Friday, March 18, 2011

The world gone bananas...again

The quake and tsunami in Japan last week left me shocked and saddened, but the subsequent focus by the western media on the nuclear incident to the exclusion of almost all other stories has made me properly angry. How much easier it was for them to film foreigners queueing up to leave the country at Narita International, than tackle the issues facing the locals who have no choice but to remain: such as humanitarian aid and social reconstruction?

It's clear that in today's world, there are few institutions that anyone is willing to trust and that right at the bottom of the trust pile sit politicians and scientists. (Ok, maybe bankers and oil company executives are in the mix too.) You might think there's good reason for this, but consider also that they have less of an clear-cut commercial incentive to manipulate us than the 24-hour media outlets.

We may not trust them all that much either, but they have enough of a trust advantage over officialdom to make it worth exploiting — for in spite of the fact that we keep on falling for their scare stories (Mexican flu...), it's still so much easier for us to believe that experts, elected officials and corporate spokesmen are deliberately keeping us in the dark, than it is to wise up to the fact that the global media have been conspiring to keep us all shit scared.

In this case the scientists were out there with real information from quite early on, but the news channels chose to ask oncologists in a different part of the world — or even their weather man — how the 'fall-out' from the Fukushima plant was likely to pan out.

In the west of England, where radon gas is emitted naturally, around 1000 extra cancer deaths occur as a result each year. Has the French government made plans to evacuate its citizens from Exeter? Non.

It's difficult to be sure how many people have died from radiation-related causes since the melt-down at Chernobyl in 1986; I've seen estimates ranging from 1000-9000, but whatever the actual total, it's considerably less than the 25,000 we can assume have died in the same period in Devon and Cornwall.

And if we are to trust the scientific experts just a little bit, the reactor at Fukushima simply cannot experience the same sort of catastrophic radioactive emission as that which occurred at the Soviet plant, and come what may, the particles emitted in the steam won't pose a threat to the population of Tokyo.

I'm currently getting more radiation from the 4 or 5 bananas I eat every day than anybody in the exclusion zone around Fukushima. And yet yesterday I watched a Mexican news piece on how salt was selling out across China and you just knew that a given proportion of viewers would respond immediately by rushing out to buy some salt.

You'd think that the big worry to emerge from this whole appalling disaster would not be whether nuclear fuel is safe in the long term, but what would happen if a quake of that magnitude were to take place directly in front of the bay of Tokyo where 36m people live.

Wednesday was the most irritating day to watch either CNN or BBC World. All told nothing significant happened, either in Japan or Libya, and so the 'Breaking News' mood became rather strained and the speculations rather flimsy. Highly paid reporters who must have been starting to feel a bit like the cast of Two and a Half Men over in North Africa, were briefly allowed back on our screens to report on the slow advance of Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi.

But back in Japan Emperor Akihito showed up on TV, an event that we were duly informed was 'rare', which apparently meant that we were to draw the direst conclusions from it. The New York Times led the way that day in imputing the whole mess to something endemic in the Japanese/Asian way of political leadership; warnings unheeded, information distorted, actions delayed — clearly expecting us to have forgotten both Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon blow-out.

One also has to suspect that organisations like the Guardian and the BBC are to a significant extent staffed by people who like to revel in stoking up emotive narratives which cause massive commercial damage to everyone except themselves.

Now, forget everything I just said and answer me this: why are the senior members of the Japanese government all starting to dress in ugly blue boiler suits? Could it be that they're just about to take refuge in their secret underground bunker? Either that or the tsunami washed up a paca-style container full of old M&S clothes which had been floating around the Pacific for ages like all those rubber ducks .

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hysteria alert

real, qualified information.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Norwegian Wood (2010)

Knitwear notwithstanding, Ahn Hung Tran's interpretation of Norwegian Wood was a big disappointment. I remember that during our viewing of his last flick, I Come With the Rain, we kept thinking Hey that's a nice shirt...oh, how cool is that God this film stinks..

And although this production is perhaps a whole magnitude less stinky, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to write it off as one big cinematographic toss-off; and that's coming from someone who swoons at the mere mention of Wong Kar-Wai's masterpieces, In the Mood For Love and (even more so) 2046.

I'm also a total sucker for romantic suffering on celluloid; I even welled up a bit during The Time Traveler's Wife. But here I really struggled to connect with the character's story and ended up feeling as cold and dry as Naoko's ladybits, frankly.

