Thursday, August 31, 2006


We were treated to one of Frode and Emily's legendary scandoriental barbecues on Sunday night. The first course was shrimp, fresh basil and chopped onions and green leaves in a moist rice paper wrap then the Cambodian chicken seen sizzling away here. The two large chunks of cowmeat were pre-daubed in the
"green peppers, coriander seeds and some stuff" that Frode had ground up in his mortar. All very delicious.

Frode was eagerly anticipating the launch next day of Hyperwords, version 1.5 which adds toolbar functionality to the existing menus.

Pyscho Nation

On Monday the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) likened Guatemala's candidacy for the temporary Latin American seat on the UN security council to New York serial killer Son of Sam applying for a place on the bench as a state appellate judge. "Most reasonable people would express serious reservations."

COHA asserts that Venezuela is "demonstrably more qualified" to fill the vacancy, and complained about the US government's disproportionate (that word again) rage against Hugo Chávez − relevantly in Damascus at the time − and his "picante" anti-Washington rhetoric. Yet if a bad human rights record disqualified a nation from the Security Council, it would be hard to argue the case for either China and possibly even the US of A itself.

Meanwhile Oscar Berger's goverment announced a two-week State of Prevention in five towns along Guatemala's much trafficked border with Mexico. This involves a suspension of the right to carry firearms and to hold demonstrations and meetings, combined with an expansion of the authorities' rights to conduct searches. They have also asked local news media "not incite rebellion because on previous occasions radio stations have urged people to resist the destruction of drug crops."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Jill Greenberg's controversial images of trantrums thrown by kids she had just stolen candy from would probably be considered charming rather than shocking in Guatemala, where the relative transience of infant misery is well understood. Cultural background will clearly do much to inform individual reactions to this kind of artistic exercise and an experienced commercial photographer like Greenberg must surely have been aware of the issues her own culture currently has with naked children when she conceived this set.

I also think she was being disingenuous when she claimed that “it didn’t even occur to me" that people might place a sexual interpretation on these photographs, adding that she didn't know "if it’s because they project their own desires on these images and they don’t know what to do with them and blame me.” Based on my exposure to manga artwork for instance, I think that many Japanese men would find themselves projecting desire into this one, if not indeed this one.

Given that most of these children would have been beaming again the moment the lollipop was restored to them, it's odd that Greenberg chose to capture such short-lived grief in order to represent the profounder adult sorrows occasioned by the policies of the Bush administration. Indeed, the most irritating thing about End Times is perhaps the triteness of its political payload.


Is apparently the latest niche criminal fad in Florida. There are over 18,000 chapines in Palm Beach county alone, many of them indocumentados with a disinclination to call the cops when robbed and with a preference for their footware over bank accounts for depositing their earnings. Friday − the day they generally pick up their pay-cheques − is said to be the peak time for these speculative assaults on passing Guatemalans.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Museum Feet

My appreciation of my hometown appears renewed this morning after a long weekend of guiding V's cuñada Sandra around some of the sights of London. Before heading off she told me that the Old Royal Observatory had been the highlight.

One little exhibit I came across up there this time amused me. In the early part of the nineteenth century the only way to synchronise your watch with Greenwich time was to actually turn up somewhere with a view up to the Observatory...until that is, a local family business came up with the very Solheim-like scheme of selling Greenwich time to City firms by delivering pre-set Arnold chronometers to their offices!

Øyenstikker (Dragonflies)

"Eyesticker", was Frode's translation. There's possibly a double-meaning in the Norwegian that gets misplaced in translation. Scandinavian wetland insects are obviously not that friendly!

Eddie, a big bearded man in his early forties and younger, pregnant girlfriend Maria have set themselves up in an idyllic rural sanctuary (largely from their past selves). One day, they stop at a petrol station and Eddie's eyes meet those of Kullman, a former associate that we learn served time for a crime they both committed. This enigmatically menacing character returns to Eddie's place to play gooseberry long enough to manipulate his host into joining him on a revenge mission. As Peter French put it, "It's one of those films in which a mysterious figure from the past arrives in the present clutching a spanner and looking for some works into which it might be thrown."

V watched this before me and reckoned that the ending was rather flat relative to all the forboding fomented before it. But at the level of both mood and especially of unanswered questions I experienced Marius Holst's film as a steady unfurling and enjoyed it greatly from start to finish.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The rest of the housemates are on the...

Well, it wasn't the rum punch.

Though Il Surfero (hammock occupant, pictured) was undoubtedly right to publicise my shameful dereliction of frisbee search and rescue responsibilities in his comment on my previous post. Apologies!

Cut Above

Mark Ek from Caye Caulker sent me this great chopper shot of 'the split', which local legend insists was created by Hurricane Hattie in 1961 (though others mention an unfortunate dredging incident).

Back in '89 I accidentally tossed a frisbee into this deep splice and was volunteered for salvage duty by my housemates. I hired a mask, snorkel and flippers and plunged in, struggling against the very strong current flowing through the channel. As I reached the bottom I found myself in the middle of some fast-moving marine traffic. Where were all those fish going to such in a hurry? Turning to my right I caught a glint from the gnashers of several smiling barracudas just entering the split. I abandoned the frisbee-retrieval operation for that afternoon.

