Friday, September 23, 2005

Hot Pursuit

This was to be the post making all those inevitable remarks about how we intend to pursue the fleeing season south across the continent, but in fact the European summer is conducting a reasonably ordered retreat this year, with a particularly impressive rearguard action here in southern England.

Anyway, it's holiday hiatus time again.

We have have allowed ourselves just a few hours short of one week to get down to the Villa Grazioli in Gottaferrata. It will be strange after all those days of serene solo travel to suddenly find ourselves in the midst of the babelesque Baksheesh bash. Guests will be flying in from all over the global underbelly, the dress code permissive of "anything except man-made fibres".

The journey down already has a vague outline. Breakfast tomorrow in Reims, followed by a relaxed drive on the N roads to Burgundy. Watfish has been giving me the low-down on how to make best use of time in and around Gevrey-Chambertin - a really nice cave just off the main square run by one Monsieur Gerarrd Quivry - and Fleurie, which has a Michelin-starred restaurant where "the Maitresse wears purple Ozzie Osbourne specs and floats around like an old sailing ship".

We should reach Orange (Chateauneuf country) by Sunday night. I want to show V the Pont du Gard, and then drive east along the coast, stopping in Aix and then in Monaco to visit my late uncle.

That should leave us with two more overnight stops, in Liguria and western Tuscany, before arriving in Frascati. Baksheesh has boasted that his wedding posse will be taking over the hotel for the whole night, convincing me of the folly of reserving one of the €400 bedrooms for the hours of debauch.

It would be optimistic to expect to add much to the mileage the morning after, but I have hopes of getting down to the Bay of Naples and Pompeii before the need to plan the journey home arises.

Durker Durker Mohammed Jihad

I've reported on this blog before how London's police conscientiously followed up an unlikely Guatemala angle on the Canary Wharf bomb.

Yesterday, the front cover of the Guardian sported a pic of Frode's friend David Mery, heading up an 'arrowing account of 'arrassment on the London Underground. Just a week after picking up a copy of the Metro became a capital offence, David found himself surrounded by uniformed officers on the platform of Southwark station, who have determined that his apparent interest in both his surroundings and fellow passengers suspiciously out-of-place down in the zombie-burrow.

"They must immediately notice my French accent, still strong after living more than 12 years in London." This, to say the least, is an understatement; I doubt whether David is consistently intelligible even to his own countrymen. (How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that interrogation!)

Anyway, just when it looks like he's only being detained so that someone senior can come along and say sorry, he's handcuffed and bundled off to Walworth Police Station for some DNA profiling. Citing the Terrorism Act, David's flat in Clerkenwell is then searched.

The boys in blue don't get enough opportunities to search pads like this - in the movies at least. Not only does David possess what is surely the world's largest man-made panda collection, his line of work requires him to retain prototypes of just about every mobile phone handset ever made. What with all the other geek-chic artefacts proudly on display, the investigating officers must have thought they had stumbled upon something strange but significant, that at the very least would require the immediate attendance of a sexy female agent from the NSA.

Poor David. Such is his gallic sense of style that there are times when OBL himself in full Afghan tribal gear would stand out less in a crowd of London commuters. He does tend to look a bit like some sort of bounty hunter hailing from a dystopic wild west of the future in a Japanese manga comic. And even without the wide-brimmed hat (which he had apparently left behind that fateful morning) you'd have to say he does look remarkably like a Middle-Eastern terrorist from central casting.

Last February I was pulled over at LAX just before boarding a plane to Guatemala and told that the DHS had found evidence of nitro-glycerine in my suitcase. After a brief interview and being made to sign some paperwork, I was informed that it often shows up in shampoo and face-creams. Like David Mery, my biggest concern is how much this isolated 'false positive' may lead to more serious inconvenience in the future.

Airport security in the USA is the archetype of the modern police state. It bulks up as an organised response to a threat that has already manifested itself and moved off elsewhere. Yet my mobile has just bleeped with a text from CNN informing me that a suspect person and package have been detained at Manchester under the Terrorism Act. We shall see if this incident can offer some vindication for the omni-suspicious security screen.

On a separate airport-related matter, I was amused by New York journalist Alexandra Jacobs' comments to CNN after surviving the televised emergency landing of the JetBlue Airbus. "We couldn't believe the irony, that we were watching our own demise on TV - it
was all too post-post-modern."
Post-post-modern?! Something similar happened to me many years ago at Nice airport in a Tristar, but luckily it was half of the rear undercarriage that had misdeployed and there was no live TV back then. Still, the scary part for the passengers yesterday must have been when the crew switched off the news just ten minutes before the landing.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mondeo Man

Having established that we have a strong preference for 'average' looking faces, psychologists have repeated their tests using fish, birds and cars as the subjects in order to ascertain whether there is a general cognitive mechanism asigning attractiveness to things of average appearance, or whether it only really works with the kind of things we might want to copulate with.

