Jan 2008

Two Thousand and Eight

Happy New Year! Let’s hope it’s a good one.

Yes, I know I’m a week late and most of you are already well into the swing of ‘Ought-Eight, but I’ve been off the grid (so to speak) for a few weeks. A strangely quiet place beyond the reach of broadband and mobile-phone signal. Eerily quiet in fact. Plenty of time for contemplation though.

Because of course, I don’t already do enough of that, right? All the same, it struck me as I looked back over the past twelve months, that from a personal standpoint, 2007 saw some fairly positive changes for me. I’m determined to keep that trend going for as long as possible… at least the next twelve months. So wish me luck on that.

Of course, just when I get a renewed sense of direction, the rest of the world seems to be going to hell. And only the most dedicated optimist would bet on humanity taking a less shambolic approach to its affairs in 2008. We could all use some of that luck I guess.

So as is traditional, before we plunge headlong into 2008, let’s cast our mind back to the best bits of 2007.

The best bits of 2007

  • In politics, Tony Blair limped off into history, the influence of the neoconservatives in America seems to have entered decline, and the Progressive Democrats became a spent force in Ireland.
  • It was another year in which the peace held in Northern Ireland. America didn’t invade anywhere new. Nobody nuked anybody.
  • It was also the year in which Climate Change became accepted as something real enough, and important enough, to drive public policy. That this acceptance is coupled with a refusal to actually act is the flip-side of that particular “high point”.
  • Culturally speaking, the best album of the year was Neon Bible by Arcade Fire (sorry to be so predictable). Other good ones… Saltbreakers by Laura Veirs, Memory Almost Full by Paul McCartney, The Projected Passion Revue by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (a re-issue of old material, but it’s classic stuff), and the Grinderman album. Oh, and check out You! Me! Dancing! by Los Campesinos! (discovering Los Campesinos! was the musical highlight of the year for me… fantastic stuff… kind of like Arcade Fire Vs. Stereolab at a Polyphonic Spree gig in Exeter… looking forward to seeing them in Dublin in February). Best gig of 2007 was Patti Smith at Vicar Street.
  • Although published in 2006, I only got round to reading Pynchon’s Against The Day in 2007. That it somehow managed to exceed even my extremely high expectations is miraculous. It’s impossible to describe the sheer breadth and depth of Against The Day. “Epic” is far too small a word. And yet, despite addressing the weightiest philosophical, social and political issues imaginable; it’s also at heart a surreal adventure tale filled with funny and bizarre characters getting up to all manner of silly derring-do. Almost every line of this very long book contains something that fires sparks in my mind. Sometimes it’s an idea, sometimes a joke, sometimes a beautiful description, a sharp insight or a perfect turn of phrase. Even down to his ability to capture the psychedelic experience in print… something that’s next to impossible; perhaps only Hunter S. Thompson has ever done it as well as Pynchon does it. “Somehow the afternoon just drifted on into the dinner hour, and Lew must’ve forgot to wash his hands, because next thing he knew, he was experiencing the hotel dining room in a range of colors, not to mention cultural references, which had not been there when he came in.” So begins an hilarious trip-report which succinctly demonstrates why restaurants are not the best places to come up on powerful hallucinogens. “… the details of his “steak”, the closer he looked at that, seeming to suggest not the animal origins a fellow might reasonably expect so much as the further realms of crystallography, each section he made with his knife in fact revealing new vistas, among the intricately disposed axes and polyhedra, into the hivelike activities of a race of very small though perfectly visible inhabitants who as they seethed and bustled about, to all appearances unaware of his scrutiny, sang miniature though harmonically complex little choruses in tiny, speeded-up voices whose every word chimed out with ever-more polycrystalline luminosities of meaning.” Look, I’m sorry… I know that lots of people just don’t get Pynchon, but ever-more polycrystalline luminosities of meaning!? If that doesn’t send shivers down your spine then you just don’t know good writing. There! I said it.
  • It wasn’t really the best year for movies. I’ve still not seen I’m Not There or No Country For Old Men, but I’ve heard good things about them (I’m planning to see them both over the next couple of weeks when they play at the IFI). Of the films which I did enjoy in 2007, a handful stood out… Hot Fuzz (arguably a wee bit too long, but any comedy that can deliver a solid hour of laughter gets a thumbs up), Reign Over Me (Adam Sandler doing what he does best… no, not screwball comedy, but fucked-up lonely person with severe problems), Zodiac (an average David Fincher film will always be better than most films released in a given year. And unfortunately, though it’s still an excellent film… let me emphasise that; it’s an excellent filmZodiac is indeed quite ordinary by Fincher’s extremely high standards. That said, the sweeping shots of the bridge are some of the most amazing visuals to appear in any of his films) and The Bourne Ultimatum (OK, so I like the occasional mindless action-espionage caper. So sue me. And the Bourne films do it so very well, despite the overly-frenetic hand-held camera in this year’s installment). Aside from that, I rewatched Kurosawa and The Marx Brothers several times and probably watched The Big Sleep at least five times (making it my most watched film of 2007). Every single time I see that movie, I see something new.
  • As for television; we saw the continuation of The Wire which just gets better and better. Battlestar Galactica ended the penultimate season with a Very Big Reveal indeed. And Dexter held my attention right to the end of the second season. This kind of surprised me, as a couple of the characters annoy me quite a bit. Still, the writing is very good indeed and — from a psychoanalytic standpoint — it’s by far the most interesting thing on television. Pretty much everything else on TV during 2007 was a waste of time. But it was ever thus with television. A speck of gold-dust in a planet-sized ocean of raw sewage.

