Saturday, October 30, 2004

Nothing like a balanced opinion

I’m laughing uproariously and it’s not even comedy:

George W Bush is… well, he’s… Jesus, where do you start? He blinks, he mumbles, he lets a sentence trail off, starts a new one, then reverts back to whatever he was saying in the first place. Each time he recalls a statistic (either from memory or the voice in his head), he flashes us a dumb little smile, like a toddler proudly showing off its first bowel movement.

The rest of this is here, but sadly not on its original website — the Guardian, of all newspapers, took it down because of its final sentence. Grr.

Chapel of the Snows

Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Antarctica - (c) Keith C Dreher

Why start with a photo of a distinctly average–looking chapel? Because this is the romantically–named Chapel of the Snows, which is the world’s most southerly place of worship. Not surprising, since it’s located at McMurdo Station, Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica.

The history of the place is fascinating. I won’t go into the geology, as the respectful conflict between human and landscape here is what interests me, and what made me discover more about the area. Ross Island was discovered in 1841 by James Clark Ross who sailed the area in his ship Terror, whose Lieutenant, Archibald McMurdo, inspired the naming of McMurdo Sound.

In 1902, Robert Falcon Scott landed on Ross Island from his ship, the Discovery, and used the area as a base, building a hut there in the same year. He — and, later, Shackleton — used the hut as an exploration base.

Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale WSW and SW. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

R. Scott

Last entry.
For God’s sake look after our people.

Scott and his men had placed the first ever building on Antarctic ice, and the hut is still there today, protected as a historic site under the Antarctic Treaty (which also rather chaotically divides the continent into different ‘claims’ like this. Some news links: Antarctic Huts Conservation Cash Plea (a couple of weeks ago), Exploring Nations Asked for Help (end of July 2004).

The hut is kept locked at all times, and undergoes a programme of patching and restoration, but will eventually disintegrate. Stepping inside really is like entering a time capsule as all the original fixtures and fittings are there: the men’s bunks, the stove — and outside, a dead seal which has lain there for nearly 100 years: no–longer–needed dogfood. (Since seals are the only viable local food source for sledge–dogs, instead of killing the seals, dogs have been banned from setting paw on Antarctic ice since sometime in the 80s.) People do steal things from inside the hut — one guy returned a stolen biscuit after 30 years of guilt.

McMurdo Station, a US base, was first established early in the 1950s and has grown from a tiny outpost next to Scott’s hut to a sprawling complex which houses 1,100 people and yet still does not dwarf the strong historical presence of the hut (excellent photo here).

A fascinating page about the conservation of the Scott Hut, and others, with photos, is here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Law Enforcement

I just found this fucking wonderful prose–poem by Jay Orff in the latest GutCult. It’s one of two published; the other one I read first. It seemed lighthearted and had a jocular, conversational tone. At the start, I was able to approach this one in the same way, — but my grin became raised eyebrows and sombre, open eyes. Go. Read. Shoo!

Vermont …sigh…

Someone doesn’t seem too happy with the countryside life:

I’m not falling for the pumpkins this time. No amount of fog–on–pond in the morning, red maple trees, or fresh cider is going to distract me from what the state so desperately wants me to forget: winter is coming… There was hoarfrost on the grass along the road to work a full three weeks ago. In the mornings now there is a bite and a chill; the dogs fill the air with steam when they run out to the pond… I am living somebody's bucolic rural fantasy. I wake up in the morning to slanting yellow sunlight, many times with cello music filtering up from the room below (I live with a concert cellist). The sound is soft but fills the entire house, now that the birds have flown and the frogs are sleeping somewhere in the muck… Whoever this bucolic fantasy belongs to (and I suspect it's some burnt out middle-aged city dweller who wants to drink cocoa and wear reindeer sweaters), they are welcome to it.

Well! The ungrateful woman! She wants her city life back and is moving to New York! Oh! The shame! [cheeky smile] Well, Maciej, there’s a twentysomething guy right here in a city who’s not burnt out or middle–aged at all, and who’d love that kind of winter — for a winter or two. I’d not go for an escape as much as a change: I love my technology and my city life. But as a writer I’m always aware that if I was dragged somewhere I didn'’t have those things, I’d definitely write more. These days I write best over winter. And since that’s so, a Vermont winter is as good, if not better, than any other. Sign me up!, and have my bedroom.

Although I suppose the cello tuning could get a bit much.

