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The Burma Meme   
12:29am 02/10/2007
  It's hopefully not escaped your notice that the military junta controlling Burma has begun to forcibly repress the peaceful pro-democracy actions that began last week.

Here are a couple of things you can do - to light a candle in support of freedom there.

1.) Aung San Suu Kyi, sometimes referred to by phrases like "pro-democracy leader", is the democratically elected Prime Minister of Burma. Her party was voted into power by a commanding majority in 1990, but the military junta refused to surrender power.

Make a point of referring to her as "Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Burma". Or just "Prime Minister Suu Kyi".

2.) Burma is sometimes called "Myanmar": this version of the name was imposed by the junta, without any legislative approval. Make a point of calling the country Burma, not "Myanmar".

If you want to spread this simple message, please do.

***

"It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

-- Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


-- W.H. Auden

The dark is generous, and it is patient, and it always wins--but in the heart of its strength lies weakness: one lone candle is enough to hold it back.
Love is more than a candle.
Love can ignite the stars.


-- M.W. Stover.
 
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The Hills Have Eyes 2 (movie/DVD review)   
10:24pm 12/08/2007
  I’m sometimes prepared to give really bad films a chance, especially on the small screen.

This quirk probably has something to do with watching Batman & Robin from under a hangover one morning, a few years back. That’s the one with Schwarzenegger as a human popsicle, and the girl from Clueless as a rather chubby Batgirl.

On the big screen, it’s hard to think of a worse movie than Batman & Robin – this is a film that’s utterly bankrupt in both script and visual style, one that insults the intelligence of lazy twelve-year-olds. But at 9am on a slow Saturday, with an empty whisky bottle rolling around the room somewhere, it’s a surprisingly credible way to recover from the night before.

So, maybe that explains why I decided to give The Hills Have Eyes 2 a chance. That may also explain why I didn’t actually think it was that bad.

In this opinion, I may be unique, perhaps even deranged. Google didn’t seem to turn up a single good review: and it turns out that there are a lot of DVD-review websites out there.

But, with all that out of the way: on to the movie....

Are you really sure you want to read this?Collapse )
 
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Even in the age of lightspeed networking, we still miss things...   
07:47pm 16/06/2007
  A couple of days ago, I found out that John M. Ford died last year.

I came across his writing back when I was a kid, in the days when I was still a Star Trek fan. He wrote two Jim Kirk era novels that defined the Klingon Empire for anyone who read them, The Final Reflection and How Much For Just The Planet?, and simultaneously developed the Klingon backstory for the Trek RPG.

But if you've not read Ford's work, and you think you know the Klingons, then think again. If you're absoultely certain you aren't interested in Klingons at all, then you're missing some great storytelling, but skip past this bit to where I talk about the rest of his work.

To encourage you to do that, here are a couple or perspectives on him that don't involve an Ewok talking about Klingons. Robert Jordan called him "the best writer in America — bar none." To Neil Gaiman, he was "my best critic … the best writer I knew."

***

Anyway, here's what happened with the Klingons.

At around the same time as The Final Reflection appeared, two things happend to Star Trek that would lead to a different vision of the Klingons being developed in the movies and the TV series. The franchise owners at Paramount apparently took an official aversion to canonizing any idea that could look like it originated in the non-screen aspects of the franchise. They also, perhaps inadvertantly, developed the Klingon language in Star Trek III in a direction very different from the one Ford had taken.

Both versions are, technically, based on a few lines of dialogue written for the first Trek film by James "Scotty" Doohan, but whereas the official tlhingan Hol was the work of a professional linguist, Ford's klingonaase is a writer's language, as much to do with meaning as with linguistics.

It's a language, built up by scattered words and phrases through the story, that's designed to make the reader think like a Klingon - not a gday't Fed kuve - and thus to understand the universe in their terms. The best parallel I can think of right now is A Clockwork Orange.

That's not entirely inappropriate, in fact, although it's only one aspect of the story. Ford's Klingons are savage, morally challenging aliens, whose national spectator sport is sending teams of children to hunt down and kill sentient prey; but they're much more than the increasingly feral head-butters we've seen in subsequent versions of Star Trek. They're subtle, honest, high-tech, and strikingly alive. Underpinning the story are themes of slavery and ownership, identity and allegiance, games and freedom, using the old motif of an encounter with the Other to say things about the human condition, and our own society and values.

The Final Reflection and How Much For Just The Planet? are also both great stories--and, in what's apparently a motif for Ford, they're two very different books. I've barely even touched on what goes on in the second one.

True, there have been subtle alusions in subsequent incarnations of Trek, especially Deep Space Nine and Enterprise (some of the writing staff have, perhaps understandably, been fans), but you really need to know what you're looking for to see them.

In my "personal canon" of the Star Trek continuity, my fanboy attempt to make narrative sense of the Galaxy, I take a different approach: pretty much everything that's happened since these stories has been manipulated by devious supremacist cabals within the Federation, warping reality to remove something so threateningly cool, and pathologically unassimilatable, from the timeline.

But the best compliment the official franchise paid him was probably from Chris Claremont. Ford had introduced his own in-universe authorial doppleganger as a framing device for his stories, and he appears again--just off-screen--in Claremont's graphic novel Debt of Honour. It's not just a knowing nod for the fans--Debt of Honour took the very Fordesque themes of entropy, ageing and the passage of time, and spun them around a subtext about the displacement of the older continuity developed in the novels and the fans' imagination.

***

Okay. Enough Klingons.

Apart from the Trek novels, his only other book that I've been able to find a copy of in the UK is The Dragon Waiting, an alternative history novel. It's set during the Wars of the Roses in a world where a pagan Roman Empire had survived. It's an awesome, genre-bending piece of storytelling, and it's perhaps his most "important" full-length novel: it's published on this side of the Atlantic in the Fantasy Masterworks series (in between Gene Wolfe's Peace and Michael Moorcock's Corum cycle), and it won the first of his two World Fantasy Awards (Best Novel, 1984).

His second World Fantasy Award (Short Fiction 1988), in the short story category, was for a poem called Winter Solstice, Camelot Station, which it might be possible to traduce with a description like "an Edwardian Gothic take on T.H. White's version of Mallory". It's probably better just to say that you can read on line if you follow that link.

Apparently, he originally wrote for his personal Christmas Card, too.

If that makes him sound slightly whimsical, then that's not an entirely misleading suggestion. How Much For Just The Planet?, his second Star Trek novel, is a musical comedy... with an entirely rational reason for being a musical comedy.

But it's that clear-eyed rationality that's as much his strength as the sense of humour that accompanies it, along with a lightness of touch poised somewhere between the two, as well.

For once, the best place to start is probably his very thorough Wikipedia biography. It's there that I discovered the quotes from Robert Jordan and Neil Gaiman I used earlier in this piece.

At Making Light, Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a superb tribute, beginning with a poem by Ford, Against Entropy, which (of course) says it all much better than I could.

Ken MacLeod, someone else who knows the value of poetry, summed it up rather well, as well: And I am lost for words, as he was not.

But I'll leave you with JMF himself, or rather his Star Trek avatar in The Final Reflection, pondering the death of a man who had inspired him: I wonder what he had seen, that we have not.

***

When I started to write this, I wondered if I felt guilty that I hadn't sought out and read more of his writing already; now, I'm grateful to realise how much I still have to discover. There's his other sci-fi and fantasy novels what to read, plus a Cold War techno-thriller.

