Thursday, April 27, 2023

Text in a Notebook

I’ve been carrying some existential niggles since my recent trip. In such circumstances, rather than diving into highbrow non-fiction tomes, I will tend to seek relevant associations and validation in fiction, specifically the minimal kind.

With Cortázar, one does not have to limit oneself to finding those jolting, epiphanous intuitions between the lines, because his stories are suffused — as Anatole Broyard noted in back in 1983 — with “imminent metaphor” (did he mean immanent?) and a “musical expectation”, though adding that for him they work better on the level of hypothesis than literary synthesis. I’d maybe agree that Cortázar isn’t one of those writers who necessarily ought to be read in the original (like Garcia Marquez), though it helps to know a bit about his locations. 

This collection lacks the two small tales I often return to: Axolotl, possibly my favourite short story not written by a Russian person, and Casa Tomada. But it does have one which has hijacked my attention this week, Texto En Una Libreta (Text in a Notebook), set in Buenos Aires at the time my father was living there at the end of the 40s. It too begins with a jolting premonition which, by the last lines, has become all-consuming…

It has come to the narrator’s attention that more people are entering the A Line on the subte than leaving it. Initial explanations include bureaucratic incompetence and ‘atomic attrition’, an esoteric scientific hypothesis involving the nullification of individuality in large crowds.

Through a process combining speculation with investigation, he realises that a disturbingly expanding pool of citizens, pale and sad, have chosen to live a limited life in constant motion, literally below the surface of the mainstream. Downward Mobility.

That’s the simple synopsis, with its uncertainty as to whether we are dealing with individuals who have lost touch with reality or whether reality itself has chosen to ghost them — and given that 75 or so years on we now inhabit a society possessing AI which capable of experiencing “hallucinations”, I’d say Julio deserves his place as one of my bathroom books.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

'Melanated Sister'

Colourblind casting, even in a supposedly fact-led docuseries, is often to be least when adequately buffered from nationalistic and racialistic point scoring. 

From a 'neutral perspective' this newsworthily controversial example is no sillier than Welshman Taron Egerton playing the Dutch-Indonesian lead in Tetris recently. 
The problem seems to be however that it reportedly comes with a provocative Afrocentrist soundbite, plus the fact that most Septics will not begin to appreciate even the upper layers of this issue.
Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, descended from one of Alexander’s generals via some very resolute in-breeding, and so Greek, no hang on a sec, Macedonian. (Cue tedious Balkan bust up).

The Ptolemy clan didn’t marry out much, even affairs were conducted within a very select gene pool, but let's allow that she conceivably may also have been just a tiny bit Egyptian, whilst not forgetting that the Arabs were later, medieval entrants onto the continent, invaders and colonisers, so we are left to conclude that there might just have been some Coptic optics (most honkytonks: huuuuh?). 
That most unfortunate term ‘African American’, used typically as a euphemism for schematicised racial polarities in the US, inevitably initiates a form of invisibility for many indigenous ethnic groups on that continent. 
The director of the series has only gone and made this oh-so-explicit with her tactless and gobsmackingly patronising comments following the inevitable fall-out on the Nile: Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?...I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.”
Oh deary dear. So now the only authentic way to be African is to look like someone descended in the main from black Africans from the western side of that continent? 

There is a bit of a backstory here, because for much of the late twentieth century African American counter-culture appeared to admire and lean towards the Islamic identity of North Africa, but has since turned a little more lukewarm on the matter. 'African Americans' are nowadays more likely to be found asserting their birthright to be as culturally insensitive and blithely ignorant as any other sort of American. 
Right now there is a superficially progressive tendency for ‘African Americans’ (presumably Rami Malek does not identify as such) to seek out historical narratives beyond the Atlantic slave trade and the struggle for civil rights as a wider source of pride, yet there is obvious potential there for exporting cultural distortions and simplifications which are inevitably going to rile North African peoples for whom ethnic frictions often run deeper and are in a sense more ‘live’ than Netflix/Hollywood is ever going to allow for. The detail is never superfluous…but try convincing that lot. 
And observations from series director Mahmoud al-Semary such as "Why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter," are unhelpful at best given that perhaps the more pertinent issue is why people apparently need her to be black, for that is the more obviously counterfactual position. 
Anyway, let’s face it, how could this role ever be cast today without setting off a chorus of complaints?
That said, if you make a historical documentary about someone else's history and offend them, you surely need to show a modicum of appreciation of how their discomfit might not be fully explainable within your own models of skin tone biases.
I guess the best ever representation of this Queen will remain the one in the Asterix books, pointy nose and all.

