bears

nothings fun anymore

I don't really understand anything

A Bullshit Mayor
bears
tiredstars

In his essay/book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt suggests that one of the reasons that there is so much bullshit around today is because of democracy. Spreading power and responsibility around encourages, or even makes it necessary, for people to hold opinions on things they know little about.

I feel like that about the Mayoral elections in Bristol, that I know almost nothing about the candidates or the issues, and that casting a vote is pretending that I do. Charlie Brooker describes approaching current affairs if you haven't been paying attention as like tuning into episode 803 of the world's most complex soap opera. That applies just as much to local affairs as national or international ones.

Somehow local issues seem harder to decide on than national ones. Maybe it's because for all the managerialism of contemporary politics, there are still matters of principle on show at the national level. Or maybe it's just because I know more about national politics. Living in this city doesn't mean I know anything about what's going on.

The main issue in Bristol is transport, but I'm damned if I know the pros and cons of rapid transit vs buses vs increased rail services vs trams vs cars vs rocket packs vs cycle lanes. I'm still not entirely sure what "rapid transit" is - I think it's just buses with special dedicated "bus lanes". The only thing all that time playing sim city taught me is that subways are fantastic, but you've got to plan ahead and leave space for the stations.

Maybe if I'd been paying attention to local politics for, say, the last decade, I'd know who some of these people are and what they're like. Instead, my only conclusions about the candidates are:
- one of them looks like a very manly muppet (or a very muppety man)
- one of them makes me think of one of the toads from Bucky O'Hare
- the libdem really looks like a libdem.


(no subject)
bears
tiredstars
On the way to work I saw a dead blackbird. Pale brown, it was lying neatly on the pavement with its eyes closed. It looked like it had been flying along and just closed and gone down.
A metallic grey light came through the clouds.

Flotsam in the river forms convoys or gathers into archipelagos; yellow leaves, plastic, bottles.
The rain once again coats the ground with water.

I can understand one reason why people look for meaning in chance events. It means the world is helping to give significance to their life and build a story around them. Otherwise these are just unconnected and empty signs.

Quick Film Reviews #29
bears
tiredstars
I haven't done one of these for ages now.

In the Mood for Love
I hadn't noticed before how distinctive the pacing of In the Mood for Love is. The plot is driven by short, sometimes fast-paced sections of dialogue. These are then followed by long shots in which nothing much happens. Those beautifully composed, colour saturated, lingering, often slow-motion shots are what really convey the feelings and atmosphere of the film. Among the closeness and bustle of Hong Kong, the characters always visually remain apart and remain still.
Bechdel test: Pass

The Passion of Joan of Arc
I started watching this just to see what it was like, about the time I should have been going to bed, and ended up watching it all the way through. It's a great piece of early film-making in its acting, characterisation and direction. Most vivid is the amazingly mobile camerawork in the early scenes, roving along the lines of priests and judges (and exposing them one-by-one to our own judgement).
Bechdel test: Fail

Cathy Come Home
Aside from its historical significance, Cathy Come Home has some timeless archetypes and lessons. Standing out is the weakness of the characters who go about doing things they think are wrong as a job, and the vicious consequences of a punitive, moralising, top-down system. (The unintended but inevitable break-up of families reminds me of changes in the drug treatment regime in the 80s that forced patients to pick up medication in the afternoon - making it nearly impossible for them to hold a regular daytime job.)
Bechdel test: Pass

Welcome to the Dollhouse
Although it has the trappings of the familiar 'nerd comedy' genre (Napoleon Dynamite, etc.), Welcome to the Dollhouse is a much more difficult film. To start with, although billed as a comedy, and some people apparently finding it hilarious, it's not very funny. There's no 'coming of age', breakthrough or chink of light here. Instead we get more balanced (and often less sympathetic) characters and the message: school is horrible and things don't get much better until (at least) college. I'm not sure if that makes for a good film, though; it falls uneasily between stylised comedy and stark realism. I've no objection to gloomy films, but something didn't quite click with this one; after about fifteen minutes I found the film quite tedious, and only later did it pick up a bit.
Bechdel test: Pass

