Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dos aguacatones...

From our terreno in Parramos.

I learned the other day that a man was murdered recently on my brother-in-law's section of the land, as he returned home bearing his quincena. As a result the mayor of Parramos ordered my cuñado to clear away a lot of the overgrown foilage as it was becoming something of a nido de ladrones and other assorted cut-throats and general delinquents.


...Y de paso, dónde está mi calzoncillo-bomba?

Ho Ho Ho

The Santas were out in force last week. This one was hired by the Muni.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Personal responsibility

In most modern democracies politicians tend to be a self-selecting sub-set of society which habitually allows its judgment to be clouded by ideology — and thus arguably one of those least apt for governing us.

No amount of empirical evidence demonstrating that Saddam was neither in cahoots with Al Qaeda nor stockpiling WMDs could shake Tony Blair from his conviction that invading Iraq was the right thing to do at the time. With the facts building up against him, he turned to Catholicism.

With their underlying ideological committment to personal responsibility British conservatives are once again donning their dogma goggles so that they may better pontificate on the perennially thorny matter of the undeserving poor and helpless.

Smokers and the clinically obese should pay more tax than people who lead healthy lifestyles, their leader David Cameron now tells us, because they present a greater risk of actually deriving some individual benefit from their taxes via hospital care.

But hold on, that's not what the facts say. Longer-living health nuts actually cost the NHS more than all those morally despicable fatties and fumadores; for it is longevity itself which determines an individual's lifetime burden on the health service. Smokers die young and quickly on average. But when did facts ever stop a politician — especially a right-winger who likes nothing better than kicking those who are already down. (Full disclosure: nunca he fumado.)

British Conservatism hasn't always been so Ayn Randy. According to Colin Kidd "ever since the rise of Margaret Thatcher, personal responsibility has been the irresistible itch that the Conservative Party dare not scratch - at least not in public."

Many old school party members have nevertheless remained convinced that consumerism has made us all a bit soft, degenerate even, and that — as Kidd puts it — it is "but a small step from..quilted toilet paper to long-haired decadence, dysfunctional families and drug addiction."

But Keith Joseph had made "saloon-bar Malthusianism" deeply unfashionabled, so Margaret Thatcher undertook to handle devisive ethical matters with a circumspection few American Republicans would get their heads around today.

Kidd's comments come in his excellent LRB review of Alexander Brown's Personal Responsibility: Why it Matters, a book which aims to show that politicians, perhaps more than any other social group, tend to underestimate the philosophical incommensurables surrounding the issue of how society determines which individuals to support (based on their circumstances and lifestyle choices).

Amongst the conceptual minefields are those of Free Will and Misfortune: eg. brute luck or misadventures arising from one's own or someone else's misguided risk-taking.

For example, there are many people in the world today, smokers and single mothers included, whose straightened circumstances can at least in part be blamed on the inability of certain Wall Street traders to understand basic economics and business practice. And Kidd explains how herd instincts, peer pressure etc. are liable to affect the behaviour of all members of society, such that not only bankers find it hard to take a principled strand.

There does seem to be a lot of evidence to suggest that we eat more if most of our friends are gluttons, and this in turn would appear to be the perfect recipe for one of those self-reinforcing cycles.

Review of 2009: Non-Fiction and Film

I spent a full ten months in Antigua this year, compared to just six in 2009. It's a record for me and one I can already see myself falling short of next year.

I still don't really consider myself an ex-pat. Though I share some of my wife's interests here in Guatemala I still make my own living predominantly outside the country and haven't felt that reversing out the time I spend in the UK and Guatemala has resulted in such a massive lifestyle change as others who more consciously emigrate or indeed ex-patriate themselves.

Having such a long association with this lovely town and my local relatives by marriage, I also feel a good deal more assimilated when I'm here than other foreign residents I could mention. So call me a tourist if you like...albeit one who spends a bit more time here than most. (You most certainly won't find me calling myself a 'citizen of the world' however. Last time I overheard someone doing that, I thought what a twat! )

What's the difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant, I've had cause to ask myself a few times this year? That an ex-pat generally won't fight for his or her adopted country seems like an obvious one; in fact they generally run for their embassies at the first sign of trouble. (Though, the distinctions are very often more subtle. For example, your average American in Florence will occasionally wander around fantasising about being Italian in a way that can be contrasted with their equivalents over here, who will almost never dream of being Guatemalan.)

Anyway, 2008 was memorable in that I made good on the decision to spend more time out here and in the way that the departing Bush administration almost took the entire global economy out with them when they fumbled the winding up of Lehman Brothers.

Yet I believe that it is the contents of this year which will stick with me for longer. It's had one grim personal moment in particular, but also plenty of uplifting ones as the general sense of circling the drain eased from the late spring onwards. It has been the year that I finally found my way to Oaxaca and discovered the uncomplicated pleasures of Mazunte.

I then spent a good part of the summer back at the farm in Berkshire and was glad to be around when most needed. I've also felt personally rewarded (and useful) in the various roles I have undertaken for Commetric this year.

V and I have avoided making any major changes to the house over the last twelve months but have stored up a few biggies for Q1 2010. The local cat population has fluctuated, but we're steady on the chuchos.