Yesterday London Daily Photo featured this pic of a cow from Hackney city farm. We have one of these urban-agrarian institutions on the island: Mudchute. One of the residents is a fairly aggresive llama that likes to spit at the cows. According to The Londonist this is not the only issue facing Mudchute's masticators.

El Paradiso

As I write this there's an educated-looking Middle Eastern man sitting a few seats away on the riverbus with a large rucksack and a rather nervous air about him!

Anyway, yesterday a colleague and I disagreed about how silly some of the passengers on the Monarch flight from Malaga to Manchester were to imagine that their journey was the subject of imminent Islamic ill-intent. In my view, pretty silly.

Firstly, when you have a reservation in Paradise you generally want to get there by First Class. No point in queueing for the loo with your bomb-making materials, having to make conversation with Barry from Skegness...

Secondly, you would generally want to blow up the outbound flight in order to avoid having to spend a week in a grotty hotel in Torremolinos, where there would be little chance of finding one virgin, let alone seventy two.

Some people have little alternative but to keep their upper lips as stiff as possible. Stoicism is often a measure of powerlessness, and the powerlesss are not the most cost-effective victims (unless like the US military, you are happy for their deaths to get minimal media coverage.) Terrorists are better off targeting individuals convinced that their lives matter.

The IRA grasped this in the 70s when they started throwing bombs into crowded Knightbridge restaurants. Imagine what might have happened to the famous Blitz spirit if the Luftwaffe had decided to do the West End of London what they had done to the East End.

Of course I can yet be proved spectacularly wrong, but I don't think package holiday-makers should be trembling in their cramped airline seats.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Inigo Outego

The teacup tormenta that blew in following the presentation of a P45 to Orange Community Affairs manager Inigo Wilson is one of those media squalls where all parties are succeeding in making complete fools of themselves.

First off the mark was of course the would-be humourist himself. Wilson's definition of Islamophobic as "anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work" was not, to my mind, "borderline racist" as some have suggested, and having now read the Lefty Lexicon in full, I have shed my earlier view that the opinions it encapsulates would have made his role at Orange inherantly untenable. However, it would be hard to argue with anyone that questions Wilson's judgement; he did little to prevent the curious from uncovering the name of his employer and openly took issue with jargon used by colleagues relating to Orange's "diversity target implementation plan".

If anything he might want to check the seat next to him for shifty South Africans with backpacks on his daily journey into work (once he is gainfully re-employed of course) as his Lexicon insensitively dismisses their homeland as "a national showcase for Lefty policies with a one-party state, some of the worst crime levels in the world, tragic AIDS mortality and declining economy."

This kind of thing isn't proper satire as it gives clear expression to the axes the author himself has come to grind. It reminds me of Vanessa Feltz's criticism of Prince Harry's Che Guevara T-shirt in which she wrote off el Che as a "revolutionary responsible for the deaths of thousands." Comic exaggeration is a balancing act: lay on the the exaggeration too thickly and the comic will start to dematerialise.

Orange would appear to have compounded the potential fall-out from Wilson's error of judgement by letting him go. Oddly enough, for some it will seem that they have behaved rather like the pilot of the Monarch Airlines flight from Malaga who had two Muslim students de-planed a week ago because a number of other passengers didn't like the look of them! "Is yellow the new Orange?" one blog commenter has asked. The actions of MPAC will also have done little to help dispell the "common misrepresentation of Islam" with their campaign against Wilson. I enjoyed Nosemonkey's take on this:

"Why is it that in modern Britain the consensus seems to be that to prove your opponents wrong about you, you have to go and do precisely what your opponents accuse you of? Say the government are cutting down on civil liberties, they deny it before cutting down on civil liberties; depict muslims as violent in some cartoons, they deny they are violent before issuing death threats; accuse the Tories of having no real policy alternatives, they deny it before issuing a pamphlet with no real policy alternatives; say the Home Office is useless, they deny it before sacking the Home Secretary and announcing the Home Office is useless."

The fracas surrounding the filming of Monica Ali's Brick Lane is another minority-sensibilities showdown bereft of any obvious good guys on either side. In particular, the duel between two of its self-appointed protagonists Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie, has permitted me to renew my long-standing loathing of both.

As the film crew are trailed and hounded by a clique of angry Bangladeshi shopkeepers determined to prevent the novel's translation to the silver screen, Greer has argued that Ali, although of Asian descent herself and writing about the experience of an Muslim woman in an arranged marriage, has been guilty of creating literature with an oppressor mentality:

"She writes in English and her point of view is, whether she allows herself to impersonate a village Bangladeshi woman or not, British" which she presumably means inherently likely to cause offence.

