Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Lure of the East

This was an exhibition of Orientalist art I saw with my beloved in the Tate Britain, during a recent trip to olde Londone towne. Not everyone is familiar with the concept of Orientalism, so some background is in order here. Basically, the term Orientalism emerged in the 19th century to refer the study of the Arab and Turkish lands on the eastern shore of the Mediterranaean, a region we would now call the Middle East. At the time, Orientalism was a value-neutral term.

More recently, though, the Orientalist mindset has been subjected to serious critique, most notably by Edward Said in his book Orientalism. I have not read Said's book, but my understanding is that he accused the Orientalists, and indeed the whole academic discipline of Orientalism, of being part of an imperialist programme based around the conquest and subjugation of the Middle East. Orientalist academics were not engaged in rational enquiry but in constructing stereotypes of inferiority, an endeavour they were aided in by artists who turned to Orientalist subjects. Said's arguments have found considerable purchase, and Orientalist has increasingly become a pejorative term. It is interesting that London's School of African and Oriental Studies is now much happier to go by the acronym SOAS, and if you have ever spent time among the pro-Palestinian left you will have witnessed Orientalist used as a debate killing insult akin to fascist or imperialist.

This exhibition in the Tate was of work by a number of 19th and early 20th century works which can broadly be lumped into an Orientalist paradigm. The artists are people who went out to Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, etc. and brought back exotic images to serve up to their domestic publics. Some of these pictures do very much fit the kind of Orientalist model that Said was talking about, presenting the East in a lurid manner seemingly designed to show off its strangeness and inferiority. The frequent depictions of harems also play to overactive metropolitan imaginations, with the male artists who produced them having to conjure up images of harems from their mind's eye, as it would never have been possible for them to visit the women's quarters of a Middle Eastern house. That the harem remained such a staple of Orientalist art, despite the artists' ignorance of what they were depicting, lends considerable support to Said's idea that the purpose of the art was to belittle and stereotype. Interestingly, the harem as a subject largely fell from favour when the first women artists visited the Levant and were able to enter a world hidden from European men. Their paintings depicted the harem as a world of almost dull domesticity, in contrast to the world of sexual exploitation or mindless drudgery the male artists depicted.

I did find, though, that I was not entirely convinced by the Said thesis. While some of this art was undoubtedly crudely stereotypical and sensational in its depiction of the East (witness a French artist's voyeuristic and seedily eroticised rendering of a slave market for naked women), a lot of the paintings did look like they were by people coming to terms with somewhere very different to the land they were used to. If you have ever been to the Middle East today, you probably will have found a lot of it most unusual, and the contrast between was probably even greater in the 19th century. And with some of the artists, notably Holman Hunt, it isn't really fair to accuse him of making the Middle East look strange and unrealistic, as everything he paints has an air of not being quite of this world.

I did find myself wondering, therefore, if the whole Saidian Orientalist thesis is a bit overblown, with the 19th century Orientalists being to some extent just people who were grappling with a strange culture and trying to come to terms with it and interpret it for the people back home. Maybe some of them were tainted by imperialist ideas then current, but we are all products of out backgrounds to some extent.

I suppose maybe I should try reading Said's book, as I could be crudely stereotyping his ideas here. However, I am fearful of doing so, as it is apparently written in the kind of dense and semi-legible prose style beloved of a certain type of academic. But we will see.

Would you like to know more?

Orientalist Pandas

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Two books by Ryszard Kapuscinski

As you know, I turned 40 earlier this year. A lot of people bought me books as a birthday present, probably having me down as some kind of reader. By an interesting coincidence, two people got me books by Ryszard Kapuscinski*. If you don't know who he is, he is this Polish journalist and travel writer who died recently and seems to have climbed to an interestingly high posthumous level of fame. Anyway, I have managed to read both ot the books I was given, so I will now talk about them.

The first is called The Emperor, and is about the overthrow of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selaise by the Derg. The book is a highly atmospheric portrait of the emperor's court and its slow walk to extinction, based on interviews with surviving members of the emperor's entourage, people now living in hiding and fearful of their lives. It evokes nothing so much as Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast in its depiction of a world of pointless ritual, except of course that Peake was describing and imaginary world whose rites and ceremonies served to maintain it in an everlasting stasis. With Haile Selaise's Ethiopia, you are left with the conclusion that it was the regime's inability to adapt that doomed it to oblivion.