Meanwhile, my investment in Amazon seven months ago has worked out so well that I don't know how much longer I can continue to deny myself a Kindle. Nevertheless I've rather scaled down my non-fiction reading this year so I've settled on a top 5 rather than a top 10:

1) The Berlin Diaries Of Marie Vasiltchikov — MARIE 'MISSIE' VASILTCHIKOV
2) The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher — KATE SUMMERSCALE
3) Agincourt — JULIET BARKER
4) Henry, Virtuous Prince — DAVID STARKEY

The opposite problem applies with my favourite films of 2009, as there were 20+ to which I accorded at least an A grade. Anyway, here — in no particular order — are the twelve I picked for my year-end chart in ultimately undisciplined fashion:

Tony Manero
A Perfect Getaway
Che, Part 1
The Hurt Locker
There Will Be Blood
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Gran Torino
Drag Me to Hell
The Damned United
Let the Right One In

There was also a pair of very memorable feature-lenth documentaries:
Man on Wire
Encounters at the End of the World

These are all 2008/9 releases. Of the comparative oldies, we also greatly enjoyed...
The Quiet Family

BTW, one night very soon we're going to be watching The White Ribbon, Haneke's Palm D'Or winner and a movie I suspect might have made it onto this list if we'd seen it in time,.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Possibly not the ideal animated feature to be viewing just as the self-disgust of Christmas crapulence takes a firm hold of one's conscience. "Rather revolting," was V's conclusion, though she'd singled out the jelly scene and the rolling fish bowl as the movie's most delicious early appetisers.

This tale of a young scientist (voiced by that man Bill Hader again) who builds a machine capable of turning water into fast food before launching it into the upper atmosphere, is packed with stunning visual jokes, but the rendering of human characters is a little primitive.

Kermayo compared it to a Disney-Pixar flick directed by David Lynch and the Guardian's Film Weekly pairing raved about the roast chicken attack. (Apparently this is even more disturbing and surreal in 3D.)

There are certainly plenty of eye (and mind)-catching moments, but it does tend to curdle into a relajo in the final half-hour; this perhaps the inevitable consequence of following the structural implications of spoofing the overblown apocalypses of Roland Emmerich. And yes, I know it's for kids, but sometimes it feels more of a celebration of the American way of eating than a subtle condemnation of it.

(There's a drôle sequence of gags about London and how, no matter what, it always remains damp and grey...and everyone still wears bowler hats. Average annual rainfall is higher in Paris I'll have you know.)

Grade: B+

Review of 2009: Fiction

It's that time of the year where all forms of media indulge in their general summing why not?

2009 was the year of the bloodsucker in so many ways. I even found myself reading a vampire novel — Guillermo del Toro's The Strain — on holiday in Mexico.

I've delved a bit more into genre fiction than I have lately been accustomed, and found the experience generally rewarding. James Lee Burke's Swan Peak, perhaps the most outstanding of several detective novels I read, only just fell outside the top ten and not far behind it were Michael Connelly's Nine Dragons and his own The Tin Roof Blowdown.

In contrast some of the literary fiction I took in this year was a tad disappointing; most notably Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee and Mentira by Enrique de Hériz.

1) Los Detectives Salvajes — ROBERTO BOLAÑO
2) The Year Of The Flood — MARGARET ATWOOD
3) Breath — TIM WINTON
5) Jeff In Venice, (Death In Varanassi) — GEOFF DYER
6) Dance Dance Dance — HARUKI MURAKAMI
7) White Tiger — ARAVIND ADIGA
8) The Remains of the Day — KAZUO ISHIGURO
9) El Búfalo De La Noche — GUILLERMO ARRIAGA
10) Ordinary Thunderstorms — WILLIAM BOYD

Once again I seem to have failed to review all of the titles in the list and my response to The Savage Detectives is still something of a work in progress.

Geoff Dyer's two part novel fully deserved a place here in spite of the fact that I've only actually completed the Jeff in Venice stage!

It may come as a surprise to some that The Remains of the Day features so low in the list, but I've come to this excellent novel somewhat late with my expectations informed by the film, and the chart is a personal ranking based as much on what I got out of each individual work as its inherent literary qualities.

Spanish Pedazos #8

Similar to Guatemala's quesadillas (though arguably both yummier and more artery-clogging) quesadas are a speciality of the region of Cantabria in Spain.

Other than a kilogram of cheese, the recipe usually also includes a heady mix of eggs, flour, milk, nutmeg and occasionally, yogurt.

As you can see from this pic, they are mixed up in a human-machine hybrid process which includes a certain amount of forearm movement!

61 minutes

Now, just as a number of trips to and through the USA beckon, the bozos that run American airline security have come up with a series of "unpredictable" changes to prevailing regulations, most of which seem to assume that they have now admitted to an inability to spot Achmed al Jihad before he gets on your plane.

Only a terrorist with a problem prostate is going to be put off by the requirement to remain seated for the final hour of the flight; and of course we all know that wide-bodied jets only pass over built-up areas during this 60 minute period. (Is it really beyond your average Islamofascist to schedule his trip to paradise 61 minutes before the rest of us are due to get off?)

At least Obama has now fessed up to a "systemic failure" which might lead to an effort at improving existing screening methods, rather than introducing a whole load of vexing new restrictions that are unlikely to improve either passenger security or peace of mind — and may even result in the filing of lawsuits against airlines which callously torture passengers with weak bladders. (The astronomer Tycho reportedly died after denying himself a #1 for too long).

I'm sure that in the weeks ahead I will have plenty of opportunity to reflect on A.L. Kennedy's observation that the way governments treat us at the airport is the way they'd secretly like to treat us all the time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Los Bastardos (2008)

Amat Escalante's headline screening at the DLA festival was a painful experience in the manner of Batalla en el Cielo. (Indeed, Carlos Reygadas, the Mexican director whose quest it is to find a way of separating cinema from narrative, is listed as an 'associate' of this snorefest.)

From the poster here and the short-lived drama of the opening titles, one could be mistaken for anticipating something akin to an thrill-packed couple of hours.

