Humans, no less than other creatures, are dependent on some form of external structure for our adequate functioning; and so if industrialism apparently represents the only structure available to us we will inevitably become integrated within it. — David W. Kidner, Nature and Psyche
This week, quite rightly, the media has been buzzing with news of the return of David Bowie. His first new material in a decade was released, quite unexpectedly, on Tuesday; his 66th birthday. The song – Where Are We Now? – is a lovely, melancholy meditation on lost youth. Filled with references to Berlin, where Bowie himself spent several years in the 1970s, it was produced by Tony Visconti who – along with Bowie and Brian Eno – formed the Holy Trinity responsible for the three late-70s albums that (in my personal opinion) represent the pinnacle of Bowie’s creative output. I know that sounds like I’m saying he “peaked” with “Heroes”, Low and Lodger and then went into decline. But that’s not how I see it. Yes, there was something of a trough in the 1980s, but 1.Outside in the mid-90s saw him once again climb creative heights rarely visited by others and of the four 90s / early noughties albums that followed, only Hours was less than brilliant (both Earthling and Heathen are grossly underrated and Reality has some stonking songs on it though you might argue there’s some filler there too).
The new single is to be followed by an album in March (called The Next Day) which I am eagerly anticipating. And while well-publicised health problems suggest he may not tour the new songs, we can still hope against hope. Right? As well as the inevitable cooing from die-hard fans (of which I am one and for which I make no apology) there have been other responses. Thanks to the internet, you can read the views of the cynics and the compulsive denigrators just as easily as the views of the die-hard fans. Which is fine. If people genuinely don’t like Bowie, or genuinely find the new song lacking in some way then they are just as entitled to express that opinion as people like myself who are excited about it. Mind you, a lot of the criticism I’ve encountered smacks somewhat of deliberate contrarianism. It comes from the same sort of people who tell you The Beatles never wrote a good tune, Citizen Kane is overrated and insist they don’t understand the phrase “best thing since sliced bread” because frankly sliced bread is shit.
And you know what, those folk are also just as entitled to express their opinion. I find it a little sad that people actively seek the sensation of jadedness – something I seem to spend a whole lot of time battling – but I don’t have to live their lives so let them at it… I’m not looking for repressive legislation on the matter.
Anyway, here’s the new single (along with the odd video). If you’ve not already heard it, I hope you like it as much as I do. I found myself humming it after just one listen and yet I’d still describe it as “a grower” because I’m enjoying it more and more with each new hearing.
The other David B
In my personal musical universe there’s probably only one other person who rivals David Bowie for the top spot (luckily my musical universe is polytheistic in nature, so they don’t need to fight it out). And that’s David Byrne. Like Bowie, David Byrne’s finest hour was quite a while ago – and perhaps not at all coincidentally – also involved Brian Eno. I’m speaking of course about Remain In Light, the greatest album ever recorded.
Also like Bowie, however, that didn’t represent a “peak” from which there was only a long decline ahead. No, like Bowie’s Low, Remain In Light was simply the tallest tree in a forest of redwoods. His career since Talking Heads has been generally overlooked by the mainstream (with the occasional exception… his Oscar for The Last Emperor soundtrack being one such exception) but is no less because of it. So when I read a review of last year’s Love This Giant (a collaboration with St. Vincent) that described the album as “a return to form” I was genuinely mystified. You can’t return to something you never left, and Byrne has been “on form” pretty much since 1977. Whether it was his work with Talking Heads, his solo stuff, his collaborations (with Eno, Fat Boy Slim, St. Vincent and others) or his many books, films and installations; Byrne has consistently brought joy, light, wonder and a great rhythm section to my life.
Love This Giant is another wonderful record. The heavy use of “heavy brass” gives it quite a distinctive sound, setting it apart from most of his other work (excluding, of course, his album of brass band compositions – Music For The Knee Plays). In fact it contains a song (I Should Watch TV) that rocketed straight into my top 10 Byrne tracks and which I listen to regularly. How pleasing, therefore, that it appears on the short live concert by Byrne and St. Vincent that’s just been released by NPR. I recommend the entire gig as it showcases a genuinely wonderful album while throwing in a couple of older tracks. But if you’ve only got a few minutes, then skip ahead to 24:40 and listen to the glorious I Should Watch TV.
