Friday, November 30, 2007

A well-deserved rebuke for the BBC

"A tabloid approach to an issue of public safety."

I blogged about it here back in May.

PapaRatzi turns to cheap immigrant labour

And while they're at it, the Cistine chapel could do with a new paint job.


Since my recent gripe about the state of Mexican grub in London, a great new place called Mexicali has opened a sucursal in Berwick Street, which more than adequately fills the gap left by the Beach Burrito Cafe. (Pictured)

This closure was collateral damage arising from the council's decision to shut down a particular row of 'businesses' down by the junction with Peter Street.

I guess it is more of a taquería than a restaurant per se, but the tacos, burritos and quesadillas are possibly the best I have tasted in the UK (and all cost £5.20 regardless of the key ingredient). Portions are practically Waco wobblebottom-sized.

What is your view on British cinema?

Flummoxed again. Well, nearly; Diego Luna seems to have a knack for skillfully uncornering himself just when you think he might be about to say something he'll regret. (Contains good gatecrasher tip.)

Un jaguarcito aprende a nadar

Where are all the brown people... Mexican films and TV?

This question appeared to flummox Diego Luna at first. In fairness the old guy at the back who posed it was having microphone issues and the star of El Búfalo de la Noche looked as if he hadn't quite heard . After several moments where his mouth was clearly playing catch-up with his thought processes, Luna opted for a two-pronged response.

The first prong, "I'm a mestizo, we are all mestizos" is one of the oldest chestnuts in Mexican identity politics. (Carlos Fuentes pulls it in The Buried Mirror too.) Luna's own mestizaje includes his late mother's English anscestry.

The second was to re-cast the question as one of indigenous rights and to show where he stood on this by letting us know that he had once attended an important congress on this very thorny issue.

The trouble is that I don't think the old guy had invisible indigenes foremost in mind when he asked his question. His point was more like, why on channels like Telehit, where Diego's novia Camila has her own show, are all the presenters (and assorted culitos) generally the kind of Latins that could easily pass themselves off as Europeans (or worst case scenario, Argies).

On classic Telehit shows like El Calabozo and Guate's own lamentable Con Buena Onda the ordinary Mexican "brown faces" the questioner referred to usually make up the audience and have to wait to be offered a share of the limelight.

Hate crime

This crime of "hatred incitement" certainly has the novelty of casting the slavering haters as the victims.

Whilst there's more than a whiff of intolerance and intellectual hauteur about the views of Mssrs Amis and Hitchens, it's largely thanks to the prevailing mood of fear provoked by predictable Islamic overreaction that we do still still need such voices. Othewise, we'd only be listening to our timid politicians and diplomats as they insist that it's all a terrible misunderstanding, and that poor Gillian Gibbons made an "innocent mistake".

Unbelievable. Even if it had been a cuddly pig and she'd done it on purpose, there's no way that such things should be a criminal offence in the modern world, anywhere. Punto y final.

I'm glad to see that Amnesty International has grown itself an extra set of balls recently, firstly by taking a stance against the bishops on abortion following rape, and now by naming the incarcerated teddy-namer as a "prisoner of conscience," albeit an unwitting one.

And by jailing the teacher this East African government has brought wider global attention to the barbaric state of their prison system and the conditions endured therein by women who will spend a lot longer than a fortnight in Sudanese state accommodation.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Headless chickens

Wilfredo Monzón Guillén, alias El Gallo, leader of the minor-league gang franchise in Zona 18 of Guatemala City known, appropriately enough, as Los Gallos, was arrested yesterday and charged with 34 separate counts of murder. 7 of his associates were also captured in an operation involving hundred of cops and some regular army troops as well.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shooter, 'seeing the elephant'

We all remember the speech made by Lt. Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the invasion of Iraq:

"We go to liberate, not to conquer.We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

"There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

"Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there."

Somewhere nearby in Kuwait, Colonel Brian P. McCoy, Darkside Six, of the 3rd Batallion, 4th Marine Division was addressing his own troops, 'the Bull', thus:

"My idea of a fair fight is clubbing baby seals."

There in a nutshell, you might think, is the difference between the modern militaries of our two nations. Yet one of McCoy's subordinates was one Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin, and in this account of his experiences in the days that followed we witness a fascinating tension between a milico mentality glutted on "violent supremacy" and one that occasionally threatens to examine warrior existentialism a bit more critically.

So, at one stage we listen as Coughlin humanises an enemy that he has recently put a couple of bullets into, the only man to survive a shot from his rifle it seems, yet one he would not hesitate to shoot again "if ever we faced each other again on the battlefield."

"War sucks," Coughlin tells us whenever he witnesses its lack of proper discrimination and sense of universal justice. And yet his mood immediately after 9-11 is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the opportunity to ply his deadly trade in earnest. "During Operation Iraqi Freedom alone he recorded at least thirty-six kills, thirteen of them in a single twenty-four hour period," the blurb on the back cover enthuses.

"In the warrior's world, we called dramatic change 'seeing the elephant.' Once you saw it you never forgot it," Coughlin reveals, and there's no question that his memoir has some elephantine insights into the code of the modern western warrior.

Before the invasion Coughlin has spent months trying to persuade his superiors of the merits of a more mobile deployment of snipers. Circumstances on the ground in Iraq see his dreams realised, as he is able to waste countless armed Iraqi fools from the top of a fast-moving Humvee.

There's a certain voyeuristic pleasure in 'glassing' the world of the professional murderer through Coughlin's scope and this is no doubt what put this book on the New York Times bestsellers list. And so the book is full of his arresting descriptions of his one-to-one duels with men that never saw him coming: "I smoke-checked him, bam, and he was dead, his body twitching for a few more moments while his internal systems shut down," whilst another of his rounds "created a hole that is called the 'permanent cavity,' and then the bullet exploded, sending small, jagged fragments spinning off in erratic paths that shattered his organs."