Rushdie, the kind of overrated celebrity scribbler that Monica Ali has surely modelled herself on, has retorted that the Aussie professor must be "barking mad". He's still bitter that Greer apparently applauded the fatwah he was awarded by the Ayatollahs in recognition of The Satanic Verses.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Dancer Upstairs

John Malkovich was reportedly miffed when Britain's film censors threatened to cut out the exploding chicken scene in The Dancer Upstairs, because the bird in question looked "stressed". These were the same suits that had passed the nine minute rape in Irréversible without cuts, he argued, and nobody else had complained about the bomb-bearing animals in his film. After viewing it, we were both kind of wishing he'd strapped the dynamite to himself. Just the kind of gormless, pretentious directorial debut you would expect from Malkovich,V concluded. Huachaferias as the Peruvians say.

This is essentially the 'true' story of how Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán hid in the Lima home of Maritza Garrido Lecca, an upper-class former ballerina, and how this hide-out was uncovered by an honest copper called Benedicto Jimenez, who discovered Guzmán's empty tubes of psoriasis lotion in Garrido Lecca's garbage.

Except that the story has here been abstracted out of time, place and idiom in a way that robs it of almost all interest. You might say that this is the fault of author Nicholas Shakespeare, but on the page the result may have been less awkward; I haven't read the novel.

This is yet another in a rather long line of films about Latin America played by local actors (though usually featuring a Spanish lead) in their, at best passable, English. (Banderas in Of Love and Shadows was another pavo from this woeful category.)

Garrido Lecca (Yolanda in the film) was originally sentenced by military tribunal to 13 years in prison, but like many of the captured senderistas was re-tried by a civilian court. In her case, they put her back behind bars for a further twenty years. (Following the capture of 'Comrade Feliciano' in '99 the Shining Path persists today in a much downgraded form under the leadership of 'Comrade Artemio'.)

Benedicto Jimenez (Rejas in the film) attracted the wrath of one of Peru's dodgiest characters, Vladimiro Montesinos. Although he got a share of the $1m reward for Guzmán's capture, Jimenez was eventually posted to Panama as a police attaché as punishment for not having let Montesinos deal with the prisoner in his own way before the media got wind of the arrest. Malkovich's film does not show us the significant role played by the CIA in the investigation, led by an operative the Peruvians apparently dubbed "Superman".

Presumably the love-interest between Yolanda and Rejas is the major contribution of art to this tale, though interest isn't the state of mind it generally promotes here. The character of Rejas is English novelist as good policeman. He's a detached, idealistic sort of chap with a strangely lapsed career as a lawyer and a confiscated family farm, perhaps so that readers/viewers will appreciate that he's not the sort of common oik that you normally find in the middle ranks of the world's police forces!

Working Abroad

This morning I read how 35 Colombian soldiers and police officers have fallen prey to callous gringo fraud and now find themselves trapped in Iraq without work, money or a passage back home!

Having been promised jobs guarding U.S. bases and escorting executives they flew to Baghdad in July after two months of training at the US army's Cavalry School. On arrival the remuneration of $6-7000 they had originally been promised was at first reset to $4000 and later on their employers further downgraded their salaries to $1000 and backed out of their committment to pay for the return leg of their Middle Eastern adventure.

According to one former Colombian army captain taken in by the scam, they are now unable to return home, fearing reprisals from their employers. Though...given that it's Colombians that we're talking about here, the person that should have most to fear from the repercussions is their recruitment consultant back home in Bogotá!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Un milagro de la virgencita"

Having spent almost a year drifting around the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean, three Mexican fishermen finally made landfall yesterday on the Marshall Islands.

Doubts have been expressed about the original object of their ill-fated voyage - shark fishing or drugs pick-up.

The two men that originally hired them with their boat apparently died after refusing to partake of the fishermen's diet of raw fish, and were eventually thrown overboard...according to the survivors. Hmmm.

They generally maintained a good supply of rain water, but on several occasions went weeks with solid food. (Those two dead narcos must have looked tasty...)

O Homem do Ano (The Man of the Year)

We remember Murilo Benício from O Clone/El Clon, one of the finer examples of the Telenovela form!

Here he plays Máiquel, a car salesman whose destiny takes a screechingly sharp turn the moment he is forced to dye his hair blond as a result of losing a bet.

After he blows away a local teenage low-life the cops come to congratulate him not arrest him and he soon starts to accumulate gifts from grateful neighbours on his doorstep, including a piglet he names Bill. Several stiffs down the line and he's running a 'security' company serving the interests of a group of right-thinking men of property (and one bent policeman) that favour an hygienic approach to Rio's violent underclass.

This film is immense fun. There are moral and sociological issues fizzling in the background (who in Latin America hasn't come across armchair executioners that would to 'clean' up all the bad guys?) but Fonesca doesn't pause to analyse them; his main focus is on the trajectory of Máiquel, an otherwise quiescent man who slides into the life of a professional killer. The political fable is one you have to complete yourself.

Around three quarters of the way through director José Henrique Fonseca seems to release himself from the self-imposed need to be at once flagrantly stylish and ironical. Some might experience the fading of humour towards the end as a loss, but it didn't particularly bother us.

