category: Reviews

Jul 2011

Gregory Bateson bibliography and links

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

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.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind coverIt’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
    (published posthumously)
    with Mary Catherine Bateson
    The University of Chicago Press (1988). ISBN 978-0553345810.
  • A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
    (published posthumously)
    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.

There’s also a host of books available that draw heavily on Bateson’s work for inspiration, as well as others that directly address and expand upon it. This page at The Institute for Intercultural Studies contains a detailed list.

An Ecology of Mind: The film

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.

Bateson is also partly the inspiration for the central character in a novel by Tim Parks called Dreams of Rivers and Seas, though I confess I’ve not read it so I can’t really comment on either the portrayal of “Bateson” or on the quality of the novel as a whole (though it did receive positive reviews).

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)
  • Lecture on Orders of Change (Part 2**)

See also the Gregory Bateson page at the Institute of Intercultural Studies, plus check out this page on which provides links to a number of Bateson’s articles reproduced online.

* Bateson’s work is far better appreciated and well known in Germany than elsewhere for reasons I’m unable to explain

** I can’t for the life of me track down Part 1 of this lecture. If anyone has a copy, please point me towards it.

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Aug 2010


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?

Inception poster

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.

He just didn’t this time.

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Aug 2010


I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I read all of the original stories when I was a kid and again when I was ill a few years back (they’re perfect reading while ill… stimulating but not too taxing, and evocative enough to lift you out of your present circumstances and transport you elsewhere). I’ve also got the complete box-set of the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett* which is endlessly rewatchable. Brett’s eccentricity in the role is exactly how I imagined Holmes when I first read the stories. Others insist that the rather more restrained Basil Rathbone is the perfect Holmes. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion (absurd though it may be) but for me Jeremy Brett will always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I heard about the new BBC adaptation. Updated to modern London and given the faintly irritating first-name-only title of “Sherlock”, it had the potential to be rather ridiculous. As I said to Citizen S when we sat down to watch the first episode, “99% of television is utter crap, so statistically this is likely to be utter crap”.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson

Well, having seen the first two episodes, I am very happy to be proved wrong. It’s actually rather good. The production has managed to update the characters and setting while somehow retaining enough of that stately Victorian grace that defined the Granada series. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes far closer to the Brett than Rathbone end of the spectrum. In the first episode he describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”, a kind of nonsense pseudoscientific phrase that nonetheless suits the character perfectly (and I don’t mean that in a bad way).

There’s a dry humour to the proceedings that drifts just close enough to sheer silliness for enjoyment but never crosses the line and bursts the bubble of dramatic tension. And for those intimately familiar with the source material, there are a vast array of knowing winks and nods to the original Holmes. The “three patch problem” line made me laugh out loud and Holmes’ use of a smartphone to discover that Cardiff was the only place that had the appropriate weather to fit the facts was the perfect update of the original character’s constant trawling through newspapers and reference books.

Interestingly, the heart of the adaptation is Watson. Played wonderfully by Martin Freeman, he’s brought far more to the fore than in previous screen outings, or indeed than in the original stories. Like the original Watson, Freeman is a military surgeon returned from active duty overseas and clearly misses the action. Action he finds aplenty when he teams up with Holmes.

Apparently the BBC have only commissioned three episodes, so the final one will be next Sunday. If you’ve not seen the first two, then I’d advise you to track them down this week (if you’re in the UK then they’re probably on iPlayer… if you’re not, then you might have to wade into the murky waters of the torrent networks, though you didn’t hear that from me) and watch them before the final episode.

It’s a clever, well-written series with new mysteries that nonetheless retain a similar atmosphere to the originals. It’s not the best thing you’ll ever see, not even the best Holmes you’ll ever see, but it is part of that elusive 1% of television that’s not utter crap.

And for that, I am thankful.

* Aside: I met Jeremy Brett once. He was a neighbour of a friend of mine and he invited us in for a sherry one evening. Yes, a sherry! He was exactly as I expected him to be… a wonderful gentleman of the Old School.

