Wednesday, 23 December 2015

All Yesterday's Christmases - a trip to the consumerism graveyard

They all stared at us accusingly as we drove into the dump.

I mean the garden ornaments, of course. Faded in the sun and worn by years of exposure, they'd been lined up along the route to the main parking area. I saw any number of owls, gnomes, Rupert The Bears, deer, pigs, badgers, blue tits, lucky wishing wells, Terracotta Soldiers and licensed properties, all watching us like angry exes at a really awkward school disco. 

They'd been arranged there with care by the workers at the dump, or rather, the recycling hub. This was the new name for the place, and it was no longer just somewhere where you went to ditch your crap. It had to be carefully sorted and placed into one of 13 very long, very deep skips - one for plasterboard, one for paper and cardboard, one for plastic, one for electrics and electronics, and broken washing machines...

Needless to say, we had not gotten this memo and turned up instead with loads of ragged black bags full of junk and clutter from our cupboard (and our in-law's busted-ass vacuum cleaner). This is what happens when you come from Dagenham - there you dump it and drive off. In Southampton, they sort of want to recycle all this.

I made my apologies and tried to focus on chucking away old magazines and cardboard into the right skip. My in-law, meanwhile, just gave up straight away and gave the staff lots of black bags for them to sort through, having been overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.

I felt a pang of sadness as I ditched our old £29 microwave. It had served us well for nigh-on 7 years, and we only finally - reluctantly - set it aside when its rotator motor failed and the insides rusted to the point that we had started to get bits of black debris in our scrambled eggs. 

At home, before I set off, I shoved in some old flowers into the microwave, making use of the extra space this would free up. My SO gasped and realised that I had - by accident or design - just added a floral tribute to the funeral of our trusty microwave. It was rather poignant. At the dump, I rested the microwave gently on an old office chair next to the electronics skip, as the council worker said he'd deal with it from that point on. I turned and left, feeling a little bereft.

The irony of it all was, of course, where the dump is. Next to the docks, you can see the vast, horrific, magnificent sight of barges playing host to vast mountains of trash and junk. And right next to the dump itself, you can see the still-amazing sight of vast cranes lifting and lowering containers into neat towering rows, all piloted by one tiny little man on top of the long, vast spider-like thing that does the work of hundreds of old school dockers. 

Here is where all our manufactured crap arrives, and here is where it ends up once we tire of it. Most of what's in these containers will end up in the dump or in places like it. Consumerism is many things, but in the end, it is about desire, and that can be surprisingly disposable when we move on to other things and other infatuations.

I tried to crack a topical joke as I ditched my in-law's vacuum cleaner by the electronics skip. "Knackered, I'm afraid..." I said to the rather bored looking council workers. "More life in a Christmas turkey!" They didn't laugh. As my in-law finished handing over ragged bags of junk to the poor souls in the general waste section, I slipped a fiver into their Christmas box by way of nervous apology.

Over my shoulder, I saw a shed where they seemed to stash the few things of value they’d managed to salvage. I saw a beautiful dolls house, cleaned up and neatly place on a shelf in the shed. I felt a little relief. Seeing a dolly house in a skip would have been heart breaking.

And why be sorry for feeling sentimental? It makes a change from just throwing things away a few days before the Great Consumerist Binge that is Christmas. I wondered about the men and women – Chinese, of course – who made our microwave at the other end of the World and the great consumerist life cycle. 

Did they know their microwave would last so long? Did they ever wonder about the long journey it had on its container ship? Did they ever imagine who might end up owning their handiwork? And could they imagine it all ending up in a council skip one drab Wednesday afternoon in December? 

That microwave was the only connection I had with those people. What were they like? Did they have pride in their work? What were their dreams? What consumer goods did they save up their Yuan for? I’d never know, and that seemed desperately sad.

We got in the car and drove off, the garden ornaments staring at us as we left. In our wake, the council workers sighed and picked up all the junk that had fallen out of our bags.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Dave Cameron's war on porn; the incoming tide; Spanish windmills etc.

  • YES -  I want rivers of filth, and I want them NOW!!!
  • NO -  I think porn should only ever be accessed under a shrub, left behind by a tramp.
  • NO -  I am an opportunistic career politician who's sucking up to the Daily Mail.
  • NO -  I am the Daily Mail and I like taking intrusive long lens shots of celebrities' children.
  • MEH - I am an 11-year-old who's worked out Dad's password anyway.
Will Cameron ban Page 3? Of course not. It's not really about protecting young people, but rather, the obscene using the obscene to hide their obscenities.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A melancholy night at the cinema (with The World's End and Pacific Rim)

Often, going to the cinema is a laugh, and for the most part The World's End, the last instalment of Edgar Wright's ice cream trilogy, was fun. It's just that the mid-life crisis angst and oversold comic hooks were a bit worn out and desperate. If the first instalment, Shaun of the Dead, managed to strike a perfect balance between the genre homages, drama and comedy, The World's End was too sledgehammer in execution, like it was overcompensating as it staggered over the finish line.