Kes
At one point in Kes, the main character has a fight with another boy in the school playground, on top of a pile of coal. Which I thought was symbolic of the north, until my mum said that they had a pile of coal in the playground (in north london) when she was at school.
Bechdel test: Fail

Wings of Desire
Maybe it's the quintessential German art-house film, with beautiful shots of angels moving about a Berlin library, musings on the battered history of the city, on the experience of life and opening up to it. If that all sounds very serious, it also has Peter Falk.
Bechdel test: Fail

The Bunny and the Bull
This Warp Productions film completely passed me by until Mark lent it to me. It's got a unique design aesthetic, with backgrounds for many scenes done with cut-outs, and other things like that. It's one of those films that toes a difficult line between comedy, non-realism and emotional progress. I didn't feel it managed it. The funniest part was probably Noel Fielding's turn as a would-be bullfighter, and that exaggerated performance seemed out of place. I'm not sure why, but I couldn't help comparing it (unfavourably) to Submarine. I think it was the main character's lack of self-awareness. In Submarine, though, he's only fifteen, rather than mid-twenties.
Bechdel test: Fail

Gomorrah
Probably a realistic portrayal of the Sicilian mafia, but I thought it packed in just too many characters and threads, so that by the time you'd got a handle of who was who and what they were doing it was all over. Makes the Comorrah seem a bit like a low-budget version of the gangs in The Wire.
Bechdel test: Fail

Paths of Glory
Kirk Douglas plays an all American French colonel during WW1 who defends his men against charges of cowardice after a disastrous attack. Not simply an anti-war film, it's just as much a fight against an institution and the cowardly, self-interested, cynical and blinkered people that it attracts and produces.
Bechdel test: Fail

A Mighty Wind
Eugene Levy has the best comedy eyes since Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. Manages to take a potentially problematic character and maintain his pathos while making him funny, all through the ability to vary the size of his eyes without altering the expression on the rest of his face.
Bechdel test: Fail (I think)
Tags:

(no subject)
bears
tiredstars
walking to work, I can't stop staring at the road, resurfaced overnight
in the rain the fresh layer of tarmac glistens
a wet black scab on the worn old road
healing over the hurt of the years of traffic
a new road for new cars and people
between the familiar fronts of cafés and shabby shops

Quick Film Reviews #28
bears
tiredstars
Restrepo
Lovefilm went on a bit of an Afghanistan binge and sent me Restrepo right after Armadillo. Restrepo was actually filmed some years before, but the tactics and attitudes seem just the same as Armadillo. The same massive use of firepower, the fruitless searches, wary villagers, and civil projects that go nowhere. Oh, and the sound of an A-10 firing its cannon is still a terrifying noise.
Bechdel Test: fail

Pretty in Pink
Amy and I spent some time arguing about the merits of the alternative ending to this film, and whether it's better for Andie to end up with adoring, faithful Duckie or with the nice, rich, pretty boy Blane. The former says that social walls can be broken down. But it does also suggest that whatever you do, the rich will end up winning. I like the latter ending, leaving Blane not getting what he wants, but learning a lesson with good grace. Then we realised that we were treating Andie as a prize rather than a character with agency, and that really she's better off with Blane as he's not as annoying.
Bechdel Test: pass, I think.

The 40 Year Old Virgin
As this genre of films goes, The 40 year old virgin probably represents a step forward. Let's focus on the negative though. To start with, it's not as funny as it should be. It's not bad, but I want more laughs. On the serious side of the film, a fundamental problem is the misdiagnosis of the main character's problem. It's not that he doesn't know how to socialise with women, he has no social life at all. It's not really the 40 year-old virgin, it's the 40 year-old nerd. Though the film might be comparatively progressive, women are still little more than the tool for his personal development. This is a film in which a woman is literally employed in order to be someone's girlfriend. The more I think about it, the more negative I become, which is probably unfair (not because you shouldn't think about films so much but because I don't think about most films so much).
Bechdel Test: I'm going to say "fail", unless you consider a brief shouted argument "talking to one another".
Tags:

