Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Big Reading Plans for 2013

I have been thinking about what big old books I want to read in 2013, to fill in the embarrassing gaps in my reading of the classics. These are the ones I have come up with, which I propose to read in a yet-to-be-decided order:

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Apart from me, everyone in the world has read this. Even I have absorbed a lot of what this book contains from film adaptations (in particular, Andrea Arnold's fascinatingly grotty version from 2011), Kate Bush, and the ether generally. When I mentioned this book some time ago, I was struck by how many people I know hate it. Maybe when I read it I will hate it too, but I want to have enough knowledge of the book to feel that I am entitled to express an opinion on it myself.

Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. This is another one of those books I feel like I know a lot about without ever having read, though I did read the first couple of pages some years ago (and they are stunning - the only reason I did not continue was that some other book was making demands on me at the time).

The Collected Tales, by Nikolai Gogol. I like any Gogol I have come across, which may be why my beloved bought me this fine collection. In 2013 I hope to actually read it.

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. I feel that by this stage in my life I should have read more novels by Charles Dickens, so I hope to have got through this porker by the end of 2013.

Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope. Lots of people love Trollope. I have never read anything by him and am actually open to the possibility that he is priggish and boring rather than actually entertaining, but I would like to have read something by him on which to base an opinion. The appeal of Phineas Finn is its setting in the world of 19th century politics, which I think could be rather interesting.

The Iliad, by Homer. That's right, I have never read the Iliad, though I have read a re-telling of it for kids. I want to read this as part of a programme of reading epic poetry, starting with this and going on to the Odyssey and maybe continuing with the Aeneid (or maybe skipping that) before finishing up with Paradise Lost. My interest in the Iliad has partly been rekindled by my current taking of a class in ancient Greek, through which I have been able to read the first couple of lines in the language of the ancients. That has made me excited about reading all of the Iliad (in English, obviously), but has made me a bit wary of all the available translations.

So that is it. I know what you are thinking - "a whole year to read six books???". In my defence I can say a number of things. I am a slow reader, easily distracted away by other things. I also have any number of other demands on my time. And these are not all the books I plan to read in 2013 - as well as these I hope to keep up with SF book club, make progress on eliminating the Panda Mansions book mountain, and possibly even tackle some of the books that my friends in classic and modern book club are reading.

One other thing I am still undecided on is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. As you know, I have been reading War & Peace a chapter a day this year. We have found this a most enjoyable experience, with the grand scale of the book suiting the slow reading we have given it. Some of my friends are looking to chase the buzz next year, by reading another porker of a book over the same time scale. From a list of longest books ever, this 14th century Chinese novel looked like it has a similar kind of epic sweep to Tolstoy's masterpiece so my friends are opting to read it over the whole of 2013.

I have not fully committed to this myself yet, as it seems like a big commitment (Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a good bit longer than War and Peace) and I do not want to compromise my general reading. But the book does seem intriguing, giving an account of a vicious struggle for supremacy between the three warring states into which China was divided in the second and third centuries AD. It is fiction, but it is based on real events, and real events in a period I know little about, making it very tempting to a history lover like myself. It also seems like every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, which would suit reading it in a drawn out manner.

Or I may plough a lonely furrow and read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables a chapter a day next year. It has the advantage of having exactly 365 chapters (one reason we read War & Peace this year was that it has 366 chapters). However, one thing that proved very enjoyable with War & Peace was reading it with other people and trading comments on each chapter with them in our Facebook group. So I think if I was to read anything over the whole of 2013, it would be better to read something with other people. And I have learned through bitter experience that French novels are rubbish, so I suspect that in 2013 it will be Romance of the Three Kingdoms or nothing.

Some links:

A list of longest books ever

Facebook War and Peace readers group

Facebook group for people reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms in 2013

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Sunday, December 02, 2012

NaNoWriMo Fail

Alas, this year I have failed to complete NaNoWriMo, which means I have not written a 50,000 word novel in November. For the curious, I have posted the two first chapters of my failed attempt on the internet, where you can see them here and here.

This is the fourth time I have tried NaNoWriMo and the second time I have failed. Various things got in my way this year, but I was struck by a couple of similarities between my attempt this year and my last failed attempt in 2010. Like that, this is (partly) a first person narrative, while my two successful attempts were in the third person. I also had a more developed sense of where I wanted the two unsuccessful attempts to go before starting than with the NaNoWriMos I completed. The lesson here may be to either very heavily plot out what is going to happen beforehand (no fun) or else to have no plan on beginning and just go where the mood takes you.

You can read the first chapters of my two completed NaNoWriMo novels here:

Furry Folk (2008)

Organisation Man (2011)

And as a special treat for all true believers, here, for the first time anywhere, is the first chapter of my never completed 2010 NaNoWriMo attempt:

My German Friend

Reading that again I found it quite entertaining. Maybe one day I will bring that tale to a conclusion.

Disappointed Panda

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Monday, November 05, 2012

Belfast Cat Goes On Big Journey

When Northern Ireland man Gary O'Sullivan set off on a drive from Belfast to Derry, he heard some strange noises coming from his engine but assumed they were mechanical in origin. But when he eventually stopped to have a look, he found a perturbed feline. The cat had apparently climbed under the bonnet when it was parked in Belfast and then been unable to jump out once it started moving.

The cat's name is unknown, but he has a collar and is believed to be from the Four Winds area of Belfast, from which Mr O'Sullivan departed. The cat is being cared for at the Rainbow Rehoming Centre, where he is making a good recovery while efforts are made to find his original home.


Rainbow Rehoming Centre

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"Searching for Sugarman"

This is a documentary film about this guy Rodriguez, who released two folk-pop crossover albums that no one bought in the late 1960s and then sunk into obscurity. It is named after one of his songs, 'Sugarman', and follows the attempts of the filmmakers to track down what happened to this reclusive figure.

Or so you might think. The film is not actually about that at all. What it is actually about is how Rodriguez, largely unknown in his own country, somehow became massively popular in South Africa. This was during the apartheid-era. The music of Rodriguez struck some kind of nerve with left-wing white South Africans, with his songs acquiring enough counter-cultural cachet to act as a signifier of alienation with the status quo while being sufficiently vague lyrically to avoid state censorship (mostly - we did see copies of Rodriguez albums in the state broadcaster's archives, where one of the more risqué songs had been scratched over by the authorities to stop it ever being played on the radio).

Because South Africa was pretty isolated in that time, both geographically and increasingly culturally, it was a while before people in the country registered that Rodriguez was more or less unknown in his home country. This to them seemed strange, as in South Africa he outsold Elvis. Nature abhors a vacuum, so rumours began to go around about what had happened to him. One report said that he had killed himself, embittered by his lack of American success. Another said that he was so upset at the lack of respect shown to him by a talky audience that he shot himself onstage. Or maybe he had died of a drøg overdose. Or been abducted by aliens. Or whatever. For the South Africans, no story was too outlandish.

The film then starts to concern itself with some guys who tried to track down Rodriguez and find out the truth about what happened to him. One guy found a phone number of what he reckoned was Rodriguez's manager in the USA. But when he rang it, he received a non-committal response; when he rang again the number was disconnected. After that the trail ran cold.

Time moved on, apartheid fell, the march of progress meant that the World Wide Web reached South Africa and the country was no longer so isolated. One of the Rodriguez-hunters set up a website about his idol. And then out of the blue he received a phone-call from a woman who said that she was Rodriguez's daughter… and that Rodriguez was still alive! OMG! TEH EXCITEMENT!

The film does rather play on the fact that most people watching it will never have heard of Rodriguez, so the singer being still alive is presented as a shocking revelation. Obviously, to all mt hipster readers who already have all Rodriguez's records and have seen him live on numerous occasions this is not such a big deal, but imagine what it must have been like for the South Africans.