The internet, even after the fact, provides places to start:

A short story called As Above, So Below

An interview at Strange Horizons.

A poem, 101 Stories.

Read them. I hope you find it as worthwhile as I have.
 
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The Blood Knight (Book Review)   
07:49pm 13/05/2007
  Yep, another book review. The bug (or the bunny?) is probably due to my friend Stephen Wrighton, and his excellent, review-heavy blog No Krakana!

***

The Blood Knight by Greg Keyes is the third volume in a quartet of novels, "The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone", which in genre terms, can probably be described as 'classic fantasy'. Now I'm not much of a fantasy reader, with my main "genre" interests being historical fiction, sci-fi, and modern Scottish writers like Andrew Greig, Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks. Part of this perhaps has something to do with the fact that Scottish prose fiction has a huge overlap with the sci-fi and historical genres, but that's by-the-by.

That's not to say this is entirely outside my zone of reading interest. I'm entirely happy with the fantasy elements in medieval and renaissance literature and legend, Classical mythology and John Buchan's short stories, and I have a healthy respect for Borges and Tolkien in their very different ways. That probably makes me sound a little stiff, but I guess my active-disinterest programming kicks in where I start to think that the underlying assumptions of a "fantasy" story are moulded by the patterns of the modern genre tradition and the social clichés of the modern world.

And, of course, I'm a Star Wars fan.

I came to Keyes through his Star Wars novels--Conquest, in particular, is a perfectly-formed little Star Wars adventure (starring Han Solo and Princess Leia's son), at once grounded in the pop-culture certainties of the "Galaxy far, far away", and opening up vistas to new possibilities, exhilarating for readers and characters alike. I'd also read some of Keyes' previous Age of Unreason series (think steampunk with alchemy), and liked what I saw immensely.

A couple of friends had, on the strength of the Star Wars books, read and enjoyed The Briar King in hardback, so I snapped it up when the paperback came out.

So, with all that out of the way, I can get on to the actual review!

***

The most basic reason why (I think) Keyes' series works is to do with simple storytelling and characterization: these books take likeable, human heroes, and pitch them against tar-black villains and seemingly impossible challenges. No matter how dark the sky gets, they don't lose their hope and determination, their knowledge of goodness. At least, not completely. Not yet.

That's not to say that anything here is simple, though. The characterization makes the story seem more realistic, not less.

In broader, more technical terms, "The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" mythos involves a depth and integrity of world-building that rivals Tolkein. Now this is something that I know a little bit about, and I have to confess a certain bias here, because this series tickles parts of my psyche that the average reader probably wouldn't share. But I don't think that it's entirely an Ewok-specific response.

Ostensibly, the world of these books is your usual fantasy fare. Humanity has reigned supreme since overthrowing its slavemasters two thousand years earlier, and created a world that often visually seems to resemble America or New Zealand, but which leans heavily on the society and culture of real-world Europe in the medieval and pre-medieval periods, with an edge of magic taking the place of religion. The only obvious incongruity is the presence of the occasional pendulum clock.

What makes this world faintly different from your usual fantasy fare—and what is, in my opinion, the key to the series' success as a "genre" work rather than simply a story—is the identity of the liberator who overthrew the alien Skalosoi: Virginia Dare. The characters themselves don't realise it, but their ancestors were drawn from every epoch of our own world's human history, until their captors made the mistake of abducting the hundred-and-fifteen Elizabethan colonists who disappeared in Virginia in the 1580s.

This means that the liberated humans were drawn from a wide variety of real-world cultures, with some curious cross-fertalizations. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some Native Americans in here (as there were in Age of Unreason), but I probably lack the ability to recognize them. The central focus of Keyes' world, the Kindgom of Crotheney, is nevertheless a version of the Olde Englande that has been a key setting of English-language fantasy since Tolkein, but one with an entirely coherent logical basis behind it - most of the settler stock are ultimately from Olde Englande, with the occasional Celtic and continental inspiration.

To the west lies the Island realm of Liery, which seems to owe its origins to people from medieval Ireland--after the arrival of the Normans, so the Celtic culture is overlaid by an idea of knighthood and a language that seems primarily Norman French. To the north is Hansa, feudal and Germanic, but perhaps Dark Age in origin; south is Vitellio, home to an Italian civilization with roots probably dating back to before the rise of Rome.

Of course, if it was all just lines on the map, this would all be very dry. The next key to the success of Keyes' worldbuilding lies in the details of language and culture: I don't think I've ever seen a fantasy that weaves a Norman strand into its Irish mythos before now, but the two assimilate as well together here as they did in real life, and one of the most haunting things in the books is the old battle-song sung by Sir Neil MeqVren. But more on this later

I'm not a great linguist, but I did have fun puzzling out the linguistic roots being used here, and all these foreign languages, and their even-more-exotic counterparts, feel real to me, laden with emotion and history, with sound-structures and rhythms that speak of where they come from. It took me far longer than it should have, though, to realise that the name of "Crotheney" is derived from Q-Celtic Cruithni, ultimately the oldest version of name "Britain" (originally probably a tribal rather than territorial name). But this in itself is indicative of the scholarship--or simply inspiration--with which Keyes has put together his world.

The real treat that flavours these books, though, is the variety of dialects that the characters use and encounter, including forms of English (or rather, Almannish--there seem to be no Angles in Crotheney) that are very different from the King's Tongue, the Shakespearian English spoken by the important people in the castles and the capital. Almannish seems to be founded on the cadences of pre-Viking English--as it was still spoken in the countryside until the eighteenth century--but with influences from the Celtic languages, and other perhaps more exotic sources. It also has a real regional variation, moving from one local idiom to another. In one scene in The Blood Knight, the locals speak in what's palpably the slow drawl of the English West Country, although I do wonder if the average American reader will follow their dialogue any more easily than the lead characters do.

But as the characters' confusion suggests, language also serves an important thematic role in these books - a role that's derived objectively from the simple reality of linguistic diversity; it represents both the possibility of communication, and the differences between people. And it ties very neatly into themes of honour, oaths, questions and lies, all forms of the word, that Keyes has drawn directly from the real mythology and legends of the real world.

As I write this review, I wonder if there's a subtle alusion to the concept of the Word there, the divine Logos that creates all things. I certainly wouldn't put it past Keyes--but this is certainly the point where I should turn from the languages of Crotheney to the metaphysics. The terminology and architecture of what the people of the kingdom simply call "the Church" are familiar, with churches and monasteries, choirs and clock-towers; but the underlying religion is essentially pagan--based around a pantheon of "Saints" which are, almost without exception, pre-Christian divinities. In Vitellio, the "Lords" and "Ladies" are simply the Graeco-Roman gods, undisguised in their Classical form.

That said, Keyes proceeds to do some very complex things with this basis. Powers there certainly are in Keyes' world, but exactly what they are and where they come from is, as at least one character points out, uncertain, if not unknown. There's a long history of religious wars and successive orthodoxies that have served to shape and formalise the beliefs inherited from the original human population, and because the stories are told from focused character points of view, direct answers to metaphysical questions seem impossible, and human identity remains the strong focus of the series.

That's all I have time for tonight. I'll try and add part two of this review tomorrow, or certainly in the next few days... though you can find some incohernet sketch/notes if you take a look at the raw HTML code for this page....

