Tuesday, February 22, 2005


V's brother F has just got back from a trip to Xetulul Amusement Park in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. This includes some quite passable hyperreal reproductions of Italian Renaissance and Spanish urban spaces, as well as the inevitable Tikal Temple.
Westworld without the killer androids! Not a bad effort for the chapines really. It's around a three hour drive from Antigua. Might have to check it out.

Anyway, there may be a bit of a hiatus on this page until early March. I'm off back here tomorrow, via here.


Ikkyu is located in a Tottenham Court Road basement, the discreet entrance to which is squeezed between a Benjy's and The Church of Scientology.

This is a proper pukkha Japanese restaurant - none of your Yo Sushi! nonsense. Frode has his Japanese lessons on his iPod now. Another good excuse for me getting one I guess. He told me what he could about his interesting meeting with Martin King, predictive text innovator from T9.

The lunch menus at Ikkyu are priced reasonably and are served with rice, miso soup and pickles. To start we shared a California roll then Frode had the grilled salmon while I chose the mackerel. It was cooked to perfection and appeared to have near limitless amounts of edible bits.

Monday, February 21, 2005


Saturday night found me further north in the capital's geography than I usually care to wander, up in Finchley with Zarathustra, Hagar and partners eating delicious food in a Persian eatery called Shiraz (A name that provides the perfect excuse for serving up Aussie plonk without wandering "off message".)

On the surface Shiraz is impeccably contemporary, yet quickly reveals its kitschy inner self with admirably little self-consciousness. Very authen-tack. I actually have a lot of time for places like this that feature a guy in an ill-fitting suit playing a keyboard deck amist the dance of disco lights. It reminds me of lazy afternoons eating coconut ice-cream down Mexico way listening to old men squeezing out heart-aching boleros on their Yamahas.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Admission: I went to see Spanglish primarily because I think Paz Vega is unmissably lovely.

However, the trailer had very nearly set me against the idea and for the first hour I was almost wishing I had followed my instinct on this one. Then suddenly, what had started off as something akin to a wordy sitcom pilot, started growing hairs on the back of its hands.

We never quite got the full werewolf though. The transformation looks and feels awkward and incomplete. You are more aware of the trying than the succeding, much like another James L. Brooks' film I saw a while back, Broadcast News (1987). There are flashes of real penetrative power, but most of the punches are pulled.

For some reason there seems to be a marked absence of action movies in British cinemas at the moment. Instead we have a whole set of films about angsty adults whose lives get spiced up by an injection of the sort of risk and possibility normally associated with youth. The difference between this film and and In Good Company and Shall We Dance is that none of the middle-aged adults are really any better off at the end.

Indeed "None of it works" is the worldly reassurance Flor receives from Evelyn. However you try to manage life's compromises you will fall short of the optimum. Spanglish offers us a vision of how it can go very wrong and very right and in the end we get neither. It's one of those slice of life narratives that doesn't in the end have much of a point to make.

This is also so clearly a story written by a man, that it's almost embarrassing. There's a scenario which made me think of Closer, but Adam Sandler performs like he's been told not to use rude words. (My concerned readers might approve though as I have been spared the need to repeat any major obscenities in this blog.) Watching Sandler doing calm, sensitive bloke is almost as disconcerting as watching George Dubya discoursing on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism would be.

Usually the only way talented Spanish actresses can get a break in Hollywood is by playing latinas. Meanwhile the talented (or at least big name) latinas generally wouldn't go near these sort of roles anymore.

Paz Vega certainly becomes more and more delightful and alluring as the film winds on, but even when finally conversing in English isn't allowed to be much more than a caricature. She does have a go at the accent, andale andale etc. but something's missing. It's not her fault but there's actually something distasteful going on here; it's as if a white actor with his cheeks covered in shoe polish played the lead in a film about an African slave revolt. If Europeans and Mexicans really were that interchangeable in the white American consciousness, if the only real difference between them was comparative affluence, then California would be a very different sort of place.

Race is just one of the big-ticket issues in this film that is dug up only to be re-buried. Class and infidelity get much the same treatment. I know I could re-write this story broadly following the existing outline and the end result would be something edgier. Maybe edgy wasn't the intention. But then what was? Brooks doesn't really give me a reason to care about the consequences of the situation he has set up.

But the real problem here is that this film affects to tell the story of Hispanic immigrants when it is really a tale of disfunctional anglos in which the Mexicans are playing a secondary, symbolic role. El Norte is still the definitive, serious take on displaced indocumentados awash in WASPish California, mis-communicating across the race and class divide, while Born in East LA is a very good comic one.

I do however have one great line to report from Spanglish: "Your low self-esteem is starting to look like common sense".

Shall We Dance

A movie that wants us to believe that Ballroom Dancing keeps husbands out of brothels in much the same way that boxing gyms stop violent males from stealing handbags. Now that's a rather trite little summary of the premise of this highly enjoyable movie, but I don't think Richard Gere has been in a role in which so much belief needed to be suspended since Pretty Woman.

Yet this movie is far better written than In Good Company, its big ticket stars are on top form and the supporting cast are all superb. It throws every trick in the Hollywood romcom emotional manipulation book at its audience (English director Chelsom gave us Serendipity) yet still comes off as an blast of freshness and fun. You might think it would be the last film that I would recommend without major reservations, but in this particular instance you would be wrong.

Lawyer John Clark's profesional existence is certainly more secure than Dan Foreman's but like In Good Company this is essentially a tale about the anxieties surrounding the life choices facing salarymen. I do believe however that Shall We Dance reaches more interesting conclusions about the way to offset all the "quiet desperation" that inevitably builds up as our possibilities appear to become ever more finite. Not everyone can simply opt out of mainstream corporate capitalism halfway through. Who would pay for all the creative writers and trendy boutique owners then? No, what you have to do with practical, everyday life is learn to transcend it in the act of living it. You can change course without having to change ship.

It came as little surprise to discover that this was originally a Japanese movie. (Shall we Dansu, 1996) as the philosophy expressed above is very Eastern. I can understand how the Japanese comedy would have been more poignant than the re-make. John Clark's existence is far from drone-like. He has everything the American Dream has to offer, yet owns to being a bit unsettled by a life of trading in last will and testaments.

In Good Company

The Yanks can't seem to satirise aspects of their lifestyle without also celebrating them. This was very apparent in Team America: World Police and it is again here.

The particular ingredient of American capitalism that is the subject of half-hearted derision here is synergy - the dark side of webbiness! Synergy is the globalised network of cross-promotion and factoids are its nodes. In order to interface with synergy we all need to develop "complex bonds" - an example of complexity being wasted on the utterly trivial, the consequences of which can be painfully disconcerting for all that get ensnared in the net. "It all seems so arbitrary" reflects one of synergy's victims at the end.

Was I pysched? By Denis Quaid, a bit, perhaps. It's a pity that Selma Blair had such a small part. I do enjoy her penetrating looks - unlike Scarlett Johansson, whose version of coy can be plain annoying. The fact that Alex couldn't find a way to fall in love with Carter Duryea summed up this character. Whether dressed as a high-flyer or like a delivery boy there's not much in there to empathise with. And must we really admire Dan for the way he cares about a dumb sports magazine?

In Good Company ends up by effectively proposing that with just a bit of attitudinal fine-tuning corporate life can become deeply meaningful. The difference is apparently whether you jog with a cellphone clasped to your ear indoors, or whether you find a way to do it outdoors on the beach.

Saturday, February 19, 2005


A film that fully deserves its inclusion in the Asia Extreme category. Starts slowly then gets "glose" according to JC.

It came as no surprise after reading In the Miso Soup that Ryu Murakami wants us to understand that Japan's modern curse is solitude. Audition (Odishon) is adapted from his novel about a middle-aged widower, Shigeharu Aoyama, who enlists the help of a friend in the film industry to conduct an bogus audition so he can pick a new wife. They individually examine thirty women in their twenties, shortlisted by virtue of their mugshots, their bios and the fact that they have dedicated themselves to a skill or a hobby.

Aoyama lives with his teenage son with whom he shares the washing up duties and a fairly prosaic domestic life. The household dog, Gangu, meanders about the early scenes as a waggy-tailed emblem of vulnerable innocence. You just know the dog's not going to make it.

There's a secretary at work that clearly wants more from Aoyama, but he can't see it. He desires young, classy and obedient. Be careful what you wish for is the obvious message here.