Cognitive Daily reports the results: "For birds and fish, there was still a relationship between averageness and attractiveness. But there was no link in the case of cars, suggesting that we may judge attractiveness in living organisms differently than we do for artifacts."

But a car is one of those artefacts that tends to play a significant role in mating rituals. Not all artefacts profer differentiation or status. Perhaps these tests could be usefully expanded!

Also, are teenagers as likely to prefer average-lookers as adults? There are surely stages in our pyscho-sexual development where differentiation counts a whole lot more.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bruce Almighty

Hilarious in parts but with a vaguely unpleasant aftertaste of big country, small town religiosity. It's odd that in a movie that is essentially a Jim Carrey vehicle, the ad-libbing star seems to be thrashing around in a choppy sea of comic ideas. A plot like this has almost too many possibilities. In this case you get the impression that the writing team brainstormed the concept to death and then tried to fit as many of the gags as they could into 101 minutes. Even then I could help but spend time fretting about the enormous range of unrealised possibilities.

Clearly one of the perks of omnipotence is having your coffee served up by Juan Valdez in person, complete with burro - surely one of the most waggish product plugs yet attempted in celluloid?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Secret Window

A film like The Sixth Sense with a big secret to keep. But V twigged almost from the start, thereby blowing it for me! I can't honestly claim that I would have guessed at the same time anyway, but Director David Koepp doesn't go to any great lengths to protect his secret either.

In movie terms François Ozon's Swimming Pool and Ira Levin's Deathtrap have been the most memorable precedents within the writer-protagonist thriller genre for me. (Stephen King also gave us Misery, but Paul Sheldon's role is passive.) Secret Window is not sure whether it wants to be fully postmodern like a Paul Auster novel, where the relationships between the author and his violent stories are determinedly piggledy-higgledy, or whether it is just a 'simple' tale of psychosis. As ever Johnny Depp makes his role (divorcee thriller-writer Mort Rainey) interesting to watch, and the mood of eccentricity is shared by some of the supporting characters, but maybe worries about the spirit of the last act prevented Koepp from making Mort's wife Aimey and her lover Ted more complete individuals.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Mutton Dressed As Lamb

I braved the lunchtime drizzle yesterday to see if I could spot any of Trafalgar Square's occupants being challenged by the newly-unveiled sculpture of Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn on the Fourth Plinth.

It strikes me as a piece of conceptual art disguised as something else - Quinn has appropriated both the grace of classic sculpture and the stylisation of fertility fetish figurines in order to reimagine what normally goes by the name of deformity. Other than that there's not much to it. I find it a little absurd that art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnson told the BBC that she found it hard to look at. I tend to find this sort of thing a little patronising. Artists seem able to get away with making cognitive shock the mainstay of their content much more than writers can.

One That Got Away?

John Esposito has been reading Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and, like me, experienced a worrying surge of waywardness in the final third.

"I wonder about even Murakami's ability to make a book like WUB into a "perfect pebble." This thing is huge and unwieldy (of course, some might argue that so is life, and that's Murakami's point), and I'm not entirely sure that he could have made it all fit together. We assume that the author always can do something and if he doesn't it's for a certain reason. Well, I don't know. Maybe toward the end this one got away from Murakami a little and he decided that that was just fine with him."

The same issue of whether more could have been allowed to "drift up to the surface of consciousness" arises with Kafka on the Shore. Yet I'd agree that us fond-readers of Murakami's fiction are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, precisely because we know that something of the suggestive nature of his writing would be lost if he were to set about being more explicit.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Old Grudges

"Abducting women is not...a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice, for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not want to be."

This was the very pragmatic line taken by Herodotus on the immediate causes of the Trojan war. Of course, if the Greeks hadn't had such a keen sense of reparative justice Homer would have had a lot less to work with.

Herodotus identifies the abduction of Helen and the Greek response to it as the original and defining clobbering of East by West, the ancestral "clash of civiliations". Yet with the start of the British Museum's new display Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia a number of media commentators have instead pointed to the defeat of Xerxes' Persian host (480 BC) as the foundation stone of Western presumption, with Waldemar Januszczak laying much of the blame on Herodotus himself.

"The problem with history is not merely that history is bunk. Bunk we can deal with. The problem with history is that so many believe the bunk, and are persuaded by it to act and think in dangerous ways. A perfect example is the impact on our world-view of the bunk about the Persians spouted by Herodotus, the “Father of History”, and therefore the original spreader of dangerous historical fictions."

