Saturday, September 21, 2019

Gazing into the abyss

Watching The Capture has led me to reflect a bit more on CCTV and the nature of the so-called surveillance society. 

Last year we had security cameras installed across our properties in La Antigua. This followed a break in at one of them and an incident where someone accused me of a committing a crime right outside my front door. The case went well enough for me and less well for my accuser, as I was out of the country at the time. 

However, my lawyer pointed out that in a sense I had got lucky and that CCTV would prevent that kind of nonsense in the future. And he was right, because the cameras outside another house definitely thwarted something of a similar nature just three months after they were installed. 

I have always tended to be a little blasé about the risks of living in Guatemala. I grew up in an area of London where one could park one’s vintage Aston Martin beside the pavement outside and expect it to still be there, intact, the following morning. And the locals, while a bit eccentric, tended not to be outright loons. 

It has taken 18 months of security cam footage to wake me up to just how much sick shit goes on in this country and to realise that the live feeds are not really making me feel much safer. 

In Guatemala surveillance of any sort will quickly remind you of that notable observation by Nietzsche: “When you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

There has been stuff so grim that I’d hesitate to report it here in a public medium. That a woman getting down from a car, defecating and then consuming her own excrement for the amusement of the driver is not one of those unspeakables may give you a sense of how bad it sometimes gets. 

There are individuals who seem blissfully unaware of the cameras and others who appear to play up to them. 

The horror, when it occurs, is matched by a sense of helplessness, for over the years I have also learned that it is never safe to get involved in other people’s business in a village such as this. 

The cops are rarely the ideal recourse. Indeed one of the more amusing clips in our collection is an all-night orgy which took place in a PNC patrol car right outside our principal residence. 

There have been some genuinely heartwarming moments as well, yet these are somehow less memorable. 


Enjoying...so much


Prescription Only

Guatemala's new law designed to stop people purchasing antibiotics without a prescription — coming into effect this week — is problematic on so many levels for me.

The country has no real equivalent to the National Health Service in the UK, so any dictat that prevents people of limited means from accessing these medicines, especially in an emergency, without a prior visit to a doctor is bound to result in unnecessary additional suffering, if not fatalities.

Once my mother passed eighty she tended to suffer from recurring bacterial infections. She had private medical insurance and was hospitalised each time this happened. This was absurd, but she would have been in a real pickle if she didn't have an easy option.

The law here seems to have a blanket effect. Yet like all laws here (viz plastic bags) it is bound not to be enforced with anything like consistency. 

What of really handy treatments for people (women in particular) with occasional urinary tract infections such as one-shot fosfomycin

After the first receta surely they should be allowed to repeat on their own discretion? Or maybe certain medications should be excluded from the provision?

And then what of people with pets? When Osli was nearing the end his skin cancer resulted in infections which I was treating regularly with amoxycilin. A vet would have had him put him down immediately. Part of the problem was the way the original outbreak was handled with an operation. (Clavi used to suffer from regular urinary tract infections until I discovered the curative powers of apple cider vinegar.)

But cats and dogs are always picking up minor infections and transporting them to and from the vet is sometimes more irksome than the equivalent effort for humans.

Pharmacists can surely be trained to function as gatekeepers, excluding those who'd self-heal a sniffle with penicillin.  

And just how is one to stockpile for the zombie apocalypse...! 



Friday, September 20, 2019

Amidst all the wrecks...

One of our oldest friends here in La Antigua has a successful, long-established business on the Calle del Arco. I’ll leave readers to guess which one based on what I am about to say. 

He once explained to us the principle of all long-thriving negocios here: you have to be selling something pretty unique, something that the local would-be copycats cannot easily duplicate. 

Trends come and go in this town, almost all distinguished by the arrival and subsequent beseiging of the first movers. Cyber cafés, spas, coffee shops etc. The general effect is of a xerox machine out of control. A phenomenon that economists tend to refer to the as the overgrazing of the commons. 

The other day we were reflecting on how many of the businesses that were here when we met have kept going all these years. 

Almost all the survivors have been offering something sui generis, have built a brand resistant to mimicry, or have always beeb the sort of businesses that never really had to turn an actual profit. There really aren’t that many on our list. 

Back then there was no Bodegona, no Frida’s, no Monoloco, no La Casbah...no Macdonalds or Burger King even. 

There were however certain establishments which even then gave the impression of having been around almost eternally, with the clear intention to remain unmoved on the same spot forever  Doña Luisa Xicotencatl, La Fonda de la Calle Real, Doña Maria Gordillo, La Mariposa, La Canche. Doña Luisa perhaps embodies the perfect package of brand, location and offering. 

Then there are those like Quesos y Vino, La Cenicienta and El Sereno which have evolved, changed premises, expanded, though one can still almost guarantee dining utterly alone at the latter. Others like La Hamburguesa Gigante that have persisted only as a disembodied name. 

