Posts from 20th September 2004

Sep 04

David Thomson says

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David Thomson says it might be a fault of his that he can’t find too much enthusiasm for Ken Loach, despite his obvious merits, and the same no doubt extends to the Great British public at large, or certainly to me. In a certain pessimistic perspective Loach shares all the problems of the British left at large: empiricism, moralism, humanism — or so the antagonists in this fascinating interview from the greatest interweb film resource of all time seem to think.

This exchange between two seminal members of the filmmaking leftgeoisie on Loach’s Family Life (1971) contains the root of the hostile relations between theory and filmmaking that obtain even now. In terms of historical materialism, it’s possible that Loach really has the edge here: isn’t Wollen making the neo-Platonist argument that individual lives are mere ‘instances’ of a greater truth, named capitalism?

Peter Wollen: ‘By making it these particular people, and by making it so perfectly realistic, in the end it either becomes just those particular people, and you lose sight of the general, theoretical points which were what you started with.’
Ken Loach: ‘I tend to see it as the inverse of what you’re saying. It’s possible from observing individuals reacting on one another to make some generalized statement, and that in fact you’re looking through the other end of the telescope.’

Afterthought: In theory, Wollen should prefer Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose left-inflected tales of petit-bourgeois woe make an interesting ‘Brechtian’ counterpart to Ken Loach’s work: Ae Fond Kiss and RWF’s Fear Eats the Soul will almost certainly appear as a double-bill somewhere in the course of time. But it seems to me that, if Fassbinder ever did acheive that elusive ‘alienation effect’ in his films, it’s absent now, and his work is just as affecting, in the contentious ‘humanist’ sense, as Loach’s best.

RIP Michael Donaghy

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RIP Michael Donaghy. Far far too soon.

Go! Go! Go!

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Go! Go! Go! to Enthusiastic But Mediocre where you will find me getting into a FITE with some European pop music from the land of the Moomins.

The Chatwin Hotel

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The Chatwin Hotel

Bruce Chatwin’s name has cropped up a couple of times among the travel posts. This pleases me. I’ve been a devotee for years and once formed part of the clich’d Chatwin Traveller set, hitchhiking around South America with a scruffy copy of In Patagonia in my backpack.

I’ve read the books, echoed his footfalls, and now, the ultimate piece of the jigsaw; stayed in the hotel. I’m still unsure why there is a hotel devoted to Bruce Chatwin in the Tuscan countyside. But there is, in the town of Arezzo.

Now in cultural terms, Arezzo already has much going for it. Pierro della Francesca’s fresco cycle in a local church is both neck craning and breathtaking. Robert Benigni grew up in Arezzo and Life is Beautiful was filmed among its streets. And now a hotel devoted to the writings of Bruce Chatwin. Painting, cinema, literature in one handy Italian town.

We stayed in the Ouidah suite. How do you decorate a room in the style of a Brazilian slave owner working out of Africa? Like this: Blood red walls looped with bamboo. A black wooden mirror ringed with animal skulls. The glass covered in rusty flakes. A dark wooden headboard and heavy red bed linen. It was incredibly strong in colour, if a little oppressive with the shutters closed.

Other rooms explored similar themes. The China room picked up from a short story in What Am I Doing Here while the Arkady Suite took inspiration from The Songlines. Other references were more obscure. The Oxiana room was based on Chatwin owning a copy of Robert Byron’s travels and one room was a homage to Italo Calvino and nothing to do with Chatwin at all. The receptionist was happy to talk about the history and the maid turned a blind eye as we cleared the bathroom of anything not nailed down. It was a little pricey, but I would have paid double to stay.

I once met a man who knew Chatwin. He was a grizzled old ‘entrepreneur’ (his word) who said he was fond of the Gringo. This is unusual in Argentina where Chatwin upset the majority of those he met through unflattering portraits. He showed me a photo of Chatwin and himself and said the Englishman was unique (he, in turn, is described by Chatwin when the writer falls off his horse in Patagonia). He also tried to rip me off over a bag of crisps. He said, don’t give me money, give me a present. While looking through my bag I pulled out my camera. He said that would do but I said it wouldn’t.

I was half expecting him to appear in the lobby of the hotel, “this was my idea!”