But the sequence which kicks off the 'action' of the movie reveals its director's intention to structure his story around extended scenes where nothing much of dramatic consequence is permitted to occur, thereby draining all momentum from situations which do at least have the potential for tension. Escalante has also borrowed his mentor's signature technique of deploying the most inexpressive, almost somnolent amateur actors into this narrative desert.

The bastards in question are the propitiously-named Jesús and Fausto, a pair of indocumentados doing whatever job turns up in order to pay for fixing the failing sight of their auntie back in Guanajuato. (Or perhaps the bastards are the gringos who breeze in to pick the day labourers up off the side of the highway?)

Even when digging ditches during the day for $10 an hour, they carry a loaded shotgun with them in a black mochila, and come nightfall we find them tormenting a crack-smoking suburban mother in a sort of inert pastiche of Haneke's Funny Games. (1997/2007)...though it's not entirely without dread and discomfort and the prevailing tedium is memorably punctured by a jolting wake-up moment.

The immigrants' victim is convinced that her ex has hired the pair to do her in, but whenever she puts this to them, even proposing a gazumping maneuver, they appear distracted and deny her any confirmation. Their English isn't that good and anyway, in this particular school of Mexican film-making, all indications of motivation, psychological or otherwise, are usually suppressed.

So, whilst one must recognise the significant difference between a film which is boring by accident and one like this, which is boring on purpose, one can still hesitate to designate this as a worthy achievement.

Grade: C++

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas cheer

"Si no hago tamales, me pongo triste," reflected the lady at the local finca as she waived all charges for our usual order of tomate, pepino and chile pimiento. The instinctive generosity of so many people around here is one of the most cheering features of Christmas in Guatemala.

V isn't into making tamales herself, but we were soon unable to complain of a shortage as a series of neighbours knocked on our gate in order to render up some of their own surplus. Best of all were the tamales (negros and colorados) gifted to us by Doña I, our local shopkeeper. (A host of other goodies have been presented to us by friends, family and nearby residents.)

There's a sense here today that we are in the eye of this seasonal storm of over-indulgence — well, some of the relatives have piled off back to Guate and won't be returning until Wednesday — so, a moment perhaps to reflect on the comestibles that have left the largest impression thus far:

V's chimichurri-style salsa made with capers, two kinds of basil, cucumber and a smattering of chopped peppers — The seemingly endless chocolate, strawberry and vanilla cake from La Cenicienta — Doña T's enormous pierna of pork with her homemade chile sauce — The pepián and rice yesterday at Villa Clarita — The red and white candy bastones which stick in the teeth like Brighton rock — And all the wines.

I even found myself drinking New World chardonnay at one stage. I thought I'd stocked up enough vino to last us through to the 4th, but supplies have been depleted faster than anticipated, and a further trip to Tabacos y Vino before the weekend may yet have to be called for.

It's a pity that pine needles aren't so freely available in the market all year round, as I am getting used to the new floor covering in the downstairs loo.No shortage of pine trees around here of course, but only Osli has much of a chance of reaching their lower branches.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 26

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is the secular version of the Feast of St Stephen, observed in the UK and the Commonwealth...and Germany, for some reason.

Back in the middle ages this was the day that the rich offloaded some of their spare stuff on the poor. It's modern name may derive from the practice of Victorian England's better-off of packing up stuff in boxes to give to their household servants and other labourers who had provided them with services during the year.

I have also read that 'Christmas Boxes' were carried on ships setting sail on long and difficult voyages during the age of exploration. Crewmen wishing to ensure safe passage would drop coins into their ship's box, and upon their return would hand it over to a man of the cloth who undertook to keep it safe until December 26.

When I was growing up it was the traditional time for a family outing: to the theatre or for lunch in the countryside. These days most Brits are likely to direct these outings at the first of the January sales which kick off before the turkey has been properly digested.

For now and the foreseeable future Boxing Day will also be associated with the Asian tsunami of 2005, surely the most terrible event which occurred in the decade we are about to leave behind.

V and I were here in Antigua then, but had backed out of a Christmas trip to Thailand at the last minute. We'd most probably have been in Bangkok or on the side of the peninsula spared by the waves, but thoughts of what might have been are sobering, and we knew of several people who were caught up in it, including one who made the fatal error of running onto the beach at Khao Lak to investigate the mysteriously receding shoreline. There were numerous programmes on TV yesterday commemorating the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. We were frankly amazed at how thoroughly the people of Aceh have reconstructed the cultural and commercial life of their province.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Pics from the archive (24)

Festive street scene in Bruges, Belgium
Taken 5th January 2002

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pics from the archive (23)

Christmas decorations in Locarno, Switzerland
Taken 3rd January 2002

Well, if I'd stuck to the original itinerary, I would now be de-planing (as the Septics say) at Heathrow from a BA jumbo recently arrived from Singapore...and contemplating the possibility of the first proper white Christmas in the London area during my lifetime.

The other day I realised that I belong to the decrepit generation who can still remember the days when Heathrow was known as 'London Airport'. Say that to a cabbie these days and you will certainly get a quizzical look.

Anyway, here I am in Guatemala still and frankly glad I am too to have avoided the deep European chill. There has been a heavy, settling snow fall in the south-east of England twice in the same calendar year now, when for Greater London at least, such things tend to only happen once a decade. My father reckons that the last white Christmas in the capital occurred back in 1962.

The wait may not be over just yet however, as it poured with rain there yesterday in spite of the sub-zero temperatures and warmer air is predicted for Christmas day and the weekend that follows.

We're almost all set now for tonight. Just a few more goodies to collect from Epicure which we ordered yesterday. This morning my mother rather typically described the notion of holding a buffet dinner when you don't really know who's going to turn up and when, as "uncivilised".

