubai feels like someone waving a hair-dryer in your face. Thankfully the aircon in the car that picks us up at the airport has been set to power chill, but when I put my palm up against the window it's warm to the touch - 44 degrees outside, and keen to get in.

After check in I am drawn to the massive window of my room on the 25th floor. The horizon is a beige blur. Everything has a slightly bleached appearance, even the palm trees. The vista features the kind of skyline usually rendered by the algorithms of a strategy game, the result of a controlling ambition rather than a mainstream organic economy.

"The bubble will burst", a colleague observes over dinner on Sunday, "but I hope I'm not here when it happens". One well-placed act of terror could do the trick - and a local extremist group has recently theatened to rise to the challenge unless the US ambassador goes home unreplaced.

Dubai is the most completely intercontinental place that I've ever experienced. This I conclude on assessing the depth and breadth of exotic fare on offer in the breakfast buffet. There's even a Japanese section with tofu and natto beans, and the soundtrack to all this early morning indigestion is one of those Buddha Bar compilations. Back in 1978 Edward Said's postcolonial classic Orientalism told us westerners that we tend to unconsciously filter our views of all things Arab through a "system of represntations". Well guess what, it looks as if we exported this back to them and now they're using it to decorate their own ersatz consciousness, gold taps and all.

Anyway, there's far too much unarguable beauty and elegance around for anyone to be able to adopt a position of facile disdain, but a childhood's worth of summers in places like Marbella and Monte Carlo long ago drew the sting of ego-materialism for me. My mother might still feel an adrenaline rush at the sight of a Bulgari shopfront, but for me its more like a bilious oesophagal reflux. Here too there are cliquey clusters of displaced greedy people, but perhaps fewer have will have come to pickle themselves and die, as the ex-pat community is comparatively youthful.

More than any other mutant metropolis, Dubai perhaps reminds me most of one small, exclusive spot in Antigua, Guatemala - a sumptuously fitted out cafe-restaurant with a secret garden ambience. You knock on the heavy wooded door and if you look the right sort, you are let in and shown to a table. I've never been there when guests outnumber the cordial-to-excess staff. Yes it's a business, but the Swiss millionairess that imagined the place doesn't depend on your custom; it's just a means to her ends.

There's an ever-present desire to "anticipate your needs" around here too - I'm asked if I want coffee by three separate people within moments of taking my seat at breakfast. My colleague calls reception for help with his broadband connection and four helpful individuals ring back in short sequence. Encumbered by an anglo-saxon unwillingness to put anybody to any unncessary trouble, I quickly learn from the frowns that negative responses produce that there's really only one right answer to questions like "do you want that on separate plates?" or "can I get you something to drink?".

Before finally locating our restaurant on Sunday night we circumnavigate the tennis stadium, dodging several smiling waitresses hawking their respective cuisines. "Mexican Portuguese? Mexican Portuguese?" one particularly insistent one calls out. This brings to mind AA Gill's review in the Sunday Times that same morning: "Jabberwocky food is now expanding into jabberwocky environments. You get food from Lisbon, wallpaper from Stockholm, wine from Chile, water from Fiji, music from Ibiza, waiters from Poland and a bill from the Cayman Islands."

Baksheesh warned me about the hookahs. Our eatery that night is Al Mazaj, a Lebanese restaurant in a part of town called Century Village, where share a selection of cold mezze in a large embroidered tent, surrounded by attractive local couples listlessly sucking on the old hubble-bubble in a mist of fruit-flavoured fumes. Certainly one way of dealing the perennial problem of what to talk about over dinner with your life's companion.

It feels like most of the travelling I get to do in Dubai is in the Emirates Towers' ear-popping panoramic lifts . Our meeting is over in the sister 'scraper, separated from ours by a shopping arcade called the Boulevard, essentially a swankier version of Whiteley's on Sunday afternoons. From the presentation room, 30+ floors up, I can peer down on the three sandy ovals, large, medium and small, of the city's camel racing centre, a winter sport here in Dubai, though not one we're likely to see at Turin in 2006.

The Emirates flights to and from the Sheikh Rashid Terminal skirt around the edges of Iraq as if it were some sort of dirty secret. The eerily unmarked landscape of northern Iran is positively Martian. In places the topology looks as if it has been spread around by a spatula and left to set, then covered in a fine reddy-brown dust that you could lean out and blow away, but for the dangers of explosive decompression at 35,000 feet. Further south this is replaced by massive streaky canyons. How did Xerxes and the rest of his Persian host ever find their way out of here?

There's no United-style channel 9 with pilot to air-traffic controller banter, but you can keep an eye on the output of cameras mounted on the front and underside of the fuselage. Channel 23 on the audio system is supposed to relax you: "Did you allow enough time to get to the airport this morning?" asks the soft female voice over the ambient music. "Try not to have too big a meal..." Too late for that!

Somewhere near Frankfurt a jet speeding in the opposite direction passes close enough for me to be able to read "British Airways" on the side livery, and to wave the remains of my lobster tail at the half-starved, voucher-munching passengers no doubt at that precise moment staring anxiously back at our 777.


Frederick Forsyth explained to the perpetually outraged readers of the Daily Express yesterday why, 55 years after he started travelling, he has given up on the Third World.

"It is not about north and south, nor east and west. It is not about black and white, and it's certainly not about Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu. It is about a very basic national mindset. A marriage of effort to logic, order, discipline; a refusal to tolerate corruption and chaos...Mr Bono can sing his songs until he is giving his gigs over a Zimmer frame, but if he thinks he is going to abolish poverty he must be daft. The rich West can go on pouring aid, technology, investment, chances into the Third World (and we will) but, across great swathes of it, chaos will always win."

This politically incorrect topic of "national mindsets" is one I shall return to once I have polished off Jared Diamond's Collapse later in the year. Forsyth's theory is that if the local airport is a clusterfuck, the best thing to do would be to get straight back on the plane and leave. The funny thing is, Guatemala City's Aurora International airport isn't all that bad. It's no microcosmic appetiser to the main chaos outside. (Ok, the policemen that patrol the terminal have been known to conduct the occasional stick-up.)

Last week, a bit of grenade tossing in three of Guatemala's prisons (including the one affectionately known as El Infierno, hell.) resulted in 35 fatalities. This was a face-off between two of the leading maras (street gangs; the word itself deriving from a kind of ant prone to infestation), the Salvatrucha and Mara-18. Since then members of branches in neighbouring countries like EL Salvador and Honduras have been pouring across the border to join in the fray, which has resulted in tightened immigration controls.

Possibly to no avail, as the US government is also in the midst of a deportation frenzy, determined to offload hundreds of mareros on their countries of origin (Possibly the equivalent of the Home Office packing disgruntled Muslim youths from Leeds off to terrorist camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan.) Ironically though, maras like the Salvatrucha originated on the streets of LA before spreading to the cities of Central America.