Did Patricia Melo name her matador Máiquel in hommage to that other reluctant capo, Michael Corleone? There are echoes too of Pacino's other great gangster role, Scarface, though Máiquel's destiny doesn't resolve itself quite so drastically.

It's a bit of a family affair: Fonesca's father Rubem helped turn Melo's novel into a script and his wife Cláudia Abreu played Cledir, Máiquel's wife, whose termination proves more awkward than most for the Man of the Year.

Toothless Trojans

I came across this quote from Confused of Calcutta on Media Influencer today.

"The people who don’t get it can’t understand altruism, think every gift horse is a toothless Trojan. Can’t understand openness and sharing and community. Can’t understand trust. The people who don’t get it live in this weird bondage of isolation and distrust. I couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t."

Yes, but in any human group, a given proportion of individuals will favour closed, less collaborative behaviours. It's not a fixed proportion, but in my view you certainly need more than top-down communication to significantly influence the overall ratio.

Howard Bloom's Global Brain explored this field of the mind en masse in fascinating fashion, suggesting Athens and Sparta as the archetypal poles, the one open and pluralist, the other closed and totalitarian.

Yet for me my experiences in Guatemala have tended to epitomise the negative extreme of these game theory models - a society where a palpably large proportion of people will attempt to cheat (or at least seriously distrust) you even when they are actually aware that it is not in their best, rational interests to do so!

Establishing what makes one set of individuals culturally open, tolerant, altruistic etc. and another exihibit the opposite set of instinctive attitudes is probably one of the biggest unanswered questions at the end of Bloom's book. In my view. any discipline that sets about answering it will probably need to be a practical extension of game theory.

The 'cheaters' in Guatemala are not necessarily bad eggs per se, it's just that they expect to be swindled in turn (and are probably right). Not to rip someone off when the opportunity presents itself would be for some, a dangerous demonstration of weakness. This is partly a deep cultural problem, but also one that I'm sure could be predicted at a statistical level if you could plot the inclinations of the population as a whole.

Bloom, like Popper prefers the Open society, but his model is a continuum with many different perspectives, none of which are good or bad in themselves, as social and political circunstances will always influence the distribution.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Domingos Familiares

At the end of last month Carmen of Blog de mi Guatemala sent her displaced compatriots into paroxysms of nostalgia with her post about traditional family Sundays. From the nature of the comments posted, it's clear that few were sensitive to the darker ironies of their lost idyll.

Take this one: "Siendo yo de provincia, lo tradicional era el caldito de res, mi mama se levantaba todos los domingos a las 6 de la manana a las 7 agarraba camino al mercado, a pie mucha porque en ese entonces mi pueblo no era tan grande,compraba lo del almuerzo, y algunas cosas que vendia en la tienda, porque mi mama tiene su tiendecita en la casa, regresaba como a las 11, yo porsupuesto me iba a ver al DEPORTIVO MALACATECO que comenzaba a las 11 y cuando regresaba a la 1:30 me echaba mi caldito de res con una cocacola bien fria.. que tiempos tan hermosos mucha. "

So, while his mother got up at the crack of dawn and spent four hours alone shopping at the market on Sundays, this chap went off to watch a game of football. "Que tiempos tan hermosos mucha... "

Then there's Santiago, whose father would eat the "mayor parte" of their Sunday chicken, leaving his wife and kids los menudos, choice left-overs such as the neck, feet and heart. Another commenter describes how the patriarch of his childhood household would work his way through a big juicy steak as his nearest and dearest looked on, and if they were lucky, carve them up a few little morsels at the end.

Across the board here there are stories of mothers, grandmothers and aunts slaving away for menfolk that spent their Sunday mornings hanging out together outside the home. It's hardly surprising then that V's stickiest memory of these sort of gatherings is of her own mother having to walk under the sun from San Juan del Obispo to the finca carrying several large watermelons.

She also recalls the day when, aged twelve, she cooked some rice for visiting abuelita (grandmother), who was quite put out that little V had made up her own recipe, adding peppers, cloves, bay leaves and guiskil to the mix, but was gracious enough to admit that the dish was delicious, if unconventional.

Experimental by nature practically from birth, V has consistently sidestepped the formulaic life that so many Guatemalans seem to devote themselves to − or at least hanker after for years long after they have migrated north to the US. As more women in Guatemala reassess their expectations, one would expect fewer migrants to smuggle these memories of overly attentive mothers and grannies across the Rio Grande.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Suspect Liquids

Another false alarm last night when a passenger of "Pakistani origin" was found to be carrying suspect liquids at Huntington airport in West Virginia. To some extent the security services are doing the terrorists job for them. To have described what might have been about to occur as "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" is to make a direct appeal to our darkest imaginations (which for some people are already working overtime when they travel by air).

Writing in The Register (from Washington) Thomas C Greene argued yesterday that it would in practice hardly be feasible to bring down a transatlantic airliner with binary liquid explosives. The finger has been pointed this week at a kind of homebrew TATP, but Greene argues fairly convincingly that mixing hydrogen peroxide and acetone with sulfuric acid in an airplane lavatory in order to create the required sort of explosion would be next to impossible to do without detection and would anyway take several hours (and a borrowed ice bucket) to complete. Making TATP ahead of time would most likely result in premature ejaculation to paradise.