We're likely to be beset for the rest of the day with the niggling feeling that the one thing that can still go wrong is that the gas will run out. (According to V it should have run out in October.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pics from the archive (22)

Venice Beach, Los Angeles
Taken 21st October 2007

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

El Niño Pez (2009)

This one kicks off a short season of reviews of some of the movies which featured at the 8th Discovering Latin America film festival in London, which concluded a few days ago. (Special guest directors included Amat Escalante (Arg), Alfonso Cuarón (Mex) and Jorge Navas from Colombia.)

Anyone with fond memories of the sapphic pop exploitation phenomenon that was t.A.T.u will be off to a head start with Lucía Puenzo's The Fish Child. (Not gonna get us...) Don't worry if you missed out on the Russian duo because you can play catch up by staring at the film's promotional poster here.

Ok, that's enough...

Judge's daughter Lala has a thing for La Guayi, the family's Paraguayan home help. (So too in fact does her father and just about every other male in the story.) The interlaced chronology fills us in pretty early on that the pair have been sharing bedtime and bathtime and, in spite of judge Bronté's many enemies in corrupt Buenos Aires, are the most likely suspects in his sudden death by poisoning.

The rather odd grade I've given the film reflects that from a base position of ordinarily interesting (and certainly never uninteresting) it at times surged towards the truthful while at others it retreated back to the terrible.

There's hardly a bloke in the tale who isn't in some way a cynical abuser, and the dialogue is almost uniformly of the it must be deep because it's stulted kind. Yet there's more to this than a simplistic, right-on feminist take on class and gender transgression. because the motivations of the Guaraní maid retain their mystery in spite of Puenzo's efforts to serve up some explanation at the end.

Grade: B (+-)

Now watch the 'Red Army Remix' of t.A.T.u's biggest hit. Love the pink tank.

Thirst (2009)

Winner of the Jury Prize at this years Cannes festival, Bakjwi (Thirst) by Park Chan-wook was also named as film of the year by Michael Fassbender on this week's Wittertainment.

It's about a South Korean Catholic priest called Sang-hyeon who volunteers for an experimental vaccine programme in Africa. This doesn't work out so well for him however, as he is given a blood transfusion which turns him into a vampire.

Back home his priestly nature is immediately tested by a whole new set of carnal desires. And while he is able to avoid killing people for a short period by making use of a conveniently comatose patient for his regular blood rations, he is drawn into a relationship with downtrodden wife and daughter Tae-ju, as a result of which his moral wellbeing is thereafter subject to incremental setbacks.

Soon the pair are plotting the demise via drowning of her dimwitted husband in a section of the story based on Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin (1867), of which Roger Ebert sagely observed in his review, that it contains neither priests nor vampires. (Though it does feature a regular game of dominoes, here represented by mahjong.)

The film has its flaws and occasional longeurs, oddly enough the most excruciating of which is a sex scene, but there's never any realy doubt that you are in the hands of a master.

Grade: A-

Monday, December 21, 2009

First Words (20)

"Hoy, en esta isla, ha ocurrido un milagro: el verano se adelantó. Puse la cama cerca de la pileta de natación y estuve bañándome, hasta muy tarde. Era imposible dormir. Dos o tres minutos afuera bastaban para convertir en sudor el agua que debía protegerme de la espantosa calma. A la madrugada me despertó un fonógrafo. No pude volver al museo, a buscar las cosas. Huí por las barrancas. Estoy en los bajos del sur, entre plantas acuáticas, indignado por los mosquitos, con el mar o sucios arroyos hasta la cintura, viendo que anticipé absurdamente mi huida. Creo que esa gente no vino a buscarme; tal vez no me hayan visto. Pero sigo mi destino; estoy desprovisto de todo, confinado al lugar más escaso, menos habitable de la isla; a pantanos que el mar suprime una vez por semana."

Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel (1940)

"Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time. I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine. Now I am in the lowlands at the southern part of the island, where the aquatic plants grow, where mosquitoes torment me, where I find myself waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water. And, what is worse, I realize that there was no need to run away at all. Those people did not come here on my account; I believe they did not even see me. But here I am, without provisions, trapped in the smallest, least habitable part of the island — the marshes that the sea floods once each week."

Posada #4

Eventually some enterprising Guatemalan will invent a car alarm which isn't triggered by cohetes.


Along with most of the western Atlantic, Central America has been treated to some pretty ugly weather over the weekend. No big improvement today either.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Posada #5

A much-depleted posada posse leaving Doña T's last night. We'd provided Cherry with some ear-plugs, but she kept pulling them out. In the end the low-key nature of this salida was emphasised by the absence of cohetes. (Still, at almost any time of the year you can put our dog into a paroxysm of fear just by imitating the sound of the turtle shell drum: toc toc toc tottoc.)

Things had been very different the night before. The arrival of the posada outside Doña T's is the highlight of the season. People queue up outside her gate in anticipation of her ponche and panes, plus the big plastic buckets that she gives away. Very few even bother to follow Mary and Joseph around the neighbourhood, as that would put them further back in the line.

Do we detect a hint of dissonance in the way that this albeit distantly sacred ritual has been so enthusiastically embraced by local leeches? Perhaps not. For a glance through the Gospels reveals that the earliest followers of the mature Christ (one would hesitate to refer to such interesados as Christians) were only really up for it as long as rabbi Jesus could pull off the trick of feeding five thousand with a few loaves of bread and cheap plonk. (Coming up with plastic buckets in ancient Judea really would have been a miracle.)