And yet the key moment, one that had certain voices in the media calling for Colonel McCoy to be had up for war crimes, is one where the gunnery sergeant suffers a sudden attack of amnesia. Having secured the strategically vital Diyala bridge "gravity and the physics of momentum" conspire to lead carload after carload of desperate Iraqi citizens towards the itchy trigger fingers of the Bull's grunts, amongst whom Coughlin sits. "It did not come to a stop, because it could not, until our defensive perimeter was set. There was no way to separate the sheep from the wolves," he explains, before adding that he has "no recollection" of many of the bloody moments that ensued.

"Fortunately, no one fired a shot at us, for had they done so, we would have returned a thousand," he had noted earlier in the war as his unit passed through a small town on the highway to Baghdad. Here is a soldier that is all too conscious of his position as valuable asset, one worth defending with indiscriminate gunfire directed against even marginally suspect civilians.

Given Collins's remarks about flags above, it was fortunate that Coughlin was in the square beside Saddam's statue when one of his Marine Corps colleagues tried to wrap the stars and stripes around it's bronze head. His own immediate superior, one Lieutenant Casey had with him a pre-1990 version of the Iraqi flag, which was immediately donated to the angry crowd.

The only way I have ever found to justify the invasion of Iraq to myself is as a continuation of the intent to smother the original aggression unleashed by Saddam in 1990. Not only do none of the other justifications make any real sense, they violate the principle I internalised when I abandoned the pacifism of my childhood: that force should only be deployed as a response to force.

Coughlin's wife stopped writing to him as war broke out and divorced him the moment he returned to California.

Soñar no cuesta nada (A Ton of Luck)

Free tequila! Not sure why though, as this was the festival's Colombian gala night and that nation's embassy mob were out in force.

The narrative of Rodrigo Triana's film is grounded on a set of real, reported events: in 2003 a patrol of Colombian troops chasing FARC guerrillas around the more inaccessible parts of the local rainforest, stumbled upon an abandoned 'narco-terrorista' camp where $46m in cash (in various currencies and denominations) had been hastily buried by its former occupants.

The movie outperformed Pirates at the Colombian box office. It's at its most entertaining whilst it explores the immediate ethical and economic chaos that this discovery causes in the ranks.

Although one amongst them refuses his share of this 'dirty money', he accepts an order from the platoon lieutenant to keep his trap shut about their plan to pocket the hoard without reporting it. Stuck in the jungle until their commanders are finally persuaded to send in a chopper to extract them, the soldiers experience the angst of wealth without an outlet. Bog rolls sell for $500, exchange rates fluctuate wildly and they feast on roasted mico using greenbacks as firelighters.

The script has been careful to paint the elite 'destroyer' unit as a close-knit bunch of highly likeable rogues, from whose naivety much of the comedy springs. There's a somewhat unlikely generosity welling up out of their collective covetousness.

After a couple of hairy moments, they arrive back at the barracks with their rucksacks full of plata and are granted a day of leave, and thus the predictable conspicuous consumption commences, which of course leads to the unraveling of their little conspiracy.

Being essentially a true story, its value as a morality play is somewhat compromised. Yet rather than dwell on the fates of the rumbled soldiers, screenwriter Jorge Hiller has bookended the tale with a sentimental story that introduces the wife and child of the one man who appeared incorruptible, a stratagem which delivers a minor twist and a limited sense of conclusion.

One of the key rationalisations for appropriating this dinero de nadie that the soldiers deploy is that it will only be pocketed by even bigger thieves further up the food chain. I'd love to know what did actually happen to all that dosh once the military authorities had confiscated it. (My understanding is that 50 of the 150 men involved were eventually brought to trial, and have since been released when that trial collapsed.)

There was a Cuban short shown before the main feature: El año del Cerdo which cleverly traces two interlinked sets of coincidental events affecting a set of characters in an apartment block above a Chinese restaurant, which both unfolded during The Year of the Pig.

I love this guy...

I'd certainly agree that a society that gives up the right to be rude, whilst treating "insulting nonsense" with a respect it doesn't deserve, is asking for a whole lot of trouble. Freedom from other people's unproveable beliefs as a basic human right; now that's a dangerous idea!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beowulf (Trans. Seamus Heaney)

The melancholy murk of the dark ages closes in around me when I read Heaney's utterly compelling translation of our first native epic. There are but a few points of symbolic illumination: Hrothgar's hearth, the wyrm's breath, the hero's pyre.

I can't remember being this fascinated and entertained when I read the poem at school. It's packed with wonderful observations like "Foreign places yield more to one who is himself worth meeting," but the best of all I'll have to quote in full.

In a society where every death has a price, a were-geld, fratricidal murder is particularly destabilising:

That offence was beyond redress, a wrongfooting
of the heart's affections; for who could avenge
the prince's life or pay his death price?
It was like the misery endured by an old man
who has lived to see his son's body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone; he has no interest
in living on until another heir
is born in the hall, now that his first-born
has entered death's dominion for ever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.

James Hart Dyke: The Royal Tours

James HD opened his winter exhibition last night with a private view at the John Mitchell gallery at 44 Old Bond Street.

I went along with Surfer and Zhoan before the concert.

I always knew that James was an excellent landscape artist, but this selection reveals his talents as a portraitist as well.

They come from his participation in four of Prince Charles's official overseas tours to places like Nepal, Sri Lanka, The Gulf States and Sierra Leone.

I was particularly keen on his drawing of the 'Over-keen PPO' and the African warriors (see image). Surfer is rather fond of James's painting of the Prince's helicopter shimmering into frame top left with wheels down.

Lang Lang at the RFH

Surfer had a wide-eyed look when we met up last night. "The biggest waves in half a century are going to hit the west coast this weekend...go check Magic Seaweed." I did, and the predicted fifty-year storm has already been downgraded somewhat, with 20ft not 50ft waves forecast for Whitsand Bay on Saturday.