The worst bits of 2007

Actually, I have no intention of dwelling on the worst bits of 2007. The fact that humanity will produce ninety-nine dreadful films for every great one, and nine-hundred and ninety-nine unlistenable albums for every one worthy of repeat-play, makes it far too time-consuming and depressing to sort out the very bad from the merely bad. In the hope that I may save some unwary reader from needlessly wasting a couple of precious hours of their life, however, let me exhort you against seeing Transformers, Shrek 3, The Reaping, Ocean’s 13, Lucky You, Next, The Fantastic-4 Sequel, and Spider-Man 3. Not a single redeeming feature among the lot.

Our culture maintained an inexorable decline into nihilism as ‘reality’ TV and vacuous celebrity fixation continued to dominate popular consciousness. Rampant consumerism got ever more rampant, and meaningless materialism ever more meaningless. Our politicians remained self-obsessed, craven and thick as pigshit for a record year running. Meanwhile, as if to demonstrate just how representative of the general populace they actually are, half a billion of us around the world became obscene voyeurs for six months as the story of a young blonde girl kidnapped in Portugal played out in the media.

And all the while The War Against Terror continued. As did The War on Drugs. And the hidden Third Great War that’s been ravaging Africa almost since the end of the last one. Oh, and let’s not forget the War Against The Planet that we’ve been waging all these years. We ramped that up a couple of notches during 2007.

And what about 2008?

Well, I don’t know what this year will bring. Climate Change and resource depletion are the twin crises facing humanity right now, but they’re unfolding over longer timescales than a single year. And for 2008, sadly, I predict continued inaction in the face of them both.

Economically I think we’re entering quite a serious recession. And it’s a downturn that may last for several years. But I don’t see it as the final gasp of consumer capitalism just yet… I get the feeling there may be one last ride left on that particular carousel. Such a seductive idea won’t die easily in the hearts and minds of we willing consumers.

In fact, I don’t hold out much hope for any significant positive change in 2008. Beyond the personal that is. For myself, I still hope for it… fall in love, finish writing at least one of those three bloody novels, qualify to work in a field that actually interests me this time! Stuff like that. And I hope the same for you too, dear reader. There’s no inherent reason why individuals can’t find personal fulfilment and achieve positive change in even the most chaotic and hostile circumstances.

For the world at large though… I fear we’ll only be capable of making the social, cultural and political changes that I believe are necessary when we’re forced into them. And for better or for worse, things aren’t likely to get bad enough in 2008 to force that change.

On the other hand, the television will be as shit as ever. And I say that with a supreme certainty. There will be a handful of albums released that make me feel glad to be alive, and perhaps one (two if we’re lucky) that will enter the category of True Classics. Similarly, there’ll be just enough good cinema amid the dross to make all this hypermediated culture of ours worth putting up with. For 106 minutes anyway.

Pynchon is unlikely to publish another novel (there’s an average gap of about 8 years between them I think, and frankly he must be getting on a bit now, so I’d be mighty grateful if he could write a wee bit faster), but I’m a book behind with William Gibson and he’s becoming increasingly Pynchonesque with each novel. As is Jim Dodge… I wonder if he’ll publish something this year… hmmm…

Overall I suspect if viewed from outside by some passing nomadic space-alien, 2008 will look a lot like 2007. Only slightly grimmer. Viewed from inside though… well, it might just be a good one. You never know.

Posted in: Opinion