 
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Vulcan 607 (book review)   
12:02am 02/05/2007
  Towards midnight, local time, on April Fool's Day 1982, Argentina's military government invaded the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic--one of the few far-flung colonies that Britain still claimed as part of her dwindling overseas possessions. Over the next few weeks, they fortified the islands non-stop, in anticipation of the former colonial power's response.

Then, on 1st May 1982--exactly twenty-five years ago today--the world woke up to learn that the British Empire had struck back. A single Avro Vulcan bomber had laid twenty-one 1,000-pound bombs across Port Stanley airfield.

Vulcan 607, by Rowland White, is the story of that mission. This book is not the greatest literature, but the prose is clear and competent, and spiced with a few catchy turns of phrase. More importantly, it is an impressive telling of an impressive story, admirable in both its thoroughness and clarity, and in its even-handedness towards all concerned.

On the political level, White manages to seem fair to the Argentinians, giving a balanced account of their historic claim to the islands and their belief in their own cause. True, some of the Argentinians are presented as "bad guys" in a way that no-one on the British side is, but this is a subject where passions run high on both sides, and it's good to see such a restrained treatment, especially because it allows the reader to experience how it was at the time, from the points of view of all involved.

The stars of the book, however, are the "V-bombers" and their crews: big, graceful aeroplanes with swept-back delta airframes, that looked like a vision of the future... in the 1950s.

The Vulcan, together with its stablemate the Victor, was originally conceived after World War II as a replacement for the legendary Lancaster bomber. Some of the plane's systems, including her radar, were simply upgrades of the wartime equipment used on the Lancaster. And the bombs she dropped at Port Stanley were the last remains of the Royal Air Force's wartime high-explosive stockpile, originally built so that the Lancasters themselves could rain them on Nazi Germany.

By 1982, the Vulcan was already in the process of being retired from active duty--a process that didn't stop even when they were sent off to fight. As the planes assigned to the bombing flight lifted off from their airfield in England, the roar and howl of their engines on the runway disturbed the ceremony that marked the retirement of the next squadron in the rolling decommissioning of the RAF's Vulcan fleet.

They had originally been designed as nuclear bombers, the mainstay of post-war Britain's independent deterrent. In the 1970s, they were reduced to a supporting role, training to attack specific targets with small nuclear weapons--which the novel, in a phrase presumably borrowed from the aircrew, brilliantly describes as a "cup of sunshine". When the plan to attack the Falklands was put together, Vulcan aircrews needed to retrain to lob the WWII-era conventional bombs that were to be used in Operation Black Buck--barely a hundred of which could be desperately scraped together from the Royal Air Force's ammunition dumps.

And then, the ageing Vulcan had to fly from Britain to the edge of the Antarctic, a long-range combat mission unparalleled in aviation history, to attack a target guarded by state-of-the-art air defences.

In telling the story, White's even-handedness comes into play again. He gives the needed space not just to the Vulcan, but also to the Victors--fellow survivors of the V-bomber fleet, which by the 1980s had been converted to long-range refuelling and reconnaissance planes, and as such, became vital to the success of Operation Black Buck.

In a manner that's probably deliberately reminiscent of a Holywood movie, the author intriduces his disparate characters at the start, then brings them together, and then follows them through their journey to the conclusion of the mission. Maybe the movie-like techniques are designed to cue the media-age reader into the mood of the book, or maybe the author is pitching to sell the film rights: in true Holywood style, the first V-bomber crew are introduced flying down into the Grand Canyon on a training mission in Nevada, before the crew head out to the Vegas Strip to party. You can practically hear the soundtrack, and see the camerawork.

But, when this sort of scene is put together with a novel-like narrative structure, with tight character POVs based on the recollections of those involved, Vulcan 607 succeeds in doing something rather interesting. It conjours an action adventure out of something that's palpably real life, with all its inconsistencies and disgareements; and it creates a sense that this is a story that should compete with bestsellers and blockbusters, even if it's true.

The narrative style is too short on dialogue to be truly novellistic, and in place of the enemy fire that we would expect in an action movie, the aircrew face their most serious dangers from dropping fuel levels, filthy weather, and the simple, staggering distance itself. But allying a movie-like narrative structure to the actual events of the real-life situation, White is able to capture both the truthfulness and the emotional stress of the situation, the challenges that professional military personnel face, and the ways in which they respond. He also makes a good case for the value of the bombing mission, the contribution which it made to ending the war.

The story closes appropriately, with the Bomber Command veterans' dinner in London on the night of 1st May 1982, the night after the successful raid. An annual celebration for World War Two veterans, this year it just happened to close the day of the RAF's most important bombing raid for a generation: the guests of honour were "Bomber" Harris, mastermind of the Lancaster campaigns in World War II, and General James Doolittle of the USAF, whose Tokyo raid provides both the most famous prototype for Operation Black Buck--and the clearest justification for why it should be considered a success.

As a depiction of the role of the armed forces, answering human challenges, military objectives, and above all, the demands of national honour, Vulcan 607 could hardly be bettered.
 
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02:39pm 27/05/2006
  Another day, another update: What American Cities Best Fit You?, via Dunc from a place called Blogthings...

American Cities That Best Fit You::
55% New York City
50% Boston
50% Philadelphia
50% San Francisco
45% Austin
 
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11:57pm 26/05/2006
  And in other news, supposedly genetic inheritances can be passed on without the genes everyone thought were required...

"We were very surprised to see this," says the wonderfully named Professor Minoo Rassoulzadegan, of the University of Nice (which doesn't rhyme with "mice")...

I'll say!
 
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11:58am 23/05/2006
  Bill Shatner, George Lucas, and a chorus-line of high-kicking stormtroopers...

No, really.
 
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07:12pm 24/04/2006
 
mood: thoughtful
Well, by now, the case of Lori Jareo and the Star Wars fanfic that ended up for sale on Amazon is all over the web, so I don't feel so bad talking about it... or at least, posting a few thoughtful links that have come up in the course of my investigation...

First, there's this essay - no, not a blog! - gakked, as so often, from ClubJade. A little thought around and behind what's said here suggest what happened to kick off this whole shebang: Ms. Jareo used the same print-on-demand service she employs for WorldTech's "legitimate" books to produce a hard copy of Another Hope, and because this is integrated with the Ingram book-distribution monster, it automatically appeared on Amazon.

Moreover, the hype has uncovered this gem, which earns Misty Lackey the Golden Ewok™ for Best. Amazon. Customer. Review. Ever.

And Dunc's thoughts are, as usual, beautiful...
 
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Growr!   
02:35pm 02/04/2006
 
mood: accomplished

You are Chewbacca
Chewbacca
69%
Lando Calrissian
68%
Obi-Wan Kenobi
65%
Mace Windu
65%
Han Solo
65%
Qui-Gon Jinn
62%
Anakin Skywalker
60%
Luke Skywalker
60%
Boba Fett
57%
Princess Leia
54%
Sure you're tall and hairy,
but you've got heart!


(This list displays the top 10 results out of a possible 21 characters)


Click here to take the Star Wars Personality Quiz

 
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Testing, testing...   
09:28pm 13/03/2006
  This is an effort to show Dunc what I mean...

Imagine this with beter markup, better blurb, and funky icons...

Pages will look like this, only with some design...




