Friday, July 23, 2010


It’s an unfashionable thing to say, but the world is a fairly predictable place most of the time. In similar situations, similar things happen. There’s only so many ways people will behave. That said, there are times when that predictability takes own its own strange scope and mystery.

In April, or June, a plane went down in Poland, taking with it an extraordinary chunk of the country’s national leadership. The dignitaries, strangely enough, were on their way to a memorial service for the Katyn Massacre, in which almost 22,000 Polish politicians, doctors, lawyers and intelligensia were killed by the Soviet internal security services. I don’t have to spell the parallels out, do I? But the most extraordinary thing, the thing about Poland that always caused some part of my brain grind to an astonished halt, was that this was a country presided over by twins. One was current president, the other Poland’s previous prime minister. It was a mythic set-up made real, perhaps by Poland’s inimitable history.

The plane crash, which mirrored so perfectly the very memorial they were on their way to attend, felt like fate. This is not a word I like, but what others do we have? How do we talk about this kind of thing? It is the sort of news that leaves me feeling supersititious. It was as though, for an instant, some arcane universal machinery had creaked into action. Its purpose – to redress circumstances too ridiculous, or too extraordinary to be allowed to last. Only an event of equal absurdity could reset the balance.

Later, a completely unrelated thing happened in the mediterranean. Isreali security forces stormed a group of aid vessels attempting to defy the Gaza Blockade. Whereas the Polish aircrash has something of the ineffable about it, this event had a logical ugliness to it – nine people were killed in the latest piece of violence to erupt in an area proverbial for it.

I think my point is that two very different kinds of predictability were at work. One, the aircrash, has a sort of mythic fatalism about it. The other, Israel’s most recent piece of criminal activity, seemed simply inevitable. I found myself enjoying both guiltily – the former because it suggested the world may yet act in ways too strange to fully explain; the latter because it seems to push us ever closer to a watershed moment in the Middle East, when Israel’s claim to self-defense would finally fall flat.

I don’t know how to finish this, because the process is unfinished itself. I am waiting, I suppose, for something to happen. Something bigger that, once and for all, exposes things for what they are. Heidegger would talk about lanterns in the darkness, someone like Swedenborg would speak of veils moving briefly aside. I don't know.

I really don't.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wilkommen bei uns

Ladies and gentlemen, please redirect your attention to Professional Aesthete dot com


Monday, June 14, 2010

Gordon, my friend


I don't claim to know Gordon Brown personally. I've never been to his house. I've certainly never sat down and eaten a meal with the man. I don't know what Gordon Brown's hair smells like, or how he holds a fork. At no time was I on holiday with Gordon Brown, or his family. Neither of us were in Tuscany at the time ... or any other time.

I have never met Gordon Brown.

That said, I would be lying if I claimed not to know his ruff of hair, his ruddy, slightly slacken face. I have a vague grasp on his political pedigree: Gordon Brown, rough diamond, a kind of Obama for the Home Counties, beaming up the left wing. There was a lot of excitement around him, as there was Tony Blair. Though I never heard anyone call Blair a 'saviour'.

Gordon has goen now. I know we were supposed to trust his terrierish ruffle of hair, his calm face. The solid will. But I never could. That is my confession. At a distance, he seemed paper thin. A lost cause. Not so much insincere, as impossibly transparent. To me it was a miracle that he held himself together at all and did not explode under the compression of constant scrutiny.*

["the thing I am now imagining is like a human airship, inflated, aloft from the pressure of the atmosphere around it - a social Jupiter"]

I hope he's happier now.


*this is a defensive take on Borges's poem 'Music Box', in which 'shyness of melancholy ' is invoked as a successful containment of desperation at the arrival and passing of time.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Borges at night


Penguin is publishing five (!) new Borges books this year. While three promise great things at a later date, collecting classic and unpublished essays on Argentina, Writing and Mysticism, the first two are already out, collecting his sonnets and his poems about night and darkness. For Borges, growing up with the knowledge that, like his father, he would eventually go blind, darkness is both threatening and perversely comforting – eventually the day will become the night, and all things will end.

Harpers published "Sonnet for a tango in the twilight" here (subscribers only, unless your eyesight can overcome low-res thumbnails), but the publishers released another sonnet, "Music Box", as a teaser.
Music of Japan. Drops of slow honey

Or of invisible gold are dispersed

In a miserly way from a water clock,

And repeat in time a weaving that is

Eternal, fragile, mysterious, and clear.

I fear that each one may be the last.

It's a past coming back. From what temple,

From what fresh garden in the mountain,
From what vigil before an unknown sea,
From what shyness of melancholy,

From what lost and ransomed afternoon
Does its remote future come to me?
I cannot know. No matter. I am
In that music. I want to be. I bleed.
No such teasers are available for Poems of the Night, but the book's pitch informs me that the translators include W.S. Merwin, Alan Trueblood, Christopher Maurer, and my personal favourite, Alastair Reid. Both poetry books are dual-language, with parallel text – helpful if someone gives you "horrifying" for "atroz", and you just know that "atrocious" would scan better. Having different translators offers mixed blessings – the reader is exposed to a range of quality English-to-Spanish scholarship, but the potential to compare poems translated by a range of individuals is limited. Atroz.