After that the film tells the story of what had happened to Rodriguez in the meantime, which was a pretty mundane tale of life after a failed attempt at the big time. He had remained in his home city of Detroit, working as a labourer, bringing up three daughters and involving himself in community causes. He seemed untroubled by the failure of his music career and fundamentally at ease with himself, for all that he came across as a bit shy (isn't everyone?).

The film goes all heart-warming when he is lured out to South Africa to play some shows, with the aging members of an Afrikaans punk band backing him. He seems to really enjoy being onstage again and the film ends telling us that he has played a number of big concerts out there. And that he mostly gave away the money he made from them.
I realise I have just done that boring film reviewer thing of just summarise the film, so now let me mention some random things I liked about it:

(1) The window into the world of left-liberal white South Africa. If you are my age, you will remember the Spitting Image song 'I've Never Met A Nice South African' (implicitly, 'I've Never Met A Nice White South African'), and it is nice to get a sense that not everyone who grew up during the apartheid-era was some kind of racist gobshite (as I already know from the one white South African I have met).

(2) Rodriguez's daughters. He himself is not much of a talker, so they do most of the speaking to camera. They are three of the most charming people you could ever hope to have speaking to camera in a film, with their stories of their father's social activism and love of art being quite affecting.

(3) Rodriguez's Detroit friends. Detroit has a reputation as a bit of a dump, but these guys were all really funny and likeable in a no-bullshit blue-collar kind of way. I am not quite sure why this appeals to me so much given that I am a white-collar guy who is arguably all about the bullshit, but still, if everyone in Detroit is like this then I want to go there.

(4) The succession of record company guys (South African and American) who get all shifty when asked about whether they had been sending on royalty payments to Rodriguez. One American record company boss, who was also one of the big people in Motown, flat out accuses the South African interviewer of racism for daring to ask about financial matters.

(5) The Afrikaans punk musicians. Their punk stuff was only on-screen for a couple of seconds, but it did sound quite intriguing. Surely this kind of thing is ripe for some reissue label to bring to a wider audience? I mean, if shitey Irish post punk can rise again then this kind of exotica would haul in the punters.

Rodriguez's own music was intriguing enough. I am not entirely sure whether it has a unique selling point that makes it more interesting than any of the other folk-rock crossover acts of his era. But I would not mind hearing more of it and am interested that he is playing live in Dublin in November.

I suppose his story is a bit reminiscent of some other rediscovered artists of the past - Vashti Bunyan, Terry Callier, Nick Garrie, and so on. It must be strange for these people to have a half-forgotten episode of their youth suddenly resurrected. For me it would be like if I discovered that my one foray into play-writing had somehow become hugely popular on the other side of the world, where I have somehow become a bigger contemporary playwright than Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter.

Just checked Google, just in case. I seem not to be famous anywhere, though another person with my name appears to be making a go of this playwriting business. Bah.

Searching for Pandaman

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Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Ek Tha Tiger"

This is the famous Bollywood film partially set in Dublin. The main character is an agent for RAW, the Indian secret service, whose codename is Tiger. He is played by Salman Khan; for some reason it seems that all Bollywood leading men have Khan as their surname. First off we see him in Iraq, hunting down an agent who has been lured into defection by the ISI, Pakistan's evil intelligence agency. Then, back in India, Tiger is given a new mission. A brilliant but eccentric Indian missile scientist has retired from the service of India's government and taken a job in the "famous Trinity College Dublin". RAW's fear is that the scientist is planning to pass the details of the anti-missile defence system he designed to Pakistan. Tiger's job is to simply monitor the scientist and find out if he is really up to no good. "Try not to kill anybody this time, Tiger", says RAW's director.

Once in Dublin Tiger tries to ingratiate himself with the scientist, but it proves difficult. So he takes the indirect route, trying to get in with the beautiful British-Indian woman who keeps house for the scientist, claiming as cover to be a writer planning a book about brilliant people (of whom, clearly, the scientist is one). Naturally he starts falling for the woman (cue huge song and dance number in the grounds of my old college).

It also becomes apparent that RAW are not the only people to have sent agents to Dublin. This last brings us to a chase scene through Dublin as Tiger pursues an ISI agent through Temple Bar and then has to climb on top of a LUAS to stop his man getting away. But as if that was not exciting enough, the first half of the film builds to an explosive climax and intermission cliffhanger, details of which I cannot reveal. After that, we bid farewell to Dublin - in true spy film style, the film then takes us on a journey to a number of other exotic locations, in this case Istanbul and Havana. As the latter is somewhere I have been to, it was interesting to compare its somewhat fanciful depiction with that of Dublin.

The climactic motorbike-plane-car chase makes for an astonishing piece of set-piece action, like Momma used to make.

So this is a very enjoyable film. Part of the fun is seeing a slick spy film in my town, being amused by the somewhat universe-next-door depiction of Dublin. I particularly liked the scene where Tiger and the scientist's housekeeper have breakfast on a Liffey boardwalk that has somehow been swept clear of homeless junkies. The suggestion that in Dublin you do not need to lock doors or bikes is one that I hope any tourists from India do not take onboard on their visits. But for all that, it is great fun seeing a well-scrubbed version of my own city appearing as an aspirational location in an international film.

Beyond that, however, I was struck by how the film managed to avoid the reactionary politics that have bedevilled some of the contemporary Bollywood films I have seen (see, for example, A Wednesday. I was expecting something where all the guys from RAW would be depicted as saintly and all the ISI operatives as malevolent thugs. But the film does not deliver on that. Instead, there is an almost John Le Carre like sense of the two rival agencies being mirrors of each other, their ongoing secret war more of a barrier to reconciliation by their countries than something that increases the security of either. It is not quite a cynical spy film in the Bourne mould - at no point does Tiger exclaim that his employers in RAW are all a shower of gobshites - but the film does seem to have a "can't we just get along?" message, with RAW and the ISI as victims of their own South Asian Cold War mindset.

Image source

Watch the Trinity song and dance routine here

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is it worthwhile being a clever tit?

Scientists have established that great tits are very clever birds - they seem to be adept at solving all kinds of puzzles in order to obtain tasty morsels of food. But one question that has perplexed the scientific community is whether their ability to solve problems is of any advantage to the little birds. After all, in the wild it is not particularly common for tasty morsels to be hidden inside a box that can only be opened by pulling on levers in an exact sequence. Could it be that all this great tit intelligence is just going to waste?

Dr John Quinn led a team that investigated this question while based in Oxford. They tested the ability of some great tits to solve problems and then tagged them with tiny radio transmitters and released them back into the wild. The scientists were then able to monitor the reproductive success or otherwise of the clever tits versus their less clever fellows.

The results were surprisingly inconclusive. Clever tits were more likely to produce a clutch of eggs, but they were also more likely to abandon their eggs. The scientists theorised that the clever birds were more likely to be frightened away from their nests than their more simple-minded fellows. The overall result was that there was no significant difference in reproductive success between more and less clever great tits.

But that is not the whole story, as there is more to success in life than an ability to spew forth progeny into the world (at least I hope so). The scientists found that the clever tits were able to spend far less of their time foraging for food and so were able to enjoy more leisure time than their less bright fellows.


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Monday, October 22, 2012

Dublin Butoh Festival Part 2: Short films and "The Speaking Body"

Part two of my visit to the Dublin Butoh festival. You can read part one here.