Our current obsession with Islamo-baddies may be cloaking the parallel advancement of this equally unpleasant side-effect of the globalised world. The mareros' methods occasionally make Al Zaqawi's followers in Iraq look like the Women's Institute by comparison. (Click here, only if you are not in the least bit squeamish.)

On Christmas Eve last year in San Pedro Sula, Honduras gunmen linked to Salvatrucha sprayed a public bus killing 28, an act distinguished by its nihilistic mindlessness.

Along with El Salvador and Guatemala, the Honduran government has been experimenting with a mano dura approach to the maras, essentially a shoot-to-kill policy. International organisations point to a failure of the elites to deal with the "underlying causes" by which they mean social and economic. (But in my own view not exclusively so.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy

Roger Ebert's review featured an unlikely coupling of critical adjectives: "twee" and "conceited". Not descriptions that I would in the past have used to characterise Douglas Adams' comic genius, but perhaps Adams was tainted by association with Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins in the latter part of his mindbogglingly forshortened life, and there's a pair that could be said to deserve them if anyone does.

Allowing for the fact that I generally enjoy watching films on aeroplanes more than I would in other formats, I was pleasantly surprised how little I found to irk me here. I switched off a bit during the new section with John Malkovich, but the "point of view gun" is a welcome edition to the corpus.

Mark Wing Davey used to say he had always imagined Zaphod Beeblebrox as a blond surfer dude, so Sam Rockwell's Galactic President is possibly a nod to this suggestion, though the two head thing is always going to work better on radio for fairly obvious reasons.

Marvin has been realised especially well.

It's all rather like being reacquainted with a old in-joke, and a last, nostalgic, "so long and thanks for all the fish" to Douglas. However familiar you are or were with the books and various series, some of the ideas still have the power to thrill.

Enduring Love

After the first ten minutes bit of an endurance test itself. The opening balloon sequence is beautifully filmed, paced and scored, but it's basically a con. In one of the add-ons overrated Ian McEwan admits that he conceived the episode as a device for having his main protagonists run towards each other. What happens afterwards is some sort of denatured pyschological thriller, complete with half-formed ruminations on the nature of love, that's about as thrilling as a middle class dinner party. (Though Joe Penhall's script apparently diverges considerably from the book.) According to V, not since Truly, Madly, Deeply, the first of Anthony Minghella's series of excrutiating love stories, has a film made her review her decision to live amongst the English.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Giuseppe Tornatore set the standard for mawkishly sentimental, beautifully-filmed, faux-brow foreign flicks back in '89 with Cinema Paradiso. Yet Malèna, which on one level is a cautionary about how malicious small-town gossip can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, is far darker and funnier than the comparable Chocolat - Sicily's hypocritical little ladies in black clearly have a much nastier bite than their Provencale equivalents.

The mix of bathos pathos here is ultimately rather a jarring one, as exaggerations delivered for comic effect in the first half are then used to form the basis of a near tragic turn of events in the second.

Yet this is an enjoyable and fairly moving film that could be acquitted from accusations of narrative delinquency simply by recalling that the drama has been construed by the nostalgic imagination of its chief protagonist, at the time an impressionable young boy coming-of-age in the fictional town of Castelcuta.

However, such a significant slip from orthodox realism is less easy to make absolutely clear in the third person perspective of cinema, and Tornatore's success in this respect is at best only partial.

It is Guiseppe Sulfaro, the newcomer playing the crush-afflicted Renato, who makes this film. Monica Belluci's character is more of an impression in the boy's mind than a fully three dimensional role. My favourite scenes are probably those involving Renato's contract negotiations with the statue of a saint in the local church.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Nurse Batty

You'd think that ex-nurse turned professional hypocrite Makosi Musambasi could do without hiring a PR big-wig (sorry, couldn't resist) to manage her Moscow retreat from the limelight, but word is out that impresario Jonathan Shalit is on the case.

The effect of this expensive counsel is not so much a U-turn as a tailspin. Hardline diva Makosi has become misunderstood victim Makosi. This morning she told the presenters of Doctor Doctor that she never expected the producers of Big Brother to air her diary room request for a morning after pill. "But you told all the other housemates.." someone pointed out. There goes that key message then.

Makosi was required to dress as a nurse for this interview, but when asked to perform some basic nursing tasks (such as checking blood pressure) appeared predictably incompetent.

Yesterday she told a national newspaper that the reason she originally reassured Anthony that he hadn't dipped in during their pool encounter was because she had selflessly wished to protect his pulling potential with "textbook" new housemate Orlaith. Aha, that would be why she warned Orlaith off by telling her she'd "had" the Geordie before they all got into the pool that night. Makosi changes her story more often than the Metropolitan Police.

Meanwhile Derek Laud has stuffed some notes into a brown envelope in order to retain the services of Neil and Christine Hamilton (along with the MCS Agency) as he attempts to do for the Conservative Party what Prince Edward did for republicanism. Personally I'd look forward to "It's a Tory Knockout".


There was a smart-looking gent behind me at lunch showing off his erudition in hushed patrician tones to a pair of lesser mortals at the same table, which involved saying "extraawdinary" quite a lot. I was trying to read at the time, so his discourse generally manifested itself as a distracting low-frequency buzz in my right ear, but I did tune in when he explained that the difference between the British Empire and its modern American equivalent in Iraq is the willingness of the invading nation to export significant proportion of its own middle-classes to run the colonial bureaucracy.

About the same time, and back on the page, Haruki Murakami was referencing Rousseau's observation that civilisation begins when people start erecting fences. In the past month our own civilisation has debated whether to construct a whole new set of fences around its chief competitors, but perhaps we ought to be considering whether the situation would improve if we actually decommissioned some of those that already define the boundaries between ourselves and the others.

Turkey Shoot

This week Roger Ebert published a list of the worst movies he's ever had to review, which includes a section entitled "Sex, romance, music, drama and other crap".

I'm relieved how few of these I have actually seen, and I don't think I was about to rush out to catch The Dukes of Hazzard anyway. No place for Waterworld?

I'm not saying Betty Blue was a classic of European Cinema, but it was something of a rite of passage for me at the time. And if either The Blue Lagoon or The Usual Suspects appeared on TV again soon I'd watch them with the sort of glee I greet The Wild Geese each time it comes round.

Time then for my own list of the twenty best films I've watched on the big and small screens since this blog migrated to at the end of last year. (In no particular order.)

Last Life in the Universe
A Tale of Two Sisters
Spirited Away
Shaolin Soccer
The Incredibles
Violent Cop
Maria Full of Grace
Team America: World Police
Tempus Fugit
Kung-Fu Hustle
The House of Flying Daggers
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Thursday, August 18, 2005


I guess this is where Luc Besson meets Guy Ritchie, though exactly what so many mockney East End gangsters are doing in Glasgow is anybody's guess.