The Index of Indices (and the link bar at the head of the main blog) will be a single post with links to the following tags:

Main Index: the basic way to organize 'fic

Pairing Index: every 'ship, slash and subtext you care to imagine. I'm of a mood to add triangles...

Era Index: a no-brainer.

Genre Index: how eccentric can you get. "Cabaret"?




The Main Index Tag will group a group of posts containing links to the following tags:

Long 'fics: stories of a decent length.

Short 'fics: hits to feed the craving.

Smutty 'fics: because it's art, really...

'Fic requests: our reader/story matchmaking fan-service...




The Pairing Index Tag will group a group of posts containing links to the following tags:

Han/Leia: are they really as hot as everyone just... assumes?

Luke/Mara: "I still care"...

Padme/Anakin: Is there canon evidence that this really is George's OTP?

Obidala: Obidala, Obidala, la, la, la-la-la-la life goes on...

And so on to...

Other Pairings: all the stuff like Jacen/Winter/Borsk and Palpatine/Threepio...




Getting the idea?
 
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12:34pm 12/03/2006
 
mood: thoughtful
I thought two things when I saw the poster for Basic Instinct 2.

The first was "Isn't Sharon Stone pushing fifty now?" - as it turns out, she turned 48 the day before yesterday. The second was "David Morrissey? Wasn't he in Blackpool?!" - yes, and that means he might just be perfect for the role....

So I watched the trailer, and the first thing I noticed was the prominent bulge of Gherkin at St Mary Axe in the London skyline. It's been used everywhere from Woody Allen to Dr. Who, the Big Ben de nos jours, symbol of a modern, swinging London.

And then, cut to the shrink's office, inside the landmark. Subtle, ridiculous, and quite possibly brilliant - or an absolute disaster.

We'll see.

***

One thing I'm definately enjoying is this month's GQ. Not just the cover story with the delectable Eva Longoria, but the old-fashioned journalism packed in between the (very) pretty pictures: a very good op. ed. piece on "swinging" London by Nik Cohen; Piers Morgan's interview with Richard Madley (of ... & Judy fame); and, especially, the new column by the excellent A.A. Gill, whose Hunting The English I'm also enjoying at the minute: stylish, insightful, intelligent, opinionated, and, probably at least partially for all those reasons, one of the few writers I regularly find laugh-out-loud funny...

***

In case you've not guessed, I'm something of a Star Wars fan (my inner child craves a LEGO Star Destroyer); but should it worry me that I find the dynamic between two minor characters who have no business being together one of the most interesting things in the current post-movie incarnation of the franchise...?

More thoughts on this as I have them....

***

I don't think I've expressed myself well in this update; but at least it's something, isn't it...?

Or are all blogs ex definitio irrelevantly meaningless?
 
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Fun things...   
06:57pm 19/12/2005
 
mood: happy
1.: a LEGO Star Destroyer, complete with Grand Moff Tarkin as a little LEGO man!

2.: a Pirates of the Carribeal sequel!!

Judging by the IMDB castlist, everyone's back for this one, too, including Jack Davenport and the delectable Naomie Harris...

*happy Ewok*

In the unlikely event of anyone still reading this, feel free to add more thoughts on the comment page!
 
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06:31pm 19/05/2005
 
mood: Imperial
Tagline: The best STAR WARS film in twenty years... and that includes the OT Special Editions...

Overall Verdict? Not Your Children's Prequel Movie...

Anything else before we begin? I'm still kinda psyched after seeing the movie. I might post another review again later. I'll probably definately go and see it at least once more at the cinema...

***

Oh, and...

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Return of the Sith starts badly.

Well, okay - George has at least got the opening crawl almost readable - almost... and I could have sworn that that was the original low-tech "STAR WARS" that they started with rather than the sharper, brighter, uglier Prequel one...

But the opening action sequence displays all the faults that crippled The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones - a self-regarding love of swoopy, swingy CGI shots, ill-timed and ill-judged action slapstick, and dialogue so wooden you could build a treehouse out of it...

If this is supposed to be dramatic, it's failed. It feels as though George has taken the weakest elements of the Death Star escape in ANH, reheated them into unapitizing pastiche, and served them up arse-first as self-parody...

But from the moment the battle's out the way - when Anakin, Obi-Wan, Artoo and Palpatine realise they have to ride the flaming iron phallus of the crippled Seperatist flagship down to a crash-landing on Coruscant, something bizarre happens.

This film starts to get good.

There are still moments where the dialogue nosedives painfully, there are still establishing shots where ships swish back and forth in front of backgrounds just to advertise what ILM can do... but, all in all, Revenge of the Sith actually works - both as STAR WARS, and as a movie...

To be fair, not much happens in this movie. Well, okay, Padmé, Dooku, the entire Seperatist leadership, and all the Prequel Jedi all die, we get several big battles, Chancellor Palpatine reveals himself as the Sith Master and becomes Emperor of the Galaxy, Luke and Leia are born, and Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader...

But Revenge of the Sith is less about anything at all than it is about the balet of character, action and scene... it's about watching Obi, Ami and Ani, and watching the sunset, and watching Yoda and Palpatine square off in the Senate chamber...

I'm coming to think that at least some of the unconvincing dialogue is deliberate - in one scene, Padmé is definately putting on her best 'politician' act with a prepared speech for Anakin. And I have a hard time believing that the key scene of the saga isn't a homage to Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.

But then, I've probably just been reading too much Matt Stover.

Not that that's a bad thing.

Things I emphatically liked:

1.) Palaptine's use of the unconventional stab-thrust lightsaber move that he taught Mara in the Thrawn Trilogy backstory.

2.) A group of Jedi musing on how they're 'missing something' in the middle of a military base full of Star Destroyers and stormtroopers.

3.) The way the Obi/Ami relationship was pared right back to ambiguity.

4.) Anakin and Amidala staring straight at each other from horizon to horizon... in spite of the sense that neither of them really knows each other at all - they're just in love - George builds a sense that there's something intangible and undeniable between them.

And a few questions:

1.) Is it just me, or was Anakin's vision actually of Padmé in childbirth?

2.) And why was Padmé dying? Could she have been using all her strength willing Anakin to live...?

3.) Who enjoys whipping out his 'saber more - Palpatine or Yoda?

Aye... Revenge of the Sith works - it works as a Prequel to the STAR WARS trilogy - and what makes it work is seeing how the Galaxy of the OT comes into being - Rebellion, Empire, you get the idea... Anakin Skywalker is busy kicking down the dead wood of the Senate and the Jedi Order...

It's all dead wood, see. Needs clearing out. And it's a visceral pleasure to see it all burst into flames...

So, yeah, at heart, it's all left-wing agit-prop, or would be, if we cared. But hey, it makes a great movie...

And the Soviet National Anthem comes onto my MP3 playlisty at just the right moment...

'ewok
 
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09:19pm 18/05/2005
 
mood: Medieval
Tagline: a lone medieval historian (that’s me) takes on the Holywood ‘history’ that is Kingdom of Heaven!!

Overall verdict? Complicated...

Anything else before we begin? An earlier version of this review was posted to RASSM.

***

From everything I knew in advance about Kingdom of Heaven - trailers, teasers, "making of" documentaries, interviews with Sir Ridley Scott, the director's previous films, and the professional reviews in the press - I thought I had a fair idea of what sort of film I was going to see...