Up until about midway through this story you could almost predict an American remake. But from here Takeshi Miike takes us down deeper into hell than most Western audiences are prepared to venture. And that was as far as I got on the first sitting. It was too early in the morning for me to explore such shadowy places, so I switched over to watch Reza Mahammad on the Saturday Kitchen instead. When I did steel myself for the last half hour I found I myself watching most of it through my fingers.

You could say that this film has a particular perspective on Japanese sexual politics. The widower represents the nobler side of middle-aged romanticism, but attitudes such as his and their less sublimated equivalents have helped restrict the aggregate female persona in Japan to within highly defined limits, and this is shown to have had a negative impact on human relations in general.

Asami is an embodiment of feminine retribution on all Japanese manhood. Just because Aoyama is basically decent doesn't make him an innocent. In one scene his son, a dinosaur enthusiast, explains why he couldn't hit it off with the polite and pretty girl that he chatted up on the bus suggesting that even the attitudes of the younger generation are replicating the stymied interactions of their parents.

The story has loads of Ryu Murakami's hallmark guilt and self-loathing. It struck me that the female psychopath driven by physical and cultural abuse by men is here primarily a vehicle for examining male pyschology. And in the very last scene Asami is less of a pyscho in the Western style and more like that other demon of the Japanese imagination, the robot.

The Spiral

As with the other Ringu films, the basic problem here is an evil, cursed video tapu.

But Rasen (The Spiral) is the misfit of the Ring franchise, more of an alternative elaboration of the premise than a sequel. It's a while since I saw the other films so I wasn't as disturbed by this strange mutation as many hardcore Ringu fans almost certainly would have been. (Imagine that after Dr No someone had made an alternative sequel in which bond turned out to be a gay KGB double agent?)

Audiences so hated this sequel to the first Ring movie that the studio had to re-hire the cast and crew to make an alternative sequel - Ringu 2. The Spiral is a different strain indeed - the medical basis for death by VHS is explained here as a virus, yet it's one you can catch from reading a notebook now as well as watching Sadako's original video nasty.

Rasen belongs more to the Sci-Fi genre than the Horror or Thriller genres. There are no real crescendos of tension, just a buzz of urban unease, which signals a warning to us about the ways that creeping solitude can lead to moral sell-out. Rasen reminded me a bit of Abre los Ojos (remade as Vanilla Sky) in as much that a good plot set-up is allowed to get over-ripe, if not exactly smelly and rotten, in the lead up to the final act. (Vanilla Sky was stinky from the start.)

With Reiko killed off Miki Nakatani is now the main eye-sushi, reprising her role as the slightly kooky Mai Takano from the original. Twisted well-dweller Sadako too has found herself a much better hair stylist that she had in Ringu.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Reality Soup

Back to that soup-induced sense of suchness...

Last Wednesday night Cuz asked me when it was that I blew my mind. He blew his over a decade ago and it has stayed pretty blown ever since. I recall that long before that he was the first person to attempt to explain quantum mechanics to me, but I really was rather young at the time.

My mind has had a serious of significant 'pops' since though. I related how I grew curious in the early 90s about mimickry in Nature - how for example, a creature could evolve into a form which includes a near perfect simulation of another, usually in order to scare off its predators.

Did such 'information' get into the system as a consequence of intelligent design as the God Squad insist, or could it have evolved in discreet steps? So I went and read some Richard Dawkins and pop, I realised that both these alternatives might be significantly off the mark.

Dawkins being a little bit wrong doesn't however invalidate Darwin - Natural Selection remains the only way we know that molecules can grow teeth. However:

- Dawkins cunningly never defines what he means by the "random" in "random mutation". Yet the only truly random phenomenon is the spin of an electron. At any scale above this random is just another word for a pattern that we haven't the processing-power to fully understand.

- Neo-Darwinism breaks everything down to one elementary unit: the gene. Everything outside the gene is lumped into "the environment" which then acts to determine selection and survival. Yet this sort of rigid categorisation is often uncalled for. In collaboration with other creatures within the same eco-system (i.e. the next level of organisation up the scale), many organisms actively help determine their evolutionary environment, as opposed to being just the passive subjects of it. In the field of technology Douglas Engelbart calls this directed co-evolution.

It strikes me that Professor Dawkins is doggedly trying to preserve the "elementary" nature of Biology, something that Physics has had to reluctantly relinquish over the past century. Physicists had for a long while been smashing up molecules, then atoms, then particles, in the hope of finding the smallest units out of which matter is made. Instead they reached a point when things don't get any smaller and start behaving very weirdly. Their quest for fundamental components had led to a mysterious soup of dynamic patterns - ineffable flow, instead of conveniently discreet building blocks.

If an atom had the dimensions of the dome of St Pater's in Rome its nucleus would be the size of a grain of salt. This apparent hollowness is not confined to the 'inside' either. The outer shell of the atom is an illusion created by the 600m per second speed of the electrons' spin. So an atom has a continuous surface in the same way that the pictures on a TV screen appear continuous to the human eye. When you also consider that mass is really just a form of energy, you have to conclude that mutability rather than solidity is the baseline property of material reality.

Objectivity is a bit of a hoax really. Yet I told Cuz last night that while I do accept Richard Rorty's assertion that at bottom everything is relational and provisional, I still can't sign up for all the inferences that he draws from this. I'm what you might call a deferred essentialist: Absolute Truth may not manifest itself conclusively anywhere so it can be perceived and measured, but I like to think that it might exist as a kind of implict pathway.

Time does not flow, but the fact that it appears to may ultimately be relevant. Similarly our indeterminate, relativistic universe seems to go to some lengths to at least appear solid and determinate. Why might this be?

So, while Evolution may not have an explicit goal, it does seem to 'flow' as if subject to certain dispositional forces. Einstein explained gravity as a consequence of dimpled space around massive objects. Perhaps the flow of DNA also follows invisible curves in possibility. These would result in morphological tendencies, not fixations.

If knowledge typically progresses in parallel straight lines, you might say that wisdom is the ability to perceive and understand curvature. Even the void is bent - Einstein's revelation is not a neat intellectual paradox to impress people with at cocktail parties, not just a minor aberration with standard received normality that only matters at the extremes, it is an important truth about our whole environment.

"Have you ever been lost yet known where to go?" Cuz asked me before we left.


Went to Zuma in Knightsbridge last night. Before I say anything about this place, just check-out the website. Nuff said really. This place has some serious ethos.

The menu advises that Zuma is a contemporary take on the traditional Japanese izakaya - a venue for the informal, shared consumption of small dishes. Trouble is that it's the last place you would find anything like that sort of relaxed socialisation. Wherever you gaze in Zuma there's something at stake. This joint just seethes with yearning, and despite the suggestions of the decor, it is not satori that is being earnestly sought here.

It's hard not to be hexed by all the beautiful people from the moment you walk in. You practically need a chat-up line to get the well-groomed girls at the reception desk to even pay attention to you. Just getting a table here had involved a trail of lubrication that trickled all the way back to the concierge at the Capital Hotel.

Yet once your eyes have settled back into their sockets, you can begin to detect a certain lack of grace in all this glamour. The closest that most of these people have got to Zen is buying a Claude Challe Buddha Bar compilation. And of about half of the expensively-atired ladies on display the most favourable thing you could say about them is "not exactly a taxpayer", but with several it was "Hungarian pornstar" that actually sprung to mind.

The eastern European blonde that poured our Saumur sauvignon affected the rituals of the practiced sommelier. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't really enjoy getting the full professional treatment from non-professional waiters and waitresses. It smacks of phoniness and intimidation. The chefs bustling around behind the sushi bar also looked more Thai than Japanese.

Like grilled turtle Zuma is an exquisite but morally-suspect pleasure. A place to savour, slobber over even, but perhaps just the once. When the stated ethos of a restaurant is this much out of step with the people eating and serving within it, what you have left is beautiful but empty style.

The food is undeniably delicious though. Most memorable was a grilled soft-shell crab served with a wasabe mayonnaise and barbecued rice on little sticks like ice-lollies. We also enjoyed the crispy fried squid with green chilli salt, and the salt grilled seabass with burnt tomato ginger relish. The sweet potato with soy and sesame glaze is something I'm going to try reproducing at home.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Domed Dualisms

"The PR industry's current obsession with measurement is indicative of a systemic lack of creativity and innovation...The fact is a lot of PR executives stopped thinking creatively a long time and are now focused on justifying mediocre ideas with complex measurement", H&K's Creative Director Doug Dome recently bemoaned.

In the context of what I do this kind of Creative-Measurement distinction, while challenging prevailing assumptions, has the potential to cause some muddle. It's very Yin-Yang, mind-spirit, rational-intuitive, leftbrain-rightbrain etc.