Welten has changed too, but in ways that make me think that I am observing it today as if from a self-propelled deep submergence vehicle drifting through a deep ocean wreck. 


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Rojo (2018)

Benjamin Naishtat's Rojo is a study in creeping ominousness, which looks at the lesser small town evils that form the foundations of the greater evil of dictatorship.





Set in a made-up small town in Argentina in 1975, just before the Junta took power, the narrative tracks a cluster of incidents in the life of lawyer Claudio, played by Dario Grandinetti as a self-styled person of provincial substance whose moral compass is starting to spin.

Its most unsettling moment is an altercation in a restaurant right at the start and although it does its job in keeping the viewer rattled throughout, we also had the impression that the movie is never better than its opening sequences and that all its thematically-interwoven jitters never quite deliver as a whole.




There’s a Chilean TV detective that livens things up and I wish I had all the cultural references at my fingertips to know how seriously this character ought to be taken. One suspects there's an in joke going down here.


Monday, September 09, 2019

The Quake/Skjelvet (2018)

Sequel to 2015's The Wave (tsunami in the fijords), The Quake takes the nordic noir approach to the build up to an apocalyptic-level seismic event in Oslo.



The effects  set to a honking Hans Zimmer-like score  are generally excellent, with some of the best downwardly-mobile grand piano action since Laurel and Hardy.

Kristoffer Joner plays geologist Kristian, a Cassandra-esque figure who gets a lot more advanced warning than anyone ever had with a major quake, yet still fails to put it to good use.

Overall V found the film's take on the subject a bit '2012'. 

Being Norwegian, it delivers its silliness with such a straight face, that you are not quite sure if it wants to be taken in full seriousness.


Friday, September 06, 2019

The Dead Don't Die (2019)

Iggy Pop's coffee-craving zombie is perhaps the only necessary bit of attention-grabbing casting in Jim Jarmusch's largely un-necessary addition to the genre, overpopulated as it is with underused stars and plot-lines.





Think George Romero remade by David Lynch. This is not that movie. Instead it's a rather lame, struggling to be funny parody of what David Lynch would have done with the dusk of the dead. 

Our own interest flatlined in direct proportion to the number of reanimated corpses on the street.


Thursday, September 05, 2019

Extraordinary Levies

These transition periods between Municipal administrations in La Antigua are kind of fun to observe, at a distance.

There is a sudden air of financial urgency. Laws that have not been strictly enforced - especially those involving large-ish fines - are suddenly applied with a visible degree of jobsworthy zealotry. 

No helmet? Pay up! Your burger bar acting like an antro? Start coughing. Behind with your IUSI? Hmmmm. Etc.


A Game of Chicken

The Sun’s front cover today features Corbyn as a big chicken; in all truth, a bit of a cock.




Yet I think Blair has really helped Magic Gramps by pointing out in advance  before all of yesterday's big noise  just how dumb it would have been to take the bait. 

I did enjoy Corbyn's Snow White and the apple analogy. It's a shame none of the tabloids did a mock-up of that. 

Once again I think the pre-campaign polls could be deceptive. The Tories will almost inevitably lose seats in Scotland and the south-east and may find it hard to remove Labour MPs in the north with the Brexit bunch breathing down their necks. 

And right now Boris’s personal popularity premium  even with his hardcore adulators — must be reaching third season Mourinho levels. 

If Labour and the Lid Dems act smartly, I can definitely see the current opposition getting themselves into a position where a coalition might be feasible. This would be a win-win because I cannot see the Lib Dems making the same mistake and not putting some dampeners on their governmental partners this time around.


Tuesday, September 03, 2019

All Hail the Rebel Alliance!

The Astoria Hotel, Leningrad 1985. Blurry photo by largely unamused Soviet waiter.

I had something of an Afro in those days.




It seems that Eddy Vaizey, front left, will have lost the Conservative whip today. We all knew he'd come good in the end. (His father was a Labour Peer.)

He finds himself in good company - the 'father of the house', the former chancellor, Churchill's grandson and my father's much-appreciated local MP for Newbury, Richard Benyon.

(Carlsberg, probably - in fact definitely - the best lager in the USSR.)


'Our House is burning'

Jeremy Corbyn's excursion into the Amazon during this morning's crucial Brexit debate was irrelevant, borderline nonsensical, and so typical of his inability to knuckle down on the essence of the current contention.

Westminster may yearn for sovereignty, but that does not include sovereignty over Brazil. Bolsonaro is surely Brazil's problem. (At least until the world finds a way to respond institutionally to globalised capitalism and the worldwide environmental challenges. G7 aint it.) 

It's worth pointing out that the Amazon forest's contribution to global oxygen production is around 6% gross, net levels closer to nil. All that biodiversity consumes the stuff as well. Macron's 20% figure is fake news and an excuse for Gallic grandstanding, if not outright meddling. His motives were possibly quite cynical, but along the way he has set off the more naive protestor instincts of Magic Grandpa.