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May 2010

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Last week I was lucky enough to get free tickets to a preview screening of American: The Bill Hicks Story. I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Hicks since the early 1990s. To my eternal regret, I discovered him about two weeks after his last gig in the UK. I remember first watching a video of Relentless* — the Montreal show that paved the way for his international success — and realising immediately that almost all stand-up comedy I’d encountered ’til that point had been complete shit.

At the time I was fascinated by the idea of rockstar-as-shaman; the jester figure who nonetheless holds the power to effect real change… shifting consciousness and perspective. And by extension, culture and politics. I saw Bill Hicks doing the same thing in a different medium. The least mediated of all ‘the media’, in fact. People were showing up, and paying, just to hear him talk. And not always simply because he made them laugh… some at least, wanted to listen to him proselytize. To hear what he had to say.

And I was one of them. When his comedy veered too far into polemic he’d joke about being “at the wrong meeting”, but I always wanted to know where that other meeting was. And could I go? Even now, sixteen years after his death, a new film about Bill Hicks is an exciting prospect to me.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

But is it an exciting film? Well, the first thing to point out is that any film liberally peppered with clips of Hicks at work is going to find it hard to make me dislike it. And I certainly didn’t. But I’d be lying if I said it was all I’d hoped for. If anything I was itching for more clips of Bill and less of the surrounding narrative. Not because an exciting film can’t be made about the life of Bill Hicks, but because this one sadly falls a little short.

Perhaps there is an inevitability to that, though. When the subject of a biography is famous for his consummate skill as a speaker, it’s always going to be a let-down when most of the film involves other people speaking about him. In many ways, the 1994 documentary (It’s Just A Ride) produced by Channel 4 and found on the Totally Bill Hicks DVD is better because it tells more of the story through Bill’s own performances.

Using animated photo montages and the occasional ‘talking head’, American: The Bill Hicks Story is told in a rather matter-of-fact manner that never really gets at the deeper issues that inspired and drove him. We’re told about his strict parents, religious upbringing and consequent rebellion against that authority. We learn of his battle with alcohol, his psychedelic awakening and his sense of futility when faced with the twin walls of indifference and hostility that the American public threw up around him. But it’s all conveyed in a rather blank and unengaging way. It’s like someone reading out the recipe for your favourite meal, but never allowing you to taste it.

Sixteen years ago Bill Hicks became one of my major influences. Mix tapes I put together at the time had snippets of his material between some of the tracks. Phrases and phrasing from his routines became shared jokes among my friends; and not always because they were the funniest lines. Often it was because Hicks simply got to the root of an issue more succinctly than anyone else could… is there a better analogy for the US military-industrial complex than “Pull up G-12”? Can anyone top his “… so I said “forgive me” as an example of the deep contradictions we routinely gloss over in our lives? Thanks to Bill Hicks it became possible to enunciate the words “Drink Coke” in such a way as to make reference to the inherently pornographic nature of commercial advertising and the tendency of modern society to reduce even the most sacred of things to yet more fuel for the engines of profit… to be consumed and shat out like everything else. All that; merely by adding a pause and a particular intonation to an existing advertising slogan.

Even today, among fans of Bill Hicks, that short-hand is still going strong. When a TV commercial tries to sell us something using the music of a once-respected artist, the phrase “sucking Satan’s pecker” comes unbidden to our minds. When we hear yet another X-Factor wannabe popstar clone sleepwalk through a classic song, we silently scream “play from your fucking heart!” at our TV or radio. And every time a politician scares us with tales of some foreign threat to our way of life, we see Bill Hicks playing the role of Jack Palance in Shane.

Hicks was an incredibly funny man. Not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but if you got him then you really got him. Beyond that, however, he was a cultural commentator and social critic with truly rare insight. A man who courageously spoke the truth even when he knew it was torpedoing his own career. In our modern world of crass commercialism and unfettered consumption, where the corporate media is working overtime to hide from us the consequences of our suicidal lifestyles, the voice of Bill Hicks is sorely missed.

As for American: The Bill Hicks Story? Any film that allows you to see snippets of Bill’s stand-up on the big screen is to be recommended. And perhaps the fact that — as a longtime fan — there was little in the film that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t already know, means that I’m being unfairly critical on what may well be a wonderful treat for those less familiar with his work. Overall, it’s far from a ‘bad’ film. And if it turns a few more people onto the work of the great man… then it’s a very welcome addition to the unjustly slim body of work by — and about — Bill Hicks.