I am not sure, though, to what extent this book can be relied on as an accurate portrait of the Ethiopian empire's decline and fall. One thing I have picked up is that Kapuscinski took a fast and loose approach to the facts whenever they got in the way of a good impressionistic story, so I would be wary of taking this a factually accurate account of Haile Selaise's overthrow. Still, it does ring true and has a fascinating sense of the dynamic of regime change. The introduction (by Neal Ascherson) talks of how in writing about Ethiopia, Kapuscinski was implicitly talking of his own country, as the then still extant (in 1978, when the book first appeared) but moribund Communist regime sank into terminal decline. Certainly, the fall of Communism in Poland does bear some comparison to the fall of Haile Selaise, as they were both worn down attritionally by rolling waves of dissent that the regimes were unable to quell. Or at least that is how Kapuscinski makes things appear.

[an aside: if you want to read more about Ethiopian history and the fall of Haile Selaise, check out my other blog. Or read a good book on the subject]

The other book is called Travels With Herodotus. This is a more rambling work, with elements of memoir, in which Kapuscinski relates the work of the ancient Greek writer to experiences in his own life. As you know, Herodotus is often claimed as the first historian. He wrote about some wars between the Persian empire and the cities of Greece, providing us with the classic accounts of the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, as well as numerous fascinating anecdotes whose provenance Herodotus himself is never entirely convinced by. Herodotus' work moves beyond purely narrative history, and it attempts to present the various cultures and practices of people around the then known world to its readers.

This is a bigger book than The Emperor, and it is a good bit less focussed, as it follows Kapuscinski as his career meanders around the world. The format is basically one of anecdotes from Kapuscinski's life interspersed with anecdotes from Herodotus and reflections on the Greek's work and personality. This kind of rambling works well enough. However, Kapusckinski's reflections on the ancient world often seemed a good bit more incisive than his thoughts on the modern. I was particularly struck by his somewhat facile characterising of the Algerian war of independence as just the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between East and West. Likewise, one or two of his comments elsewhere played to my pre-conceived idea that Kapuscinski never troubles to let the facts get away in the way of a good story; his characterisation of Nasser as a particularly devout Muslim seemed a bit O RLY-esque.

For all those caveats, this is a most fascinating book, and one that has got me interested in both going back to Herodotus and reading a bit more of Kapuscinski. That Kapuscinski was fascinated by what for me is one of the most striking yet less well known of Herodotus' stories (the terrible vengeance of Hermotimus on Panonius, the man who had made him a eunuch). Kapuscinski seems also to be very taken by Herodotus' depiction of both the extreme excitability of the Greeks (at one point the Athenians stone to death a man who advocates surrender to the Persians, and then for good measure they mete out the same treatment to his wife and children) and the terrible arbitrary power of the Persian emperor (cutting in half the sons of a man who asked that one of them might be allowed stay at home from the war, and then making the army march between the dismembered corpses). More books should contain this kind of crazy anecdote.

Traveling Panda

*there should be an accent on the S and N in Kapuscinski, but I don't know how to get my word processor to do them and in any case they probably would not display properly on the Internet.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamao Bay"

Dude! While I have seen Dude, Where's My Car?, I have not caught any of the previous Harold & Kumar films, but I reckoned I had the general idea down. This one features our heroes ending up imprisoned in Guantanamao Bay, after Kumar (the Indian one) is mistaken for a terrorist when smoking a bong on a flight to Amsterdam. Then they escape from Guantanamao Bay and are chased across the USA by a totally square member of the government. The film has a real made-up-as-it-goes-along feel to it, with a lot of the rambling plot suggesting the ingestion of herbal products during the screenwriting process ("Imagine if they got to meet George Bush, and he turned out to be a stoner!" "Dude!"). This maybe makes the film about too rambling to be total comic genius, and for all that there are many totally hilarious moments the whole thing is more chortlesome than roffletastic. Still, the whole thing is very enjoyable.

The whole politics of the film makes for fascinating viewing. For all that this is a comedy about two stoners and their madcap adventures, there is still a fundamental right-on-ness to it all that can lead to curious moments. I mean things like the scene where the badass guy from the government calls Kumar a member of Al-Qaeda (threatening to shit on the Koran for him, or something like that), and Kumar says "Dude, I'm not even Muslim! And even if I was, that wouldn't mean I was a terrorist". And then when Harold and Kumar are imprisoned in Guantanamao Bay, the other inmates they interact with are self-declared jihadists, but ones who get to articulate something that almost hints at a justification for their terrorists activities. Those interested in sexual politics and the construction of male sexuality will be intrigued by the film's depiction of Camp X-Ray as a place where the inmates are routinely subjected to sexual abuse by their guards, with one of the marines berating the inmates for being "faggots" for letting themselves be forced to fellate him, while he continues to see himself as 100% heterosexual. Fascinating.