There followed an interval at which the organisers served us wine and bizarre Japanese sweets… strange green things made out of rice or green tea or something and brown things maybe dipped in cocoa with a hint of liquorice. I loved them. We then returned to the auditorium to watch more films. First up was Jesus Flower Death Life, a short piece on Kazuo Ohno. This seemed to have been filmed some time after An Offering to Heaven. In that one, Mr Ohno was 95 but clearly still lucid. In this his faculties seemed to have deserted him and in all the scenes in which he appeared he was unwakeably asleep, effectively dead to the world around him. The film began with a nurse undressing and cleaning him (all the while addressing him as "Sensei"). Then Japanese writing seemed to appear and flow over his body and arms, thanks I believe to the mystic power of CGI, with the words including the title of the film.

Then the film featured an odd Butoh performance by another guy (who turned out to be Kazuo Ohno's son), where he performed with a glove puppet of Kazuo Ohno to an audience that included a sleeping Kazuo Ohno. That performance ended with Kazuo Ohno being kissed by the puppet of himself, something that would have been very confusing had he chosen that moment to wake up. Then there was an extended shot of Mr Ohno sleeping in his chair… with one of his hands twisting in a manner suggesting that he was dreaming of Butoh.

The film as a whole did make me think how rare depictions of senility are in our culture, with senile famous people typically disappearing from view once their affliction stops them from being able to engage with the world around them. I suppose you could argue that having an unconscious man as an object in an art film was exploitative, but given how Kazuo Ohno had given his life to avant-garde artistic endeavour it struck me as the kind of thing he would approve of.

The other two films were Butoh-themed shorts submitted to the festival. Mal du Pays saw two guys in a room fading in and out while doing Butoh stuff as sand fell down between them. There Is There saw a woman in an outfit that looked like it was made of cotton wool roll around in something that looked like mud. Both of these were fascinating while I was watching them but left relatively little lasting impression. That sounds like damning with faint praise, not at all - watching them made for a great end to a wonderful evening and I would be happy to see such films again.

The next day my beloved and I made it to another event in the festival. This was an evening event entitled The Speaking Body, which comprised Poem of Phenomenon, a Butoh performance by Ken Mail, who is based in Finland.

We had to wait in the lobby before it started, which was a bit tiresome as the foyer was rather small and cramped. But it made sense when we went in, because Mr Mai was waiting for us in the part of the room designated as the stage. And he really was going for it in terms of the whole crazy Butoh-appearance thing, as he was wearing white make-up and had wild black hair and was in and oddly constricting tunic-like costume. The connotations might be different in Japan, but he looked very goth (80s art goth more than 2000s metal flouncey goth).

He did the very slow precise movement thing, eventually sliding out of his tunic thing, revealing that underneath it he was wearing white tights and a corset. Eventually he lost his corset too and his wiry musculature became a key part of the show.

There were a couple of differences between Ken Mai's performance and that of Ambra Bergamasco the night before. For one thing there was the more extreme clothing and make-up of Mr Mai. Another was that he was performing to an accompaniment of recorded music (electronic and strange) while Ms Bergamasco performed to ambient sound. And another was distance - the previous night had seen Ms Bergamasco come very close to the audience, almost on top of us at times, while Mr Mai remained much further away. The contrasts made me feel like a great range of Butoh experience was being served up over the two nights.

I think perhaps the combination of the music, the greater physical distance, the strange make-up, and the extreme lighting gave Ken Mai's performance an almost ritualistic atmosphere. His movement was so subtle that he seemed to imperceptibly travel from one space to another, reminding me of the Shrike from Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels. His revealing clothing (once the initial tunic had gone) exposed the workings of his body and made it plain how demanding and strenuous the whole exercise was. Overall this was an incredibly immersive and endlessly intriguing performance.

Poem of Phenomenon was followed by more wine and funny Japanese sweets. For me that was the end of the festival, though there were more workshops and film shows on the next day.

The festival organisers continue to run Butoh themed events, so if my review piques your interest then hava look at their website. Next April they are bringing over Iwashita Toru, a member of the Sankai Juku group, for another performance and workshop - I reckon that would be well worth attending. There appear also to be ongoing workshops with Ambra Bergamasco.

See also Ken Mai's website and blog, from whence come the images of him. I particularly recommend the blog to people who like photographs.

While preparing this, I learned that both Yukio Nakagawa and Kazuo Ohno have died since the films mentioned above in which they appeared. Farewell.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dublin Butoh Festival Part 1: "An Offering To Heaven" and "Vulnerably Raw"

I went to some performance in the first Dublin Butoh Festival recently. But what is Butoh? Well, it is a form of Japanese modern dance that was invented by this guy called Kazuo Ohno in the 1950s. Butoh is characterised by very slow and deliberate movements and seems to often be performed without musical accompaniment. In my very limited exposure to the form, the dancers sometimes are made up in a very striking fashion, though this seems not to be essential. I have the vague idea that originally Butoh was some kind of response to the destruction wreaked on Japan in the Second World War, but with the passage of time it has become a bit less situated in that particular historical epoch.

I myself am something of an expert on Butoh, having once some Japanese guys called Sankai Juku performing a Butoh piece called Hibiki in the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2007, reading the programme to obtain a background understanding of the form. On that occasion there were was no musical accompaniment as such, just the sound of running water, and the dancers were indeed dressed and made up in a strange and austere manner that complemented the minimalist movements they made. Sadly there were several event people in the audience who lost interest as soon as they realised how avant-garde it all was, and after shuffling in their seats a bit they made their way to the exits. The Butoh itself was fascinating. I had never seen anything like it before and I suspected that I would probably never see its like again either.

But then I received an e-mail saying that a Butoh Festival was about to take place in Dublin, with the events taking place in the Back Loft, an exhibition space in an industrial building converted into artists' studios. I resolved to attend.

The first thing I went to was a selection of short films and one live performance under the umbrella title Dancing Senses. First up was a film called An Offering To Heaven about Yukio Nakagawa, a non-conformist flower arranger from Japan. That immediately struck me with how Japan is different from here, in that I could not imagine Irish flower-arranging having its own radical avant-garde.

The film partly presented a profile of Mr Nakagawa and partly showed up as he worked up to a big event, collaboration with Kazuo Ohno. Mr Ohno was to perform in the open air while a helicopter flew overhead and dropped half a million flower petals down over him. While obviously such a thing largely works as a conceptual piece, it was interesting to watch the practicalities of it unfold. Where do you get that many flower petals? What happens if the weather does not play ball? And so on.

Another striking feature of the Ohno-Nakagawa collaboration was how old and infirm they both were. Nakagawa suffers from spinal problems since his childhood, but this was not too much of a problem for his artistic work. Mr Ohno, however, was 95 when the collaboration took place and was wheelchair bound. Undeterred, he just did his dancing while sitting in a chair.

That was followed by Vulnerably Raw, a dance piece by Ambra Bergamasco. For this, the audience were sat in armchairs. Ms Bergamasco came in from a door in a corner to the back left of the room and then moved very slowly in front of us. There was no musical or other sonic accompaniment apart from the ambient sounds of the room - creaking chairs and floorboards and the click of the shutter on the camera of the official photographer. In contrast to the Butoh piece I saw in 2007, the dancer's make-up and clothing was not particularly extreme - she was wearing an attractive dress and did not have any kind of austere make-up, with the one immediately odd feature of her appearance being that she was wearing just one stocking.

With art sometimes the viewer projects meaning and context where it might not have been intended by the artist. In this case, Ms Bergamasco's entrance through a door that closed behind her, her slow movement along to the front of the audience, and the shadow projected on the wall behind her put me in mind of one thing - Nosferatu, the German expressionist horror film directed by F. W. Murnau. That the dancer looked nothing like Nosferatu (unlike a great many other Butoh performers) made this a more bizarre juxtaposition.