It's as if some Westerners are starting to feel that it might have been better if the sophisticated Persians had prevailed at Salamis and Marathon, thereby sparing us from our age-old superiority complex! Amusingly though, Herodotus sees it in reverse - Trojan defeat initiated Asian chippiness: "From that root sprung their belief in the perpetual emnity of the Grecian world towards them."

The kind of dangerous bunk he worked into The Histories includes the notion that the Persians lacked so much as an ornamental pot to piss in: "So rough is their country that they eat as much as they have, never as much as they want. They drink no wine but only water. They have no good things at all, not even figs for dessert"

I will try to go along the museum before my forthcoming trip and will report back here on my findings.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Online above the Waterline

"I think it's a fair statement to say the advertising base has been wrecked," a senior New Orleans broadcast exec has told the New York Times. "We're in the process of strategizing how we'll deal with that now."

TV channels without viewers, radio stations without listeners, newspapers without readers and perhaps most importantly, businesses without consumers. Such is the unprecedented reality facing the media in New Orleans. And yet, interestingly, the website of local paper The Times-Piacyune has maintained the traffic of 26 million page views per day that it had before the hurricane forcibly relocated the city's population. Your target market are never quite out of range online.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Taking Lives

One of those serial killer thrillers that looks like it really did want to be different (Sexy cast, Philip Glass soundtrack, set in Canada etc.) but in the end just surrendered to the cliches. Perhaps the worst of the lot was the chase scene that becomes muddled with a passing street parade, but there are plenty of other candidates.

The French actors playing French-Canadian cops all seem to be struggling with congenital rudeness issues, and most card carrying Caneurcks will object to the attempt to pass off Québec City as Montréal.

There's one genuinely startling moment, but all the other 'twists' turn up having stirred up a rather obvious dust cloud as they approached.

Perhaps it might have been better if Ethan Hawke had been the agent seduced by a psychotic Angelina Jolie?

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

Director Robert Stone affects to remain in the background, but his choice of interviews and clips makes the underlying message of his documentary clear - Patty Hearst did more than just grow up and sell out to the bourgeoisie. Apparently without regrets and protected from the more severe consequences of her actions by Presidential pardons, she allowed herself to be quickly reassimilated into the privileged elite, abandoning adopted cause and comrades. (What she herself feels about all this we never discover.)

In spite of all the talk of Stockholm Syndrome, Hearst and her captors were impressionable proto-adults experiencing the desperate, doomed idealism common to the pre-mortgage and kids stage of the lifecycle. There was probably little actual brainwashing involved in her transformation into 'Tania' - certainly no more than when any over-protected young girl suddenly falls in with a charismatic new crowd.

These slightly deranged radicals at war with their parents were analogues of their more numerous and organised peers in contemporary Argentina, who became the victims of an extremely dirty war. Stone suggests that the ill-fated Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was treated in a similarly heavy-handed manner.

It's intriguing to see how an isolated group of Latin-style urban guerillas briefly took on the cynical side of America back in the early 70s. They somehow managed to blackmail the Hearst family into feeding the poor of California, yet they also took a number of ordinary lives carelessly. It all seems rather unthinkable now, but memories of Che were still fresh then.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Dark Night

Hot air hangs like a dead man
From a white oak tree
People sitting on porches
Thinking how things used to be
Dark night
It's a dark night
(The Blasters)

According to Senator Rick Santorum there was too much sitting on porches going on when Hurricane Katrina showed up. He has expressed the view that in future there should be tougher penalties on people that ignore the warnings and decide to ride out the storm.

Amongst those that paid the greatest penalty was the mother of a New York man who told a local radio station how he kept up regular contact with her between last Tuesday and Friday as the waters rose at the St Bernard nursing home. "Somebody's coming to get you" he reassured her every day, until she drowned.

Pre-empting the conspiracy theorists by several days V immediately observed that the levees had probably been holed by opportunistic officials keen to clear out all the negritos. Guatemalans have a knack for sensing the hidden motions of the underhand, but these stories are always easier to believe when its clear that the officials had the intent regardless of whether or not circumstances conspired to lend them a hand. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed", House Speaker Dennis Hastert has tellingly remarked to reporters.

For us the most heart-rending image in the immediate aftermath of the storm was that of someone's pet dog stuck up in a tree surrounded by flood waters staring up at the helicopters with a look of inconsolable terror. There's a video piece on the Dallas News which shows how some of these abandoned animals are being shot by armed police. Some 50,000 dogs have been rescued though, and owners have been given a month to claim them.

Dan Barry's memorable article in the New York Times last week told us that "what is remarkable is that on a downtown street in a major American city, a corpse can decompose for days, like carrion, and that is acceptable." He reported on his visit to the Williams supermarket stripped of everything by looters except postcards and wine (!), and how the news-stands on deserted street corners still carried the news of August 28 - "Katrina takes Aim", eerily reminiscent of the opening scenes of 28 Days Later.