First Words (19)

"The wind, coming to the city from far away, brings it unusual gifts, noticed by only a few sensitive souls, such as hay-fever victims, who sneeze at the pollen from flowers of other lands."

Italo Calvino, Marcovaldo (Spring: 1: Mushrooms in the City)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Carriers (2009)

Rather too much like the grim final episode of a series about America's own final episode, rather than a stand-alone story with its requirements for plot and character development. Also rather too much like a Multiplex-friendly, genre-skewed version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

The casuse of the end of the world is better defined here — a flesh-eating virus (though the mode of transmission seems insufficient to have depopulated Texas so) — but the hopeful final destination of the seaside is much the same.

The two pairs of twenty-somethings whose journey this is are more morally-ambiguous than McCarthy's father and son duo, a state of affairs which provides numerous opportunities for testing just how bad they are prepared to be in a world gone bad.

McCarthy's vision was about as bleak as bleak can be, but the underlying symbolism was redemptive, such that you could engage with his protagonists and the insurmountable odds that they faced. Carriers (Infectados in Spanish) is superficially less desolate, but one suspects that in spite of its occasionally gripping situations, most audiences will be enveloped by the gloom of not caring that much about the outcome.

Grade: B(-)

Friday, December 18, 2009

First Words (18)

"In December 1959, shortly after the Castro victory in Cuba, I attended several of the trials of war criminals conducted in the Cabaña fortress of Havana, in the course of which I was subjected to an extraordinary encounter with Herman Marks, the American who had become the Cuban executioner. Marks spent some time justifying his activities and expounding his personal philosophy, in the hope that I might help to rectify his image 'in the world's eyes'. I suspected that his Cuban employers only saw him as a painful necessity. A year or so later a friend visited Cuba with the intention of writing a book, and included Marks in a list of persons he might find interesting to see. When he returned I asked how the meeting had gone. His reply was 'I was too late. They'd already put him up against the wall'"

Norman Lewis, Fidel's Artist

Thursday, December 17, 2009

First Words (17)

"Except for the Marabar Caves — and they are twenty miles off — the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing steps on the river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. In the bazaars there is no painting and scarcely any carving. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excresence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life."

E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Box (2009)

The movie starts with Cameron Diaz doing something I find very hard to relate to: she gets up at 5:45am to answer the doorbell to an unknown caller.

But then in Hollywood everyone always answers the phone, doorbell, email, text messages etc. Such is the convention that it has occurred to me to craft a little story based around the flouting of it that comes so naturally to both V and me!

Anyway, what follows is based on a short story by Richard Matheson (Button Button) that was executed in even more concise form as an episode of the Twilight Zone...which V kept trying to remember as we took in Richard Kelly's extended remix.

A sinister yet polite visitor with half his face missing presents Diaz's character Norma with a wooden box with a big red button on top, and informs her that if either she or her husband should decide to press this button, someone they don't know will die. Shortly afterwards the couple will receive $1m in cash, tax-free. He then gives her a $100 bill as a no-strings sweetener.

It's 1976 and Norma's husband Arthur works at NASA on the optics for the Viking Mars lander. But he's been turned down for astronaut school and Norma has just been informed that she will no longer get a staff discount on her son's education. So the button has a certain allure.

To extend this premise to a couple of hours Kelly has had to lay it on a bit thick with the uncanny circumstances, only some of which are worth trying to get your head around. Yet in spite of this period sci-fi padding, we never ceased caring about what happened to Arthur and Norma...even after we'd given up caring whether it all made fact, long after we were certain that much of it didn't.

Another reminder of the talents of Cameron Diaz. The score deserves a special mention too.

Grade: B (+)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pics from the archive (21)

Assorted graffiti carved by nineteenth century sailors on the capital of one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon (5th century BC) at Cape Sounion, a few hours drive south of Athens.

Taken Tuesday 30th April, 1985

Byron too inscribed his name on the temple but I couldn't find his mark. I tried and failed again when I returned to the cape in the autumn of 1995 whilst working on the online component of the Athens 2004 Olympic bid.

Nothing could really beat the all-nighter pulled in '85, when I watched the sun sink behind the temple, then stayed up to watch the stars arc across the night sky before daylight came up again behind them.

2012 for Dummies

Want the low-down on the upcoming shift in global consciousness? Well then, just click here to see David McCandless's superb 2012: End of the World? infographic.

I've spent most of this week writing up a big report on innovations in semantic technologies and visualisations for the staff meeting in Sofia on the 17th, and along the way I came across McCandless's stunning new book The Visual Miscellaneum.

Here are some of the other visualisations that he has recently posted to his blog.

The UK's deadliest drugs

H1N1: Is the vaccine safe?

Casualties in Afghanistan

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pics from the archive (20)

Foot-shaped Roman terracotta scent bottles, British Museum
Taken January 4th, 2002

The nails along the bottom of the left-hand bottle are arranged in the shape of an alpha and an omega and a swastika. I wonder why Roman perfumes came in patas?

First Words (16)

"He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned old Eguchi. He was not to try to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything of that sort."

Yasunabi Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pics from the archive (19)

Prussia Cove, Porth-en-Alls, Cornwall
Taken 15th July 2003

Four years earlier Surfer and I watched the total eclipse of the sun from the top of the hill at the back.

A month or so ago I was reading Iain Banks's Transition and came across the passage where a lecturer insists that alien tourists would come to our Earth not to see the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall, but to witness an eclipse...which may well be a near unique phenomena amongst inhabited worlds.