The overall performance was slow and intense. Some of the actions suggested a meaning outside of the pure abstraction of the dance, but nothing directly obvious sprang to my mind, though some of it did seem to lean into a somewhat sexual area. And there was some audience participation - at one point she squatted on a pile of yellow melons, basically pretending to be a chicken, and then gave out the melon-eggs to members of the audience, including me. This reminded me of how avant-garde art can often be kind of funny but in a way that requires everyone to pretend not to notice this.

At the end of her piece the dancer was sitting in a pre-arranged circle of flowers more or less directly in front of me, so close for me that she almost stopped being a whole person and became a collection of individual body parts. And then the performance was over. From Ms Bergamasco's demeanour at the end it seemed that this had been a very emotionally draining for her. For me and I think also the rest of the audience it was a demanding but intensely rewarding piece of work.

See also:

Butoh Festival website

Sankai Juku's minimal website

Yukio Nakagawa website

Kazuo Ohno image source

Ambra Bergamasco image source

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

They Saw Me Coming - Things I Brought Back From Egypt

A jellabiya
A sunhat
Some post cards (unsent because I had forgotten my address book)
A copy of the English version of the Al Ahram newspaper
A scarf
A face flannel
A Concise History of Egypt (listing all the Pharaohs and other rulers)
Photos of Abu Simbel
A scarf
Photos of members of our tour group, including myself, dressed up for a "Jellabiya Party" on our Nile cruise boat
An American University of Cairo printing of The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany
An American University of Cairo printing of Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, by Naguib Mahfouz
A t-shirt from Animal Care in Egypt (ACE)
An ACE badge
A copy of The Black Corridor, by Michael Moorcock
A white short-sleeved shirt (made the very night before I bought it, hence the special price)
A CD entitled Music from Nubia
Ya Mesahharny, a CD by Oum Kalthoum
An Anubis fridge magnet
A Horus fridge magnet
A Scarab fridge magnet
Two Nubian bracelets
Two Nubian necklaces
An Eye of Horus fridge magnet
An Akhenaton bookmark
A paperback copy of David Roberts' A Journey in Egypt
A bust of some ancient Egyptian person
A Pyramids and Sphinx set
A Pyramids set
A Tutankhamen bust
An alabaster candleholder
Two glazed Scarabs
A Horus tote bag

Sunday, September 23, 2012


I think the official title of this film is actually DREDD 3D, which must be a bit annoying for anyone watching the 2-D version. The plot is simple enough. After a brief introduction of how the Judges are the only thing holding shit together in the dystopian future city of Mega City One, we see Judge Dredd bust some clueless perps, in a scene set up basically to establish how bad-ass he is. Then he is assigned a rookie Judge to take out on her first day of real judging - she is on probation, so if she fucks up she is out on her ear (assuming she is still alive after fucking up - Dredd helpfully informs the rookie that 30% (or something) of cadets do not survive their first day on the streets). Dredd is a bit annoyed to be dealing with the cadet, as she marginally failed her exams in the academy, but is being given a break by the more senior Judges on account of her amazing psychic powers - for this is a young Judge Anderson.

Dredd and Anderson respond to a routine call from a city block. A couple of guys have been skinned alive and then dropped a few hundred storeys down the interior atrium, no big deal. But in investigating they stumble onto something a bit bigger and soon find themselves trapped in the block while the sinister crime lady who runs it orders her numerous mook underlings to kill the intruders. At this point things start to resemble the popular British-Indonesian film The Raid, albeit with less martial arts.

So it goes. With films about things that have been a big part of your life, there is always the fear that they will somehow fuck it up. To reassure readers I can reveal the following:

1. Dredd does not take off his helmet.
2. There is no burgeoning romance between Dredd and Anderson.
3. Anderson is not presented as a sexy lady Judge but as a Judge who is a woman, if you see what I mean (the film does better than the comics in this respect).
4. Nor is Anderson a damsel-in-distress who keeps having to be rescued.
5. Dredd does not have a woman sidekick just so the film can climax with him fighting a male villain and Anderson cat-fighting a lady villain.

There are nevertheless some interesting points of difference with the comics (or with the comics as they were when I was reading them more than 20 years ago). For one thing, Dredd is more of a badass and the Judges seem a bit more straightforwardly terrifying. The Judges seem to have the power to administer capital punishment, whereas in my day life in the iso-cubes was the maximum penalty for any crime. Unlike in the comics, beating information out of suspects seems not to be a problem for cinematic Dredd.

The bizarre humour of the comics seemed a bit toned down as well. I remember how Mega City One was always presented as a pretty unpleasant place, but it was also a strange unpleasant place and not just somewhere that looked like an overgrown American inner city. In the comics you had things like Boing®, Otto Sump and the Uglies, Karl Heinz-Pilchards-In-Tomato-Soup-Clayderman, Walter the Wobot, and a general sense that while dystopian Mega City One was also a weird and oddly exciting place to be. There was not so much of that in the film, though I suppose Dredd's continuous reporting of bodies available for recycling was a bit like that. As is the beggar with the sign saying "Will debase self for credits". Or the shopping mall in which a loudspeaker announces that everything will be reopening in fifteen minutes (this after a perp has received some particularly extreme justice).

It occurs to me, though, that in some respects this is mirroring the way the stories developed in 2000 AD. In his first published appearance, there is also not so much of the strangeness, with the story instead being more of the tough-future-cop variety. That also features Dredd fighting his way up through a building controlled by criminals. So maybe just as the comics let things get strange over time, perhaps the filmmakers are planning to weird us out with the sequels. Or else they were avoiding one mistake of the 1990s Judge Dredd film, where almost too much elements from the comics were thrown into the mix (and then done wrong).

The pairing of Karl Urban as Dredd and Olivia Thirlby as Anderson works well. Urban is a great presence throughout a film in which we only see his chin. He just keeps going and there is no bullshit scene in which he suddenly shows a soft side and reveals that he only got into law enforcement because he was bullied at school. Anderson is played as a more human and humane character, someone who is a bit more ambivalent about the whole judging enterprise. Because she is able to see into people's minds and stuff, we get a variant of the Dr Evil grunt / "Best Man Fall" Invisibles episode, after she meets the next of kin of someone she has killed; maybe that kind of thing has become a bit of a cliché (has it?), but it does still pack a punch.

The bad guys are quite impressive too. Lena Headley is pretty terrifying as Ma-Ma, the spiritually dead criminal who runs the city block. She plays the character more like Tilda Swinton in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe than a scenery-chewing cackler. Wood Harris, as one of Ma-Ma's underlings who is captured early on by the Judges, has an air of creepy malevolence, particularly in the scenes where he is able to gross out Anderson by letting her read his thoughts. Real top marks must however go to Domhnall Gleeson as a confused hippy computer expert who works for Ma-Ma but is permanently in danger of being flayed by her.

Overall I would recommend this film to anyone with a fondness for the comics. Or to people generally who like well-made action films. Or to anyone who does not want to spend the rest of their life in an iso-cube. And music fans will be interested to hear that the soundtrack features a tune by Matt Berry.

Film poster

Get Ugly!

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Recently in Dublin

I'm waiting for the man
This symbol appeared on a nearby street corner. Maybe it means that if you wait there long enough a guy in a big straw hat will come along and sell you drøgs.

Anglophone Rights!
Someone has written over the Irish-language name of this street. Is the embattled Anglophone community finally starting to rise up against the Irish language establishment?

Notice threesome
Some public notices have been issued.

Cat Close-Up
Max the Prosperous Cat remains unconcerned.

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Adorable Dog Shoots Man

Rene, a French hunter, was out with his three Blue Gascony Basset Hounds when two of them ran off after a deer. The youngest stayed with Rene and decided that this would be great time to jump up on him for a cuddle. Unfortunately in so doing the dog pulled the trigger on a shotgun, blasting Rene's hand, which had to be amputated.