Quick Film Reviews #27
bears
tiredstars
Still applying the Bechdel test to films: a pass is if they feature two female characters, with names, who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Animal Kingdom
Probably not what you'd expect from a film about an Australian crime family, Animal Kingdom consists mostly of the stomach-churning feeling you get when you're stuck in a bad situation. Beneath the familial camaraderie, the characters never listen to one another, follow advice, or really cooperate, they just head along their own disastrous paths.
Test: Fail

The Guard
More on the world of crime, but this time with philosophical villains, a wry, almost idiot-savant Irish cop and his fish-out-of-water serious American counterpart. Amy's two favourite parts of this film were: 1) the sex workers are portrayed as actual people not generic cut-outs; 2) at one point when the villains are talking in an aquarium a shark does a somersault in the background. She made me rewind that bit to watch it again.
Test: Fail

Citizen Kane
It's rentlessly excellent in its cinematography, but the thing that surprised me most about Citizen Kane is how pacey it is. I do wonder if some of its critics have a point when they suggest that the tremendous style conceals a lack of depth and emotion.
Test: Fail

Wild Geese
"One of the greatest action films of our time" says the case. Dull action sequences, uninteresting characters and a heavy dusting of racism are what it actually contains.
Test: Fail

Bridesmaids
I didn't really watch this film, but I listened to it while playing on a tablet. The only thing that struck me about this film was one point when the unemployed, failed small-businesswoman main character completely flips out about the ridiculous extravagance of her antagonist's wedding arrangements. And you're like "YES. The real issue here is class and conspicuous consumption." But the moment passes.
Test: Pass

Conan the Barbarian
I wouldn't say Conan is an especially good film, but it's a hell of a lot better than most Fantasy films. I was trying to work out why, and I think it's because it's not silly. There are a few slip-ups but on the whole the visual design is very good. Special effects are kept to a minimum, and when they start to overreach themselves, they're kept brief. Of course, most of the script is rubbish, as is Arnie's acting. Most of the serious talking is done by Max Von Sydow and James Earl Jones, so it can't go far wrong. It's also a film that remembers (like LotR) the importance to the genre of landscape.
Test: Fail

Armadillo
If you want to understand the war in Afghanistan, this is a pretty good start. It reminds me a lot of the series of videos by a Guardian photographer, showing British troops on long, unproductive patrols, dealing with locals they don't know how to persuade, and getting into firefights with unseen enemies. One of the most striking shots for me - more than anything in the climactic firefight - is a black & white drone camera view of some men getting ready to fire on the Danish positions, presumably entirely unaware they are being watched. Ten seconds later, an artillery shell lands in the centre of the shot and obliterates everything.
Test: Fail
Tags:

Quick Film Reviews #26
bears
tiredstars
Damn, it's been a long time since I wrote one of these. Not so quick after all.
I decided to run all these films through the Bechdel test, because I thought it would be fun (and maybe informative). The Bechdel is a very simple test of the presence of women in films. A film passes if features a conversation between two women, who have names, about something other than a man (or, to be absolutely clear, a boy).

In a Lonely Place
Sometimes you approach a 'classic' film with a little trepidation. Is it going to be too subtle, too stiff, something that connected with audiences at the time, or connects only with those who really appreciate the arts of cinema. Fortunately, In a Lonely Place isn't like that. It reminded me a bit of The Stranger, in that the main character often doesn't react the way society expects, either socially or emotionally. Unlike Camus' character, Bogart's is not lacking in feeling or compassion, and certainly not lacking in charm, and is undone by a violent temper the roots of which the film refuses to explain.
Test: Fail

Four Lions
If you want to keep in mind that not all terrorists are scheming masterminds, and in fact a lot are bumbling outcasts like the rest of us, Chris Morris can help. This film was actually a lot funnier than I expected, eg. the inspired use of Toploader's Dancing in the Moonlight, or the police snipers' argument about whether a wookie is a bear or not. The film's difficult climax is well-handled, with a mix of humour, pathos, and maybe a bit of insight (the farcical discussion of listening to your heart vs your head combines the three).
Test: Fail