Few such dualisms stand up to serious inspection. Anyway Yin-Yang is technically a "rotational symmetry" rather than a strict dualism. Dome might take heart than an excess of yangy measurement usually presages a new era of yinny creativity. In practice the way of the wise is to dynamically manage the interplay of these polarities.

Nevertheless, regular readers of this blog will recall, there are indeed some good reasons to keep a watchful eye on the fanatics of granular classification. It's not measurement per se that's the problem, rather it's the what and the how. Beyond that, it's also the impact that the tools and the methods have on the way people think in general. Novel conventions emerge which impose newfangled conventional ways of thinking. The 'bot' mentality tends to speak the lingo of innovation while actually constricting it.

Language is a Web of symbols in which words are the nodes. You can count up the nodes, analyse them statistically to your heart's content, but you may not actually be learning what you claim you are. This kind of knowledge is often very one-dimensional and should not really be packaged as 3D intelligence.

Take Chinese texts for example. Different translations into English sometimes appear to have completely different meanings. This is because there's more to the meaning of the word than its definition - layers of meaning are stashed away in multiple allusions associated with the pictogram. The bonds of allusion are present to a lesser extent in the English language. You would be right to worry that the symbolic content and impact of any piece of communication would be hard to measure in a purely statistical way. But even if we can't measure it precisely, we can get better at encapsulating it. The excitement generated by rapid serial processing is blinding us to the need to concurrently consider softer models for recognising and capturing meaning and its impact.

Kill Bill Stickers

Some great examples of hand-painted movie poster art from Russia. I think Eric Bana comes off better than Brad Pitt and Drew Barrymore here. Not sure I get the Kill Bill one...

As for Adam Sandler, he looks like Sugarus Daddius, the Caucasian pimp!

Singapore Laksa

In Melati last night with Cuz celebrating the fundamental webbiness of all things over a steaming bowl of Malaysian coconut soup - which really ought to carry the same sort of cautionary advice as the Barefoot Doctor's splash page: "Warning: Can produce sudden unexpected bouts of existential levity and general Magnificence".

Cuz has started to write a regular online column for Barefoot, who last grabbed my attention when he was hounded off the pages of the Guardian by a salivating mob of sceptics. Now the shoeless one plans to set up his own Internet radio channel, and Cuz has been sounding me out on the likely start-up costs. I did my best to explain why a blog supported with occasional podcasts might be an even better strategy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


One of the unique aptitudes of Frank the killer gaijin from In the Miso Soup is the knack of cutting throats without setting off a massive multi-directional bloodspray. You can see why the Japanese might be impressed with this - in Azumi nobody seems to have acquired this singular skill.

Yet the first 'crimson shower' comes as something of a surprise. Before then the build-up has been a bit unpromising - ten boistrous, high-fiving, trainee assassins frolicking in the forest, dressed like characters from SEGA's Soul Caliber, sequestered in preparation for a series of remedial warlord whackings "over the mountains", which are aimed at restoring stability to the Tokugawa Shogunate. More like Monkeh! than Kill Bill. Then suddenly, almost out of the blue, it gets rather dark.

As Azumi, the lone gal of the group, Aya Ueto is very good on the eye - in spite of the efforts of her costume designer. She even picks up her own lesbian love interest in the shape of travelling performer Yae, played by the also quite lovely Aya Okamoto. The campness is compounded by the murderous nutjob that the warlords release from prison to counteract the political re-modelling of Azumi and her chums - he's styled like a cross between a member of the Human League and that girl that crawls out of the TV in Ringu.

This is effervescent pulp. It has no business really being such great entertainment, but it is. Some movies like Cold Mountain pose as epics only to end up naff. The reverse is the case here. Director Ryuhei Kitamura was responsible for that entertaining zombie movie Versus, which also extracted a powerful sense of bizarre originality out of essentially commoditised situations. Both films are at once hysterical spoofs and deadly serious.

This is not something that Hollywood film-makers are especially good at, not even les enfants terribles. Even when is he trying VERY hard (say when he scripted From Dusk 'Till Dawn) Tarantino never gets particularly close to the seemingly effortless and unpredictable fucked-upness of Japanese cinema.

The Mañana Approach

Someone has captured a great image of the mañana approach to fire-fighting in Madrid this week!

Apparently there is still some debate amongst inspectors as to whether or not they will have to demolish this. They sneaked this one in just before Kyoto.

Who needs Mayor Ken ?

Antigua Spa

Looks like V has come up with a creative solution to our house problem in Antigua. Up until now it seemed that we had a fairly limited set of options, none of which was exactly ideal.

- Live in it ourselves
- Rent it out to a stranger
- Have a member of the family 'look after it'
- Hire a guardian
- Sale
- Demolition

However, the woman that runs the Antigua Spa Resort Hotel located just around the corner is looking for a property to handle their regular overflow - an annexe of sorts. The Spa would maintain the patio and accommodate guests in the four bedrooms whenever the main hotel is fully booked. And she isn't that much of a stranger as she's a good friend of V's sister.

She is in fact the adopted daughter of non-Guatemalan multi-millionaires who returned to the land of her birth in order to set up a range of businesses, and unlike many wealthy Guatemaltecos is refreshingly natural and unspoiled. The Spa is a top notch hotel and a very successful venture.

For the past few days V has been getting up at 6am and working long hours picking coffee on the terrenos she inherited from her mother. On Saturday she and her sister gathered 2 quintales (approx. 400lbs) of beans which they later sold - though this activity has very little to do with economic need. It's a spiritual sisterly thing - communal and communing - with each other and with their dearly departed. I am already being encouraged to get with the programme when I arrive there next week.

Hyper-Feet 1

Last night I met up with Frode in The Blue Room in Broadwick Street for a brief chat about his project proposal. I explained why I think interactive text is less like "having feet" (which after all most of us have from birth) than suddenly having a new device that enables a limited set of opportunities to visit an near limitless list of destinations. With this metaphor the opportunity costs involved are more explicit.

In spite of all the problems associated with non-information overload and bad interface design most people are used to muddling through one way or another. However, any system with the word "hyper" in it contains the promise of not having to muddle through, I suggested. It has to clear that it improves the user's situation relative to their situationally scarce resources of time and attention rather than contributing to the overhead. In essence that was the concern brought up by the journalist last week.

In the last few days I have been skirting around the issue of whether it would be possible to develop a media analysis model alternative or complementary to the decompose-recompose approach; one that combines the disciplines of statistical analysis with whatever it is that professors of Media Studies know about.

Such a system would aim to encompass the links as well as the units - offering a dynamic and relativistic view of mediaspace. (Autonomy focusses on logical inference which although it sounds like something that will result in clarity actually muddies things further.)

Of course it's rather easier to conceptualise than formalise! But it isn't entirely unrelated to Frode's problem.

Before we left the cafe he asked me to give some thought to how you could integrate architectural constraints into the interactive text system itself. The best model we are both aware of for this would be Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel, though Frode is probably most familiar with Kevin Kelly's more pragmatist interpretation in Out of Control.

The blind old librarian from BA was a famed architect of labyrinths and ease of use was never very high on his agenda. His kind of wisdom is just beyond the reach of rational understanding. I have got stuck in that one before, so before going back there I will pursue another line of association that has gripped my fancy lately. More on this later...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Spirited Away

Describing this movie is like talking about one of those forever-memorable trippy dreams of childhood. People will listen politely and think "how imaginative you are in your sleep" or "you are one fucked-up dude" but never fully understand how utterly immersive and affective the experience was...and continues to be for you.

Not being a drug-taker myself, it's a long while since my sense of everyday possibility was unsettled in this way. When I was around seven I did have a dream that was more or less in this genre. In it I was on a train bound for Timbuktu where the carriages were all weird little houses full of singular characters.

The obvious comparisons will be with Alice in Wonderland, but Japan's anime God Hayao Miyazaki sports his western influences with pride - Labyrinth, The Secret Garden, Where the Wild Things Are and The Odyssey, amongst others. (And If I, Robot had been made before you might even point to the in-yer-face product placement for Audi!)

It has to be petty to quibble about inconsistencies when the storytelling is so spiritedly dream or nightmare-like in its conception - stream of unconsciousness if you like. Yet as in a real dream the sense of incongruity deriving from both gaps and deviations mounts up and creates a lingering anxiety at the end. Why do some characters like Lin not have a story to tell? Why doesn't Chihiro hug both Lin and Kamaji before returning to the Human world?