Lang Lang's performance at RFH last night was a bit like one of those beachside days where a gentle morning swell has, by mid afternoon, become a relentless train of crashing rollers.

Before the interval he played Mozart's Piano Sonata in B flat (K333), Schumann's Fantasie in C and the Granados Goyescas with a poise that was seasoned with occasional moments of sparkle (matching his sequin-speckled shirt).

The second half began well enough with Lang Lang at the mike waggishly introducing five pieces of traditional Chinese folk music − The Dragon Songs. Surfer really enjoyed these and we discussed the musical similarities with Grieg's Lyric Pieces which derive in part I think from ancient Lap songs.

Then the pianistic triple salkos really got going. In Lang Lang's hands the arrangement of Isolde's Liebestod was all too Liberacestod and the Hungarian Rhapsody was marred by a whole load of OTT performance gestures.

Years ago V and I went to see Sviatoslav Richter in the old, unpolished version of the RFH. The auditorium was in complete darkness save for the little lamp that illuminated the sheet music which Richter squinted at as he played, as if discovering the notes for the first time. Now there was a showman.

Still, it was a pleasure to meet Surfer's charming friend Zhaoan ("Joanne with a Z") and her mates Richard and Charlie.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cross Keys, Pangbourne

We had lunch yesterday at the Cross Keys in Pangbourne, the positives of which include a two course menu for £13.95, a chef that used to work at Mike Robinson's Pot Kiln and a little garden at the rear that backs onto the river Pang.

Amongst the negatives were the Chilean Merlot which tasted like you could run your tractors on it. "An explosively fruity nose," noted the wine list!

I'll try anything once, but it was a mistake on my part to pick the pheasant as my main course, which was rather like the least appetising parts of a roast chicken, tough on the outside and un-appealingly flushed and fleshy within.

Quién mató a la llamita blanca?

My second outing to the DLA film festival was apparently a monster box-office hit back home in La Paz.

It's a chaotic comedy that follows a pair of Indian crims Jacinto y Domitila − the most-wanted cholos in the land − as they traverse it with 50Kgs of Bolivian marching powder destined for Brazil. Behind them, in front of them and occasionally even overlapping with them, are a pair of likeable miscreants from the anti-narcotics police.

Essentially this is a full-on satirical caricature of a nation which shares many of the fundamental structural (and cultural) difficulties endured by Guatemala, which I suppose made it that much more funny and interesting for me. (Bolivia isn't − as the script suggests − the only country suffering from collective amnesia at key moments like general elections!)

I sympathised with George and Paula sitting beside me as much of the humour had been stashed in the language and its pronunciation, but they came out with the view that Rodrigo Bellot's film was vastly better than Sleuth, which they had seen the night before.

Latin Americans are usually better at laughing at their defects than they are at correcting them. Indeed some of the best piss-takers that I have met in Guatemala are quite literally taking the piss when it comes to the daily conduct of their own lives.

Being British I personally would have tried a bit harder to distil some of the film's raucous cynicism into irony proper: it tends to penetrate more deeply than mere mockery. I'd also have advised the director to ease off a bit with the innovative cinematic trickery. Still, highly recommended.

The whole movie is available in parts on YouTube.

'La Sobrinísima'

Diego Luna turned up to the Gala opening of the DLA festival with his new girlfriend Camila Sodi, Thalia's niece. (Thalia's website is something else...)

Like Diego Camila was launched into local stardom at a young age; Mexicans are surely second only to the Japanese in the extent of their collective schoolgirl fantasy.

She has that slightly podgy prettiness that her aunt had in her telenovela glory days, and on Thursday she was wearing an attractive early-stage Shakira hippy-chick outfit which included a patterned bandana.

In El Búfalo de la Noche she features as the rather randomly-introduced third woman in Manuel's life. The pair were apparently not yet dating when they got naked together on set and later refused to promote the movie in Mexico when the producers published stills from that short scene on a website without their permission.

Commision Against Impecunity needed?

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) reported serious difficulties at the end of last week, because as of next year it will not have financial resources to function thanks largely to its portion of the 2008 State budget being reduced from $6.6 million to $1.3 million.

Casting for a director

Diego Luna told us last Thursday that the most difficult thing he'd ever had to deal with as an actor was "working with a shitty director." He didn't of course name names, but I'd bet one of these trauma-inducing directors in Luna's career would have be my namesake.

Luna has just made his own directorial debut, J.C. Chávez, about the life and career of the Mexican boxer who has also been lumbered with some namesake issues. This movie showed on Friday at the Ritzy as part of the DLA festival, but I didn't get to see it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sin ofender al presente

Back in 2003 Jürgen Habermas invited some of the world's A-list intellectuals (including the now departed Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty) to comment simultaneously and without deliberation on the future of the EU.

Umberto Eco chose to argue that an enlarged and yet more unified Europe should try to establish itself more formally as a third player between China and the US.

"Utopia? Well perhaps a utopia made necessary by the new global equilibrium. It's this way or no way. Europe, if you will, is condemned, in order to survive, to find common defence and foreign policy instruments. Otherwise, and I mean to offend no one, it will become Guatemala."

Friday, November 23, 2007

El Búfalo de la Noche

This year's pick for the opening gala of the Discovering Latin America film festival. Diego Luna attended and spoke for almost an hour between the end of the movie and the reception which followed at Gaucho in Swallow Street.

I gathered from the under-indulgent applause around me as the credits rolled that there were other members of the audience struggling to assess this first feature from Jorge Hernandez Aldana, a Venezualan-born Pole. It bears strongly the creative imprint of its writer and producer Guillermo Arriaga, whose novel it is an adaptation of and whose regular directorial collaborator was until recently Alejandro González Iñárritu. It has for example, both the languid electric guitar score of Amores Perros and the drying-paint pacing of Babel, with the grainy texture of both. There are also plenty of Arriaga's signature flashbacks, though here they handled in an apparently less tructured and meaningful way.