In truth, this has probably been my least favourite of Murakami's novels. Yet I do recall enjoying it and that it featured one or two of his standard tropes, which have been excised from this adaptation. (A deep, dark well for instance.)

Most Guatemalan girls of a certain age remember the much-loved 70s Japanese anime series Candy, which ran and ran on local TV for several decades. In it, the eponymous heroine is beset by a choice of blokes, some fey some a bit earthier, who in effect represent not just different masculine archetypes, but also alternative life choices. Ahn Hung Tran has turned this story into a boy's-own version of Candy, with the central male protagonist Watanabe struggling — rather passively it must be said — with his female options, the two principal ones distinguished by the fact that one looks about fourteen while the other speaks as if she were fourteen.

When a novelist writes in the first person I really do think they are latently communicating to all potential screen-scribblers something along the lines of "hands off my text!" Murakami's narrators are generally rather becalmed and socially-disconnected characters, and while their yielding, apathetic perspectives work well enough dramatically from within, once you step outside them with your HD camera, you end up with a subject whose moping inertia becomes less comprehensible and an active source of lifelessness.

As with I Come With the Rain some scenes really do work, but surely I can't be alone in suspecting that Ahn Hung Tran, unlike the author of the source book, has markedly finite talents as a story-teller.

Grade: B

Monday, March 14, 2011

Presunto Culpable (2008)

In Mexico you are guilty unless proven innocent.

This I already knew from my late night viewings of Preso en el Extranjero on Discovery. Although I know I may yet live to regret it, I am, as a result, inclined to imagine it would still be preferable to be involved in a tussle with the Guatemalan legal system, than that of our northern neighbour.

Let's look at some of the key stats that came up in this intriguing documentary. 95% of Mexican trials result in conviction. In fact, the trial is often little more than a rubber-stamping of the 'file' produced by investigating officers. If they don't choose to interview witnesses relevant to the defence, their statements don't go in the file.

92% of convictions involve no physical evidence whatsoever. In other words witness testimony is paramount. And 90% of defendants never see either a judge or an arrest warrant during the process.

78% of convicts are fed and supported by their own families, so the state doesn't really have to face up to much of a financial penalty for jailing innocents.

Two young and clearly affluent young Mexican lawyers made this film over the course of three years to expose what they see as the fundamental weakness in their nation's criminal justice system. The general story is told by focusing on a particular case, that of José Antonio Zuñiga, convicted of a gang homicide in 2005. Spotting that his defence lawyer in the original trial had been using a fraudulent photocopied license, they secure a retrial, but unfortunately the original judge is back for the sequel, and the circumstances are hardly what anyone brought up in the English system would recognise as court of law anyway.

Zuñiga was picked up by the cops near his PC-repair stall and although several people are willing to testify that they saw him working there all day, one witness, the victim's cousin Victor Reyes Bravo claimed to have seen him doing the deed around 3pm. Or at least he did on the third attempt, having produced two earlier statements featuring another gang leader as the pistolero.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the re-trial process is the almost face to face exchange of accusation and counter-accusation made by Reyes Bravo and Zuñiga (from behind bars), the words enunciated slowly and then repeated by the judge. V likened it to some strange school drama.

With contraband versions of this documentary outselling major Hollywood productions at stalls much like Zuñiga's own, and Mexicans flocking to their local Cinépolis to watch the formal discomfiting of Reyes Bravo, the witness himself has attempted to have the film banned across this hemisphere, because his privacy rights were violated when the re-trial was recorded. As of yesterday the ban was at least temporarily overturned on the grounds of freedom of information, and it would seem that the big local multiplexes had never got round to removing Presunto Culpable anyway, such was its screen-packing popularity.

It struck us that the real villains of the piece, at least as far as concocting the file on the original case, losing identikit sketches etc. was concerned, were the investigating officers, and the three we see in 'court' are straight from central casting. At one point the chief detective suddenly turns to camera and makes a not-so-veiled threat, along the lines that if anything should happen to him as a result of this little documentary, se chingaron cabrones. The judge, frankly also a bit dodgy of aspect, smiles nervously and points out that the remark is hardly relevant to the cross-examination.