I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.
Today I was saddened to hear the news of Ray Bradbury’s death. He lived to the ripe old age of 91 and – if I’m being honest – I was a little surprised to hear of his passing… half-assuming he’d ascended to that Great Library in The Sky many years ago.
Bradbury was one of writers who lit up my childhood and brought colour and wonder to grey 1970s Dublin. His novel, The Martian Chronicles is probably the first serious science-fiction book I can recall reading. I don’t wish to denigrate the fantastical space adventures penned by W.E. Johns, which were my initial introduction to science fiction, but they were essentially Boys Own Adventures that just happened to be set in space; whereas Bradbury was doing something entirely different. I’m sure even Johns would agree.
Ray Bradbury’s prose was genuinely poetic. It was filled with wisdom, warmth and a rich humour. It was also deadly serious and – looking back – was probably the first “social commentary” I read too. Though of course, at the tender age of 9 or 10, much of the allegory went above my head. Even so, I can distinctly remember thinking that there was something important about Bradbury’s work… something I wasn’t quite grasping, but that I desperately wanted to. Later in my teens when I re-read The Martian Chronicles – along with scores (if not hundreds) of his short stories – I was pleased to have been vindicated. There was something important about Bradbury’s work. And there still is.
Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my all-time favourite novels. I’ve not read it in many years, but I intend to very soon. It’s a shame that my revisit to his books is being prompted by such sad news, but I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Mr. Bradbury; a man whose love of writing consumed him.
Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.
When someone has spent more than ninety years on the planet, it’s difficult to describe their death as “a tragedy”. For surely few of us can expect to have such a span of years, and those of us who do should feel blessed because of it. And yet, when such a wise voice as Ray Bradbury is silenced, the world is always the worse for it. Still, he left us plenty of that wisdom in the books he wrote. Wisdom, wit and some cracking good yarns. For those of you who never encountered his work, may I suggest a short list to track down and be amazed by. And for those who are already familiar with Bradbury… well, there’s no harm in a re-read. It’s what he would have wanted.
As wonderful as are his novels, the curious reader should – perhaps even more urgently – track down pretty much any one of his glorious collections of short stories… The Day It Rained Forever and I Sing the Body Electric are two of the best, but you really can’t go wrong with Bradbury short stories. And if you don’t believe me, then why not track down some of the ones that have made it onto the web (The Pedestrian for example). You won’t be sorry that you did.
I finally got around to watching Takeshis’, the first of Takeshi Kitano’s anti-mainstream trilogy (and I do mean anti-mainstream as opposed to merely non-mainstream… there’s a whole bunch of deliberate subversion and outright mocking of mainstream movie tropes going on). The story goes, that after his mainstream international success with Zatoichi, Kitano became disillusioned and frustrated with himself. He’d become too safe. Too predictable, in his own eyes. And while I personally thoroughly enjoyed Zatoichi, it’s definitely a million miles from the existential meditations of Dolls, Hana-bi or even the earlier Sonatine.
And so, he set out to make a trilogy of films that would quite deliberately alienate the wider audience he’d garnered via his samurai action movie. Films that abandoned all notions of traditional narrative; that made no concessions to accessibility… instead placing a priority on artistic integrity. He would gather up all that existential angst, dream-logic and plain weirdness that passes through his mind as he’s lying in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness; and he’d dump it onto the screen with no explanation.
Take that mainstream audiences!
The result is mesmerising and more than a little startling. Certainly not a film for anyone who needs such trifles as “plot” or “sense” to hold their hand for an hour and a half while they watch a screen. At the heart of the film are two characters, both played by Takeshi Kitano. The first is “Beat Takeshi”, a successful actor and film-maker who specialises in gangster / yakuza movies. The second is “Mr. Kitano”, a convenience store clerk and failed actor who spends his days daydreaming about living the life of his idol – Beat Takeshi – when he’s not being rejected at auditions.