Besson likes to tell stories of innocents operating relatively involuntarily at the business end of other people's bloody urban strife . Leon was one such, and so was Nikita.

I thought I would never forgive Bob Hoskins for his portrayal of Nikita Khruschev in Enemy at the Gates, but he's superb here as Bart, a role that had earlier been offered to Albert Finney and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Jet Li also delivers, as both actor and wushu master. The film features Li's longest ever fight sequence (choreographed by Yeun Wo-ping), taking to a new level the ultra-violent Kung-Fu artistry we saw in Kiss of the Dragon, which Besson also wrote. I have a soft spot for that movie, and without really being able to say anything profoundly complimentary about it, I know I will probably develop one for Unleashed as well. It's greatest failing was perhaps the number of loose ends left untied at the end.


Caught one part of Lord Winston's The Human Body last night in which he aired someone else's numbnuts theory: that humans have uniquely long lifespans amonsgt mammals because we have adapted to become good grandparents.

What percentage of human beings throughout history (and particularly the early part when we were still evolving at pace) does he reckon managed to live beyond 50? And indeed, how many people alive in the world today will get past middle-age?

The programme also related how Claude Monet had a cataract removed before proceeding to paint a number of scenes with one or other of his eyes shut. When the clouded lens was used, the colour red predominated. Monet got so angry about this bias that he even resorted to destroying some works created before his operation.

50 First Dates

Or maybe Eternal Memento of the Spotless Groundhog.

Wasn't especially optimistic as V has a known antipathy to both Adam Sandler and Walruses.

Not so bad in the end - there are a few genuinely hilarious moments, and the supporting cast (especially Sean Astin) are on good form.

How did Drew Barrymore manage to stay so serene during Sandler's ukelele singing scene? This is the second time I've seen him doing 'sensitive' and I remain unconvinced.

This movie appears to kick off as a comedy of modern dating mores, goes goofball, situational and then finally doesn't seem so sure it's even still a comedy at all.

I suspect that none of these memory-loss plotlines would stand up to cross-examination by Oliver Sacks. Amnesia is rarely an isolated condition as 'normal' human consciousness includes working memories of your current plan from both past and future perspectives.

Antonio Damasio's research has revealed that the brains of people apparently unable to lay down new memories know a lot more than they let on to their conscious selves. (A notion that Charlie Kaufman explores in Eternal Sunshine, but not the Nolans in Memento.)

As in Memento the scriptwriter's cheat in 50 First dates is to have a fixed moment where recently accumulated short-term memories are wiped like a CCTV VHS tape. But aphasias resulting from selective brain injury tend to degrade our general awareness down to generics, so in practice Drew Barrymore's character would have some deeper issues to cope with every day.

It's not just a matter of not clicking on the SAVE icon at regular intervals, patients like these have trouble learning anything new. In Memento Leonard forgets many things from cycle to cycle, but not that he has an overall gameplan, which is where that story veers away from the clinical evidence.

It has also been noted that time-warped aphasiacs imaginatively compensate themselves when reality doesn't match the world inside their heads. So Lucy wouldn't have needed her father and brother to create a phoney world around her (like Alex in Goodbye Lenin!), because most likely she would have been generating and re-generating the fable herself.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Don Quixote: Part One

Stefan told me that when he studied Cervantes' novel at school in Sofia his teacher described it as a book "with drawers". Until the first of these interpolated stories comes along you'd be forgiven for worrying that Don Quixote de La Mancha is a one gag comedy.

And let's face it, we all think we know what the joke is without having to take on the 800 or so pages of the novel itself - the classic case of misplaced marbles, dramatised best by the windmill joust, which actually occurs quite early on. (Though the barmy counter-productiveness of defending the helpless this way is best evidenced by the attack on the penitents carrying a statue of the Virgin, taken for a damsel in distress by the "knight with the sorrowful face". )

The first sally is something of a pilot episode in which Cervantes leaves you with the clear impression that he's exploring the comic potential of his creation. The entrance of Sancho Panza, apparently an afterthought, drives the expansive impetus of the second outing.

Having heard the term "Holy Fool" used to describe the Don in the critical literature, I was actually surprised by how big a twat he can be. Things may change in part two, but Cervantes hardly spares his protagonists from any of the available humiliation. And for the demented Don, perhaps the most demeaning aspect of his errant condition is the way he seems to be trapped in the cracks between other people's grand narratives.

"Except if the subject is chivalry, no-one would think he does not have a very good mind", it is politely observed of Quixote during one overnight stop. Yet an important aspect of the mental sophistication that grows alongside the perceptual delusions is his ability to make his "reasoned nonsense" ever more resistant to de-bunking.

How much of this is deliberate satire on the author's part? It also occurred to me that Cervantes was sending up the whole notion of "righteous combat" as Terry Jones insists was Chaucer's intention with The Knight's Tale. Some of the funniest parts of the story are where we see plain old Quixada or Quesada's pretensions exposed as little more than a ruse for blagging and petty theft. The Don is thesis and antithesis wrapped up in one madman.

Perhaps a chest of drawers is not quite the right metaphor for the way Cervantes scales up his tale using intervening narratives. I hate to have to resort to the over-used web, so I'll stick with landscape, which conveys something of the topographical continuity between all the characters, themes and genre styles that make up the scenery on this journey.

Windmills were amongst the new kids on Manchegan block in the sixteenth century, and it's clear already in part one that Quixote's greatest antagonist is the early modern world itself. If his ideals now look the icing on the freeloading cake, the mini-novels that he comes into contact with reveal how the credibility-challenged medieval romances have, through the medium of print, lastingly penetrated the social mores and 'romantic' imaginations of all westerners.

Cervantes anticipates many of the techniques developed and favoured by later writers. Postmodernity there's a plenty, but there's also something of Gabo's magical realism in the way he takes a pace back from reportage by indicating layers of hearsay and tale-telling. "There are persons who remember seeing..."

And as with Shakespeare, who died in the same year, it's a fascinating mystery how he managed to make such monumental literary ambition approachable by the "presumptuous mob" a.k.a the common man.

Onward with part two...eventually.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"W, M"

The question has arisen how America, ostensibly the world's most Christian nation, paradoxically comports itself in the least Christian fashion in the global arena. So perhaps we ought not to have been that surprised that Makosi, the most avowedly God-adoring housemate in BB6, should have been the sort that gives conceited hypcorites everywhere a bad name. In both cases a lack of humility seems to be at the root of the problem.