So all you have to do to spot an ET, he insisted, is look out for the weirdoes amongst the masses gathered in anticipation of totality. Easier said then done however, because on that day in 1999 Surfer and I appeared to be in a very small minority of 'ordinary-looking' folk on that Cornish hillside!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pics from the archive (18)

Amsterdam, taken August 1984

TV Viewing Diary: The World's Strictest Parents

This is the only episode of this series that I've tuned into and but I can't imagine there can many pairs of British teens more suited to exportation to the developing this case Belmopan, Belize and the home of the Perez family.

Calvin and Rosie are soon pulling all kinds of strops as the discipline and worth ethic of their hosts is applied. A tipping point of sorts is reached when Mrs Perez threatens to tip them both outdoors, mattresses and all, unless they hand over their fags.

The BBC of course can't afford to be sued by the parents of reality TV participants with avoidable malaria infections, so the 'larning experience' proper seems to kick in from then on, with both teens appearing to have their perspectives rearranged by a stint at the Liberty foster home.

The programme suggests that its that much harder for children who have been abandoned by their natural fathers to learn respect for authority. It also reminded me of many of the reasons why I have come to admire the core values of the sociological midrift of our neighbouring nation.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Posadas and mordidas are go...

Driving back very late last night from the capital I spotted a festive warning flashing electronically above the Calzada Roosevelt: Cero tolerancia, 0% alcohol, 0% drogas. Shortly after passing the Mixco turn off, we were duly waved over by two agents of the PNC.

Now the trouble is that this zero tolerance policy segues nicely with the unofficial Christmas bonus drive operated by certain rogue elements within the force. Indeed, you might say that the two weeks or so before both Christmas and Easter are the key fundraising fortnights in their we should have been ready for a bit of aggro when we planned to break out of our Panchoy comfort zone for seasonal shopping purposes.

We had both our licenses, the vehicle's SAT papers (in my name) and V — at the wheel — had both her cédula and her passport on her...but unfortunately I'd neglected to take my own passport into Guate with me. And so it was that I learned that not carrying my actual passport around (photocopies simply won't do) is an offence punishable by immediate deportation.

Of course the agente at V's window had something even more on-the-spot in mind, but part of this game is that the man in uniform can't actually bring himself to say it; he just assumes that the individuals that he is inconveniencing will understand the etiquette. "You haven't been stopped before have you?" he observed with a note of chagrin as we met his sharp statements with some of our own. (We are of course veterans of such stand-offs, but can hide it well enough.)

He eventually noted that he would let us off this time "porque usted es Guatemalteca", but I had the sense that V had worn him down a bit with her mindgames, and as if to confirm this, his well-wishes for the journey ahead sounded a bit like a veiled threat, much like a Mississippi sheriff might sneer "you folks have a nice day now."

Her best ploy was mentioning that his colleagues in Panorama were our friends and neighbours and making to ring up one senior named officer at the station there. She's carefully cultivated said law-enforcer; this is the kind of country where it's always handy to have a range of people you can call up in different situations.

Meanwhile the copper on scene had given it his best go too, insisting that she recite her cédula number from memory ( the peculiar marker of the true panze verde) and listing the various delinquents, including narcos and kiddyfiddlers, who'd been no match for his police-work over the years.

I must get into the habit of taking my passport out with me at all times, the policeman added...even when I nip across to the tienda.

The trouble is that I lose stuff. Last time I mislaid my passport (Phoenix, 2007) the British Consulate wasn't answering its phones and I had to trek across the Sonoran desert to LA in order to get their attention.


— 'Zero tolerance' is generally a seasonal rather than an everyday problem in Guatemala.

— The car in front stopped and its driver passed his papers to the police with a ten or twenty Quetzal bill inside. This is how the locals do it; they don't even have to apply the handbrake.

— If we'd been in the right-hand lane we could have driven on without stopping, but in this instance it would have been impossible to do so without llevandole al policia como corbata...given that he was standing right in front of us.

— Of course you don't need to carry your passport with you at all times, and I don't intend to start doing so from now on; though I might consider it when travelling outside my local jurisdiction, especially after 10pm.

— If it hadn't been my passport, it would have been something else, like the steering wheel on the right. They simply wanted their Christmas money.

— It is rare that the police in Antigua play the checkpoint fundraiser game or hassle tourists. Indeed Antigua has its own special force dedicated to helping and protecting visitors.

— I have never paid a bribe to the Guatemalan police.

2012 (2009)

We were warned...

Pre-warned is exactly how I felt when I sat down to watch 2012. It's as if the small print on the poster said 'Get comfortable, you will be here for a while ...rather a long while; your intelligence will be insulted at regular intervals...and yet you will find it difficult not to feel for the most part entertained'.

Amused too, I might add, for Roland Emmerich's movie is probably best appreciated as a semi-intended comedy.

Dr K's theory is that the reason it is here at all in Q4 2009 has absolutely nothing to do with the cosmological mathematics of Guatemala's indigenes (which is axiomatically correct, as Sheldon would say.) and everything to do with accountancy. For the producers need to maximise revenues across all media from celluloid to DVD and this will take approximately three calendar years to achieve.

The Maya don't get much of a look in here, though we are treated to a news report showing a neat circle of apparently indigenous elders who have picked the main acropolis of Tikal as the ideal spot for a mass suicide. The news hack makes reference to the troubling prophecies of the Quiche as opposed to the Quiché, which is a bit like the bothersome tendency of English football commentators of referring to Kaká as Caca. (How very gauché you might say.)

Yes it's long, and even longer when you realise that you going to have to watch its most destruction-laden sequences in slow motion action-replay mode. (...if only to spot the product placement for Comcast which tumbles into the chasm with the rest of LA.)

These tend to involve the family we care about (barely) driving through highly elaborate and fluid catastrophes where the term 'near miss' is debased to the point of geeky frivolity. It's as if the director periodically feels the need to run his characters through a CGI simulation of the end of the world where the sense of hazard is comprehensively diminished by its own prodigiality.