When coverage of the fires came to my own attention, some time before the matter was taken up by CR7, Macron, the Beeb et al, the crux of the issue was the impact on indigenous reserves.

Brazil has reduced deforestation considerably over the last few years, but Bolsonaro's policies signal a possible up-tick for 2019 and a re-opening of the oldest wound in South America: the conflict between the modernising state and the patchwork of less modern, pre-Hispanic societies it would like to subsume. (Remember The Mission?). This is indeed a complex matter for careful consideration...by Brazilians.

By the time the media outside the region had hold of this story it had been re-worked to significantly bother their own educated metropolitan elites. "Lungs of the Earth' and all that. The indigenes had vanished into the intellectual underbrush.

A part of Brazil (Peru etc.) that is almost the size of Australia somehow now belongs to all of us, minus the knuckle-draggers of course.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

It's on US

The somewhat ludicrous Beto O'Rourke is blaming his own nation for Guatemala's present dryness. Now, one can wholeheartedly blame the US for a lot of things down here, but this particular bit of finger pointing is actually rather lame. Liberal self-flagellation in fact.

As of 2017, of worldwide carbon emissions, the US accounted for 13.7%. The UK? A mere 1%. China on the other hand has now attained 29.3% (more than the whole of 'the west') and India's 6.6% needs to be understood in terms of a fourfold increase over thirty years.

Meanwhile, the highest emissions per capita are in Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Stopping this catastrophe is going to involve a while load of condoms as well as little Swedish girls taking the boat rather than the plane.

And the Mayab tended to suffer from near-apocalyptic droughts long before the greatest nation on earth even existed. 

Holiday (2018)

Isabella Eklöf's debut film is extraordinary. Can't quite see why it is only scoring 5.6 on IMDB. Critical reviews from the festival circuit were almost all positive, though an extended rape scene (comparable it would seem to the one Gaspar Noé shot for Irréversible) was cut from the version we saw. 

I'm not sure it was strictly necessary. The edits between scenes with implied information withholdings work especially well. And this does seem to be as much as chilling exposé of toxic femininity as its gender inverse.





Victoria Carmen Sonne's performance as Sascha is on-the-nose. I've come across a trope-tastic trophy wife here in LAG, with whom - on first acquaintance - I was struck by the most profound, direct, eye-to-eye experience of 'lights are on, but nobody's home'...ever. 

Narcisismo perdido; cascarón de carnaval; painted and hollow. Sascha is right there, and yet she isn't.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Misdirected Misanthropy

‘Our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country… creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly over-harvesting resources..the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable?'

A reported snippet from the manifesto of Patrick Crusius, the El Paso shooter; seemingly a ‘white supremicist’ in much the same way that David Attenborough is.

As I have noted before self-styled terrorists and racists are often just people who have a general problem with humanity, whilst erroneously imagining that their beef is only really with part of the species.

Like David Attenborough I am something of an atheist and a bit of a misanthrope, so I have some sympathy with the problem if not the solution. 

The experience of ageing, of being part of modernity is sadly often one of witnessing ruination — of oneself and of the people and places one senses are being slowly wrenched away as time passes. 

Take Antigua. It’s not the place I first came to in the 80s. Like Crusius I could start to play the blame game. 

For a start, it’s possible to have a generic rant about rising population, over-stretched resources, moral decay, corrosive capitalism and so on while sounding bewilderingly conservative and radical-lefty at the same time.

Where it gets a bit more interesting is when one starts blaming specific groups of people, particularly those than are in some way other to one’s nostalgic fantasies.

If these invasive/destructive types are generally better off or more powerful than oneself, one is usually deemed to be a ‘terrorist’ when one takes up arms against them. Here these might either be braying gringos or affluent hedonists from the capital.

If however they are less well-off and powerful than oneself  in the case of Antigua ‘indios’ from outlying communities who pile in to sell their crap and generally clog up the streets — then one is typically deemed to be a ‘racist’.

Crusius named Mexicans as his problem. Not the ones in Mexico, but the one’s he believed were churning up his turf.

If this is racism, it’s rather different to the kind of racism that drove certain Germans eastward in the last century in the hope of finding new space in territory then occupied by those they deemed lesser beings. With the Nazis one could argue that the ‘hate’ started first, its targets blamed for nothing other than their own existence.

With the likes of Crusius there’s surely something more situational going on, where Hispanics crossing the border become the surrogate for a much deeper problem with his existence as a member of Homo Sapiens.


