Friday, 26 November 2010

Trash Cinema

Even trashy films can save themselves from being total schlock by sticking to their guns and playing out the way they're supposed to. I'd even go as far as arguing (perhaps unconvincingly) that narrative missteps in a trashy film are more serious than in more mainstream fare. A stupid plot development in a trashy film can instantly convert it into total trash, whereas a comparable blunder in a more conventional film merely consigns it to the misguided bin where it can be quickly forgotten. Basically, a narrative cock-up in trash film (which, by definition, contains no redeeming features) confirms that, yes, you really did waste your time with it.

And so it is with 2012, a film that, for a good while, luxuriated in the trashy apocalypse it created and looked for all the world like it was going play out the way it had been aiming from the start: a sentimental paean to family values. Instead, John Cusack's deadbeat dad, who was surely heading for a noble death in The Poseidon Adventure mould, is spared, only for his love rival, who's more than proved himself worthy of Cusack's screen-family's love, to bite it in the closing minutes. This is not how things should have ended (nor should they have been dragged out in a ridiculously lengthy screaming-children-in-watery-peril section). Up until this point, the film had me. It was trash but, damn-it, it was good trash. But the film-makers managed to stomp all over my goodwill in a volte-face that made no narrative sense. Fools.

In passing, there was a moment, not long before the film threw everything away, where it could even have aspired to greatness by wiping out the entire human race through making the humanitarian pleadings of one of the lead characters backfire spectacularly. It would have been completely plausible, a marvellously nihilistic headstone to Man's place in the uncaring cosmos, as well as beautifully illustrative of the maxim that "no good deed goes unpunished". But, again, the film-makers totally stuffed it up. Losers.

c.v. / Wordle / mash-up

Having gotten bored at work preparing a proposal, I was messing around over lunch and decided to fire my c.v. (part of said proposal) through Wordle just to see what happens ...


The proper version can also be found over here.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A night (in the A&E) to remember

Well, last night was rather more eventful than expected. What started out as a few drinks with an old friend (the huntin', shootin' and fishin' DP), wound up with me spending the small hours in the A&E unit at Southampton General.

What's still a surprise to me now is that things were going swimmingly up until to about 5 minutes before they went off the rails. We'd had a nice opener of a few drinks and a chat at the Platform, then followed up with a visit to a new-ish Indian restaurant in the city centre that came highly recommended by one of our party. As it turns out, the recommendation was spot-on, and the venue and food were great.

However, just as we were close to wrapping up (and I was reflecting that, again, we'd managed to over-order; if only slightly this time), what started as mild discomfort at having eaten a lot turned into uncomfortable warmth, then steadily elevating nausea and then the fading of my vision. The former two symptoms, while unpleasant, aren't exactly new to me, but having my vision appear to degrade into fuzzy static was a novel experience. At least, not one that I usually encounter while sitting down to eat. Anyway, perturbed by the nausea, I decided to make for the restaurant's bathrooms, only to not make it there.

Next I knew, I was on the floor in the corridor that led to the bathrooms. I also felt extremely, well, attenuated, not really entirely all there. To the extent that I couldn't initially make any connection between the preceding circumstances and "waking up" on the floor. Fortunately, my fellow diners spotted my crash-landing and before long got me sat upright on some sofa that the restaurant staff had kindly directed us to. Given the outward appearance, they'd have been well within their rights to assume I was just another liquored-up punter, but they were great. As were the rest of my party, DP and JTA, both of whom did a great job sorting me out.

Anyway, after a few moments deciding what to do, during which I was still feeling rather distant, an ambulance was called (along with C). Then, in what can't have been comfortable viewing for other patrons, I was trolleyed out to the street and into the waiting ambulance. As I was still rather faded at this point, but was otherwise showing nothing too serious, the paramedics decided that they'd take me up the General for a full service.

While the journey was a bit of a blur, by the time I arrived (some indeterminate period later) I was beginning to feel like a first-order approximation to normal. After a bit of NHS bureaucracy, I was wheeled into a bay and then hooked up to another set of machines (which, painfully enough, required the removal of one set of sticky electrodes only for them to be replaced by a near-identical second set). One friendly nurse and a preliminary check-up later, and it was time for a visit from The Doctor.