Attack the Block
The great thing about this sort of monster film is that you can keep the same formula, change the terms and still come up with something good. I suppose that's the appeal of a 'genre film'. I particularly liked the attempt to warn people that falters when mobile phone credit runs out.
Test: Fail

A Prophet
What is it with the French and slashing throats? A Prophet is an entertaining gangster film, but one that loses its grit. The initial murder is brutal and exacts a psychological toll. By the end of the film, without a persuasive transition, the main character is shooting people in broad daylight without displaying any second thoughts.
Test: Fail

Loot
Based on a Joe Orton play, Loot mixes screwball comedy with satirising institutions and social attitudes. Some of it - mostly Richard Attenborough's police officer - is funny, but the satire seems to have lost its edge.
Test: Fail

Barry Lyndon
A Kubrick adaptation of a Thackeray novel. The story isn't perfect, but the cinematography is amazing. A lot of shots are basically stills, with the camera tracking slowly out from the characters to reveal their surroundings. I suspect Kubrick may have been thorough enough to base his compositions on paintings of the 18th century. The film has quite a lot of narration - often a sign of a clumsy adaptation - but in this case the film could almost work without the dialogue, or even without the narration.
Test: Fail

Your Friends and Neighbours
I had two big problems with this film. First, it's very hard to care about the characters and how their love lives work out. Second, the main secondary character is so blatantly diabolic, you wonder what he's doing in the film, if maybe he snuck in from American Psycho.
Test: Pass (barely)

Eraserhead
I suppose that if there's a "language of cinema"then some films are like cryptic crosswords, or nonsense poems. You have to trust that there's something worth the effort of deciphering, though, or enjoy the process.
Test: Fail

Gregory's Girl
Ahh, I remember my schooldays in Scotland in the 1980s. Gregory's Girl is a very likeable film. It's low key, well-observed, charming and funny, like a light-comedy film should be. Supposedly the budget was £500.
I like making Amy watch films with different British accents in, or I do until she demands we rewind because she missed some dialogue.
Test: Fail

A Touch of Zen
According to the director, this film is meant to demonstrate a part of the Zen philosophy, something that cannot be explained, only shown by analogy, or experienced. I don't think I got it. The first part is great, though, and the low-light cinematography is technically very impressive. The second part (which I think it where the Zen really comes in) loses the narrative thread somewhat, but since it involves martial-artist monks, you can't complain too much.
Test: Fail

Submarine
There's no shortage of 'awkward teenage boy meets girl' films (see above), but I think Submarine is more subtle than most. It also doesn't have the same nostalgia that many of these films inspire. The story is kicked off by an act of bullying that is never 'paid for', as you might expect. The protagonist's depressive father is a character who brings a weight to the scenes he is involved in. My favourite bit is the 'list of reasons to have sex with me'.
Test: Fail
Tags:

Books: The Gum Thief
bears
tiredstars
Continuing my attempts to write something about every book I read. Not as a "review" as such, but to encourage me to think a bit more about about them. It looks like I can read books faster than I can write about them, as I have a backlog.

I think Douglas Coupland is one of those zeitgeisty authors. I don't mean that in a bad way. More that he openly writes about "the modern condition". And by "the modern condition" maybe what I mean is "first world problems". I don't think I mean that in a bad way.

In case you haven't guessed, the Gum Thief is a story of people in America who feel trapped and unsatisfied with their lives. I read it on a rainy Sunday when not leaving the flat was a rational plan, rather than something to fight against, and there didn't seem to be anything else to do. When I started the book I thought "this is how I'm feeling".

I think the moral of The Gum Thief is that changing ourselves is very difficult, but through reaching out to others and trying to imaginatively live their lives, we can find connections and effect some kind of change. It made me think about the experience of imagining yourself in someone else's position, trying to feel what they're feeling and what choices they might make. I don't think I've thought about it much before. It's not something I'm very good at, or at least I don't do it instinctively. I'm bad enough at imaginatively inhabiting my own life, let alone someone else's. So I probably go through a book or film, or similar story, without really connecting with the characters the way other people might. I can't remember any examples of going "that was a particularly convincing character". Though maybe it's only critics, authors and literature students, who think about these things too much, who say that, as I can't remember anyone I know saying it.

