Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Meme Gas

"The Web is obsessed with anything that spreads, whether it's a virus, a blog or a rumor. And so the Internet loves memes." enthused Sarah Boxer this week in the New York Times.

Clearly we are in urgent need an impressive-sounding neologism to account for the phenomenon of words that pass between the minds of marketing executives without ever being properly understood.

Memes (in the way they are characterised by this article) can be any silly idea, or disconnected symbol, that is reproduced across culture, especially via the Internet, described in Wikipedia as "the ultimate meme vector."

Richard Dawkins is of course cited as the instigator of memetics to add a certain scientific gravitas to the topic. The thing is though that Dawkins had a very specific silly idea in mind when he first coined the term - the idea that Jesus was the son of God. There is a qualitative difference between this and a story in a discussion group about the pizza ambush at Old Trafford last Sunday.

What interested Dawkins about a concept that he barely started to flesh out, was that certain bodies of ideas exhibited tendencies like selfish genes. Beliefs take on apparently bizarre features that seem contrary to both reason and the best interests of the believers, but do in fact increase the likelihood that future generations will attest to them. You might quip that Dawkins was ambiguous as to whether a meme was supposed to be a mind gene or a mind virus but the distinction is an important one regardless.

Viruses are rogue DNA that has learned how to do without the technique most genes have employed to march on through the generations - building a body to survive and reproduce in.

An equivalent mind virus might be an exponentially propagating sign that bypasses the border checks of rationality in order to spread far and wide across the globe. We can probably assume with some safety though that our grandchildren won't feel compelled to stick space invaders to the side of traffic lights. Like the biological virus, the spread of the mind virus is limited by the dynamics of the epidemic.

There is nothing especially interesting about the myth that Wacko Jacko's phone number is encrypted in the barcode to Thriller, other than the implication that there are people out there dumb enough to believe it. Ditto the famous Web rumours about Beelzebub on the board of P&G and Kentucky-Fried not really Chicken. The creators of these sort of stories know there are plenty of brains out there with low immunity to such mental infections.

The notion of the Holy Trinity on the other hand has survived nearly two millennia; the phenomenon of meme persistance over time thus has to be more complex than "it might just be true".

Anyway, on the vaguely related topic of whether film critics really have a clue what they are talking about when they refer to a plot as elliptical, I have decided to casually refer to the next obscure flick that I see as Gödelian. Usefully this could mean a number of different things such as 1) you remain uncertain about the outcome throughout or 2) wherever you are in the story everything seems to be going round in circles!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Hero is collectivist, nationalistic eye candy.

If I had seen it before Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (or perhaps even just one small 15 minute section of it) this review would have been much more of an acclamation. Instead there were times last night when I thought I was watching some sort of over-the-top, politically-suspect spoof of Ang Lee's captivating film!

Compare for instance Zatoichi. Even at its most serious it was dead-pan drôle, and importantly, you knew that you were allowed to laugh, especially during the post-climactic jamborie. Takeshi's version of po-faced is implictly more animated than Jet Li's.

Hero in comparison has much of the style and sensibility of Italian opera, minus the jolly tunes. Revealingly, Zhang Yimou once directed Tosca with a cast of thousands in the Forbidden City. Here The army of Qin functions as a kind of chorus. Anyway, the result is that you're just not sure how seriously it wants to be taken. (Yet when Broken Sword gets skewered for the umpteenth time, I just couldn't stifle a snigger.)

It reminded me also of the floor shows I used to see in my youth in the Monte Carlo Sporting Club. No matter how many lithe, topless bodies paraded in front of you, the production designer never let you forget whose talent you were really paying to gawp at.

Part of the problem is that Zhang Yimou is less adept than Ang Lee at hiding the trickery of wires and computer animation. The balletic action sequences effectively peak in the chess house and thereafter become a bit of a chore. The first of the coloured love-triangle sequences (the red one) is also the most powerful. There really needed to be more of a build up.

The landscapes are relentlessly eye-catching, but as with much of the movie, someone has forgotten to apply the principle of less is more. (Again, Lee was comparatively sparing in his use of the poetry of location.) Less leaves, less arrows, less soldiers etc.

An ultimately rather disquieting feature of the film is that there are no real people; none of the bustling street scenes you nearly always witness in the historical martial arts genre. If you're not a name here, you're barely even a number -there's more than a hint of safety-in-vast-numbers Chinese nationalism in the sub-text.

Of course, with films like this subtitles give only the illusion of translation. The silent arias of this opera are sung to us in a mythological and symbolic lingo that most Westerners will at best only get the general gyst of. Yet for all the reservations expressed above, this makes for an experience that is predominantly fresh and invigorating. (Just imagine an all-American hero doing all the stuff Jet Li gets up to!)

The nested and colour-coded alternative plot strands could almost be a little art-house homage to Kieslowski and Kurosawa. (Luckily though this technique wasn't used much in Romantic Opera! Imagine sitting through four different versions of the Liebestod! The impact of tragedy is significantly blunted by the mere suggestion of alternative universes.)

Beautiful but somewhat inconsequential has been the critical consensus and although in the early sequences I was thinking to myself that they must have all been rather jaded at the time, by the end of the film I couldn't find that many reasons to disagree.