Monday, August 05, 2019

Northern Triangulation

Bernie Sanders observed at a recent Democratic debate that “We’ve got to ask ourselves...why are people walking 2,000 miles to a strange country where they don’t know the language?” Given that many of the indigenous people in parts of Guatemala struggle a bit with Spanish, they may not actually have to travel all that far before they start to experience communications difficulties. Yet the question is valid. Why indeed? I can imagine the sort of answer that Bernie has formulated in his own head. And the kind that he will expect his voters to come up with. These will, I suspect, be overly-informed by first world biases that beset both Left and Right in the US. Just hearing the question asked this way sets off my own shithole country dog whistle alarm. Google ‘Northern Triangle’ and see what you get. When I did it this morning the top item was titled ‘Central America’s violent Northern Triangle’. The term’s Wikipedia entry does at least explain that it is was originally formulated to frame discussion of economic interactions between these three nations, before finally moving on to the rate of intentional homicides in these parts. Intriguingly, this is also a way of looking at the northern part of the isthmus without considering Belize. Aside from the economic ties there are other ways in which this omission is instructive. Belize is a lot smaller, yet relatively more violent these days than the other three. Despite this, it is almost never mentioned in the context of factors driving Central American migration to the US. Now Google the top 100 news items on Guatemala and then do the same for Belize, before scoring them as positive, negative and neutral. I am sure you will surely start to perceive the signs of media bias even within this rather limited sample. President Trump did a safe third party deal with Guatemala supposedly in order to reduce the number of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras yet Guatemala itself, (rather slightly) the least violent of the three countries, regularly sends more migrants north than its neighbours. Many of the Guatemalan migrants being detained right now at the Mexico-US border appear to hail from rural areas with a pronounced indigenous majority. The assumption in the external media is that these less-developed areas of the country must by definition be the ones with the greatest prevalence of the traditional litany of problems, the highest concentration of ‘appalling conditions’, as AOC puts it. They must also be the ones where discrimination is felt most severely. These assumptions are rarely if ever examined properly. 
In Guatemala the intentional homicide problem has tended to be highly localised — concentrated in specific micro-geographies — which have been used in effect to tar the entire the country with the same brush. (As if one could only ever talk about Italy in terms of the conditions prevalent just south of Naples.) Many of Guatemala’s rural departments with significant indigenous majorities have murder rates more comparable with Guildford, Surrey than New Orleans, Louisiana. Gang-related crime is also largely absent there. So to provide an answer to Bernie’s question that takes more than a moment’s reflection, one may have to look at both environmental and demographic factors more closely. One is also going to have to set aside first world conditioning which would otherwise project certain prejudices back onto this problem. For many of the underlying causes may not quite suit the standard progressive discourse.

Shithole Country?

I first came to Guatemala when I'd just turned twenty-one. My initial experience of the country was what you might call 'not propitious'. The vehicle that I was travelling in was pulled over by guerrillas and I faced a row of AK-toting teenagers. 
After this I made it safely to Santa Elena, crossed the causeway to Flores on foot, wolfed down a mojarra with some Gallo and have retained my fascination and affection for the country ever since.
So it pains me a little to read articles like this. One is left to conclude that at least the likes of Donald Trump come straight out with the 'shithole country' trope. 
American liberals on the other hand, produce an argument like this that is pretty much the same thing, but couched in terminology that makes them feel good. 
Statistcs 'compiled by non-profits' supposedly point to persecution of the LGBTI community here, but if one adjusts for the prevalence of powerful, interfering foreign organisations in Guatemala compared to many developed nations, how great is this danger, relatively? 
The problem is that this form of analysis has the inevitable tendency to associate countries like Guatemala with only the worst aspects of their social and political conditions. Just imagine that you were to do the same for the ‘greatest nation on earth’. 
To state that Guatemala is incapable of serving as a safe third country - without even reading the relevant agreement - is American liberal dog whistle for ‘shithole country’. 

(WTF with that donkey..?)


Sunday, August 04, 2019

La Mara Apestatrucha


There's a certain well-lubricated set of gringos of a certain advancing age here in La Antigua. In the past we've referred to them as the 'Big Fish', not without a dollop of British sarcasm, for they are appear to be textbook cases of 'Big Fish In Small Pond' syndrome. 

The epithet is appropriate as well as they generally go about with the aspect of a fish that has been dragged down the road by a dog. 

In spite of this, many have married much younger local women  some on multiple occasions  and having opened some small bar or restaurant prance around town as if they were captains of industry or serial entrepreneurs worthy of a Forbes profile. 

Another common feature of the heavyweight lightweights that make up this gang  this mara  is that they appear to have scant regard for the rules and regulations of Guatemala. 




Monday, July 22, 2019

Badly Brung Up

Time passes but some things never change, such as the atrocious table manners of characters in American movies. 
The more wealthy and sophisticated they are supposed to be - like this couple in 1993's 'Sliver' - the worse it seems to get...forks held in the wrong hand, stabbing almost sorrowfully at the contents of the plate. 
And in this scene it is the knickerless Sharon Stone who is supposed to be causing a stir. 