Early in the film, there’s a chance meeting between the two Takeshis and Beat Takeshi signs an autograph for Mr. Kitano. Afterwards, we watch as Mr. Kitano walks home to his small apartment above a mechanic’s shop and falls asleep. From then on, the viewer never knows whether the scene they are watching is a dream being had by one of the two Takeshis, or a convenience store clerk’s fantasy of being a successful actor, or a successful film-maker wondering what it would be like to live the life of a failed actor. Or indeed, a successful film-maker imagining what the fantasies of a failed actor about being a successful film-maker would be like. It’s no surprise that the original title of the film was Fractals.
Characters from the director’s previous films show up in incongruous situations and it definitely helps the viewer if they’re familiar with Takeshi Kitano’s past work. There’s a huge amount of self-referentiality in the movie… scenes from previous films (most notably Sonatine and Hana-bi, but pretty much every movie he’s done gets a look in) are revisited in unexpected ways, with characters crossing over from one to the other. Indeed whole sections of Takeshis’ appear to be deliberate “self-iconoclasm”, with some of the most haunting and affecting scenes he’s ever shot being savagely undercut and turned into absurd parodies – most notably the final beach scene from Hana-bi (in my view, one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of cinema) is suddenly transformed into a bizarre action-film caricature with Kitano machine-gunning a whole range of characters from his past films (along with about 500 riot police).
There’s a great deal of wit in Takeshis’ and while it only made me laugh out loud a couple of times, I spent much of the film with a wry smile on my face. As with all of his films the humour veers from the ridiculously slapstick to the almost-too-cerebral, with plenty in between. And as ever, music plays a large role. Traditional Japanese folk music cuts brutally into high-tempo electronica and back again. Also, the tap-dancing interlude goes on for quite a bit longer than you’d expect.
It’s like a very weird remix of his past films, and at no point have you any idea who or what you’ll be seeing next on the screen. Personally I absolutely loved it and am looking forward to watching Glory to the Filmmaker! (the second film in the trilogy). But I suspect plenty of people who see Takeshis’ will hate it, and no small percentage will fail to reach the end. But for fans of the obscure, the odd and the original, Takeshis’ provides an absolute feast for the senses. And the imagination.
As I’m sure you’re aware by now, Whitney Houston has just died at the age of 48. I personally wouldn’t have been the biggest fan of her music, but her ubiquity for several years means that she did weave herself into the soundtrack of my life, whether I liked it or not. And I admit, there were times when it was very much “not”. Back in the winter of 1992 it was just impossible to escape her massive hit, I Will Always Love You. You’d walk into shops and where you’d expect to hear Christmas music over the speaker system, there’d be that bloody song again. The radio-waves were saturated with the damn thing and music television was in cahoots.
All the same though, that was a pretty good period in my life. I was a young undergraduate and thoroughly enjoying my party years in North London. So despite the fact that I really hated that song by the springtime of 1993, and despite the fact that I would never in a million years voluntarily listen to it, I found myself smiling with a wistful nostalgia when I heard it being played yesterday as a tribute. That overplayed – and overwrought – tune brought back a bunch of good memories with it.
As well as that, Whitney Houston was also – indirectly – responsible for a particularly lovely moment a few years back. I generally do my best to see David Byrne whenever he tours. His music is genuinely important to me and he’s one of the very few people I’ll travel distances to see live these days. Anyway, a few years back he played London and I naturally went along. The gig was – as ever – wonderful and it was a fantastic evening. By the time the encore came around I’d pretty much worked out that we’d be hearing Psycho Killer as it hadn’t appeared earlier in the set. And we weren’t disappointed; that dark and brooding bassline conjuring up all the right kinds of sinister. It’s still such a thrill to hear that song loud and live in a darkened venue.
Then, however, after Byrne had finished urging us to run, run away… the lights brightened and the strings kicked in with an oddly familiar tune. I couldn’t place it at first. Up-tempo and the complete opposite of Psycho Killer. “Maybe something from Uh Oh“, I thought, “I’ve not listened to that album in a while”. But almost immediately I’d thought that, I suddenly realised what the song was…
It was infectious, bouncy and genuinely joyous. Byrne was more than capable of putting a dark spin on the track; subtly subverting it and turning it into something strange and unsettling. But he didn’t. Instead he played it completely straight. No hint of irony. And it worked so well. Everyone danced. Everyone looked at the person next to them with a broad grin on their face. And everyone left the gig feeling slightly euphoric.