I picked up on the theme of night and day – or specifically, dawn and twilight – in last year's thesis, though in favour of proving a point, I focussed primarily on his earlier poems. I'm very interested in the contents of Poems of the Night, but in the meantime, here's something of an extract from the thesis, examining the tension between night and day, as mediated by the streets of Buenos Aires. The image of Borges the flâneur, writing the streets he would soon no longer be able to see, percolates through the early poems, particularly those in the collection Fervor de Buenos Aires:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hair, over there

My daughter is one, and currently involved in an undergraduate psychology experiment run by the University of Otago's Psychology Department. Ignoring the implication of the department's location inside the gaping, embarrassingly puddle-ridden Commerce Building, we trundle up the 7th floor, where she sits in front of screens and is shown faces of various races. The experiment, I was told by a young, slightly orange-faced young woman whose perfume reminded me of a cheap bar, was designed to investigate the details children used to differentiate between people of different races. My daughter was good at distinguishing people of roughly Nordic heritage. She struggled a little with Pacific Islanders, and, to cement a cliche as old as rice paper itself, was utterly lost when confronted with a range of Asian and Middle-eastern faces. Thankfully, it only took a few visits to get considerably better at discerning less familiar face types. My brazenly Aryan daughter had redeemed herself.

It turns out that the pattern recognition systems employed by our brains kick in early, lurching about, searching for a reliable range of details to distinguish one person from another. European children go for hair, noses, mouths. Asian kids are much better at eyes. And so on. The process is generic - it's not as though Korean kids are hardwired to recognise eyes - they're hardwired to find something to define one face from another, and it turns out, eyes are the thing. Hair in Asia, broadly speaking, just isn't varied enough to cut the mustard identity-wise. As a result, Asians' distinctions, when based on hair, are made in fairly broad strokes. Which solves, for me, an enduring mystery.

Consider the following:

I have no idea what these guys won, or who won, or even who they are, but there's some pretty funked-out, ka-ni, architectural hair going on right there - as there often is when young Japanese guys appear in front of a camera.

And now we know why - conditioned from birth to largely ignore hair as a definitive personal characteristic, these guys have to try about 3 or 4 times harder than you or me, to make a mark with their 'do. They're pushing against a crushing weight of cognitive selection, just to be noticed. Hence, what seems like a touching homage to My Little Pony (viz, the dude to the right of the MC) is really a restrained and debonair quiff that practically pays for itself after only two-and-a-half hours in make-up, and enough hairspray to fossilize a small penguin colony.

Or am I just being crazy, and the guys on American Idol look just as frou-frou?

Friday, May 28, 2010


I grew up with a father ensconced, to varying degrees according to the whims of the Otago Law Society, in the legal profession. Lawyers, I take great pleasure in noting, charge not by the hour, but determinedly by the six-minute unit, meaning that a dozen short phone calls from a drunk fifteen-year-old in the police cells asking for advice over a 30-minute period could equal roughly an hour and a quarter of billable hours. (Few professions can bend time like this, or altogether deny its existence right up until the moment they sent the bill.)

Basketball, then, was a pretty sweet deal. Forty-eight minutes, no injury time, limited time-outs: it kept to the family schedule, didn't run over time (the 1993 NBA Finals Game Three was a notable and extremely tense exception), didn't ever finish before the final whistle, and legitimised baggy clothing with readily apparent logos and brands. Important, in 1993.

It's probably unfair to assume that it was solely a unit-driven upbringing that predisposed me to enjoy basketball – the spectatorship of which lives and dies based on a delightful formula whose end-product is a 24-second possession – and the appeal of that knock-off Chicago Bulls Starter singlet wore off pretty quickly. That formula, though. Try reverse-engineering the thing, imagining Commish David Stern's 1954 equivalent in your ear: "Fans want a hundred points per game from their team, and we've only got 48 minutes to give it to them. Twenty-five points in 360 seconds per team per quarter, divided by the average points per team possession (crunch the FG, FT and 3PT percentages, carry the one)…" It's a thing of beauty; it's finding a capital-'P' Proof based on first principles.

I'm now in a country where NBA games are free-to-air and live, and while Eastern Conference games can't be found for love or money, the battle for the West continues every two or three days. Or it would, if live coverage of the Socceroos' gripping press conferences wouldn't keep obscuring TNT's pre-game comment-off. Not that I'm missing much from Charles Barkley, whose co-hosts have to help him along every misstep of the way. Kobe gets in on the act, too – where players without shoes named after them have the humility to ask the Round Mound how to get the step on defensive boards, Bryant just offers a shit-eating grin and asks how many donuts CB34 got through in his career. Former Indiana Pacers swingman Reggie Miller can't quite make up for it, commenting just as he used to play, by keeping his head down and sniping in from left-of-screen when everyone else is tired.

The Mound is all kinds of interesting, but I want to hear Toni Kukoc telling us just why Goran Dragic thinks he can drive to the hoop again. I want to hear Clyde Drexler analyse Steve Nash's scoop layups, hear Spud Webb explain why Shannon Brown didn't quite manage to jump over Jason Richardson in Game One, hear John Starks belittle Derek Fisher. I want to hear Karl Malone laugh.

Though, maybe he could look at Pau Gasol's gameface.

With the series tied up 2-2, today's game was always going to be a barometer, a test to see whether Bryant and Gasol could push back against the Suns and their scarily efficient bench. Whether I'd  be able to discuss the Finals with Wilburforce the Fucking Pro Wrestler without knowing – knowing – that my Eastern Conference underdogs, whoever they turn out to be, would effectively be swept by the guys in imperial purple and gold. Whether Los Suns could pull off an emphatic triple construction.