* Those of you looking to track down Relentless should be warned that the 2006 DVD release is rather poor when compared with the original VHS. Firstly it’s a different performance (same festival, different night) and Hicks isn’t having quite as good a show. On top of that, the image quality — bizarrely — is worse than the video. But most annoyingly of all, almost 15 minutes of material has been mysteriously left out. The DVD still represents a great hour of stand-up, but if you can track down an old VHS copy, you’ll have a much better experience.

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Apr 2010

The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Road when it was first published. It was one of the first novels I read upon my return to Dublin and it royally pissed me off. See, I’d written about four chapters of a book that — had I continued it — would have been described as derivative at best, and a total rip-off at worst. In my version, a boy and his mother were walking across a post-apocalyptic America in the hope of somehow getting a boat that would take them to Ireland. I vividly recall the moment, not far into The Road, when my rising frustration erupted into a bellow of “Fuck it!”

I threw the book across the room and went to see if anything of my own work could be salvaged. It couldn’t. Not only were the plots too similar, but — once I’d finally calmed down and read the whole thing — the central themes turned out to be almost identical. It’s fortunate that I hadn’t got further, I suppose.

The Road

Anyhoo, that’s neither here nor there. Having just watched the film, it’s that I want to discuss. And it’s a film that merits discussion. As regular readers of my writing will be aware, I believe that humanity is approaching a crisis… may indeed be in the early stages of it. I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where disaster and complete collapse are inevitable, though. I feel that the sooner we begin planning and implementing steps to avoid calamity, the more chance we have of preventing the sort of bleak outcome envisioned by McCarthy.

Our writers and film-makers — artists of any kind — are often the best weather-vanes our culture has got. Fiction about disasters, whether on paper or celluloid, is certainly nothing new, but the huge amount of it over the past few years seems, to me at least, to be an obvious response to our collective anxieties about Climate Change, peak oil… unsustainability in general. Storm clouds are gathering on our horizon and this has not gone unnoticed.

None of which is meant to imply that the grim and very upsetting picture of the future painted by McCarthy and John Hillcoat (the director of the film adaptation) is likely to happen, or even that I think it’s a genuine possibility. The dark view of humanity presented in The Road isn’t one I necessarily share. Certainly people are capable of even the worst of the atrocities described in the story, but I tend to question the proportion of “bad guys” to “good guys” (to use the parlance of the film). In both book and film we are presented with a world where the people determined to keep the fire of human decency alive are vastly outnumbered by those who have resorted to savagery. It’s my belief, and fervent hope, that this is a pessimistic assessment of the human soul.

The film itself is an amazing piece of work. From the opening scene of vibrant greens, yellows and reds — trees and flowers soon to be extinguished — to the dark browns and greys that characterise the blasted landscape of the majority of the film, The Road is never less than visually impressive. “Visually impressive” may seem like a strange way to describe a film that draws almost exclusively from a palette of washed-out grey, but there’s a haunting quality to the cinematography that prevents it from ever being dull to the eye.

The basic plot revolves around a father and son (The Man and The Boy) attempting to make their way south to the coast. The planet has all but died and almost everyone who remains has resorted to cannabilism to eke out some extra time. The Man is played by Viggo Mortensen in yet another role that marks him out as a truly accomplished actor. He was brilliant in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and even more mesmeric here as a man torn between his willingness to do anything to protect his son and his desire to offer the boy a glimpse of something other than the ugly brutality of the world they find themselves in. He wants to raise his son to be good and decent and noble, but is aware that those traits might well turn out to be liabilities… could even get him killed some day. In one of the central scenes of the film, the boy rebukes his father by telling him that he can no longer tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

Indeed, we soon come to realise that just as the father is trying to teach his son to be one of the good guys, it is only through this very effort that he himself retains a grip on goodness. Without the need to provide an example to the boy, we suspect that Mortensen’s character would himself be lost; if not to brutality then certainly to death.