So I’d like to thank Whitney Houston (via Mr. Byrne) for that small gift. Rest in peace.
I assumed from the #BBC4 hashtag that there was some 80s music documentary being broadcast, but taken at face value (obvious comedy hyperbole aside) I realised I wasn’t entirely sure whether I’d be up before that firing squad or not. If asked to name a favourite decade, musically speaking, my immediate reaction would be to say “the 70s”. But when I gave it a bit more thought (probably considerably more than @J___Williamson meant her tweet to be subjected to) I realised that – assuming we start “the 80s” in 1980 – rather than 1981 as some are wont to do – then it’s fair to say that my favourite album of all time is an 80s album (Remain in Light by Talking Heads). In fact, a huge amount of my favourite music was released during the 1980s.
1980 also saw the release of Joy Division’s Closer. It was the year of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, of Autoamerican and of Heartattack And Vine. And the decade that followed saw the entire career of The Smiths and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It saw Tom Waits move from good to great and on into godlike. The 80s saw Prince at his peak. And what a peak that was. There are moments on Sign ‘O’ The Times that still send shivers down my spine despite the familiarity of 25 years of regular play. It was the decade that brought us the best of The Cure, of The The, of Kate Bush and of The Cocteau Twins. And it was the decade that kicked off the careers of Nick Cave, The Legendary Pink Dots and World Party.
And you know what…? I’ve not even begun to do the 80s justice. Byrne and Eno’s My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, Peter Gabriel’s So, Paul Simon’s Graceland and Julian Cope’s Fried all helped make the decade what it was. There were seminal records from Siouxsie and the Banshees, R.E.M., and I’m even prepared to put in a good word for The Joshua Tree which – for all its over-earnest breast-beating – contains some cracking tunes. Sure it was a low point for David Bowie, but elsewhere good music was thriving.
But of course, I could make a similar case for the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1990s and even the noughties; though I would probably find that more difficult as I’ve discovered less new music in the past ten years. Probably a result of advancing age as well as having an already extremely extensive record collection that does its best to crowd out new releases (there are, after all, only so many hours in the day). Actually, it’s not ten years… looking at my media player, it appears that my discovery of new albums tapers off somewhat in 2007. There’s still a handful each year after that, but nothing like as many as there once was.
As it happens, I have a theory that music has become less culturally important in the past few years and – as a result – there’s less great stuff being produced (“less” not “none”). I’m not sure that theory stands up to scrutiny… though it’d be a good discussion to have over a few pints of Guinness.
Then, as I began to mentally put together the case for the 1970s, it struck me just how arbitrary the “decade” distinction is. It’s a cultural shorthand that extends far beyond music of course, but it tends to be used most frequently in that arena. Most albums released in 1989 have far more in common with the music of 1992 than they do with the music of 1982. There are records from 1979 and from 1991 that – to all intents and purposes – qualify as 80s music. And there are records from the early 80s that tend to be seen as part of the 1970s. The same is true for all decades. The Beatles were a 1960s band even if Let It Be was released in 1970. Hell, I think of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as being “of the sixties” even though the majority of their output – quantitatively speaking – came afterwards. And I don’t know where the hell Van Morrison fits in. Astral Weeks (“best album ever recorded except when Remain In Light is” tm) was released in 1968, but is essentially timeless, and damn near everything else he did came post-1970.
On top of that, there’s the fact that the truly great music of every decade… of every year… is massively outweighed in terms of sheer volume, by the truly awful. Or the merely uninteresting. For every I’m Your Man or Lovesexy there are a dozen of Hold Me in Your Arms and Kylie. Two dozen.
So does it even make sense to talk about whether the music of the 90s is better than the music of the 80s? Certainly Bone Machine and Henry’s Dream are better albums than White Feathers and Blackout. But you could just as easily choose Wet Wet Wet and Bryan Adams as your representatives of the 1990s, and… well… they’re no Prince or The Smiths.
In fact, you just have to compare Prince to… er… Prince. The 80s really come out of that one smiling.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that – when all’s said and done – there’s a pretty simple way to identify precisely when music was at its very best. Ask yourself the following question… “When was my 21st birthday?” Now, take the five years before that. Take the five years after. Add them together and you have the best decade for music. See? Simple. And no firing squads required.