Yet a character like No Face is so poignant precisely because he is a shady outline without final explanation. In Labyrinth Terry Jones provided the narrative discipline that framed Jim Henson's riotous imagination. It is the absence of similar tight scripting here that makes Miyazaki's work so mesmerising. The blue of that sky - it's all so touchingly, ineffably beautiful.

Before renting Spirited Away from Blockbuster last week I added it to my Amazon shopping basket. As a result the bots at the online retailer recommended Bambi to me today!

Gohatto (Taboo)

A movie about unresolved issues and emotions that left me with a few of my own too. Indeed I hadn't reviewed it sooner simply because I wasn't sure that I had actually understood it.

The action is set in late-stage Tokugawa in the near obsolete all-male Shinsengumi samurai militia school in Kyoto. Hearts and swords are a flutter when Commander Kondo picks the geisha-like rich-kid Sozaburo Kano from amongst 1865s Bushido wannabes. His influence could best be decribed as disruptive in an austere environment unaccustomed to serious emotional disturbances off the battlefield.

Reading a few reviews by American critics didn't exactly help me to decipher Gohatto - they're all fixated on the idea that this is all about the issue of gays in the military. But it would have been easy enough to introduce a don't ask don't tell subplot into a more mediocre film like The Last Samurai to bring these sort of simplistic political points as much to the fore as they need to be brought.

Director Nagisa Oshima on the other hand is a master of erotically-subtle, enigmatic film-making. Most notably he has given us Ai No Corrida (1976) and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), which like Gohatto featured the marvellous music of Riuichi Sakamoto and introduced Beat Takeshi to Western audiences.

Last night Frode had his Japanese phrasebook and wanted to practice asking for a table at a number of packed-looking sushi joints. I suggested he should also practice Takeshi's ominous twitchy look for when they tried to turn him down! It looks like Gohatto was made fairly shortly after Takeshi's moped accident which left one side of his face partly paralysed. It gives him a slight emotive edge over Ryuhei Matsuda who, as the elusive prettyboy Kano, attempts to squeeze every last drop of icily sinister coquetry out of the impassive look.

Impassive, but not passive as several critics have insisted. My take is that Kano is a bloodthirsty sociopath that is playing them all for kicks.

Nagisa Oshima's intent I believe is to tease us with imagery that offsets the placidity and serenity of the place, the people and the lifestyle with the chaotic passions seething beneath. There's surely a message in there for modern Japan, and it isn't limited to the issue of what to do about occasional homoerotic spasms in the ranks.

I suspect there are also significant elements of farcical comedy and leanings towards the supernatural in Gohatto that require greater immersement in Japanese culture to grasp completely.

The opening Kendo practice scenes reminded me of my years in the fencing salle. It's one of the unusual conjunctions of my relationship with V that we had both been swordspeople - though she was actually a very good one, becoming junior national champion. We didn't know this about each other until she came to London and found my gear at the back of a cupboard.

It might be fun to have a go one day at writing a provocative film script about that licentious apostate 'queen' William Rufus, with a view to radically challenging the Hollywood simulacrum of the Middle Ages. It's actually surprising that nobody has had a go at this before - an atheist homosexual that comes to a very mysterious and cinematic sticky end. Might be hard to craft any worthwhile "best actress in a leading role" opportunities though. Maybe the Prof would collaborate.

The Tao of Blog 2: Just add water

Unlike knowledge the bill of wisdom cannot be itemised. Wisdom is knowledge plus the bits in between - the connections.

The way we currently go about the media analysis process is akin to the manufacture of instant coffee. We filter all the connections, context and meaning out of the media until we have our granules of data, then add water and the end product is a passable imitation of the real thing. But wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to lose the wisdom to get at the knowledge?

Scientists were for a long time prone to the same basic error- attempting to understand the universe by breaking it down into its component parts and then reassembling it theoretically through the medium of mechanical models. In "the zone of middle dimensions" this approach provides a fair approximation of our sensory experience. But I'm not sure that Information is scaled the same way.

We used to think that space and time were fixed phenomena and that everything within them was either a material object or 'empty space'. Now we know that the universe has an organic structure in which the concept of 'empty space' is largely meaningless.

You might think that knowledge is best understood as a collection of discreet information objects located at a given time and place in media space, but any attempt to objectively measure these units will, for the time being at least, necessarily discard all the invisible bonds between them.

The two parts of Queens College in Cambridge on either side of the river Cam are linked by the Mathematical Bridge. Punting beneath its span "unscrupulous" (i.e. student) tour guides in straw boaters will confidently repeat the "baseless myth" that surrounds its earliest construction - that Issac Newton designed it and had it erected it without the use of nails. His reductionist heirs later had the bridge disassembled in order to better understand this marvel, but when they tried to put it back together found to their dismay that they couldn't get the structure to hold firm and had to bang in some nails. Baseless it may be, but like a lot of myths it packs a relevant little allegory - in this instance one about the inherent dangers of all intellectual disassembly.

Computers hand an awful lot of power to the un-wise. That's why they are being used predominantly to pull mathematical bridges apart before anyone has a reliable model of how they were built in the first place.

Earthquakes and Echinoderms

I consumed my first echinoderm last night, a sea urchin, or rather the gonads thereof - a slimy amber-coloured glob that slithered around my molars and for a few instants delivered an intense tartness like the compacted flavours of all the creatures of the sea.

Frode swallowed his rather quickly and then reflected ruefully on the cost-benefit ratio. Fleur insisted however that these little seaweed-wrapped packets of uni were good for us.

A couple of nights ago V was shaken at 2:30am by a strong tremor. It richtered between 5 and 6, hardly strong enough to even merit a mention in the local papers, but a scary thing to wake up to. The first few moments are experienced as a dream. Then you are conscious but unable to move, unlike everything around you. By the time your mind and body have un-clotted it's usually almost over, and the rumble of moving earth is replaced by half an hour of yelping by every mangy mutt in the valley. She has vivid recollections of Guatemala's great quake of February 4, 1976, which left 23,000 dead. Her exit from her bedroom that fateful night was very nearly blocked by a toppled shelving unit.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Tao of Blog 1

As the Zen Buddhists say, you need a finger to point at the moon, but once you have located it, you no longer need the finger. The problem around here isn't so much pointy-haired bosses as pointy-fingered peers. Our tools are getting in the way, the map is being confused with the terrain. There's also a great deal of pseudo-science around which reveals itself through a reluctance to admit to its relative, conditional, and approximate nature.

Now I am what Frode would call a Knowledge Worker, and I do recognise that blogs can be useful part of productive knowledge work. But this blog has never been strictly about the management of knowledge, rather it is intermitently dedicated to something that is almost never mentioned in the context of intelligence in this industry, wisdom.

This is a lesser-trodden path - a less fashionable route to interpretation. Yet it is still a research-based project as opposed to a meditative one. I'm not suggesting that we should all start chanting "om" at our screens, but I would like to promote a kind of non-conceptual awareness which I believe can be achieved by approaching things a little more indirectly.

The most interesting connections live in the void- the stuff that goes missing between all the discriminations, abstractions, measurements and classifications. In Buddhism the measuring and categorising mentality is known as avidya - ignorance. You might think that it follows that the monks had to be fairly ignorant themselves to come up with a category like that! It's certainly a bit harsh, given that conceptual ways of thinking underly so much of human inventiveness. Not all of it however - taken to extremes they lead to humourlessness - and activities conducted without humour are invariably activities deficient in insight. This is because a mind that is receptive to jokes is usually also a mind that is capable of making rapid connections between thoughts that might appear tangential to others.

Canal Nueve

The Gaping Void quotes a snippet from The Economist's piece on why Microsoft's director of platform evangelism Lenn Pryor hired A-list blogger Robert Scoble.

"Mr Pryor had a radical idea. Afraid of flying, he had met a pilot at United Airlines who told him to tune into channel nine from his plane seat, where he could listen in on the communications of the pilots. Mr Pryor did, and soon “the irrational nature of my fear started to fade”. It had something to do with hearing real people talking honestly."

I'm due to fly United next week and I hope we don't run into any tipping points! But I am one of those people might find realtime pilot chat quite distracting, to a point.

However, in an earlier posting I recounted the experiences of my brother-in-law who used to fly jump seat in the jets belonging to his then employer Mexicana. He said he would have preferred to be one of the unsuspecting ungulates in the back reading the WSJ. For some people listening to bloggers like Hugh must be a bit like tuning into el Capitano!


It seems that you can't open a mainstream newspaper or magazine these days without coming across an article about Frode and his hyperwords.

Sarah Boxer of the NY Times is the latest crash-test dummy, and she voices her concerns that unleashed text might be inclined to do a runner and not come back.