As well as being highly detailed, some of these effects are rather ropey: a special mention here must go to the fiery outbursts from the 'Yellowstone Caldera'.

Character is not this movie's strong point either. It's as if the writers said to themselves 'OK, apart from the obligatory divorced couple and two kids, who else can we include in this mess?' Zlatko Buric's Russian kleptocrat Yuri Karpov is a welcome addition to the mix whose fate is handled appropriately, but this is not so for several others who either survive undeservedly (as far as genre tradition might dictate) or die quite horribly simply because they're in the way at the time.

Grade: B(+)

The Interweb for beginners

Amusingly mashed-up gobbets from the Beeb's digitalrevolution site.

Spanish Pedazos #7

V standing above the little Asturian fishing village of Cudillero, whose residents speak the unique Spanish dialect of Pixueto. Every 28th of June a long poem written in this tongue outlining the events of the previous year is recited to a figure of St Peter as part of the village's fiestas patronales.

The northern route of the Camino de Santiago passes through here so there's a pilgrim hostal down below in the main town, where big battleship-grey seagulls swoop out of the sky like Stukas and visitors fleeing them are likely to slip in the many puddles of cider left by the locals' highly visual but somewhat wasteful serving technique.

Legend has it that the Vikings first discovered and settled this cove on the northern coast of the peninsula.

Taken July 2004.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pics from the archive (17)

Street scene outside the peasant market in Moscow.
Taken Tuesday 2nd April 1985.

The people on the far right are examining local classifieds posted on the exterior wall of the market - a kind of analogue Craigslist and what in the pre-Glasnost USSR was one of the few forms of petit-bourgeois capitalism tolerated in the Soviet capital...though the peasant market itself was entrepreneurial on a small scale. (I bought a wooden cochino in there which currently sits on top of my bookshelf downstairs.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Pics from the archive (17)

A family conduct a sacrifice in the hills above Chichicastenango
Taken Sunday 15th October 1989

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"With stench and smoak"

We hung around last night until the smell of burning devil was superceded by the smell of burning sausage.

That's not us by the way, in spite of any superficial resemblance. The one on the right had his own personal diabolical aura of stale sweat and alcohol.

Guatemala's new found interest in public safety means that the publicly-funded (red?) devil is no longer incinerated at the mid-point between the two petrol stations in the Barrio de la Concepción...or indeed on the cobbles directly above the Esso fuel storage tanks.

Last night's events were supposedly more environmenally friendly as well, because Lucifer himself had been put together using recycled papier maché and the Muni has anyway been discouraging citizens from burning their own somewhat toxic household diablos in the street every seventh of December.

This didn't stop the acts which followed la quema from letting off a load of dry ice (i.e. carbon dioxide). A pair of Gallo culitos frolicked a bit, then on came a passable bunch of young Guatemalan rockeros. (Deslumbre?) Barroco however, were a bit barrubish.

For us Brits the resemblence to Guy Fawkes night on November 5th is cheering.

After picking up our dinner we ran into this little procession on 7a Avenida Norte:

Screensnaps #10

A predatory Fried Egg Jellyfish wandering into a group of 100,000 Aurelia jellyfish in order to spear several of them with its tentaclces. (From last week's Life: Creatures of the Deep.)

Monday, December 07, 2009

TV Viewing Diary: Ugly Beauty

Waldemar Januszczak is unquestionably a more captivating presenter than Matthew Collings and clearly knows it; his contribution to BBC2's Beauty series was superficially more stimulating, but upon reflection...all over the shop.

You might think that all of modern art is ugly, corrupt and out to shock, he posits at the start, but watching my self-indulgent tour of Venice and whatever's showing there at the time will soon cure you of this misapprehension, he adds, sort of.

From then on we're not really sure if the documentary is about the beauty of ugliness, the ugliness of beauty...or even whether it is anything but an idiosyncratic sub-section of modern art that is the focus of all this enthusiasm.

So, as with Collings the topic is diced up into several categories of beauty of undefined size and importance, with an assortment of examples supplied:

He takes a rowing boat out into the lagoon in order to talk about the 'cosmic haziness' of Turner. Anish Kapoor's reverie-inducing sculptures and the photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto also feature.

Art, he offers, is about finding beauty in our short, meaningless existence. So Damian Hirst's dead flesh in a perspex box belongs to an age-old traditon.

An odd choice, that one. He turns back to Tiepolo to show us how artists have given us visions of motherhood based on our hopes rather than facts. And then he's waxing lyrical about the poetic art of Yoko Ono. (Motherhood??)

Seemingly ugly 'found' textures can be ravishing, Januszczak asserts. Spanish artist Jorge Otero-Pailos has preserved the last dirty wall in the Doge's palace by taking an impression using a latex skin. While the marks of pollution — and a certain amount of history — have now been erased from the real thing, Otero-Pailos's recreation of the pre-restoration surface with all of its skanky textures has been put on show at the Biennale.

There's truth in this, for I have certainly found the little chapels along the Calle de los Pasos and the facade of the cathedral itself a bit less 'ravishing' since they were treated to a paint job.

This section also included an aside on Karl André the 'balladier of the banal' and Jeff Koons, purveyor of the ugly beauty of kitsch — which 'looks dumb but isn't' and addresses our 'deep appetite for shallow things'.

Suddenly we've left Venice and gone to Tokyo, where the neon-lit skyline has inspired artists like Tatsuo Miyajima. I was rather taken with his Sea of Time, where little red electric numbers flicker in a still pool.