My main problem with the book was that it alternates letters/notes between the characters with sections from a terrible book one of them is writing. It's amusing, but I don't want to spend too much time reading something that is deliberately terrible (and not deliberately terrible enough to be great). The whole book's fairly short though, and breezes along, so it's not a big problem.
Tags:

Disablist
bears
tiredstars
"This plan is so good it's retarded"

The other week there was a post on the f-word blog apologising for a previous post which had used "disablist" language. Disablist language is a fairly new concept to me, though the principle's familiar. It's language that implies that disabled people are worse than other people.

Part of it is using the words against people suffering from disabilities, but what I'm mainly concerned with here is their use as general pejoratives. The arguments are very similar to those around the use of "gay". The logic is simple: saying bad things are "gay" implies that people who are gay are bad.

In this instance the two offending words were "cretin" and "idiot".

Idiot is the most striking because it's such an everyday word. I'd bet that most people use it, and never think about any connection with mental disabilities. In fact, how many people even know these terms were used to describe mental disabilities? (I don't believe they're officially used any more.) I knew that when the IQ system was invented, the term "idiot" was used for someone with a very low IQ. Before that, it has associations with "village idiot", but I'd never really connected "idiot" with mentally disabled.

"Cretin" I had to look up to find out the relevant meaning, which is a particular kind of "dwarfed and deformed idiot". Of course, this meaning of the word might not have been forgotten by people suffering from this condition. Intriguingly, "cretin" actually comes out of "christian" and was used not to demean but to emphasise the shared humanity of these people.

There is an assumption that the different uses of words will always blur into one another. I'm not convinced this is the case. I'm reminded of studies showing that homophobia in schools has declined a great deal. At the same time, "gay" has become a wide-ranging and widely used insult. Which contrasts to when I was younger and "gay" was used less but more seriously and with the specific meaning of "you are sexually attracted to men and this is bad." It is entirely possible for words in English to change meaning to their opposite or even hold two opposite meanings. The words "bad" and "wicked" in some slang, for example.

Another problem is that we use these words to describe acts or people that are foolish, badly-considered, senseless. But isn't acting without sense the most basic definition of "crazy" or "mad"? This is not true of sexist or racist language.

What makes this extra difficult is that we don't distinguish well between acts we think are misguided and acts we think are bad. As well demonstrated by the word "wrong". So Saddam Hussein could be described as a "mad dictator" and it's not clear whether we think what he does is rationally inexplicable or morally unjustifiable. If I say George Osborne's economic policies are idiotic, that's probably going to be both an objective and a value judgement (they'll fail at his goal of making the economy grow but succeed at his goal of keeping the rich rich). Perhaps we think there is no distinction, and that all acts based on correct facts and logic are good; that is certainly often the case if we're talking about politics.

So (as usual) I'm uncertain on the whole subject. Rejecting this use of language, at least for terms like "idiot" and "crazy", seems to take a simplistic view of how language works and develops and to be dredging up connotations that people would otherwise forget about. On the other hand, the general principle is that the impact is judged by the group of people who suffer (or not) from it, and the objections seem overall a bit wishy-washy.

Books: The Fatal Eggs
bears
tiredstars
Do you want to read some early Soviet sci-fi? Of course you do.

A scientist's discovery of a ray that increases the growth and reproduction rate of animals leads to disaster when it is unwisely taken out of the laboratory in an attempt to feed the country. The Fatal Eggs is obviously a satirical metaphor for the experience of Russia, but I don't think I really appreciated it. Communism is something that should have been cautiously experimented with, but was seized upon by cruder and more urgent men? At least I can appreciate the detail of early revolutionary Russia, and science fiction from a time when scientists accidentally creating monsters was still a fairly fresh idea.
Tags:

?

Log in