One thing I was wrong about with this film was having the idea that both Harold & Kumar would be total slackass stoners. In fact Harold is a studious and organised person who maybe enjoys the occasional toke, while Kumar is a bit of a fuckwit who would be baked morning, noon, and night if he got his way. In this respect maybe the film is playing with stereotypes, by having the Korean Harold confirm to being the disciplined East Asian (eh, does this mean that, in the USA, South Asians are typically seen as a bunch of slackers?). The film keeps rolling with stereotyping throughout the film, often having its fun by showing how Harold and (especially) Kumar get riled by ethnic stereotyping but then are quite happy to stereotype others themselves. Ho ho. The film also opened a window into a world of US racial abuse that I found barely comprehensible… can anyone explain why the guy from the government was able to taunt or humiliate an African American guy by pouring a fizzy drink on the ground?

But feh, I fear that I am over analysing this. What I should really be saying about this film is that you should all load up on hashish and watch this film. Maybe we should all do this at the 150th AGM of Frank's APA. That would be freakin' awesome.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Honeydripper"

This is a John Sayles directed film. Like other films he has made it, it has loads of characters and a certain political edge. This one is set down in America's deep south in the early 1950s, in a land untouched by troubling modern notions of racial equality or the importance of inter-ethnic association. For all that, it is part of the same world of ain't-the-South-swell films as Cookie's Fortune or Black Snake Moan. The action focuses on a rural bar-restaurant called The Honeydripper, owned by this African American guy (played by Danny Glover) and frequented by essentially no one, as everyone is busily going to the locality's other bar because it has a jukebox. But then a young fellow with a home-made electric guitar drifts into town – could it be that the blocks will slot into place such that he will be revealed as the solution to The Honeydripper's problems? (answer: yes).

One thing I have noticed with the John Sayles films I have seen is a certain affection for human beings and their foibles. This seems especially pronounced in this one, where even the corrupt racist sheriff does not seem quite as awful by the end of the film as he first appears. I was also struck by the way the guitar playing fellow seemed like a nice young lad, and I kind of suspected that he wouldn't be leaving behind three pregnant teenagers when he eventually skipped town. That said, this is not simply a feel-good chirpy film, as there is an edge to what happens in it. The sheriff is ultimately not quite as bad as initially implied, but he is still running a regime not that dissimilar to slavery, while some of the black men working in the fields are so ground down by whitey that they start turning on each other in a rather distasteful manner. The Honeydripper's proprietor is haunted (literally, as it turns out) by his own past, but the most straightforwardly sinister character is perhaps the preacher who is trying to save the proprietor's wife by taking him from her. Some of the scenes where the preacher does his stuff call to mind nothing so much as 'The Jezebel Spirit' from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

Sayles films are great for the characters, including the more minor ones. Aside from the ones already mentioned, particular favourites included the Danny Glover character's adoptive daughter, the two feuding field hands, and the jazz singer's husband. The best, though, is the sporty lady who seemed to have wondered in from Carry On Brer Rabbit, with dialogue consisting of an endless sequence of double (and single) entendres.

There is a lot of music in the film, a definite part of its appeal. It is set in a time when proto rock 'n' roll is supplanting jazz and the blues as the music of Black America, but a time when whitey had not taken over this music. It is also a time of technological change, with electric guitars and juke boxes being exciting new devices guaranteed to pull in the punters. One big difference with now, though, is how undeveloped the mediation of this musical scene is, with it being as easy as piss for any chancer with a guitar to pass himself of as the Guitar Sam that people have been hearing on the radio. The film nevertheless shuns musical clich├ęs… when the mysterious blind guitarist launches into 'Stagger Lee', the Danny Glover character stops him with a curt "I always hated that tune".

I'm not sure if I am expressing myself that well here, so let me finish by encouraging all readers to see this film without delay.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Caramel"

This is that Lebanese hairdresser film you might have heard about, the one where this woman wrote the script, directed the film, and played one of the leading characters. This is a pretty girlie film, but the title comes not from how girls love sweet stuff, but from how Lebanese hairdressers use hot caramel to depilate people. Ouch.