The film takes us in close into the lives of a group of university-aged individuals living in Mexico City. Luna plays Manuel, a young man at the centre of a nexus of disfunctional families, friendships and flings who, crucially to this story, has deflowered and staked obsessive ownership of Tania, girlfriend to his schizophrenic best buddy Gregorio. At the outset this pinche loco has just been released from an institution and the very next day blows his own brains out.

What this movie does achieve, it achieves by way of suggestion and through an intrusive intimacy with the pains and pleasures of its alienated young characters. (The pleasures, though indeed eroticised, are the sort where people start sniffling midway through them.) We are given only just the most minimal number of reasons to develop an interest in these people, and if you took away the nudity there really wouldn't be all that much left.

Diego Luna delivers some bare bottom work on a par with that in Y tu Mamá También. I was feeling my own rear end quite sharply by the time we reached the one hour mark, but things do quicken up a bit when the barest outline of a thriller plotline is introduced.

Anyway, here's the trailer and I hope to post some clips from Diego Luna's Q&A session over the weekend:

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All the Pretty Horses

'McCarthy-lite,' Scott had warned me.

There's a case for the sell-out I'm sure, but in truth I found it to be an odd synthesis of McCarthy styles , where passages of notable verbosity are followed by others in which sparseness predominates, in places deserving of its reputation as modern American classic, yet with an awful lot of riding around going on between them − a feature I recall from the author's other would-be masterpiece, Blood Meridian.

As for the so-called romance at the heart of the story, I guess one man's mythic western is another's telenovela. I know which genre bell is clanging in the wind when McCarthy first describes the hacendero's daughter with her wide-brimmed black hat and matching Arabian horse. ("Real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal.")

Here's one of the occasional outbreaks of McCathy-heavy, including the kind of complex metaphor that defies any sort of accurate imaginative reconstruction:

"In the grey twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed on the waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an Autumn pool."

There are also one or two nameless things dotted around this verbal landscape too, surely McCarthy's most over-used adjective of opportunity. ("Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night.")

Having dipped into works representing both his Tennessee and Western periods, my preference remains for his two most recent novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. I think it is largely to do with the way he handles dialogue in them (less decoratively), and how the richness of his style has also evolved into something altogether less obstructive to the narrative impetus.

I honestly can't remember having salivated with such enthusiasm over the prospect of seeing an upcoming movie than I have over the Coen brother's apparently faithful take on No Country for Old Men.

On the other hand I can't say that I will seek out the DVD of Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of this novel (with Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz) with anything like the same degree of enthusiasm. Hollywood cast a pair of fairly grown-up actors to play a pair of ill-fitted lovers who in the text were aged 16 and 17 respectively. Yet 'mojado reverso' John Grady Cole never really convinces as a fugitive adolescent in Mexico; the character is often little more than a cipher for an old man's wisdom and a senescent code.

There are certainly a number of very cinematic scenes in this book. The dance at the grange is a favourite of mine, and then there's the Mexican jail. The story also has one of those extended confrontations about two thirds of the way through where one character lectures another at length about how the world really is. This is the Hacienda's old maid aunty, who dresses with a "chilling" elegance and explains to Cole how the 'Spaniards' tend to pursue truth and honour in all their forms but not their substance, and how there are no control groups in history to reveal what might have been.

When Cole realises that Alejandra is determined to respect her aunt's wishes and dump him he reflects that "all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all." Yet like the majority of McCarthy's girls, she never approximates a fully-realised person, and it is therefore very hard to imagine what might have been in their relationship had her decision been different.

The friendship between Cole and Rawlins places McCarthy firmly back in his comfort zone though, and this little gem of cowboy wisdom from Rawlins was a salient moment in their always enjoyable dialogue:

"Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Celebrate/Hate the new media douchebag

Inherited mutation?

I've decided to re-read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in time to be disappointed by Mike Newell's movie. I'm also intrigued to discover whether the small but plot-significant translation cock-up in the English-language version is a) still there and b) about to make the transition into the screenplay.

Not the Daily Show

The studios respond...

Just when you were thinking...

It couldn't get any worse than Dubya:

Krouty nosh

AA Gill has a convincing argument for the the comparative lack of Germanic culinary slots on the global dining out scene:

"When we eat foreign food, we don't just consume meat and veg prepared in a different way, we feel that we are somehow taking on a taste of the joie de vivre of the host country. So, rightly there are millions of Italian restaurants, and loads of Frenchish ones, hundreds of Americans, and even the occasional Mexican is awarded a culinary embassy. But where are the German restaurants? Where, indeed. There used to be one in London called Schmidt's, but it got gotterdamerunged ages ago."

It's Austrian and usually called a Milanesa (probably for the reasons outlined above), but he has some issues with the Teutonic signature dish too:

"The best thing about Wiener Schnitzel is saying it. It sounds like a man with a handlebar moustache sneezing minestrone out of his nose... It is about as forgetably minimal as food can be and still be food. Bland is too emphatic a word for Wiener Schnitzel. If it doesn't come with a lemon, it doesn't really exist at all."

Haute Cuisine is nicht, but London does have one notable German eatery: Stein's, on the river at Richmond.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vintage Atkinson

The Web without an advisor?

A week ago today the FT's Michael Skapinker was indulging in a few belly laughs at the expense of the PR industry, whose pretensions to expand their invisible handiwork into social media he claimed to find quite amusing.

I shared my response to the article with Michael and he kindly offered to pass it on to the editor for consideration for publication, but as I am yet to see my name in print, I'll reproduce it here:

Dear Michael,

You have some interesting insights there, but I feel there's still a good deal more thinking to be done between observation and opinion on this topic.

Back in the days when online chatter was going on in places like Usenet and Listserv groups, it was perhaps more understandable if companies elected to put their hands over their ears and make out that it wasn't happening. But the thing about blogs is that they are providing a more reliable conduit between spontaneous popular discussion and the commercial media, and it's this hybrid nature of the humble blog post that makes it so relevant to the communications professional.