Lots of questions followed about my medical history, my family's medical history and the day's history. The upshot of which was that I was diagnosed (drum-roll) as being dehydrated - a combination of a light lunch, lots of diuretic drinks (tea, a couple of beers, a coke) and a late dinner apparently. The dehydration dropped my blood pressure, and when I ate my small intestine treacherously hijacked what little was left, to the great discomfiture of my brain. Given that it was one of the strangest experiences I've had, it was a bit disappointing that it was something as mundane as dehydration. That, and I expect no shortage of jokes about putting more water in my gin in the future. Anyway, as a result of all this I got my first taste of being on a drip for the better part of an hour. Meh.

Regarding my treatment at the hands of the NHS, again no complaints from me. The staff were uniformly great, both in care and communication, and gave me an impressive working over. If I can gripe at all, there did seem to be an issue about how the relay of healthcare professionals passed the "baton". I was there for about 3 and half hours, but because of the quite large gaps between staff visits, could probably have been out at least an hour earlier, which would have freed up the slot I was occupying if nothing else. However, having thankfully not been to the A&E very often, I can't say if this was just down to the range of other patients who were in last night. Actually, on that note, I've really not the slightest of slight grounds to complain - my problems paled into insignificance compared to those of my fellow guests of the A&E.

Anyway, today I've been "resting" at home, sorting out my busted glasses (my nose looks a sight) and drinking lots of water. Overall, it's been an interesting experience, but not one I intend to ever repeat again.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Political observations

Two hot topics this week appear to be the changes (= cuts) to university fees and benefits.

Regarding the former, we seem to be steadily edging towards a system not dissimilar to that in the US, at least in terms of fee magnitudes. Now, I don't know the system there well enough to pronounce confidently, but this doesn't seem like the right path to promote social mobility. Back in the day (= 1980s), the absence of fees, the availability of grants, and the rationing of a more limited number of university places based on aptitude, all seemed to promote (or, at least, not discourage) such mobility. The bright future of large student debts seems likely to result in a lack of this. Certainly, I think I, and my parents, might have thought twice about me becoming the first member of my family to go to university if the proposed changes were in place in 1989.

As an aside, in all of the discussion of fees, nothing is ever said about retreating somewhat in terms of the percentage of school-leavers who go onto university. I tend to think education is always a positive, and am reluctant to consider measures to restrict it, but the more limited availability of places in the past may have kept the system of invisible fees and mildly helpful grants financially viable. Or did it? Anyway, regardless of whether I'm right or wrong on this point, it seems decidedly odd that this sort of option is off the table.

Regarding the latter hot-potato-du-jour, welfare, coverage of the government's proposed simplification of the benefits system seems to have completely overlooked any historical context. The current "byzantine" system did not appear ex nihilo at its current level of complexity. It was created simple, but evolved into the "monster" it is now because of a whole series of individually sensible responses to situations where recipients fell between the cracks. The fanfare around the Tories plan to simplify the system seems to overlook the fact that, before long, gaps in provision are liable to become obvious and the creeping rise in complexity will begin anew. In the meantime, of course, people least able to accommodate this shiny new system are liable to come unstuck dealing with its one-size-fits-all orthodoxy.

Pruning the tips of the welfare tree, or even branches where necessary, seems a far more sensible approach than hacking it right back to the trunk then allowing it to gradually regrow as uncomfortable truths come back to roost. But, fed on a junk food diet full of exaggerated tales of benefit scroungers, the public seems happy, or at least resigned, to let the Tories get on with it regardless of the short- or long-term costs, financial or social.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The life, and death, of a nerd

Though it's not at the head of my backlog of books to "write-up" here (3 overdue and counting), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is easily the book I've enjoyed the most in quite a while. So, before I forget all about it, allow me to introduce the 2008 winner of the Pulitzer Prize by the Dominican émigré and MIT professor, Junot Díaz. A novel that, bizarrely for a work of literature, I even came across this trailer for.

Taking the form of a ramshackle multi-generational family saga, the novel is built up (surprisingly enough) around the short life of Oscar Wao, a ghetto nerd growing up in present day New Jersey. Shunned because of his steadily increasingly weight and his devotion to science fiction, fantasy and comics, Oscar is further pained by his predilection for repeatedly falling in love with girls who never share his feelings. A situation that doesn't change even when Oscar goes to college, ostensibly more fruitful dating grounds. There, faced with more crushing disappointments, Oscar attempts to take his own life, but bungles his suicide bid and returns home to his family. Then a trip to his mother's homeland, the Dominican Republic (DR), opens his eyes to beauty in the world, and introduces him to an older woman who, for once, finds him engaging. But just at this point of finally finding a glimmer of happiness, Oscar's idealistic romantic streak sets him on a collision course with more malevolent forces.