The young actor who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son — Kodi Smit-McPhee — is probably the weak link in the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the kid. He truly and honestly does as good a job as any actor his age could do with the role and he certainly doesn’t constantly irritate the way so many child actors do. But the fact of the matter is, the kind of performance required by the role isn’t one that any child has the emotional maturity to achieve. As I say though, he does as well as anyone his age could and never spoils things.

Quite aside from anything else, Mortensen’s something of a method actor and his haggard looks suggest several weeks of borderline malnutrition. In the one scene where we see the boy’s body, his shrunken torso is clearly the result of some clever CGI… subjecting him to the kind of dietary regime that left Mortensen looking genuinely underfed would be nothing short of child abuse, and this is revealed in his obviously well-fed face. Again though, that’s hardly the kid’s fault.

One of the two most unpleasant images of the book was omitted from the film, but the other was retained (albeit only briefly). Indeed I was quite surprised that the film so rarely strays from the book. On the one hand this has made it a good deal better than almost any of Hollywood’s other apocalypse movies. On the other hand, it ensured that the relentlessly grim atmosphere of McCarthy’s original seeps out through the screen and leaves you feeling rather drained and mildly depressed after watching it.

That said, I’d recommend The Road to fans of good, thoughtful cinema. It’s dark, horrific at times and rarely offers a smile (there’s a single blackly cynical line from Robert Duvall’s character that provides perhaps the only humour in the entire film). Overall, The Road will leave you feeling quite deflated and perhaps even a little troubled. But for all that, it’s a fine film that never betrays the original vision of the book. And how often does one of them come along?

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Apr 2010

Here Lies Love

As even a casual reader of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of David Byrne. Hell, the blog title is lifted from the lyrics to one of his songs. In 1986 I bought my first album; a vinyl copy of Remain In Light, arguably the best recording in Talking Heads’ magnificent catalogue. Arguably the best recording I own (and I have a large record collection). I bought it on the strength of a mix tape that my friend, P, had made for me. It wasn’t long before I’d bought everything Talking Heads had released, plus the handful of solo albums and collaborations that Byrne had put out up to that point. And they told us that Home Taping was Killing Music.

Since then I’ve gotten hold of everything Byrne has produced; the mainstream releases, the mail-order-only stuff, bootlegs, demos and one-off collaborations on other people’s records. These days my need to be a completist has fallen by the wayside, except when it comes to David Byrne (well, him and Stina Nordenstam, but she’s not exactly prolific). I’m still genuinely excited when I hear about a new Byrne record (or book or tour). His music does everything I want from music. It makes me think, it makes me feel and it makes me want to shake my body rhythmically. Often all three simultaneously.

Because he’s really not let me down in a career spanning 33 years*, I’ve learnt to trust his instincts. So if he thinks that a double-album about the life of Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas (the woman who raised her) with a different vocalist on each track and Fatboy Slim providing beats on about half the record is a good idea, then I’m more than happy to see where he goes with that.

Here Lies Love

And true to form, he’s gone somewhere quite splendid. Here Lies Love is a glorious record. I’m not going to say it’s better or worse than any other thing he’s done, but it holds its own with the best of his work.

Kicking off with the title track sung by Florence Welch, I finally have a song that lets me see what everyone else sees in Florence and The Machine, who — I confess — don’t really do it for me (“overhyped advertising jingles” was how I described FATM recently… but then, I tend to say that about almost anyone who allows corporations to use their music for consumerist propaganda). Byrne’s trademark “strings-and-latin-beats” form the basis of the track, but Welch’s soaring vocals and Fatboy Slim’s thumping bass create a truly ecstatic chorus that I defy anyone not to be humming long after the song’s over.

And it’s this fusion that elevates the record above pretty much any dance-pop out there right now. The vocalists all bring something wonderful to their songs, Fatboy Slim’s club sensibilities are evident throughout, but it never stops being a David Byrne record. There are echoes of Talking Heads all over the place (in fact it’s possibly the most ‘Talking Heads’-esque thing he’s done in years) along with the strings and latin percussion that fans of his solo work know and love.

It’s all there and it all works wonderfully.