Nevertheless, the film's one truly jaw-dropping moment occurs when the defence has completed its brief summing up and the judge asks the prosecuting attorney to close her case, at which point she states offhandedly that she's got it all on a diskette and she'd rather not say anything actually out loud. Zuñiga is permitted to challenge her on this and asks her what grounds she has for believing him to be guilty. She chuckles nervously and replies "Porque es mi chamba". (Because it's my job.)

After the retrial had concluded the judge and the prosecuting attorney wrote up the report minus almost everything that the defence attorney and the witness said in cross-examination, and so the fact that Roberto Hernández and his wife and producer, Layda Negrete were around to document proceedings on camera does seem to have been crucial to the eventual outcome.

It's been a year of are they/aren't they documentaries and there were times here too where we wondered whether it was only the cops who had been up to a bit of manufacturing. Hernández and Negrete appear to have extraordinary access to the accused (both inside and outside his cell during the re-trial for example) and their presentation of the defence case is also not without its flaws. For example, they tell us how long it would have taken Zuñiga to walk to the crime scene as if it's a given that he could not have used motorised transportation and although they do tell us that the victim was not known to the prisoner, they appear to dodge the question of his relationship with the other two individuals tied to the murder.

You can follow the campaign behind this excellent film here. Apparently there is a deadline of 2016 for a change in the Mexican constitution allowing for the presumption of innocence, but the government has also recently acquired the power to detain people without prosecution for up to eighty days.

Grade: A-

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dude, my $800 tracksuit...

FOX News has been showing plenty of images of Japanese people behaving in a 'dignified' and 'civilised' manner in the face of almost unimaginably catastrophic conditions and in so many cases, personal tragedy. What you don't see so much of is raw footage like this, of spoiled Americans acting like complete dicks.

This lot obviously hadn't been in Japan long enough either to know that the first instinct of the locals in a disaster scenario is not in fact to steal one's shit, or to know what a tsunami warning siren sounds like. (I don't think it means leave your rooftop position and head down to street level immediately!)

"Cloverfield all over" it might have been, in which case capturing the moment so that future generations can enjoy the clips saved on the mobile phone retrieved out of one's cold, dead, hands, was a potentially selfless act...but it's probably a better idea to conserve battery power. One kid did however seem to think the situation through and judiciously held on to his banana throughout.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cuaresma under way...

The first Lenten procession of 2011 in these parts. This year I'm going to miss most of Cuaresma and all of Semana Santa, though I'm not really going to miss it, if you get my drift.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Death and the Idea of Mexico: Claudio Lomnitz (4)

Modern historians have a lot to thank Karl Marx for really. Not only did he provide them with not one, but two suggested explanations for the underlying course of history, but also — rather less obviously, because the impact has been felt across the political spectrum of academia — he popularised dialectical thinking, which suits the sort of commentator who likes to deal in coherent paradigms rather than potentially more disjointed facts and ideas.

So you might — as I did — come to Lomnitz's book expecting to find a comprehensive answer to the question 'what is it about these Mexicans and death?', but instead what you get is a response to two alternative and largely competing previous answers to that question.

Undergrad historians, typically one step removed from original research, learn this trick early on. So-and-so said this, but so-and-so said that, and so my own interpretation is either going to be a gutless hedge (aka "fence sitting") or an attempt to create some new and distinct synthetic third position using bits of both.

Faced with a dense literature on the Mexican death-obsession falling into two broad churches — that it descends from pre-Colombian roots in either ancient Mesoamerica or medieval Iberia — Lomnitz contends that it was in fact the cataclysmic meeting of these two cultures and the need to re-establish the hegemonic order after the holocaust which resulted in an apparently unique nationalisation of the death-cult in Mexico.

There is much that is compelling in Lomnitz's argument, but there are always going to be gaps when your answer to a specific question is essentially a response to earlier viewpoints. For instance, my friend Antonio in Brazil believes the candy skulls on sale at the start of November in Mexico must somehow descend from Aztec tzompantli (skull racks), for if there wasn't something very specific in the native culture squished by Cortés and co, why would Mexicans be any more death-obsessed than the rest of Latin America? Lomnitz's hegemonic whiplash argument can only provide the most indirect sort of parry to the thrust of Antonio's intuition.

And frankly, the greater issue for me is that I did not pick up this hefty volume in search of a sociological history of the Days of the Dead in Mexico. I really did want a comprehensive answer the question 'what is it about these Mexicans and death?' — one that delved a bit more into popular psychology and its localised peculiarities for this, at least as far as the topic of mortality is concerned, is my current topic of greatest interest.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Little Big Soldier (2010)

"In a wok the eagle and the chicken are both just meat."

