Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Mexico has recently enforced stricter laws against very dark tinted windows. The driver must always be visible and tinted windows have been banned on public buses and taxis. Here in Guatemala however this remains a common sight: a windscreen so dark that the driver has had to cut out a small circular peephole in order to be able to see the road in front of him.

The Expendables (2010)

I suppose it's the concept that makes this a must-see: a bunch of unreconstructed 80s action stars dumped into an unreconstructed 80s action plot, complete with corrupt puppet dictator, rogue CIA agents and a jarst bodiez-style systematic suppression of a small, but ultimately useless, Hispanic army.

In truth unreconstructed is the last word that springs to mind these days when one is confronted with Sylvester Stallone's appearance, especially when he's straining muscles somewhere behind his ears in an attempt to maneuver his lips into speech. He's not noticeably less coherent in the scene where he's having to talk while a rope is being twisted around his neck. (And then there's that bloke in his team who V likes to refer to as Dolph Grandulón.)

In such company Jason Statham sounds like Stephen Fry. In fact Statham is pretty much the best thing about this movie, whose older stars are hampered by Stallone's determination to play this straight, and as a vanity vehicle for his own undiminished machismo. Indeed, if he was ever capable of a knowing wink at the audience, it's surely not something his stiffened features could manage these days.

The film opens with a Somali pirate scenario which is marginally more promising than the retro-tropical caper which subsequently takes shape. Jet Li seems on the verge of being wasted almost from the outset, but somehow makes it through to the end, sharing the apparent invincibility of non-Spanish speakers on the island of 'Vilena'.

The Governator appears in a scene with Bruce Willis and Stallone, though it's rather obvious that the three of them were never in the room at the same time. But for these Bruce and Arnie cameos, this particular blockbuster might well have merited the more direct route to DVD/Mexican Bus. That said, things are blown up and bad guys bumped off in an entertaining manner throughout.

Jean Claude Van Damme turned down Sly's invitation to join the cast, presumably because he at least has now moved on to ironic postmodern self-examination.

Grade: B(+)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #53

Joy is BMW...and this was May, so that may be smoke from burning vehicles wafting by in the background!

Memories of Murder (2003)

Bong Joon-ho's police procedural set in a provincial town in the mid-eighties is one of the best examples of the genre from the past decade.

A second body of a murdered girl has been found in a drainage ditch beside a field of reeds, signalling the start of South Korea's first serial killer investigation.

Song Kang-ho is as ever excellent as Detective Park Doo-man, whose investigative technique stretches from looking deep into the eyes of suspects to beating a confession out of them.

Posing an alternative to these methods is Detective Seo Tae-yoon from Seoul, who has voluntereed to help find the killer using a bit of deductive reasoning and actual legwork.

These two approaches to the investigation keep clashing and coming together in amusing and often rather clever ways, leaving viewers to ponder whether the bad cops will pick up some of the good habits of their big city colleague...or vice versa.

CSI this isn't. There's not a mobile phone to be seen and although DNA evidence does eventually come into play, the Koreans have to send off their sample to the US for examination, creating a critical delay.

The location/period detail is superb. We loved the scene where Detective Park consults with his nurse girlfriend, his left arm attached to a drip, itself fastened to a branch in the lonely tree on the banks of the lake beside which they sit. Mainstream movies need more of this understated humour.

Bong's Mother was released this week in the UK and I can't wait to see it.

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #52

Iced latte at The Fabulous, Bangkok

Ai No Mukidashi / Love Exposure (2008)

We didn't know it we were in for a 237 minute marathon when we sat down to watch Shion Sono's would-be epic.
However many expectations you bring to this, they will tend to be confounded, of this we are now sure.

Our attention wandered at times, but then so did the director's. For the first hour (Chapter One, as it turns out) we thought we were watching a deliciously irreverent tale about a young Catholic boy in Tokyo called Yu, whose mother succumbs to terminal illness, prompting his father to join the priesthood.

The pair lead a fairly normal family life until dad takes up with a loose woman. Externalising his issues of conscience onto Yu, the conflicted man of God insists that his son attends confession on a daily basis. Realising that his father needs constant reminders of his offspring's sinfulness, at first Yu starts to dream up minor pecados like stepping on ants and ripping up a classmate's eraser. But soon his father is onto him and nothing less than real sins will do...

Yu then joins the local gang of wasters who are into shoplifting and petty thuggery. Every day Yu returns home to confess the day's misdeeds and every day the priest forgives him without hesitation. What you need, one of Yu's new mates suggests, is one of those really 'obscene' sins that priests get really worked up about.

And so Yu is taken to 'the master' to learn the Kung Fu art of taking secret underskirt panty pics and the mood of gentle comedy cedes to something altogether more outrageous. From this moment onwards the film is equally earnest in its deadly seriousness and deadly silliness, taking in secret cults, Hentai ('pervert') subculture, family melodrama and samurai sword fights with arterial sprays.

