Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

"We open our season with Swan Lake, done to death I know, but not like this..."

In Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan high art meets trash — and both get on a whole lot better than either might have expected.

That said, some exalted voices from within the ballerina profession are apparently not well pleased with this representation of their personal quests for perfection.

Indeed high brow types have been lining up to get all sniffy about this movie and its apparent lack of subtlety and its layers of genre absurdity. On Radio 3 Ann Karpf recently described it as "a preposterous load of Hollywood hokum," though she did go on to suggest that it might have been improved had Aronofsky toned it down. Funny, there were parts where I was willing him on to tone it up a bit!

I don't think I've seen any of the Italian Giallo flicks spearheaded by Dario Argento, so, unlike Dr K, when looking for genre precursors I instead find resonances in J horror and the wider world of Asian chillers, with their emphasis on reflection and possession.

Aronofsky's last film was The Wrestler, which took a view on the other end of a career at the very top of a somewhat peculiar pursuit: more washed up than pushed up. With Barbara Hershey's delicious stint as the smother mother, Black Swan could easily have been about female tennis players, but then of course the movie's team of writers would not have been able to conjure up such sympathetic magic with the dualistic themes of Tchaikovsky's most done to death work.


Grade: A (-)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Spot the ejote

Some snaps of the tradicional degustation menu at Casa Oaxaca, base of esteemed nuevo-mexicano chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo: six compact courses backed up with generous quantities of blue corn tostadas and pan de chapulín (grasshopper bread).

Taquito de chapulines y guacamole (grasshoppers in little corn tacos, their salty edge burnished with avocado)

Sopa de Guías con Chochoyotes (squash and greens soup with corn dumplings)

Verde de Lengua (veal tongue in green mole)

Amarillo de Venado (venison in yellow mole)

Mole Negro con Guajolote (free range turkey in black mole)

Nicuatole (classic Oaxacan corn pudding)

'Comida de menudeo' quipped V when I told her about the single French bean gracing the venison dish. I suppose you do have to be Japanese to get away with that sort of thing, but this really was the most delicious taster menu I'd tucked into since Kyoto.

In the clip below Chef Ruiz heads out to the abastos market in Oaxaca; you will get a sense why this city sports possibly the best regional cuisine in southern North America.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Lisa Choldenko leads us into the well-trodden territory of marriage and parenthood at the crossroads, except that here we have the novelty, played artfully low key, that the couple in question are lesbians, whose son and daughter are half-siblings as each chose to have a child using sperm from the same anonymous donor.

The kids' decision to investigate the identity of their biological father leads to the introduction of Mark Ruffalo's effortlessly cool restauranteur Paul into the delicately-poised family mix, with consequent opportunities for light but affecting comedy and trauma.

Before this intrusion has taken full effect, Choldenko gives us a bedroom scene in which Benning and Moore use gay porn -- male gay porn -- to get off, hinting at one of the points of instability in their relationship. But this gently excellent movie is much more about marriage than it is about sexual preference. Although Benning's Nic could be said to be wearing what are known in those parts as the pants in the relationship, what we have here is an exploration of conjugal friction fed by two very feminine perspectives.

Ruffalo's character could easily have been little more than a plot device, and it is a credit to his performance that his easy-going path to an unlikely victimhood is tinged with real pain. He also brings a bit of masculine balance to one of those films where the gender-slant of the camera becomes a close approximation of narrative voice.

As the poster suggests, at least three of the key scenes take place at mealtimes, where nice bottles of vino tinto figure prominently (as well as the kind of tall glass where one is tempted to seek out the shadows of the film-crew). All the more opportunity then to rue the prevailing table manners of Hollywood thesps who, no matter how formally attired or how much baroque music is poshing up the ambience, typically sit with elbows firmly planted beside their plates as they alternate between prodding and shoveling up their food with indecisively-gripped forks.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Death and the Idea of Mexico: Claudio Lomnitz (2)

"To all this the Indian responded: I know, father, that the dead do not eat meat, nor the bones. Instead, they place themselves above the food and suck out all its virtues and the substance that they need, and they leave behind what they don't need...And the servant of God responded that the intention of the faithful was not to feed the dead, but to give these alms to the ministers in the name of the dead, so that the priests would pray to God for their souls."

In the sixteenth century the Days of the Dead received far less public support than other Catholic festivals such as Corpus Christi — used as a public reaffirmation of the physical and spiritual conquest of New Spain.

On paper at least, the civic bias against All Souls' Day was rationalised by the friars as part of their cautious response to certain 'recalcitrant' tendencies within the native population. Specifically, the Aztecs had celebrated a two-part mortuary festival beginning in August (Miccailhuitontli and Xocotlhuetzi), which some felt offered a dangerous cultural bridge via which native idolatry might extend itself into the new order.