While concept albums are often justly criticised for the triteness of the story they shoehorn into the lyrics, this one works superbly. Byrne is one of the great lyricists, despite his tendency towards self-deprecation in this area (“lyrics are just there to fool people into listening to the music”, he once said) and he’s really on form here. The story is deftly woven around the beats. And what a story it is too. Byrne is less interested in the politics than he is in the psychological factors that drove Imelda from her humble beginnings amid the poverty of the Philippine slums to the palaces and power of her latter years. As he says in the publicity for the record… “no, the shoes don’t get mentioned”… instead the focus is on her early life and the burning ambition it instilled within her. Her hunger for power along with her willingness to use her sexuality and sensuality to manipulate the men around her are the central themes here. And remember, those men included Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung and Colonel Gaddafi amongst many others.

While there’s a tiny part of me that’s a little disappointed not to hear more of Byrne’s vocals (he sings American Troglodyte and features on a couple of others including a duet with the breathtaking Shara Worden), there’s honestly not a single vocalist out of the 22 that fail to impress. Steve Earle is the only male voice (aside from Byrne) which perhaps makes his song, A Perfect Hand stand out a little further from the crowd than would otherwise be the case. But each and every singer is perfectly matched to their song. Tori Amos makes You’ll Be Taken Care Of her own, so after a couple of listens you couldn’t imagine one of the others singing it. And the same is true of them all.

Cyndi Lauper’s vocal on Eleven Days is oddly reminiscent of Prince during the good years. The dialogue / duet on Every Drop of Rain is utterly captivating with its description of slum life and the struggle to retain dignity while living on scraps and handouts

They called us garage people
Where we lived there, you and me
When you’re poor — it’s like you’re naked
And every drop of rain you feel

When it rained we slept on boxes
There was water all around

But the people in the big house
Never bothered to find out
No clothes, no bed, no jewelry
Sometimes I had no shoes

A typhoon came — the house collapsed
And the neighbors passed us food

Of them all, though — if I had to pick one — the ambiguous ode to repression, Order 1081, stands out with Natalie Merchant managing to sound plaintive and powerful all at once. A genuinely cracking track.

And all the while, Byrne and Fatboy Slim are turning these strange psychological ballads into music you can dance to. I’m utterly captivated by this record and suspect I will be for some time to come.

* He’s released some stuff that I don’t listen to very often, but nothing I’d consider bad.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Music reviews

Mar 2010

Discovering a new band

I was in town today and found myself with an hour to kill before the next bus home. I have an established routine for such situations… firstly a trip to Hodges & Figgis on Dawson Street, Ireland’s largest bookstore (famously mentioned in Ulysses) where I’m more than happy to spend a whole afternoon in sedate browsing. Despite having been absorbed by the massive HMV group, the shop still retains a quiet charm and a real sense of history.

Even though it’s possible to spend several hours in Hodges & Figgis, I like to leave 20 minutes before the bus so I can spend a little while wandering around Tower Records on Wicklow Street, a shop that completely transcends its ‘franchise’ nature and contains one of the best selections of non-mainstream music in the city. As I approached the record shop I could hear music emerging through the open door. “Could that possibly be a Joy Division track I’ve not heard?” was my initial thought.

Unlikely. I’ve got all their albums (including the 4-disc Heart & Soul boxset) and I’m pretty damn familiar with them all.

As I crossed the Tower threshold, the music became clearer and it was fairly obvious that it wasn’t Joy Division. Instead it sounded for all the world like what The Jesus and Mary Chain would sound like if they reformed as a Joy Division tribute band. But in a very good way.

I’d no idea who it was, but I was really digging them as I browsed the usual places… no, still no Legendary Pink Dots since I’d bought the last two albums they’d stocked. But at least they had one of those plastic dividers with “LEGENDARY PINK DOTS” typed across the top. A silent promise. Nor could I find the new Peter Gabriel album which contains an amazing cover of the Talking Heads classic “Listening Wind”, which was good enough to make me resolve to buy the album when I see it.

I continued to browse (got tempted to buy the CD/DVD package to Bowie’s Reality Tour) and continued to enjoy the music playing at a pleasing volume over the P.A. system. David Byrne’s latest project (the soundtrack to a musical he wrote about the life of Imelda Marcos; the music a collaboration with Fat Boy Slim) positively demanded I buy it, but my resolve to not spend more than €30 on this visit meant that I had to be careful with the decision. And I found myself — almost without noticing — carrying the recent CD reissue of “Tracks and Traces” (a 1976 collaboration between Brian Eno and Harmonia) around the shop with me. It soon became apparent that part of me was not going to permit the rest of me to leave the shop without it.