Two man-hating teenage girls take a hold of Yu's life. One of them cut off her father's penis (more spray) and in the other Yu believes he has found his 'Maria', the pure woman he promised his dying mother he would one day locate and introduce to her. Somewhere underneath all the other stuff Yu and Yoko's sweet love story takes shape.

I couldn't say that you'll learn something new about the human condition or even the Japanese condition from Ai No Mukidashi, but there's an ambiguity underlying its treatment of all this bizarreness that makes it interesting as well as entertaining.

Grade: A --

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #51

Thai-style sashimi anyone?

Shutter Island (2010)

I watched this one on a plane, perhaps not ideal given its murky aesthetic and honking soundtrack. That I was entertained (and thrilled) only to a point can also be put down to the fact that Scorcese has concocted a stylish pastiche of the classic Hitchcock thriller, and like all reappropriations, this one has a certain predictability about it.

And I'm trying to remember the last time I felt that Di Caprio had been appropriately cast as the lead he's playing. I wasn't bothered so much by his Cobb in Inception, but on paper at least, he's seemed like an aberrant choice in Body of Lies, Blood Diamond and Revolutionary Road. And yet in all but the latter movie, he basically carries it off anyway, through a combination of talent and ascendant star quality.

Grade: B(+)

Familia Rodante (2004)

Pablo Trapero's road movie kicks off when an octogenarian Buenos Aires abuela called Emilia gets a call from relatives in her old hometown in Misiones inviting her to be the matron of honour at her grand-niece's wedding. That a trip up to the border might provide some long overdue family bonding opportunities is the old lady's premise which gets the most thorough exploration as the extended families of her two daughters pile into a 1958 Chevy Viking.

As in Y tu mamá también such a journey features obstacles within and without, and affords the director the opportunity to create a portrait of his own country's fascinating out
lands. Yet the action in the foreground is far less urgent than in Cuarón's movie; Familia Rodante is gentle, bittersweet and minimalist and V confided that she was never more than a yawn away from complete disengagement. (She later suggested some alternative chapinised titles for this sort of material, such as Retajila con Ruedas and Molotera en Moción.)

It's not that much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with Emilia sipping her mate in silent reflection for several minutes pondering, one imagines, longer-term issues such as 'what have I done with my life?' and shorter-term ones like 'what have I done to my family?' Trapero cast his own 84-year-old grandmother Graciana Chironi in this key role, and it would seem that the use of non-professional actors has become a key element of contemporary Latin American cinema.

I liked this movie. Not as much as Historias Mínimas. But I liked it.

Grade: B+

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

Not even the affable presence (and undoubted period relevance) of John Cusack can save Steve Pink's comedy from its own mediocrity. And when it's not just ordinary, it's pretty awful.

V and I both managed to find just one thing properly funny. She got a giggle from the on-going amputation gag, and after sitting through almost the whole movie straight-faced, the scene where Nick calls up his nine-year-old future wife finally squeezed a rather reluctant chortle out of me.

Grade: C(+)

Date Night (2010)

One has flashes of both Into the Night and After Hours, but Date Night is a movie that plays almost exclusively to the strengh of its stars — their likeability — and would apparently rather be warmed to than admired, or even remembered.

There is however a clever spoof of the technological overkill in contemporary spy thrillers, which got one of the film's bigger laughs from the two of us.

Grade: B

Once more unto the multiplex dear friends...

This is an interesting way to encourage a certain kind of cinema-goer to forsake their torrents in favour of a higher cause.

Here in Guatemala movie pirates are not told that their actions are the moral equivalent of shoplifting, an argument I have always thought rather weak. No, go to the cinema here (it only costs a couple of quid anyway) and you will probably see an ad before the main feature in which a young man shows up for an interview and inadvertently reveals the DVD pirata he's just purchased to his potential employer.

The interview ends abruptly and a stern voiceover reminds the audience that people who buy bootlegs are telling the rest of us something about their character. What? That they're too dumb not to get the movie for free off the Internet? Perhaps this is why this little film always sets off a ripple of sniggers.

Inception: spoiler fest

"Truth and reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing." Henri Matisse We don't seem to have learned our lesson after six years of pointless theorising about Lost, do we? 

Inception certainly appears to released us all from the post-Lost limbo, and we can essentially drop all the hypotheses currently in circulation into one of three boxes: It's a dream, it's not a dream, it's inconclusive...either because Christopher Nolan intended it that way, or because, like the makers of Lost, he ended up thinking that the best way to harness hidden depth was to just let go a bit. 

After a single viewing I suppose I'm leaning towards the intentionally-inconclusive camp, for I believe that in order to be faithful to the material — our greatest metaphysical enigma — Nolan simply had to deliver an enigmatic ending. There was just no other way for this to end. 