Orlando Bloom stars in the tale of a low-born blacksmith who loses his religious faith, his wife, and his infant son, but who is redeemed through the human selfdiscipline of knighthood to become a hero, the lover of a princess, and the commander of the defending forces resisting the Arab siege of Jerusalem in 1189.

I was also expecting a realistically-conjoured medieval world to compare with the visions Scott captured in The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Black Rain, and Gladiator, in all of which a convincingly-evoked world serves as the backdrop for a superbly-crafted human story.

I got neither.

Well, in the movie, Balian of Ibelin is portrayed as nobleman's bastard son, raised as a peasant in France, who becomes a knight, succeeds to the Crusader lordship of Ibelin, has an affair with Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem, and commands the defence of Jerusalem. The Blacksmith who became a Knight. The Knight who became a Hero. The Hero who became... well, we'll get to that later.

But that's not quite the point.

First, some history.

Yes - in the twelfth century, men of all classes from Europe did set out to the Holy Land as pilgrims, colonists, or warriors in relatively large numbers. And yes, the inheritance laws were more relaxed in Jerusalem, and awkward questions about a man's real status back in the old country could be ignored for practical ends.

But the real-life Balian d'Ibelin, Lord of Nablus, who commanded during the siege of Jerusalem, was Queen Sibylla's stepfather, the second husband of her stepmother, the Queen Dowager Maria.

Yes, one of the d'Ibelins did have an affair with Sibylla, but that was Balian's brother Baldwin, Lord of Ramlah - and that affiar actually took place before her marriage to Guy de Lusignan. Guy, in reality, was young, weak and inexperienced - he came to Jerusalem as a handsome, landless boy, and was deliberately put Sibylla's way to prevent d'Ibelin dominance of the kingdom; far from the hard-bitten knight depicted here.

Yeah. The veteran Balian and the inexperienced Guy have swapped personalities. Guy should be played by Bloom. Guy was the inexperienced incomer from France, a younger son dependant on what patronage he could find, while Balian and Baldwin were warriors born and bred in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Assuming that we can trust the secondary sources to have done their prosopography right (I have one or two slight niggles), their father was a knight named Balian, who was appointed as lord of the relatively minor castle of Ibelin in the 1140s (there was no "Godfrey of Ibelin"), and their mother was the heiress of the important Crusader fief centred on the town and castle of Ramlah. This became the centre of Baldwin's lands, while Balian ruled his wife's even more important dowry estates from the old Roman city of Nablus; Ibelin, the small garrison castle from which the family took their name, and which features quite prominently in the movie, lost its original military raison d'etre with the fall of Ascalon in 1153, seems to have passed out of the family by the time the events of the movie are set.

And the real Balian's wife, Queen Maria, had apparently had an affair with the Patriarch Heraclius (the bishop of Jerusalem) during her first marriage - which would explain why he and Balian don't get on in the film, if it wasn't for the fact that all the context has been changed!

However...

… take a deep breath…

That said, provided you can ignore Balian-Baldwin-Orlando's awkwardly-composited character, and the fact that the personal narrative seems to have been turned arse-backwards on itself to conform to the political one, the film isn't too bad for historical accuracy.

Continuing the trend begun with the elision of Balian and Maria with Baldwin and Sibylla, various minor characters are written out. There’s no sign of Balian's stepdaughter Princess Isabella and her husband Humphrey - Reynald of Chatillon's gay teenage stepson… nor of Sibylla's first husband William Longsword, their son King Baldwin V, and Guy's brother Amalric. Also absent is Ernoul, Balian's squire, who wrote an eyewitness history of the events covered in the film, but is here replaced by a man-at-arms called Amalric.

The only other major quirk is that Jeremy Irons' character, Raymond, Count of Tripoli, is always called "Tiberias" in the film, presumably to avoid confusion with Reynald, Lord of Chatillon - Tiberias was actually the capital of his wife's Principality of Gallilee; Raymond of Tripoli is thus "Tiberias" in the same way that King Baldwin is "Jerusalem".

With these caveats taken into account, what we should end up with is a simplified narrative of the wars between the Sultan Salah ad-Din ("Saladin") and the Crusaders in the 1180s, owing broadly the same relationship to Ernoul's surviving eyewitness account that Braveheart and Mulan owe to the epic poems on which they're based - or, closer to home and further from the middle ages, Kingdom of Heaven should stand with regard to its sources rather as Gladiator does to the relevant sections of Gibbon's Decline and Fall and the old sword-and-sandal adaptation thereof, Fall of the Roman Empire.

The composite 'Balian' and the backgrounded 'Tiberias' serve to represent the d'Ibelin/Tripoli faction, committed to negotiation and peace with the Arabs, while Guy de Lusignan and Reynald de Chatillon, represent the 'war party', and Sibylla stands for the women of the royal family, caught between the two squabbling groups. Events unfold in order – at the start of the movie, Baldwin has repulsed the Sultan's first invasion, and an uneasy truce has developed under the d'Ibelin/Tripoli ascendancy; Balian and 'Tiberias' are determined to keep the peace, resisted by the old warrior Reynald de Chatillion and, less dramatically, Guy de Lusignan.

Reynald's attack on an Arab caravan and his assault on the Sultan's sister incites another war; the chivalry of the Kingdom marches off to defeat in the dry, desperate heat of Hattin. Guy is taken prisoner, and the Sultan kills Reynald with his own hand - this incident occurred almost exactly as shown in the film.

The d'Ibelin/Tripoli leaders escape. 'Tiberias' cuts his losses and falls back towards the sea, while Balian d'Ibelin, hardly helped by the cowardly Patriarch, leades the defence of Jerusalem, creates new knights from men not of knightly rank, and negotiates an honourable surrender.

All that happened, broadly as shown in the film. So what we have here is history distilled down to Holywood essentials, with a lot of battles. A marriage of the basic truth of what happened with the conventions of the Hero's Journey; starring Orlando Bloom and a cute starlet.

Isn't it?

Well, that's not actually what we get, either.

Kingdom of Heaven is a mess. It's confused, inconsistent, and ill-structured. At key moments, where pathos, anger and love should be communicated with real emotional grip, they're merely blankly observed. Having turned history into simple narrative, the movie proceeds to complicate itself all over again.

You could say that this is because the narrative of the movie is wedded to the conventions of the genre.

1.) The hero must be young and handsome, with looks, presence, and bankability. Orlando Bloom will do.

2.) He must either die heroically, or live happily ever after. So, because Maximus died last time out, here we have the absurdity, in the final beat of the film, of Balian and Sibylla returning to the old blacksmith's forge in France.

3.) He must, above all else, represent the common man, and - especially if this is a period piece - his enemies must be entrenched aristocratic interests. He must, in other words, be proto-American, his triumph based on human virtue flattering and echoing the Great Nation's sense of its own origins.

Compare Braveheart, where William Wallace is portrayed as a kilt-wearing Highlander raised in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the son of 'a commoner with his own lands'; in real life, he was a mailed and mounted professional soldier, a household knight of one of Scotland's greatest lords, and his father was the lord of a perfectly respectable castle on the Ayrshyre coast.

In reality, Balian d’Ibelin and Raymond of Tripoli represented the established warrior-aristocrat élite of the Crusader states. Here, the very American myth of peasant settlers escaping oppression in Old Europe to build a better and more liberal world has simply been transposed back in time.