Ghosted (2022)

For most discerning viewers Dexter Fletcher's romantic espionage comedy for Apple is likely to end up in their top 5 terrible films of the year. And yet, they are unlikely to find that have been as entertained by the other four.

The critics have been tearing into this movie. Much has been made of the lack of on-screen chemistry between Chris Evans and Ana de Armas.

In truth the Cuban-Spanish actress has been given a bit of a hospital pass by concept, character and dialogue (plus a quease-inducing Cuban refugee backstory) though she could have learned her lesson from that cameo with 007.

But at least she appears to be trying. Evans flickers in and out of zombie transition and he's one of the producers.

All Rather Moot

Somewhat urgent village gathering in the moot hall beckons this week...

1) Why was a pleasant little green space in front of our property dug up for an expensively useless well, when most longer-term inmates of this facility were already aware that any water sucked up out of that hole would be inadmissible for domestic use? Who’s budgeting for the upkeep of our new, white walled zoo with its resident white elephant?

2) Why is our home now surrounded by three separate sets of CCTV cameras courtesy of TIGO? Who’s watching these streams and can we access them if necessary? Will they discourage the anti-social activities of our neighbours? (For example, one presumes that certain members of the local law enforcement community will find a new venue for their vehicular orgies).

3) Why do the men in purple and green fatigues fill the potholes with cement and depart laden with sacks of heavy minerals, like Pedro de Alvarado and his larcenous louts on the Noche Triste?


Emily the Criminal (2022)

I would have given this **** but it shed half a * at the last, in part because the epilogue is all right, but in a sense a little too all right.

Anyway, I much enjoyed it and I'm going to have to say why I enjoyed it beyond the fact that I tend to like pretty much everything Aubrey Plaza is in, and that is going to involve a small spoiler.

There's undoubtedly a well set up expectation here that this is going to be a movie about a young middle class woman who experiments with the fresh-off-the-boat criminal underworld and gets in over her head, and let's just say that writer-director John Patton Ford successfully subverts it.

And it's worth adding that Theo Rossi is just as much a good reason for watching this movie as the ostensible star.



Friday, April 21, 2023

Aftersun (2022)

This is an extraordinary piece of film-making, one that would be a strong recommendation to just about anybody with an interest in the ways in which profoundly emotive stories can be told in this medium. 


In her BAFTA-winning directorial debut Charlotte Wells gives us what she has described as an emotionally autobiographical recollection. 31-year-old Sophie reconstructs a holiday in Turkey spent with her father Callum, twenty years previously. 

Superficially rather inert dramatically, the film is an extraordinary amalgamation of available emotional connections which I suspect not everyone will pick up, at least not at the same magnitudes or distribution.

The cleverness of the film's construction lies in the way Wells has superimposed two streams of retrospective awareness — Sophie's direct memories of the holiday as she experienced it in the late nineties with a host of small details often at the fringes of the action which suggest the ways she has since digested the meaning of things that she witnessed or perhaps later imagined. 

From apparently trivial and disjointed moments we are led to transmute from these materials our own version of an implied bigger narrative, with even the lyrics of the songs on the soundtrack reinforcing this alchemy.

As suggested above, viewers will I think tap into Aftersun's wells of joy and sadness in accordance with their own emotional biographies. I could write a far longer piece on the reasons why I got an especially hefty dose, but then the review might become a little too personal. 

I would point to the fact that the times I felt closest to my own father during my early childhood were those when we only had each other for company, particularly during the mornings on our holidays in Spain.