A few days ago in my review of 2011, I mentioned that one of the films of last year I wanted to see – but hadn’t – was The Guard. Well last night I rectified that situation. And I’m truly glad that I did, because it’s easily one of the best films of last year… indeed it’s easily one of the best films of the last few years.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, the basic plot involves an FBI Agent (Cheadle) assigned to the West of Ireland and teaming up with a local cop (Brendan Gleeson) to investigate a massive drug-smuggling operation. On the surface – and indeed based on the publicity surrounding the film – you get the impression it’ll probably be a gentle, whimsical buddy-cop comedy. You could almost write the thing yourself… backwards Connemara guard annoys big city agent with his slow, rural ways and naive casual racism before demonstrating the quaint wisdom of those ways and foiling the smugglers. Ultimately of course, both rural cop and big city agent learn something from one another.
Because I’m such a massive fan of Gleeson, I still wanted to see The Guard despite the concern that it would be an underwhelming cliché of a film. The trailer only makes the vaguest of hints that, actually, that’s most certainly not the movie we’re talking about…
In fact, it’s a glorious subversion of that lazy archetype. This is nicely conveyed by the very first scene which concludes with Gleeson’s guard, at the scene of a fatal car wreck, dropping a hit of acid and intoning, “what a beautiful fucking day”. It was at that moment I realised I was in for something far less conventional than I’d expected. The Guard does a good job of resisting the temptation to romanticise The West beyond recognition and is most definitely set in modern Ireland as opposed to that timeless Hollywood Ireland that plagues many films. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from presenting the viewer with the stark beauty of Connemara. The financial crisis, thankfully, hasn’t messed up the scenery.
The screen chemistry between Cheadle and Gleeson is an absolute joy, though it’s very much Gleeson’s film. He discusses Russian literature and amyl nitrate with his dying mother, spins wild yarns about his exploits as an Olympic athlete, cavorts with prostitutes, has a casual chat with the local IRA man (a cameo by the excellent Pat Shortt) and drinks pretty much constantly. And all the while he delights in winding up the FBI man… “Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, those men are armed and dangerous and you being an FBI agent, you’re more used to shooting unarmed women and children”.
On top of the excellent performances by all involved however, the film elevates itself above the run-of-the-mill fare I’d been expecting, thanks to the wonderful script and plot. I’d never encountered the work of John Michael McDonagh before (in fact, aside from being the writer of a 2003 remake of Ned Kelly, which I never saw, this is his first foray into feature films… we can expect good things from this man). But his regular confounding of my expectations throughout the film was very welcome indeed. I shan’t elaborate and risk spoiling them, but events do not transpire as they normally would in this kind of film. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece of avant-garde film-making, radically redefining the very notions of narrative. Far from it. I’m just saying that so far as mainstream film-making goes, there are quite a few surprises along the way. And sadly, that’s unusual these days.
If I have one concern it’s that I’m not sure whether some of the humour, which at turns is both dry and broad, might not go over the heads of non-Irish viewers… Gleeson’s Galway accent is good for a Dublin man, though it’s not so thick as to be incomprehensible… but the cultural references which would give a chuckle to most of us here in Ireland might not translate (such as the line about going undercover with the mob and “having to go down to Limerick for that sort of excitement”). But I don’t think there’s too many of them; certainly not enough to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film; and ultimately I can offer an unconditional recommendation for The Guard. It’s funny, surprising, well-written and wonderfully acted. It has plenty of charm without being twee and while it’s not “a feel good” movie, it definitely leaves you feeling good. If you know what I mean.
Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.
Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.
Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.
From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.
Sporting highlights of 2011
With each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.
Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).
In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.
Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.
Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.
Musical highlights of 2011
I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.
The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.
Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.
Ako ti je glasno…
Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!
Movie highlights of 2011
I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011′s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.
Another notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.
Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.
About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.
There are several of 2011′s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.
Television highlights of 2011
As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.
Probably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.
As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n'sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.
I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.
Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.
So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.
Literary highlights of 2011
Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011″ bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.
In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011′s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.
Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.
In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.
I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.
There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.
And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.