The people who were making a home in the wilderness (and yes, I’m listening to Dire Straits’ Telegraph Road as I write this) were the people like Reynald of Chatillon and his knights – and when Salah ad-Din turns up almost annually to try to knock down your castle, as happened at Kerak in the 1180s, you can forgive Reynald for being brutally cynical about the idea that the Sultan wanted peace.

It’s an American myth, thwartwise on the truth, and that’s all there is to it.

Well, actually, that’s not quite all there is to it. The whole ‘blacksmith’ thing seems to have been lifted out of the script for an abortive Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle called Crusade. This had Arnie as a blacksmith becoming a knight on the First Crusade in the 1090s, and got into pre-production in 1994, with Jennifer Connolly as the female lead, and Paul Verhoven at the helm – but it was axed so they could make Cutthroat Island instead.

Which just goes to show – there’s a slippery slope between the All-American Hero and Conan the Barbarian. Go read Matt Stover’s Heroes Die if you don’t believe me.

But ultimately, while Heroes Die works brilliantly as a novel, part of the point is that the story being told is basically bad cinema.

And here, in an odd chord to that, all this naratological messiness creates an awkward tension within the flim.

Firstly, it's the baggage of Holywood expectation - rather than narrative lucidity - is what really 'requires' the rewriting of Balian into the character we see in the film.

Scenes that include whole 'paragraphs' quoted from Pirates of the Carribean, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves don't help ease the sense that the script is itself written according to a script.

Secondly, in terms of the actual structure of the movie, this "Blacksmith who became a Knight" paradigm really doesn't work. Balian becomes 'lord of Ibelin' because of who his father is; his father's men follow him for the same reason - his bastardy (and his brutal murder of his venal parish priest) is something that he's supposed to have left behind in Old Europe - but he never really feels that he's the man he's expected to be.

So the film negates its apparent paradigm by seeking to deny it, and at the same time, by showing it as something that holds back Balian from being able to live the new role he's been cast in. He shows himself able to perform the role of lord of Ibelin in the new, more open 'Kingdom of Heaven' forged by the European colonists abroad, but not to truly live the part.

Secondly, and in parallel, there's the metaphysical problem of the film. Balian's infant son has died, his wife has killed herself - his journey to Jerusalem is, ostensibly, because he's hoping to achieve forgiveness for them and him by pilgrimage to the Holy Places.

But he doesn't find what he is looking for; and he has, in his own words 'lost his religion' - though the film leaves it unclear when - and if - there is a single precise moment when this takes place. The superficial message - one apparently endorsed by the director in PR interviews - seems to be openly anticlerical, attacking organized religion and replacing it as moral guide by a humanist moral code, embodied in knighthood.

Yet here again, there are ambiguities, complexities, elisions. Balian's knighthood is a religious ceremony, performed at the altar of a church. As his father collapses dying, having bequeathed his son his sword and status, his friend, a Knight Hospitaller, pronounces the last rites.

Yet the fundamentally religious import of the scene - in the forefront of the characters' minds and obviously known to at least some of the production team - is invisible to the audience. The camera is lowered so only the support of the crucifix on the altar is visible - coy, embarrassed, deferential, it is hard to say.

The Hospitaller, to whom Balian confesses his loss of religion himself rejects the paradigm - and he does so with a paradox; he performs the comforting public rituals of religion, but at the same time, stresses that faith, not 'religion', is what God asks of a man.

Unlike Balian and 'Tiberias', who here refuse to fight (though in reality, they commanded the vanguard and rearguard of the army, and fought their way clear), the Hospitaller rides of to the slaughter at Hattin, and - with words that echo those of Wallace in Braveheart, whose Catholic faith is there left intact but implicit by Gibson - to his death. We later see his head among a pile of those of the slain.

Left unsaid again here is the history behind the scene: the surviving Templars and Hospitallers were executed in cold blood after the battle by the sufis in the Arab army.

Nor is the tolerant, anticlerical stance consistent. Sibylla's simple analysis of religious difference hangs in the air like an awkward question. We see the Arab army advance to victory at Jerusalem, moved not simply by the humanist ideals with which Balian has tried to inspire his inadequate defending force, but by zealous exhortations from their own clergy; we see hints that Salah ad-Din is a more complex man than the chivalrous commander everyone knows him as.

There is no clarity here; not in characterization, not in storyline, not in point of view.

You could also say that the sense of unsettled uncertainty has something to do with is the style in which the film is shot and told. While the armour is authentically twelfth-century, we get very little of the worldview and aesthetic of the Crusaders. The spaces in which the film takes place are generic, lacking defining and distinguishing features - many of them with a slightly staged, unreal air. The European ideas in architecture and luxury goods which the "Franks" brought to Outremer are ignored; here, they have only armour.

Instead, the production design seems to want to stress the "Arabized" elements in the culture of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and this is also mirrored in the wailing, reedy elements which stand out most prominently in the score - though the score also has a fractured, difficult feel to it.

Except, that is, for one brief snatch of a nineteenth-century hymn-tune.

Henry Gauntlett's "St Fulbert" is the usual setting for "Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem", the Victorian translation of an an eleventh-century hymn by St Fulbert of Chartres - teacher, writer, and author of a famous letter on lordship and service.

It cuts in as Reynald de Chatillon staggers back into the sunlight out of the Sultan's tent with his throat cut, a sudden moment of clarity as the old Crusader - in real life, he had been fighting in Outremer for more than forty years - finally gets the death he has been chasing for all that time.

"Someone has to be me," he remarks, earlier in the film, as he goes about starting a war. "No-one else is."

I don't know what the sudden clarity of the old hymn 'means' in context. I don't know if the composer, the director or the editors did, either - save that a Crusader is dying a Crusader's death.

In that single moment, all the awkward paradoxes, unresolved tensions, and imperfect agendas of the film suddenly make a new sense, from a new perspective. This is a film about awkward paradoxes, unresolved tensions, and imperfect agendas. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, Kingdom of Heaven takes a complex story, smoothed to blandness by pedestrian expectations and the conventional demands of the mainstream cinema, and invigorates it with a new, aggressive, cinematic complexity that traduces its ostensible aims, and reaffirms the value and values of the real world, which exist beyond stereotype, archetype, system or summary.

Kingdom of Heaven is not the film I expected. It is not the simple tale of the Blacksmith who became the Knight, nor is it a compelling visual evocation of the medieval world. It is certainly not the history it masquerades as, but it is not the movie that it pretends to be, either.

It is - whether by accident or design - much more complex, and much better, than that.

In the final scene, we see Balian return to the burnt-out shell of his blacksmith's forge - ruined, but repairable. He looks up at the inscription on one of the beams - we've forgotten what it said, but the gesture is enough.

Then, as at the start of the film, a party of Crusader Knights rides up. They are looking for Balian of Ibelin.

"I am the blacksmith," Balian insists, flatly.

"And I'm the King of England," replies Richard the Lionheart, with a smile.

Balian offers the king the same directions south that his father gave him, and the English knights ride on.

In silence, we cut to Sybilla, standing in the building opposite. They exchange silent glances. Knight and Lady, it seems, have come here together.

Then, we see Balian and Sybilla, riding through the French countryside - the lovers, the hero and heroine, on horseback, together at last - freed, it seems, from the responsibilities of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We notice - though we do not yet register - that Balian has his sword, his father's sword, strapped across his back.