After losing two straight, Kobe was angry – in the pre-game interview, he almost threw his microphone out of the pram. The first scoring play saw Steve Nash milk an all-too-cheeky foul from Derek Fisher and hit two free throws. Robin Lopez's afro was ridiculously buoyant throughout, but it failed as a measure of the Suns' success. At the worst, the Lakers led by 18, and even a late run and an eventual 3 to tie everything up at 101 apiece couldn't do more than give Kobe another chance to take a game-winning shot in the final 3.5 seconds. Or, as the case may be, airball it straight into the hands of Ron Artest, who only had to appear to take the shot or be fouled. Back to Phoenix for Game Six.

Welcome to the Space Jam

Oh God. I can't get enough of this (pdf), Michal Brody's paper on the startling similarities between the 1996 MJ-and-Bugs vehicle Space Jam and the Mayan creation myth Popul Vuh.
Consciously or unconsciously, the film's writers have developed a narrative in which a pair of heroes (Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan) 1) are summoned to play a high-stakes underworld ball-game against a variety of frightening villains, 2) manage to defeat those villains through the heroes' summoning of extra-human ability, and 3) ascend from the underworld with a glowing orb, all of which occur in the Popol Vuh. While the details vary (in the Popol Vuh, the heroes intend to retrieve the head of their father, Hunahpu; whereas in Space Jam, the villains have stolen the talent of NBA stars such as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing), the congruence is remarkable. Brody also shows that the well-known phonetic irregularities of, e.g., Daffy Duck and Sylvester are quite analogous to those of ancestral characters in a variety of native cosmologies.
Hero twins. Also, Bill Murray.
In addition, the Looney Tunes are not bound by the physical laws of the known world and are capable of recovering almost instantly from injuries that would more than kill any one of us. Those characteristics are shared as well by the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh. Like the Tune Squad, their adventure in defeating the lords of the under-world is filled with treachery, faith, and the symbolic power of the sphere. Thus, we’ve seen that a venerated and classic story with grand- scale cultural importance has significant thematic parallels with a trifling and inconsequential Hollywood bauble intended principally for viewing by children.  
There's a digital version of the Popul Vuh (Wuj?) here, if anyone would like to take this further, compare-and-contrast styles. Alternative option: compare Who Framed Roger Rabbit with the inevitable apotheosis of the monomyth's Universal Hero.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I watched this without really knowing what I was getting into.

The first question that occurred to me was: 'Did they actually hire a stadium for this?' Then I wondered exactly who Wayne Rooney was. Then I just let go, and sat, utterly speechless, at the scale of this advertisement's ambition. Seriously, how much narrative can be compressed into 3 minutes? Someone is going to laugh at me, but it reminds me of Fellini, the way he will scarcely show you something, trusting that even a glimpse of the right image at the right moment will do the work it needs to. There's something hypnagogic here, something mythic maybe.

I am a huge fan of the art form known as the preview, which is closely related to the music video. This ad has all the best elements of both, honed down to a glinting, razor edge. I suspect should be more horrified by this piece of cinema, but I'm not. I love the economy of it (a funny word to use, but it is perversely a very parsimonious piece of work), the efficiency, the direct-to-your-cerebral-cortex potency of it. It was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, of Amorres Perros and Babel fame, but it's almost impossible to find out how much it cost. This would be my only real complaint right now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Needs no further comment

Aside from the all-too-obvious note that he's a singular Elvis.

I'd pay to see Elvi (and his stage show) at any one of Balmain's iconic local pubs, should the aging Melburnian Jemaine-alike take this thing on the road. There's one around every corner, according to the real estate shills, and there are certainly enough skintight bike suits and dayglo tape repositories to sustain a nightly show. Amaaazing. Can we get some more blacklight up in here?


It is the curse of media culture that the brutal, banal or tedious must often stand in as emblems of larger issues. One thing stands for another. Many events are similar in shape, ultimately. I’m thinking of McCarthy barking across the floor in the hearings that bore his name, and the echo that rang out over America. I’m thinking of the fungal silhouette that loomed over the lives of anyone born before 1991. I’m thinking of Britney Spears’ garish divorce playing out like the murmur of a hotwater heater in the bathrooms of our souls. She has less currency than she once did, and there are dozens vying to replace her, but she remains a byword for that breed of hapless, tasteless ambition that thrives in the afterglow of America’s time in the sun. No less than a mushroom cloud.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Imaginary blog

Jorges Luis Borges believed nothing said in 500 pages could not be expressed in 5. In this spirit, nothing written in a blog could not be expressed as a comment underneath.

It prompts a worrying thought. If this entry is in, its form, a comment, then what was written to inspire it is not yet written. We must presume a future webpage. It may contain a digression on the narratology of knitwear, or a diagrammatic how-to guide for provoking pandas into writing minimalist haiku. We cannot be sure. There may be no working backwards, or an infinite profusion of possible future pasts.

What I know is this: if the above is funny, or truly annoyed you, or you thought of Kurt Godel at any point, or you know what the word neoplatonic means, you are exactly the right person to be reading this blog.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On books and other books

The ugly fact is that books are made out of other books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written. 
Cormac McCarthy, 1992 

Last week, like a garden-variety postgrad junkie, I attended a William Faulkner masterclass at UNSW with Professor Noel Polk, who edited Faulkner's novels (1930-35) for the Library of America, and who probably has a better handle on Faulkner's manuscripts than anyone else in the field. (Received knowledge, this, but after the masterclass I don't have cause to argue it.) I followed the crowds from the 891 to the middle of the campus – modern, sporadically weeded and no less confusing than any university campus – wandered around until by some stroke of luck I found the right building, and despite feeling like I was walking into a high-school gymnasium, eventually ended up in the correct seminar room.

