Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Case for Feedback

"Too much swearing." "Too political." "Too many characters." Quite how the people who went to see In the Loop missed that these are critical ingredients of the film, with its blaring R13 sign and the fact it is blatantly all about the manufacturing of a war, escapes me. Perhaps they thought it was a farce, or perhaps the latest fare from Pixar? At any rate, let me say that they are stupid and this film is great.

Unlike the flier, which I picked up, and is seriously wrong on several plot points. Perhaps these errors are deliberate (at no time does Judy appear to be "back home dealing with voters blocked drains") and in keeping with the spirit of misdirection of the film. I can overlook those though.

What I find harder to overlook is the malign intelligence that the various manipulators in the film bring to bear to get their will across - a cunning and subtleness that seems to be completely absent in the current White House / Fox News spat. Possibly, the Brits are just a whole lot better at manipulating the media (with the media unaware) than the Americans. Else, it could just be that, in the real world, people just aren't as smart as they can be scripted in the movies.

And what a script it is. It sparkles with amazingly cutting put downs and witty repartee. It's all based on a BBC TV series (which I now think I must see), and it all flows together very smoothly. The cast are all amazing in their roles (the giant bear James Gandolfini plays intimidating as the Gore Vidal of army generals, but his physical menace is overpowered by the wiry fire of Peter Capaldi's psychotic Scottish Spin Doctor, and David Rache plays a character as relentlessly republican reminiscient of his Sledge Hammer! days) and its a pleasure to just sit back and watch them (apparently) relish their roles and the cynical situation that in which they all find themselves.

There's no real joy in rehashing the plot - it's actually fairly depressing in "this really happened (kindof)" way. The joy of course derrives from watching everyone running around in damage control trying to deal with sound-bite comments made in extraordinary situations. If you can handle the language, the number of characters, and the politics, this is definitely a great film to watch. Just don't expect to come out of it feeling more optimistic about the world.

Verdict: In the Loop is a great romp near the corridors of power in the UK and the US. The real reasons for war is not the point of this film - the "getting it done" is the thing, and there are an incredible number of put downs and swear words than can be employed in manipulating people to make it happen. 9 spins out of 10.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Case for Post Future History

From Justice Leage America #56, 1991
General Glory: I know son -- you want to pitch in and help too! Well, you'll get your chance, I promise you. Together, we'll prove that being a superhero isn't just about brawn and battling. Its about decency... simple acts of kindness! And that li'l pal -- is the American way!
Soup kitchener: Actually... it's socialism.

Obviously I have some kind of aura that sends out the “I am a bit of a commie” (small c, not a big Stalinist Communist, please) signal. Perhaps it is the influence of the French side of the family, perhaps it is the red star I wore at high school, perhaps it is that I look mildly deranged.

Whatever it was, a lovely person at work loaned me a book that, on the dust jacket, claimed to be all about the impact of the Internet on creating the future (the book is called Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village, by Richard Barbrook, and there is even a website at, but which is, apart from the final 30-odd pages, more a description of how communism/socialism has been repackaged to be acceptable to the American public (and inspirational to other nations) in a vision where the future where people are freed from manual labour by robots and able to visit the far reaches of the solar system through cheap fusion power (ah, the 1960s!) is disassociated from ideology of the society in which these “wealth for all” notions would work. And in the end, the internet, allowing everyone to participate with an equal voice and with equal knowledge, is seen as offering the ultimate communisitic tool. The book describes how the totalitarian Communist (big C) states abandoned their own internet-like developments because of the power it would bring every individual, whereas the USA saw the potential of the free-flowing of ideas in technological innovation and thus pushed forward with this “great leveller”.

There are lots of really interesting ideas in the book – how the liberalism (i.e., small government) that the USA was founded upon had to make way for the Keynesian principle of “guiding” government intervention in stimulation and regulation of the economy, most notably in the USA through the government support of the military industrial complex which flowed through to the general public with its job creation and non-military consumer spin off developments. However, the nature of the New Deal and the increase in the size of the government to increase wealth for business and (ultimately) citizens has been successfully separated from the reviled “socialist” way of doing things – a very interesting phenomenon considering the vitriol in the USA at the moment over Health Care reform.

There is also the observation that the technological utopia of the future envisaged in the 1960s, where automation freed men and women from work and raising living standards for all, has not met the reality of machines replacing people with those people becoming unemployed and (worst case scenario) living in poverty.

The book itself is written as a series of essays – well, at least it feels that way considering some things are repeated over and over and over again. There are lots of repeated “catch phrases” that, when strung into a sentence, sound highly impressive but are not terribly easy (at least for my poor brain) to understand. And, even though the ideas are interesting right from the start, I was not a fan of its style, nor completely convinced of its argument – or of what it was actually arguing (is this book really about the internet?).