So that was one.

I briefly toyed with buying the new Gorillaz album. But it was a very brief flirtation. I have a fair amount of time for Damon Albarn these days and dug the first Gorillaz album a lot. The b-sides and remix album from the same period was also pretty excellent, though the second studio record was a bit of a let down.

And all the while, the Joy Division vs The Jesus and Mary Chain groove had me nodding my head as I wandered the aisles. I still had no idea who it was, but by now the faint twang of Americana had me fairly convinced that I was listening to something from the US East Coast rather than Manchester or Scotland. Eventually a track came on (which I later discovered was called “The Sinking”) which gave me little choice but to walk to the counter and find out who I was listening to.

Alight of Night

Alight of Night by Crystal Stilts.
An excellent album.

Approaching the desk, still clutching “Tracks and Traces”, I asked the girl at the till who we were listening to. She grabbed a CD from behind the desk and I saw an unfamiliar cover and a name I didn’t recognise. The album was called “Alight of Night” by New York band Crystal Stilts, released in 2008. Much to my amusement and delight, the shop assistant had put a sticker on the front of the jewel case. “Recommended for fans of Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain”, it read.

I couldn’t not buy it. The last one in the shop (I wasn’t the first person to buy it on the strength of hearing it in-store apparently). Which is how for a total of €29.98 I emerged from Tower Records with the Eno & Harmonia reissue and an album I didn’t even know existed 30 minutes earlier.

I only just made my bus.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Music reviews

Mar 2010

Avatar 3D

I went into this film with fairly low expectations. I’ve nothing against Hollywood blockbusters and feel no shame about admitting that Michael Ironside intoning “They sucked his brains out!” in Starship Troopers remains one of my favourite cinematic moments of all time. My tastes are quite eclectic; Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano is probably my favourite film-maker (in fact, I watched the glorious Hana-bi again recently. It really is one of the greatest films ever made… dreamlike, moving, violent, funny, hypnotic and as far from a Hollywood blockbuster as you’re likely to get), yet I’ve happily grinned my way through all four Die Hard movies.


Even so, I was quite sceptical about the latest James Cameron spectacular. I’d read some scathing reviews and pretty much convinced myself that the 3D technology wasn’t going to be effective.

That said, I wasn’t going to miss it either. Even the most negative review grudgingly admitted Avatar is visually spectacular. How could it not be, given the absurd amount of money spent ensuring it would be? Throw enough money at a cinema screen and some of it will stick. Plus, there was always a chance that the silly glasses would really work. So if I was going to see it at all, then it probably had to be on a big screen. It’s like being at a U2 concert or watching the space shuttle blast off… whatever you may feel about the content of the experience, if you’re close enough then the way it engages the senses is incredible. Our small monkey brains can’t help but be awed by the sheer scale of what’s happening.

And “awe” is not too hyperbolic a word to be bandying about when it comes to Avatar. The film didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them into a billion tiny glowing bits and sent them floating around me like a swarm of fireflies. The 3D effect was far better than I’d expected. It was genuinely magical at times. I’d never been to a 3D film before, but it’s safe to say I’m an instant convert. Thankfully it involved a good deal less “gratuitous objects flying towards your head” than I thought it would. In a movie low on subtlety, the use of 3D was immersive without being over-the-top. Credit to James Cameron for his restraint there, even if nowhere else.

Clearly he knew the visuals were breath-taking enough to generate plenty of “whoa!” moments all by themselves. The clever use of the 3D technology just draws the viewer that little bit further into the experience. So when one of the primary locations in the story is a tree that would dwarf the Burj Dubai, adding a convincing depth of field is more than enough to start the brain reeling. Forcing the viewer to duck as projectiles shot towards them every thirty seconds would merely serve to distract from the splendour.

Which isn’t to say that there’s none of that more obvious use of 3D. The plot of the film involves human colonists (in the form of a dastardly mining corporation backed by gung-ho space marines) trying to relocate, and eventually annihilate, the Na’vi (the indigenous culture on the ecologically pristine planet Pandora). The blue-skinned Na’vi fight with spears and bows-and-arrows. This, of course, allows the spectacular battle sequences to contain the requisite amount of “objects flying at your head” action.