Egged on by Chris Moyles earlier that day, Davina gave Makosi no quarter when she emerged from the house on Friday night in third place. The discomfited indocumentada reacted by playing the gender card and even had a go at a disarming, wet-eyed Puss in Boots- style look, all to no avail. The crowd just went on chanting exaltantly "out, out, out". Yet as an elephant in her former life, Makosi appears to have retained the skin-density of a pachyderm in this one.

Her apologists screech that she was just "playing the game", an excuse that depends on viewers believing that the individual concerned is any different in "real life". All of the last three might be said to have reached the last night by "being themselves", but Makosi's authenticty was too much for most to bear.

She fails to comprehend that the issue of pool night and baby Jacuzzi is not one of his word against mine factual accuracy(penetration or simulation) but one of post-coital attitude. Unlike Anthony, Makosi obviously cared little for any embarrassment or offense she might have caused to her own friends and family, and in this instance, his. She now says that Davina treated the repellant Saskia better on her own eviction night, forgetting that the wobble-headed promotions girl had actually apologised for her highly quoteable outbursts, something Makosi is unlikely ever to do.

How did she ever get employed as a nurse? I'd wager that few cardiac patients would now be willing to trust someone that would distort any truth or step on any friend or colleague if it served her own ends. She exhibits the classic envidiosa pyschology, advising the others that Orlaith was "not really a model" and that Derek was probably "a butler" and not an affluent and reasonably educated man: i.e. how could anyone have any qualities that challenged her own "platinum personality"?

Anyway, glad to have my life back. Has Anthony's celebrity worn off yet?

Beyond Belief

There are two sorts of religious people, the imaginative and the unimaginative. The first group would usually have little to fear from any cost-benefit analysis, but the latter are a genuine scourge, and sadly probably also the larger fraction.

A lack of imagination rather than religious belief per se is probably the deeper personality deficiency these people suffer from i.e. they are just as likely to be prone to errors of judgement in matters that require no filtration through the funnel of faith.

The Holy ObersturmbannFather has consistently alerted the faithful to the threat posed by voguish liberal-Marxist relativists, but relativism is simply the tolerance of the unimaginative. Real tolerance is actually a thoroughly imaginative and very Christian virtue. (Hence atheism can be just as unpleasant when it emanates from an unimaginative mind.)

For these reasons I have some strong sympathies with the view of Justin Cartwright, as expressed in Beyond Belief last Saturday's Guardian: that by keeping up the appearance of respect for other people's nonsense we undermine the overall quality of discussion in our society.

However there's a telling contradiction in the way that liberal democracy "values process over ideology" also tokens its vulnerability in a world of imagination-challenged fundamentalists. And whilst Isaiah Berlin was surely the most significant OP of the past century, the comfort he took in the meaninglessness of things derived from a view that "things are what they are", a state of affairs that the more imaginative scientific minds around us today would be unlikely to endorse without significant caveats.

Payback Time

Managed to miss Dr Robert Beckford's documentary last night in which he argued that the descendents of African slaves should be paid compensation for loss of earnings. The Birmingham-based theologian estimates that such reparations should add up to £7.5 trillion.

Possibly a usefully controversial and well-intentioned polemical ruse, but lets hope he knows how silly it is really.

What of of individuals that go about their daily lives in the guise of white people that have the odd strand of African ancestry and the not inconsiderable number of 'black' people that have some secretive white genes stowing away on their chromosomes. How would Beckford calculate the proportionality of their claims? And how would you know how much of the interracial blending was voluntary? You wouldn't want anyone to lose out because there was a bit of rape in their roots.

If the 'cost' of African slavery has been discrimination and the relative economic disadvantage experienced by the slaves' descendents, then what of the people of African descent that live in this country that have no slave ancestors? Are they somehow less likely to end up in jail or in dead-end jobs? Should they not have a share in the pay out as they surely have a stake in the global consequences of the slave trade as well?

All this reminds me of Michael Fitpatrick's recent piece about the thriving cult of victimhood:

"The distinctive character of the identity promoted by multiculturalism is the identity of victim. In the world of multiculturalism, claims of victimhood provide the basis for recognition and status...In the competitive struggle for prestige (and state resources) unleashed by multiculturalism, every minority must justify its claim by elevating its sufferings."

Monday, August 15, 2005

El Americano Feo

Such is the uncomplimentary name given by Peruvian TV to Charlie Munn, a Baltimore millionaire that has devoted much of his time and fortune to the conservation of wild parrot species. You could accuse Munn of imposing Western standards on developing countries and he would agree with you. Munn's activities, as recorded in a programme called The Real Macaw pinpoint some of the thornier issues facing the West's better side whenever it seeks to remodel the often reluctant rest of the world in its own image.

For example, in order to preserve a patch of parrot-inhabited, logger-threatened rainforest in Peru, Munn has established an upmarket eco-tourist lodge there and handed over ownership to local Machagenga Indians. We see him instructing the management team how to cook and keep home for such discerning guests and how he is immediately confronted with oppostion from a faction wanting to pack the joint with mochileros (backpackers). "You gave us the place, so it's surely ours to run as we want now?" they tell him. Shortly afterwards Munn discovers that the husband of the lodge's cook Delia is working for the loggers.

For V these incidents underscore one of the enduring drawbacks of doing something nice for the Indios. They don't get it. "Espejitos" is the term used in Guatemala for this phenomenon. People that were so easily bamboozled with beads and little mirrors have an atavistic mental block when it comes to Western standards of economic value and exchange. Munn's "survival of the richest" mantra may have met its match!

Over in Brazil's Amazonia Munn has employed the most talented former trappers on a fixed salary of $500 a month to protect the Hyacinth Macaws that they used to ensnare, and in doing so offended local wildlife authorities who have accused him of interfering in their criminal justice system.

Yet V and I were with Charlie on this one - the trappers are highly skilled operators making excellent use of the very talents that have made our own species so successful. Theirs is more a crime of ignorance than unpleasant greed, so the idea of re-programming them to understand and protect their natural environment seems quite a sound one.

There was another interesting documentary on TVe featuring an investigation into the Amazonian Cayapo tribe's habit of kidnapping toddlers of European or African stock and raising them as their own. The team secretly filmed a toothless village chief with obviously Nordic features. "La Selva se defiende". The Cayapo go about their business stark naked but for a strange bog-roll like tube inserted into the underside of their chins, which gives the impression that the whole tribe simultaneously suffered some sort of freak accident.

I also learned this weekend that the Catholic Church operated a monopoly on the cultivation of coca in sixteenth century Peru. Previously chewed only by the upper echelons of Inca society, the narcotic leaves were regarded by the ecclesiastical authorities as a useful way of increasing the hardiness of indigenous labourers in the often chilly Andean climate.

Shrek 2

More sophisticated, inventive and perhaps more satisfying, but not necessarily better than the original.