Yet not all lines necessarilly carry us onward to tangents of tangents; many lead to interesting intersections. Werner Heisenberg put it well: "It is probably quite generally true that in the history of human thinking, the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet."

So it's probably also quite generally true that more fertile linking strategies will be those that are associated with a good thinking strategy: a mode of conceptualising I will christen Hyperthoughts for now, and come back to in due course.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

In The Miso Soup

In recent separate conversations with both Gibnut and Miseryguts the idea that Japan has stepped into the breach left by the Soviet Union has come up - the notion that it might be the last place on Earth where you can feel the ultimate sense of displacement, the sensation of no longer being on the same Earth at all.

In The Miso Soup is a novel in three parts, narrated by Kenji, a 20 year-old student who makes good money in the evenings guiding foreigners around the neon-soaked backstreets of Kabuchi-Cho, a red light district that sits within a labyrinthine system of alien etiquette.

In the first part Kenji relates how he met 'Frank', a visiting American pyscho with a repertoire of disturbing facial expressions and a knack for putting people into a trance. During their first night together Kenji facilitates stops at a peep show, a lingerie pub and a baseball battting range and his suspicions that Frank was the author of a gruesome murder-dismembering on these very streets the night before grow steadily more tumescent.

The thriller format is suddenly and bloodily dropped on the floor of Omiai pub in part two when Frank gets unambiguously down to business, whipping out his long sashimi knife and slicing up the venue's occupants, while Kenji looks on paralysed by fear, disgust and as he later admits, an odd sense of passive complicity. This is quite a squirmfest, worthy of that other notorious splatterbook, American Psycho and of course the cinematic oevre of Takeshi Miike, with whom Ryu Murakami collaborated on Audition, another of his stories. (review coming shortly).

In part three the roles of tourist and guide are reversed as Frank leads Kenji back to his layer, a partly demolished clinic that the cops won't go near for fear of toxic waste. There he transforms into the talking bad guy, relating his bloodsucked childhood and how he later set about his "mission". Frank now lives to murder. He kills to avoid senility, to dull with the sensation that the world is both at his feet and yet utterly disconnected from him. He's at his most focussed and clearheaded when he's erasing lives. And the lives he erases at the Omiai pub had already started to fade on the page, Kenji later reflects, ultimately finding it hard to regret the loss of these "imitation human beings", who behave like "automatons programmed to portray certain human stereotypes".

Frank asks Kenji which is the greater bane on society - the psycho or the bum? He visualises his own role in society as that of a virus - "malignant but necessary", not just an agent of morbidity and disease, but also a stimulant of evolution through diverse mutation. The bum on the other hand is a devolutionary type: "If you reject society you must live outside it, not off it." In the affluent world people that have given up trying actually have the easiest of lives, Frank asserts, but they also suffer from sluggish brain circulation which broadcasts "please kill me" messages that people like him can pick up and act upon.

Frank recounts how the psychologists his parents sent him to see were convinced that his collection of Horror videos was the root cause of his aberrations. Yet as far as he is concerned there would be more people like him wandering the streets if people leading boring lives were unable to relieve "the anxieties of the imagination."

This section of the novel contains more explicit sociological observation than that provided by Brett Easton Ellis in American Pyscho. It is here that you begin to appreciate that In the Miso Soup is an exercise in self-examination and criticism that itself segues into outright self-loathing.

Many of Frank's analyses have the ring of genuine insight and Kenji eventually characterises him as something akin to a member of the resistance, but of course, as Kenji also correctly points out, who is Frank to set himself up as judge and jury? Yet this man who makes "murder with all the drama of picking up a fallen hat" is in many ways a fictional stand-in for the author himself, able to cut through the dead flesh of urban Japan leaving only a gory metaphorical mess in our imaginations to be cleaned up afterwards.

Murakami seems to be suggesting that just as paedophile nirvana can be found on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka the natural destination for the slash-tourist is his own native land. Why is this?

Frank has a non-lethal interaction with a Peruvian hooker who tells him that she has come to believe that Jesus loses his power in Japan - as if its dislocated culture acts as some sort of massive jamming device against the Divine signal. The communications problems extend to the relationships between the individual nodes of the social network beneath this shield: "When people are fucked up their communication is fucked up". Kenji familiarises Frank with some Buddhist terminology that can help frame the problem- Bonno, or "bad instincts" which foster Madoa, "losing your way". In Buddhist thinking enlightenment is part of our original nature, something that we have forgotten. So perhaps Murakami is hinting that the modern pace of forgetfulness is leading us towards oblivion.

Frank's interactions with Kabuchi-Cho undermine the basic duality of killer and victim, just as the duality of amateur and professional is already pretty shaky in these parts. In the West the cultural barriers that we have established between amateur online dating and the professional escort trade are apparently more robust. But Kenji appears to be warning us that the basis of prostitution in Japan is not, as elsewhere, destitution. It is instead isolation and loneliness that robs people of their outline and sets them up to be finally rubbed out by the likes of Frank. Perhaps we too are starting to live lives perilously close to the shadows and are in danger of reaping the consequences of not living our lives in earnest.

We may yet have nothing quite as fuzzy as "compensated dating" but across the world technology has become a powerful enabler of both deceit and all too easy relief from the atomised existence. As Kenji says of his peers: "More and more young dudes can't be bothered to look for a girlfriend or fuck buddy. Overseas these guys would probably turn gay, but Japan has the sex industry."


D was due a visit from the SKY engineer on Sunday morning, a charming man that arrived in the Thames Valley from West Africa via Southampton. The lack of signposting in our bit of the countryside delayed his arrival and D was soon hyperventiliating at the thought of turning up five minutes late for lunch. He passed the phone to M in the hope that she could provide more decisive directions:

- Where are you?
- I don't know
- You could be in Australia then
- There are some trees on my left
- This being the country those aren't very good landmarks
- There's a bend in the road?
- No
- I just passed a farm
- No again...

They kindly held the table for us at The Highwayman, for the time being at least still the second best eatery in the Berkshire village of Checkenden. I started with scallops in a cauliflower cheese sauce with chopped bacon followed by some yummy crabcakes. We shared a bottle of Los Caminos 2003, a delicious blend of merlot, malbec and the Chilean carmère grape.

M kept up the low PH values of her chatter. Referring to a couple we know, the male half of which is a less than avid devotee of the social whirl she observed that "she drags him around like a dead dog on the end of a lead."

Last time round I noted how this joint welcomes a dowdier clientele than its stylish local rival The Crooked Billet; and then tends to bully them with its strident antipodean waitresses - half a world away from the eye-popping lovelies in lycra leggings usually found gracing the tables over the other side of the village. This time though, an intent to mix it up a bit was signalled by the presence of Simone, our black-clad, densely-accented, South African server, a lithe embodiment of sophisticated gastropub comeliness.

Indeed, with the bill came notification that The Highwayman, which opened around the time when Charles I first sat precariously on his throne, will close for about 12 weeks for extensive refurbishment from February 15. We all suspect that the end result will be something rather samey, reportedly with floors and walls lined with reclaimed wood. Gone will be the plush red carpet, the not quite straight landscape paintings adorning the old brick walls, the brass bugles and the ceramic beer mugs. Here's hoping that they refurbish the bossy aussies too while they're at it.


I don't know how I could ever have been underwhelmed by The House of Flying Daggers. Perhaps it was the ending that drained away all the awe. I watched the Peony Palace scene again on DVD this morning. You don't have to know anything about the characters or the plot to enjoy this whole sequence as an astounding standalone set piece - in fact it actually doesn't make much sense at all in the context of the rest of the story!

Last night this film was pipped to the best non-English language film BAFTA by The Motorcycle Diaries, just about on merit. Walter Salles came up with his whole gang and ended his acceptance speech with "oh and thank you very much for inventing football."

He was the only speaker that night that managed to get a laugh out of the audience, largely because Stephen Fry's relentless squirm-inducing unfunniness had turned this stage into a comedy death row.

Salles' triumph prevented us from seeing much of Zhang Ziyi apart from her smile and the odd little perm she was sporting. There really was quite a lot of eye candy on display. For the ladies there was the compact and toothy Gael Garcia Bernal sitting beside his old charolastra buddy Diego Luna, who surprisingly hadn't received a nomination for Dirty Dancing 2, Havana Nights. Ho ho.

Juliette Lewis' secure self-caricature as a spaced out hillbilly seems almost as well-practiced as Stephen Fry's unctious British twat. The gooey praise he dollopped on every set of award presenters kept everyone on the verge of vomitation, but the real finger down the throat was assertion by one actress that all the nominated performances by male actors were "great and transforming".