And here are some outrageously cute, big–eyed Swedish kittens. (via Incoming Signals.)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Do you believe in time travel?

If you think it’s all a crock of shit, chances are that you’ll hate this review. Just thought I’d say that before we get started.

I’ve been thinking of writing a combined review of the original Donnie Darko and the Director’s Cut ever since I watched the latter. And I was aware that, in writing a review, I’d need to be able to explain the film’s more… surreal aspects.

So I did a lot of thinking. And got a few passing headaches. Now, for all you confused people, I’ve written a description of the film’s own narrative from start to finish, to remind you of the important bits, and an explanation of the time–travel elements of the film. It opens in a new window because it’s large, but it’s on this site, don’t worry. It will ruin the film for you on so many levels if you haven’t yet seen it so spoiler warning! Click here for it.

The first thing to say about Donnie Darko is that its construction is of secondary importance to its sheer quality as a satisfying piece of film art. By art I don’t mean craft; by craft I don’t mean ingenuity. I mean characters, the resourcefulness of Jake Gyllenhaal, the steely sensitivity of Katharine Ross, the sardonic benevolence of Drew Barrymore.

The story is a paragon of ingenuity — although not in terms of the sinuous and infuriating plot. In a phase of cinema history where both Titanic and Schindler’s List, even though on very different ends of the artistic scale, are both pitched so that 100% understanding of the screened visuals and emotional content are expected by 100% of the audience, Donnie Darko deliberately pitches itself higher.

In the cinema on a first viewing, an average viewer will get the point of only 80–90% of the visuals and about 50% or less of the content; an attentive viewer may get the point of 100% of the visuals but there will be a good 30% of film time that he or she just doesn’t understand. And yet — and this is down to the acting and direction — everyone leaves the cinema fascinated, asking questions, wanting more.

It’s no accident that such an emotionally honest and violently compelling film was made by a young man. Richard Kelly was 26 when he directed this film, and must have been 24 when the first ideas took hold. The sheer amount of fight inside Donnie’s character can be seen as a reflection, in a way, of how much Kelly must have had to fight to get Donnie Darko made. In the original version and Director’s Cut, it shows — although less in the Cut. The effects had to be scaled down during filming. Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore would have been the only recognisable names in the cast list, and it was undoubtedly Barrymore’s involvement as a producer which gave the film its first legs.

But it’s the predominant youthfulness of the film as a piece of art which both glorifies and damns it. Glorifies to almost every receptive person under about 35, and damns it to more or less everyone over 40. Its lead character is a scary six–footer of a bunny; its chief protagonist a charismatic, depressed teenager. What takes place in the plot includes swearing, frenzied learning about the world which only happens during your teenage years, telling teachers to do some unspeakable things with their anuses (heh! heheh!), all overlaid by a gentle… adulthood, barely expressed, but omnipresent.

What the Director’s Cut adds, apart from a remastered soundtrack and some upgraded effects, are several diegetic insertions (essentially, unseen chunks of film slipped in for the first time) which change things emotionally — and a swap–around of some of the songs. Mad World is still the coda, but the original music has been restored to the second sequence and it tones down the mystery. Perhaps a good thing.

Certainly, though, the introduction of Roberta Sparrow’s book The Philosophy of Time Travel as a superimposed image at the start of the acts change things immensely. Instead of making them grasp at straws, Kelly lets his audience see where things are going. And this isn’t a bad thing, just different. Donnie’s journey instantly seems more tragic in the classical sense, because he is being pulled by a fate we now clearly see, and can still do damn all about. There are subtle changes in the effect of the special effects, too, but I won’t spoil things for those who want to watch the Cut ‘fresh’.

Essentially, the difference between the original and the Cut is that the Cut takes away some mystery — but replaces it with intensity. The two are subtly different films, and both are superlative achievements. Go watch.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

They made me do it

Frank in Donnie's eye, by Astek

This is a warm–up to a review which is on its way. And also because I can’t be arsed with trawling around the web at the moment. *grin*

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Internet Map by

the internet. Actually, it's not really a map as such: it doesn't have domain names and if it did, this colourful splurge would have to be the size of a few football pitches. Strictly speaking, it’s a graph. I think. Anyway, read more by clicking the link.

I’ve posted before about the film Donnie Darko but have never reviewed it. I went to see it when everyone was still asking “Is that a movie?” instead of saying “I should maybe see it sometime”. And even then, five big gold stars would have been pinned to its weird little bunny suit by my willing hands.