I probably would not have bothered with this film if it had not been set in Beirut, as I am too macho to normally go near films aimed at women. Having been on holidays once to Lebanon and knowing all about that country, however, I decided to check this out to see if it would feature any familiar locations. It does not, sadly, though it does all have a sense of vague familiarity.

One thing I had heard about the film was that it was being falsely advertised in some quarters as a roffletastic comedy, when in fact it is a good bit more serious than that. For the first bit of the film I was unconvinced by this analysis, as Caramel was serving up the roffles big time. However, as the film goes on it takes some of the things that it was previously playing for laughs (Sporty older lady who still likes to act like a young thing, neighbourhood crazy old lady, etc.) and suggests the kind of quiet despair that can lurk in the hearts of such people or those who care for them.

The plot, such as it is, follows four women who work in a hairdressing salon, somewhere in Beirut (probably east Beirut, as a priest shows up to bless it at one point). The women are not all co-religionists, but this does not matter as it is not that kind of film. They each have their little story – one of them is the aforementioned sporty older lady, one is about to get married (complications ensue from this), one is having an affair with a married man (who is also an arsehole), and one of the women is implicitly A LASERBEAM. There are a couple of other characters hovering around the fringes of the salon, one of which is a gormless but loveable motorcycle cop who has a bit of a thing for one of the hairdressers but is a bit too *shy* to do anything about it. Some of the characters' stories resolve, others do not. The End.

I suppose what makes this film appealing is firstly that the characters are pretty engaging. The setting in a strange foreign country is also fascinating. Beirut in many ways looks like any modern city, but the mores of the people there seem very different to our own. This is particularly noticeable in the whole world of sexual politics, where women and men engaging in sexual activity outside marriage is a really big deal. This applies to the Christian characters as much as to the Muslim ones; an involved scene of comedy of awfulness revolves around the (Christian) woman who is having an affair trying to book a room in a hotel for them to get it on in, with it seemingly being impossible for an unmarried couple to do this anywhere more reputable than somewhere like the E-Z Sleep Hotel*.

The lesbian subplot is also interesting, partly in terms of how oblique it is in the film and partly in terms of how it suggests lesbianism might work in the Arab world. No one in the film ever refers to lesbianism or women being attracted to women or anything like that, but unless you are a complete idiot it would be hard to mistake the meaningful glances between the least girlie hairdresser and one of her clients as anything other than Sapphic attraction. The relationship initially consists of nothing more than the hairdresser washing the client's (beautiful) hair while exchanging meaningful looks, though it is almost like the haircut the client receives at the film's end is a form of consummation. I wonder is that how far things go in inter-woman love in today's middle east? One thing you hear anecdotally about male homosexuality in the Arab world is how there are a surprisingly large number of homosexual acts taking place, even if there is not much awareness or approval of such a thing as a homosexual identity. Maybe things are like this for the ladies as well.

So that's it for Caramel, really. I recommend it if you like films with interesting people in them. One funny thing that happens at the end is the aforementioned haircut the implicitly lesbian hairdresser gives to her client – she transforms her amazingly beautiful long hair into what can only be described as a pretty manky mullet. Such is love.


*Not its real name; libel laws make me wary of naming what is famously Beirut's skankiest hotel, advertised in guidebooks as "not suitable for solo women travellers or people of a sensitive disposition". I don't know if the hotel in the film is actually the same one, but it had a distinctly "Don't believe the rumours!" quality.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Comics Roundup 13/7/2008

100 Bullets #93, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

As previously noted, I've largely lost track of who the characters are in this and how the overall story relates to what goes on in any given episode, but the art and narrative style of this title is always engaging. This issue cuts between an assassin as he moves in on his target and the largely futile efforts of the target's bodyguards to protect her. I don't know why people get jobs as bodyguards, maybe they pay good pensions to your next of kin. But yeah, plenty of thrill power.