The War Against Terror has brought death, kidnap, rendition, torture and destruction to an already weary world. It has resulted in an ongoing erosion of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It has also partly unleashed and partly revealed the moral vacuum at the heart of western society. The War Against Terror has done more damage to the notion of enlightened, liberal democracy than any terrorist could hope to have achieved. By fighting fire with fire we have merely succeeded in burning everyone. In my search for a silver lining – and it is a very narrow one indeed – I’m forced to fall back on that old cliché about harsh times providing inspiration for writers and artists.
It is The War Against Terror and consequent loss of civil liberties that form the heart of Philip Challinor’s 2010 novel, Security. It’s a story told with wit, skill and an unsettling dollop of resignation… a sense that humanity is more than willing to allow terrible things to happen if they’re scared enough, and sometimes just because they’re too lazy to do otherwise.
Readers of Security spend 24 hours with a mid-level bureaucrat – Anderson – working for National Consolidated Solutions, to whom the UK government have outsourced a number of security contracts. Any novel about the work of a bureaucrat is going to be leavened with a certain amount of existentialism, but Challinor chooses to downplay this aspect of Security by turning the inner world of his protagonist into an abstract mystery story… Just what is it that Anderson does? The central character suffers from that terrible and slightly paradoxical combination of boredom and stress that anyone who has ever done a job that didn’t interest them, yet found themselves with a petty tyrant as a boss will recognise. Partly because of this – and partly due to the nature of his company’s business – Anderson forces himself to plough through his daily routine by focussing purely on the mechanics of the task at hand. As a result, the bigger picture takes some time to come into focus and although the entire novel is steeped in a sinister atmosphere, it takes a while to work out exactly why.
All the same, there’s plenty of humour to be found within the pages of Security, but it is both bone dry and extremely dark, so don’t expect too many chuckles. And the inevitable existentialism of a bureaucrat’s story hasn’t been completely eradicated – despite the attempts of Anderson’s unconscious mind to roboticise himself. This existential aspect is most obvious in Anderson’s encounters with and thoughts about his family. We can only assume that these sterile relationships did not start out this way and are a direct result of the toll taken on his psyche by the job he performs. Perhaps.
Ultimately Challinor successfully avoids getting too bogged down either in the monotony of bureaucracy or the opaque family relationships of the protagonist. And he creates more than enough intrigue to prevent Anderson’s monotonous life turning into a monotonous novel. Like the great Leopold Bloom, while Anderson is a passive participant in his own life, his passivity does not weigh down the story he tells. Over the course of the (relatively short) novel Anderson’s conversations begin to reveal precisely what is going on around him – even if at some level he would rather they didn’t. And fittingly, his final significant conversation – with the wonderfully objectionable Eric Munt – reveals everything in the most explicit terms while also hinting at an even worse future to come.
Security, like Ken MacLeod’s excellent The Execution Channel, paints a bleak picture of a future that threatens to engulf us all should we allow it. A future that has already begun to creep backwards into the present (as the inmates of Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the cells at Bagram Airbase or a dozen other places whose names we don’t know can attest to), and which must be resisted at all costs. The alternative, as illustrated by Anderson, is too chilling to contemplate outside the pages of a novel.
Just a quick follow-up to my latest post over at On This Deity for those who’d like to find out more about visionary intellectual, Gregory Bateson. Although his work is finally beginning to emerge from obscurity where it has unjustifiably languished for too long, it’s still not easy to track it all down (remarkably, some of his books are currently out of print!)
Bateson’s work covered a host of different disciplines and the primary text for anyone who seeks to learn more about this revolutionary thinker is his collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. This book, at least, is currently in print and can be found in most good bookshops as well as in a number of online retailers. You can, of course, head over to Amazon and get it there where it will cost you a couple of quid less than if you were to buy it at – for example – Housmans. The reason you might want to spend that extra couple of pounds is explained on this page, What is wrong with using Amazon? Anyhoo, if you need to save some cash (and these days many of us do) then just search Amazon for the book. Alternatively use Housmans, or better yet your local independent bookstore, to get hold of Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
It’s worth stressing that Steps to an Ecology of Mind is simultaneously a frustrating and a rewarding read. Some of the essays are engaging and immediately illuminating, while others can be dry, technical and requiring of no little effort. And some essays manage to veer from one to the other (and back again). The book is split into six different sections and while it’s not strictly in chronological order, his later work (arguably when it all starts to coalesce into a singular coherent vision) can be found in the last two sections.