Listserv users probably had no reasonable expectation that the companies whose goods and services they purchased would be using that particular channel to improve their overall consumption experience. Yet as you rightly observe, the internet is "teeming with people complaining about companies,"and much of this griping can probably be isolated to the frustration sensed by those who would rather these companies did not continue to pass up the opportunity to both listen and speak to them using newer channels that we are all increasingly native to.

You could in fact argue that campaign-style activities that treat blogs and social sites as nichier versions of traditional media should indeed be rare, because you wouldn't really expect them to be that effective anyway.

But the fact that spontaneous networks of conversation are emerging which are far more joined up with our increasingly fragmented mainstream media, should be inspiring emotions beyond fear and hope, and there is certainly room for the informed counselor here.

I would not expect that sending out messages with the hope that the network will do the rest of the work will be the primary activity of the PR profesional for much longer. There is a more nuanced role in the offing which, amongst other things, involves grasping (and fostering) the conditions which permit 'social' communications to occur online within the context of values shared by the brand owner.



Discovering Latin America

The DLA Film Festival kicks off in London this week.

I'm hoping to go and see El Bufalo de la Noche (from the pen of Guillermo Arriaga) on Thursday with Miseryguts. Diego Luna from Y tu mamá también is attending.

A week later on the schedule there is a Guatemalan film called Las Cruces… Poblado Próximo, but it is showing at a rather awkward time in the afternoon.

Juanes churned out a song for Rosario Tijeras, which was for me the highlight of last year's festival.

Ah, durka, durka, durka

People Magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive'

Monday, November 19, 2007

Free Jazz and impatient hound

Scott and Germán doing some free jazz amidst the amazing natural acoustics of the wooded Cerro del Aguila above Mexico City. Includes minor chucho incident.

More here.

The Reggaeton version

Techno Techno...

In Spain an estimated 500,000 people have downloaded a ringtone featuring the King's words "Por que no te callas?" (Why don't you shut up?), generating a reported €1.5m (Which as we know, is now almost $2m).

The official song...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Mitsubishi 'Wanker'

Spotted this one outside Stringfellows on Friday, appropriately enough.

It's the imported version of the SUV known here as the Shogun and the Montero in Guate

...imported by people that must be blissfully unaware what pajero actually means in Spanish.

Don't Move (Non ti muovere)

This was the bestselling Italian novel that the author's husband Sergio Castellitto made into film starring himself and Penélope Cruz.

It's clear enough from reading it that neither of Mazzantini's protagonists are supposed to be lookers, but on screen only Cruz had to labour under the aesthetic handicap of a rubber nose.
Castellitto obviously deemed his own rubbery enough to start with (see poster, left.)

The central conceit that this story is a long, drawn-out confession of father to comatose daughter works rather better in print. The surgeon's motives for straying away from the stultified affluence of his married life are made clearer, without the need for portraying his wife Elsa as an icy bitch.

I suppose the film had to do this, because the dialogue (which, as perhaps you might not expect from the oeuvre of an Italian husband) is faithful to the book, was clearly not written with a view to shouldering the whole burden of revealing the inside of Timoteo's mind, because of course the entirety of the text emerges from there.

The book is also able to evoke a fuller range of important details and sensory experiences - Italia's nibbled fingernails, the smell of "rancid mayonnaise and sour floor-cloths' in the bar where Timoteo meets her, a tramp with the aroma of "a disemboweled dog".

Book and film both start to wallow rather self-indulgently in the hapless adulterer's predicament, but the film goes down this path sooner and the novel continues to compensate with a psychological and philosophical depth that Castellitto's adaptation can't match.

Mazzantini's imaginative access to the masculine soul is impressive, but she allows her narrator a few telling insights into her own sex too, such as his observation of his wife that "when she's inflexible it's a kind of self-defence, sure, but believe me, it oppresses her, too."

The furtiveness within Timoteo, a man claiming to lack belief in the world, and who makes a fateful decision to fly under the radar in order to discover and then lose his inner-brutality, is the essence of the author's vision for her protagonist. He's easier to sympathise with than his slick cinematic incarnation because of the way she satirises his social circle and especially his medical colleagues, who exhale "wine fumes and professional malice" at the congresses at which they gather.

Still, the film is worth seeing, and Cruz's performance, in her second language, is surely another major landmark in her career. She continues to be wasted by Hollywood.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Iconic Latin American videos from the 90s (3)

Te Lloré un Rio...might have been what Maná's lead-singer Fher said to Sting, the vocalist he had been compared to so many times, when they finally met. Sting apparently looked at him as if he was the indio caitudo he was trying to be in this particular video and walked off without returning the Mexican's optimistic "orale!".

36 Quai des Orfèvres

Starring Daniel Auteuil, Gérard Depardieu and Valéria Golino, Olivier Marchal's 36 is unquestionably the most stylish and melodramatic crime thriller since Infernal Affairs (see hilarious spoof below).

It's hard to describe the set-up without spoiling it, but essentially it is the story of two cops that operate by their own rulebook chasing both a violent gang of robbers and the soon to be vacant job of their boss.
Auteuil's character Vrinks is married to a beautiful doctor who would appear to have been his former chum and now rival's girlfriend. Both men are prepared to take extraordinary risks to land the arrest and although it seems that Depardieu's Klein has screwed up first, he has a nasty surprise in store for Vrinks. Who does bottled-up, wounded masculinity better than Auteuil?

Just when it looked to be ramping up to an operatic Hong Kong style climax, Marchal delivers the twist that is exactly the denouement that this story requires. Superb.

And now for the funny stuff:

Update: Watching the extras I discovered that Marchal was himself an anti-terror policeman and that everything up to the moment Vrinks is released is effectively a true story. He admits though that he chose to make an 'urban western' which might have compromised the level of realism somewhat!