Narrated largely by Yunior, Oscar's college roommate, the book also prominently features his mother Beli and his beautiful sister Lola. Beli is an unwilling émigré from the Dominican Republic (DR) who fled after attracting the near-lethal attention of the murderous regime of Rafael Trujillo. As well as describing Beli's turbulent life, Yunior also fills in the bloody history of her family's earlier descent from the respectable middle classes of the DR, first to its slums, and then to their equivalents in the US. It is a story punctuated by violent events and possible encounters with the divine that Yunior ties together in a rambling, quasi-mystical exploration of fukú, the curse, and its diametric opposite, zafa.

What a joy to read. Though it's a rambling shambles of a novel with only the loosest of loose structures to it, Oscar Wao is told with such vitality and humour that it's difficult not to be won over by it. This is largely down to the voice of the majority narrator, Yunior, who lays out Oscar's tale in a brash, conversational spanglish that brilliantly stage-manages the (broadly) tragic events. His streetwise voice animates both Oscar's and Beli's dismal lives without over-egging the pathos, and does so in a way that even paints Oscar's late self-knowledge as something of a victory despite his untimely end. But, mostly, he's really just funny, particularly so when contrasting his own vibrant love-life with Oscar's desert-like equivalent. Even when the story takes a darker turn, Yunior's vivacious telling of it prevents things from becoming too maudlin.[1]

A particular joy for a nerd like me was the novel's frequent use of stories from science fiction, fantasy and comics to parallel Oscar et al.'s lives. Various events in the narrative, good and bad, are referenced to apposite ones from iconic classics like Middle Earth, Dune and Planet of the Apes. For instance, at one point in Beli's story we're told, role-playing game-style, that a beating she receives inflicts 167 hit points of damage to her (Trujillo, we are later told, receives a fatal 400 points of damage when assassinated). Her survival, and recovery, in the face of this beating is compared to Superman's, "who drained from an entire jungle the photonic energy he needed to survive Coldbringer", in The Dark Knight Returns. And the novel closes with a direct reference to Dr. Manhattan's closing words in Watchmen, "Nothing ever ends". As well as it being nice to have touchstones from one's own (dubious) cultural-upbringing referenced, it's done with real panache here, giving the narrator (for a nerd, anyway) an extra level of verisimilitude, as well as being very funny at times.

C and I had a discussion the other night about the occurrence of the Golden Mongoose as a plot device that intervenes twice to save both Beli and Oscar from death in a Dominican canefield. She, correctly, identified the introduction as of a bit of magical realism intruding into the tale. I kind-of saw it as allegorical, and made some ridiculous argument about it being a significant character from local folklore that was almost bound to appear to people in a seriously injured, and thus altered, state. I guess that I'm just too much of a staunch realist, especially with books that I like, and am quick to subconsciously invent a dubious rationalist explanation to subvert mystical experience whenever it appears. The novel's introduction of the curse, fukú, and its counterspell, zafa, which the narrator uses as a theme to describe the events in the story, is a little similar, but much more easily put down as a allegory.

Anyhow, notwithstanding my gushing praise above, the novel got something of a drubbing at C's book group, largely for the same reasons that made it a winner in my eyes. But even so, for me it's still easily the best novel I've read in quite a while. It's not going to make my top ten,[2] but it's a joyful read, in spite of its doomed hero.

[1] He's also something of a footnote fan, and uses these throughout his portions of the book to fill in tangential information, the history of the DR and general digressions on subjects that occur to him. When I first came across these early in the book I was sure that they'd totally annoy me, but they're used relatively sparingly, and they're often quite humourously tangential asides from Yunior.

[2] Which is already out of date after the tour-de-force that is The Poisonwood Bible.


And what's not to love ...

spiral arctic

This was just a bit of mucking about after I'd finished helping Bob work out how to do a polar plot of his ARIANE output.

I've never publicly declared my love for MATLAB here before, so coming clean about our 16-year affair is long overdue.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Humane cinema

Two great, and humane, films to report from this weekend.