Greene reckons that we should be on the look out for crystaline white powders rather than liquids, and that dimethylmercury would be the choice of Jihadists that know a thing or two about chemistry. (Noxious and flammable, but not explosive?)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Life beyond the quarters

What an evening of anomalous national sporting success...

Ok, Andy Murray only won a second round match, but earlier, when the news emerged that he was "looking forward to his encounter with Roger Federer," I had quipped to a colleague that he was in fact looking forward to having the rest of the week off!

Even with the likes of Federer and Nadal set to dominate men's tennis for years to come, it is suddenly possible to believe that the Scot may yet blossom into something more than quarter-final fodder.

And what of England's energetic drubbing of the Greeks: 4-0. It was a friendly, but the new, more pragmatic set-up seems to work, and Owen Hargreaves has carried forward his restored reputation into the the new campaign.

All this called for a celebration, so we barbecued some shrimps, carrots and aubergine. In truth, grilled shrimp may be no more tasty than say grilled turkey, but preparing and consuming it does involve a more complex sensual experience, not least of which is the aroma, which for us − for just one night − converted our Thameside location into an imaginary hide-away facing the setting sun on the Bay of Biscay.

The river has been bloated all week. High tide this morning was filling the open jaws of the lions on the side of the Victoria Embankment and sloshing around the platform behind Cleopatra's Needle.

Enough to make you curious?

In a week in which Britain experienced its first anthrax fatality for more than 30 years, I noticed this enticing little sign on a recently- erected brick wall on Westferry Road.

I'm used to properties encrusted with razor-wire in Guatemala, but this was a novelty.

As far as I can tell, there isn't anything actually behind this wall...except perhaps a bloke with a crooked sense of humour.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Batalla en el Cielo (Battle in Heaven)

A flaccid cinematic experience, notoriously book-ended by two unsimulated, yet somewhat abstracted blow-jobs; one sad, one happy.

"Unfortunately, narrative is still a part of cinema and I don’t know how to get around that," director Carlos Reygadas has stated. It hasn't stopped him having a good old go here though.

Reygadas may not be much interested in psychology, but then he doesn't give us that much reason here to be gripped by what he is interested in. It's as if he is trying to bring the aesthetics of photography to a motion picture exploration of his personal selection of the facets of life in Mexico City. The natural inertness of his amateur actors obviously appeals to him − in several scenes they seem to be operating under the gravitational pull of a hypothetical still image. As noted before, I personally prefer the way that Carlos Sorin uses archetypes extracted from reality in his films.

What Reygadas can't disguise is that his real focus is on what's going on in the background. And in this area at least, his observations are as penetrating as those provided by another Mexican film, Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También; though that one also featured a rather more engaging foreground narrative.

Reygadas sets about using a string of situations and incidents to communicate how extremes are very much part of the fabric of the everyday in Mexico. That a General's daughter should be moonlighting as a hooker might seem like an outrageous (and unexplained) part of the set-up to some viewers, but in Latin America the rich girl turned prostitute is practically a cliché. Amongst the other glimpses we get of life in the Mexican metropolis are two over-stuffed cars, one packed with poor people, one with rich kids. V chuckled at the familiarity of the scence where the bodyguard steps out of a garage and holds up on-coming traffic so that his employer can back his car out. The blockage continues as the driver then enters into a discussion with his uniformed maid. She also pointed out to me that daughters of affluent Latin families are indeed prone to develop transgressively close relationships with male household servants in the absence of intimate bonds with their own flesh and blood.

The story that fronts this video diary is so impassive that you can effectively make of it what you want. Marcos, a driver for a Mexican General with a squeaky voice, has with his bulbous wife kidnapped and accidentally killed the child of a friend of theirs, a woman you would not expect to have a substantial disposable income for ransom-paying purposes. Marcos confesses the crime to the General's daughter Ana, who detects his vulnerability and appears to exploit it, sexually at least, and suffers the consequences.

For this reason it was rather grating to hear the interview with Anapola Mushkadiz − the director at her side − in which she observed of her co-star Marcos Hernández that "we are so much more complicated" than he is. To which Reygadas then added "If I tell him to jump out of a window he probably would." So, a film about endemic, fruitless exploitation which itself appears to have been guilty of the same!

To avoid offending U Certificate audiences, the DVD cover (pictured) has provided Ana with some computer-generated hair extensions to cover her exposed nipples.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

All too familiar

I do like the way people are annotating the serialised version of Samuel Pepys' diary as if they were posting comments on a 'live' personal blog like Waiter Rant.

It is week commencing Monday 10th August 1663 and Elizabeth has just returned from a stay with his father John at Brampton. Sam is being forced to deal with parent-spouse stand-offs, a situation I am no stranger to.