It's the third century BC in the epoch just before the kingdom of Qin unifies China by force and the armies of Liang and Wei have just met at Phoenix Hill and annihilated each other. There are two survivors, a conscripted Liang farmer who has played dead, and his wounded captive, the Wei general, who turns out to be heir to the throne to boot.

The farmer/deserter wants to cash in on the General, whose high camp younger brother and mounted henchmen are pursuing him in order to finish him off. The two men seem poles apart, but come draw closer as they toss around their notions of the honourable death.

Jackie Chan has apparently been kicking this idea around for two decades and bizarrely originally saw himself in the straight man role.

"It's a comedy, right?" V asked me as the armies lined up in epic style at the start. The answer is a qualified affirmative: you are never quite sure whether you are watching a serious action movie or some sort of romp. Tense and quite brutal scuffles are suddenly inflected with comedy and the tale ends on a note of melodramatic pathos, that is in a sense also a kind of punchline. Anyone but the mature Chan could have got the balance wrong here, but he's perfect as hapless shirker who also carries a strange aura of weary depth about him.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Coco casi chamuscado...

It was his birthday...lucky dog!

Tron Legacy (2010)

Given how remarkably original the 1982 film was, it was startling to note just how derivative this update was determined to me. This isn't just an homage to earlier graphics chips and a pre-grizzled Jeff Bridges, it is acutely conscious of so much that has happened since from The Matrix to the Star Wars prequels. Tron himself has morphed into a kind of Darth Maul, Boba Fet hybrid who gurgles like a Predator. The less said about Michael Sheen's impersonation of night club empresario Zuse the better..

As a sound and light show Tron Legacy is often utterly captivating, but whenever the dramatic tension appears to be building up some steam, and the objectives being pursued by protagonists and antagonists alike have come into sharper focus, the writers dump us back into immobility, usually via the kind of low-energy dialogue that had me wondering whether even Shia LeBeouf would have made a more charismatic lead than Garrett Hedlund.

One is acutely aware of missed opportunities on almost every level. The set piece games are great, but seemingly gone in an instant. Just when we think we're up for a really cool martial arts sequence, it's over. Flynn senior starts spouting some orientalist profundities about perfection...which turn out to be stillborn.

As ever, Jeff's presence is probably worth the ticket price for those who can't get off on effects alone, but his performance here is somewhat benumbed by the presence of his digitally-rejuvenated yet facially-impliable doppelgänger Clu, who bears a disturbing resemblance to some sort of CGI Baldwin brother.

Grade: B(+)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Drivers familiar with the roads in the south west of France will have come across these grim sentinels. On many of these highways are an almost ever-present reminder of the location and severity of fatal accidents.

One wonders how crowded the roadsides around the capital here (say in Villa Canales) would be if Ex-Prez decided to erect a cardboard stiff to mark the passing of every bus driver taken out by the maras.

On last night's evening edition of Noti7 it was a full ten minutes before we got to a story that wasn't about armed attacks on Guatemala's buses. The last and perhaps the most appalling didn't even involve extortionists; instead it was what appeared to be a road rage incident on the Reforma in the capital's smartest district, Zona 9. After a brief altercation arising from razones viales, a man on a motorbike (I'm actually assuming it was a bloke) took out a pistol and fired into a yellow school bus packed with young students, wounding the driver twice in the abdomen.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


In fits and starts I have been transcribing my 1999 diary this year. Reading and typing more or less simultaneously, this has made for a thoroughly engrossing interplay of memories in the mind and on the page with the limited bandwidth searchlight of the conscious now.

Before I went 'e' in 2003, my journals were occasionally patchy and certainly less verbose. Yet it isn't the density of observation that makes this such a jarring assemblage of both high and low-res memories. Re-treading this daily path now can sometimes feel like hovering above a recollection. There's a new dimension to the remembered experience: a fluffed-up context, now enhanced by an appreciation of the sequence of events which were to follow.

On other occasions contrastingly, it is like being plonked right back in the tunnel, with all the implications for vision that implies. Instead of reliving the moment 'in the round', I am suddenly right back on the spot, and all the stresses and anxieties, the guilt, the uncertainty, and of course, more occasionally, the surreptitious sniggers, are back in the emotional foreground. And then there are those truly disturbing passages of text which result in no flashbacks whatsoever.