Most poignant of all was Barry's brief encounter with a man calling himself Strangebone who resiliently enthused about his blacked-out city - "You're able to see the stars, it's wonderful".

Resilience doesn't necessarily come that easily to the septics. Gregarious they may be, but they don't come together in a crisis like the British are said to do. A few years ago Channel 4 aired a programme in which four sets of tourists belonging to four separate nationalities were secretly filmed on holiday while the producers engineered a series of situations in order to expose the workings of national character. One of these involved a boat adrift on a lake and sure enough the Brits responded pluckily, but the Americans just bickered amongst themselves.

Welcome to the Underbelly

The information superhighway is, as the saying goes, as straight as a country road. Information, like the cable attached to my headphones, just wants to wind itself into ever more complex tangles, and the Internet can only serve to facilitate this mysterious process.

Yet the myth persists that the medium is somehow geared to deliver an enhanced, more democratic, more truthful, more straight version of the traditional fourth estate. At the end of last week Spiked's Brendan O'Neil was moaning again, this time about how bloggers covering Katrina have been "parasitical" on the traditional media amplifying hearsay, supposition, and sensation whilst obstructing the facts with a semi-fictional narrative appropriate to the horror genre.

This adjective parasitical suggests a uncreative one-dimensional relationship. The reality is surely knottier. Blogs are revealing to us just how much the clearcut hierarchical distinctions between us the readers and them the professional constructors of meaning have eroded. Hyper-subjective, rather than hyper-objective, they haul us into the hall of mirrors that our information culture has become.

That popular discourse has always had a creative way of assimilating events, insinuating a moral into every tale, has long been enshrined in the magical realist literature of Latin America. Weblogs not only speed-up this natural and necessary process, they render it more transparent and traceable, and in near real time.

We don't read the news exclusively in order to be factually informed, yet it takes a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, spinning faster than the speed of the modern media, to expose the cracks in the hacks' self-image.

"It is as if none of the news teams knows how to treat what is in essence a Third World disaster in a First World country" AA Gill observed yesterday. "Was it the disaster, or was it America having a disaster? Usually, the name of the country is just a tag, because natural bad stuff most often dumps on Third World people whose addresses are only really of importance to themselves. "

It seems that the non-independents have been really struggling to package this story using the standard templates: "It turned out that CNN was the most all at sea. It likes to think of itself as a stateless, pan-global news purveyor. It doesn’t have foreign correspondents, because nowhere’s foreign to it. But it utterly lost the plot, and any sense of dispassion or distance, over this story. The emotional range of the reporters grew operatic as they tried to outdo each other in mawkish empathy. I watched with surprised disgust as reporters repeatedly broke into manly tears. The low point was passed on to me by another viewer, who said she had seen CNN follow a woman who had been rescued but whose child had been washed away. They found the child and set up a classic Esther Rantzen-style “You thought he was dead, but in fact ...” sentiment sting. They waited a few hours so they could get the moment on camera. It was adding a little reality TV to reality. How many seconds of thinking your kid is dead do you reckon is worth a news award? It all got very Broadcast News. The tearful reporters, the set-up sympathy. It was a reminder, if we needed any more reminders, that there is no such thing as disinterested news, and that you must always question not just what’s in front of the camera, but who’s behind it."

We Know Major Tom's a Junkie

Surely it's now too late for them to do a Henman?

Worryingly enough, V reckons Michael Vaughan looks a bit like a younger version of Sven. Anyway, football is so September 10th now that we have Flintoff and co and the potential for Australian chippyness on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

V is amongst the many foreigners/women finding discovering a sudden interest in an English pastime they had previously filed alongside Morris Dancing. Her principal residual complaint is that Cricket is a sport where the main interest is what doesn't happen. It's as if they were to do in-depth analyses of every first serve Federer puts into the net, she complains.

"Now, lets look at some more of those almost aces from the first set..."

In spite of stirling support from 20,000 fans includung his ever-serious wife and their ultra-cute children, Agassi was unable to find a solution to the Federer problem again last night. The two naturally-gifted players have remarkably contrasting on-court movements. Federer ambles up to take his serve like a man leaving his girlfriend's apartment in search of where he left his Porsche the night before. Agassi meanwhile waddles like a duck on speed.