Captain America: White #0, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

These two have done a lot of interesting comics, combining an elegant art style with a certain nostalgia for the superhero comics of the past. For Marvel they have done similar titles to this one for other characters, looking back at the character's early days and seeing what makes them tick. These have only been so good, being a bit too contemplative and not enough about punching out bad guys or having a cracking storyline. The same cannot be said for the DC work they have done, with their Batman: The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory being enjoyable narratives set in the early days of the caped crusader's career. This title then is another look back at a character's early days, in this case Captain America. As you know, America's super soldier was the product of an experimental dosing of a seven stone weakling with a new super serum. Together with his plucky sidekick Bucky, the Captain took on the Third Reich and played a major part in America's victory. This particular episode has the two of them goofing around during training, with combat still ahead of them. It seems to be a taster of the limited series proper. Only time will tell whether this proves to have plenty of thrill power or instead is another "WHY DID YOU HAVE TO DIE, BUCKY??? WHYYYY????" emo-fest.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Comics Roundup

I've not done a comics round up for the last couple of weeks, because i) there have been no comics in the shops worth buying and ii) my home internet has been down, so I haven't been able to tell you that there are no comics in the shops worth buying. I have not actually been leading a comics free life, picking up another Love & Rockets compilation and the big Rian Hughes collection that has the Grant Morrison scripted Dan Dare story in it. These are, however, books, so they will not be covered in my comics roundups.

I did pick up two things last week, and now I will talk quickly about them. But before I do that, a plea to readers – surely there are more comics out there coming out in issue form that I should be reading? Maybe you could recommend them to me, either in comments here, or on your own blog (but you should then leave a comment to pimp your own blog first, so that I make sure to read it).

Batman #678, by Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel, and Sandu Florea

This is part of some Batman RIP event thing DC are doing. Maybe at the end of it, Batman will die for a bit, and they will have fun portraying a world without a Batman, but then after a while he will turn out not to be dead or will be resurrected in some way or something, like they did with Superman a couple of years ago. I really hope they do not actually go through the charade of ending this with Batman a corpse, as no one is really going to take seriously the idea that he is gone for good.

But anyway, in this issue Grant Morrison seems to be really going for it in terms of presenting us with a crazy stream of consciousness impressionistic non-narrative that echoes something like Michael Moorcock's An English Assassin. I think maybe the idea here is that Batman, having had the shite knocked out of him last issue (or something, I can't really remember) is now hallucinating or having weirdo visions as he dies or lies comatose. So yeah, deadly stuff, but maybe this Grant Morrison run writing Batman will be better appreciated when collected in book form (unlike his X-Men, which was a total blast in issues).

Last Bus #1, by Patrick Lynch

I have always worked on the basis that Irish comics are rubbish. This rule of thumb has served me well over the years, but maybe now I will have to review it. This comic is one of those "slice of life" things set on the last 230 bus over a couple of nights. A number of characters are introduced and developed, but only in so far as their lives relate to the bus. It's nicely drawn and well observed, and I recommend this unreservedly.

I'm trying to work out where the 230 goes… the number sounds familiar, so I bet it is a bus that sails past one of the many bus stops I sometimes find myself waiting at. Ah well, I bet its terminus is somewhere really nice.

image source

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"No Prizes For Guessing Who Filched A Bite From Daisy's Pie"

Over on Freaky Trigger, Tom helpfully explains what we mean when we say that something was a bit "It Was Donald". You will have to read about the Brotherhood of Man first.

I wish I knew someone with an extensive collection of Donald & Mickey comics from the 1970s in which the original image could be found.

And I must credit Marc Gascoigne for assistance in formulating the It Was Donald concept (as in, it was largely his idea).

Monday, July 07, 2008

Lots of 7" singles

These were birthday presents. One of them was the single from Rockwell, the one about how he feels that people are always watching him. It is an enjoyable 80s pop record, but in retrospect it is even more obvious that Rockwell himself was a completely talentless waste of space who should have been kicked off his own record.

I appreciate that if this were to be a really informative post I would at least list all the other records, but I am a busy man.

Busy Panda

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Ornette Coleman "Free Jazz"


My old pal Gazelle Boy once said "I believe in freedom. Free speech, freedom of religion, even free love. But I draw the line at free jazz". So who knows what he would think of this record? I liked the boffiny explanations in the accompanying notes about what this free jazz business is all about, helpfully explaining that when the chaps started playing they had decided nothing about what they would do in advance and were just going to barrel ahead and see what happened (and release whatever they recorded, no matter if it was godawful crap?). I like what Mr Coleman and his friends have made – it is the kind of mad for it parpy parp jazz that is always glad for making you think of yourself as forward thinking and progressive. I am nevertheless glad that all music is not made like this.

Free Panda

Internet Hell

I have been suffering from Internet connectivity issues at home (Eircom turn off my access again? cheers guys), but now I am in Cafe Notto, mixing together free Internet and nom nom nom cake.