I'm also sure I've mentioned before a fascination with any story set within a hotel, and I discovered here an association with another (albeit emotionally distinct) coming-of-age drama, Éric Rohmer's Pauline à la Plage (1983), an evocative, light-hearted film which sparked my adolescent interest in European cinema.




Thursday, April 20, 2023

Hunger (2023)

'Is it good because it's expensive or expensive because it's good?'

This is one of the key questions overtly leveled at the audience of Hunger, a dark and stylish expose of the Bangkok foodie scene...along with 'what is the true price of that hunger to be recognised as special?'.

The head chef as anti-hero operating on the edge of societal norms has become a familiar archetype in the past decade. Lately we've had Nicholas Cage in Pig, Stephen Graham in Boiling Point and, of course, Ralph Fiennes in The Menu. Like the Mozart of Amadeus, these men are celebrity geniuses awkwardly dependent on the patronage of an often dumb and compromised elite. 

Chef Paul (Nopachai Chaivanam) has lifted himself up from a position where, as a child, he found himself licking caviar off a kitchen floor, to be the most sought after kitchen tyrant in Thailand. 

He runs a centralised culinary business called Hunger, but his main trade appears to be catering for extravagant private events: parties thrown by socialites and cryptocurrency moguls barely out of adolescence and those spicy social broths consisting of politicians, the military and law enforcement. 

An unlikely new recruit onto the Hunger team is Aoy, played by the altogether longer-named Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying. She has been discovered operating a wok at her family noodle shop by Chef Paul's underling Tone and, clearly gifted with a natural talent for frying, soon has to establish herself on the team by perfectly flame-cooking the most expensive, thin-slice cuts of beef (A5 Wagyu).

Chuengcharoensukying is a former model with possibly the most beautifully-encased eyes I have ever come across, and in this film it's these work well in combination with a series of sudden jetitas that tweak her facial muscles, thus projecting her see-saw journey between gratification and consternation in this unfamiliar world. Crucially, Aoy arrives at a moral compass moment around the midpoint.

Her boss has come to see himself as above the law and above taste and yet recognises that the only way for him to escape prejudice is to twist it to his own ends. And even as we see that, on some levels, his pandering to the rich can benefit the poor, he firmly believes the notion that food can be made with love is the sentimental excuse of those mired in poverty. 

Aoy is the bearer of a hand-me-down recipe for ('cry baby') noodles which embodies a clear counter-argument. It's clear that director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri ultimately wishes all the decent folk amongst his audience to ultimately understand that they'd much rather consume a dish prepared by Aoy than Paul. Indeed, he reminds us of his previous gigs in the horror genre almost every time Paul's morsels are consumed.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Beef (Netflix)


Like most of its leading characters, Lee Sung Jin's Beef is full of flaws and it takes a while to appreciate these as more endearing than downright annoying.

There was enough entertainment value alone to keep us going through to say episode five, (where things start to properly take off) but I did ponder whether the killer Netflix algorithms had been stirred by completion rates. Anyway, my doubts largely stayed in Vegas. 

The protagonists and their secondaries are complex and yet subtle individuals and they all seem to need a bit of narrative space to properly calibrate within the story. (V was led to speculate whether they had a full roadmap for the story when they started out.)

One of the aforementioned flaws is that the quality of the writing for dialogue fluctuates and is sometimes at its weakest in the most crucial moments. Not really a spoiler, but the ending is disappointingly ambiguous in its ambiguity. I suppose there might just be a follow up to this 'limited' series. 
I remember how South Asians forced their way into the televisual mainstream in the UK in part by playing up to stereotypes — sometimes a little worryingly — and there have been signs of a similar phenomenon in the US as East Asians seize their moment in both film and TV. 
I think I can also see a pattern in Netflix shows in which we come across female characters who have achieved wealth and status in America via an activity which would barely scrape them a living anywhere else  e.g. ‘Plant Lady’ — though Amy here does seem to know how to survive in the dry wilderness, more or less. 

Here however this does ultimately seem to be part of the existential enigma under examination along with the essentially corrupting and self-hatred inducing nature of the Californian variant of material aspiration.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Escape the Matrix


I’m not a huge fan of these, but this one definitely gets a pass.