The semi-finals at Flushing Meadows had provided a lot of excitement, especially the Clijsters-Sharapova contest. For much of the first set the Russian looked like a petulant teenager, and looked set for an ungracious exit, worthy of Martina Hingis at her stroppiest, but instead she upped her game and produced a series of wonder strikes to save seven match points. Two years ago this would have been the signal for a Clijsters nosedive, but in spite of Sharapova's sporadic brilliance, the Belgian girl had the will and the power to push through to victory in the third set. Sharapova has gained a few inches since winning Wimbledon and now looks just a little bit ungainly and in this match was constantly a sucker for the ball placed just where she had been a moment before.

Clijsters went on to blow Pierce off court the next day in the final, though the French woman wasn't quite the cheese-eating surrender-monkey we'd seen in the Roland Garros final, where she faced Clijsters' compatriot, Justine Henin-Hardenne. Amongst the awkward suits of the presentation party on Saturday was a clumsy USTA official that made some ungentlemanly allusions to Pierce's comparative maturity.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chile Harvest

Sadly my business relationship with Dubai appears to have concluded prematurely, but I have fixed up this additional out-of-the-plane shot of the main drag as another memento of my recent trip.

As far as summer in London goes we're now deep into extra time. It all started off unpromisingly back in June, but it hasn't been at all bad recently, delivering a bumper chile harvest on our balcony.

Whilst England's millionaires lost convincingly 0-1 to Northern Ireland's pelagatos in Belfast last night, Guatemala's World Cup qualification chances took another dent with a goalless home draw against the USA. Following defeat last weekend in Trinidad, Guatemala were thrown a lifeline by the USA's simultaneous defeat of Mexico which assured the gringos of qualification and that none of their first team would risk the trip to the Estadio Mateo Flores last night. With two matches left, Costa Rica sits in the third automatic qualification spot, five points clear of the chapines, who will have to play-off against an Asian team provided they hang onto fourth place.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami brings Chapter 25 to a close with a characteristic piece of disarming textual self-awareness: "There are just too many coincidences. Everything seems to be speeding up, rushing towards one destination". How can you take the piss out of a novel that seems to be so intent on doing it to itself? (This was essentially Ben Elton's complaint about the old Ferrero Rocher ambassador's party ads!)

Back in the spring when I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , I reflected that Murakami's version of the great cosmic conspiracy is really more of a great cosmic wind-up, something to be ruefully amused about, rather than anguished by. Murakami's philosophical puzzles are more reminiscent of Takeshi's Castle than the Times crossword. Failure can be fun.

He alludes in this story to that other great architect of literary labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, but whereas the wily Argentine conceived of mazes with few if any obvious exits, Murakami's have almost too many. Once again I was left with the impression that his long form fiction fails to follow all of its own lines of inquiry. (A spectral soldier tells Kafka that the word for labyrinth derives from the Babylonian word for gut, thus throwing some light on the recurring intestinal theme in the text, though elsewhere a character pipes up with "symbolism and meaning are two separate things". )

I'd liken the experience of reading a Murakami novel to immersion in a salty sea surrounded by the floating forms of red herrings, some dead, some just playing dead. You can sense the depth of the medium below, but can't directly perceive anything beneath the shimmering surface.

This strange universe of deep wells, missing cats and sundered siblings is literally multi-dimensional. It has secret agendas that transcend everyday reality and penetrate into both dreams and the spirit world. The advantage that Murakami has over David Lynch is the indiscriminately all-embracing Shinto concept of supernature. In constrast there's no handy reference system to straighten out the weirdness of Twin Peaks. What for instance was that log woman all about?

Plato is another everpresent shade - both as ancestral spokesperson for the view that reality isn't everything its cracked up to be, and as the author of the Symposium, that earlier meditation on Ancient Greek sexual hang-ups in which Aristophanes makes his famous speech about how each of us was involved in an ugly divorce before we were even born.

The novel features two apparently converging narrative lines, one in the first person, the other told in the third, the two plots move off again in different directions after a single point of contact - where it was intriguing to discover how the third person narrative voice offered a different perspective on the occupants of Kafka's personal account.

All the usual Murakami preoccupations are centre-stage. There's another character (like the retired lieutenant in TWUBC) that has got stuck at a fixed point on her life's trajectory and hasn't been able to move forward for years, whilst 15 year-old Kafka observes that his "identity is an orbit that I've strayed away from" and that "sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that changes direction. This storm is you. Something inside of you".

On more than one occasion I found myself bumping into one of the author's singular metaphors - "Her tone of voice is tough and unyielding like a loaf of bread someone forgot on the back of a shelf".

I also ended up downloading from iTunes the vintage Rubinstein, Feuermann and Heifetz recording of Beethoven's Archduke Trio as a direct result of the massive plug it gets in this novel.