Essentially the kind of aesthetic experience you have when you see something that makes you think 'How friggin' random is that!'. Example: Maurizio Cattelan's horse.

Humpday (2009)

"What exactly about two straight dudes having sex on camera is a great piece of art?"

Such is the question that Ben (on the left) asks his more self-consciously Kerouackian college buddy Andrew as they lie beside each other in a motel bedroom, having dared each other into making a gay porn movie for Humpfest.

Married Ben has found the interlude between college and yuppy lifestyles to be disconcertingly short. Andrew on the other hand is still on the path of the 'motorcycle adventurer dude'.

The set-up is highly promising and the first forty minutes or so are indeed very funny. Many have had one of those mates who appears more like an elephant in the china shop of one's life as relative rates of personal development/compromise diversify after graduation.

Andrew's reappearance in Ben's life and the chums he quickly acquires in Seattle's alternative art scene are wryly observed by writer-director Lyn Shelton, who has pulled up just short of the full-on mockumentary style...which at times leads to the rather distracting impression of an invisible extra participant in a number of scenes.

Having turned up out of the blue one night around 2am Andrew is soon being equipped with a mattress in the spair room by Ben's bleary-eyed wife Anna, who can barely remember him from the wedding. The next evening the friends (minus 'er indoors) get stoned at a hipster house party and somehow get fixated on the idea of making an amateur gay porn movie, the USP of which will be their inherant straightness.

The defects the film develops from this point stem from Ben's question above. Does Shelton want to be funny, complex or indeed arty? She has a go at all three and comes up short in each case, and during the (anti-)climax at the Boning Motel we start to see her script for what it essentially is: a tale about men written by a woman, fashioned to make women laugh and men feel awkward. But by this stage the awkwardness has ceased to be either particularly amusing or observant.

The underlying, under-developed aspect of this narrative is manipulation. As the big day approaches Ben and his wife become less likeable — in his case, almost creepy — while Andrew's vulnerability comes to the fore. If Ben is being driven by the urge to unsuppress an aspect of his nature which committment to Anna and a white collar job had curbed, Andrew 'just wants to finally finish something' in his life. This is as deep as Humpday gets, and working with the same premise I might have further developed the conceit of a yuppy couple taking psychological revenge on a footloose friend (Rather like a reversed-out thriller along the lines of A Perfect Getaway where at first you think the charismatic intruder will end up posing a threat to the conventional couple into whose lives he has suddenly erupted, when in fact it is they who are the twisted fucks!)

Update: If the whole thing was improvised I can see why the standard of comedy and observation fluctuated. Given that the characters and situations were not made up in real-time, it still strikes me that whatever motivations the actors had established for their characters and whatever guidance Shelton provided at the outset lacked the staying power for either a really funny or a really thought-provoking ending.

Grade: B

Pics from the archive (16)

Igreja da Misericórdia in Viseu, Portugal.
Work commenced in 1775 under master mason António da Costa Faro.
Taken September 2002

Sunday, December 06, 2009


The ex-Prez has been throwing an all-day shingdig at his pad just up the road. From early on the denizens of Jardines were out washing their cars, cutting their lawns and putting up helpful little signs like this in anticipation of the influx of illustrious guests for the wedding reception of ex-Prez jnr.

The area was packed with vans sent by countless leading local caterers. We watched as the men from Tikal Futura in their burgundy waistcoats queued for tortillas at a street corner. Perhaps nobody thought to lay on a few canapés for the staff.

From our francotirador's-eye view of proceedings, we had possibly the best seat for the firework display which kicked the evening session off at seven. It's V's birthday and she loves pyrotecnics, so this was a special treat.

Alluring smells have been wafting across the valley ever since, starting with roasting coffee beans. Right now there's a scent of Asian-Fusian nibbles that has us playing with the idea of jumping in the car and going out for a Chinese. (But in truth we haven't quite recovered from last night's GMT-birthday celebrations.)

We reckon the organisers of today's bash knocked on a certain neighbour's door and offered those within a bribe so that they wouldn't hang up any washing this weekend. There's stuff on the line almost every single day, but it's been clear of trapos since last night, and thus presents a less obvious eye-sore to guests arriving at the entrance of DV (The local n'er-do-well who was sneaking around at night pulling up all the new flowers in order to flog them off, would also appear to have been socially cleansed well in advance of the condominio's grand opening.)

From up here we can also see how the entire lotification has been turned into a huge valet parking lot for gas-guzzlin' 4x4s and other smart motors this evening. Guests step out beneath an awning and are ushered into minibuses which take them on a two-block jaunt over to the parrot-infested driveway.

We ran into ex-Prez himelf in his Kawasaki Mule last night. He's inclined to stop to chat with V, but this time he decelerated a bit, waved jovially then put his foot down to get around the corner, almost spilling the two bodyguards riding al fresco at the rear.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Pics from the archive (16)

Taken August 2005

"I would like to tell capitalists that Dubai does not need investors, investors need Dubai and I tell you that the risk lies not in using your money but in letting it pile up. It is dormant and dead if it is merely a figure in an account. I tell them not to hold onto it and kill it in safes, let it breathe and be active because money is like water - if you lock it up, it becomes stagnant and foul-smelling, but if you let it flow, it stays fresh. If it does not flow, it will become stagnant and its colour will change. When I encourage you to invest, I am not asking you to put your money into a fire - I guarantee that your money will be invested in carefully studied projects. I want to be frank with you - I have the courage to take decisions and to bear the responsibility for the consequences. Do you have the courage to be frank and decisive?"

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

Duabi owes 107% of its GDP

The ironies of the Sheikh's foul-smelling water analogy can be fully appreciated here.