Best Quiz Machine In World Found

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Best Quiz Machine In World Found

It’s in well-known Freaky Trigger stamping ground the Blue Posts on Newman Street, never in general an exciting pub but a very robust one that has played host to all sorts of shenanigans. In the corner stands its quiz machine – in times past this has been a Millionaire cabinet. But with that franchise on the wane a new quizzer has stepped up, this one a multi-game machine stuffed with unfamiliar pleasures. Lead game seems to be the South Park quiz – a little late on that particular brand too, methinks. But after that unpromising start a wealth of possibilities awaits. Our top three included:

3. SPACE QUEST: Bizarre and complex game where you have to drop a space bomb on some balls, which behave pool-style and bounce off one another. Any that fall to the bottom of the screen can earn you points, but hit the wrong one and you lose lives. After each go you have to answer a question, too. It is hard to win on this, but satisfying.

2. LORD OF THE BLINGS: From one bad pun a masterpiece is born! This is the cheapest quiz game I have ever seen – no graphics to speak of, just a grid of boxes, each of which contains either points or a True/False question. No question subjects, no questions other than true or false, just a points chase. It would fit on a ZX Spectrum but it’s horribly compelling, mostly because of its congratulatory message after each right question: “YOU GOT DA BLING BLING!”. If you lose you get a curt “TOO BAD” or “SUCKER”. Its other clever mechanism is a counter listing how many TRUE and FALSE answers have shown up so far, in case you fancy playing the percentage game (you would indeed be a “SUCKER” however.)

1. WORD UP: This is the best thing I have seen on a UK quiz machine ever. It is a sort of combination of Windows timewasting favourite Wordzap, a wordsearch, and that game where you have to break down a grid of different coloured gems by finding matching patterns. Each word you find on the grid gives you some points, if you get a certain amount of points you win money. This machine is fantastic because of how it appeals to the vanity of swots like your publog correspondents: it has not only an overall high score table, but also a table for the longest word and highest scoring word. We had to top all three – even if it meant throwing a prize away! It’s quite a rich and strategic game, packed with choices – go for the difficult letters (Q, Z, X) that offer time bonuses, or hammer in the three-letter words to rack up points? How to accomodate two or three players, each of whom is spotting a different word? And then of course the base satisfaction that comes from spotting an opportunity for smut. We never managed a single six letter word in many games – but we will be back. Oh yes, we will be back.

In the fullness of time (ie after I’ve finished reading the whole book) I will write a (probably very favourable) review of

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In the fullness of time (ie after I’ve finished reading the whole book) I will write a (probably very favourable) review of Planet Simpson. However, possibly in the style of Comic Book Guy, I have to Report Back straight away on a howler of an error in an otherwise well researched book (I was on the internet within minutes, registering my disgust etc).

Kurt Cobain’s performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit on Top of the Pops where he sang it really oddly (read “bad”) was as a result of TOTP at that time *forcing everyone* to sing live and Kurt wanted to mime because his throat was knackered, not the other way round, and thus he wasn’t striking a blow for “punk rock” against “the man”, he just had a bad throat and threw a strop…

But can Noam Chomsky play jazz flute?

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But can Noam Chomsky play jazz flute?

Fear of Flying

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Fear of Flying

As the aircraft lifted into the afternoon skies, I craned my neck to see Miami below. I had bagsied the window seat ahead of my sister. She sulked as a ten-year-old does. At two years her senior I was entitled to the privilege. Despite securing the seat with a view, all I could see was wing. I silently reproached my father for this oversight. He should have known.

I gazed at the two huge engines and was surprised when one exploded. The fuselage rocked and my dad said shit and looked alarmed. I tugged his sleeve and pointed to the engine; a stream of green and blush smoke trailed behind.

The captain made an announcement, “A little trouble with Number 2 engine…nothing to worry about…this is a 747 it can fly on 3 engines…our journey will continue.” His voice was reassurance itself. If he said he was going to blow the other three engines and glide back to London, it wouldn’t have raised a murmur.

Except, we had stopped climbing and appeared to be circling off the Florida coast. Ten minutes later the captain was back and all traces of reassurance were gone. “Back to Miami…dump fuel…emergency landing.” I guess there was more, but panic took over and everyone shouted at once. For twenty minutes the plane completed endless laps, jettisoning fuel from the wing tips. A lady passed out, then a man. As a twelve-year-old kid, my frame of reference was narrow. I’d spent the holiday negotiating my way around Pac-Man machines and had just been to see ET. The reality for me was something between a game and a movie. Another passenger passed out. Not a great movie.