"Vera who?" could be read clearly in the magnified eyes of Martin Scorcese and most of the other visiting self-lovers from the States.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Friday night in Nicolas winebar in the Wharf knocking back Fischers with the boys from the Sunday paper. They've had a good week as it involved a big bash to celebrate their recent rise in circulation - thrown in part, they confided, to give the birdy to their colleagues at the daily, whose numbers are travelling in the opposite direction.

The plates being tucked into all around me all looked very tasty, but I had already eaten.

Fish had a copy of Decanter with him. He's planning a wine raid on Germany quite soon. In preparation for the spoils he recently took the tub out of his bathroom with a view to replacing it with both a shower and a wine cupboard, but when the shower was delivered and installed it didn't fit and has had to be taken out again. His bathroom is a bit Ian Schrager sized.

Towards the back of the magazine there were some ads for neat but expensive looking "Wine Storage Solutions". In my field of expertise the term solution is often deployed as a handy euphemism for remedy for difficulty you didn't know you had (and possibly don't actually have). "We're not the sort of people for whom wine storage is the biggest problem we face in life" chipped in T with more than a hint of acidity.

"Why, when you have found a bottle of wine that you absolutely love would you ever drink anything else?" asked J. Now you do need a beautiful woman like Maya in Sideways to answer questions like that. All that stuff about how it evolves in the bottle and how the experience of drinking it will be different at any moment on any given day. "Yeah drinking the third bottle can be like snorting the third line." someone helpfully suggested.

From my own experience I think it can be like listening to a song on the radio that has tickled your fancy. You hear it again and again until you no longer feel that ticklish when it plays. Anyway it's as good example as any of how we can never really be fully and lastingly satisfied, not even by a product with undeniably more depth and complexity than a Rachel Stevens track.

And so to a weekend in the country, away from all this. And my second visit to Paddington in a week. Raj said that arriving there makes you feel like you're in a Harry Potter novel. So much for the outmoded furry dude.

Friday, February 11, 2005


Not the Kurosawa movie from 1957, but the great little Japanese cafe in Kingly Street of the same name where Gibnut and I had planned to have a catch-up meal last night, and also apparently the capital's Best Bohemian Joint - though it's hard to imagine what a Bohemian Japanese would actually be like. Anyone met one? They can't just look Bohemian!

The plan was changed however when Surfer called up shortly before seven to say that it wouldn't be a bad idea after all if we joined him and H at the Oxo Tower Brasserie. Shiny and stylish, but no place for poets I would have thought.

There would still be some uncertainties to disentangle. Who was H, this visiting American that needed to be shown the town? Surfer had called from the tea-room at Fortnum's, so he was going about this commission quite assiduously. Yet why risk introducing us into the equation?

The smart diner overlooking the Thames was fully booked so in the end we agreed on another restaurant that I hadn't tried before, Portrait atop the National Portrait Gallery. On walking in I immediately recognised the rooftop vista through Trafalgar Square towards Westminster from Closer, and it's even more startling at night.

I'm always a bit suspicious of menus dotted with superfluous adjectives, but the only obvious offender here was "Belgian". (Belgian Endives - and they were off.) Yet the fusion on this menu seems to extend to the way the food is described- everything is a bit jumbled and connected to the point that I found it hard to settle anywhere. I think I made the right choices in the end though; my main course was an unusual but delicious mix of salmon and chorizo in a red piquillo broth.

H gradually took charge, flashed her platinum Amex and declared the evening a corporate jolly, which was an unexpected boon. (Guatemalan men would normaly put a pistol to their temples before allowing a woman to pay for them, or at the very least required H to write an affidavit assuring them that her boss was the ultimate sponsor! None of us are that macho!) She ordered a fairly alcoholic but velvety Cabernet-Shiraz and recounted how she met Surfer at St Andrews. Like my own girlfriend at the time she originally came over for a one year stint from an all-girl college in New England. Maths was her major (which seemed like news to Surfer), and she now works for NYC's biggest independent financier, a job that entails 4am starts in order to maintain her alignment with the European markets and regular flights to the old world to meet up with the CEOs of leading financial institutions.

The conversation somehow turned to online dating with Gibnut talking us through the heterogenous range of asignations he'd obtained through Dating Direct. "I'm shallow, I go by the pictures", he openly confided. This hadn't however stopped him trying out a tattooed and muscular señorita from the US Navy. "I always give them a second date", H chipped in. Surfer's dating disasters are well documented, but up until last night he's kept pretty quiet about the time he narrowly avoided the conventional consequences of upsetting an entire brood of Sicilians by "disrespecting" one of their number.

Surfer also sang the praises of Taghazout, the Atlantic village in Morocco where he recently rode "perfect wave after perfect wave".

I should have come here with J-Boy last week - he would love this spot.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Void

Went along last night for a private view of Russian Contemporary at the Collyer Bristow Gallery. Simon Kojin's The Church of Christ the Saviour, Moscow which featured on the front of the invitation - an impressionistic oil on board rendition of shimmering gilded onion domes turned out be rather small and set within a truly hideous wooden frame. I remember the same sense of disappointment on arriving at the Thomas Jones in Italy exhibition in 2003. "er...that's it?"

There wasn't much to get particularly acquisitive about. There was an interesting almost full body portrait of an oddly-disengaged young woman in a plain red dress - Katya Gridnev's Natalia, captured with the kind of inward eyes that wouldn't follow you around a room. (This painting by the same artist that I found online is of a different girl, but the dress and the introspection are similar.)

There were three other Russian girls that caught the eye, still possibly teenagers and brazenly kitted out in shiny black cocktail dresses and fishnet stockings with a low nylon to skin ratio. They circulated buoyantly amongst the pinstripes making a lot of eye contact. Stringy little capillaries glistened on the crimson cheeks of the leery old soaks whose eyes were certainly following this little trio around the room.

Evie pointed out a little old lady wearing a claret mac and headscarf - "She's at every private view in London, she just goes around from one gallery to the next", an amusing example of the sort of observation that rebounds straight back onto the person with the outstretched finger.

Afterwards we went for a drink at the Cittie of Yorke a nice old pub let down by its colourless, mainly male clientele. We sat in one of the wooden booths that Evie called a "confessional" and so it was in a way. Life's a bit like an 800m race I slurred - the moment you hear the bell is most often the moment the midlife crisis springs. How you position yourself in the straight leading up to the bell will determine how well you handle that crucial moment of transition. Middle Youth, it's certianly an important phase. You can't run the second lap the same way you ran the first - attempts to do so tend to result in abject failure and the loser's journey to the line is far from pleasurable. My parents and their affluent friends have provided me with numerous examples of ill-considered strategies for the last lap.

One of the more disconcerting things about middle to late youth is the void. You meet up with an old friend, look them in the eyes, listen to their prattle about how they plan to get themselves all sorted, and you realise that they already have a little void bulking up inside them like an intestinal parasite. In some cases you will have a chance to observe them feeding their void, filling it up with stuff that just makes it grow ever bigger until the person you used to know has become a big slack-skinned sack of emptiness. These days I'm less inclined to stick around and watch this process unfold. It might be just a little void right now (as opposed to a gaping one) , but you know there's no real hope for them or for the relationship. Best to clear out now and leave them to carry on scrounging around the city streets for void-food. ( "We are hungry. Meaning is the prey" chugs the Hughtrain. "This is the real shit. The shit that matters." Still shit though.)

Coincidentally V also went to an exhibition opening last night too at the 'Panzón Verde' in Antigua. Their artist of the month is Erwin Guillermo - "actually one of the best representatives of Guatemalan art" according to artintheamericas.com.

Actually, the art on that page is representative of the very worst of the stuff he churns out - strictly for the Isabelle Allende readers. His darker more "retrograde thoughts" are shown off to better effect in these works.

When I got home I watched a few scenes from Lost in Translation, a film I am trying to come to like by approaching it as less than the sum of its parts. One of the most striking aspects of the movie is the way it sounds. When it comes to the home cinema experience sound seems to matter more than screensize.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Wrong about Japan

When I bought this book I thought the title referred to the fact that Peter Carey had used this little jaunt to the Japan that existed in the imagination of his twelve-year-old son in order to revise his earlier preconceptions about this singular nation. The Japan in his son's imagination is clearly much the same as the one I have in mine, so I was looking forward to Carey's adroit observations.