I suppose the problem I have is how the author treats people in the book. There are an awful lot of little “vanguards” all over the place, harkening a new era and plagarising and paraphrasing Marx for the digestion of Republican Americans, but the main thing missing from the analysis is the will of the people. As much as I think that there can be great leaders with great ideas, I also happen (as a bit of a commie) to believe that the great ideas have to be accepted by the people to be successful – otherwise, the “great leader” is wheeled off to the loony bin.

So for 20th Century post World War two East v West struggle to be reduced to the battling and subversion of a few disgruntled communists with wildly divergent opinions seems to be a bit disingenuous. And then to throw in the internet as the ultimate communist tool realised after 100 years of technological struggle again seems to be overstating things a bit.

There are many things I can agree with: I definitely accept the Cold War kept the peace between the nations of the West (and the East, to a lesser degree), and shifted the battle to supporting sides in the conflict of 3rd World nations (called the South in the book, though being from the Antipodes, I found this description inaccurate). Whereas direct conflict would have been MAD, the blocs competed technologically, economically and athletic competitions, with the ultimate goal of winning hearts and minds through propaganda.

I suppose then I have no real problems with what the book covers, more of the emphasis. For example, most “western” nations may admire and respect the power of the USA, but its another thing altogether to say that the American version of democracy and the social welfare system (which, according to the book, has been constructed to be the “ultimate” society) is seen as “the best” by the rest of the world – in fact, I would argue the contrary. I doubt France, Canada or the Scandanavian countries (to name a few) want to go down that route. So, if the USA is not seen as the “social model” for all to follow, then “the west” is not following the USA to a brighter future, but creating their own future in the confines of the “freedoms” permitted by the world’s current superpower.

It’s a very American/British view of the future, with the Muslim world thrown into the “backwards” role now that the Communist threat has passed. Fascinating for all the issues and links it makes in how we got to here, the book is also frustrating in its spectacularly narrow focus, which it then generalises to all of society – all of the world, in fact. I am not a sociologist, but it would depress me – and perhaps insult me – to think that what I think, feel and believe about the future could be reduced to a few vanguard Marxist radicals and their attempted manipulations rather than the will of the people, the ultimate commune.

Verdict: Very interesting thoughts and conclusions collide with jargon, repetition and whole lot of assumption. In the Imaginary Future world, society seems to be divorced from the theory that explains and perhaps drives it. It should be a self-evident truth that people are impressed by an attractive version of the future: whether it be the glory of an “eternal” Empire, the promise of an afterlife or a future free from hunger, disease and toil. How those desires change and can be manipulated by a select few is the real revelation, though as always, they need the support of the masses and/or the powerful to get their way, a point which (to me) this book seems to overlook. 6.5 fists raised in protest out of 10.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Case for Garnerasthma

There is yet another dreaded disease out there, and it appears to be spreading.

Garnerasthma is a breathing ailment named after one of its strongest sufferers, Duncan Garner, cuddly correspondent for 3 News. The poor man is forced, night after night, to front up and present political reportage, all the while needing to take large gasps of air right in the middle of his sentences, occasionally (but not often) before words of emphasis. He then has to steamroll through any full stops until he reaches the middle of the next sentence where, once again, his affliction strikes.

But the TV3 offices are small, and the contagion, once relatively confined to the Wellington bureau, is spreading. Other reporters have been heard incorrectly punctuating their speech, and even some of the glass desk imprisoned presenters have succumbed.

The problem with this condition is that it can be mistaken for plain conversation hogging. Some people take large pauses mid sentence and then carry on through the “natural” full stop that would allow those around them the chance to jump in, thereby allowing the speaker to dominate the topic of conversation and maintain their train of thought.

However, you can tell Mr Garner and his fellow “actual” sufferers by the simple fact that there is no-one else around them who will interrupt them and so they must, obviously, just be unable to control their speech patterns. I mean, why would they possibly do this deliberately, considering how it goes against the natural flow of speech, obscures any point they are trying to get across and is actually damned annoying to hear?

But then, Mr Garner does seem to be stricken by many illnesses. From time to time, he also has dissynchstripeitis, a visual condition where his shirt and tie both have a stripe pattern, but where the stripes run in different directions. While not affecting the health of the carrier, people observing this optical dissonance can expect to suffer mild nausea, and, combined with Garnerasthma, can lead to viewers reaching for their Remotidote and selecting another channel and waiting for the discomfort (and the item) to pass.

Verdict: Duncan Garner, STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. I think someone in 3 News should stage an intervention and get him the appropriate medication because Garnerasthma is damned irritating and completely undermines the credibility of the news being reported in that I feel I am being sold something rather than intelligently informed about the state of the nation and the world, and makes me rate Garner’s performance 1 misemphasised sentence out of 5.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Case for Summer Loving

I was surprised by the way (500) Days of Summer seems to be received so differently by so many people. Friends who had seen it before I did had markedly contrasting opinions of it, and while the people I went to see the film with were not quite to vehement, there were definite “good film” and “bad film” camps.