The clearest evidence for the concluding scene of Inception not being set within another dreamworld is Cobb's wedding ring. Whenever we apparently know it's a dream, he's wearing it and when he's apparently back in reality, he's not. As such it must be his totem, and he's clearly not wearing it in the final scene with the children. Yet I don't find this conclusive. The whole idea of totems could itself be an inception. The last shot of the movie is the spinning top, but that is Mal's totem not Cobb's.
Some have pointed out that the children in the last scene are exactly as Cobb imagined them in his dream. Not so, says the movie's costume designer, who remembers creating separate outfits for the two versions of kids in the garden. Hmmm. Nobody seems to have mentioned all those knowing smiles Cobb gets from his co-conspirators at the end. You'd have thought they'd have immediately got together for a chatty debrief, rather than floating out of the airport as if they'd all just willfully exceeded their daily dose of soma

And then Cobb spins the top and walks off as if the issue isn't really all that important to him any more.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Salt (2010)

That Angelina Jolie can pull off a full-face rubber mask and still be perfectly made-up underneath is one of the least far-fetched things in this highly entertaining Cold War throwback thriller.

You might say that all the elements for a really dreadful espionage caper were in place here. Well, they were until Tom Cruise pulled out of the lead. (I shuddered recently when someone suggested he's have made the perfect Cobb in Inception.) One big chase scene Salt may be, yet through pace and cleverness it overcomes its sizeable plot perforations and an apparent lack of emotional complexity.

Jolie is superb , so utterly convincing, that you believe that a female renegade agent was always going to be the perfect follow-up to Bourne.

Grade: B++

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Inception (2010)

"Most summer blockbusters insult my intellgence, but this once has insulted my stupidity." I chuckled at this email contribution to the Kermayo show a few weeks back and duly braced myself for a white-knuckle mind-ride that Christopher Nolan's new movie promised to deliver. 

The British director made the proverbial shitload with The Dark Knight back in 2008, so the studios have indulged him this time and he has come back with a summer hit that combines some of the feel of his own Memento with that of Bond, The Matrix and Abre Los Ojos

The flow of words and ideas is so slick and engrossing in Inception that some of the action scenes actually come across as a little distracting. For sure we never felt maddened by this. That the movie feels like it has bitten off a little bit more than it can chew is certainly part of its thrill, yet there are still times when the whiff of excess is palpable. Maybe this is one that ought to be re-made by a European arthouse director in a reversal of the usual process. (I'd ditch the snow mobiles.) 

The core of the plot is complex, yet easy enough to grasp. Cobb, played by De Caprio, is an expert in extracting information through the medium of shared dreams. Saito, a Japanese businessman, pays Cobb to do something a little trickier: plant an idea in the mind of a young man called Robert Fischer who has just inherited a commercial empire. Saito wants Fischer to break up his late father's enterprises and to believe he came up with this idea himself. 

To carry out this 'inception' successfully Cobb and his associates have to take Fischer down into a dream within a dream within a dream. At each level time passes subjectively slower and the hardest part of the whole process will be to synchrionise a 'kick' that wakes the sedated dreamers at precise moments at all three levels. 

Now, there are some commentators who seem to think that this structure alone would have made for an exciting summer cinematic experience and all the rest of the stuff about Cobb's past life and scrambled subconscious is little more than a side-show. And of course there are those who counter that the three-level inception is itself the side-show! 

Let's try counting the number of realities with which audiences are presented outside of those involving the Fischer 'mission'. If you discount the opening sequence dream and the short training jaunts, there's 'limbo', Cobb and Mal's lifelong dream interrupted by a freight train, the 'reality' where Mal jumps, and the 'reality' of the plane, which may be two different realities after all. I think that's it... 

The way in which this structure is built up by the screenplay and the frenetic pace with which important information is presented, left me with barely enough free awareness to ponder whether this was all a deliberate ruse on the part of the director to divert audiences away from dwelling on some of the obvious questions that he had no intention of answering. (Like, what's that gizmo in the case and how does it work?) 

The ending was also always going to be a major source of diversionary anticipation. As Cobb himself notes, it's the only part of a dream that really matters to us. In Memento Nolan had employed a subliminal trick about halfway through the movie which basically gives the game away. The first time I saw it I missed it. (V didn't, which was a little annoying!) So we were expecting something similar here: a big reveal at the end, but also a 'splice' moment like ones in Vertigo or in Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos (heinously remade as Vanilla Sky), which can only really be appreciated during a second sitting. 

But this time Nolan was even cannier. In his final shot he serves up more of an hmmm moment than an aha! one*, an Escher staircase of a non-conclusion. I almost expected Joseph Gordon-Levitt to pop up again and break the hush in the cinema by shouting 'Paradox!' But maybe Nolan did give us a quick flash of the truth earlier. If you ask me, that shot where Cobb and Mal are seen as an old couple walking hand in hand has a lot of explaining to do. 

Western philosophy is said to have kicked off properly the moment Thales of Miletus questioned the identity between appearance and reality in the seveth century BC. This notion, this fundamental and ultimately unresolveable doubt, is possibly the most important enigma ever conceived by human kind. It was most famously elaborated a couple of centuries later by Plato in the Republic where Socrates relates the allegory of the cave. The latter, plus a wayward reading of Baudrillard, is the philosophical underpinning of the Matrix trilogy. 