Once there, we heard a paper from Noel about "The Leg" and "Mistral", two minor short stories with the common thread of never quite knowing what's going on, and I left with the distinct impression that despite not having read enough Faulkner in undergrad courses to get a handle on the guy, my thesis topic means that almost anything to do with literary conversation and dialogism in the Modernist field is worth hearing. I left the burbs with the title of a book to track down, Richard Gray's A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature, and a recurrence of that uneasy feeling that shoehorning both Jorges Luis Borges and Malcolm Lowry into a discussion of literature's Platonic Library may be verging on the optimistic. Tending towards pessimism in any case, T.S. Eliot's seminal "Tradition and the Individual Talent" provides a leg-up, and I'm working towards a thesis that Borges' sense of the Universal Library equates to an individual fascination and horror at the near-infinite (but decidedly finite) sources, whereas Lowry, the congenital copier with a "pelagarist pen", relies exceedingly heavily on outside sources for his own creative process. Despite our lack of time to adjust all the frame-widths for resolution-agnostic viewing, the last iteration of The Malcolm Lowry Project shows this reasonably ably, even 1994-era hypertext being a natural medium for annotation.

The synecdochic extension of undergraduate classes and, to a lesser degree, even the necessarily blinkered research for a Master's, tend to leave rather a lot of elephants in any given room, and the process of determining them Indian, African or otherwise is rather overwhelming. The spectre of Tradition, of drawing together all possible and probable sources, looms large, and even then managing to avoid (re)stating the obvious – well of course books are made out of other books – remains a concern. Lucky these things are supposed to take a few years.

The Australian Association of Literature is holding its 2010 conference on Literature and Science at UNSW in July. I've (optimistically) submitted an abstract promising to examine the guiding principles of sf hybridity in Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos – framed by discussion of the triune Keats persona as mediated by an unknowable Logos – but at the very least there's a lot going on here, conference-wise. (I had a back-up abstract ready to go on Philip K. Dick's DADOES, our two cats and the production of kipple, that physical manifestation of entropy, but the less said about that, the better.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Not The Sharpest Tool

Adapting foreign television games shows for a New Zealand audience proved fertile soil for producers here in the 80s and 90s, with Krypton Factor, Sale Of The Century and Wheel Of Fortune all serving as family favourites; the latter two were also developed into board games, amounting to little more than poorly made tart-ups of Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition and Hangman, in exchange for coupons for consumer goods. Both sat neglected, alongside local anomalies Kiwi SportsMania and Poleconomy in the games cupboard. So it followed that the reality television boom of the past decade would be given a zero-budget local refit and sold to the lowest denominator. High production values are out of the question, so you lose Real World, Big Brother and Amazing Race straight out of the gate. Incidentally, The Amazing Race has been hosted since it’s inception by ex-pat NZer Phil Keoghan who, in 1990, was working as a presenter on after school TV escapade 3.45 Live, the same year Nick Tansley hosted the only televised season of Treasure Hunt, featuring couples negotiating the country in a helicopter solving clues. Coincidence? But cheap Polynesian versions on a Survivor/Treasure Island theme can be knocked out relatively easily and there are more than enough C-List media whores (to populate dancing contests) and bored housewives (with inept DIY husbands). And that about sums up New Zealand’s weight class.

Occasionally you think they get the downsizing ratio just right, like New Zealand’s Hottest Home Baker as a small town / small time franchise of Master Chef, and I still have high hopes for Savage’s (sub)urban “fish-out-of-water” saga Hip Hop High. But I love watching the trainwreck when ambition wins out over reality, and we get treated to generous helpings of televisual pudding like New Zealand Idol, New Zealand’s Next Top Model and The Apprentice: New Zealand. Pretending there is a market for manufactured pop stars and high-end catwalk models in this country is endearing its own way, but the façade of penthouse-suite corporate power suits – in Wellington – is easily the masterstroke. Right now, a sausage sizzle is firing up outside 721 Fifth Avenue, New York. Surely. I'm not suggesting producers be put off developing other people's concepts in lieu of a genuine brainwave themselves, not at all, but that someone really, really make a local version of ...

Tool Academy.

In the many and varied world of race-to-the-bottom reality programming, this show reigns supreme right now. It's not the most entertaining, or the most cringeworthy, or the most lucrative, but there is also a lack of guilt associated with the indulgence of watching it, because all the contestants are fucking retarded. Three seasons have run in the U.S, and in each twelve 'Tools' are duped into thinking they're going to be party kings, but instead are being taking into televised couples counselling. This ruse somehow continues to be effective beyond the first season. Incredible. Credit to the show, though, they go beyond the classic archetypes on repeat model of casting of The Real World, and get quite creative with their pigeonholing, evidenced by the line-ups in Seasons One and Two. Overheads are low. There are no big prizes or elaborate challenges, just the Tools, their partners, and the soothing voice of the counsellor/judge/jury/executioner, who for authoritative reasons in the U.S is played by stern Briton Trina Dolenz. Here in New Zealand, they should probably just use Mary Lambie. She was fantastic in The Weakest Link. As for local villainy, many of the originals are Universal, but it would be remiss to exlude Bogan Tools, Black Power Tools and Sexually Repressed Through Colonial Overhang Tools.