Even George Clooney does it. I bet Amal can barely bring herself to watch, thinking thoughts along the lines of 'Where was you brung up...the workhouse?'


Friday, July 19, 2019

Go Home

Someone I would very much like to tell to go home is a superannuated Trumpista from Texas who occasionally corners me in the Bodegona.

Last time he insisted on warning me about the crazed policy proposals of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, he hissed, was dead set on introducing post-natal abortions.

It really does seem to be the Donald's key strategy right now to pre- 'energise' these muppets - as it is more than likely along the way to skew the Democratic selection process towards the potty end of the spectrum.


The Wedding Guest (2018)

I suppose Michael Winterbottom wanted to make The Trip to India but Steve and Rob weren't available, so instead he got Dev and Radhika and loosely fastened them to a plot about a road trip necessitated by the need to flee an arranged marriage in Pakistan.

Ben Keningsberg of the NYT began his review by suggesting he had been expecting a romantic comedy. 




Really? He saw THAT poster and still couldn't get past Dev Patel's type-casting? It would have to have been called Two Funerals and a Wedding.

The thing is that I really enjoyed this movie. The dialogue is almost perfectly tight.

It's almost as if, after having to put up with Rob Brydon's prattling on for three whole movies, Winterbottom self-consciously eschewed the logorrhea to excellent, enigmatic effect.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Intruder (2019)

Not so much a collection of tropes as one big trope, The Intruder's rigid predictability is actually part of its charm. Remember Unlawful Entry from 1992? Well this is that movie (along with several others) plus a few zeitgheisty tweaks. Race is seemingly not an issue here, yet as in Jordan Peele's Us, it kind of is, as the film's title can refer to either the original owner — sporting a red baseball cap in one scene — or the new one: a mixed-race branding guru from San Francisco who brings a particularly ghastly modernist sensibility to home improvement in the Napa Valley. He has a wife who is dangerously sympathetic towards his potential nemesis and a best friend who is one of those obvious dead-men-walking from the moment he is introduced. And as Ray Liotta did back in '92, so too does Dennis Quaid here with a trope-transcending central performance.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Beneath Us (2019)

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this is that - unlike say 1983's El Norte- you could imagine MAGA-cap wearing Trump supporters finding some soothing confirmation of their worldview here. In the main they are hardly what you would call knowledgable consumers of irony. At a stretch it could even be used south of the border as a propaganda film for ICE, a sort of soft alternative to the wall. Nevertheless, for liberals at least, this is a satirical, 'social' horror about undocumented migrants being used as captive slaves by members of the wealthy white elite in America. Yet I suspect it could just as easily have been set right here in Antigua within the milieu of a certain kind of gringo household complete with casual, grey economy servants. Such a switch would work primarily because director Max Pachman stresses two rather interesting points - that the view of the 'dream' of abundance from beneath is inherently corrupt and conjoined with noxious attitudes, and that said prosperity is ultimately also a travesty — for the affluence of those above is shown to be entirely based on the aggressive exploitation of an over-needy underclass operating in a more authentic economy and thus largely undeserved. And this is why, when (slightly unflattering) comparisons will inevitably be made with Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), the movie I was most reminded of was the excellent La Zona (2007).



Monday, July 08, 2019

Birds of Passage (2018)

An essentially ethnographic proposition, which has been cleverly blended for added accessibility with a familiar pop cultural narrative, but then made subtly more weighty and mysterious by being framed as an ancient epic of the oral tradition. Think Nat Geo meets Narcos, meets the Godfather meets Homer. 
And it generally works pretty well. The end result is that, despite its appearance here as a windswept, post-apocalytic wasteland, I ended up wanting to visit the Guajira peninsula and its Wayuu occupants and Gallego and Guerra's film joins Burning and Shoplifters in consideration for my favourite flick of 2019. 
Quibbles. It makes the standard 'based on true events' claim at the start, but apparently there is no evidence that either the Wayuu or the Peace Corps had a significant role in Colombia's Bonanza Marimbera. 
And if one is paying attention here, they might just as well have been dealing in coffee rather than weed, because most of the unfortunate events derive from character faults and social fault-lines that were there anyway. And on a couple of occasions I found myself thinking 'he really didn't need to do that', which would be a serious failing in any epic of the old school. 
Rapayet's kingpin crib in the desert has to be one of the best stylised locations in recent cinema.


Friday, June 28, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019)



The adaptation suggested by this poster is the one I'd perhaps have rather seen. 

Something between zombie pet apocalypse and Wicker Man

Unfortunately, like a lot of Stephen King tales, this one has a bit too much back and side story going on and the potential for cat and dog-based creepiness ultimately gets a bit lost. 

Not a bad movie, just not really doing what it says on the tin.


Disrespecting the details...


'You can be in Timbuctoo or New York City, I don't care where you are. There's no worse trade for inefficiency than a builder's'  > Harry Pendel, The Tailor of Panama
In any complex project in any part of the world there is a danger that what at the planning stage at least looks like the final 5% can end up taking upwards of 50% of the total time. But here in Guatemala the danger seems especially acute. 