But now there’s an even better excuse for me to get my head out of my solar plexus and get writing: Donnie Darko The Director’s Cut is out. And yes, I’ve bought a copy. Haven’t seen it yet. But watch this space! (If you’re wondering how on earth 20 minutes’ worth of extra footage could make a difference, apparently it does, and it’s not just thematic or narrative either. For those unafraid of spoilers, a pretty much exhaustive changes list is here.) And the website is here.

We say ‘Please think’ — they say ‘Fuck off’

Here are a few choice replies from some Americans — with comments on their replies — to a recent letter–writing campaign in which the Guardian newspaper asked UK citizens to write to known undecided US voters in the State of Ohio.

Have you not noticed that Americans don’t give two shits what Europeans think of us? Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to NOT vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow–toothed pansies…
—Springfield, Ohio

This is the worrying thing. Getting a letter from any foreigner at all about an election in which you are a voter and not them would tend to piss you off. It would cause you to act out of understandable human spite and consider voting for the candidate who the letter–writer railed against.

Unless, of course, the politics of the entire planet carry the pervasive stain of his policies and a middle–eastern country has been reduced to a nest of vipers because of decisions which he and his administration made, which make your country less safe, and which would not have been made if he was not in power.

Consider this: stay out of American electoral politics. Unless you would like a company of US Navy Seals - Republican to a man - to descend upon the offices of the Guardian, bag the lot of you, and transport you to Guantanamo Bay.
—United States

A supporter of a political party is under no obligation to support the party’s leader. It follows that there is no obligation for a Republican to support Bush for President of the UNited States, given the global reach of even its Federal views, let alone policies, and the character of his policies and understanding of the world and his country’s place within it politically.

I do not say that America is a shit country, nor that UK troops should attack Republicans. I do say that there are certainly a lot of Republican Navy SEALs who would demand Bush’s resignation as Commander in Chief of the US military.

Shame on you for using the people of Ohio like this. The US presidental election isn’t just about foreign policy, it’s about healthcare, taxes, education, transportation, natural resources and all manner of issues with little to no impact on the people of Britain.
—Washington DC

Of course — I agree. It isn’t just about foreign policy. Millions of US voters will vote with domestic issues only at the forefront of their minds. But millions of others will vote in the knowledge that to safeguard their country, their domesticity, and their rightful place in the wider although admittedly rather remote world, they should choose a leader who will ensure that the USA is respected rather than feared.

(The same Washington voter also makes the point that it is our leaders who are our problem and not the leaders of America. True. But they are only a problem because they prove impotent in severing us from an almost personal alliance with Bush’s neoconservative global policies. An alliance which is too personal because it no longer depends on policy but on an amorphous and ill–defined ‘special relationship’. That relationship used to be based on an unstrained mutuality regarding political liberty worldwide.Tony Blair continues to pretend that its basis continues to be so. That is wrong.

I enjoy reading your paper and agree with your politics, but this is really too much.Your plan, if carried out, will hurt the Bush opposition TERRIBLY. We cannot afford to have this associated with John Kerry or anyone else. It will be; the press is going in for a kill, days before the election.
—United States

This is certainly possible, and shows how much this election teeters on the finest of balancing–points.

Keep your noses out of our business. As I recall we kicked your asses out of our country back in 1776. We do not require input from losers and idiots on who we vote for in our own country. Fuck off and die asshole!!!!!
—Knoxville, Iowa

Since we’re losers and idiots, could you please give the UK your input and tell that to our Prime Minister? Personally? Please? With any luck, he might then think again about committing further loser, idiot British troops to help in Iraq. Since you don’t require our input, and all. ;o) *sweet smile* *dies*

Saturday, October 16, 2004

“They’ll like her bum…”

“…in this photo,” said the pallid executive. Heavy cufflinks scraped the boardroom table as he sorted through papers and proofs. To his right, a man from Finance nodded approvingly. “Projected sales for the first week?” he asked. An eyebrow was cocked across the room; a gold pen moved down a list. "Enough for a few years in the sun for you, Max.” A chuckle.

A scenario roughly like this one is repeated, several times, every time the latest hot female artist in whatever area of music is close to completing the song which marks the ‘two–thirds of another album’ mark. Sometimes it happens earlier than that. There are variations, of course: the bum may be a breast; it may be a face. The woman may be a man. The adult, a teenager. The executive might prefer an alpine retirement.