I was more at ease with Mike Myers' Scottish accent, and so it seems was he. Murphy and Diaz have also grown into their vocal parts, though hers comes with fewer dramatic possibilities than last time round.

There's still a relative lack of expressiveness in Dreamworks' characters compared to Pixar's in spite of the upgrade here to SEGA-style, near-lifelike human figures. And while there's certainly enormous beauty, depth and detail in all the hyperreal scenery, I couldn't help reflecting that there's not that much to prevent this same story being told in a live-action remake. In contrast films like The Incredibles and Team America explored areas where flesh and blood thesps cannot, and perhaps should not, go.

The game of using a fanatasy world to satirise the mores of modern life (e.g. Far Far Away as the fairytale LA, complete with its own Joan Rivers) is also getting a bit stale, especially after Shark Tale. It's a comic conceit that has never really been done better than in the Asterix books, though The Flinstones (TV not films) deserves an honourable mention.

The donkey cracks me up.

Friday, August 12, 2005


Where to start? How about kicking off with what on Earth was that pregnant girl doing on the airliner?

Episode one of Lost probably did enough to make sure that several million of us will lose our critical faculties for a few more hours at least. This is very much the old Twin Peaks ploy - put enough drama and mystery into the opening and people won't really notice that the rest is like a daytime soap with flashbacks.

Trouble is, although there was clearly a killer on the loose in Twin Peaks, he wasn't posing a clear and present danger to the life expectancy of an isolated group of people like an Alien or a Predator. The underlying enigma of Lost appears to include such a monster, yet just when we think the body count is about to advance with the usual incremental steps, the narrative turbulence starts and we are jolted backwards and forwards between the personal stories of the 40-odd survivors and the events that led up to them taking the plane. Stop-start storylines of this sort can only enfeeble the man-eating monster scenario, so it remains to be seen how far the dramatic goodwill from the first episode can be spread.

6.4m tuned in to Channel 4 on Wednesday night, but many of these were trapped between instances of Davina.

BBC Multiculturalism Poll

A few interesting, non-headline results from the BBC's multiculturalism survey: unsurprisingly only 2% of respondents agreed that they were "very racially prejudiced against people from other races", but interestingly 23% fessed up to being "a little racially prejudiced". This leaves the thoroughly unlikely figure of 75% for the nation's colourblind. The biological factors that influence the psychology of stereotyping should in practice ensure that the real proportion of completely prejudice-free citizens remains a minority.

26% of Muslims interviewed disagree with the view that they should "integrate fully into British society" and 18% consider "Islam is incompatible with the values of British Democracy". 36% would "stop all asylum into the UK", a figure only one percentage point lower than that of the national sample.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Island Sunsets

I've updated my images of this week's magnificent atardeceres.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Mexican Stand-Off

My mother's favourite, if not only pastime is sitting in judgement on other people. So for her weddings have the same thrill as attending a periodic convention of likeminded hobbyists. I can recall nearly all of the scornful, belittling remarks she has made over the years and can pair them up in my mind with someone or other's special day.

Last night Package Holiday Undercover reported on the ill-fated nuptials of an English couple that unwisely picked Cancun as the ideal spot to tie their knot.

Arriving tired (i.e drunk) after the long flight they had a bit of a domestic in the queue for immigration. The bride-not-to-be loudly reproached family members about having to fill in their forms and was duly led away by security to an airless room where she was held for several hours. An official then repeatedly taunted her with the suggestion that she would be placed on the next plane back to northern England.

This was the first of two situations that could have been solved in a matter of minutes with a migaja, literally a crumb, but technically a bribe.

Having decided to get married in a far off country whose language and culture were of purely incidental interest to her, she just sat there and cried until the officials got bored and released her. Their repatriation threat was a transparent bluff, because seeing it through would have cost them mucha lana.

When the big day dawned, a second, even more challenging hurdle presented itself. The paperwork the couple had brought from London was invalidated by a single spelling mistake. Of such minor technicalities is the Mexican venal system made. Yet once again Yucatec palms remained unlubricated, and although the couple went through the ritual of exchanging vows on the white sands, they were to remain unmarried.

Thanks to ITV this hapless, or rather hopeless couple have had the opportunity to denounce First Choice on peak-time TV. Their wedding abroad nightmare was of course all the fault of the 'professionals'. I'd feel sorry for the tour company, but the package holiday industry has the customers it deserves.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Big Brother 6, end of

The eleventh hour of the eleventh week...

Time I think to review the candidates for 2005's cleverest housemate.

I feel that the best cases can be made for Kemal, Science and Maxwell, all now departed, and none a great advertisement for raw brain-power - though Science certainly seemed a lot more user-friendly outside the house than in it.

Received media wisdom has it that Me-Kosi is "intelligent" whilst Anthony is as short of processing power as he is of stature. Neither judgement necessarily fits the facts. Opportunism and selfishness should not be mistaken for rounded intellect, nor is simpleminded, religiously inflected self-devotion a token of empowerment. And whatever old Nick had to say on the matter, modern research supports the notion that niceness is almost always the best strategy.

The very thing that drives Craig mad about Anthony, his ability to hold onto the integrity of his own views about people like Roberto and Eugene, in spite of intense, localised peer pressure to join the mob, is a clear indication of the mental strength behind his stated strategy of having no strategy.

There's no question though that Anthony is one of the more educationally-challenged in the house, along with the likeable, latecoming Kinga. Yet both have demonstrated flourishes of wit - Antony's comparisons of Craig with Myra Hindley and The Cable Guy for instance, were spot on.

On the other end of the scale of education and elocution there was double-D Derek, who ably demonstrated how knowledge can be power as long as you establish early-on a reputation for having it. So what if Wimbledon is in June and Silver was the Lone Ranger's horse. Derek's claim to erudition was ultimately as authentic as Kemal's claim to diva-hood.

Derek doesn't so much shatter stereotypes as invert them, which is possibly why his personality appeared to be so provocative to the consumately chippy Makosi and Science.

Roberto was possibly the best all-round individual in the house, but no great intellectual.

Neither Craig or Eugene are at all dumb, but there's a certain lack of lucidity and self-awareness about them both.

The intentionality behind Saskia's cidergate outburst at Makosi felt darkly unpleasant at the time, but experience has shown that it was broadly accurate from a factual perspective. Saskia was possibly the smartest of the girls, but the competition wasn't that strong given that breasts appear to have been the key selection criteria this year.

The IQ wooden spoon belongs to Vanessa, whose general daytime alertness often resembled what neurologists call a persistent vegetative state.

Dislocated Identities

A very interesting article by Michael Fitzpatrick that suggests that multiculturalism not only flowed into the cracks in our society that opened as the traditional glue of establishment values decayed, it promoted ever widening fissures by politicising ethnicity.