What could so easily have ended up so "life is a metaphor dude" pretentious, is instead giddily intricate, serious but also significantly light. The actual content would be hard to describe in detail without inadvertently making it appeal to all those horrid Paolo Coelho readers, so instead I will simply recommend it to everyone else.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Duck Season

There's a point in the evening when the sun has disappeared behind the city but there are still quite a few photons swirling around beneath our balcony thanks to the silvery surface of the Thames. Last night at this time I watched with interest as two formations of ducks sped towards each other, the aggressive quacking that commenced when they were still about six feet apart revealing that this was to be no joyful reunion. Reinforcements were soon splashing down nearby.

Naval showdowns of this sort are a rarity though. The oddest piece of duck behaviour I've witnessed in fifteen years of riverside life occurred when we looked out of the bedroom window in the small hours of one night and found the misty waters below covered in a great gathering of quackers. They didn't appear to be en-route to anywhere, they were just treading water to keep their position at the side of our building. It's never happened again.

We fetched some bread and tossed it out, and for the next few nights one duck kept coming back at the same ungodly hour, announcing its arrival with a faint, plaintive quack from the penumbra below.

I recently re-watched Temporada de Patos (Duck Season) with V on DVD, and now regret not including in on my recent top 20. Perhaps it's just a little too quaint and intimate for cinema viewing.

Flama's treatment of Ulises has tweaked V's conscience - she has vowed never again to give the Domino's man in Antigua the old 31 minutes treatment.

Perhaps the most hilarious part of the film is where Ulises outlines to Flama how he intends to make a killing selling parakeets. On many occasions in Guatemala I've had a verbal briefing on one or other of these flawed business plans, a phenomenon known locally as the negocio redondo.

I realise now that I hadn't previously caught onto the film's final gag, delivered in the scene which appears after the titles have rolled. "Para hacer un brownie tuvieron que hacer todo este tiradero?", complains Flama's mother munching one of the brownies. I'd forgotten that Rita had laced them with wacky-backy.

The DVD includes an excellent video for the Un Pato track sung by Natalia Laforcade. The website developed to support the film is also worth a visit.

Schnell, Schnell !

Hurrying back to my office across Soho Square yesterday I found my path blocked by a young man holding a microphone attached to a walkman: "Hello, I am interviewink for Cherman radio...can you tell me vot you know about Angela Merkel?".

"Nothing much", I pleaded, keen to move on.

"She's the leader of the opposition party in Chermany...they are havink elections next week..."

I flashed him my best me pela look, but his own expression was so priceless I almost wanted him to ask me some more questions on Germany-related topics so that I could demonstrate my blanket indifference to them too.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Naoko (Himitsu)

Reviews I've seen of Keigo Higashino's book (and the successful Japanese movie adaptation) promised a drawn out disappointment: "Interesting premise, not fully utilised" and "Good for the first half... the rest kind draggy." Yet for me, this was one of the most nerve-touching stories I've read in a long time. (The second quote is particularly apt - it could actually be describing the kind of autobiography that the novel's main protagonist is given a unique opportunity to avoid.)

This "interesting premise" is actually the kind of daft idea that Hollywood has reworked a number of times in family comedies - the cross-generational soul-swap. But in this case there's a death involved, and factory worker Sugita Heisuke finds himself in very unusual domestic situation after his wife and daughter are involved in a bus crash. Ostensibly his wife has died, but when daughter Monami wakes from her coma, it's mother Naoko's pysche that is running her head and body ( with all the benefits and limitations thereof).

Once back at school she soon aspires to medical college, determined to avoid the complacency of her earlier existence. She and Heisuke try to preserve their union based on shared emotions, history, routines and the conspiracy built around their secret, but ultimately cracks appear when Monami's high school suitors start ringing in the night.

Naoko has elements of comedy and tragedy, both understated. Hence perhaps the dragginess for anyone whose own life has yet to encompass some of the poignant themes the author explores. I'm usually not that keen on suspending my disbelief in these cases of metempyschosis, I quickly realised that here it is just a device for selectively suspending other aspects of normality - Higashino has conceived the unlikely paranormal situation in order to explore the substance of ordinary life.

For many, adult life is about putting on a mask, while trying to keep our inner child alive for as long as possible. A lot of us suspect that we could have made a better job of our adolesence if only we'd known the stuff that we know now. The novel also asks that we consider how many of the everyday emotions we experience are conditioned by routines and expectations of the wider world (particularly gender-role expecations), and how sometimes even the least inclined to hypocrisy will be driven to it by ripples in their local pond.

In moving towards his destination Higashino passes around some of the obvious climaxes along the route- so we feel rather like passengers afforded a brief and distant glimpse of a city's sights as we go around the ring road. It's an interesting technique, and one I believe many screenwriters could do well to adopt. We don't necessarily need to see those predictable plot points, just sense their gravitational tug as we slip by. By skirting the obvious Higashino gives us something far more subtle.