The philosophical hunter is refusing to blame the unnamed Basset Hound. "It wasn't the dog's fault," he said. "And he's adorable! I should have left the [gun's] safety on, that's all."


Friday, September 21, 2012

Sad Corgi News

You have probably heard already that Monty the Corgi has died. He was one of three Corgis who greeted Daniel Craig on his arrival in Buckingham Palace as James Bond to escort Queen Elizabeth to the opening ceremony of the Olympics. He was 13. Buckingham Palace has also announced the death of Cider, a Dorgi (Dachshund-Corgi) cross.

The Queen still has two Corgis, Willow and Holly, who both appeared in the Olympics short film. And she has two more Dorgis, Candy and Willow.

More on this sad story.

Pictures (check it out, if only for the picture of corgis climbing down the steps of a plane)

Even more Royal Corgi pictures

image source

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Scotland's adventurous voles

Water voles in the north-west of Scotland live in naturally fragmented habitats. The furry little animals live in small groups with a normal range of only a few hundred square metres, often separated from other groups by several kilometres. However, when young voles reach maturity, they often head off on big adventures, travelling many kilometres from their home territory. A search for love seems to be the driver of these vole journeys. This behaviour helps prevent inbreeding among voles and allows small vole groups to be rejuvenated by new arrivals.

Scientists researching the voles' behaviour think it may have relevance to other animals who have seen their habitats fragmented by human expansion.


Even more

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vladimir Putin helps bird migration

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is well-known for his fondness for animals. As well as his love of tigers and bears, he recently helped some young cranes who had been reintroduced into the wild. The cranes did not know where to fly to as part of their annual migration, but President Putin helped them by climbing into a motorised hang-glider and leading the birds there himself.

More on this important story.

Even more

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Legend Returns

Athletics fans were astonished by the recent return to long distance running of Alf Tupper, the famous "Tough of the Track". The Daily Mirror has been carrying the story of how the Ethiopian superstar Haile Gebre Selassie managed to coax him out retirement and back into competition, much to the surprise of spectators at the recent Great North Run.

Full details on this important story are available here.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Viva Riva"

I saw this ages ago but for some reason it has popped back into my head. It is a film set in the Democratic Republic of Congo (or Dr Congo as it likes to be called). It is about this guy Riva who is a gangster character, but one who likes to play by his own rules. He takes no lip from people in authority, whether they are gang bosses or the forces of the DRC's near non-existent state. This ultimately proves to be an unwise move on Riva's part.

This is basically a blaxploitation film, albeit one set in the DRC rather than an American inner city. Riva spends the film thinking he is Superfly, and in fairness he is a pretty stylish and suave fellow, oozing in charisma. But he turns out to be Freddy, someone in way over his head and lacking the smarts to play with the big boys. The plot sees him piss off two violent criminals. Before the film has even begun he has double-crossed a terrifying Angolan crime lord. This allows Riva to live the flash life in Kinshasa, but he seems not really to have much of a plan for what to do when the Angolan comes looking for him. And then, almost as though he reckons he has not got enough enemies, Riva starts trying to seduce Nora, the ladyfriend of a local gang-leader. In fact for the first part of the film we largely see Riva trying to hook up with Nora, while the film keeps cutting away to the Angolan and his men drawing ever closer to him.

Riva is basically a bit of a dick. When he is not pissing off people who could have him killed, he is luring an old friend away from a settled domestic life and back into a life of crime. Or he is hanging out in the most bizarre brothels I have ever seen (…represented in films, obviously). In contrast to Riva, his idiot friend, or the various terrifying gangsters he is up against, it is the women characters who seem far more appealing here. This is true whether we look at Nora, or the wife of Riva's old pal (who delivers a powerful embittered speech at Riva late in the film), or the army officer that the Angolan obliges to join the hunt.

The film has an almost Hamlet-esque body count, with very few of the main characters being still alive when the end credits roll. I am curious as to whether the makers expect us to think "Riva is cool!" or if we are meant to see him as a cocky moron who sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Either way, the film is enjoyable in a flashy way but I found the amorality and essential despicability of its protagonist a bit wearing.


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Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Eternity" #1

by Jeff Lemire, Cully Hamner and Derec Donovan

This is a one-shot from DC, a resurrection of their Kid Eternity character from some time back. I picked it up because I will try anything written by Jeff Lemire, the creator of the divine Sweet Tooth.

The setup here is that the protagonist, Christopher Freeman, was briefly clinically dead, and ever since then he has had an odd rapport with the departed - he can call up the ghosts of the recently slain and have them help him to work out how they died and who killed them (for plot device reasons the ghosts cannot remember the exact moment of their death so they just fill Freeman in on background). This story features Freeman trying to work out how a chubby guy managed to take a pistol shot to the chest in his own home without there being any obvious sign of a break-in or robbery. Although the issue is short, the pacing is well done and we follow Freeman in learning that the dead man is not a particularly likeable character, until the big reveal about how he came to be killed.

This is an impressive comic, well paced within the short space allotted to it, but throwing it a couple of hooks (and a "blimey" ending) that could be further developed if this were to become an ongoing title. The art is nice too, being somewhat reminiscent of the heavy outline cartoony style you get from people like Philip Bond, which serves to humanise the story and downplay any elements of gothic bollocks. Whether there are any further issues is something about which we will have to wait and see.


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Friday, September 14, 2012

Fleetwood Mac "Tusk"

And this is the famous album that Fleetwood Mac released after their mega-selling Rumours. I have been interested in getting this record for a very long time, ever since reading a piece by Simon Reynolds on it in that Unknown Pleasures book the Melody Maker gave away. That book saw people writing about records that, at the time, had somehow dropped outside the canon of albums that nostalgia magazines covered in every second issue. Back then Fleetwood Mac were lacking in cool and it was a bit of a surprise to see some hipster like Reynolds talking about what was casually dismissed as the band's bloated follow-up to the their all-conquering soft-rock triumph. I think that piece may have played a big part in the rehabilitation of Fleetwood Mac, but it still took me nearly 20 years to actually pick up a copy of the album.

So, what is it like? Well, what it is not like is Rumours. It feels a bit messier than that soft-rock classic (not that I am knocking Rumours, another of my favourite records). But it does not feel bloated and out of control either, unlike (say) the second Stone Roses album. It does have some totally killer tunes. One that stands out for me is 'Sisters of the Moon', a Stevie Nicks sung stormer, on which she does her best mystic lady thing. The other total classic is of course the title track, sung by Lindsay Buckingham and with the band joined by the marching band of the University of Southern California. Buckingham's vocals, almost whispered, sound disturbing and semi-psychotic, the mumbling of someone on the edge, with the raucous sounds of the marching band seeming to echo his fractured psyche, for all that he is down and they are up. But you probably know this already, if you have heard any song from Tusk it is almost certainly 'Tusk'.

None of the other songs on the album are as deranged as the title track, but the record's overall sound still is a bit edgy, managing to be both strung out while still sounding broadly reminiscent of smooth rock. It deserves its reputation as a classic. I am only sorry that the CD version has a cut-down version of the Stevie Nicks track 'Sara', on which Simon Reynolds based almost his entire article.

Tusky Pandas

That piece by Simon Reynolds

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Big Heat"

This is another of the Lighthouse's noir films. Directed by Fritz Lang, it tells the story of an honest cop who will not let go of a case and keeps pursuing it at terrible cost to his career and family. The film begins with the death of a policeman, an apparent suicide. But when a shady lady shows up and tells the investigating detective that the dead man must have been murdered, he is initially dismissive, until she shows up dead on the side of the road. After that he keeps pushing at the case, despite the opposition of his bosses, ultimately being sacked from the force when he accuses the commissioner of corruption.