There's probably more to the changes in collective identification than the exhaustion of the old elites. But dislocation does seem to have become part of public policy over the past few decades and, but for the re-think that recent events have encouraged, we might have reached the stage where people like Salman Rushdie could have been prosecuted in this country for offending minority sensibilities. Realtivism gone mad - as Herr Pope would say.


Teleology - the notion that all things have an end in mind - and a controversial one in the practice of the disciplines of Biology and History.

The late Stephen Jay Gould was at pains to point out that in spite of the common sense interpretation of the word evolution, life forms don't get better over time, at least according to some supposed objective external scale, nor do they get more complex. (Though this latter claim is more controversial than the first.)

Evolution is driven, according to the New Scientist, by temporary mis-matches between the needs of organisms and their ability to meet them. In this model, Nature itself is supposed to have no long term needs of its own.

History too is widely believed to march forward blindly, though in their day Hegel and Marx thought there was an underlying dialectic (progressively realised masterplan).

In Einstein's universe, beginning and end are relative anyway, both a consequence of the subjective experience of being inside it.

This subjectivity makes the matter of historical teleology rather interesting, because even if human civilisations are not in fact driven along by secret algorithms, at times we collectively behave as if they were. We enact a kind of teleology through our own agency.

There are those that argue that biological evolution has an element of momentum beyond the needs of individual organisms (or genes). This is especially so when the organism is close to a local fitness peak, which might be said to pull natural forms upwards with an inverted gravitational effect. What is clear however that it is much easier in evolutionary terms to ascend a fitness peak than to cross over to a nearby one of similar altitude by descending the one you're on in order to clamber up to the alternative summit.

This latter manoeuvre does however seem to be part of the progress of History.

August Moments

The sun setting behind the cathedral, taken from our bedroom window last night. A few more sunset pics here, along with a couple of this year's chile crop from the balcony.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Marking the 60th anniversary of the first atomic explosion, Spiked published a re-jigged version of Mick Hume's Hiroshima:The White Man's Bomb, in which the author claims that the decision to nuke the Japanese was taken in the face of an explicit understanding that they were already on the verge of surrender.

There's a difference however between the judgements based on after-the-event research and the sentiments at the time. You'd be falling into the same trap if you stated that everyone in the coalition knew that there were no WMDs in Iraq before the invasion began. That knowledge might have existed as a diffuse suspicion at very senior levels, but probably not to the point of absolute certainty across the whole decision-making apparatus.

That the Americans had strategic, post-war objectives in mind when they dropped the bomb and wished to realise with maximum impact the $2bn they had invested in the Manhatten Project, shouldn't come as a huge surprise nor should it stand as a full explanation for what happened.

Fom conversations with my own parents though I'd say that Hume is right to bring our attention to the dimension of racial politics. It did (and does) bother the old colonialists that these Asiatics used their prisoners as 'coolies' thereby reversing the traditional race roles in the Orient. They do still demand compensation for this, even though far fewer white men died in these POW camps than say Russians or Germans did in each other's.

It's interesting to watch the current tensions in the media surrounding the portrayal of Islamic extremists. Like the Japanese they have a number of physical characteristics that could lend themselves to damning caricature - yet the lack of state encouragement of this demonisation has meant that it has thus far remained an undercurrent. With the Germans our government managed to separate out the hateability of the Nazi elite from the ordinary Germans and they are attempting to repeat this trick now with Al Qaeda and "ordinary muslims", but in both cases something of the 'beast' besmirched the wider group too.

The Cable Guy

Craig doesn't know it yet, but martyrdom is so last month.

I used to give him the benefit of the doubt because he was the only BB housemate who appeared to have seen through Makosi, but we're getting a bit tired of boiled bunny for dinner every night.

Nadia won last year on the basis of an impassioned appeal for public acceptance. Craig made the same plea last week, but it looks like the general public still find him pretty unacceptable.

Craig's unhingedly high expectations of friendship prompted us to take "a ride on the information superhighway" and revisit Ben Stiller's hilarious pyschomedy The Cable Guy, a movie with messed-up over and undertones that set it apart from mainstream comic fare, and no doubt contributed to its poor showing at the box office back in 1996.

V, a natural socio-phobe who freaks out at the merest hint of an acquaintance getting "on her back" finds it a particularly peppery treat.


"T'is the old wound sire" laments Lancelot before mysteriously expiring at the end of John Boorman's Excalibur.

A post-mortem on Julio Medem's Vacas (Cows) would also point to a clear case of old wound pathology. The Francoist firing squad is a bit of an old castaño in Spanish cinema and this unfortunately is where this intense and cyclical pastoral saga winds up.

To some extent though Vacas (1992) is itself about old wounds, the old wound of lost Basque autonomy and specifically here, a gash in the intwined destinies of two rural Guipozcoan families, the Irigibels and the Mendiluzes as they pan out between 1875 and 1935.

Vacas was Medem's debut and won him a Goya. All of his films address us in a dense, sometimes opaque symbolic idiom. This worked well for me in Lucía y el sexo but here the visual imagery is more like viscous morass that bogs down the film's protagonists.

Several actors and one cow are recycled across three generations of action, which may catch out the inattentive.

It's still worth a recommendation. Even when his meanings are at their least transparent, the poeticism of Medem's moviemaking is a delight in itself. Not since Picnic at Hanging Rock has the natural world throbbed with such sinister menace.

War of the Worlds

The storylines for all would-be movie apocalypses begin by answering a couple of key questions.

1) What macro-anxieties will be addressed? Outbreak, Deep Impact, Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow all set out to fuel new fears for the post Cold-War generation, while the mortal threat posed to human civilisation in WOTW arrives in the form of off-world beings that would treat us the way we treat vermin. For a long time these sort of pitiless, predatory aliens were surrogates for political otherness (specifically communists at the time of the famous Orson Welles broadcast). Spielberg's problem is that he has tackled this story at a time when it doesn't seem to have that many possibilities for resonance beyond itself. (Though perhaps his intent was to evoke a more diffuse nightmare of devastation.)

In Spielberg movies murderous creatures intrude into already fragile domestic environments. And family politics is the essence of the extra spin that Spielberg has given to H.G. Wells' classic tale. Which brings me to the second big issue for these (almost) end of the world scenarios...

2) What perspective should be adopted? Should globally-calamitous events be viewed through local, domestic close-up as in M. Night Shylaman's Signs? (or indeed Night of the Living Dead) Or should the societal/governmental level of the catastrophe also be shown? And what about those other folk that live outside the USA? Do they matter? (Usually not much)

The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact attempt to weave all the different levels together through character relationships. A common technique is early Sci-Fi was to start local then expand out to the White House level in time for the big showdown.