The War on Looting (2)

Another levee overwhelmed last week was that protecting white America's First World from the surging tides of the predominantly black Third World of the southern states. Under these circumstances the Federal government is more guilty of fear and loathing than simple contempt. They know that they sit atop a nation that will run for the gun shop wherever and whenever public order disintegrates.

Former chat show host Geraldo Rivera (famously unembedded from Iraq after revealing US positions to FOX viewers by drawing maps in the sand) was the man on the scene in New Orleans this Saturday as those portable hurricanes known as Chinooks, buzzed around ineffectively: "This is Dante's Inferno! This is the worst I've seen in a civilised country". He should be well-travelled enough to know how thin a veneer civilisation is. I have my own vivid memories of French tourists, pub revellers and assorted bystanders joining in the Poll Tax riots of March 31 1990.

Things will all soon be ticketyboo again urges Bush. Yet up there in Airforce One he can probably see the formerly thick protective cloud cover of 9-11 being blown away by the post-Katrina winds of change. Will Louisiana be a red state next time round? Is the Bush presidency the worst natural disaster in his nation's history? Right now it looks like a category five clusterfuck. Fidel has been rubbing it in with offers of medical aid, so far unanswered.

For once many of the wetbacks will be swimming in the other direction.

L'Appartement v Wicker Park (again)

You get a strong feel for the lossy nature of the Hollywood copying process when you compare Wicker Park with the French original. The underlying symbolic narrative (mainly of fire and mirrors) has gone. So have the suggestions of lesbian fixation and supernatural mystery that surround Romane Bohringer's Alice.

The conceit of Alice's diary also failed to make it through the Hollywood funnel. We can imagine that it gave Max a clear account of everything that had happened, but of course we can't know for sure. Alice might have filled it with yet more lies.

There's another conversation we see (but can't hear) from outside the cafe whose content is similarly implicit - Paul McGuigan's film makes the dialogue explicit thereby sacrificing yet another subtlety. The lovemaking scene between Max and Lisa in the original has a melodramatic quality, underscored by the storm outside. Afterwards we see Alice leaning out of the window wearing Max's shirt, thinking. It's these kind of little details that leave an audience thinking too.

The cafe waiter doesn't get a tip for his troubles in L'Appartement - and he's a much more memorable characterisation in his own right.

In Wicker Park Matt and Lisa are meant to be. The rest of the plot is an elaborate series of obstacles that their love must overcome. In L'Appartement the constancy of fate and the inconstancy of man are well-matched. The situation allows Max to contemplate three alternative versions of his destiny - the dull, safe executive life complete with dull, safe wife, the domestic bliss he might have shared with Lisa but for Alice's interventions, and the slightly unbalanced existence he could have if he throws in his lot with Alice. None of these is really more meant to be than the others.

Bellucci's Lisa is more than the adorable object of romantic fate. She clearly possesses a bigger personality than the equally commitment-phobic Max, and Mimouni shades the circumstances of her end, by hinting at her kept-woman status. There's something Mafioso-like about her lover Daniel, a man she describes as her perfect match, because "he's rich, he's handsome and he's married".

The chronology of L'Appartement is beyond complicated, but Mimouni handled the transition from the 'present' timeline to the flashbacks skillfully and creatively. Wicker Park felt more like an episode of Lost.

Wicker Park changes or reverses a number of important details. It's Matt not Lucien that breaks the mirror in the compact. We see Alex removing her make-up mask, whereas we saw Alice putting it on. Alex's feet are too small, not too big for the shoes that Matt gives her.

The lovemaking scene between Max and Lisa in the original has a melodramatic quality, enhanced by the thunder and lightening outside. Aftwerwards we see Alice leaning out of the window wearing Max's shirt, thinking. It's these kind of little details that make the audience think too.

The most glaring weakness in L'Appartement is the way that both Daniel and Max are able to park their cars directly outside Lisa's appartment. Anybody that has driven around Paris will know how much suspension of disbelief is required for this. What is the significance of Alice leaving behind her suitcase at the end? It's an ambivalent enough conclusion as it is, without having to worry about that one orphaned detail.

Why hasn't Mimouni made another film since?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The War on Looting

Residents of the rest of the developed world can be forgiven for imagining that the United States is big enough, ugly enough and rich enough to come to its own aid, without the need for any worldwide appeals. They'd be forgetting however that America simply isn't used to helping its own destitute. Treating them as a threat comes more naturally.

"It's like being in a Third World country," Mitch Handrich, a manager at Louisiana's biggest public hospital told the media yesterday. Most of the people unable to jump in their cars and flee Katrina last weekend could have told him that long before the hurricane hit! This is the uncomfortable truth that the disaster has exposed.