The film is not a whodunit as such - at the same time as the cop pursues his investigations we see the criminals (a nasty bunch including a particularly thuggish character played by Lee Marvin) reacting to him and deciding on counter measures. There is still an element of mystery to proceedings - what exactly was the dead cop's relationship to the criminals and why are they now paying off his widow?

I think of noir films as often having morally compromised protagonists. In this one, the cop's only fault is almost an unyielding adherence to a moral code, no matter what the cost to himself or those around him. His pursuit of the case makes him an unwitting agent of death to those around him, but it does not stop him, he keeps going until he has broken the criminals. But it still feels like a morally grey world rather than one of simple good and evil. His corrupted police friends come good in the end, just about, and ladies of easy virtue provide the leads that keep the case moving, albeit at terrible personal cost. Even the people who do not help the hero are often described as acting out of fear rather than malice or venal self-interest.

One stylised element I liked in this was the way the city it was set in remained unnamed. That might have served other purposes (like preventing the good burghers of any city it was set in from complaining about their town being portrayed as run by the mob). But it had the effect of making the film feel like it was set in some kind of Everycity USA, giving the action a surreal and mythic quality.

As I left the cinema I overheard two women talking about how sexist the film had been. At one level I can see where they are coming from - if you are a woman character in this film then your prospects are not great. On the other hand, there seemed a real depth to the women characters. If you take the two shady ladies who help the cop, they both seem to have more going on than just being the kind of Stereotype Noir Shady Lady one associates with the genre. This seemed to make all the more reprehensible the endless re-use of thinly drawn, interchangeable women characters in the noir-influenced comics of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. And OK, so maybe in The Big Heat the action is driven by men, but you probably did not get so many women detectives or crime bosses in the 1950s.

After seeing Fritz Lang's silent crime drama Dr Mabuse - der Spieler in the IFI a while ago, I now think of Lang as the crime master. I hope some of Dublin's cinemas show more of his work in this area.

Incidentally, there are some nice, probably unintentional links from this film backwards and forwards to others. At one point when the cop is in a seedy nightclub, we hear a band playing the 'Blame it on Mame' song that Rita Hayworth sings in Gilda. And later, when one of the women characters is dying in the cop's arms, she says "I'm dying, Dave", in a voice that seems oddly similar to that of Hal in 2001. Coincidence?


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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Two albums by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Pink Floyd A Saucerful of Secrets

These are of course the first two albums by Pink Floyd. The first one is from when the band was led by Syd Barrett, while the second sees them trying to find a new direction without him. I have heard these both before, as I suspect have you.

It is some time since I last heard Piper at the Gates of Dawn. What struck me on now was how exciting the guitar playing is on the more obviously psychey of the songs - 'Astronomy Domine', 'Lucifer Sam', and 'Interstellar Overdrive'. I am more used to Barrett's two solo albums, on which he plays only acoustic guitar, so this electric Syd was a bit of a contrast. It is not that these famous songs were a surprise, it is more the particular cut of the guitar that I had forgotten.

I had also forgotten how good a track 'The Gnome' is. Largely because of its whimsical lyrics this is easily written-off as a piece of twee nonsense, but I think that is to under-rate the track. What really makes it is Barrett's vocal delivery. There is a faint undercurrent of creepy menace to him on this track that had me wondering if his descent into madness was already starting to manifest.

A Saucerful of Secrets feels like a more serious record. It is perhaps more experimental, but it is more focussed in its experimentation, largely lacking the whimsical noodling that you get away from the main tracks on Piper at the Gates of Dawn. 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' continues to have a threatening quality evoking some kind of brown acid experience, for all that the music remains on a tight rein. But maybe some of the other tracks are a bit thin? Sometimes I wonder if the title track is a bit too lacking in a coherent tune, something people take seriously because it is experimental rather than because it is actually that good. Tracks like 'Remember a Day', 'Corporal Clegg' and 'See-Saw' are inconsequential. And Syd Barrett's last appearance with the band on 'Jugband Blues' sounds almost like him playing up to his "Look at me, I am cray-zeee" (except that I think that kind of playing up to his image would have been beyond him).

Wait, what am I talking about? The title track is an amazing piece of dark psych experimentalism, 'Set the Controls…' is another classic, and the opening 'Let There Be More Light' rocks at you face. The tracks I dismissed above as inconsequential make for appealing bridges between the big tunes. I still think 'Jugband Blues' is not so great, however.

In the pages of Frank's APA my colleague Eoghan Barry was talking about how there is a continuity of sound between Barrett-era Floyd and what came later. Listening to these two again, there is definitely something to this. The second album sounds like it logically follows on from the first, even if it is in some ways more experimental. There is also a clear line of development from 'Interstellar Overdrive' on the first album to the likes of 'Echoes' on Meddle. I think, though, that the band continued to develop over their career, making the links harder to sustain over the longer term. You can link from Piper to Meddle, from Meddle to Wish You Were Here, and from there to The Wall (if you must), but if you take the extremes it is hard to see any continuity between Piper and The Wall.

Or maybe The Wall is just sui generis - given how much of it features loads of orchestral musicians and how little of it sounds like it was played by a rock band, maybe there is not actually much of a link from it to any of the previous Pink Floyd albums? Also, it is shite while many of them are good.

Nice pear (something of an oxymoron, given that pears are the very nadir of fruit)

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Yet More "Before Watchmen" Action

Nite Owl #2, by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Kubert and Joe Kubert
Ozymandias #2, by Len Wein and Jae Lee
Rorschach #1, by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
Dr. Manhattan #1, by J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes
Minutemen #3, by Darwyn Cooke

Just in case you like comics but have been living under a stone, these Before Watchmen comics are DC's cash-in prequels to the popular Watchmen comic of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. To many they are something of a travesty, as taking characters created by Moore and Gibbons and giving them to other people is seen as a terrible form of creative theft, for all that Alan Moore in particular has made a career out of appropriating characters created by other people.

I like to think I have approached these titles with a somewhat open mind, but for the most part they are not that great. As I was saying last time, my original plan had been to buy all the issue ones first and then decide which, if any, were worth sticking with. Unfortunately, some of the issue 2s started appearing before the issue 1s had all appeared, forcing me to prematurely go ahead with some of the titles. This has led to good and bad results.

I was ambivalent about issue 1 of Nite Owl, but decided to plump for the second issue. Now my feelings are less ambivalent. This is pretty much a pointless filling in of back-story that never needed to be filled in. I will not be bothering with issue 3.

Ozymandias #2, like #1, has really gorgeous art. Really lovely. I think this would be worth buying even if it was just a succession of pictures of Ozymandias reading a book. It strikes me, though, that there is a slight woman-in-refrigerator aspect to this one. In issue 1, Adrian Veidt's girlfriend died of a drøg overdose. Now he has decided to become Ozymandias and to join the freaks fighting crime while wearing funny clothes. I am not entirely convinced by this. First of all, I always had the suspicion from real Watchmen that Veidt batted for the other team, though nothing was ever stated overtly. Secondly, his motivation for fighting crime there is presented straightforwardly as being to apply his amazing intellect to the betterment of the world by throwing bad guys into jail. The "oh noes my girlfriend is dead, I know I will fight crime now" motivation seems a bit petty for such an Olympian figure.

Still, the story bops along and the art is nice. And the art is not just pretty, there is some clever stuff in it as well, like the two page spread where a fight in a drøg factory is rendered in silhouette. I'm not sure what the fetishistic cover (a gasmask wearing women in her underwear pulling on a string looped around Ozymandias' neck) is all about - nothing like that happens inside and if you bought the issue hoping for something a bit saucy you would be rather disappointed.