Now most of us who sat through all three of those films ended up with a strong sense that they'd rather overextended themselves metaphysically. Yet philosophy is the one aspect of Inception where Nolan has kept things nicely tight, avoiding the conceptual proliferation that ultimately undermined the Wachowskis' franchise. 

There are two powerful and quite disturbing ideas in play here — firstly, that reality has somehow been laid on for me personally, that everyone and everything I see are part of my own mind (solipsism) and secondly, the even more unsettling idea that death — and suicide specifically — might offer a path to awakening. I suspect that both of these occur to most intelligent people at some point in their lives, even if they are immediately dismissed as nonsense. 

There are some stunning visual effects in Inception, many of the kind one is only used to seeing in the more pretentious kind of mobile phone ad. Oddly these are rarely central to the developing action, except perhaps in the zero-gravity hotel corridor scene, which was carried off in a real not imagined CGI space. (That scene also accounted for one of the film's many comic moments.) 

This is the kind of movie that's worth going to see with someone else, because you are going to need to talk about it afterwards. Fortunately I'm married to a convoluted subconscious. V often bemoans the fact that she is far more inhibited in her dreams than she is in real life; it's as if she takes reality as a dream and then pays for it during REM sleep! Her relationship with mirrors is another long one...which is perhaps why her favourite scene in Inception was 'pliable Paris' with Cobb and Ariadne.

Grade: A (-)
* And who can forget the way Kubrick combined aha! with eeeeeh?! at the end of The Shining.

You can't win 'em all

Antigua may have been voted the world's top travel destination, Tikal the world's greatest historical experience ahead of the Taj Mahal and the pyramids, the whole Central American isthmus may be a global specialist in the generation of happiness, but this week Newsweek published an interactive infographic which saw Guatemala come in a lowly 84th out of a 100 of the world's best countries — and if you sort by 'Latin America & Caribbean' the Chapines end up with the wooden spoon. Yes, we are officially the shittest place to live in the whole region.

Even though Haiti was apparently not competing, how this state of affairs could have arisen is a complete mystery to me frankly. Have the people responsible for these metrics (Health, Education, Political Environment, Economic Dynamism and Quality of Life) ever been to Honduras? They even have a higher per capita murder rate over there, as well as a lower per capita GDP and 80s-style throwback political shenanigans.

PS: Cuba came in above Colombia, a statistic that is bound to please those nice folk over on NT24.

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #48

Pad Thai in Khao San Road, Bangkok.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)

Hollywood is widely deemed to be the gateway to mainstream consciousness. Works of art crafted for niche tastes are assumed to have a more extensive and potentially dangerous cultural influence the moment they make the leap to celluloid.

Few works of fiction are considered to have this transformational power before their elevation to the silver screen. Saramago's Blindness for example, was a much-lauded novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author, appreciated largely by the sort of people who appreciate literary fiction, but as soon as the movie adaptation was released, the story was suddenly lambasted as offensively misrepresentative of the plight of blind people. (The most notorious exception is of course The Satanic Verses, but the majority of those who condemned Rushdie's novel had never even handled a copy; God had read it though and that was the problem.)

So, on the principle of monkey see, monkey do, the cinema, with its essentially visual nature and popular reach, is supposedly the best conduit we currently have for radiating moral vacuity across the globe. (Though video games, like China, are fast catching up.)

Hence perhaps the furore surrounding Matthew Vaughan's Kick-Ass, with its origins in graphic-novel fanboy subculture, which arrived in multiplexes this summer complete with Asian geek (via Tarantino) inflected shock-violence, much of which is perpetrated by and against a twelve-year-old going by the name of Hit Girl.

Two film critics I respect went their opposite ways on this one. For Roger Ebert the spectacle was 'morally reprehensible', for Peter Bradshaw it was 'gloriously irresponsible', so we knew it was going to be a bit of a Marmite taste test before we sat down to watch it.

In the end V was as entertained and largely untroubled as I was, and like Peter Bradshaw, found it five-star hilarious. Taste can be divisive, that much we already know though, thanks mainly to Dexter, one of my favourite shows on TV, which V loathes with a passion (...but not, I might add, because its hero is a serial killer and what kind of example does that set, eh?)

The most ardent detractors of Kick-Ass appear uncertain whether the snake in the grass here is the video game- style fragging of adult men committed by the twelve-year-old girl in the film, or the rather brutal beating she later receives at the hands of another adult male in the final show-down. (It has an R-rating in the US, so it's statistically more likely to corrupt adults than minors I suppose.)

Living in a society with a daily double digit death rate (and just south of a nation where 28,000 have perished during a four year 'drug war') I find it harder than many
Daily Mail readers back in the UK to ascribe anything other than a minor explanatory role to art in all this.

Habits other than the cinema-going ones surely lie at the root of this, and even though the baddies of Kick-Ass are of the comic book variety, the market they are enriching themselves on is real enough. If anything, this 'irresponsible' flick also carries a potent social message about not standing by while others are preyed upon by scumbags.