Bukowski's Bar (@cafebreriaelpendulo on Calle Hamburgo) will also on request provide — ungrudgingly — a slickly emplasticado, beautifully designed visual guide to their food and drink offerings. 

I remember the first time I was refused a paper menu. It was in Manhattan, mid-pandemic, and I pulled my best hapless tourist routine, and as there really weren’t many outsiders in New York at that time, they duly sympathised with me and located a slight tatty old list of their victuals, complete with pre-inflation pricing.

But then, last year I was again refused a paper menu in Colombia, along with some pompous posturing. This was almost a walk-out moment, yet I was detained by the challenging assertion of the waiter that this was somehow MY problem to resolve.

I’m not some sort of slavering luddite. I established myself in the field of technology, but that also means I have a few opinions around appropriate use.

As a traveller, I know how hard it can be to keep a single device charged during an active day right through to dinner time without juggling opportunity costs i.e. do I shoot that video or is my tummy rumbling a bit too much already?
And in this particular city I anyway lost my roaming privileges for extended periods.

Beyond these perhaps personal gripes, there are some other matters at stake here. If I were a dad I believe I would resent the implication that I could not so easily regulate my offsprings’ use of connected devices at dinnertime. (This works the other way a bit too: the etiquette of dining out was imposed on me from a very young age, yet once I had been seen to absorb it, I was permitted a degree of independence, such as my own menu, which I valued.)

And then there are some rather obvious usability issues. In their latter years I watched my own parents struggle with large print tabloid-format menus. And even at my age I am yet to find a QR-accessed presentation as easy to navigate intuitively as any printed one.

And let’s face it, Colombia, along with Guatemala and Mexico recently showed themselves incapable of competently coding and deploying a fully-useable online health verification form for all visitors — and this against a backdrop of what I would describe as an overall decline in consideration for accessibility and usability across all Web platforms in the past decade or so, but with mobile a particular offender. (I reckon el Feis insensitised us all to terrible interface design.)
Anyway, try this wooden one out. First one takes a nostalgic trip back to a late 90s landing page and then, if Comidas y Cenas are selected, one reaches a barely readable PDF presentation of the printed menu. 

Fallen Column


I do not believe in ghosts, palmistry, John Cage, love or God > Gore Vidal, former resident of La Antigua Guatemala.
He lived in the house next door to the ruins of El Carmen. 
Anaïs Nin visited him there at a time when he was laid low by a near fatal case of Hepatitis A, picked up, he claimed, from eating from pots in the market. (Possibly in front of what is now the Cooperación Española, but before the big quake of '76, the parque central was also still used for stalls.)
In the 40s, visitors to Vidal's house reported a single fallen column from the convent lying across the entrance to his living room, which guests had to navigate around.

Friday, April 07, 2023

All of Antigua

In my recent post about El Manhattan you might have gathered how one might have struggled to find anywhere even remotely resembling a zona viva in Antigua back in the eighties — I mean, just how effortlessly did the city's single 'hot' nightspot transition into life as a supermarket? 

It wasn't until the early nineties that Antigua started to reinvent itself as a playground, the key drivers at first being the potential players from the capital, but soon the tourists were also taking their assigned role, particularly as the number of Spanish schools began to contract and a less serious sort of visitor started to predominate. 

From the very first day I came here it was clear that the life in Antigua had a strange underside or undersides. (Viz the 'retired' goose-steppers that used to gather for lunch at Welten.) What has changed over the years is the make-up of these semi-sequestered shadow worlds. 

In the early phases of transformation the old conservative elites remained resolutely dug in and the new commercial would-be elites, also mostly Chapines, faced off against them across a still very perceptible No-Man's Land. Yet, as with almost all unfilled spaces in Antigua, this was soon chocka with random people, many of them outsiders.  

As time did its thing with the generations, the battle lines became even more blurred as the younger members of older families became more overtly commercial in their instincts. 