The novelty of seeing New Zealand's Bad Bad Boyfriends scrapping it out for airtime and public humilation/redemption pales is dwarfed, however, by the potential of Tool Academy to branch out into the Celebrity Edition. The cult of celebrity, and the sense of ownership the tabloid buying public seems to claim, has ben on the up and up for a while, demanding exemplary behaviour of these perceived immortals who live in the Public Domain. If I sat outside your window and took photos of you getting undressed, I would most likely be arrested. If you make films or music for a living, I would be considered a valid news source. And when the celebrity falls, oh how the opinions fly, the fame-whores emerge, and the public demands their pound of flesh. So why not do it in the most public, most heavily edited, most controlled, most ridiculous forum possible: Celebrity Tool Academy, with Tiger Woods (Texting Tool), Silvio Berlusconi (Prime Ministerial Tool) and Jesse James (Grand Wizard Tool) all making solid contemporary candidates. Public humiliation is the only satisfying catharsis for the modern media zeitgeist, and the sooner they realise this the better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Pile of 20c Pieces

I don’t know that anyone would care to sift through these ... gems? gewgaws? ... but here they are: a collection of Conversations about Games, on Air, between Gentlemen, ca 2009. There were more, but in my rush to leave NZ for a funded (but non-dedicated) office chair I left them nestled among my newsy detritus on Mandroid’s computer. Files are courtesy of Radio One, as are all soundbites in the Commonwealth. Tally-ho.

Revolution X
(Midway, 1994)

Our hero saves latter-day rock gods Aerosmith from a fate worse than death – Headmistress Helga and rollerblading street thugs! I’m sure that twenty-seven percent of all one-dollar coins that passed through my hands between 1998 and 2001 went to a good cause. The continuing presence of the Rev X arcade machine is, incidentally, one of the reasons I always insist on getting to Dunedin Airport earlier than is strictly necessary to complete the check-in formalities.

(Sega, 1986)

A spritely racer, complete with a hen-pecking trophy girlfriend. Somehow Yu Suzuki had tapped into that consensual hallucination about grown-up life.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
(Konami, 1991)

Bodacious! Tubular! Generic Affirmatives! My childhood was great fun, but I didn’t discover segues until I got to high school. Had I discovered nonsensical time travel and odd scale issues, however, I would have been fine.

Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, Chapter One of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa
(Independent [Tales of Game’s], 2008)

It’s oddly disconcerting just how closely this game maps to the one semi-original plot I came up with between 1992 and 1994. Except in my version the Round Mound of Rebound was an actual hill that MJ and his apprentice had to climb so they could see the destruction that David Stern had caused. I wish I’d worked Ghost Dad or Juwanna Ball in there somehow.

Mario Teaches Typing
(Interplay, 1991)
QWERTY Warriors
(Flash game, ???)
The Typing of the Dead
(Sega, 1999)

Mario talked way too much about George Washington’s wooden teeth for my liking, and DVORAK Warriors would have scanned a little better. Bringing up these two games on air were a circuitous excuse on my part to talk about The Typing of the Dead, itself probably an excuse to get gamers to type ‘purple monkey snot’ in order to defeat assorted cadres of undead.

The Secret of Monkey Island
(Lucasfilm Games, 1990)

Digging up t-shirts and swapping mugs of corrosive grog has never been this much fun. Monkey Island has more people writing accolades for it at this very moment than people playing it, which is an imbalance I feel like redressing this afternoon. Don’t ask me about Loom.

Brutal Mario
(ROM hack, ???)

It’s still easier than I Wanna Be The Guy.

Dirty Challenger Muscle Men / Kinnikuman: Dirty Challenger 
(Yutaka, 1992)
Gourmet Sentai Bara Yarou! 
(Winds / Virgin, 1995)
Cho Aniki [Super Big Brothers
(Masaya / NCS Corp, 1992)

As soon as I realised that the bottom of the Shit Games barrel concealed a false bottom where the Idiot Games congealed, I was in on the ground floor with 900 Nintendo points. Also, having the presence of the Other be entirely tongue-(among other things)-in-cheek works pretty well.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In order to understand my own brand of confusion, and interpret the following, you may want to read the whole article I'm pulling the lines from ( It's about Roman Polanski, but Jenny Diski also writes about being raped at age 14. She says:
"My overall reaction solidified into contempt rather than shame. I didn’t think that it was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me. It was a very unpleasant experience, it hurt and I was trapped. But I had no sense that I was especially violated by the rape itself, not more than I would have been by any attack on my person and freedom. In 1961 it didn’t go without saying that to be penetrated against one’s will was a kind of spiritual murder. I was more disgusted by him than I was shamed or diminished. A different zeitgeist, luckily for me."
I was thrown by that. By someone whose writing I really respected and enjoyed saying, effectively, that the cultural pathos of rape had deepened its horror. I'm not sure exactly what I thought before that. Maybe not a lot. Diski's passage slowly connected to my memories of Africa, where marriage, sex, and breeding are more or less economic relationships. That is the social set-up round sex in those parts. No-one talks about love - which seems, to me, to be the word my culture uses to sanctify sex. What happens, say, on Taranaki St, or on a larger scale in Cambodian sex tourism, is sex for money. Sex for money. That's what it is, isn't it? It's not rape. It's not love. As soon as you demote sex to 'another thing that happens' (which it could be, and I suspect, should be) the horror becomes merely the lack of choice. Now, I'm NOT going to get as deterministic as I sometimes do and say, shit, even this blog is (I believe to a very advanced degree) pre-determined, because I feel in very shaky territory. What I can say is that any number of events less horrific than rape are equally forced and choiceless. Marriage still operates in some cases as a protracted form of rape. But that's speaking metaphorically, which is disingenuous perhaps. I don't know. I'm a bit lost now. Sex isn't sacred. Sex is sex. Rape is what happens either side of that, perhaps.