Iconic Latin American videos from the 90s (2)

Sabor, Sabor was the first massive hit for Rosario, daughter of the famous Andalucian singer and dancer Lola Flores who performed at the opening of the Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Now I know that Rosario is technically not a 'Latin' artist, but this video definitely belongs in the set. The flooded crypt idea was inspired.

Shortly after her mother's death from cancer in '95 Rosario's equally talented brother Antonio took an overdose and died. Rosario disappeared from the scene for a while then reemerged with this elegy for her lost sibling, with whom she was very close. She later starred in Almodóvar's Hable con Ella in 2001.

AA Gill has a high street beverage

This is what happened when AA Gill, most probably the model for Anton Ego in Ratatouille, finally went to try out a Starbucks:

"American coffee is only coffee because they say it is. It's actually a pale, scalding version of junior-school, jam-jar brush water...I can't remember the last time I was served something as foul as its version of a cappuccino. To begin with it took longer to make than a soufflé...An hour and a half later I was presented with a mug. A mug. One of those American mugs where the lip is so thick, you have to be able to disengage your jaw like a python to fit it in your mouth. It contained a semi-permeable white mousse the sort of stuff they use to drown teenagers in Ibiza, or pump into cavity walls. I dumped in two spoonfuls of sugar. It rejected them. Having beaten the malevolent epidermis with the collection of plastic and wooden things provided, I managed to make it sink. Then with both hands I took a sip. Then a gulp. Then chewed. I had a momentary sense of drowning in snowman's poo, then, after a long moment, a tepid sludge rose from the deep. This was reminscent of gravy browning and three-year-old Easter eggs. How can anyone sell this stuff? How can anyone buy it twice? And this was only a small one a baby. The adult version must be like sucking the outlet of a nuclear power station."

And then he spotted one of those free little brochure thingies:

"There was a pamphlet about fair trade, and how Starbucks paid some Nicaraguan Sancho a reasonable amount for his coffee so that he now had a mule to go with his thirteen children, leaky roof and fifteen coffee bushes. It made not screwing the little no-hope wetback into penury sound like the most astonishing act of charitable benevolence. And they just had to print a pamphlet about it so we all know what sort of selfless, munificent, group-hug people we're dealing with."

For this blog's view on Fair Trade coffee, see this post.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Iconic Latin American videos from the 90s (1)

Continuing the theme of Nice video, shame (though not always) about the song, I have decided to pepper my blog this weekend with some of those classic Latin American pop videos from the mid-90s which, it is clearer to me now, share a common visual idiom. We kick off with Matador by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, which has appeared on umpteen soundtrack albums:

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Or was it this one?

Nice video, shame about the song

It's a pity YouTube doesn't seem to feature the video made to accompany Drowning in Berlin by the Mobiles, surely one of the sources for this fabulous spoof of the early 80s pop video by Rowan and the gang.

Sons of sweethearts!

García Márquez is the recipient of a Fatwah-lite. His last novel, Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes has been banned in Iran. It has actually been on sale in Tehran's bookshops, but the culture ministry has decided that this was in fact a "bureaucratic error" which they have now chosen to rectify. In Farsi it had the slightly less racy title of Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts.

iPhone marketing

I'm going to have to quibble with Jonathan Durden's article in Marketing Week about the 'genius' of Apple's marketing strategy in the UK.

In essence he suggests that the iTouch (I'm assuming he means the iPod Touch?) is an inferior product to the iPhone and has been designed largely to give locked-in Nokia customers a taste of the gadgetiest gadget, thus priming them to defect in due course.

Durden seems to have forgotten that the iPhone was launched months ago in the US and that the iPod Touch then followed in the late summer as part of the 5th generation of iPods. The timing of the two launches around Xmas in the UK is surely a localised phenomenon.

And unless he is working on the assumption that in the short to medium term all iPods will also be mobile phones, it would be wrong to discount the importance of the launch of the touch screen version of one of the world's most successful products. (It may actually be a more reasonable assumption that more iPods will swap the click wheel for the touch screen over the course of the next couple of years.)

Indeed, I'd wager that Apple have been less worried about cannibalising from the 'premium, more customer-sticky' iPhone than about compromising their position as the manufacturer of the most iconic, high-end media device.

Consider the age profile for the iPod Touch compared to the iPhone: which one is more likely to end up in a teenager's Xmas stocking? My own guess is that the iPhone will for some time remain a device targeted primarily at professionals: sticky, middle-aged cool, but not the device of preference of the under 20s.

Meanwhile, far from being the inferior product, I find the iPod Touch to be the first really compelling hand-held Web browsing device, and it surely has fewer defects as an iPod than the iPhone has as a mobile phone. (The sound quality is actually much better than my 4G iPod Video).

One day we may all carry a mobile device that gives us the best of Web, Text and Voice communications along with a high-capacity media player. With the iPhone and the iPod Touch, Apple has taken a couple of alternative routes towards that ultimate goal, but has clearly had to make more technological compromises in the case of iPhone, perhaps because this device was conceived as a way for them to intelligently encroach on a market packed with powerful brands, rather than opening up an entirely new category where they could expect to grab an 80% share of the market in no time at all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hecho tortrix

V just called to say she heard that maestro González Goyri , the famed Guatemalan artist she rubbed shoulders with at an exhibition last weekend, has died.

Last August another local great passed away:
René Menéndez Martínez, inventor of Tortrix. This ad celebrated the Crunchapin's 45th birthday:

Chuchos electricos

Rudy has today highlighted the plight of Guatemala's street dogs, known locally as chuchos electricos (Corriente con corriente!)

The perros callejeros that scavenge around Panorama are a source of great pleasure to me. Some clearly have a very rough time of it, but others seem to do quite well out of neighbourhood charity, living on a diet of bread rolls, bones and half-eaten tortillas. They generally have a dignity born of a disarming humility coupled with admirable daring, and it must appeal quite widely, because according to Rudy they are just as likely to share the fate of unattended Mayan babies and be grabbed by some gringo and taken off p'al norte as a fashion statement.