At some point a bizarre new subculture emerged, consisting of individuals you might think would struggle to attain even a level of passable mediocrity in any other environment, but have somehow risen to the top of Panza Verde society — or at least that's how many seem to see it. Chefs, painters, writers, lawyers (oh God, the lawyers), restauranteurs, architects etc. 

On the face of it this should be a largely harmless phenomenon. That's how I saw it for quite a while, but then the nocuous personal experiences started to stack up and I began to peer a bit deeper at this apparent anomaly. 

When you have a well-connected clique of individuals with a strong yet largely delusional sense of personal authority, there is untold potential for detrimental behaviour. 

Maybe delusional is the wrong word, because I think it is clear that many of these people are in fact broadly aware that they could not behave the way they do anywhere else and this must be stoking the temptation to act like a dick. 

Anyway the effect of all this is that there are now multiple groups of joined-up individuals here who think they own the place, so the old model of straightforward polarity between old and new money, upcoming and past it, has to be set aside. 

Which brings me to a slightly tangential matter.

One of my mother’s favoured prefixes to any highly subjective opinion was “All of London"...with its implied mass collective reinforcement. 
My response was typically an eye-roll much like this…

Only very occasionally did I bother to point out that we were living in a city of around ten million people.

In effect, “All of London knows...” meant that a small subset of those she regarded as belonging to high society possessed some sort of privileged knowledge. 
Of course, only a subset of this subset were leading what might semi-subjectively be regarded as significant lives, such that the uncounted remainder of the city's population might have needed to care about the contents of their heads.

Anyway, a phrasing which seemed patently absurd in the UK capital back then is far more jarring in its Panza Verde equivalent, even in reference to what is overall, a significantly smaller concentration of human beings.

Nevertheless one does hear it and — even more face-plantingly — it is sometimes uttered in English: "All of Antigua...",  by non-natives who have assumed a sense of ownership and status here, often of the sort outlined above. 

My take on this is that the best one can really hope for here as an individual immigrant is to be known for one's essence. e.g. "he's a good bloke". Any craving for, or projection of, a greater significance is borderline pathetic and likely to be socially undesirable.

Inside (2023)

A movie, in which a man is almost obliged to treat another man's valuables (so very valuable...) as things of no value, a situation we may have come across before in numerous post-apocalyptic treatments, but here instead we have an art thief, a character called Nemo with a real sense of the lasting value of art, trapped inside a sort of high rise personal museum and thus subjected to an individual end of the world outcome.


We were both absolutely riveted from beginning to end, yet afterwards when I sought out some corroboration on the interwebs instead came across a slew of fairly sniffy reviews. 

Undeterred, I reflected that much of this reminded me of sections of the critical response to Triangle of Sadness. I am not sure if this is an American thing or a Millennial thing, but there appears to be a novel orthodoxy out there which requires any story straying into social critique to come sparkling clean about where it stands on ‘rich people’ or controversial cultural issues in general. Ambiguity is fully cancel-able.

The complaint is framed as an exciting premise that the writer and/or director somehow under-exploited. For sure, various directions in which this particular situation might have progressed are explicitly teased, yet ultimately left implicit. What's wrong with that? 

Also, if you observe the art in the background, much of it has this same hard-to-pin-down quality, and one must always remember that the now notorious metropolitan elite which creates the value here, however opposed to the status quo and pro social justice they might be, have never had any desire to see their sophisticated world sacked and burned by barbarians. So the digs at Ruben Östlund's insider-satire leave me thoroughly undaunted. 

I think I may have been recently guilty myself of wanting another visually stunning yet ultimately indefinite movie — Infinity Pool  — to be the film I might have made myself given the basic idea scribbled on a napkin. That's just silly.*

Anyway, Inside is a firm recommendation, a rare one-hander that finds interesting and not too absurd ways to overcome the limitations established by the single character in constrained circumstances conceit. And Willem Dafoe has become the embodiment of must-see-cinema in the US.


* We might however have preferred that just as Nemo had an electronic window on the outside world, that the outside world had a way of looking in on him. That said, not showing what he could observe with the telescope was a masterstroke.