"This is our tsunami," says Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. Well, not quite.

Bum Rap

Many years ago I was sitting amongst some newly-made acquaintances awaiting the start of the St George's Caye Day festival in Belize. An earnest-looking Canadian aid worker was filling in a pair of silky-haired Chichi(castenango)-bound OK-yahooligans on the situation across the border. "More than 70,000 people have disappeared in Guatemala, you know."

There was a pause, then one of the girls replied with more than a hint of misgiving , "What...tourists?"

Guatemala gets a lot of bad PR, in many cases deservedly so, but a frustrating amount of it is the result of bad journalism - and into that category has to go Christine Toomey's piece in the Sunday Times Magazine, which was more an exercise in inflamation than information.

I've made plenty of downbeat remarks about Guatemala myself right here in this blog, but there's a difference between the kind of exaggeration appropriate to caricature, and that which discounts the existence of any trace of positive normality in its subject. (When you look at a good caricature you know exactly which traits have been amplified - so the underlying undistended natural balance is somehow implicit.)

You'll get a feel for this lack of perspective from the article's first paragraph:

"There is a country where a man can escape a rape charge if he marries his victim — providing she is over the age of 12. In this country, having sex with a minor is only an offence if the girl can prove she is "honest" and did not act provocatively. Here, a battered wife can only prosecute her husband if her injuries are visible for more than 10 days. Here too it is accepted in some communities that fathers "introduce" their daughters to sex."

To understand why Guatemala is itself practically an organised crime, Toomey tells us that we first need to understand where it is (A "small Central American country sandwiched between Mexico and El Salvador" - though the latter is actually much smaller than Guatemala) and then how the potted version of its history that she offers us can explain the now endemic problem of femicide.

All the simplistic cliches are trotted out: machismo, paramilitaries, the United Fruit Company and Efrain Rios Montt, the former presidente that Ronald Reagan famously identified as the victim of a "bum rap". If anyone cares to read up in any detail about this Protestant coup leader who was in turn deposed at the instigation of the Catholic bishops, they will find that he is no straightforward Pinochet clone with clearcut executive responsibility for mass murder. Yet the groups that like to pinch our consciences need a high-profile hate figure and he's the one they've picked for the job.

From the way Toomey reduces the civil war to its most sensational atrocities, you'd think Mel Gibson will soon be scrambling after the film rights: "Villagers were herded into churches and burnt, whole families sealed alive in wells. Political opponents were assassinated, women were raped before being mutilated and killed. The wombs of pregnant women were cut open and foetuses strung from trees."

She wants us to undertstand that all the nation's baddies, the maras, the oligarchy, the police, the corporate mafia, satanists even, are somehow obscurely united under the umbrella of "hidden powers", and that a consequence of this is the systematic predation of its womankind.

So what if the murder rate is five times that of Bogotá? What of Medellin, or Rio de Janeiro? Why is Bogotá the benchmark? Yes, anonymous bodies show up on Guatemala's roadsides on regular basis, but they are not all female. (Based on my own reading of the local tabloid press, I find the figure of two per day, on average, a little high, but have no reason to doubt her tally of 527 for the whole of last year. I'd wager that not all of those women died because they are women though.)

During the long civil war a great deal of murder and torture was practiced on the Maya by the state, but it would be wrong to imagine that the cycle of violence that started to spin in its aftermath has been exclusively a top-down phenomenon. There is a resurgent culture of brutality within the indigenous population too that no amount of international pressure will mollify. To understand why the police across the region are being so heavy-handed with the maras, you have to appreciate how virulent a threat they pose to civilised norms there.

There's a strong sense of deja vu in all this. In the 90s a BBC programme about the humanitarian activities of UK citizen Bruce Harris whose Casa Alianza organisation was providing a refuge for the street kids apparently targeted for extermination by security forces of that uncivilised dump somewhere near Mexico. The documentary was little more than a piece of unsubtle incitement designed to fill Harris' coffers. Sinead O'Connor even released a single about one of the deceased urchins.

I do wish to register my protest, but not with Amnesty International. Is the only way to create 'awareness' of an issue in cosy Britain, to serve up this kind of disdainful distortion of everyday life in a country most people only get to hear about when the news is fat and ugly? How is it supposed to help anybody trying to make a living in Guatemala if foreign investors "start questioning their business dealings there"?

I remember how sore we all felt back in the 80s when our continental brethren used images of the most depressed post-industrial landscapes of northern England to suggest that Britain's membership of the First World had expired.

Over the weekend TVe reported four violent murders of women in Spain, another country whose males have apparently had some trouble adapting to the changing social and economic circumstances of their wives and girlfriends. I wonder if that was more or less than in Guatemala in the same period? Spain's not such a soft target though.