No speed cameras?

Terracotta tenistas

Tenemos estos 3 guerreros de terracotta en la recepción de nuestra oficina esta semana.

A diferencia del ejercito de tales figuras enterrado por el Imperador de Quin en 210 BC estos llevan raquetas y forman parte de un grupo de ocho creados para celebrar la Copa Masters del ATP en Shanghai esta semana. Como tal vez se nota, son Federer, Nadal y Djokovic, supuestamente los mejores tres del 'ATP Race' en 2007, pero tambien los que parecen más agotados en estos ultimos encuentros del año.

Ultima Hora: Se quedaran aqui en GB en Wimbledon hasta que se terminan los campeonatos de 2008 y despues cada uno de los ocho tenistas se
llevará su propia efigie a casa. (Claro que Davydenko venderá el suyo en eBay!)

World Diabetes Day

Today marks the arrival of the first UN-observed World Diabetes Day.

Earlier this year I was working with the International Diabetes Federation firstly to promote the passing of a UN Resolution on Diabetes, which was to firmly establish this date in the calendar, and then to encourage diabetes bloggers to help spread awareness of WDD activities around the globe, in part through the distribution of buttons and banners.

Over in Guatemala the Plaza España will be lit up in blue until Sunday.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tablas, guitar and bailaora

Some close-ups from the Ojos de Brujo concert at the Roundhouse last week. My father used to play the bongos really well...

Islamic Rage Boy

"The angry young man of Kahmir, and now a blogger's darling."



Ojos de Brujo at the Roundhouse

More fun from the Roundhouse last week. That Cuban trumpeter can do keyboards too.

I've said before that I think Ojos de Brujo's blend of Flamenco with Latin rhythms and hip hop is variably successful. Still, Spain is in an enviable position when it comes to fusion potential. Compare for example Italy, which appears to be the only major Mediterranean country without a folk tradition, at least not one that has any visibility on the 'world music' scene compared to the likes of Fado and Flamenco.

A couple of weeks ago V recommended to me an album of songs called Nessuno È Solo by Tiziano Ferro: "the next Eros Ramazzotti" she said...not necessarily an entirely good thing.

Spain gets its afro influence via its former colonies, but in truth there's very little sign of indigenous MOBO at the San Remo Song Festival. Still, this early hit from Tiziano (who does have that unfortunate Lazio fan look about him) seems to have an enjoyable, Franco-Senegalese kind of beat:

No me taseas 'mano!

Hugo Chávez can count himself fairly fortunate that he was in Santiago Chile and not an American university campus, as instead of been told rather familiarly to put a sock in it by a constitutional monarch with a lot more cojones than John Kerry, his speaker-interruption tactics might have resulted in harsher treatment than the use of the second person singular.

Here we see Nicaragua's not-so-reconstructed leftist President Daniel Ortega getting in on the
Borbón-baiting, which resulted in Juan Carlos getting up to go and look for a chocolate brownie...or maybe it was his taser.

Currency adoption

Guatemala's new waterproof, polymer-based One Quetzal note is proving popular with eBay collectors, according to El Periódico. I've been using one as a bookmark since it was given to me by Orly.

Nominally worth about 13 cents to the forex trader, they have been selling for as much as $4 on the online auction site.

Their long-term value may depend on whether the government expands the experiment into other denominations.

The 600 or so that come up for sale daily on eBay represent 0.001 of the total in circulation. This is getting close to that statistic that says that every 100th Guatemalan child ends up as an adopted American!

More Ojos de Brujo

Includes an extended trumpet solo and more floorboard thumping dance.

Por que no te callas?

The Iberoamerican summit in Santiago Chile ended in disarray when King Juan Carlos of Spain invited Hugo Chávez to shut the fuck up. The Venezuelan presidente had been heckling Zapatero's closing speech and had repeatedly referred to the Spanish leader's predecessor José María Aznar as "un fascista" of the extreme right. The incident has gripped the Spanish-speaking world and El Mundo has this morning compiled all the related Internet gags it could find. A commentator on Five Live said it was rather like a typical British Christmas dinner where the relatives are united in silent munching before someone says something and then it all kicks off!

Meanwhile Chávez has described Juan Carlos as "impudent" and insinuated that the King played a role in the coup attempt against him in 2002. (One of those Spanish ambassadors again...though somehow I can't imagine Juan Carlos back in his hotel room slobbering over a candle and hissing "Yo soy luz, Chávez es la oscuridad"!)

"No rey, no nos vamos a callar. Yo soy de los hijos de Bolívar," affirmed Chavez yesterday, but then said he hoped this spat woudn't damage relations between the two countries.

Full Disclosure: Zapatero and Juan Carlos are my heroes. Chávez isn't!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elizabeth, The Golden Age

Mark Kermode had sold this to me as ridiculous...but in a good way. This sounded like something that would be worth spending money to see, but unfortunately every time the funny stuff gets going − snarling Spaniards prancing around like a bunch of repressed Opus Dei freaks, Sir Walter swingin' in the riggin' − the action switches back to a rather humdrum but good natured domestic drama.

And unfortunately, there's also rather a lot of the bad kind of ridiculousness, such as the fact that the Elizabethan court appears to have been located in the nineteenth century neo-Gothic annexes of St John's College Cambridge and then of course there's that speech, on that horse, in that armour. If any of the pike-carriers that the virgin queen addresses had actually participated in the battle it would perhaps have been more forgiveable. And what was wrong with Elizabeth's actual reported speech at Tilbury?

For this part of the movie I'm sure that Shekhar Kapur could cite his influences as Henry V, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Return of the King and maybe even John Boorman's Excalibur, a film that epitomises for me the premium variety of ridiculousness (see below).

I almost went to see this film that evening when I was wandering around Santa Monica suffering from sleep deprivation. Instead I went to see The Kingdom, but I now suspect that the effect would have been much the same: zzzz for the first three quarters followed by a degree of attention to the explosive climax. So, entertaining enough, but I liked it best when it was closest to being a spoof. In this instance, I really was expecting more of the Spanish Inquisition.