My former business partner used to have a handy analogy for this - the bowl of bananas. When it is first put out people rush in and grab the nice yellow ones, but the darker, spottier ones take longer to shift. 

Most of the Guatemalan contractors I’ve come across tend to assess any project in terms of the part they like best and do at the fastest pace - for example, the builders love lifting block walls, a task which comes with the pleasing routine of a production line. The details that follow barely register until the painful completion phase is upon them. 


Fake Foodie News

Another day, another slightly irritating, cliché-ridden piece in the US media about this place. 

If you saw the home of El Pulpo's Wilson Popenhoe in Antigua you’d realise that the origins of the Haas avocado were far from ‘humble’. Ah, but it’s grotty old Guatemala so they must be, right? 

And where did Lucy Sherriff acquire that canard about the birthplace of chocolate? San Juan del Effing Obispo? 

I suppose it’s rather like the whole ‘birthplace of tango’ thing, all very ‘don’t go there’. 

But the facts as currently known involve the detection of the chemical signature of this liquid on Mesoamerican vessels belonging to the pre-Olmec period in Tabasco, Veracruz and maybe even Chiapas. So, not Guatemala. Especially not Mixco. 

And there are a few fruits and vegetables I can imagine not growing here. I've been particular unsuccessful with olive trees for example. 


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Dumbo (2019)


Tim Burton's Dumbo is a big stinking pile of elephant caca.

This notion that the classics of the past need to be 'updated' to show off modern CGI and smooth away all the non-pc stuff, so that developing snowflakes are not exposed to anything that might 'trigger' them surely REEKS.

It's a given it seems that they will grow up immune to the agonies of mediocrity.

Soon we'll have a rebooted version of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? where there's really no lifestyle choice one's offspring can make that might be the least bit bothersome.


The Hummingbird Project (2018)



At last a role for Salma Hayek where being a forever-glamorous, middle-aged Mexican woman who’s lived for years in the US, but never really learned how to speak English properly is not the absolute essence of it. Here she sports some specs and grey-painted hair and clearly has a lot of fun. 

The film owes a massive (unacknowledged) debt to The Flash Boys by Michael Lewis and I am sure I enjoyed it the more for having read that - as many of the plot devices that would have otherwise smacked of desperation on the part of the writer-director are in fact loosely based on fact.


The Beach Bum (2019)

‘Fun is the fucking gun’, proclaims the titular character in Harmony Korine’s new movie. This stoner non-comedy closely replicates the experience of enforced proximity to an individual who pitches him or herself as the living epitome of the good time. 




The trouble is that while it’s one thing to lead a studiously unconventional lifestyle, it’s another to rub it in everyone else’s faces, whether one is St Francis of Assisi or Moondog here. This is a phenomenon I am all too familiar with. I even knew someone called Moondog back in Belize in the 80s. 

Individuals determined to demonstrate that they have a free pass to live outside everyone else’s mores tend to act with eye-watering entitlement. There are even a few of their sort dotted around Antigua and I tend to feel the same way about them as I did about Matthew McConaughey’s on screen consummation of the type: a form of discomfort that is inevitably boosted by a developing world perspective. 

There’s another quite simple conceit going on here, rather like that of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus — the jarring notion that great art can emerge from intense dickishness. Yet Korine appears to lack the screenwriting skills to place enough utterances of sufficient profundity into the mouth of his protagonist to carry this off. In fact there is one prize-winning poem set in Havana recited twice in the film by McConaughey, that suggests rather half-heartedly that satire was instead the aim here. 




At the outset one is led to believe that the audience will be placed within the framework of that familiar narrative featuring an essentially bad person forced to go on a journey of personal growth through which, in an altogether unlikely manner, they are transformed into a better sort of human being. (Think Central Station). 

Yet round the mid-point — when Zac Efron shows up in a brave attempt to drag his career below the low it touched in Dirty Grandpa — you realise that Moondog is never going to pull out of this dive, and that anyone he meets on the way down are simply there to emphasise the pull of gravity. 

More’s the pity as I really enjoyed Korine’s previous feature  — Spring Breakers — which was grounded in another OTT performance from a somewhat Marmite male performer (James Franco). 


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Piratical

What does someone have to do to deserve the name ‘pirate’? What does a dish have to look like to deserve the name ‘ceviche’? Two of the questions I was mulling here at El Ranchito on Naos Island. 



It always used to irk me a bit how the locals around these parts referred to Drake as a pirate. Gabo was a repeat offender. Surely, I thought, the men who packed those galleons with gold were just as deserving of the title? 
St Augustine reported the opinion of a corsair captain that when it comes to maritime plunder, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply one of scale. Drake, like many, was awash in the flexible middle. 