But perhaps the real reason the priests started to play down this festival is revealed by the excerpted quoted above from the account of Alonso de Espinoza's expedition to Oaxaca. Whereas in Spain all the food and other goodies presented as tribute was destined for the men of the cloth, the Indians obstinately persisted in the view that it was their ancestors who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of these ofrendas.

And it seems that unsupervised indigenous rituals typically involved a far greater quantity of food offerings than was the norm back in Spain, as well as a certain degree of unfettered banqueting: convites y borracheras.

Lomnitz also notes that in the early post-conquest period Indians were (rather conveniently) exempt from the obligations to fast, seek penance and abstain from work on the first two days of November. The tougher religious observance expected of the Spaniards was, he adds, "meant to serve both as an example of what being an old Christian was and as a legitimising device for the Spaniard's social superiority."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Death and the Idea of Mexico: Claudio Lomnitz (1)

The notion of Purgatory, adopted as official church doctrine in 1274, was arguably one of the great commercial innovations of the Middle Ages. It was Catholicism's iPod, turning a good business into a great one.

In the early days of Christian faith, bodies were typically buried outside city walls, and St Augustine observed that the prevalent mortuary ritual was rather short on religious significance. But somewhere between 1024 and 1033 Abbot Odilo of Cluny took an important step in the instigation of a proper Christian death cult when he invented the holiday of All Souls' Day, choosing November 2, the day after All Saints' Day.

As Lomnitz notes, "The relationship between the dead and the living is a key to social control and social reproduction in any society." With this new festival and the complex array of masses, prayers, acts of contrition and so-called 'suffrages' that the medieval church established as potential alleviation for the souls being blanched by purgatorial fire, the priesthood took on a formal new role as mediators between past and present members of the religious community.

Intercession was of course a whole new revenue stream based on monopolistic control of post-mortem suffering and control over 'the good death'. And bodies were now of course placed in burial grounds around the church, with more saintly relics stored within it. (Most notably within the altarpieces.)

Today when I hear that someone has gone round to our local church to pay for a mass for a departed loved-on, the compassion I undoubtedly feel is inevitably preceded by the less charitable thought 'what a dupe!'.

As a lapsed medieval historian I have to square this disdain with the comparative respect I have always had for medieval systems of belief. How can I justify this apparent double standard? Well, for a start, I base my opinion of my contemporaries on the extent to which they have had the opportunity to extract themselves from a culture founded to a large extent on ignorance.

Medieval people had many more unexplained things to cope with. They also had a number of consciously clever ways of operating their multifarious superstitions — so we see them manipulating magical sequences of numbers (or even colours) when deploying candles and spoken invocations. In contrast, many of the modern faithful barely seem to understand the theological underpinnings of the practices they so slavishly repeat.

And, as Lomnitz also points out, just about every schismatic movement that took shape after the launch of purgatory, strongly rejected the concept in its entirety, so there have always been plenty of people around capable of seeing it for the system of exploitation that it is.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review of 2010: Fiction

2666 by Robero Bolaño (The Part of the Critics)
(Jeff In Venice), Death In Varanassi by Geoff Dyer
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Bolaño tops the list again this year as he did last. I have to admit I've only read the first part of 2666 so far, but the author apparently intended to flog this as a separate novel, and it is so disarmingly brilliant that I just had to include it.

In the case of Geoff Dyer's two-parter, I managed to get through the Varanassi-located second half in 2010 and it was just as enthralling as the bit in Venice. OK, I did have a sense that this is a book crafted for a rather specific demographic (middle-aged European males such as myself), but that doesn't detract from its brilliance.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall strikes me almost as a game-changer for historical fiction and perhaps for historiography in general, for she has shown how a judicious use of imagination can be put to use to place the reader inside a particular period, and the result is as authentic a reading of events as many a formally non-fictional approach to the same material. The last two books on this year's list are both arguably somewhat flawed from a strictly literary perspective, yet when all's said and done, were possibly the two best reads I've had in the past twelve months. (I am still trying to knock out some more critical responses to Mitchell's novel on this blog.)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Review of 2010: Films, new and new-enough

It was tough to whittle down to a top ten of my favourite new or new-enough movies that we watched in 2010, but here goes...

Last year they were listed in no particular order. This year I have attempted a scale, but it remains approximate.

1. Madeo
2. Inception
3. The Disappearance of Alice Creed
4. The Ghost
5. El Secreto de sus Ojos
6. Un Prophète
7. The Social Network
8. The White Ribbon
9. Fish Tank
10. Monsters

Catfish (2010)...and narco-chuchos

"There is no secrecy on the Internet," says Cryptome co-founder John Young who, like the altogether more notorious Julian Assange, remains convinced that secrecy is democracy's nemesis.