Patricia writes: "Oh Sam, this all sounds too familiar: caught between your wife and your parents—my husband has been there many times—and your loyalties divided. Trust me, you may have “entertained her with great content”, but sex won’t solve this problem. You’ve got to side with your wife, she’s the one that can make you the most miserable if you don’t. Genesis 2:24 “That is why a man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.”

Andy adds: "One of the awful truths of marriage comes when your parent is old and frail and to take him or her in would wreck your marriage: sometimes a man really does have to choose between his wife and his parent."

Mr and Mrs Vengeance

The first and third movies in Chan-wook Park's vengeance trilogy and neither anywhere near as good as the middle one, Oldboy.

In Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) we meet an extraordinarily star-crossed character called Ryu, a deaf mute driven to kidnap his ex-boss's daughter in order to raise money for a life-saving operation for his sister.

Unable to hear the shouts of the girl as she accidentally drowns behind him, Ryu attracts the implacable vengeful urges of her father. Meanwhile Ryu is himself busy with his own vengeance against a gang of backstreet kidney rustlers. The most human and interesting character is Ryu's activist girlfriend, played by Du-na Bae (from Tube and Take Care of my Cat) who meets a particularly unpleasant end.

Lady Vengeance (2005) is let down by its rather pointless convolutions and its determination to beautify the flow of gore. It seemed to both of us that the wider narrative is really an excuse for the pivotal, darkly comic scene where the parents of children kidnapped and murdered by Mr Baek are given the chance to enact bloody communal vengeance. The rest, in some ways, is padding.

I do like the way that Park's stories have interesting gaps as they unfold, which ought to have the effect of forcing the viewer to engage more imaginatively with the material.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien

V and I disagreed about how successfully Dominik Moll brings resolution to this excellent thriller. She cited comments in the director's interview that a collaborator had convinced him to up the body count, something she sensed as increasingly artificial as the climax unfolded. (A "handicapped ending" in her opinion.)

The trouble is I suspect that Moll is struggling to make Harry work on two levels. On one, he is the traditional invasive whacko, but on another, he is Michel's alter-ego, an externalisation of the more direct and drastic approach to life's roadblocks that the compromise-prone father-of-three unconsciously senses as his route to personal liberation. Harry is a kind of amoral guardian angel, who helpfully arrives on the scene to rid Michel of both the material and human barriers to his postponed self-fulfilment. If Harry had simply run off the road at end, these parallel readings would have come apart in my view. (Harry's girlfriend Plum also has to be understood as a kind of anti-Claire.)

The influences of Hitchcock and The Shining are evident, but Moll has brought some innovative touches to the pyscho genre too. I liked the way that Harry's persona seems to have lasting corruptive effects on Michel and Claire, and how towards the end, Michel appears able to reverse the flow of manipulation on him. There's also a telling moment in the Kubrick-esque pink-tiled bathroom where we appreciate that a small change in the timing of Claire's arrival in the doorway might have altered all the final outcomes.

Historias Mínimas

Carlos Sorin shot this delightful film about three personal journeys across Patagonia back in 2002 before making Bombón El Perro, and we both agreed that it is in many ways superior.

There's a dog in this one too, with the stand-out name of Malacara (Badface). It is a quest for this errant pet that pushes octogenarian Don Justo out onto the bleak road from Fitz Roy to San Julián.

On its own Don Justo's story lacks the strength to hold up an entire feature-length screenplay, so Sorin adds a couple more travellers on the route - a salesman bearing a cake for the offspring of a customer he's taken a fancy to and a young country girl who is to appear on a TV game show for the chance to win a food processor. All three journeys have ambiguous results, which adds to the powerful emotional punch in what is otherwise a cleverly understated narrative.

Like Carlos Reygadas, Carlos Sorin is a director who prefers to use non-professionals. (All but two of the cast here had no previous acting experience.) Yet people acting 'as themselves' give these Argentinian films enormous heart, where the Mexican director uses a similar methodology to represent a rather strangulated pyschological neutrality.

As in Bombón El Perro, Sorin's overall aim seems to be communicating the kind-heartedness and likeability of comparatively unsophisticated people living on the world's periphery.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Beni Darhim

Known today as Benidorm and reached via the airport at Alicante, one time Al-Akant. Reminders of Western Europe's only Islamic civilisation, Al Andalus.

The society that replaced it was one that would not have appeared so far off from the ideal to the likes of Osama Bin Laden. It did after all give us the Inquisition, and five hundred years later Franco-era Spanish school textbooks contained gems like this:

"A wife has no rights over her own body. On marriage she gives up those rights to her husband. He is the only one who can use those rights and only for reproduction" and "stimulants like coffee, tobacco, alcohol, newspapers, politics, cinema and luxury undermine us and waste our bodies away."

Faith-based fascism has assumed many forms throughout history, something we forget when we focus on Islamist variant that today seems to pose such a serious threat to liberal lifestyles. Still recoiling from the unprecedented bloodlettings resulting from the clash of secular ideologies in the twentieth century, modern westerners are also prone to disregard the fact that sacred communities in general have − over time − committed a greater overall number of senseless murders in the name of their one God.

Yet if, like me, you are inclined to think that the belief in divinely-inspired scripture is essentially wrongheaded, Islam is undoubtedly the most wrongheaded of all the montheistic systems, essentially because it represented a conscious upgrading of the previous two. There's a significant totalitarian streak in Christianity too, but perhaps it's as much communistic it is fascistic. Mohammed appreciated the various binary tensions in the precursor religion and was largely successful in expunging them.

In Spiked last Tuesday Minira Mirza reviewed a Channel 4 Dispatches programme in which Jon Snow posed the question"What do Muslims want?" Mirza was critical of the risk management approach to Islam in Britain and asked whether there was really anything special about the rising religiosity of young Muslims or their disenchantment with the "moral vacuum" in the West - a quest for "meaningful values" which she placed on a par with Christian fundamentalism and the spread of New Age religion.

However, yesterday's events appear to confirm − Tokyo gas attacks notwithstanding − that contemporary readers of the Koran are on average more likely to consider mass murder than those of The Celestine Prophecies. The risk management approach is therefore not devoid of all sense.

Last week a Norwegian friend outlined his views on why second or third generation Muslims seem to "do better" in the USA than in the UK: on the one hand America is leading the way in giving Islamists the world over a persecution complex, and can surely offer many examples of decadence to stoke up their righteous anger. Yet, on the other, the US might be said to have originated as a haven for puritanical prudes, and away from its more liberal coastlines, remains very accommodating to the "peoples of the book" and their moralistic prejudices.

Last night V and I were at an open-air Bollywood and Bhangra dance workshop in Canary Wharf's Cabot Square (with the excellent 4x4 Dancers) One of the spectators was a tall blonde girl wearing a near see-through short dress. As she danced alluringly for her boyfriend to film her, V pointed out to me the rigid expressions on the faces of the three middle-aged Bengali women sitting close by on the edge of the fountain. "Desprecio" − a potent mix of hatred and disgust. Hippies would surely have ignored her; Christian fundamentalists might never have turned up in the first place.

You can learn a lot about the desprecio baked into Islam by studying the society that existed in Mecca just before Mohammed and his revolutionary new faith burst onto the scene.

Interestingly, in Down and out in London and Paris, Orwell reported that the Arabs were then amongst the rowdiest pissheads in the French capital. Their drinking bouts would often end in knife fights. Arab men that is. (Personally I think it's the spectacle of women out drinking − and fighting − that most epitomises the "moral vacuum" to many Muslims in Britain today. )

V usually carries a lot of hand baggage on trans-Atlantic flights. An awful lot. Yet the new restrictions may actually work in her favour because most of it is stuff she would have checked in, but instead lugs into the cabin in order not to fail the weight restrictions. As of yesterday, airlines operating out of British airports have thrown out the rule book on excess baggage. It is also amusing to note that shortly after being deprived of your iPod or digital camera at security you can still purchase new ones to take on board your flight at Dixons in the departure lounge. There are at present no restrictions on Duty Free items purchased inside once you have already had your clear plastic bag searched.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I'm not Scared (Io no ho paura)

Kidnap movie no 2.

Italian cinema seems to specialise in nice-to-look-at coming of age dramas about young boys. Perhaps this is because this is a stage in life many adult Italian men appear to have bypassed!

I blogged about the novel when I read it a couple of years ago and I have very little to add here. Gabriele Salvatores' film has everything the book has...and less. Take away the bright and beautiful scenery and you are left with little to dwell over. The film fails in my view to capture the sinister side to the limited adult world around Michele and his friends, and the dark presentiment of childhood betrayed has been largely obscured by the persistent prettification.

Yet it's a tribute to the writing skills of Niccolò Ammaniti that I somehow felt I had 'seen' these undulating, champagne-coloured landscapes before.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


A month and five days after the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) came into force, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger popped up last weekend with the unsurprising news that in practice it seems to be working to the sole advantage of the United States:

"United States is dumping on us, selling us things and demanding we purchase what they want, but it does not accept our goods," he griped.

To date no Guatemalan company has passed the US health inspections which are geared to protect farmers up there who receive state subsidies not only to produce, but also to export, and are thus able to offload their chicken parts on Guatemala at prices below the actual cost of production.

Berger has threatened to denounce the US to the WTO for this kind of flagrant dumping, but stopped short of hiking up chicken import taxes, a move favoured by two Guatemalan businessmen that this week found themselves subjected to a motion for reconsideration of juristictional decision in regard to their trial for fraud.

These men are Dionisio Gutiérrez Mayorga and Juan Luis Bosch, controlling shareholders of Pollo Campero. Robert Amsterdam, the Florida-based attorney acting for LISA S.A. (a firm the duo supposedly defrauded of millions of dollars in dividends) wants the lawsuit relocated back to the US Courts, and has linked the Guatemalans' attempts to use their corrupt influence to have poultry import duties raised to a comprehensive set of endemic evils afflicting their country:

"The impunity behind the tragic situation of feminicide, the unresolved human rights crimes of the armed conflict, and the lawlessness of the maras is the same impunity of these high- profile white collar offenses. We must all work together to put an end to it."

There may be assymetries in CAFTA but there's a rather neat symmetry between the two kinds of impunity at work here in the poultry products trade!

The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei)

By a strange coincidence the last five films we have watched together have all been about kidnappings, and V and I agreed that this one was by far the best of the bunch.

When Spain's superjuez Baltasar Garzón was slowly uncovering details of the dirty war waged by the then socialist government's Interior Minister, his home was broken into twice. What sinister message do you imagine the intruders left in his bed to unsettle the investigating judge? A severed horse's head? No, a banana skin. In such matters Spain was ever the poor cousin of Italy.

Over in Germany it seems that an unexpected rearrangement of chattels is sufficient to put the willies up the complacently wealthy. The Edukators are a pair of young friends that spend their evenings breaking into Berlin villas while their owners are holidaying elswhere and instead of simply lifting the contents, they artfully re-compose them, leaving behind a note serving the absentees with the prediction that their days of plenty "are numbered".

Rather than fighting the capitalist dictatorship, their goal is to teach it a lesson. Having just watched Sympathy for Mr Vengeance I was thoroughly prepared for this movie to shift the educative process into reverse. An unpleasant sort of conclusion seemed on the cards from the moment Jule, a waitress with a genuine personal gripe against a Mercedes-owner joins the duo. "Isn't it annoying when you tell someone your best-kept secret and suddenly they are more intensely enthusiastic about it than you have ever been?" said V.

Instead, Hans Weingarnter slows the pace and gives us a likeable conclusion that is itself a lesson in resilient idealism, the growth of love and of friendship retained. Should today's youth give up simply because their parents did, the movie first asks us, then answers in the negative without any sense of copping out.

It's all been filmed with a hand-held digital camera in available light. A very good movie.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Looking for Palladin

Last week V stumbled across a film crew near La Merced in Antigua, making what we have since learned is the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Guatemala since Green Jade back in 1935.

Looking for Palladin is an indie movie with a budget of less than $1m conceived by writer-director Andrzej Krakowski. It tells the story of a young man called Josh Ross, who comes to Guatemala to find a retired old Oscar-winner called Jack Palladin, played by Ben Gazzara (pictured). Talia Shire (of Rocky and Godfather fame) is also on the cast list, which includes Mexican thesps Pedro Armendaris Jr., Angélica Aragón y Michelle Manterola, and the Guatemalan comedians Jimmy y Samuel Morales. They will do most of the location shooting in Antigua with some additional scenes set in the capital, including Aurora international aiport. (They will need to be quick as the departure lounge was being demolished around V when she passed through last week and consequently she was able to drive some hard bargains in the temporarily doomed retail units!) Filming is set to wrap at the end of this month.

While I was over there myself in June I watched Adventure Girl starring Joan Lowell..."as herself". Made in '34 with grateful assistance from then dictator Jorge Ubico, this B movie (recommended to me by Scott) charts the adventures of a young American girl who reaches Antigua via the Rio Dulce and there declares the ruins of the cathedral to be an ancient Maya temple. For the sacrilege of trying to make off with an idol she finds buried there she is sentenced to death by churrasco, but escapes the crowds of Indians (who are too busy dancing around in masks and playing their marimbas) by running through what looks like the arch at Chichicastenango. All good fun, if somewhat geographically and politically incorrect.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Baby Farm

Every 100th child born in Guatemala becomes an adopted American. 1% is the highest percentage of new born children put up for adoption anywhere in the world.

Would-be parents pay up to $30,000 for their little chapines. The notary pockets around $19,000 as a 'country fee', and although birth mothers are often remunerated, in some cases they only get the price of a bus fare to the capital.

Guatemala still allows adoptions to be managed privately, without judicial approval. As a result, the process of adoption can take as little as five months, compared to over a year elsewhere. Paperwork is often falsified. However, from the middle of next year, the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions will come into force in the United States and is likely to slow down this baby export boom. 3000 requests for adoption have already been filed in 2006 in an attempt to beat the looming deadline.


Hard not to think of the title of this one as a desperate plea to fidgety cinema audiences: Hang in will all make sense in the end. Except that it won't.

There's something up with reality, and the director seems to be tantalising us with some of the more memorable solutions to the problem: Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Sliding Doors, Bobby Ewing's famous shower scene comeback in Dallas. What we end up with is all and yet none of these; a state of affairs that Bob Hoskyns' character's remark "the Buddhists were right" may throw some light on, but does little to diminish the annoying sense that one is being goaded into an even more painful and pointless second sitting.

This has to be one of the most stylistically irritating movies ever made. Every shot wants to be a masterpiece. The care that has gone into the visuals is in marked contrast to that with which the characters are presented to us. I found no reason to give a damn about any of them. How I wished that suspended piano would fall and squash Ewan Mcgregor's character, psychologist Sam Foster. And when his young patient Henry announced that he would be committing suicide the following weekend, I thought "why wait?"