Rorschach is one of the most fascinating characters of real Watchmen. On the one hand he is a maniacal thug, on the other a maniacal thug with an unyielding and uncompromising sense of right and wrong, albeit one that allows him to kill anyone who gets in his way and torture randomers to extract information. And he is a character driven by his own past (one whose adult life is arguably a pathological response to that unfortunate past). He is a character with the potential to front a title on his own. Unfortunately, Rorschach #1 is not that great. The story sees him chasing down some drøg suppliers, while in the background some other maniac is murdering women (prostitutes, perhaps) and cutting messages into their skin. The main story is a bit ho-hum, while the woman-killing nutter stuff is a bit distasteful, the classic comics thing of showing that someone is BAD by having them commit violence against women.

And the Rorschach art is all a bit lurid. I do not mean by that it is explicit and grotesque in what it depicts, just that the combination of art and colour is a bit too in your face. I reckon the character would be more suited either to something that is almost completely black and white, creating a shadowy noir atmosphere, or else drawn and coloured so as to emphasis his grottiness. This art does not suit.

With story and art failing to impress me, I doubt I will be bothering with issue 2 of Rorschach. And that brings me to the first issue of Dr Manhattan. Again, Dr Manhattan is one of the signature characters of real Watchmen. The only one of the superheroes with actual superpowers, a large part of the book follows this godlike individual's alienation from and then reconciliation to the human race. Presenting him in his own comic presents a challenge - what do you do with him? In this one they largely seem to copy the great chapter 4 of real Watchmen, following him as he jumps backwards and forwards over his own life. It seems very inessential, largely giving us stuff we have already seen (or slight variants thereof).

The only real difference is giving the character a tendency to go on about quantum mechanics in a manner not seen in real Watchmen - all that Schrödinger's cat stuff. This seems like fluff until he jumps back over his life to before his creation as Dr Manhattan, when he was still Jon Osterman, a physicist working on Government science projects in the 1950s. He comes up to the moment of his creation as Dr Manhattan, when he is accidentally trapped inside a field and apparently destroyed by the removal of his intrinsic field - only now the quantum dice somehow roll differently and he sees his younger self walk out of the chamber before it closes on him.

So he has created, or witnessed the creation of, a divergent timeline from the one in which he lives. That is basically the end of the episode and I suppose it is a pretty big cliffhanger. Given that Watchmen is itself alternate history, we now have another alternate possibly being presented to us. It's funny, but I was going to say that this title was as inessential as the others already mentioned, but writing this has got me thinking that maybe there is a bit more to it, so maybe I will persevere and have a look at the second issue when that comes out.

And finally we have Minutemen #3. I have already said that this is the one definitely interesting Before Watchmen title, and this continues to be the case, thanks to Darwyn Cooke's retro visual sense and focus on characters left rather undeveloped in real Watchmen. See discussion of previous issues here and here.

Ozymandias cover

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Monday, September 10, 2012

"1395 Days Without Red"

I saw this in the Irish Museum of Modern Art rather than in a cinema, so maybe it does not count as a proper film. It was also shorter than a normal feature length piece. Before talking about the film itself, I will talk about an odd event related to it I attended. IMMA's home is the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, a nice venue but one a bit remote from anywhere. It is currently being refurbished, so IMMA has temporarily moved into the bit of the Earlsfort Terrace building that the Dublin Contemporary thing was in last year - former lecture theatres and offices for the engineering and medical faculties of University College Dublin.

As a Friend of IMMA I went along to the opening of their exhibitions in the Earlsfort Terrace venue and went along to a talk by some artists about work they were exhibiting. The talk was strange and fascinating, largely because they did not begin by directly stating what their artwork was, instead leaving it to the audience to infer this important information (or maybe everyone else had read the programme notes in advance). Anyway, it turned out that their work was indeed this oddly named film, 1395 Days Without Red.

The film has a split narrative. One strand shows some musicians who appear to be rehearsing a piece of music. The other shows a woman walking through a city. I kept thinking it would end with her joining the musicians and saying "sorry I'm late, the commute is a nightmare", but it did not, so the relationship between the two strands is unclear to me.

The woman walking through the city was the more interesting part of the two strands. At first she is walking along at a brisk pace. Then she comes to pedestrian crossing across a street where people are standing waiting to cross. There is no traffic, but the people are just standing there. Then one person jumps from their position and runs across the road. The others stand there and then another crosses in the same way. Finally the woman runs across the road and heads along her way. This kind of thing is repeated several times at subsequent junctions.

Now, if you had not read about the film in advance you might be wondering what is going on here. Rather than tell you I will describe a bit more. After a while we get a view up one of the streets the woman is crossing. There is no traffic on it but the road heads away off and in the distance we can see hills. But a little bit up the road large sheets of material are hung across it, obscuring the view along it.
Maybe at this point we have heard at least one noise that sounds rather like a gunshot.

As the woman's journey takes her on she seems increasingly nervous. She starts humming music to herself as though doing so will give her the strength to continue. The music is in fact the same as that which the musicians are rehearsing, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. She then has to cross a very open area and she is clearly bricking it as she does so, but she makes it across without incident.

So what is going on? Well, the film was filmed in Sarajevo and set during the 1395 day long siege of the city by Serbian extremists. The woman is making a routine trip across town, but one that involves having to cross streets visible to enemy snipers. I do not know why it is called 1395 Days Without Red - maybe people avoided red clothes to make themselves less conspicuous to the snipers.

It was interesting to imagine how different this film would be if it had been made by Hollywood. As is, we only hear a handful of gunshots in the film, we never see anyone shot, and no bullet lands near the woman. No one shoots at her and it may well be that no one is aiming at her either. In a Hollywood film, though, I bet you would see people being shot at every junction and the woman would be literally dodging bullets every time she crosses the road. Who knows which approach makes for better films? As is, this film was an interesting window into the humdrum reality of living in a war zone, but it was rather repetitive and lacking in narrative structure.

Poster (see also)


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Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Raincoats at ATP - a short further discussion

Do you remember when I wrote about the Jeff Mangum-curated All Tomorrow's Parties earlier this year? I dismissed the Raincoats in the executive summary, because I did not want to waste time going on about disappointing musical experiences. But some people have asked for further detail on this. As I am well known for my willingness to please, I provide here this brief expansion of my previous curt dismissal.

The problem with the Raincoats live was that they embraced big-time the shambolicity of their sound and came across like a bunch of talentless no-marks who had somehow found themselves playing a stage at a festival despite an inability to rehearse or play properly. It all reminded me a bit of legendary punk act (and rough Raincoats contemporaries) the Television Personalities, who delivered a similarly ramshackle and tune-free set at a previous All Tomorrow's Parties. With the Raincoats themselves, I am insufficiently familiar with their recorded work to know whether they were pissing on their legacy or actually representing it only too well. Other people present, or at least some some of them, did seem to enjoy their set, so maybe my views here are eccentric. Or maybe they were on an outing from a home for the cloth-eared.

I am now a bit wary of making any further explorations of the Raincoats' recorded output. People do recommend it, but I worry that it would turn out to be amateurish tuneless nonsense. But I still love their cover of 'Lola' enough to think that maybe I one day I will acquire more of their music.

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Saturday, September 08, 2012

"Fatima: the Blood Spinners" #2

I am playing catch up with my comics mountain. This is the second part of a four part series, written and drawn by Gilbert Hernandez. I had it lying around Panda Mansions so long that I forgot what episode one was about. Indeed, I have taken so long to read this that #3 came out a week or two back, so I though I really ought to read this and then decide whether to stick with the title or not.

This seems to be a comic about zombies (no wait, come back!). There is a drug of abuse called Spin going around which makes people briefly hyper-intelligent and full of zip, but after a day or two the drug users turn into zombies whose bite infects people and turns them into zombies. You would think that there would not be much of a market for this Spin, but no.