Guatemala may have had just one paltry little Wikileak associated with it, but the year that's been did bring us those memorable moments of excitement and intrigue generated by the unmasking of local blogger 'Mark Francis' as Federal fugitive Jeff Cassman. (Many thanks to reader Begonia for this updated content.)

How could a husband and serial-father on the run for investment fraud have considered it a good idea to create such a high profile online identity for himself (albeit a bogus one), have bragged about his ability to secure falsified documents, have recruited mulas from back home to bring him and his family American goodies, and have gone out of his way to make his presence felt far and wide in Guatemala, not just amongst the ex-pats in Antigua, most of whom appear to have crossed his path at one time or another?

The Internet is a funny old thing; in order to get much of the upside you have to take on a considerable downside risk. And 'Mark', a regular at poker tables in smoke-filled rooms somewhere in Antigua (we don't have many basements here), had obviously decided he was going to be in the game.

2010 was remarkable in one respect, in that it saw the mass migration of Chapines from regionally-established social networks like Hi5 into the online phenomenon that is Facebook and its complex morass of privacy controls. One has to wonder whether Mark Zuckerberg could ever have foreseen the long-term impact of all these relatively unsophisticated users on his platform as he stitched up the code in his Harvard dorm room.

Just the other morning I was able to explore an entire red of Guatemala-based drug traffickers on Facebook. Cassman was hiding in plain sight, but this is something else. You might think that a fair analogy might be Johnny Jihad posing for his profile pic in a camisa bomba, or exchanging drole, nudge nudge wink wink wall comments about the uses of fertiliser with his mate Ahmed in Tower Hamlets.

Nevertheless, while your run-of-the-mill Islamist cell-member might not have a higher average IQ than the rank and file of Central America's narco-distribution gangs, he has several advantages when it comes to avoiding barefaced-but-unintentional Facebook visibility — that he's almost certainly a genuine no mates outsider like Zuckerberg, and that he has a conspicuous lack of interest in alcohol, slags and showing off in general.

The narco cell on the other hand might have a manipulative sociopath as its nucleus, but all around it gathers the glutinous mass of thick and lazy friends, family members and inveterate lameculos, and most significantly, the materialistic mitochondria of trophy girlfriends.

If you happen to know one of these busconas, chances are you are only a few clicks away from an entire network of shaven-headed twats with diamond earrings and snaps of their automatic weapons collections in their Facebook albums. ("Hasta el chucho se ve narco," said V memorably of one pic we came across.)

And of course no idea how to manage the social network's privacy settings — though one has to wonder if they really care, because their online behaviour invariably mimics the brashness of their offline presence. It was remarkably easy to plot out the political and economic connections enjoyed by these narcs, make an informed guess as to which local businesses had been compromised, identify in-group markers like tattoos and neckware, and establish that most of these dopes are Sinaloans living here in Guatemala with false identities...though many of these have the authentic ring of 'Ford Prefect' from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

If I could do all this with half an hour of idle time on my hands, just imagine what could be achieved by someone paid to act on the belief that the real problem here is the supply end of the equation, as opposed to the end-consumers and their deadly habit. Anyway, as Ken Whitehouse noted with some surprise in his piece about our erstwhile 'Banana Republican', "apparently, there are pretty good Internet connections in Antigua."

All this has been a rather extended preamble to Catfish, a movie which is ultimately about a woman who — to the untrained eye at least — might have come across as a complete saddo, but was actually a sophisticated implementer of online identity stratagems, looking to prey upon the superficially more hip denizens of a distant metropolis.

Now the first question one has to ask of this movie is just how genuine its own identity is. Before viewing it, I listened to Yaniv Schulman, 'the mark' in this tale, insisting earnestly to Jason Solomon on Film Weekly, that it was indeed all kosher and that his interfering brother Ariel had, without any foreknowledge of the eventual outcome, suddenly decided to pick up his camera to make a documentary about online relationships, having delved into Yaniv's correspondence with Megan and her mother.

For about two thirds of the movie I was genuinely prepared to believe him. Even now I would hesitate to suggest that the whole thing was a set-up, but there is definitely something fishy going on here. The temptation to blur the edges of documentary must have been huge: for how marvelously meta it must be to make a movie about questionable identities which itself sports an identity of some dubiousness, and whose 'star' bleats at one crucial moment, that he hadn't been taken in, he'd just failed to ask some rather obvious questions.

For all their insistence that everything happened in real time just as it has been presented to us, I would suggest that the Schulmans and their collaborator Henry Joost, really do want us to ask some pressing questions of their movie. For if the revealed circumstances behind the Facebook trail turn out to be so nuanced and moving by accident, surely their achievement could be considered diminished.

For us it was the husband and the poetic musings he made to camera — one of which was to give the movie its name — which proved to be the clincher.

Feliz año a todos, especially my new 'friends' the narco-chuchos.

Grade: A-