That there's a taboo in our culture surrounding children acting out adult roles was something I came across quite early in life when I went to see Bugsy Malone with my mother. Her reaction strongly indicated that some sort of line had been crossed. I think it was Jodie Foster rather than the splurge guns that set her off however.

Now sexualisation of Hit Girl is something that Vaughan has clearly gone out of his way to avoid, in spite of her notorious usage of the C word. In this respect movies like Leon have strayed into more dangerous territory e.g. Natalie Portman's tummy-rubbing scene. At 13 she had already crossed another line, and Luc Besson played with this remorselessly in ways that only French directors seem to be able to get away with. Japanese geek cinema is also packed with tartan-skirt wearing joshi kosei with automatic weapons who act out the adolescent and adultescent fantasies of their primary audience. Hit Girl shows up here in one scene dressed as a schoolgirl, but by virtue of being just a year younger than Portman was in '94, Cloe Moretz's startling performance is properly pre-pubescent and carefully shorn of nascent sexiness.

Having recently re-watched Leaving Las Vegas (one of V's favourite movies) and enjoyed his wild, improvised performance in The Bad Lieutent: Port of Call, New Orleans, it was great to see Nicolas Cage back in one of his trademark edgy-funny roles. (One could almost forget Knowing, The Wicker Man, Captain Corelli...)

Grade: B+

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #47

Door detail, The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #46

Trackside view, Bangkok.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

If I were still under 12 I imagine I would have found parts of this apparently final episode of the trilogy fairly traumatic. Or maybe the very young have less invested in these characters than us nostalgic oldies.

Anyway, truth is that I DID find parts of this film hair-raising; there's a unnerving undercurrent borrowed from the darker political and horror fantasies which meshes with the slow-burn chill delivered by the prevailing theme of putting away childish things. It's nicely balanced so that whatever your age, this movie will leave its little scratch mark on you.

The writers are clearly aware that fifteen years have passed since the first installment and play to the various niggles of nostalgia and regret at work within their audience: children that have become adults, adults that have become parents, parents who have watched their children flee the nest.

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has unearthed another note of irony baked into the trilogy:

"What's a little more troubling, at least to me, is the way that Pixar movies honor the very things they themselves are replacing. It's a little like the way shopping malls are often named after geographical features now buried under the parking lot: Cottonwood Creek Centre, or Sawgrass Mills. "Cars" might be the epitome of this Pixar tendency, a story about an old-fashioned small town inhabited by automobiles -- that was doomed by the rise of the automobile. In the same way, the "Toy Story" films depict children who play imaginatively with old-fashioned, low-tech toys like Buzz and Woody all day, instead of zoning out in front of "Toy Story" films. I'm not sure whether to call that hypocrisy or self-criticism or appealing fantasy; I can only wish it resembled real life."

Shortly after the first Toy Story film I bought some shares in Pixar Animation. Every year the firm used to send me some freebies including beautiful wall posters which I still have, rolled up in a box in our bodega, the closest thing we have here to an attic. As for the shares, I kept them for a while after they tranformed themselves into Disney stock, but not for long.

Toy Story 3
is a great film (and it's hard to disagree with Dr K that it represents the last piece in what is now the greatest movie trilogy of all time), but perhaps because of my own life experience it doesn't quite feel as thrilling as the first two — especially the second — and in spite of the genius of its realisation in terms of both words and images, the whole product resembles just that, a product, with the kind of essentially formulaic plotting which has recently undermined Wallace and Gromit's big screen outings. And am I reading too much into things when I detect a hit of promotion in the hilarious set piece scenes involving Ken and Barbie?

Still, arguably the best flick of 2010 so far, and certainly the most thrilling summer action movie. (We're off to see Inception next week. Can't wait!)

Grade: A-

Friday, August 13, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #45

The Phra Si Rattana Chedi, Wat Phra Keaw. Supposedly contains a piece of the Buddha's breastbone.

La Elotera: Part II

"Los esta vendiendo a cinco la vieja chucha..."

These words of frustration, overheard earlier this week, were uttered by one of the Muni's refuse collectors after he had sounded out the elotera on the cost of her wares.

A similar scene occurred the next day when a truck-driver, having spent several minutes trying to park his vehicle so that it wouldn't cause a major obstruction and then having approached the elotera rubbing his hands together enthusiastically, found her steadfast in her unwillingness to offer discounts. She won't haggle; it's take it or leave it.

And why not, when potential customers willing to fork out cinco billetes are approaching from the four cardinal directions?

One of these is the chap we cheekily refer to as the 'Man from Delmonte', who pootles around Panorama on his bicycle wearing a beige waistcoat and a Panama hat, with a large automatic pistol protruding from the rim of his brown leather riding boot.

Meanwhile, parsimonious punters can get themselves four tortillas for Q1 from Doña Mari and a chile relleno from Doña Tere for Q3.50 and still be better off by 50 centavos.