The captain made a final announcement, which was pretty much “Don’t Panic”. The runway loomed up as we approached the airport. A woman behind me bit the crown from her tooth and screamed in pain. My mum said “we’re going to die” then repeated it over and over as a kind of mantra. Her prediction was wide of the mark. We hit the ground hard and bounced up again. Stomachs were playing catch up. The overhead lockers flew open and luggage rained down. Then the wheels hit again and stayed down. Fire trucks and ambulances roared alongside; a hundred flashing lights of blue and orange. We slowed and everyone whooped and hollered their approval. Apart from the woman with the crownless tooth. She was wishing for a crash and an end to her misery. Our stomachs taxied to meet us.

Disappointingly we didn’t get to use the emergency chutes. PAN-AM herded us onto a later flight; a flight characterised by empty seats. To compensate for the ‘delay’, every passenger received free earphones. I let my sister take the window seat.

Moominvalley In November

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Moominvalley In November

Have you ever been on your own in a hotel? A big hotel, a hundred rooms – and no other guests but you?

We arrived in Bialowieza on a Tuesday, to stay four nights. It was early November, the night came on early and the village was almost entirely in darkness. A pool of light by the single coach stop, dots of houses further down the road, nothing else. The town sits a few miles from the Ukranian border, with a single road linking it to the rest of Poland – eighteen miles through forest. It has about 500 people, and two large hotels.

The hotels serve the Bialowieza National Park, the largest area of primaeval natural forest in Europe. If the Nazis had won it would have been Goebbel’s private estate – they kept the bison alive so he could hunt them after the war, but then things went badly and the retreating German armies killed and ate the poor beasts. The forest has been repopulated. They are – unsurprisingly – mistrustful creatures and we didn’t see any.

In the Summer the National Park is a big deal and the hotels are full. In November, in midweek, the tourists aren’t so keen. We walked to the edge of town and saw the Hotel Bialowieza – well-lit, welcoming, quite silent. The receptionist looked up at my wife as we walked in – “You must be Miss Smith?”

We put away our bags and had a look around. There was piped music in the corridoors, so low that it always seemed to be coming from around a corner, even when you stood next to a speaker. Nobody on our corridoor. No windows lit in the rooms across the courtyard. The games room, empty: I rolled a solitary white ball from side to side across the pool table. There was a lower level, half-dark, the corridoors lined with bristling pelts. We walked back into reception – even that was empty now.

The hotel still smelt new – it wasn’t in the guidebooks, we’d found it on the web. Outside there was a climbing frame, a swing, a little artificial brook, all floodlit and untouched. A line from an ABBA song came into my head – “In these once familiar rooms, children would play…”. It was a good hotel, designed carefully and built well. But there’s nothing lonelier than an empty playground. We went to bed early that night.

Tiny Lives

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Tiny Lives

Do you remember autobiographical comics? What – they’re still going? I wouldn’t know. I stopped reading them, oh, four, five years ago. Weirdly enough it was around the time I started reading weblogs – now isn’t that funny.

The connection didn’t occur to me until last night, reading a post on the alternative vs mainstream thread on I Love Comics. I was never 100% behind the autobio-comics wave, they could on occasion be too creepy for comfort and there was something horribly passive-aggressive about the idea of these guys arguing with their girlfriends and then retreating to the study to draw it all. Also the emotional range was barely larger than your average Arab Strap album.

But there was definitely something about little slice-of-life stories that fitted the comics form. For one thing a ‘junk’ medium seemed suitably minor and despised for these humble tales – there was a ‘magic in the smallest places’ feeling that came from flicking through someone’s stumbling, honest small-press efforts. And where else could they go? As ILC’s Tuomas says, there were no outlets in film or music for that sort of thing. And prose? Well, there weren’t usually plots to speak of, and anyway, most of these ‘stories’ wouldn’t take more than a paragraph to tell.

And then along came the weblog and suddenly everybody was telling their stories.

Of course there’s still a point to autobiographical comics: one of the rarest things in comics is an artist who can ‘do’ facial expressions and the autobio story is a great way to play around with that particular skill. And the rhythms of a comics page are different to those of prose (though don’t get me started on the fad for silent panels to help ‘storytelling’). But even so the form has lost its lustre for me – its voyeuristic thrills and petite emotional jolts are now a global online lingua franca, after all.