But as they ride past the crossroads, Balian shoots a glance at camera - straight across his dead wife's grave, straight into the heart of the audience. A glance as black and dark and challenging as death.

Then he looks away, and rides on.

It is over in a moment. Perhaps not all the audience will register it. Perhaps not everyone will understand.

There is no Happy Ending here.

There is nothing here for Balian of Ibelin, nor for Sybilla of Jerusalem.

They are riding south.
 
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07:20pm 02/05/2005
  Why is it that the only good TV these days is on BBC4?

Probably because there's an election on...

Friday night saw an entire night of programs marking Eric Clapton's sixtieth birthday, and the reunion of Cream, who're playing a series of gigs at the Albert Hall, thirty-seven years after they split up. The most remarkable part of the evening schedule was an old Omnibus film on "The Cream", and their original farewell concert in 1968. With graphics by the Boyle Family, and an entirely straight-faced voiceover by a man from the Beeb called Drummond, who spoke with the sort of RP accent that would have good neo-socialists mistaking him for a Tory-boy, this made the case that pop music had come of age, simply by framing what the band were doing in the language of respectable cultural analysis.

But even today, this has an edge sharp enough to draw blood - without being in any way életist or aggressive, band and presenter alike drew a picture or a battle between genuine musical skill and manufactured, commercial product designed to appeal to eleven-year-old girls in Seattle - a battle which can be contrasted with the dialogue between the musicians in the band itself. Every record exec, pop musician, and disillusioned teenager should be made to watch this film.

For those who don't know, Cream (who seem to have transcended the definite article at some point, eclipsing the mere celebrity status of the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, and the Floyd...) were formed when Cockney drummer Ginger Baker got together with Clapton, then already Middle-England's greatest blues guitarist, and classically-trained Glaswegian bassist Jack Bruce, to form pop's first 'supergroup' - the idea being that three musucians of existing talent could strike off each other and produce even better music together. For the film, the sets from the concert were intercut with discussions with the three band-members. All three of them were adamant that their music (the program's preferred term was 'pop', not jazz or blues, still less 'rock') was an improvised 'conversation', but equally important was the way that each of them brought a distinctly different and personal voice to the band. Bruce - who unselfconsciously describes Bach as history's greatest bass-player - is the intellectual of the group, able to describe what they do in formal musical terms, but also counterpointing that intelligence with an explanation of the personal and cultural circumstances which have led them - and their generation as a whole - to reject the expectations of their parents. Clapton is eloquent and articulate in his own very different way, describing the construction of his musical from the deceptively simple variety of ways to inflect the note of an electric guitar, and also acknowledging the dark emotional drive behind his playing. Baker just let his drums do the talking.

In the shots from the concert itself (which lasted all of 48 minutes!) the camera moved between the three figures on stage, framed inside their own world - just the three of them, making their music with each other. Only at the end of each set did the camera cut round to show the packed audience and their rapturous response.

But the visual highlight came when young Eric was discussing the technical aspects of playing the electric guitar - after a while, you noticed the fat, smouldering roll-up sitting jauntily forgotten behind the ear of his axe. Now my own poisons of choice don't get any more dangerous than whisky and cubans, but the way the steady eye of the camera framed this incongruous combination of innate genius, lucid technical exposition, and hazy smoke suddenly established a direct dialogue between viewer and viewed, and brought it all home with brilliant immediacy - both the specific, unique genius of the three musicians who were The Cream, and also the universality of great art.

***

More expert camerawork last night in 1935 Nazi propaganda Triumph of the Will - a pageant of fascist triumphalism that raises very uneasy questions about the relationship of ceremony, spectacle and art to politics and morality. The most fascinating thing about this for me was how much the events depicted - the ceremonies of the National Scialists' 1935 party congress, as it happens - were reduced to ritual and style, with the speeches and ideology seeming less important than the ceremony and visual movement. Some of the events alluded to in the speeches - the 'humiliation' after World War I, and the previous year's purges of the SA - would have been immediately obvious to viewers at the time, but I'm not sure if these comments would have really conveyed ideological messages to contemporaries, or if they would simply have struck chords of recognition in the audience. The thrust of the speeches seemed to me to almost cancel each other out, since everyone, be they youth groups, labour organizations, uniformed paramilitaries, or card-carying Party members, was simply told that they were the special ones, the heart of Germany... and the underlying message of duty and sacrifice and survival was couched in an almost universal language of propaganda and idealism, that used by any Party leadership to reassure and inspire the faithfull.

In a way, the film contrived to divorce the Nazi leadership from their historical identity and ideology, offering a view of why that outflanked all the usual platitudes. The strength of Nazi Germany was primarily expressed in aesthetic terms - in terms of men, uniforms, and physical structure, a monument of pure, abstract organization. Unity was given via artistic vision and virtuoso camerawork, all the more striking because of the evidently primitive film technology being used. The vast quarter-million-strong crowds weren't ruthlessly regimented like the marching hammers in Pink Floyd's The Wall, but simply uniformed, and in motion, human variety subsumed in a sea of sheer numbers. At one point, in the middle of Hitler's closing speech, a bespectacled houswife leans round in her chair to say something to her friend behind her, grinning in pure delight.

Of course, when the film ended, I switched channels to see the leaders of the UK's main political parties at pre-election rallies...

Not that it's just the unintentional parallels that are important - Triumph of the Will is perhaps most famous today because George Lucas copied camera-angles from it to inject a frisson of moral ambiguity into the Rebel Alliance triumph in Star Wars, but what I hadn't realsised untl last night was that David Lynch did the same thing in Dune as well, in his shot of the Fremen assembled before their battle against the Empire.

***

BBC1, meanwhile, gave us Dalek... in which the last Time Lord and the last son of Skaro faced each other in a large basement full of expendable extras in second-hand costumes. This walked an interesting line between the conventional expectations of heroes-and-villains storytelling and a modern moral relativism, in a plot built up as much through knowing postmodernist references to the conventions of te genre and the expectations of the audience as anything else - and out of this, it produced some sublime moments, such as when the Dalek pulled back its armour to bask in the light of the sun for the first time.

At the same time, I wasn't quite sure what I made of Dalek. I thought it maybe left me feeling a little unfulfilled. But now, I don't wonder if the scriptwriters' confidence in the clarity of their vision and the clean lines of the plot wasn't in itself the unconscious root of their ability to empathise with the genocidal Dalek soldier; where is the boundary between brisk, efficent storytelling and the warped inhumanity of Davros' ideals of purity...
 
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05:27pm 05/04/2005
 
mood: Scottish
Just to try to keep things rolling, another jotted TV review, this time of Heartless, last night's one-off comedy-drama on ITV. In America, I guess they'd call this a TV movie.

This was a largely shameless slice of Highland whimsy, combining the basic plot of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero with the recorded phenomenon of people who find their tastes changing after organ transplants. A London lawyer finds strange things happening to him after his transplant - he can no longer stomach pretentiously-served Guinness, but he can down a sizeable slug of single malt without blinking - and chases off to the remote West Highland coast on his Ducati to find out about the donor. In short order, he's being seduced by the slow life, falling in love with the donor's widow, dancing reels like a natural, and generally rethinking his life. An hour and a half later, the headline in the village newspaper is Local Lawyer Weds.

So far, so predictable. But what saved this hokum from being unwatchable tosh wasn't the raw black humour with which the opening scenes were leavened, but a remarkable combination of acting, direction and script, all united by a quiet, careful, observant humanity.

In a more conventional story, you'd have cast the scummy lawyer as someone like Colin Firth or Hugh Grant - but here, it was Angus Deayton; hardly the usual handsome romantic lead, and a man who's now famous as much for past offscreen indescretions as previous on-screen roles. Some media reviews have criticized his range, and sure, he was playing someone very like himself, with the same smooth, metropolitan facade, but isn't that more real rather than less? Improbably cast against him was versatile Scots-Arab actress Simone Lahbib, who managed to look gorgeous and careworn, and above all, as authentic as her old wooly jumpers. Not the most plausible of pairings, but it worked, firstly because you believed in the two characters as individuals, and more importantly, because changes of pace and mood in the storytelling kept the viewer's attention - working with, not against, the implausibilities of the plot.

Not that the story was just implausible romance and clever direction. It was subtly hinted that one supporting character was a murderer on the run, and that the neat solution which saw Deayton's local rival for Lahbib's affection marry another village girl was largely prompted by the fact he'd gotten her pregnant; but everyone was treated with a robust good humour and a quiet, forgiving understanding. I'm pretty sure that several lines and scenes were borrowed or adapted from Local Hero, but there was also what I think was a deliberate dialogue echo from The Phantom Menace at one point, cleverly designed to inflect several characterizations; and the final shot, at once knowing and innocent, and thus perfect, was a small child turning round and waving "bye-bye" directly at the camera.

Beyond this, of course, was the central conciet, which combined a genuine medical phenomenon with more metaphysical ideas about love, and openness, and understanding as the counterweight to modern hollowness. Heartless was a story about love, and goodwill, and their real transformative power - and it used those strengths to keep the viewer watching, turning ideas that remained laughable throughout into the foundation of something subtly special. It's hard to know what the right word for that sort of goodness is - but perhaps 'whimsy' is good enough in itself....

'ewok
 
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03:01am 02/04/2005
  Yeah, I know... I've not updated in way too long...

***

A couple of quizzes, gakked from Ams.




Your dating personality profile:

Liberal - Politics matters to you, and you aren't afraid to share your left-leaning views. You would never be caught voting for a conservative candidate.
Big-Hearted - You are a kind and caring person. Your warmth is inviting, and your heart is a wellspring of love.
Religious - Faith matters to you. It is the foundation that you build your life upon. You trust that God has a plan for you.
Your date match profile:

Religious - You seek someone who is grounded in faith and who possesses religious values. You believe that a religious person can enhance your life.
Conservative - Forget liberals, you need a conservative match. Political discussions interest you, and a conservative will offer the viewpoint you need.
Intellectual - You seek out intelligence. Idle chit-chat is not what you are after. You prefer your date who can stimulate your mind.
Your Top Ten Traits

1. Liberal
2. Big-Hearted
3. Religious
4. Intellectual
5. Sensual
6. Wealthy/Ambitious
7. Romantic
8. Traditional
9. Practical
10. Adventurous
Your Top Ten Match Traits

1. Religious
2. Conservative
3. Intellectual
4. Sensual
5. Outgoing
6. Traditional
7. Practical
8. Athletic
9. Romantic
10. Adventurous

Take the Dating Profile Quiz - Relationship Jokes - Relationship Advice




DisorderRating
Paranoid Disorder:Moderate
Schizoid Disorder:Moderate
Schizotypal Disorder:Moderate
Antisocial Disorder:Low
Borderline Disorder:Low
Histrionic Disorder:Moderate
Narcissistic Disorder:Moderate
Avoidant Disorder:Moderate
Dependent Disorder:Low
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:High

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If anyone's still reading this, feel free to pass comment...

***

'ewok
 
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Three French Hens...   
01:09pm 28/12/2004
 
mood: Bluesy
Well, Christmas is over, or at least, we're into the slow afterglow of long lies and cold collations.

***

Dear Santa Claus,
Thank you for...
One new Duvet
The whisky - 1981 North Port, from a distillery that is sadly no more. Lovely stuff
A pile of books, comprising, amongst others:
Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin - the second in the superb Erast Fandorin series by Russia's leading novellist: imagine Dostoyevsky writing Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the style of James Bond; brilliantly translated as well.
The Dancers Inherit the Party by Ian Hamilton Finlay - a collection of early poetry and short stories by Scotland's greatest writer/artist
The Wolf, The Sheep, and the Lettuce by Alan Ahlberg - I originally bought this for small relatives and godparents' children, but decided I'd like my own children to have a copy one day, too. When every 'major' new book seems to be a derivative rehash of half-digested ideas from Lewis, Borges, Eco and/or Banks, a storybook for the under-tens that tells them on page two to tell their parents they're reading Bertrand Russell is worth its weight in gold.
You Are Here: A Dossier, by Rory Bremner, John Bird, John Fortune, and their producer - Britain's best political satirists stick the knife into the Anglo-American Axis.
Twelve bottles of very good beer.

I hope everyone has had (or, if you're Orthodox, will have) a splendid, happy Christmas - and a joyful, prosperous New Year to you all as well!

'ewok
 
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My First Gakk   
08:17pm 13/12/2004
 
mood: zen?
Gakked from Ams:

Step 1: Get your playlist together, put it on random, and play!
Step 2: Pick a line or two from the first 10 songs that play.
Step 3: Post and let everyone you know guess what song the lines come from!
Step 4: Cross out the songs when someone guesses correctly!
P.S: using a search engine is cheating.


1: I’ll tell you a secret – I find you adorable… I find you adorable…
2: As long as I know I have love, I can make it!
3: You might run on for a long time – run more, ducking and dodging
4: She’s at the bus-stop with the News of the World and the son…
5: It took six hamburgers and Scotch all night, nicotine for breakfast, just to put me right
6: ... welcome back... Eric Clapton!
7: You know we'll never get far, riding around in a stolen police car
8: Don't think of the danger, or the stranger is gone
9: Echoes and roars, dinosaurs, they’re all doing the Monster Mash - and most of the taxis, most of the whores, are only taking calls for cash...
10: [No lyrics]

Does all that date me horribly?

***

I hate to mention last night’s TV again (hey, all my drinking friends are in London, okay? ), but probably the most remarkable thing in last night’s premier of the new series of Miss Marple was Jamie Theakston’s (yes, that Jamie Theakston’s) superb, nuanced performance, bringing an unrecognizable dignity and pain to the role of a bankrupt, alcoholic ex-fighter pilot.

All the performances were superb – Edward Fox, Jo Lumley, Tara Fitzgerald, Ian Richardson, Jack Davenport (whose performance was a remarkable essay in how what it means to be a middle-class Londoner has changed in the past fifty years) and Simon Callow, even the random thirteen-year-old Girl Scout whose evidence clinched the case.

Good direction may have been at the back of it – but whatever it was, it was splendidly impressive.

But you know you’re too much of a Star Wars fanboy when you think that Geraldine McEwan would make a good Vergere…

***

In other news, I had a really, really good lunch on Saturday. But I’ve already promised the online writeup to WOOKEEHut: the fact that they combine genre fanfic and that sort of thing is just one more reason why they’re so good…

'ewok
 
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