The man who sacked and destroyed the original settlement at Panama City, Welsh privateer Henry Morgan, did so after the Treaty of Madrid between England and Spain in 1671. As a result he was taken back to London to answer for his ‘crime’, but successfully argued that news of the peace hadn’t reached the Caribbean and therefore it could not be enforced from the moment it was agreed. Instead of being hanged as a pirate, he was made Governor of Jamaica. 
Like many of his kind, it turned out he was just one step away from respectability. The same could not be said of that ceviche.


Friday, June 21, 2019

'Menos Pior'. But for us, not you..

The issue I have with the selection process that will place Boris in No10 is this: he said on the Beeb the other night that it's not as reprehensible of the way Gordon Brown was installed because there's a national crisis afoot. In fact that makes it WORSE. 
The manner of these Tory hustings and TV interrogations, where a very narrow range of views on the national predicament have come to the fore, combined with Labour's absurd absence of a position, give the false impression that this Tory discourse, in which Rory Stewart's fairly common sense objections are tagged as 'maverick' or 'insurgent', is the NATIONAL discourse. 
Both traditional parties are now in effect addressing Farage rather than the country as a whole.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

I Am Mother (2019)

Spoilers...

This medium-budget Aussie sci-fi (which was picked up by Netflix after Sundance) is plainly derivative, yet has a claim to be more than the sum of other movies’ parts based on the way its premise contains an important thrust of novelty. 

This being the (clearly dubious) notion, familiar to totalitarian systems in the last century and before, that all that is bad in human nature can be nurtured out of us. 





So this time an over-reaching super-AI, having decided that humanity represents if not a threat to it, at least a bloody nuisance, presses the re-set button and starts again with a single (kind of) first woman with the plan of carefully educating this ‘daughter’ within a bunker-like Eden in such a manner that humanity 2.0 is primed to value the claims of the many over the few. 

Why would a supposedly well-informed machine intelligence come to believe that this plan, attempted unsuccessfully (and brutally) in an albeit less pure form by various human societies, work better under its tutelage? Surely it would have swatted up and found out that we ourselves have figured out that the perfectability of man plan has been discredited?

Only the ability to keep trying over and over again until it gets it right seems to justify the programme  that and the fact that compromised humanity appears to have contributed to its own demise. Yet the essential problem remains: how to stop fundamental human nature re-asserting itself. 

The movie has other problems, such as a third female character that ultimately makes only partial sense. Meanwhile, although young Irish-Danish actress Clara Rugaard is at the heart of much that is good about the movie  as are the voice acting skills of Rose Byrne as the personality of her robot ‘Mother’ — we both couldn’t help feeling that a lone human child brought up in this way would be noticeably stranger than the script ultimately allows ‘Daughter’ to be. 

I suppose the director felt he needed to give his film a relate-able YA vibe, but this has the effect of dampening the deeper and darker stuff that might have made it a better. 


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl



Higginbotham makes it clear that the RBMK-1000s (Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy) had rather obvious design - and manufacture - flaws from the outset. One of these was the sheer size of the reactors, a product of a Soviet penchant for the colossal.


“The RBMK was so large that reactivity in one area of the core often had only a loose relationship to that in another. The operators had to control it as if it were not a single unit but several separate reactors in one. One specialist compared it to a huge apartment building, where a family in one flat might be celebrating a raucous wedding, while next door another was observing a funeral wake. Isolated hot spots of reactivity might build deep inside the core, where they could prove hard to detect.”

This inherent instability made life in the reactor control room exhausting and stressful as engineers were constantly pushing buttons on the panels in the hope of evening out reactivity. When one former nuclear submarine officer first took his seat at the desk in Chernobyl’s Unit One, he was horrified by the colossal size of the reactor and how antiquated the instrumentation was. “How can you possibly control this hulking piece of shit?” he asked. “And what is it doing in civilian use?"

This preference for quantity over quality in the USSR is something I pinpointed in an essay in 1985 following my second visit. The point was illustrated with an anecdote about our guide to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, who joyfully rattled off statistics relating to the number of works of art in each of the massive rooms we passed through. That the space might include two of three great masterpieces which were being crowded out by odds and ends of lesser significance was a suggestion that brought a puzzled frown to his face.

Shoddy workmanship was another endemic problem in the USSR. One of my travelling companions in 1984 quickly acquired a reputation for being able to accidentally break almost anything of Soviet manufacture that he came into contact with.

Higginbotham writes: ‘The valves and flow meters in other RBMKs, used to regulate the crucial supply of water to each of the more than 1,600 uranium-filled channels, proved so unreliable that the operators in the control room often had no idea to what extent the reactors were being cooled, or if they were being cooled at all. Accidents were inevitable...the serpentine plumbing of the reactor was riddled with faults: the water-steam coolant pipes were corroded, the zirconium-steel joints on the fuel channels had come loose, and the designers had failed to build any safety system to protect the reactor against a failure of its feed-water supply—eventually, the Chernobyl engineers had to design and fabricate their own.’ (Chapuz, chapuz, chapuz...)