But in all the possible variations on this theme, there is one thing which never changes. The company is in charge. The artist is, at best, under a tight corporate leash, and at worst, of no musical merit — on the company’s books because of her appearance, fame, or sex appeal.

Where the product is intensely musical, the music is better left ignored, and is crushed under a double desire: to market a product without reference to the creative process, and to convince the public to get their wallets out by promising that the music provides some sort of satisfying quasi–intellectual experience.

But at the same time, the ads don’t tell you anything about the supposedly perfect fit between the musical language, and words, of a supposedly good song. They just show you the artist’s bum. Or screaming mouth. Or piercings.

The illusion of a social preference for light music as against serious is based on that passivity of the masses which makes the consumption of light music contradict the objective interest of those who consume it. […] They are only still manipulated for reasons of marketability. The hit song enthusiast must be reassured that his idols are not too elevated for him, just as the visitor to philharmonic concerts is confirmed in his status. […] For musical vulgar materialists, it is synonymous to have a voice and to be a singer. In earlier epochs, technical virtuosity, at least, was demanded of singing stars […] If one dares even in conversation to question the decisive importance of the voice and to assert that it is just as possible to make beautiful music with a moderately good voice as it is on a moderately good piano, one will immediately find oneself faced with a situation of hostility and aversion.
—from The Culture Industry by Theodor Adorno

Hmmm. Listeners as people wronged by shit music. Betrayed by the soulless production–line and the contents of their wallets. I’ve just started to read this book, and I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I think it’s a correctly stinging critique or a bit of an overreaction, but I can’t deny that when he talks about music he’s on the right track.

There is a lot of music today which is so intellectually empty that it demands no thought, so emotionally repetitious and flat that it gives no new thoughts or insight or redress to the poor sod who paid quite a lot of money for it, and finally, so technically unskilled that its only hope for the admiration of potential fans is by including strange sounds. But that’s not the whole story, so I guess I’ll keep reading and thinking about it.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Great Fire

The roof of the buildings in Royal Avenue, Belfast

Of Belfast. This disturbs me because as well as the damage to a couple of characterful buildings, we have lost (at least for a time) one of Belfast’s major bookshops. We have two branches of Waterstone’s here, and the Royal Avenue branch, in the heart of the blaze, was better by far than its counterpart in literature, poetry and graphic novels, as well as having a longer–established staff.

Fires are common occurrences in cities with old buildings, but this one was particularly fierce — twenty appliances were fighting it through the night. The good news is that they can hopefully reopen, given time and a bit of rebuilding. It scared me though.

Other fire links: some people can’t find the inferno at ground zero. The Great Fire of London, 1666. Spontaneous human combustion. California Wildfires, as seen by the locals.

Monday, October 11, 2004


(As MetaFilter would say.) — Jacques Derrida is… not.

So, the man who famously said “The center is not the center” has died. Academic criticism in the humanities in general was enriched – some would say messed up – by his work. From the rather turgid theorising of Wordsworth and Eliot, and Saussure’s theoretical robustness, literary criticism was dragged kicking and screaming into a new age where authors didn’t get to be authoritative about their own works and where the act of writing was (fittingly) inscribed in the brain of the reader. Anyway. You probably don’t understand this. I didn’t either, for a while. But if any of it interests you, the links are there.

Elsewhere, things magazine tells interesting stories about demolished Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, including a hotel in Tokyo whose façade has been recreated in an outdoor museum. Fitting, since Fallingwater abruptly fell down today.

A link from Bookslut about that most marvellously jarring of words: buggery. (Hey, at least it’s better than chinchilla sex.)

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Friday night paraphernalia

Austrian Cultural Forum, New York HQ. This building is 24 storeys tall but sits on the tiny footprint of a townhouse. Image (c) ACFNY

I’m in the mood for New York, since this weekend is their Open House - but even so it’s far less impressive than London’s events, which is a shame because a city like New York should play host to well over a hundred ‘Open Houses’ rather than tens. If you don’t know what an Open House is for a city, it’s when loads of buildings you don’t ever get to see suddenly allow you to walk around for a couple of days. Amazing.