It may not have been the “reinvention of the rom com” film some quarters have called it, but (500) Days of Summer is definitely a quirky take on the genre. A time-jumping storyline, odd camera angles, sidebars into fantasy and a great dance number in the middle of the film (Fame could have used one of those – several really) are all tricks used in every episode of Scrubs. And drunken karaoke is very Wedding Singer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, taking a break from commanding Cobra, is always very easy to watch and is great as the hapless romantic Tom Hansen (wasn't he in 21 Jump Street?), while Zooey Deschanel seems to be channelling herself as his off-the-wall non-committal love interest. All the other characters are background, used for one comic effect or another, including a fairly disturbing turn from Tom’s young, Yoda-wise sister, and they float in and out of the camera to serve a purpose and then are banished to limbo to await their next summoning.

Similarly, there is no “realism” to the story: jobs are worked to add humour value; lack of a job does not impact on one’s financial situation; and everything is connected to and by a very cool, not terribly mainstream (but very sellable) sound track.

But that is the cynic in me. At the time, and in the moment (in the Embassy on a leather seat too, no less), the film was a lot of fun, easy on the brain and yet not insultingly so. I didn’t end up really feeling for the characters, but that is not a fault of the actors, as the problem with introducing so much levity and so many tricks is that it is very hard to make the audience really find any situation sad on anything but an intellectual level. But the lows are brief, the humour good natured and the jokes work – aided no doubt by the brilliant cast.

Verdict: (500) Days of Summer is a light hearted comedy, though perhaps not really a date movie. I think your enjoyment of it will depend on how you view Zooey Deschanel ’s character, but the hopeless romantic in me found smiling throughout the film, and even during the nauseatingly “twee” ending. 400 out of 500 days.


And as an aside, my own surprise at the decision to award the Nobel Peace prize is nothing in comparison with what is happening out there, it seems. The Nobel Obama decision continues to cause controversy, with judges being asked to justify their decision. The reasons offered so far don't really convince me.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Case for Honourary Prizes?

Listening to: "Starmaker", Kids from Fame (trying to restore my Fame faith)

Did you hear that Barak Obama, currently President of the USA, won the Nobel Peace Prize?

As much as I think that Obama appears a decent person and is an improvement over the last one in that office, you will have to count me amongst the cynical. Not even the line that:

- The prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments, not only to recognise efforts for peace, human rights and democracy after they have proven successful.

really mollifies me that much. If this is recognising the change from the previous administration, should the award not go to the American people (well, apart from the psychotic ones who participate in Fox News populist rallies)? Or maybe this is a change to make the Peace Prize more of a ratings winner, and turning it into an X Factor Idol event?

Bah, humbug. Everything seemed so much simpler in the 1980s. Communists were bad, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were good. Time for me to turn up my stereo...

Verdict: Its so hard to like "liberals" these days. Pat themselves on the back before they actually do anything, and then fail to actually act on that. Does Tony Blair still count as a "leftie" - and how did he end up as a Middle East Peace envoy? I don't understand international politics at all, it seems. 8 out of 10 for my own ignorance.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Case for Infamy

Okay, okay, I knew going in that this would not be a good film.

I mean, c'mon, it's a remake of quasi-classic Fame, updated for the naughties, using a school that is now technically closed as a backdrop for youngsters with talent taking their first tentative steps into the world of showbiz. The teachers are all ex-sitcom stars (Frasier, Lillith, that one with the high-pitched squeak of a voice from Will & Grace) with Debbie Allen coming back with hair extensions and warnings about big dreams and sweat payments. No leg warmers though. But there were plenty of nods back to the original show - in fact, some scenes were (I am sure) blow-by-blow repetitions.

The storylines are a joke, of course (I would say jokes, but that would imply there was more than one, which could be construed as funny). They are merely links between the performance pieces. Love, ambition, more love... well, I kind of lost interest after the first vain attempts at overcoming what were fairly cliche obstacles, and just waited for the cast of bright young things to shine.

And they could shine. If I had half their talent and looks, I would count myself lucky. It was just a shame then that every song was pre-recorded and every performance horrendously lip-synched. The final "show stopper" put all the main cast in starring roles (of course), including the young actress who never really did seem to overcome her astounding mediocrity for almost her entire school career but graduated nonetheless.

But Fame was never about reality, and this version does not seem to be about drama or performance either. Which does not really leave a lot left for it to be about. Perhaps that is why the cinema was glacially cold. I more pitied the poor children brought their by parents who perhaps thought they were going to relive some 80s memories in a modern way. I hope they were more entertained than I.