As 'Anonymous' pointed out, I have chosen to illustrate only (part) of our elotera's gross income, because I can only speculate as to the extent of her production costs. She comes and goes by tuctuc every day from an outlying aldea, so we might have to assume that she's paying up to Q40 a day for transportation.

However, by not being 'middle class' she's probably sparing herself the outgoings associated with taxation and personal debt, but who knows, she may have a drink problem that needs funding. She's certainly saving a few centavos by employing her daughter as a waitress (see image above) and no doubt the management of the domestic milpa involves similar arrangements.

The spot is nevertheless lucrative enough that she and her sister had a frank and public exchange of elotazos over it a while back.

Yesterday we witnessed the first proper motor accident occasioned by this thriving local business. No doubt the first of many to come.

In the comment she left on my original post, Cristina bemoaned the fact that members of the informal economy are able to "set up shop wherever they wish, leaving their trash behind."

Now, whilst the elotera in question does pick up her trash these days, she makes sure she only gathers her own trash. So she'll pick up a discarded tusa even if she has to gently shift the empty Tortrix packet that has settled on top of it.

This is fairly standard Chapin operating procedure. I've mentioned before the amazement and amusement I feel when watching my neighbours watering the road outside their homes. The care and attention they give to making sure that not one single drop strays over the imaginary line separting their own 'road space' and their next-door neighbours' is impressive. Of course none of the dust and other assorted basura could ever blow over into their territory the moment they go back inside!)

You might think that this kind of reflexive selfishness is typical of a third world mentality, but I'm not so sure. That there might be something more atavistic at work here occurs to me every time I watch Spanish TV. For whenever the weather forecast comes on the reporter is standing front of a map of the Iberian peninsula on which detailed information regarding conditions is displayed...except down the little strip on the left-hand side: Portugal. (You'd think that the people living on the border might actually be interested if it's raining on the other side.)

Again you might come and tell me that this is common elsewhere. Maybe the forecast in Louisiana takes no heed of what's happening next door in Texas, but in Spain it seems to run a little deeper, I assure you. I have driven extensively on the continent of Europe and only in Spain have I been speeding along some excellent newly-surfaced highway only to end up suddenly in what can only be described as a gravel trap.

Shifting into reverse, one then notes the sign informing drivers that they have just passed from one regional jurisdiction into another and of course whoever funded the improvements to this road was never going to waste a dollop of tarmac on the bunch next door's patch.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

'I'm so outta here'

Taiwan TV has animated the story (standard version at least).

'A smiling Japanese person is not necessarily happy'

Much merriment has resulted from Visit Britain's new initiative purportedly designed to prepare the nation's businesses for the expected onslaught of foreign tourists during the 2012 Olympics. The Daily Mash was quickly into the satirical fray with 'Try not to punch tourists, Britain reminded'.

However, the original document is arguably even more hilarious. Highlights from amongst the tips include not telling an Arab what to do, not calling a Canadian an American, being especially careful how to pour wine for those delicate Argies, and not mentioning the 1845-6 war to Mexicans.

On the subject of 'don't mention ze vor' what happened to the Germans?

Guatemala's Cornetto-style pineapples

Black Death (2010)

The Seventh Seal it isn't, yet there's certainly more to Christopher Smith's fourteenth century action-horror flick than a competently assembled piece of genre entertainment.

Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, novice monk and lover of the beauteous Averill. When he sends the object of his lust out of town to escape the pestilence, she duly advises him that he must now choose between her and his vocation. She will wait for him in the forest beside a stone cross every morning for the next few days and then she will be gone forever.

Osmund prays for a sign and sure enough in rides Sean Bean as Ulric, the local see's strong-armed representative. (The Templars didn't make it beyond 1311, so Ulric wears a black cape with what looks like a Maltese cross, perhaps suggesting membership of the Knights Hospitaller.)

Rumour has reached the bishop of a village that has been spared from the plague which was then in the process of wiping out almost half of the old world's population. This can only mean that the villagers have taken up with the devil. Indeed, it is said that a powerful necromancer has assumed control of this isolated community. Ulric needs a guide and it just so happens that the virus-free village is in more or less the same area that Averill will be waiting for Osmund, so he volunteers pretty eagerly.

The next section of the movie involves a journey to destination with character development, much in the manner of Saving Private Ryan. Osmund gets to know Ulric's brutish but not unlikeable little God squad, of which the outstanding member is Wolfstan, played superbly by John Lynch.

Once they have crossed the marshes and entered the suspect village to an apparently warm welcome, the issue at hand becomes whether these carefree folk have established for themselves a kind of proto-Denmark, resiliently secular and free-thinking, or whether this is more like some sort of Taleban terror camp full of individuals who like nothing better than to cut Christians up into little bits. Suffice to say that the conundrum resolves itself in a manner reminiscent of The Wicker Man.

But in a sense, it never really resolves itself. Osmund is both a good Christian and a bad one. Langiva the witch epitomises both the survivalist anti-church/state condition of the villagers and the imposition of an alternative, equally nasty, repressive and ultimately bogus local order. Tim McInnerny (Lord Percy from the Blackadders.) is both the witch's maleficient henchman and yet also a level-headed doubter who can declare with some certainty that 'there is no God'. Only Ulric is unconflicted, yet he is the character who most obvioulsy gets pulled in two different directions as the pitiless reality behind all this human myth-making is revealed.