And for the characteristically peripathetic link of the week, something that seems random: the Scottish Enlightenment. No, it’s not what hapens when you see just exactly what’s really under a Scotsman’s kilt, but a cultural explosion of a couple of hundred years ago. I particularly like the e–texts page. And why? Because this is one of the things I studied in uni – pretty unsurprisingly, since uni was in Aberdeen.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Oh, too much!

There is far too much to write about tonight so I’ll stick to generalities. First, the pleasures of meaningfully pleasureable conversation over a warming dinner, while outside the clear air gets colder and reminds you of the time of year when frost gathers…

The inspiration of such talk, which drives you upstairs to the piano, where you find it comforting that you have lost some technique and have to work carefully and slowly at the familiar tiny flexes and extensions of the muscles again…

A lamplit Scottish chapel in the middle of winter, where the only sound in–between your musical phrases was the sound of the wind against heavy wooden doors… Bach and sea winds go well together…

A new bottle of bourbon which you read, and think, deeply about before even breaking the seal — how estranged it seems, here in its bottle, and how at home in the glass in your hand…

Monday, October 04, 2004

I like my coffee hot

But this is sort of cold.

Gothamist pointed me to this new coffeeshop venture in New York: the design above, by Hariri & Hariri (architects) is what appears ot be a finalised plan for the flagship store, on pavement level in Manhattan.

The store, which will be run by the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers, will give the US another example of ‘ethical’ coffee–buying, whereby what you hand over at the counter will mostly go into the pockets of the workers involved in production (and retail, obviously) rather than being creamed off — no pun intended — by some faceless thieving bastard company.

With such moral warmth and cosiness behind the venture, I find the design to be its architectural opposite: cold. Or lukewarm at best. The front of the store (which is shown in Gothamist’s post) is highlighted by a room–height chevron of thick brown teak (incidentally, a wood which we shouldn’t *really* be using these days). Go in the door, and you are standing against its right–hand side, and can walk down its length, past the counter, to get to the back, which is where peripathetic’s viewpoint is taken from. For the entire length of the place, there’s this shapeless jellylike white plastic wall, which apparently forms some seats too, and lots of brushed steel.

It looks like a meeting–room in a futuristic office rather than somewhere to relax with your coffee. And while those who work freelance and yuppie around in Manhattan might like to work from a place like that — and it’d probably be a fitting place to do so — I’d not want, or be able, to relax there.

Here in Belfast, Clement’s and Caffe Casa are places where relaxation comes naturally. And I just happened on James Street South’s website: a restaurant, named after the, erm… boulevard.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

I set that man above the gods and heroes —

all day, he sits before you face to face,
like a cardplayer. Your elbow brushes his elbow —
if you should speak, he hears.

The touched heart madly stirs,
your laughter is water hurrying over pebbles —
every gesture is a proclamation,
every sound is speech . . .

Refining fire purifies my flesh!
I hear you: a hollowness in my ears
thunders and stuns me. I cannot speak.
I cannot see.

I shiver. A dead whiteness spreads over
my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat.
I am greener than the greenest green grass —
I die!

Sappho’s wonderful Poem of Jealousy, translated by the Boston Brahmin Robert Lowell. On this page (via MetaFilter) are 26 translations of the same poem, beginning with Sappho’s original of around 500 BC and ending up in the 21st century.

If you can be bothered to read this, you might start to appreciate how bloody difficult poetry translation can be!

Friday, October 01, 2004

Perverted Books?

Foreword has disappointed me today, because as a site which is dedicated to a particular strand of the love of books, (although perhaps more the design than the content in some cases) it has an implied duty to respect the democracy of book content and book choice, just as much as the democracy of book design.

Today, Amanda posted about noticing a copy of the Kama Sutra on someone else’s shelves and feeling disillusioned in that person. Even more prudishly, she then assumed that she had a right of control over someone else’s bookshelf by asking her readers to help her decide what to do:

a. Ask to “borrow” the book and then let it slip accidentally into a mud puddle?
b. Provide an alternative book jacket in catering to the sensitivities of other nosy patients?
c. Leave behind anti–porn religious tracts the next time I’m at the good doctor’s office?

She then signs off as ‘terribly embarrassed’ — as well she might be, after just being so presumptuous. I’ve never yet noticed a book on someone’s shelves which has disillusioned me, but if I did, I imagine that as a book–lover who respects other people’s right to read what they want to read, I’d recognise it wasn’t my place to shove my oar in unnecessarily. *disillusioned sigh*