I soon realised though that the title in fact refers to the repetitive experiences of wrongness about Japan that the Australian novelist had during this visit. He really would have had an easier time of it if only he wasn't so pig-headedly determined to be right about Japan in the first place. It reveals itself to him literally as a floating world - every time he moves in with this penetrating analyses it simply floats away out of reach. "Better to know nothing than just a little" they taunt him as he struggles to de-codify everything and everybody around him.

V gets the arse too when she detects this sort of presumptuous scrutiny - when people seem to want to probe beyond her individuality for her share of encoded collective trauma, death squads, dictators et al.

Each time his agent sets up an interview with an eminent mangaka Carey probes for repressed memories of fireballs and calcified children, and is parried masterfully almost every time. (Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of Gundam cannily insists he only drew robots to feed the market for spin-off toys.)

It's true though that a number of separate American WWII air-raids, both conventional and nuclear, each left death tolls in excess of 120,000. So, compared with the fire-bombing of Tokyo, 9-11 was arguably a pissy little event, but punched above its weight symbolically. A friend that's a massive fan of Japanese popular culture but let slip the other night that he thinks the Americans should have finished the job completely and bombed Japan off the cultural map. They are by no means the strangest fish in the Earth's Aquarium, but they do seem to have a certain kind of weirdness that gets everybody else's back up. And one aspect of this is a steadfast unwillingness to admit to a gaijin that their subconscious fears and fantasies can be read like a comic.

The author and his entourage also meet Mr Yoshiwara the master sword maker, much like the character in Kill Bill Vol. 1. This encounter sets me up rather nicely for Gohatto, a film that Miseryguts has keenly recommended, as Carey uses it to get out a little history of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was an era when the Samurai made up for the unavailability of women by developing a taste for young boys, and made up for the unavailability of actual warfare by slashing away at the bodies of the dead and the condemned with their fancy swords.

Carey then tries to pin down the meaning of the term Otaku - not quite interchangeable with our own nerd. He concludes that otaku belong to a generation of Japanese young people disciplined into being reflex data hoarders - "socially-inept information junkies" who spin themselves a web of non-intimate connections with a multiplicity of self-selected peers.

Before setting off from Manhatten Carey promised his son that they would steer clear of "the real Japan" - meaning amongst other things Kabuki, temples and tatami. Carey doesn't quite keep this promise as he seems determined to disclose the continiuity between the old world and the brash new one of Electric City. Yet there's another kind of Japan that's also quite hard to avoid, and Carey's account of being on holiday with his young son is given a bit of sharp edge by the contrastingly fuzzy line that separates the safely adolescent and the (often disturbingly) adult in Japan.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


"A mi madre, a todas las madres" (For my mother, for all mothers.) Very similar words brought up the credits for another Spanish film of recent years, but in Solas there isn't a single redemptive transsexual in sight! Almodovar will probably never make a film this powerful. His best work lies way back in his Banderas and pre-Banderas days, before he set about inflating himself as a born-again cine-auteur. The compassion oozing out of Benito Zambrano's Solas is heart-rending. In comparison, that with which Pedro cloaks his pederastic priest in Bad Education is rather superficial and easy. (Those ridiculous Almodovar brothers had a hissy fit and resigned from the Academia de Cine last December when that film missed out on nominations for the Goyas. Solas was awarded five back in '99)

The action in Solas is based around a defining few days in the relationship between Madre and daughter María. Yes there's a quaint little old lady, but she's a shuffling symbol of restrained sadness, nothing to get especially cheerful about.

The unenlightened despot of the family, Padre, lies morosely in a hospital bed in Seville. Madre has come to town to stay with her daughter while her repugnant husband recuperates. María is intelligent but combustible like her authoritarian parent and her attempt to escape from both him and the countryside has left her in the deepest of blue-collar ruts. Her course of self-destruction includes cigarettes, alcohol and getting knocked up by her heartless trucker boyfriend. Madre brings just a hint of love and light into her daughter's battered existence, but she too is a wounded soul.

If in Tempus Fugit we had the smiling face of underachievement, and in Sideways mediocrity as distressed by incipient failure; here in Solas it's full-on loserdom without any of the laughs.

Last week I cackled when Peter Bradshaw showed off his emotional scars from his multiple viewings of Sideways: "Audiences at the screenings where I have been present may have heard something like a fusillade of gunshots from the auditorium; it was the sound of my heart breaking into a thousand pieces."

Get a grip man! By all means feel a bit sorry for Miles Raymond, but he's still a SCUMBAG. Save the throat lumps for people like María, Madre and Vecino...even brutish old Padre. Their problem is more like a curse that runs down the generations. (Ok, maybe there is just a hint of social realism in Sideways - we are offered a chance to guess at the impact of maternal influence on Miles' character and the family life of single-mother Stephanie briefly makes its proletarian ugliness felt.)

Here in Britain we generally import people to lead these kind of shitty lives, but Spanish towns can still suck 'em in off the sierras. The performace of Ana Fernández is astounding. Can you really act such physical desolation? - it seems to be written all over her face.

Solas is a "film which seems pessimistic on the surface but which in fact is not", Benito Zambrano advises in his notes on the DVD. This 'surface' is the first two-thirds of the narrative. which is grim stuff, unsentimental almost to a fault. Even the cinematography seems to suffer from low self-esteem.

Redemption does eventually put in an appearance - well, it lived next door all along in the shape of Vecino, a lonely old man with the face of Socrates who, although too late to save Madre, sorts María out simply by pointing out that at least she hasn't run out of time like he has. (You might also say that Álvarez Novoa’s rendition of this tender-hearted figure saves the film before it too runs out of time.) Offering himself up as an adoptive grandfather for María's forthcoming child, he eventually persuades her to wriggle free of the life of lacerating lonesomeness they have both led in the beautiful city on the Guadalquivir.


Miseryguts and I have both been a bit reluctant to see Sideways, partly because we suspected that it might contain a few home truths about the lateral drift of our own biographies and those of our closest mates.

Alexander Payne makes movies about the discomfited existences of morally-flawed mediocrities. I enjoyed About Schmidt more than I planned to and Election was one of my favourite movies of the 90s.

Like Payne's other subjects droopy-lidded Miles scuttles crablike along the line of loathsomeness for most of the story - forgiveable if not exactly likeable. Miles is in many ways a continuation of Jim McAllister, but on this occasion Payne disdains to go completely "over to the dark side" and appears to be offering his anti-hero a path to redemption.

Miles and Jack are two not getting any younger sort of guys that are beginning to feel themselves turning to vinegar in their bottles. Each has found a vessel in which to sail the seas of disappointment. For Jack it is his sexual prowess - people of all ages still check him out he pleads, "even dudes". For Miles is is the fruit of the grape. So their grape tour in Northern California is supposed to be a week of intense re-vitalisation based around their respective hobby interests, sexual instinct and oenophilia.

I'd love to meet Alexander Payne one day and discuss the topic of embitterment with him. If one day I take the opportunity to escape mediocrity I suspect that I'll soon wish that I hadn't.

Pleasures of the sort Miles gets from his bottle of Cheval Blanc are really the best that life has to offer outside of true companionship. If you can kick back and avoid the red herrings and the tailspins this might actually be the best place to hang out - ordinariness has its ladders as well as its snakes surely? Tempus Fugit for instance depicted a sunnier, Payne-less (sorry!) vision of underachievement. (Looking around him at London's shabby intelligentsia in the Purcell Room's 'airport lounge' last Friday, Miseryguts asked me if I thought people became socialists because they missed out on all the trophy mates?!)

Sideways is an acerbically funny film and very well written. "Did you drink and dial?", "quaffable but far from transcendent" and "tight as a nun's arsehole but good concentration" are amongst the lines that will stick with me.

Miles is certainly right about one thing - if you like wine systematically there is usually one bottle in your past that made the crucial difference. Mine was a Beaune, '77 I think, also a Pinot. My father once served an '82 Cheval Blanc at Christmas and I kept the bottle as a souvenir, but the memory of the moment my palate was stunned by that wonderful Burgundy is still the most vivid.

Smiley-eyed Virginia Madsen is lovely as Maya in this film. In spite of any affection you might have built up for Miles, it's hard to imagine at the end that she's exactly made herself a great catch. Her interest in wine is somehow deeper and more intelligent that his, which isn't much more than a front for dipsomaniacal decline. And Miles hasn't really done anything good to make up for things like stealing from his mother! But if you are the compassionate sort you might conclude that he's rather like his favourite grape - thin-skinned, out of place in most environments and in need of careful nurturing- yes, "quaffable but far from transcendent". (Well, the nun's arsehole one didn't fit.)