In the reviews I’ve read, the primary criticisms of Avatar centre around the plot and the dialogue. With regards to the plot though, there’s a part of me that disagrees. Yes it’s simple. But, fantastical setting aside, it’s telling an archetypical tale that echoes back into history and is alive and well on our planet today. The destructive exploitation of our ecology at the expense of indigenous cultures — and ultimately ourselves — is not a tale that can be told too often. Nor too loudly. Especially now.

Having said that, I’m well aware that there’s an argument which says that particular story can’t be told in a Hollywood blockbuster. That the medium is the message. An argument convincingly put forward by Citizen S, with whom I went to see Avatar. She found the film entertaining and the 3D very impressive despite not being a fan of the Big Guns & Shiny Metal genre. But she looked upon me with something akin to pity when I started to praise “the message” of the film.

Avatar Big Mac meal

The Big Mac Avatar Meal: Not a parody

The essentially commercial nature of the enterprise undercuts and invalidates any anti-commercial message it tries to send. The calculated manipulative techniques used by the medium to generate the maximum audience, and then the businesses that have grown up to part that audience from their cash — from popcorn to action figures to… well, just think about that pictured tie-in, to the right, for a few seconds… these things are themselves precisely the kind of colonialism the film claims to decry. When the soundtrack swells with those “strings in minor key”, tugging your heart down proscribed pathways, and then shifts abruptly to major chords when the hero strides towards his destiny, you are being trained in a very specific way of looking at the world. And you’re being encouraged to have a hamburger and Coke while you do so. You just can’t dress up an anti-colonialist story about ecological sustainability in half a billion dollar’s worth of industrial light and magic part-sponsored by the McDonald’s Corporation.

I think that was the gist of her argument.

Certainly it began with: “it’s a Hollywood action film. Get a grip.”

And you know, despite the sensory delight and sheen of subversion, there’s certainly something to that.

Although I think perhaps it goes even deeper than that. When what is already the most successful film in history, turns out to be a thinly veiled attack on the very system that allows it to exist, it’s yet more evidence of our deep cultural crisis. Our collective schizophrenia.

Wouldn’t it be mind boggling to encounter a previously unknown Amazonian culture and discover that their most popular story-tellers regularly portrayed the tribe as cynical hypocrites filled with avarice and malice, always in the wrong? And yet the past few decades have been littered with fiction of precisely that nature. Whether it’s Dances With Wolves (of which Avatar is essentially a remake with an upbeat ending) or Cameron’s own Aliens (“You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”) or the plethora of “apocalypse as thrilling entertainment” flicks. Besides our own, is there a single culture we’ve ever known, whose great stories and myths regularly portray themselves as the bad guys?

Whether or not we can take heart in the positive aspects of Avatar’s plot, it is clearly part of a body of work that suggests we are a culture in the grip of a nervous breakdown.

And how much hope can we take in the fact, that while the most popular film in history is not telling a story that celebrates unsustainability, its very existence does?

So to speak.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Jan 2010

Top TV

The Guardian has recently published a list of the 50 Greatest Television Dramas of all time. As I’ve written before, I don’t watch an awful lot of TV because almost all TV is awful. But I am a sucker for a well-written series containing genuine character development and unexpected plot lines. They only appear very occasionally, but when they do they can hold their own against a good novel or film.

The Guardian’s list contains a fair few shows that I’ve never seen and plenty that I have seen and don’t rate. For instance, the over-hyped Mad Men (No. 4 on their list) I found dull as dishwater and never made it past the third episode. Shows such as Prime Suspect (#19) and Inspector Morse (#30) seem flat, lifeless and formulaic to me. Especially if you’ve got something like The Wire (#14) on the list which demonstrates that you can make a show about the police without it being a hymn to law and order; a hagiography of The Cop… see, for example, Hill Street Blues (#33) or — in the words of Hakim Bey — the “most evil TV show ever”.