Spielberg opts to limit our view to the experience of one family, but by sending them on a journey, he allows us to pick up information incrementally about the developing extermination. The crashed airliner and subsequent encounter with a TV newscrew is the most contrived of these points of contact.

This technique at times makes the movie seem cheap - as when the battle between the tripods and the US Army (a tank and several humvees) appears to be taking place just over the top of a hill unseen to the Ferriers and to us the cinema audience.

Independence Day's salvation was kitsch. WOTW's premise is in some ways even flimsier, yet it wants to be taken seriously. It does however share one important quality with Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow - powerful, memorable images of human and material destruction - such as the burning train and the tattered clothes of the vapourised floating down through the trees. If there is another apocalypse that Spielberg is attempting to resonate with here, it's surely the one he tackled in Schindler's List.

V and I played at anticipating the "Omi..gaad" moments - she won after she correctly called the one from the ferryboat skipper.

She also thought it was amusing that the first thing the gringos would want to do when the world ends is find somewhere to eat and sleep. But judging from my own experience of what happened here in London on July 7, it clearly is in our nature to seek the nearest point of comfort and normality when the world appears to be on the blink, and it can be very hard for the person on the ground to grasp the enormity of their situation without immediate access to news and other communications.

So in the end the aliens get the pox and die. Spielberg gives us a 'happy' ending when the family is reunited, or at least returned to its previously disunited state. Ray Ferrier has some lucky in-laws. He has reached this rather artifical end point having performed both classically heroic and darkly unheroic deeds. The future can't exactly be bright for any of these people.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Boomerang Times

Last night Channel 4 aired ex-CIA man Robert Baer's documentary, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, part of the station's New World War strand. (From experience back home, V reckons there's no such thing as an 'ex' CIA man - that it's rather like describing someone as a former terrorist or murderer.)

In person Colorado-native Baer is far less charismatic than George Clooney, who is to play him in Syriana. After 22 years in the Agency he resigned in disgust after the failed attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1995. In some ways he is Langley's Heseltine - in spite of his contrarian views there are strong hints of a conservative agenda in his organisation of the facts.

Unlike Robert Pape who deliberately extends his search beyond Islam, Baer locates the origins of the martyrdom cult in the Iranian Revolution. He also has a clearer notion that it cannot be understood purely in terms of its history, because it continues to expand and mutate. The programme showed Baer attending Friday morning prayers in Tehran, a scene scarily reminiscent of the two minute hate in Nineteen Eighty Four.

Whilst many look to events in Israel or Afghanistan to explain the current pandemic of Islamic extremism, Baer may be right to suggest that the resurgence of the theocratic tendency within Islam owes a great deal to the events of 1979 in Iran.

Perhaps the most frightening part of theocratic communities is the seemlessness with which church and state, individual and collective appear to be blended. Freedom's former enemy, Communism, had many more points of disconnect. The term Iron Curtain itself carried the implication that ordinary human aspirations to free expression and movement were being artificially enclosed by the Soviets. Take away the mechanics of state oppression and the people would quickly become just like the rest of us - and indeed this is what has more or less happened in the formerly en-curtained nations. It's rather less easy to be similarly optimistic about the revert-ability of those that currently submit to the will of the Ayatollahs.

Blair can keeping trying to convince us that Jihadist tendencies are a "perverted" form of Muslim devotion until the cows go mad, but the original manifestation of ascendent Islam was a theo-political one, the Caliphate. Socialism could also be pursued purely as a private faith but who can doubt the 'community' currents within it?

Residents of Londonistan should be reminded of the words of Jean Paul Sartre who, on witnessing the Algerian rejection of French tutelage, observed that "it is the time of the boomerang". Well, now it most definitely is. The coalition of the willing wants us to keep trying to throw it back at them, but we know what that will achieve. Time I think for some more holistic remedies.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


This week, after many hold-ups and some aggressive Republican lobbying George Bush signed off CAFTA, which extends Uncle Sam's free trade backyard from El Paso down to the Darien Gap.

Guatemala's fractious street sentiment opposes President Oscar Berger's decision to ratify the treaty last winter. The feeling is that the markets opened up to US goods will be unable to afford them and that poor urban and rural workers will be in turn be opened up to further exploitation. The provisions regarding generic medicines and software patents are also unpopular, and with good reason.

Yet one of history's hardest lessons is that you often have to take a couple of steps backward in order to move forward. And regretably for those of us born at the wrong time and in the wrong place, these material retreats can often last several generations. (These days you have to try to avoid using the word progress because it always sets off a load of savage barking from the sadly still unmuzzled watchdogs of cultural relativism. But even this lot would have to admit in their less dog-matic moments that civilisation can improve in terms of basic standards in health and education and respect for human rights.)

Who remembers Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons in The Mission? It was released in 1986 when my tripos supervisor was a shaggy post-grad operating out of King's College. In spite of the radical reputation of that institution, he expressed the view that the Jesuits' tutelage of the Guaraní had been seriously misrepresented in Roland Joffé's film.

For a start the great missions on the ill-defined borders of Spanish and Portuguese America were run by men of the cloth who habitually carried arms, not just when the nasty secular world approached with musket and cannon. The Indians, lifelong hunter-gatherers were forced to convert not just to Catholicism, but also to agriculture, and their state of physical and mental health declined as a result, regardless of all the extra-curricular violin playing and choir practice.

The priests had in effect created lucrative little fiefdoms for themselves. The academic consensus was that in the long run the spiritually-enslaved Indios would have been better off quickly signing up for the secular outside world, small-print and all.

Similarly Central America could remain outside the orbit of America's free trade empire, and for some time at least the poor majority may be better off that way. But such sanctuary and comfort may be as artificial as the isolated religious states the Jesuits tried to establish for themselves in the rainforest.

As a global community we should be looking at what needs to be done to extending the same legal and institutional protections to the international labour force as are currently enjoyed by the citizens of the modern nation state. Nor should it be forgotten that the hidden victims of First World equality and prosperity have included members of the four-legged and web-footed communities.

In the UK 50% of dairy cows go lame annually and many factory-farmed ducks go from egg to paté without ever being properly immersed in water. (Also referred to in animal welfare legislation as "the opportunity to express natural behaviours".)

Unmarked Men

For a bloodthirsty Jihadist all bad publicity is good publicity. This is how OSB has stoked the fires of a global Islamic insurgency since 9-11 and the nascent institutions of international civil society have played along nicely.

The murder of American journalist and blogger Steven Vincent in Basra serves as a reminder about what happens to those that reveal the truths that fall outside the basic good against evil, believers against unbelievers media representations.

The unmarked "death car", the white Toyota MK II that he described in the NYT article that cost him his life is a familiar motif for anyone that followed what used to go on in Guatemala during the 80s.

Last month Vincent blogged that "the British are doing a cracker-jack job of teaching Iraqi police cadets close-order drills, proper arrest techniques and pistol marksmanship, without, however, including basic training in democratic principles and a sense of public duty."

Such is the untroubled nature of our national negligence - the familiar tale of the British aspiration to stand above all the hatred in the hope that mellow disinterest will deliver both envy and restraint in the ranks of the fanatics. Yet the disimpassioned approach may simply be surrendering hearts and minds to the turmoil.


We've lucked out a bit recently with our deliveries of European cinema through Screen Select, here and then again here. This however is a bit of a mini-jackpot!

Intacto is about the gift (or curse) of good fortune. You see how those that deem themselves unnaturally well-provided in this respect habituate the demi-monde of a secret society of jammy bastards who gamble and steal each other's luck and that of ordinary fortune-challenged citizens that are drawn into their underground activities.

It's tense, sinister, stylish and often enormous fun too. I enjoyed the gripping scene when a select group of the abnormally lucky race each other blindfolded through a forest, the winner being the one that doesn't end up with a face full of tree.

We both thought it felt rather like the work of an Asian director- it certainly has much of the weird sensuality and ambiguous erotic currents that characterise many movies from the East. The influence of Jorge Luis Borges is also undeniable.

Whilst the plot is anything but intacto itself, I suspect that the ever-shifting gaps are essentially deliberate as they drive much of the suspense. You never quite feel that you are playing with a full deck of cards. First time director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's film is repeatedly posing the question "what is luck?" rather than serving up an imperforate metaphysical explantion for his dramatic puzzle.

Max Von Sydow adds considerable power to the proceedings as Samuel Berg "the Jew", a concentration camp survivor who runs a casino in Ucanca, Tenerife (here a bizarrely multi-foreign desert location), and by means of a deadly game of Russian roulette played out in his bunker-like basement, has accumulated the fates of hundreds in a little metal drawer.

At the beginning of the film we see how Berg literally drains the luck out of his fleeing protégé Federico with a chilling Godfather-like embrace. The role Federico was attempting to abandon was policing the casino floors for winning streaks that he could bring to an end with a glancing touch on the back of the gambler's hand. Seven years on and Federico appears to want to revenge himself on Ucanca's "God of chance" by mentoring the sole survivor of a plane crash into the ultimate challenger.

The character of Sara, the policewoman on the tail of Federico and Tomás could easily have come across as a two-dimensional genre type deployed to move the plot along, but Koppel and Fresnadillo's script credibly integrates her own existential issues into the mix.

My fears for an unsatisfying conclusion to all this delicious intricacy were in the end unfounded.

Regretably Hollywood has acquired the right to remake this. No Cruise please.

Lucio Godoy's score is also excellent.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Overstretched Diversity

Orwell's Oceania was textured like the Soviet Russia I encountered in 1984: drab people, drab stuff, drab politics - one size misfits all.

Instead in today's Britain we have brightly lit, multifariously-stocked supermarket shelves. The universal elixir of consumer choice. Yet the brilliant cosmetics disguises the proliferation of an unpalatableness that's eroding our capacity for vital discernment.

Orwell thought it would all look bad, taste bad, feel bad. Instead it looks flawless and it tastes flavourless - just like the fruit and veg in our supermarkets. Nice enough looking, but insipid people, stuff, politics etc.

We don't know what we don't know and soon we may not even know that. And we won't be that much inclined to find out.

Orwell was mistaken to think that the critical choice would be between the cell and the organism - it has proven to be between breadth and depth. Orwell, Adorno and others associated the perpetuation of cultural depth with social inequality. Yet as our society has become more equitable we have sacrificed even those aspects of depth which hardly ever played a role in furthering class divisions and elitist taste.

Take Spain for example. Whilst the UK has cricket and Michael Palin, they have Los Sanfermines and the La Tomatina. The fresh produce in their shops has an individuality that ours long ago lost. However, you won't find a Chicken Tikka Masala ready meal all that readily. Over there quality, in this case sabor, has been preserved, at the expense of diversity.

The worldy-wise wares of Britain reflect a cosmoplitanism that has been spread very thinly. Here in London you can almost feel the melting pot re-congealing around you since 7-7. Some commentators are calling for a restoration of Britishness to plug the gaps, but how much of that is more than a memory?

Compared to the Latins we Brits are a rather reticent, ingenuous lot. We sense we are somehow being victimised by a hermetic nexus of bullies - supermarkets, brands, multinationals - but the same people that buy things for their comforting cosmetic value are doing the packaging and selling elsewhere. It's a defect within our collective consciousness.

Over in Guatemala breadth and depth are both expressed more patchily, but Antigua is like an oasis with a good little store of both.

Le Nouveau Ciclisme

There's a plague of cycles on London's streets. TVe reported over the weekend that around 400 of the two-wheeled nuisances have been sold in the capital every day since July 7. These "new bikers" are a source of botherment because they appear to have retained the manners of London Underground commuters! Backpack bombers notwithstanding, statistically it might have been safer for them to stick to their troglodyte ways. But at least they are unlikely to be fretting about sudden unexpected extinction quite so much when it actually happens.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Whatever, Kinga

Whilst reality TV like Big Brother offers some genuinely interesting insights into human social politics, there's no denying that there's a certain degree of subterfuge going on that relies heavily on persistent viewer gullibility. For instance - this weekend we were told that canny Ulsterwoman Orlaith waited for the results of Friday's eviction before walking out, because she sensed that Kemal "was toast".

Boo hiss, as far as fans of the spiteful Turk are concerned - but of course Endemol will have pulled out all the stops to persuade her to stay until Saturday, because the show's income depends on close-fought eviction battles such as this, and on not disappointing all the twerps that regularly spend their own money trying to influence the result. (Orlaith would also have been encouraged to know that Saturday exits are nicely timed for selling personal BB stories to Sunday newspapers. )

On Sunday evening, just as the arch-schemer Derek and mendacious Princess Micomicona were separately pouring poison into the ears of Eugene and Anthony and Craig (the likely lad and the very unlikely lad) respectively, Kinga was reinserted into the mix.

Makosi tried quite hard to look elated, but this has to be her worst nightmare - the re-arrival of someone she personally snubbed earlier on, a fan of backstabbed diva Kemal and someone that without doubt will have witnessed the full range of her fanciful attempts at malicious truth-bending.

Derek has been warning society (via Eugene) about the dangers of mediocre people. Yet for me, if the choice was between mediocrity and being a phoney and a hypocrite I'd have to choose the former. He treated Kinga to a full-on dollop of his unctious charm. "Nobody in here bitesssss", he hissed like Kaa from the Jungle Book. If she can remain under the dubious protection of his "Right Wing" until Tuesday she'll probably make it to the final week.

As Anthony capably observed on Friday night, "two words...whatever".