The Black Death is surely one of the most significant events in world history, yet it had the misfortune to occur in the fourteentn century, an era not many people are at all interested in.

It was nevertheless a game-changer, altering the very fabric of European society in ways that would have a profound impact on the development of the West, as the Middle-Ages gave way to the Renaissance. For that reason it has proved a source of great contention amongst social historians.

I'm currently reading John Hatcher's The Black Death, a partially fictionalised account of the plague based on the records in a Suffolk village. I attended John Hatcher's lectures at Cambridge and was supervised by his star pupil Dr Mark Bailey. Between them this pair were doing much to undermine the hold Marxist historians of the French school had taken on this period.

Now Marx had two views on the workings of history which he never fully resolved. In The Communist Manifesto it seems that the main agent of social change is struggle between the classes. But Karl was a deep-thinking philosopher as well as an agitator and wishful thinker, so in Das Kapital, he appears to be describing a more impersonal process — societies move from one kind of order to another as their material base and technological know-how progresses with Hegelian inevitability, such that you can look at any nation's political 'superstructure' and quite simply predict its underlying economic arrangements, and vice versa.

Now there's a degree of truth in this, and this is why most serious academics won't subscribe to the view that we suddenly discovered that everything Marx said was a load of bunk at the end of the eighties. His characterisation of historical change does still have some explanatory power.

But what Hatcher and co demonstrated, primarily using the stark fact of the Black Death, was that sometimes something completely unpredictable occurs and re-jigs everything. No dialectical system can really cope with historical exceptions on this scale, which is probably why many Marxist historians spent a great deal of time trying to downplay the impact of plague mortality. Yet however hard they tried, new evidence regarding the deadliness of this pestilence kept emerging.

What we now know is that England (and most of western Europe) was overpopulated at the start of the fourteenth century with many of poorest members of society constrained by serfdom. At the same time a high proportion of free peasants lacked the land to fully sustain themselves and had to work part of the year for wealthier landowners in what was a very competitive labour market.

Then along comes the plague and takes just under 50% of the population out of the picture almost overnight. By the end of the century serfdom was doomed and the peasantry had established a seller's market in periodic labour. Pressure on land was also much reduced of course.

Yes there was some class struggle along the way, most notably the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, but the primary engine of this massive social overhaul in late medieval England was undoubtedly an event which was essentially external to all other baked-in factors of change during this period.

I had one largish quibble with the film by the way: the quantity of make-up worn by Carice von Houten as Langiva. When Queen Elizabth II was crowned wearing red lipstick this was a biggish deal. To her grandparents' generation these sort of personal adornments were strongly associated with actresses, prostitutes and lead poisoning. The association with actresses remained of course, and the modern cosmetics industry can be very grateful to Hollywood.

Non-toxic stuff to paint your face with only became available when Polish-Jewish immigrant Max Factor opened up shop in LA back in 1908. Earlier on, Eugène Rimmel, who based himself on London's Bond Street in 1834, had developed the first factory-made, non-toxic mascara, but still much later than 1348 where eyeliner was apparently de rigeur for all would-be toothsome wenches, at least according to the makers of Black Death.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #44

Another scene from the Ramakien on the cloister walls of Wat Phra Keaw, Bangkok.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #43

Detail of exterior temple decoration, Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok.

Antigua retro?

Next time anyone catches me in 'things ain't what they used to be' mode, just hit me over the head with an unripe papaya, please.

I suppose I've been as guilty as anyone in this respect, but there'
s been such a torrent of bogus nostalgia around Antigua recently, that I've begun to listen to myself a bit more intently in order to avoid sounding too much like one of those patronising out-of-warranty globetrotters who likes to go on about how Guatemala was marked on rough-edged gringo maps with 'There be dragons' as recently as a couple of decades ago.

V brought my attention to the problem after reading this this piece in August's Review. It comes as news to her for example, that she grew up 'a world away from civilisation'. She was teaching computation here in Antigua when we first met back in the days when the adventurous Mr Heaton first arrived.

Those were the days when Banana Republic still sold clothes worthy of the name, and you could easily kit yourself out with one of those multi-pocketed padded waistcoats that photographers like to wear in combat zones. That said, V also
finds it hard to locate the 'appealing edge', even in retrospect, of a civil war in which thousands perished quite needlessly.

Still, things must have been appealingly primitive on other levels, mustn't they? There was
of course no Internet back then in Guatemala....but nor was there in the States, for that matter, unless you happened to be a major player in the military or in an academic institution.

Leaving aside the singular piece of self-regarding gringo bilge that is "Antigua exuded a culturally authentic sense of place", are we right to pine for some sort of vanished arcadia, long since unmindfully overrun by an assortment of crass Johnny-come-latelies and lowbrow retirees clutching blueprints for their Miami-colonial mansions?