Monday, April 12, 2010

We are lost here

The Hurt Locker is a film about a three-man bomb disposal team working in Iraq. TIME critic Richard Corliss called it ‘a near perfect movie’; The Los Angeles Times pronounced it ‘the film about the war in Iraq that we’ve been waiting for’; and it took the highest average national box office returns for its opening weekend. Then it won the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture. And at first I could see why. The cinematography was well considered, gelling neatly with the editor’s urge to cut faster than I could blink, and the actors seemed convincingly disoriented by the resulting effect. But as the movie drew on, I came to think that what The Wall Street Journal called ‘austere technique’ was really the most recent perfection of an utterly familiar sequence of pull focuses, tense high angles, and jerky claustrophobia. The dialogue was as jarring as the camerawork, and the characters felt as if they were assembled from soldiers killed in previous films. They included a tense, neurotic coward who gets shot (but does manage to kill someone first); a stolid African American resistant to the idea of children; and the new commander (replacing Guy Pierce, who explodes in the first scene), whose cowboy antics endanger the team, yet never quite reveal the disturbed rag doll beneath. I felt myself watching something ghostly and familiar, a noontime apparition that could never quite shake its shadow.

The Hurt Locker was very well received, which makes it the latest example of that most revealing of American misonceptions: that an explosion is an event. An explosion is an instant, which the surrounding material illuminates and gives impact to. In other words, it really depends what’s being blown up, and in The Hurt Locker the surrounding material slowly revealed itself to be little more than the wadding from other, better films: the cowboy is lodged in a profound emotional rut; he at first jeopardizes then unifies the squad; the psychiatrist, focusing mistakenly on the coward’s rationality, is blown-up when he decides to join them on a mission, and son. These plot-by-number details are disguised by the care Kathryn Bigelow, the director, takes to isolate her characters from the larger picture of war – a picture in which her characters’ arthriticsm would be more crippling. It reminds me that there is a certain beauty that turns men’s heads, which makes for a profound banality when admired for longer than it takes a woman pass in the street. Bigelow assembles the fragments of her film with a student’s sympathy, but if it lives up to its claimed ‘perfection’, it must be that perfection lies in her merging of details – perfection as an act of obscurantism.

And this is the essence of my complaint with the Hurt Locker – not in the ongoing fatalism of the military myth; nor the insidiousness of its representation of Blackness (as something with a cellular fealty to values upon which America has an implicit monopoly); nor even the killing of Guy Pierce and then Ralph Fiennes within five minutes of meeting these fine character actors. The hard core of my gripe is: It told me nothing. Characters are bootstrapped to events and the result is a handful of angry humuculi backlit by a series of aborted explosions. About the most we learn is that Iraq is hot, dusty, and very confusing – but so what? I know war is confusing. Every piece of decent writing since Frost has told me this. Joseph Heller told me this. Norman Mailer told me this. Francis Ford Coppola told me this. I even found myself enjoying Sam Mendes when he was telling me this. I get the point. War fucks you up. How often must I hear this before the reality takes the course of all good fiction, and changes? The options are: a) an end to war, or b) make a different kind of modern war film. Though neither seems particularly likely, the latter is at least conceivable. However, it was never something in Bigelow’s ambit. She was once married to James Cameron, and her control of spectacle is no less impressive. Spectacle, after all, must first and foremost be managed, presented, packaged, but this does not make Bigelow a talented director, it makes her a seamstress. One who is very adept at disguising her stitches.

I distrust an audience that can regard this species of pastiche as ‘incisive’, let alone critics who term it ‘a penetrating study’. We know that power can be drawn from repackaging the old as new, but the critical response to the film seems oblivous – almost obeisant – to this part-way honesty, the semi-sufficiency of the half-truths it wallows in. Like the war itself, in which a partial lie first mobilised an invasion, then was castigated by a similarly incomplete revelation, America’s reluctance to investigate its own mythology has predictably turned into flagellating the mythology itself. The film’s aim is to challenge the viewer, one senses this in its air of doubt and discontent, but only an audience deeply inured to or sheltered from modern film could find it confronting. It’s challenging in the way that everyday life must be arduous to someone missing an arm. What it is not, is interesting. The question, then, is this: was The Hurt Locker's vibrant reception based in the mainstream audience’s lack of acquaintance with cinema, or their numbness to it?

The circuitous answer, I suspect, is that materialism focuses on circumstances over psychology. It is an almost unforgiveably general statement, but modern life is largely concerned with material conditions. Always outwards, pointing in, behaviourism has become a sort of default social stance, in which the individual’s situation is assessed in terms of access to infrastructure, income, known history and any other details we can glean. Only literary biographers and post-Colonial theorists bother with the inner states of groups. Educated to look to events and objects as measures of well-being, audiences respond to characters informed by those same forces, while writers, directors, artists and poets treat realism as a kind of fastidious documentary process: an explosion is the latest sign that the stolid, black character is unhappy. He does want children now? see conflagrations 3 through 7. Realism, under either of these conditions, is no longer realism. It is a collage of approximations, a subalternation of the truth.