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Crime of Father Amaro

It's easy to dismiss this film as middlebrow Mexican melodrama. Indeed it features a bunch of ageing stars from the telenovelas, and the whole idea of catholic priests giving into temptation seems to belong to that genre. All a bit old mitre, you might say.

Truth is though that although El Crimen de Padre Amaro definitely becomes a melodrama the first hour or so are best understood as a satire and a very biting one at that. Yet I'm afraid if you can only follow the subtitles much of the irony will tend to slip by unnoticed.

I think what happened here is that the headline news-item about the misadventures of country priest was probably lifted from the Portuguese source novel written back in 1875. The scriptwriters then set about grafting onto this a more hollistic critique of the role of the priesthood in near-contemporary Mexico. This would account for the strong currents of censorious nineteenth century ethics throughout which seem juxtaposed with the moral complexity and ambivalence elsewhere. (Though perhaps we shouldn't expect anything coming out of Mexico to be antiseptically Modern in its outlook.)

It's very easy for us cosy first worlders to forget that the Catholic faith is still very much a public project in Mexico! Indeed, in a country where social justice is remarkably hard to come by, many people look to the men in cassocks for some sort of resolution of the question of ultimate Justice.

One of the priests in the film, Father Natalio, is depicted as a classic Liberation Theologist - more or less a Marxist in a dog collar- a seeker of justice within a historical dialectic if not in the here and now. Meanwhile the character of the bruja who rushes home to feed the host to her black cat with a sinister "ameeeeen" highlights another way that the message of the Church is typically muddled in those parts - by grafting itself onto the traditional beliefs of the indigenous peoples of America, Catholic dogma, such as the meritocratic afterlife with its notion of Resurrection, has become irremediably tangled up with the spirit world. The latter is a murky, animistic place full of rather headstrong ancestors, not quite heaven or hell, and certainly no place to seek Justice.

I drew a clear parallel between the Catholic Church and the CIA in my Local Assets posting last week, and the point is worth re-emphasising here. It's clear to me that one of the key questions being raised by this film is whether the bad apples bear the same relatationship to their organisation as say spam does to legitimate email, or whether the apple tree itself is fundamentally rotten.

On the one hand we the viewers are being asked to consider whether decency can possibly expect to survive in such a bent work environment, and yet we are clearly also presented with the case for realpolitik. For example Father Benito has taken laundered funds from local narco Chato Aguilar in order to build a big hospital. "We are taking bad money and making it good", he contends - i.e. who cares where the money comes from because the outcome is pretty neat, isn't it? Do I have to mention Colonel North?

The problem with this ends-based line of argument is exposed by the sub-plot surrounding the young journalist who is chosen to expose the dodgy priest's relationship with the drug lords. Unknown to him, the incriminating images from a baptism have been passed to his newspaper after the photographer himself was brutally done in by a thug with a old grievance against Chato Aguilar. Conclusion - nobody is left unpoisoned by the venom that runs through the veins of this country.

Idealism has enough to cope with without all the complications this local situation implies and when you throw in sexual repression too, you are bound to end up with an unhealthy outlook. I say this as a man married to someone who very nearly became yet another victim of a seminary abuser. No doubt that particular young man embarked on his vocation hoping to make the world a better place. Yet Michael Jackson is almost synonymous with that same aspiration and look where he has ended up!

I wish I could wholeheartedly agree with pragmatists like Richard Rorty who see religion as essentially just another way to lead a good life (while remaining atheists themselves it has to be said!). The right to have faith should be as inviolable as the right to fall in love, Rorty attests, adding that "Religious tools are needed to make possible certain kinds of human life but not others". It's a charitable outlook, but ignores an awful lot of history.

If you strip down Christianity to its most worthwhile kernel you are left with Christ's message of Love. (This ought to be the "bottom line" of Christianity, not the "burning of the flesh" suggested recently by one of my readers!) Charity appears to lie at the core of Father Amaro's being too - in the opening scenes he us shown engaging in an act of selfless kindness - alerting us to a basic virtue that we later see undermined by the sin of ambition primarily, but of course also by lust! (He indulges in such elaborate preparations for his tryst with Amelia you have to ask why these didn't include the acquisition of a condom - another legacy of Eça de Queirós' novel I suppose.)

I guess it's true that the makers of this film don't seem to have ready solutions to the issues they are exposing, but why should they? One problem they faced is that it's hard to "out" the sublimated sensuality in the Church from within a culture that is so impregnated with the Catholic mentality. One of the side effects of this is a current of misogyny not unlike the one that runs through the religion itself. For example, I'm not convinced that Amelia is portrayed as an unblemished innocent. On the contrary, her getting off to thoughts of Jesus is mocked as the kind of knucklheaded popular (female) piety that underlies the whole sorry mess. The chess-playing secularists on the other hand are all educated men.

And it was no doubt the idea of Gael Garcia Bernal shagging with a 16 year-old schoolgirl dressed as the Virgin Mary that made this Mexico's biggest ever box office hit, rather than general excitement about its socio-political ramifications. Still, this is a worthwhile work of art that takes the story of one man's debasement and puts it in the context of a debased society. Unlike most Europeans many Mexicans will have enough of a sense of their own debasement to be disconcerted by the miasmas of intractability that it conjures up.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Tempus Fugit

A delightful and deceptively clever time-travel caper from Catalan film-maker Enric Folch who, before the projector whirred into life, stood up and explained how he set about telling a story about ordinary people saving the world - one that would in fact celebrate the absence of big name stars like Bruce Willis.

Tempus Fugit is the brand name of a drug indicated for time travel. The leaflet inside warns "keep out of the reach of children". A box of this potentially dangerous product has been brought back to contemporary Barcelona by a tall blond man in a bowler hat called Andros. He reveals that he has come back to persuade shy watchmaker Ramon to prevent the imminent end of the world but later admits that he himself was the clumsy intern at the Time Control Centre who accidentally created the problem in the first place. He unleashes even more trouble by dropping his box of Tempus Fugit on the pavement outside Ramon's house.

The tablets are marked -1/2 - 4 +8 etc. In the first third of the story the complexity seems to be growing expontentially as several of the characters (and even a dog) start popping the pills, but Folch isn't about to allow his narrative to disappear up its own paradoxes like so many others of this genre. He reins in the various strands and then sets up the climax - in fact two climaxes. One of these is quite dark, but you hardly notice such is the lighthearted tone of the movie.

Indeed Tempus Fugit wears its SciFi garb very lightly. It's really a warm-hearted paean to the rhythms of ordinary lives lived around a second-tier town square somewhere within the grid of Barcelona. Man from the future Andros makes the imperfect and unassuming present moment sound like the best place to be even though he claims to come from a world where disease and poverty has been eradicated and the "last of the smokers was executed some time ago"!

Made by Catalans in Catalan for local TV, this film is an exercise in gentle self-mockery. A story about dull, ordinary people might just have resulted in a dull ordinary film, but Folch introduces an element of frantic comic excitement in the form of fanatical Barca fan Terrades who lives across the corridor from Ramon. The scene where he is sitting sharing a meal with his double from the future is masterfully scripted. If only all Sci-Fi were this playful.

Terrades doesn't quite steal the show though - Folch turns Ramon's sheer ordinariness into the best gag of the film. Andros has said he can't tell Ramon what it is he must do to save the world until five minutes before he is due to do it because of the danger of introducing "other variables". In the end it turns out that all Ramon has to do is not buy a packet of eucalyptus lozenges at the news stand, something that he otherwise does every day of his uneventful life. In the hilarious scene that follows Ramon despairs that Andros has picked him precisely because he would be the last person to ever change the course of world events, but eventually summons his determination and strides towards the news stand wearing Neo-style black sunglasses. The parody is completed when the camera spins 360 degrees around him when he stretches out his hand for the newspaper.

Raj commented afterwards that Folch had cleverly used the town square as a stage for the locating the characters and the drama. Wherever you look in this low-budget gem there's something to admire. There's a fifth main character, a pretty girl at the news stand called Monica. She is familiar and benevolent with all the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the square - that straightforward openness of the Iberian woman. In one scene we see her away from her place of work she has apparently picked up Andros and led him towards her apartment. He gallantly explains that he might not be around for much longer and she retorts coquetishly "Yo solo busco un buen polvo" ('I'm only after a good shag'). Andros is of course taken aback at her forwardness. That Folch has taken the time to fashion a minor character into a living emblem for an urban culture that is open, kind and vivacious yet at the same time unashamedly hedonistic, is a mark of the care and craft that went into making this great little film.

Well-deserved applause for the director at the end.