Part I (Metalogues) consists of a series of metalogues (imaginary conversations between Bateson and his daughter) which each illustrate a particular point, both in the content and the structure of the metalogue. They have titles such as Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?, What Is an Instinct? and Why a Swan? and together provide a wonderful introduction to many of the themes explored later in the book – though their easy accessibility is perhaps a little deceptive given what is to come!
Part II (Form and Pattern in Anthropology) covers – more or less – his anthropological work, though bear in mind that much of the point of the book is to demonstrate the interconnections between different systems, and one of the central essays in Part II is Morale and National Character which casts an anthropological eye over western cultures and would, therefore, be located by many people within sociology. It is within this section that Bateson’s “schismogenesis” concept is discussed and explained. He also covers Game Theory and makes his first tentative steps into cybernetics in Part II.
Part III (Form and Pathology in Relationship) covers, among other things, his double-bind theory of schizophrenia and his psychotherapeutic work. It also deals with his concept of “deuterolearning” (learning to learn) which is hugely important for our understanding of ourselves and the world. When properly applied, Bateson’s work on deuterolearning reveals why, for example, the type of militant atheism practiced by Richard Dawkins and others is ultimately self-defeating, and why consumer capitalism is so insidious and will prove so very difficult to counteract. As well as this, Part III covers communications theory and his Theory of Play.
Part IV (Biology and Evolution) contains, in my view, two of the most difficult pieces; The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution and A Re-examination of “Bateson’s Rule”; though this may be down to the fact that I’ve read very little else on the subject of biological science so many of the technical terms were unfamiliar to me. This section also includes a paper outlining the conclusions he drew from his work on dolphins with John C. Lilly.
Part V (Epistemology and Ecology) is where everything starts to be explicitly drawn together, though the interconnections are implicit in the previous sections. Along with Part VI (Crisis in the Ecology of Mind), this section essentially presents the reader with Bateson’s philosophy. Essays such as Conscious Purpose versus Nature, Pathologies of Epistemology and The Roots of Ecological Crisis contain, simply put, some of the most visionary writing I have ever encountered.
Beyond Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson published several other books. Below is a complete bibliography listed not in chronological or alphabetical order, but in order of importance. This is, therefore, a purely subjective order and shouldn’t be taken as gospel (also, I’ve not managed to get hold of the last two books on the list, so they are there by default).
Gregory Bateson bibliography
Steps to an Ecology of Mind The University of Chicago Press (1972, 2000). ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity Hampton Press (1979, 2002). ISBN 1-57273-434-5.
Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred
with Mary Catherine Bateson The University of Chicago Press (1988). ISBN 978-0553345810.
A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
edited by Rodney E. Donaldson Harper Collins (1991). ISBN 0-06-250110-3.
Naven Stanford University Press (1936, 1958). ISBN 0-804-70520-8.
Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis
with Margaret Mead New York Academy of Sciences (1942). ISBN 0-890-72780-5.
Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry
with Jurgen Ruesch W.W. Norton & Company (1951). ISBN 0-393-02377-X.
Gregory Bateson’s youngest daughter, Nora, has recently completed a film about the life and work of her father. Entitled – appropriately enough – An Ecology of Mind, the film is currently doing the rounds on the festival circuit as well as getting a limited number of screenings in academic and independent settings. I’ve not seen it yet (come to Dublin, please!) so may have to await the DVD release. But if it’s showing anywhere near you, then do pop along.
He’s name-checked – and his ideas are extensively discussed – in the independent German* film, Mindwalk, from 1990 (note: it’s an English language film for subtitle-phobes). Personally I enjoyed it and found it engaging, but it’s far from A Great Film. Recommended, though not essential viewing.
And some final links
There are a few recordings of Bateson lectures that I’ve managed to track down (not nearly enough, sadly). I highly recommend checking them out when you have a couple of hours to spare…
Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1)
Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 2)
Christopher Nolan’s new film had me intrigued the moment I heard about it. After the runaway success of his big-budget comic book caper, The Dark Knight, it felt like he’d been given a blank cheque and told to let his imagination run wild. What could the writer and director of the excellent Memento do when given a blockbuster-sized palette to paint on?