I cannot say when precisely we past the crest of this realist wave, probably in the seventies or late sixties when a brand of surrealism the likes of which informed Catch 22 or Apocalypse Now was turned to realist ends. These films reached at the truth through overstatement, exaggeration, the vile twisting of some unconcious recognition. Unfortunately – as the surrealists discovered in the mid-fifties – after this movement, there is nothing. The terrain through which you were moving at last swallows up your point of origin, leaving you lost, directionless and perhaps unreachable. After that, films that sought to deal with war could only tell us this one thing: We are lost here.

In the space between form and formulaism lies all of art. Confronted with an accustation of cliché or triteness, the writer’s response is frequently to point to Joseph Campbell and mutter something about the monomyth. This is the narrative equivalent of a three-year-old standing beside a broken window and pointing to the dog, as if to say, he did it. Wittgenstein struggled to find the atomic elements he felt constituted all of language, but I do not think it’s seriously in doubt that there are fundamental features of fiction. In fact, I would go further and say that ‘story’ can be reduced to a basic, finite componentry and remain both meaningful and useful (if a little blurry). This is not the same thing as seeing, tucked into the tailends of testaments to The Hurt Locker's brilliance, adjectives such as ‘sturdy’ or ‘efficient’. This suggests something more mechanical, with joints and pivots we can reveal, if we just pull back a little of the film’s skin. When this is done, what is on display is not a shining, oiled cinematic skeleton, but a fairly typical oblivousness of the inter-workings of the classical mythologic structures.

True to Ecclesiasties, there is nothing new under the sun. It is the essence of this misleadingly nuanced declaration that Campbell takes his bearing from, and unless one is directing a French new-wave film from 1972, there will always be a Change of Circumstances in a story, there will always be a Girl, there will usually be a Coward. These are the ideas that any apprentice should be inculcated with. But still it can be taken too far. We had seen the characters in The Hurt Locker before, but this was literally true in the case of the coward – the actor Brian Geraghty played an identical character in Jarhead, a far more potent film on a more or less identical subject. I hadn’t seen Jarhead recently, so had to check the Wikipedia page to quite believe it. Bigelow co-opted the character in toto. Near the film’s end, he is shot by the cowboy, who is trying to save his life (the coward doesn’t die, he is only injured), and afterwards is evacuated from Iraq, whining and swearing. Over 120 minutes, the character had not altered in the slightest. The stunning arc of the black character, by comparison, moves through five or six near-death set pieces until he realises that having children may be the only way to save himself from a job that will almost certainly kill him. It might have been touching, but there was no movement toward this point. We simply arrived there, making the moment seem like a pirhoutte. Having ticked the ‘revelation’ box, that was the last we saw of him. The cowboy’s disregard culminates in him stepping into the shower in full battle kit, and collapsing. I would have thought that this scene was terminally shop-soiled, but apparently most of America has never seen Macbeth (though surely they must have seen Casino Royale, or The Abyss, or even Moon 44 ...). The cowboy’s anxiety is not investigated, merely inserted. A character in need of an epigram, he finally falls victim to a quote seen at the outset: to the effect that war is a drug. We see him return home after his year in Iraq, play ironically with his son, try to buy some cereal and become utterly lost in the comforting, price-check-isle-three contentment of middleclass America. Cut to the cowboy, back in Iraq, suited up for another round of hurt.

The film’s ending, too, is Jarhead’s. In each a soldier cannot relinquish the warrior, though at least Jake Glynhaal makes it home. The impression in The Hurt Locker is that the tension of wartime Baghdad induces a homeostasis that supports the cowboy – the denoument shows him suited up, walking into a bomb disposal job. The music is jaunty. We are offered in these last few seconds a romantic view of the antihero, condemned to his post, this Sisyphus of conflagrations. It is not much of a message and might as well describe the debauched, bored fashions that produce such films. Though this was not the opinion of Peter Howell in the Toronto Star: ‘Just when you thought the battle for Iraqi war dramas has been fought and lost,’ he wrote, ‘along comes one that demands to be seen ... The Hurt Locker strips the Iraqi conflict of politics and brings it right down to the garbage-strewn pavement, where lives are saved through skill and nerve but lost through bad luck and malevolence.’ The erasure is noticed and applauded, as though the whole conflict were just too complicated and thank god someone focused on real people. Anti-heroism is a natural pose for current American mythology, and this tightened, individualist focus is useful to it – this is no war, just something that’s happening.

Beyond being a painfully ironic phrase, the idea that ‘the battle for Iraqi war dramas’ could have been over before the conflict itself finished is a prominent spike on the graph of oblivion drawn by war films in the last 40 years. The real people on show are, of course, American. Iraqis are kept to the roles of rude mechanicals, and not even Howell seems to have noticed that the ‘battle’ has yet to actually feature an Iraqi perspective. Snipers are silhouttes rather than people. Admitedly, this is how soldiers see the locals. The problem is the presentation – that this is okay, this is bravery, rathery than institutionalised stupidity. We are offered these soldiers as heros, rather than accomplices. Anything else might interfere with the carefully controlled descent of the mythology into ambivalent territory. Thankfully, Bigelow lands squarely in the Green Zone.