I seem to recall that there were actually MORE backpackers in the eighties, largely because Spanish schools existed in greater number and the Quetzal was pegged to the Dollar at 2:1.

Many of them were no doubt gringos of the sort who imagine that getting a passport and coming 'south of the border' to a place vaguely close to where mass murder was being committed, qualifies them as some sort of latterday Ernest Hemingway. That the end of the killing made this area less attractive to the itinerant kudos-seeker is a change that can surely only be welcomed.

I also seem to recall that there were ways of acquiring a Toblerone without having to wait for someone to mail it to you, notably that little shop on 6a Avenida Norte. As for other delicacies, it depends how many things you inisist on cramming into that category. El Único was literally unique in that it represented the closest thing Antigua then had to a delicatessen. (The Bodegona was still a night spot called the Manhattan.) and one relied on another store (Aylin, I think) on 6a Avenida Sur for the better wines and spirits.

Sushi bars were thin on the ground here then, as they were almost everywhere else outside Japan, but
Quesos y Vino, La Fonda, La Cenicienta etc. were all up and running by the end of the decade, as was Revue magazine itself.

Commercially Antigua was certainly a little quieter. The Casbah hadn't opened on the Quinta and the cathedral and the chapels along the Calle de los Pasos were in need of a lick of fresh paint. Meanwhile damage done by the '76 quake was still passing itself off as the ruination bequeathed to the city by the much more ancient — and thus perhaps more romantic — Santa Marta terremotos.

Anyway, I came across this handy global map of 'touristyness' earlier today, which should help redirect those sensitive souls who find de-authentification almost as disturbing a symptom of globalisation as deforestation.
Tip: New Zealand is still looking comparatively undiscovered.

20 parrot tricks in two minutes

It's a record, apparently.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #41

Street curries, Ayutthaya.

Dawn Chorus

Of birds...and cats.

Well almost. V shot this clip around 7am this morning. Things are still quite lovely first thing in spite of the all the afternoon downpours.

The hills to the west of town have been getting a bit of a haircut recently. Where once there were pines, new tracks are appearing.

La Elotera

Come rain or shine — though mainly rain of late — the elotera positions herself on this corner every afternoon before 4pm. Her story illustrates some of the unevenness in the Guatemalan economy, which often takes surprising form.

She brings with her roughly 75 home-grown elotes in a big basket and sells as many of them as she can for Q5 each until nightfall. Now let's suppose she sells just 50 of them (though from our own observations, she rarely has many leftovers), she can expect an income of Q250 every day for six days of the week, which translates into approximately Q6000 a month.

To put this in context, the entry level salary for the policemen based in the street behind her is around Q3000 pcm.

A senior accountant in Guatemala City on the other hand, will earn up to Q12,000 a month, but this entails a full day's work and a proportion of this will be taken by the state in tax.

I doubt very much whether the SAT gets so much as a whiff of the elotera's earnings and she is likely to be pelando la mazorca for other reasons as well: for example she flogs off the tusas and shilotes to the guy who keeps horses for the tourist carriage rides, and makes a few extra 'pesos' from premium products such as chuchos.

Now, let's go back to the image above. Doesn't she look just a little bit folorn there? Of course she does, because pity is very much part of the pitch. It's difficult to imagine that I could sell even a dozen elotes if I shamelessly scuttled over at three thirty to grab this lucrative corner before the elotera arrives (in a tuctuc, by the way.)

This may explain why her customer base consists mainly of individuals in smart cars passing along the Reformador. Guatemalans with a bit of disposable income like to patronise humilde street vendors and so prices can be raised without provoking troubling thoughts like 'hang on a sec, doesn't a codo-burger at Al Macarone cost just Q8.50?'.

So the chief of police often appears for his ration of boiled corn, but given their paltry salaries, it's hardly surprising that few of his junior subordinates do.

There are three major building projects going on in the neighbourhood which have created a captive market of hundreds of albañiles floating around after hours. Few of them however appear to want to satiate their appetites on elotes costing Q5 each. Instead the houses selling tortillas, chiles rellenos etc — and let's not forget the shop with its litros of Gallo — have been doing rather well out of this grubby demographic.

The elotera is nevertheless pulling in the couples. Because the consumption of traditional food brings on warm fuzzy feelings in most chapines, a bloke can take his girlfriend out for a nibble of corn and not come across like a complete cheapskate. Hey, Q5 isn't all that barato anyway, is it?

Doña Tona on the Alameda Santa Rosa was the recognised queen of this little niche until she started appearing on TV and in magazines. Then the family who paid her to look after their house got the hump that she'd turned their front lawn into an al fresco dining experience, and were no doubt also sore that she wasn't paying them for the privilege. In fact, hasta con eso, they were paying her!

So now, without the cushion of a guardiana's income and with the extra burden of overheads such as rent and the cost of a flete to carry all her ollas, Tona now peddles her wares a few doors further down from her original flytrap, and is that much less likely to greet customers with the mazorca pelada than in days gone by.