Now, personally I was far less impressed by The Dark Knight than most people seem to have been. By trying to force comic book characters into the real world, it fell uncomfortably between two stools. It went to such effort to depict a gritty and believable world, yet was littered with obvious fantastical elements that just didn’t gel properly with the setting. It’s perfectly acceptable for Superman to don a pair of glasses and become Clark Kent, unrecognisable even to those closest to him. It’s acceptable because we know this is a comic book and we expect to suspend our disbelief on such matters. But when the film-makers seem to be suggesting that Gotham City is a fictional place but one that plays by the rules of the real world, then Batman’s disguise (a mask that fails to cover most of his face and a silly voice) just becomes a hole in the plot.
That said, it was visually impressive. Undeniably so. Despite the partial retreat from comic book sensibility, it remained stylish and sumptuous. Shades of David Fincher. And it was this that made me so interested in Inception. The constraints you must accept in order to get your hands on a major studio franchise put serious limitations on a film-maker’s creativity (as Kevin Smith explains in this wonderful anecdote about working on a draft script for Superman). So given how amazing Memento is, I was more than willing to credit Nolan with the good parts of The Dark Knight and absolve him of responsibility for the bad.
Which is why Inception held so much promise. Suddenly Nolan had the big budget and the creative control. Plus Leonardo Di Caprio plays the lead character; an actor whose recent work with Scorsese has been excellent. And then I heard the majority of the film was set inside the dreams of a character and my anticipation turned to genuine excitement.
But, as you’ve probably guessed from my tone, I was setting myself — or rather, the movie — up for a fall. The basic story is a good one… di Caprio plays a spy who, with a combination of training and technology, can enter the dreams of others (and bring a team of accomplices with him). While in the dream, he can subtly direct the attention of the dreamer and so access their memories and unconscious. He uses this ability to steal top secret information for high-paying clients. Then, one day, he gets a different request… to enter someone’s dream and plant an idea that will blossom into conscious action once the dreamer awakes. Specifically, Cillian Murphy — who has just inherited his father’s industrial empire — must be convinced to break up that empire.
Frankly that’s a fantastic plot and it could definitely make a great book or movie.
Unfortunately, it’s never going to be a great movie in the big-guns-shiny-metal / Hollywood action blockbuster genre. Having a shed-load of money to throw at a film set in dreams could have resulted in something utterly spectacular. Instead we have car-chases through mundane streets, fist-fights in hotel rooms, gun battles in the snow; all of which go on for far longer than they need to. That there are three separate sequences occurring at three different levels of the same dream is a good plot device. That they are three rather clichéd action scenes is a terrible waste. Especially since none of them seemed in any way dream-like, with only the shift between them illustrating that they’re part of the same dream.
And ultimately this is my main criticism of the film. It’s great failing. The dream sequences that take up the majority of the film are almost never evocative of real dreams. There’s an occasional Escher-influenced staircase, a couple of set-pieces where the environment shifts in unpredictable ways and one or two other optical illusions that provide pleasing little jolts, but almost nothing is authentically dreamlike.
Dreams are the product of a collision between our conscious and our unconscious minds. But despite plenty of talk about it, Inception never truly accesses the unconscious. Everything feels solid and rational even when the characters insist it’s not. The interminable fight scenes are no different to the fight scenes in any action movie. A train suddenly appears out of nowhere during a car-chase, but you don’t think “oooh… just like in a dream!”. Because it’s not just like in a dream.
Yes, the bit when di Caprio’s character finally gets to “the bottom level” of the dream gets vaguely interesting, but it only lasts for a few brief minutes (unlike the constant fist-fights).
In the end I emerged from the cinema feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve subsequently read reviews that complained that the plot got too convoluted, which — frankly — was the precise opposite of my impression. The plot took a glorious premise, one that could have become a brain-bending, visually magnificent masterpiece and instead played it dreadfully safe, offering up an action movie with a minor twist. Which is sad, because I know there was the seed of a great film in there, and based on Memento I suspect Christopher Nolan could have made it.