The first, Departures, was the Japanese winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009. It tells the story of a cello player who, after losing his job in a Toyko orchestra, returns with his wife to his home town where he unwittingly takes a job as an undertaker. His particular three-person company specialises in highly ritualised ceremonies in which the family of the deceased are present while the, well, "undertaking" is respectfully and gracefully performed. Even so, this job brands him almost as an untouchable, even to his wife, but the narrative quietly dignifies his role, and shows how it eases the emotional suffering and pain of those left behind. It's not an entirely perfect film, and has something of a contrived loop that draws in the cellist's own family, but it's an enjoyable and satisfyingly humane piece.

The second, The Kids Are All Right, is in many ways quite a conventional family drama, but stands out both in being centred around lesbian parents and, more significantly, by not making a big deal of this. Narratively the film works really well, and has more than a few great laughs in it, but I, woolly liberal that I am, really took to its normalisation of the central relationship. Although there's no reason that this shouldn't feel right, social history suggests otherwise, so one part of the film's success for me is just making a non-traditional family credible and loving. That almost seems like a "so what?" point in this day and age, but I can't think of any other films that do the same (though that might just be me being cosseted). Anyhow, highly recommended. (Oh, and it got extra brownie points from me by finishing in my old LA workplace, Oxy.)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Fifteen in Fifteen

Prompted by Dave, the biggest music-lover I know, I cobbled together my fifteen most memorable albums in fifteen minutes for a facebook challenge he sent around. Rather than let it disappear under the ever-rising tide of facebook posts, I thought I'd reproduce it here. In part so that I can check up from time to time on whether I'd still concur with it. Anyway, it's organised here chronologically to avoid an agonising bubble sort that would take me far outside the required fifteen minute time-frame.
  • Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles, 1967
  • Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973
  • Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, 1984
  • Graceland, Paul Simon, 1986
  • Life's Rich Pageant, R.E.M., 1986
  • The Raw and the Cooked, Fine Young Cannibals, 1989
  • The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses, 1989
  • Into the Great Wide Open, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1991
  • 99.9F°, Suzanne Vega, 1992
  • Welcome to Wherever You Are, INXS, 1992
  • Parklife, Blur, 1994
  • Different Class, Pulp, 1995
  • Disgraceful, Dubstar, 1995
  • The Boy with the Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian, 1998
  • Bachelor No. 2, Aimee Mann, 2000
Major omissions are Talking Heads and David Bowie, both of whom, hand on heart, I couldn't really pick out a favourite (non-compilation) album for. They both may have written some of my favourite songs, but consistency over the length of an album isn't one of their strengths.

Fifteen in Fifteen

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Creationist closure

Back in August I uncharacteristically got off my fat arse and sent my MP a letter regarding the creation of so-called "free schools" by the ConDem coalition. While I can certainly imagine advantages in letting schools direct their own curricula, I can equally see how such freedom could be misused to allow creationism access to the classroom.

Anyhow, I was pleasantly surprised at the time when my MP (well, actually his private secretary) got back to me almost immediately, thanking me for making my concerns clear and promising to take these up with the appropriate government minister. The reply I received went on to say that I'd be kept abreast of any subsequent response.

Flashforward to today, and said promised reply has arrived. Both the relevant minister and my MP have affirmed that "creationism has no place in the teaching of science", and that "[c]reationism has no scientific backing and therefore cannot form part of the science National Curriculum". The letter I received was accompanied by a photocopy of the minister's response to my original letter, so I've got the full reply as well as the distilled version from my MP. I was also amused to find my name redacted from the minister's response - presumably in case the letter passed into enemy hands, or something.

Anyhow, as I also remarked last time, I'm impressed with the response I've had to my original "seething-from-Southampton" e-mail. Both with the actual handling of it (I half-expected my e-mail to disappear into a black hole), and in the apparent seriousness in which both my MP and the minister seemed to have taken it. It certainly gives one a little more confidence in the machinations of government. At least in terms of its ability to reply in platitudes to constituents.

Of course, I say the above because I got the response I hoped for. I wonder what sort of response I'd have got, and what sort of treatment, if I'd played the crazy card and requested that creationism is taught in our schools? Not a controlled experiment I intend to try out, but it'd be interesting how a reply to that sort of request would be finessed.