I picked this year ahead of alternatives, because superficially at least, I recall it as a twelve month period packed with big ticket moments, including a trip to Cornwall with John to witness a somewhat overcast yet utterly mesmerising total eclipse and an incident-packed business trip to Barcelona in the late summer, where I was put up by the client in a 3 1/2--star beach hotel in Calella, surrounded by inflatable dolphins and people with beer guts and tattoos. And that was just the children. (Apparently the bigger, better-prepared Pharmas and the world's extended community of opportunistic cardiologists had bagged all the rooms at the Hotel Arts etc. in Barcelona proper.)

And of course for the portentously-minded, the whole year was one breath-bated lead up to the big party of December 31 — which we experienced memorably here in Antigua — and the package of uncertainties heralded by the new millennium. (No doubt many of the same fretters will have been counting down frantically to December 2012 of late.)

Yet as I proceed sequentially, the wood of the larger meanings has tended to fall from view behind the trees of, well, tedium. How many exhausted early nights I had, how many silent wallowings in the hot tub, weekends lost to VHS sessions taking in all the regular shows we'd missed Monday to Friday.

'99 was also the year after the twelve months before in one important respect: it represented a new dawn for us after selling our baby to a NASDAQ-listed company and, as we returned from our post-millennial excesses, we were keenly aware that we were going to have to be accountable in ways that had not seemed all that important before...and that there were going to be factions forming around the office where none had existed before.

We now had a CFO for the first time, and the weekly Monday meetings she insisted on were where these new realities would play out most most uncomfortably. Former shareholders, recent option holders, and the newbie salaried employees would all have significantly different interests when it came to the now heavily-overseen financials and other matters relating to domestic governance.

Even our foreign masters would be torn: for on the one hand our numbers fed into their quarterly reports and they had their own issues with holders of different kinds of paper (not to mention the Russian default and a very volatile tech market), but on the other hand, the better we did, the more they would have to fork out in the medium term as part of the earn-out agreement.

They were also still snarling from the realisation that our pesky Norwegian managing director had got the better of their array of expensive lawyers who'd missed the clause which permitted a significant portion of our eventual windfall to be based simply on the passage of time and not on performance over that same period.

My former partner, the aforementioned wily CEO, took me for one of those serious strolls amongst the religious martyrs buried in the St George's Gardens boneyard in Bloomsbury. These were exciting times, he enthused, but some of the old guard, the dilettante amateurs such as myself and a few other notable members of the founding few who had managed to get such an implausibly elevated seat at so many corporate tables, might experience the coming year like suitcases which, not especially well tied down, tend to fall off the rickety bus as it picks up speed.

He was of course delivering a message, one that would allow him to step back behind the Doric columns as the knife thrusts were delivered into my back and belly. But this ominous chat morphed into a discussion about what I could do to become more obviously central to the new order; nothing less than a suit of armour forged from rejigged responsibilities — I was to become kind of knowledge gatekeeper and librarian on the side, with a visible role in keeping all my colleagues up to speed.

This was perhaps my first full exposure to the phenomenon I would later be able to recognise almost instantly as 'an initiative'. These are internal company activities, often quite rational and laudable in themselves, which are doomed to at best partial completion/success, because the main reason for undertaking them is to be seen to be doing something. After a further decade in the communications industry I would be under no illusions as to how endemic they tend to be therein.

Anyway, I am now up to March in the diary and many of my potential assassins are themselves little more than a folorn collection of open suitcases littering the highway behind. It had come as a relief to me that the first generation of potential usurpers had discovered that it was they who were not especially well strapped down on the roof. (I have a lifelong knack for simply outlasting my enemies.)

But the very nature of the new media industry meant that the flow of Johnny-come-latelies would continue to surge until the crash came three years later. If the first lot were creative professionals and experts who resented our rather non-specific abilities, the second wave was a collection of pathologically networking, palm-greasing and bean-counting suits, and once they had established their quorum within the firm — and we had thus returned to the pre-buy-out economics where overheads did not appear to have to be matched by revenues — the night of the long knives did finally come for the founders.

We had equity, they had options and no remorse. The CEO went several months before I did. Those who remained had perhaps 18 months left before the bubble burst and the new American holding company shut the whole thing down.