The eponymous character, a typically large-breasted Gilbert Hernandez creation, works for Operations, an organisation where everyone seems to walk around in tight-fitting leotards. The Operations people are trying to trying to stop the zombie menace and track Spin dealers. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the ultimate source of Spin is someone working for Operations, leading to all kinds of paranoid worrying. And Fatima is also secretly in love with Jody, an Operations science officer.

This is all bizarre fun. Hernandez's stylised art and the odd humour call to mind early 2000 AD. I will so be running off to the shops to see if I can find a copy of #3.

cover (and link to preview pages)

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Friday, September 07, 2012

v/a "Rebellion by the Letter"

CD SwapThis is an acrostic compilation for the ATP festival, except that instead of making an acrostic of his own name the compiler (one Rick Fame) has picked out tunes that spell out the rude message "Fuck the Rules". Well I never. There are a lot of great tunes on this, perhaps with a bit of a bias towards US tunes of the broadly hardcore variety (not that I would know). Or so it is for the first few tracks. But there is also an amazing track called 'Cheesecake truck' by King Missile, with lyrics about how the singer got a job delivering cheesecakes in a truck, only he then ate all the cheesecakes. Burr burr burr.

There is also a track called 'Gonna Rob The Spermbank' by The Ex, only I suspect that it is a different Ex to the one we know and love (and least I hope it is). I also like the secret bonus track (a cursory amount of research reveals to be 'National Shite Day' by Half Man Half Biscuit). Overall it is a rather enjoyable collection and I intend to listen to it some more times.

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Thursday, September 06, 2012


The Lighthouse Cinema are showing old noir films. This 1946 drama set in Buenos Aires sees shifty US gambler Johnny Farrell become right-hand man to mysterious casino boss Ballin Mundson. But then Mundson returns from a business trip with his new wife in tow - the sensuous Gilda (played by Rita Hayworth), who is clearly no stranger to Johnny.

In some ways this feels like an attempt to redo Casablanca, given the funny foreign location and much of the action taking place in the casino. It is not without its charms, but it definitely has problems. It is far too long for one thing, being nearly two hours when this kind of film should be far more snappy. And it has too much plot - aside from the obvious love-triangle stuff, there is this nonsense about how Mundson is somehow heading a global tungsten cartel with which he hopes to dominate the world. I think if that had been excised from the script and the fat generally cut from the plot this film would be one as good as the performances of its principals deserve.

Image source

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Matt Berry "Witchazel"

Matt Berry is primarily known as a comedian and comic actor. I know him from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, in which he play the alcoholic actor Todd Rivers (who in turn plays Dr Lucien Sanchez). I have developed an excessive fondness for the Todd Rivers character and have been fascinated by Witchazel since I first became aware of it. It was billed to me as Matt Berry goes folk, with it being not entirely clear whether it was a comedy record (like a Spinal Tap of British folk-pop) or was meant to be taken seriously. Berry has done comedy music before - one episode of Darkplace featured his song 'One Track Lover', a pastiche of moody '80s electronic music and one of the highlights of that programme.

I finally cracked and bought a copy and have been listening to it ever since. It feels to me like a record its maker wants taken seriously. The music (mostly created by Berry, who plays nearly all the instruments) does not sound like the pastiche of late 60s British folk-rock the cover might suggest. Instead it sounds a bit more contemporary, while clearly drawing on some kind of folky past. Thinking about it, I was reminded in a strange way of Cate Le Bon - not that it sounds like her directly, but it has the same kind of updated folk sensibility.

I have mostly gorged on the music without paying too much attention to the lyrics (I am not really a lyrics person). Where they have crossed my mind, they do not come across as being that ridiculous, certainly no more so than what you get in the world of the folkies, so I suspect they are meant to be taken seriously too. Though it is hard to tell, from following Berry on Twitter I get the impression his sense of humour is very deadpan.

Whatever his intentions, I am taking this record at face value. It is a collection of nice folk-influenced tunes well sung. I particularly like 'Take My Hand' and 'A Song for Rosie', but it's all good.

It does make me wonder, though - what is Matt Berry's motivation here? Making a record takes time and money (and this was recorded by him before any record company had decided to release it). There is no money in music anymore, so he was hardly expecting to be able to add more strings to his bow and rake in the cash from music as well as comedy. So it must be basically a hobby - some people write for amateur press associations, he writes songs and releases records. And he releases serious records that confuse people because even though he is a comedian they are not funny. What a strange life he must lead.

Witchazel cover

Dr Lucien Sanchez

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Hunters Moon 2012

If you are my friend on Facebook you will have seen me linking to stuff about the forthcoming Hunters Moon festival, on in Carrick on Shannon over the October Bank Holiday weekend. But if you are not my friend on Facebook you will not have seen me do that, and if you somehow get all your news about upcoming events from me then you will be unaware of this important event. So to rectify that I have made this post, pulling in the poster above from the Festival's website.

You can read about all the fun I had last year at Hunters Moon here. If you think the artists mentioned there sound exciting then this is your lucky day, because most of them are playing again this year. This is a good thing.

Festival website, from which tickets can be bought.

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"Killer Joe"

This film starts off with this guy Chris, who owes a lot of money to people who will kill him if he does not pay up. He discovers that his mother, from whom he is estranged, has a life assurance policy paying out to his sister. So he puts it to his father (divorced from his mother and now remarried) that it would be a great idea if the mother were to die in a tragic accident. Rather than arranging this themselves, they engage the services of Killer Joe, a cop who has a sideline career as a hitman. But they do not have enough money to pay Killer Joe, so Chris pimps out his sister to Joe to make up the difference. So Chris has Killer Joe on the job. Nothing can go wrong.

That all sounds pretty grim and I suppose it would have to be said that there is a lot in this film that is not an easy watch. You could possibly be a bit critical of it on vague right-on lines, as the main characters are mostly trailer trash fuckwits leading seedy lives, kind of like a rich person's caricature of what the poor are like. But it is still an enjoyable film, with an undercurrent of dark comedy that masks the nastiness of the basic setup.

The performances are very strong in this and play a large part in making the film work. Matthew McConaughey's Killer Joe is sinister and threatening, yet also oddly urbane and charming. Emile Hirsch plays Chris as a fuckwit loser who has got himself in a hole and is digging himself deeper, while Thomas Haden Church is impressive as his father, a man not over-burdened in the smarts department but who seems almost to have reached some kind of accommodation with his unsuccessful state in life, until the prospect of all that life assurance money is dangled in front of him.

The female characters are also well drawn, with Gina Gershon as Chris's stepmother being almost sympathetic for all her manipulation and false self-image as someone a bit cleverer than the idiots she is surrounded by. Juno Temple as Dottie, Chris' sister, conveys a strange and disturbing sense of simple-mindedness and murderous intent - for all her child-woman idiot-savant demeanour, she is the one of the family who is most into the killing of her mother as an end in itself rather than a route to money, largely because of an early memory of being strangled by her mother.

It strikes me that for all its trailer park redneck setting, there is an air of Southern Gothic to this film, with its dysfunctional family dynamics and creepy subtext to the relationship between Chris and Dottie. Looked at like that, Killer Joe seems almost like a supernatural agent of destruction, earned or unearned. The family members do seem to pay terrible prices for their moral failings, though I suppose it is largely accidental that this amoral killer is the agent of their doom.

The film is directed by William Friedkin, from a script by Tracy Letts (who wrote the original Killer Joe play back in 1991). Friedkin is famous as the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection but also has a reputation for a somewhat extreme approach to his actors. Some might say that the film does treat Juno Temple in a rather voyeuristic manner, for all that it gives her a character with considerable depth to play.

Anyway, I liked this film, though I appreciate that it is not for everyone and that some may find some of the scenes in it a bit on the intense side.

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image source and Daily Telegraph review.