As an acknowledgedly tendentious piece of synechdoche, take the title – exactly what a ‘Hurt Locker’ is, or who coined the phrase is never made clear, though by the end of the film one gathers what it must mean, this unascribed colloquialism. It is a neat trick to convey that sense without spelling it in brazen dialogue, but this sort of trick is repeated throughout the film, a camoflauging of lineage: allusion after allusion is drawn together, coiled into a piece of visual rhetoric so tight that it obscures its own origins. The effect, if not the purpose, of this erasure is, predictably, to isolate a situation from its causes. In Bigelow’s case, this is her art – the seamstress, tucking away the edges of stories she has transfused. The Iraq war, in all it’s flamboyant, dull horror, is no longer an extension of an ambiguous American will. We are presented only with confusion; any opportunity we had for unravelling this or moving away from such inertia has been artfully precluded.

If The Hurt Locker never leaves its moral Green Zone, this is perhaps the most realistic thing about it. Edward Said believed that such refusals of context were the essence of occidentalist power playing, and the film’s form certainly speaks to that idea. Critical response focused broadly on its verisimilitude, implicit being the notion that a sufficient description is also a causal one, as it lays clear a variety of relations. But Bigelow is not so thorough. Hers is an incorrigibly partial view, through the eyes of characters whose flimsy derivation leaves them with only one foot in the film. The point is not to seriously investigate the effect of an unvalourous war on its combatants, but to descend far enough to give the antihero somewhere to rise up from. In this sense, one begins to suspect that the film is successful exactly because America is so hungry for myths of redemption right now. A narrative that offered to rehabilitate a nation’s view of itself, while seeming to deal honestly with the conditions that required it, was always going to find a place in the pantheon.

The Hurt Locker's predictablility is anchored to a single fact: God is still American. It is a Hollywod movie that strives to deny its Hollywood pedigree, but like the rest of its ilk, must abide by certain covenants made long ago. This is the rule set the film cleaves to – not traditional myth structure, but the American myth. There is no room for a true anti-hero, someone genuinely unlikeable, or whose downfall we hope for. On the cowboy’s shoulders rests America’s image of itself – brazen, conflicted, but ultimately just. Notions of fate – that most Islamic of forces – are quietly conscripted into the service of a story that has been told and retold since the first wagons rolled West. Something, though it would be extraordinarily difficult to say precisely what, has come full circle. Some story even older than California. God has returned to his old stomping ground, but he has clearly found a new chosen people. For in the final analysis, this is Babylon, familiar and vile. Virtue will always be an intruder here.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Prior to which the best of intentions were beset from all sides

Upon arrival in Sydney, we were warned of the brazen motorcycle gangs and the accompanying perils of roadside steakhouses, pickpockets to rival Oliver Twist’s most kleptomaniacal fantasies, the dangers of walking on grass with bare feet (funnelwebs abound!), vicious teen muggers, eleven-year-olds carrying knives, ATM skimmers, ‘self-pruning’ gumtrees endangering passersby, violent hailstorms, termites, snakes, cockroaches and the apparently furious bidding wars for desirable rental properties. The worst thing I’ve found so far is the number of Robert Lowell books in the second-hand bookstores. (Lowell’s often the last book on the LOW-- shelf, so I’ve been blaming him for the lack of Lowry). Still, Sursum corda, and be glad I’m not stuck with a Lois Lowry collection.

We got here on Feb 13th, and I don’t think I’ve found Australia yet*. Not that I’ve been looking terribly hard; most of our time has so far been caught up the the rush to find a house before our savings ran out, or our welcome ran out with the extended family. With that done (living just outside of Balmain in the Year of the Tiger has its own appeals for anyone passively schooled in late-nineties NRL fandom), we may now have a little more time to start casting our eyes sideways. There is a very loud amusement park right beside our present lodgings. It seems that way, anyway – in all honesty, it’s mostly just the recurrent problem of Antipodean girls.

I’m wary of judging a country by its free-to-air programming – where, on that scale, would NZ fall? – but it’s difficult to avoid it. Case in point: I’m now living in a city that is big enough to warrant its own news hour, and this is not entirely a bad thing. How provincial, to think it would be! When the wind blows from the mainland TVNZ is almost aware of its Auckland-centric coverage, but I’ve never watched enough TV in Auckland to appreciate just how reassuring it can be to hear about nothing further away than the outer ‘burbs. It’s distressingly insular, but comfortingly so. When we stabilise enough to secure an internet connection, I do intend to catch up on current affairs from the rest of the world; 13,000 RSS items and counting await that luminous moment.

We wandered around the CBD earlier this week, turning when we thought that the iPhone was pointing in the right direction, and found – by chance – two small public sculptures, each comprised of three small square blocks. The first set we found had one block labelled ‘HELL’, I think, and two blank; the next again had two blank, but the middle block was engraved with the word ‘PURGATORY’. I suppose they have something to do with Pyrmont’s imaginatively named sandstone quarries, but we’d already found limbo; even after filling out too many customs forms, we have to wait six to eight more weeks before our personal effects (read: my books, Jen’s clothes) arrive, and as of this evening our freshly assembled flatpack shelves don’t hold much more than a television and various pieces of paper that may or may not prove useful sometime in the next 36 months. Thirty-six months (42 in the laziest case) is now the yardstick against which any major future plans are measured.

We didn’t find ‘PARADISE’ engraved anywhere, although Gould’s Book Arcade, panacea for a house filled with empty shelves, is probably a reasonable fascimile. Gould’s poetry shelves don’t show any kind of organising principle, though, so instead of blaming Lowell I just find my hopes flaring up briefly whenever I see his Collected Works.

*Australian media still seems to be trying to sort this out, incidentally. Not in any sensible kind of way, but in true PSA fashion, where the good ship HMS Federal Racism Statistics is broadsided with advertising dollars in the hope of bringing her down.