Meanwhile, Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature film set in the above-mentioned museum - Russian Ark (2002) - is indeed a masterpiece that I would recommend to all.

Thelmas

If a number of the candidates in the UK's over-subscribed race to No10 entered primarily in order to raise their profile and earn a post in the eventual winner's cabinet, certain candidates in Guatemala's own somewhat crowded and chaotic general election appear to have entered in order to be able to have a better shot at it in four or perhaps even eight years time.

One might suggest that Donald Trump was placed in the White House by people who valued his richness, his whiteness and his masculinity over any other qualities he might have. Aristotle's most significant contribution to western ethics was the observation that virtues are not the opposite of vices - rather a fudge somewhere between two of them - so, electing poor, female, non-white people is not necessarily the answer to the aforementioned voting 'vice' - given that membership of a particular demographic is never on its own going to make an individual best qualified to be head of state.

Thelma Cabrera does indeed seem somewhat under-qualified to be Guatemalan president, but given the nature of the incumbent, these things are relative.
She has benefitted this time round from the slightly rudderless nature of the anti-corruption movement, following the exclusion of Thelma Aldana, but along the way has massively enhanced her profile and improved the possibilities for indigenous candidates, while simultaneously (and amusingly) diminishing those of characters like Roberto Arzú.

If Sandra Torres now goes on to win, in four years time she will depart the political scene and UNE's rural power base may well be up for grabs.

Meanwhile the other Thelma may yet get her chance and at some point Neto Bran is bound to become a (national) problem.


Sunday, June 16, 2019

High Life (2018)

A first English language feature from Claire Denis, and yet oh so very French. 

As French as chugging along a motorway at 60mph in a 2CV sitting next to someone chain-smoking Gauloises with the windows shut. And for maybe the first 30 minutes or so, about as pleasant.

We both agreed that this was a strong candidate for most annoying film of the year. And gave up.

It was failing to do the basic job of any movie set in space: convince viewers that it is actually set in space. It’s as if Denis went out of her way to show that this was the least of her concerns.

And yet, I kept it on my iPad and during a recent trip to San José, forced myself to see it through. That Portillo Malbec helped.




It isn’t completely redeemed by its second half, but those lingering genital close-ups of a baby girl (such a ferk you to the mainstream sci-fi audience) are supplanted by a growing then diminishing cast of characters capped off with the de-rigueur ambiguous conclusion.

It contains this handy piece of advice...

“Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled.”


Friday, June 14, 2019

Hollow Crowns

Pay attention to any of our contemporary political commentators for long enough and they will eventually start ruing the divided state of the nation before expressing a desire for some sort of curative coming together, which they will probably add, is the more natural state of affairs. (Even some of the Tory leadership candidates are not entirely averse to this.) And it is, to a large extent, nonsense. Any serious look at our history reveals that division is the more natural and probably more productive state. There are nearly always at least two available camps to sit in. In the fifteenth century for example, the English were split along dynastic lines, York and Lancaster. The following century saw this conflict morph rather suddenly into an argument over faith, which in turn, one hundred years later, segued into a dispute between King and Parliament. Thesis, antithesis, Synthesis. Hegel called this dialectic. Yet what we see is that the terms shift, so that synthesis remains perpetually elusive - an interminable teleology in which those who speak of achieving a final end to the prevailing controversy and its unpleasant consequences should of necessity be treated with scorn. (The young Henry VIII rather amusingly imagined that his accession marked a sort of ‘end of history’ moment.) So, Brexit appears to be firmly in this tradition, and yet it reveals an interesting truth about the pattern. Not all theses and antitheses are of equal weight. It’s not hard to see for example that from an intellectual perspective the argument between Monarch and Parliament was more meaningful than the fracas between the red and white roses. And so now, we can examine the current reconfiguration of our political animus and conclude that the great confrontation of the last century, between Left and Right, between liberal and totalitarian systems, which some imagined would resolve rather conveniently into a worldwide Scandinavian-style social democratic group hug, has instead kicked off anew into a national schism over the EU. And it is SO empty. One only has to listen for the briefest of moments to the extreme ideologues of Leave or Remain to comprehend the void at the heart of this altercation, how lacking in genuine intellectual content it therefore tends to be. Most of them end up trying to spice things up by shamelessly borrowing the terminology from last century’s polarities:‘Nazi!’ In the first part of the twentieth century I do believe it really mattered to which side one was adopted. In the Spanish Civil War for example, we didn’t see an absolute confrontation between right and wrong, but the choices made were meaningful and had real ethical underpinnings. So it was in the Reformation and then in the English Revolution. Brexit, in comparison, invites its protagonists to adopt positions that are obviously hollow from the outset and from almost any perspective.