I was glad to see that Buffy The Vampire Slayer (#22) made the list, even if it’s a lot further down that I think it deserves to be. I noticed there was some controversy about that in the comments that followed the article (though you can stir up a hornets nest of dissent over at The Guardian by suggesting that the sky might be blue and rain a bit wet). I firmly believe that those who decry Buffy have either (a) never watched it beyond flicking into it for five minutes as they channel surf between Celebrity Big Brother and How Clean Is My House; or (b) been unable or unwilling to see beyond the 90210 with Monsters facade that covers this incredible piece of work.

There’s no way I could make a top 50 TV shows list as I don’t think there’s half that number that I’d consider even watchable, let alone worthy of recommendation. But as a brief response to The Guardian, here’s my Top 15 (I thought I’d only be able to produce a Top 10 and was surprised that there were as many as 13 that I consider genuinely worth recommending… the last two made it in as much to make up the numbers as anything else; fine shows but not essential).

  1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (including Angel, the spin-off)
  2. The Wire
  3. Breaking Bad
  4. Twin Peaks
  5. Six Feet Under
  6. Firefly
  7. Carnivale
  8. Dexter
  9. Dollhouse
  10. Millennium
  11. Veronica Mars
  12. The X-Files
  13. Battlestar Galactica
  14. The West Wing
  15. Lie to me

5 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » TV reviews

Jan 2010

War & The Noble Savage

The latest book from my friend and fellow traveller, Gyrus, is subtitled “A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilized Peoples”. Over the past few years a debate has been raging… quietly raging, but raging nonetheless… regarding the nature of pre-civilized human society. In this slim but incisive volume, Gyrus summarises the debate and adds to it. Signficantly, in my view.

War and The Noble Savage

There is a tendency within our culture (perhaps within humanity, though anthropology suggests that it’s not universal, merely rather prevalent) to reduce everything to a kind of oppositional dualism. To polarise every debate. The baddies and the goodies. Yin and Yang. Male and female. Left and Right. I find this tendency rather unsatisfactory as it often (usually!) ends up simplifying issues to the point of uselessness.

The debate regarding pre-civilized cultures; specifically regarding the questions of whether they are/were more or less violent than civilized cultures and whether they are/were more or less ecologically conscientious than civilized cultures; has followed that general tendency and become polarised. On the one hand there’s the view — generally attributed to Rousseau — that pre-civilized peoples were “Noble Savages”. On the other hand there’s the view expressed by Hobbes that primitive life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

These two positions (both of which appear to have started life as thought-experiments, rather than deeply held convictions) have led to various kinds of caricature. The post-Hobbesians paint a ridiculous Dances With Wolves-esque idyllic utopia — minus the inter-tribal warfare scenes — picture of the other side, and insist they are guilty of nostalgia and wishful thinking. This is of course compounded by New Age primitivists with their Back to Nature rhetoric. On the other hand, the post-Hobbesians are themselves painted as deluded apologists for progress; desperately trying to portray the past as hellish even as civilisation destroys the future.

Where Gyrus, characteristically, succeeds is by refusing to be taken in by the propaganda of either established camps and instead casting a genuinely critical eye over the claims of both. In doing so, I believe he likely comes as close to the truth of the matter as we’re going to get — given the difficulties involved in establishing facts when discussing prehistoric societies and/or modern indigenous societies prior to our contact with them.

War & The Noble Savage is accessible, educational and well-written enough to be described as entertaining. It serves as a fine rebuttal to the recent tendency to view the past through a Hobbesian lens while never succumbing to the seduction of nostalgia or primitivism. I’m pretty much going to insist that my few regular readers (and the rest of you too!) buy it (think of it as returning the favour for the excellent service I’ve been providing here for several years, ahem). It’s privately published and costs a paltry four pounds (including P&P… people outside the UK add a quid for postage). Even if this isn’t a subject that traditionally you’d be interested in (though you’ll be surprised at how relevant it is to all manner of other areas of debate), you should still buy it in order to support the kind of independent research and publishing that the author, and others, undertake.

Overall, War & The Noble Savage is an important contribution to an important debate. For those interested in an introduction to the subject (while you’re waiting for the book to be delievered) Gyrus has given some talks on this subject, one of which was recently turned into a Slidecast which you can listen to on his website for free.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews