Friday, February 29, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Book)

"I can weep discreetly. People think my eye is watering." (Jean-Dominique Bauby)

I have to say a got a lot more out of Bauby's book than I did the movie, and have thus had to revise down somewhat my opinion of the latter's overall level of achievement.

Here are some of the bits I felt that the movie omitted:

1) A very particular sense of what Bauby misses from his previous life; such as bathtime: "Armed with a cup of tea or a Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, manoeuvring the taps with my toes."

2) The different aptitudes amongst his visitors for eye-lid led communications: "Crossword fans and Scrabble players have a head start. Girls manage better than boys...reticent people are much more difficult. If I ask them, 'How are you?' they answer 'Fine,' immediately putting the ball back in my court."

3) The inner-world of Bauby's sensual imagination: "For pleasure I have to turn to the vivid memory of tastes and smells...a bottle of late vintage Gewurtztraminer, or else I savour a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter...deprivation sent me constantly to my imaginary larder."

4) Repartee: "By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it." (This reminded me a bit of V's 'conversation' with Stephen Hawking outside the Cambridge Arts Cinema.)

5) The startling differences between the people that got close to Bauby before and after his stroke. "It is strange to hear my old partner in crime telling Claude about me. My quick temper, my love of books, my immoderate taste for good food, my red convertible - nothing is left out. Like a storyteller exhuming the legends of a lost civilisation." He also notes that it is the people with whom he previously had quite superficial relationships who were most determined to address the really fundamental questions of life with him afterwards.

His sensory limitations were not limited to vision: "My right ear is completely blocked and my left ear amplifies and distorts all sounds farther than ten feet away." The ear of a butterfly, he later notes.

Bauby's recollections of his trip to the races and failure to bet on Mithra-Grandchamp and the unstructured jaunt to Lourdes which became an "on-going mobile domestic crisis" with lover Josephine could have made Bauby's character and relationships much more vivid, had they been worked into the script more completely.

In conclusion, Schnabel gave us a limited window into Bauby's sense of his own condition, but was less successful at capturing the view out from inside this cocoon across the rest of humanity.

And what's with the deep sea diving suit? Is that the correct translation of the French, because in English 'diving bell' is something different.


Not without its faults but possibly just as deserving of the Best Film Oscar as No Country for Old Men. At its best in the middle section when the characters really come alive and when you can get a disarmingly strong impression of the feelings going on behind the sophisticated dialogue scripted by Diablo Cody. It's always on a bit of a tightrope though, and Juno's ex-military dad wobbles between refreshing sensitivity and glib unrealism. Frode wasn't impressed with the soundtrack and didn't much care for either the beginning or the end, but was relieved that it soon struck away from the comic sensibilities of Napoleon Dynamite, a movie he hadn't much cared for.

As for Ellen Page, last seen in Hard Candy, I think Roger Ebert has summed up her performance pretty well: "
Page's presence and timing are extraordinary. I have seen her in only two films, she is only 20, and I think she will be one of the great actors of her time."

Thursday, February 28, 2008


We've only just got started with Fairtrade Fortnight and now we have E-Day to contend with too.

The nannyism and empty-gesturism that are distorting democratic discourse in this country are spreading down from the state to the corporate world. Many British firms, my own included, are marking the occasion by switching off or turning down a fairly random set of energy-consuming devices. For one day.

Having listened earlier in the week on Radio 4's rather aptly named Beyond Belief programme to Emma Restall-Orr (Head of the Druid Network) explaining how she aspires to maintain her "integrity" through her consumer choices, the links between ethical urges in the workplace (and the supermarket) and old fashioned religiosity (i.e. junk thinking and irrationalism) are becoming only too apparent.

Judging by the experience of the last two millennia, taking a day off food and sex has done very little to reduce the overall levels of gluttony and lust in the monotheistic world, so I'm not especially optimistic about E-Day's chances of maintaining the pleasantly darkened ambience of our reception area. "Oh, but it's all about awareness," you tell me. Yes, and so were those visions of hell carved onto the timpana above the entrances to medieval cathedrals.

Is a day of energy-atonement that much different from the fasts observed in the the more familiar systems of supernatural belief? If a company's board takes away all the sweets and chocolates on Yom Kippur every year, surely the workers might reasonably be concerned that they are no longer making their living in an ideologically-neutral, secular sort of place? Will firms soon be laying on breakfast seminars on the difference between needs and desires?

Just a couple of years ago the building I work in played host to Frank Furedi of Spiked!, scourge of the miserabilists. Now anyone that speaks up against the consensus is likely to be made to feel like a gay man in a hick town.

That Radio 4 programme also featured a loose cannon from the other side of the spectrum: Richard D. North, Fellow of the Social Affairs Unit and author of Rich is Beautiful. North would be OK buying stuff made by children in the Third World because he's generally happy to let the market do his thinking for him, and he'd rather not have to worry whether the unemployed home-life of these kids might actually be worse. (Provenance is important though, he insists, so ideally he'd like to be able to watch them making his iPod socks via a webcam.)

I'm glad I will soon be escaping all these wingnuts for good. They should all try living in Central America for a bit; at the very least it might put in perspective their views on energy-use, consumption, 'fair' trade and recycling, though I'm afraid a good deal of them would simply continue to wander around in pursuit of their lost authenticity, wittering on about the "Mayan Cosmovision". (And ignoring the really important lessons we ccould learn from the Maya, such as how NOT to over-exploit your environment to the point of complete societal collapse.)

Sometime in the mid-90s I spent a weekend working on my company's very first website with a young Hungarian making his first trip to the West since the collapse of the Soviet block. Understanding the nature of PR proved a major intellectual hurdle for him: "But what do you actually MAKE here?"

And perhaps therein lies the problem. Paul Chandler of Trade Craft certainly hinted at this on Beyond Belief. The historical generations that produced things by growing or making them, have been, in this country's urban centres at least, replaced by individuals who really are fundamentally consumers, largely because they can no longer so easily conceive of their contribution to the economy as a productive activity. And it is this that is making them vulnerable to levels of guilt that even a medieval Catholic might find unbearable.

"The Gay Superbowl"

My father, whose business it used to be to organise massive events, was underwhelmed by the 80th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre last Sunday night. His views on its overall "witlessness" seem to be backed up by TV viewing figures; the worst since 1974.

Gloomy movies, the monosyllabic Coens and Tilda Swinton's taste in evening wear and acceptance speeches all seem to have contributed to the worldwide switch-off.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


"Case goods manufacturer Antigua Furniture has purchased another 200 acres of land here to expand its ongoing reforestation efforts in Guatemala.The land is located on a tract called the Agua Volcano in Antigua. With the purchase of the additional land, the company now owns some 1,016 acres it plans to reforest and preserve in the area." (LINK)

Hmmm, the slopes of the Agua volcano wouldn't be my first pick for reforestation in Guatemala...

We had a small tremor here in London last night, which made our bed wobble. It was the kind that we get almost monthly in Antigua, but are felt in England only every thirty years or so.

Monday, February 25, 2008

"That guy is so arrogant!"

Said Jon Stewart (in jest of course) of Glen Hansard last night after he accepted his statuette from the Scientologist with the spray-on hairstyle. Markéta Irglová was drowned out by a somewhat vainglorious version of her music the first time, but came back later to give an equally touching message of hope.

I do hope this award helps them flog a lot of DVDs of Once, which I have long since forgiven for its 'sunday-afternoon scruffiness'. And the song itself:

Javier Bardem's official date was his mother last night, but Penélope was around somewhere.

Glad to see him win his Oscar... and all of Spain seems to have gone pretty wild about it too, especially politicians on both sides of the electoral campaign. Amazed that the Academy gave the Best Actress award to a Frenchwoman acting in her native tongue, but I do enjoy Marianne's acceptance speeches. And Cormac McCarthy looked over the moon when best film was announced. No poor decisions this year really.

Viva Obama!

Hillary's remaining hopes of winning the Democratic Party nomination depend quite heavily on the hard-working Mexican-American voters of Texas, who up to recently would have been considered firmly in the Clinton camp. Thanks to Buried Mirror for this clip which shows what Obama has been planning to do about that...

"Hasta con plan de salud!"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Don't send back up!

In response to the arrest of local leader Ramiro Choc (great Maya name that) villagers from Maya Creek boated up to Livingston on Thursday and took 30 members of the Guatemalan national police (PNG) hostage...before taking them back to Maya Creek.

Choc had been detained on Feb 14 on charges of illegal land invasion, robbery and illegally holding people against their will. He has also allegedly been inciting community members to invade land and take over protected nature reserves.

The hostages have asked authorities to send negotiators instead of backup forces.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Y 'El Meneaito'...

Hard Candy

Someone was always bound to write this story. Fortunately, when they did, they made a good job of it and the script has been especially well-favoured by David Slade's direction and Ellen Page's acting.

32-year-old man and 14-year-old girl have been chatting online for three weeks and agree to "hook up" on her suggestion. She then talks herself back to his home and after advising him that she has been taught never to drink anything she hasn't mixed up herself, proceeds to mix up a soporific screwdriver for her host.

When he later awakens strapped to a chair, the cat and mouse stuff gets under way. The makers of the film have set things up nicely to generate a range of different reactions from their audience, though most men are bound to find the scenes of apparent castration uncomfortable to watch, to say the least.

This highly-charged topic of reverse-grooming the paedos reminds me of the time V used to try to sniff out the Chapin kiddyfiddlers on Latinchat in order to send them on wild goose-chase missions to meet up with their targets.

This is England

There was some consternation following the BAFTAs when Shane Meadows's film pipped Atonement to the Best British Film mask, only to be nowwhere to be seen when the Ian McEwan adaptation was voted Best Film overall. (A travesty!)

Now this was in part down to the fact that the two gongs had different electorates, but it could also be said that This is England belongs to a class of films that require a degree of British cultural inculcation for full appreciation.

I'd also say that direct experience of the early eighties under Thatcher and the Falklands War in particular would also be useful, because there is a strong note of nostalgia in this narrative. It made me think back to my own early teens, when the charts were packed with two tone tunes and England's urban blacks were collectively known as 'West Indians'. And what of that bizarre war in Las Malvinas where British paras with fags in their mouths were filmed tipping dead Argentines off stretchers into the next available slot on a line of fallen comrades? The wars that our squaddies are fighting today must be just as raw, yet somehow we are denied access to a comparable class of images that could last a lifetime.

Meadows uses the semi-autobiographical character of young Shaun, inducted into a skinhead gang in seaside Grimsby, to tell a tale that is at once lightly funny and tragic. Two tone indeed!

Joe Gilgun's soft-natured, untroubled Woody deserves a special mention, but his antithesis, Stephen Graham's volatile Combo is also fascinating to watch.

The soundtrack album is also fab.

Monster Love

I might have had second thoughts about reading Carol Topolski's first novel had I known that it was partially germinated at the David and Julia White Artists' Colony in Costa Rica. Anyway, setting aside those little prejudices, it was in fact the generally favourable mentions the book received on Simon Mayo's show that led me to pick up my signed first edition at Blackwell's.

It is the story of Brendalyn, or Brendan and Sherilyn, a couple so wrapped up in themselves that their only possible response to the 'accidental' birth of their daughter Samantha is a most monstrous form of neglect. Both fugitives from disfunctional lower-middle class backgrounds, they meet just as their new, seemingly upward-bound professional existences are taking shape and from then on go around, as one observer puts it, like two locked diaries, hand in hand.

Their disaster of parenthood and the trial that results are recounted by a sequence of voices: nosy neighbours, family members, colleagues, jurors and prison warders. The narrative picks up enough momentum through the first of these to carry the reader through, but the perspectives are of mixed interest and quality and one quickly has a sense that Topolski's structure is permitting her only to glance across the surface of some of the deeper insights such a tale might harbour. I fancy the novel could feed a decent movie screenplay, but its writer would need to look a bit deeper into its themes of transgression and family connections.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Mark Kermode observed recently that the trouble with life-affirming movies is that they usually leave you wanting to bring your own life to an end rather sooner than you would have imagined on entering the cinema. Still, he was prepared to exempt Julian Scnabel's Le Scaphandre et le Papillon from this prescription, because the singular epilogue in the autobiography of Elle editor Jean-Do Bauby really is the kind of material that can quickly have you reassessing your life's current set of priorities.

That said, Bauby's life was one of privilege and the experience of being 'locked-in' appears to have been softened in his case by the extension of his relative position of advantage beyond the unfathomable misfortune of his 'accident'. (Thus we see a number of attractive women competing for the attention of Bauby's single roving eye...)

Whereas the diving bell scenes left me none the wiser about what it must be like to exist as a brain with an eye, there was one scene where I think Schnabel did find a clever way to reveal the imaginative strivings of Bauby's isolated mind: where he stares at a bust behind glass and imagines the comforting, and very lovely presence of the ghost of L'impératrice Eugénie, played here by Antoine de Caunes's daughter Emma.

Now, generally I'm a big sucker for the kind of schmaltz that emanates from fictional father-son relationships and, as a result, have been known to become watery-eyed in cheesy shows like Little House on the Prairie. Yet try as hard as they might, Max von Sydow and Mathieu Almaric left me surprisingly unmoved with their blubbery telephone chat late on in the film. I felt I just hadn't learned enough about this pair to really care about their relationship. And so in conclusion, an interesting movie, fascinatingly shot, but with some rather strange emotional lacunae.

Hand made food

If there is a place in the UK with a greater density of pretentious cafes than Blackheath village, I'd like to know about it. There's even one called Hand Made Food for Pete's sake!

I remember TC telling me how her enterprising compatriots in Brazil have really taken to the latest labelling scams, offloading onto our brand-addled middle classes products like 'organic' dulce de leche which was anyway produced without all the pesticides (i.e. cheaply) before this collective consumer fantasy of escape from the processed life became so pervasive.

The most depressing thing about the people that frequent these worthy places is the way they sit as couples or small family groups ignoring each other (and more especially ignoring their children if they happen to have any) as they read the Sunday papers and sip their Fairtrade coffee.

And then there's the fact that they are actually making things worse, intensifying a newer form of process that compensates for its essential shallowness by the way it makes people feel socially and morally superior just for having participated in it.

Yes we can, yes we can, yes we can...

I met up with Frode and Emily at Starbucks on Regent Street last Friday night. He couldn't wait to show me this video:

What better harbinger of the sort of unstoppable group-hugginess likely to sweep over the American political scene should Obama win his party's nomination. Alienated, partly cynicised individuals everywhere will be revelling in this opportunity to return to the group!

Friday, February 15, 2008

'Quake Swarm'

Border town Mexicali has been shaking quite a bit this week. On Wednesday alone, there were at least three dozen tremors, one a 3.3. On other days three shudders registered over 5.0.


Learn to speak chucho.

Potent combinations of everyone and someone

Very insightful new post on Technium by Kevin Kelly:

"Never before have we been able to make systems with as much "hive" in it as we have recently made with the web. Until this era, technology was primarily all control, all design. Now it can contain both design and no-design, or hive-ness.

In fact, this Web 2.0 business is chiefly the first step in exploring all the ways in which we can combine design and the hive in innumerable permutations. We are tweaking the dial in hundreds of combos:

1) dumb writers, smart filters, no editors
2) smart writers, dumb filters, no editors
3) smart editors, smart filters, no writers infinitum.

"The real art of business and organizations in the network economy will not be in harnessing the crowd of "everybody" (simple!) but in finding the appropriate hybrid mix of bottom and top for each niche, at the right time. The mix of control/no-control will shift as a system grows and matures."

SWP in Guate

Found this video of Chelsea's Shaun Wright-Phillips out in Guatemala last June helping Fundación Educando A Los Niños.

"Shaun, along with his mum Sharon, his auntie Dionne, and his step mum Debbie, as well as his brother and sister Stacey and Bobbi-Lee, were all incredibly moved by the reception they received and the impact they made. As a result, Shaun has agreed to become an ambassador to the foundation, and he has already started to raise funds to advance our work. We are delighted to have him and his family on board, and we look forward to a positive and long term relationship. He came over to Guatemala with a TV crew from Chelsea TV and they have already aired a 30 minute programme, made during the visit, to highlight the huge social problems that exist in the country. He had a packed schedule and was willing to do or join in with anything, as you can imagine the children loved him!!"

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pena de Muerte

Guatemala's congress restored the death penalty yesterday after a six year intermission. President Colom is said to be personally against the pena de muerte, but erstwhile rival Otto Pérez Molina described it this week as "the only method of disuading the delinquents." Over the past month eleven bus drivers have been murdered, which has generated a certain reluctance to turn up for work amongst the remainder.

Tax exile

Was amused to hear Umberto Eco claiming in a R3 interview that he keeps bank accounts in a number of different countries as he has lived under the constant threat of having to go into exile throughout his professional life. That's a good one!

Monday, February 11, 2008

No Country For Old Men

Ridley Scott looked as miffed as I was feeling when they announced that Atonement had won the BAFTA for Best Film. How could they...?

Anyway, having now seen No Country for Old Men I can confirm that it is a very good, if not a great adaptation by the Coens. What for me were the two most interesting things about McCarthy's novel have been weakened.

Firstly, and almost unavoidably for a movie, the three separate narrative planes occupied by Moss, Chigurh and the Sheriff have been more or less collapsed into one. This makes the unconventionality of the ending seem that much more awkward here. (There's actually a fourth plane, the one occupied by 'the Mexicans', whose repeated intersection with the others we have to interpret through deductive logic. The Coens have had a go at this, but they have removed at least one critical encounter.)

Secondly, and people who have not read the novel may have trouble believing this, the Coens have toned down the violence and mayhem. There's not much here that moviegoers will find outlandish, and yet that was definitely by experience of the book and I think this is a crucial part of the McCarthy vision.

If great art is as much about what is left out as about what is included, McCarthy's very careful decisions about what to omit have been undermined somewhat by the Coens' screenwriting which inevitably imposes its own set of exclusions.

Javier Bardem is indeed great, and so too are Kelly Macdonald and Josh Brolin, but Woody Harrelson was miscast as Wells, the retired special forces Colonel. I'm not so sure about Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell either. Perhaps I had in mind a figure a bit more like the Sherrif in Misery! And in his mouth McCarthy's one-liners and philosophical musings just seem a little bit stagey.

Not a loser?

Hernan Gomez has resigned as head coach of Guatemala after not failing to win anything and in particular after not failing to lose 0-5 to Argentina. "It would be a failure if I had been coaching Argentina," he said at a news conference last Friday. "It would be a failure if I had been coaching Italy. But with all respect, it's not a failure because Guatemala has never won anything."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Experiments in democracy

I was interested to learn the other day that Spain was officially classified as a member of the developing world up to 1964. (For rather obvious reasons Franco's regime missed out on the Marshall plan for Europe.)

Anyway, here in 2008 they have some general elections in the pipeline and RTVe has marked the occasion with a YouTube page ( where each party has a video channel and ordinary citizens can upload their video interviews.

Last month the organisers of the World Economic Forum in Davos also decided to use YouTube to sound out public opinion and received 250 or so filmed answers to the question 'What is the one thing that could be done to make the world a better place?'

I was amused to hear Tony Curzon Price, Editor-in-Chief of decribe this little experiment on the BBC's Digital Planet as "the most appalling piece of business populism". Going on to liken it to the Saudi monarch's "court of petitions" and a "dictatorship of business interests", he then decried this and other examples of the "translation of the metaphor of business into politics." and of the pretence of public consultation that is now very much in vogue. Real politics, he concluded, "is where the people involved in the process have some power."

Mark Adams, the Davos meeting's comms chief, was on hand to reaffirm that his was a "multi-stakeholder organisation". Perceptively, he suggested that Curzon Price's real problem was probably YouTube and not their use of it: "Maybe Tony doesn't think we should ask ordinary people their views..." (I don't think Tony did, as he later made a clear association between this kind of consultation and populism.)

Uniquely perfect

A crap '07/'08 season for the Dolphins had a silver lining on Sunday night when the Giants scored a late winning touchdown against the up-to-then rather smug Patriots. So for now, the 17-0 1972 Dolphins remain, in the words of one member of that team, "uniquely perfect". This year's vintage also very narrowly avoided the unwanted distinction of becoming uniquely imperfect!