Verdict: Fame reaches for the stars, but trips over some 80s leg warmers someone left on the dancefloor and ends up staring at the cafeteria floor. And, as their one cafeteria song-and-dance routine did not spill out onto the streets of New York causing traffic mayhem, well, there wasn't really much of a point to it all, was there? 49% perspiration and 1% inspiration out of 100%.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Case for Historical Racism

I don’t think I can recommend enough the incredible series Racism: A History that recently screened on SKY’s History channel. It’s a very sobering experience, forcing one to confront the very real and present legacy not only of the colonial past, but of the scientific and religious “justification” for the ranking of people by characteristics such as skin colour, “mixed blood” percentages and religious beliefs.

The 3 episode series tried hardest to push a message that racism, and genocide and intolerance based along racist lines, is not just limited to 1960s USA, not just about Jews in Europe, but encompasses the enslaved black colonies in Africa, and that the evidence of atrocities exists not just in black and white images of Martin Luthor King Jr or Malcolm X or in the camps at Auschwitz, but also in the museums of Belgium, in the relocation camps in small islands off the coast of Tasmania and in popular postcards of the southern states of America.

And it is important to be aware of those atrocities that have been played down, to not forget those instances that show the worst of human nature (and yes, I do consider these bad – racism is not my bag; and, while I am at it, let me admit to supporting Darwin’s evolution too). It’s important that we all know that genocide is not something limited to Nazi Germans; that science and religious texts can be used to justify almost anything should people have the desire; and that sometimes the best of intentions can have the most disastrous results.

One story in particular shocked me to the core: the description of a man found guilty of a crime, taken out of the courtyard where he was hung by a chain over a fire, had his fingers chopped off if he tried to climb up the chain, and then had his limbs and genitals chopped off as he was slowly lowered and raised into the flames until he died. Perhaps this is not that surprising to know this was an episode from the southern American states in the 1960s, but that explanation is not a justification. And the images, both of this incident and the handless African rubber workers who hadn’t met their rubber quota in the Belgian Congo… wow. Harrowing.

One of the more interesting (and depressing) observations of the removal of slavery (which was not necessarily linked to racism; it’s just that racism justified slavery of “lower” species of not-quite-humans in a love-thy-neighbour Christian era) in the last few hundred years is that slavery offered the slave a type of protection: the slave had a monetary value, and was thus valuable, and was thus worth protection by their owner. Once slavery was abolished, the new freemen (and freewomen) had to pay rent, and taxes and food; they had to find work; and they had to do all this starting from nothing, with no money, education or prospects in a world where the former masters resented them. The abolitionists really never covered that side of things; once slavery was gone, their job was done. But the legacy of that lives on.

It lives on in the difference in wealth between the former colonisers, the former colonised, and the slaves; it lives on in the removal of the more unpleasant incidents from the histories of Europe, the Americas and Australasia (apart from where there are vocal people who will not let it be forgotten); and it lives on in the more dehumanising aspects of globalisation, where the rich in the “West” benefit from the work and resources of those in appalling squalor in the developing world, and to their detriment.

It’s very interesting to see the underlying racism bubble to the surface now on reports from FOX News. Not that the network itself necessarily espouses (or admits) to the views of its watchers, but the vox populi segments show people who are anti-socialist, anti-Muslim, and possibly anti-black. They have steered away from anti-Semitic comments – that is perhaps one step too far. But it’s the hatred without reason, the woman who claims Obama is a Nazi to his gay Jew emissary, the appealing to fear and cliché rather than addressing real concerns with thoughtful argument that really get me worried.

“Racism” is a construct we use to differentiate “us” from “them”. It can be based along physical differences, even if genetically, those differences are virtually meaningless. It can be based on religious affiliation, even if such affiliation can cross ethnic lines. Who is to say then that the “Democrats” and “Republicans” in the USA are not racist divisions, with one side thinking itself superior to the other, denigrating the other, discriminating against the other, committing acts of hatred against the other?

Sure, political affiliation is (in theory) a lot less easy to change than religious or ethnic preferences (Cat Stevens and Michael Jackson did it), but people create prejudices like this for a reason, and sometimes that reason is noble. But once created, once that prejudice is unleashed, it is hard to convince others that it is just an opinion and not really a fact. It simmers away, it exists, it is out there. And it could come back into vogue again. Never forget.

Verdict: After my soap box preaching, let me just recommend Racism: A History. Definitely worth seeing, as it’s both enlightening and depressing. It doesn’t tend to leave one uplifted at the end, but it does make some things clearer and hopefully, and best of all, makes one question what we know. And there is no better sort of documentary than one that makes one think. 2.5 episodes out of 3.