Incidentally, I have often heard the guides on the Thames tour boats asserting that the infamous cloak-laying incident involving Raleigh, the Queen and a puddle by the stone steps on the Bermondsey bank of the river, directly in front of my apartment. I'm pretty sure it never happened though, and at the time of the Armada Raleigh was landlubbing it as Vice Admiral of the not entirely seaworthy county of Devon. It was of course Drake, as anyone who has read One Hundred Years of Solitude will know, that the Spanish regarded as the pirata de mierda.

However it was an ill-conceived attack on the Spanish outpost of San Tome on the Orinoco that would lead to the Spanish ambassador (no doubt just like the baboso in this movie) to petition James I to reinstate a death penalty imposed in Raleigh just after Elizabeth's death. After his execution in 1618 Sir Walter's wife Bess carried his embalmed head around with her in her handbag until she could no longer abide the smell.

JipJop Flamenkillo

Surfer tells me that the Cuban Music Awards at Floridita last Friday were 'a bit WOMAD'. So too was the Ojos de Brujo concert at the Roundhouse on Wednesday, especially when that Senegalese rapper in the white shell suit bounded onto the stage for the final number.

The dancer seen here isn't named on the band's Wikipedia page, but the three appearances she made on the night were really what added some bite to the musicians' performance.

Tottenham Court Road in the 80s

Nothing changes really...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Concert in Las Capuchinas

La Antigua's freeloading fraternity was out in force last night at the Santo Domingo for the opening of an exhibition of works by established Guate-born painter and sculptor Roberto González Goyri, the man responsible for that massive statue of Tecún Umán that you pass on the way to the airport. He has quite a funky website with sound effects too.

The nibbles were top quality too, V reports. Taquitos de pollo and brochetitas and some very good wine. Jeannette came along. (My mother insists that the nibbles at Claridges last week were done by Gordon Ramsay, but they were generally unexceptional, apart perhaps from the salmon mouse served in tiny ice-cream cones.)

If she recovers in time V plans to go along to a classical concert in the ruins of the Convent of Las Capuchinas this morning at eleven. An American soprano called Carol Ann and a pianist called Ana Lucrecia will perform. The entrance is free but you have to bring a toy to give away as a Xmas present for children in need. What a great idea.

MySpace. Don't you love it...?

Marie Antoinette

Nobody seems to know exactly why they booed this movie at Cannes.

Perhaps it was because Sophia Coppola appears to have deliberately overlaid the values of the Ancien Régime with those of the modern Hollywood dream, and thus appears to be both trivialising and celebrating something that one assumes many historically conscious French people place beyond this kind of absolution. (American presumptiousness et tout ca.)

This, coupled with the fact that we never get to see the full consequences of the Queen's story, robs the whole thing of political least of the conventional sort, because Coppola may be trying to make another kind of political statement here, one where 'the mob' are but a hindrance.

Yet I for one remained uncertain of the intended message. The most enjoyable part of the film for me was the opening half hour, where the 14-year-old Dauphine-to-be makes her 'transition' through a temporary marquee erected on the border between Bourbon and Habsburg territories and where she is ritually decontaminated of her Austrian life. This is followed by equally well-observed scenes of the kind of court etiquette that is usually referred to as stifling.

Thereafter interest is maintained primarily by the costumes, wallpaper and bed linen as the young Queen explores the existential possibilities of the modern celebrity blonde, dabbling with self-indulgence (gambling, shoes and cake), nature, motherhood and dashing young foreigners before a final, unconvincing stab at stoic spouse.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Todo Tiende

The first of my videos from Wednesday's Ojos de Brujo concert. Marina dresses a bit like the Predator with feather boas.

The Roundhouse
is an extraordinary venue. It began life as a Victorian steam engine shed. In 1968 The Doors gave their only UK concert here and the cops once raided the place to investigate the nudity in Oh! Calcutta!. It reopened in the summer of 2006 after years of dereliction.

Female beauty as cliché

In the world of American entertainment feminine beauty has become a bit of cliché . Bizarrely you are far more likely these days to see a classically beautiful woman in a European porn movie being shagged by a pair of Serbian skinheads wearing black leather jackets and y-fronts, than in an American movie or TV series.

is one of the worst offenders. There are some ludicrously beautiful men, Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder) and Milo Ventimiglia (Peter) being the stand-out examples, whereas 'cute' is about the best that can be said for the leading female cast members. Dania Ramirez (Maya) has potential, but she needs to stop bleeding black ink out of her eye-sockets.

Lost isn't much better. OK, there's the feisty, freckled Evangeline Lilly (Kate), but then she's surrounded by Naveen Andrews (Sayid), Matthew Fox (Jack), Daniel Dae Kim (Jin) and Josh Holloway (Sawyer).

In CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, if anyone is going to get a modelling gig, it would be one of the males. Yet CSI: Miami is to some extent an exception. Yes, there is the uber-smooth, square jawed Adam Rodriguez (Delko) but on this show at least his masculine lusciousness is regularly out-shone by Emily Procter (Calleigh), Sofia Milos (Yelina), Khandi Alexander (Alexx) and Eva La Rue (Natalia). And they achieve this in spite of the collective aesthetic handicap that the producers seem to have deliberately set them up with: age. They are all over 40...and gorgeous.

It's not much different in the movies. Think of a properly beautiful actress working in Hollywood (Aishwarya Rai, Sarah Shahi, Mia Maestro [pictured], Monica Belluci etc.) and she will tend not to all or even part American. Would women as 'plain' as Kirsten Dunst and Sandra Bullock have prospered in the black and white era? Quirky is obviously the modern equivalent of ravishing, especially when cute (Anne Hathaway, Katie Holmes etc.) won't suffice. I guess someone could try using Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johannson to de-bunk my argument, but they are surely at best borderline cases.