Throw in a disjointed final act that is unsatisfying precisely because it is so perverse, and the film ends on a sombre note that's a bit too jarring. It does of course pick up all of a sudden in the last scene, but there's something disturbing about the odd belief in sci fi that you have to sweep away the world to save it.

Then there was Pacific Rim. Jesus Christ, what a load of shit. The absurd characters were cut out of cardboard (seriously, there's more life in a Toho sound stage full of scale model buildings), and were, without exception, utterly vile and unsympathetic. After nigh-on two hours, I even wanted the fucking dog to die. The dialogue was beyond parody.

The stars of the show - the big monsters and the big robots - were, meanwhile, obscured by darkness and water for the most part. It makes you wonder quite what it is you're meant to be seeing, as the murk gets in the way of multimillion dollar SFX to the point that it might as well not be there. As a final insult, the film ends with yet another Raid-on-the-Deathstar via Independence Day reset button. I say final, because the entire film spends its duration insulting your intelligence

Throw in a nasty pro-militarism and authoritarian subtext, and a heartless, banal core to the movie, and you have a veritable mountain of kaiju shit falling out of the screen in glorious 3D.

As the credits finally - mercifully - roll, you just have to wonder if directors of any renown should be put out to pasture after a few years, before they start making inadvertent comedies like Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and this bulbous turkey. Did the maker of Pan's Labyrinth really crap this one out?

And then there is the soundtrack - DERDERDER-DER-DER! DERDERDER-DER-DER! DERDERDER-DER-DER! It's like a really annoying ringtone, a lot like the rest of the film as it happens.

Having fucked this up, will Legendary do a better job with Godzilla? It's not looking good.

Want to hear the punchline? After watching this cinematic gem, I missed the last bus home.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Encounter with a female stag beetle

This morning, while chasing away a Robin that had perched on our clothes horse (they tend to crap wherever they please), I saw a large black object moving some distance away on the ground.

It was a big beetle, and I initially christened what I thought was a 'him' as 'George Harrison' (the only Beatle no one slags off). On closer examination, it turned out to be a female stag beetle, who had a run-in with a cobweb some time before, as you can probably see. 'He' was actually a Georgina, as only males have the famous 'antler' mandible jaws we normally associate with the species.

Seeing that the stag beetle was exposed on the concrete and there were lots of insectivores either flying around or, in the case of our cat, on the prowl, we picked her up and put her on the soil nearby. Then we realised the area we'd put her on was crawling with ants, so we had to pick her up again, all the while worrying we were killing the poor thing with stress.

Then I remembered that stag beetles like hanging around rotting wood, and we had a suitably large, decaying tree stump in our garden too. Finding a nice big crevice to drop the stag beetle into, I was relieved to see she'd survived and, err, beetled off some time later.

Given the time of year, she was probably trying to find somewhere to lay eggs, like - say - a rotting tree stump. Perhaps we'll have stag beetle grubs on our hands soon? I hope so; they are a fast declining species, and it would be sad to see them become rare or even endangered.

So let me end on a top tip. Fill a small bucket with wood shavings and bury it up to the brim in a warm, unobtrusive part of your garden. This provides a ready-made nursery for stag beetles and helps them during breeding season. Don't expect any music, though.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Man of Steel: Triumph of the Mild Mannered Man

WARNING! Massive spoilers from this point in!

Yes, there’s already a lot of criticism of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel. And yes, lots of it is quite fair.  Yes, it’s too angst ridden and po-faced to the point of constipation. Yes, the dialogue is often painfully bad. Yes, Zack Snyder directs with the delicacy and grace of a dyspraxic hippo. Yes, and Christopher Nolan’s unhinged father fixation and over-inflated pretensions are all over the joint. Supes’ brief flirtation with stereotypical teenage twattery is seriously out of character. The religious undertones are hilariously sledgehammer. The love story seems a bit rushed. And yes, the film seems too hurried overall despite being over two bloody hours long. The music’s shit too.

And yet, there is a lot that works here too. Grudgingly, the film lets Superman be, well, Superman eventually, even though it still inserts a sourpuss Hobson’s Choice at its end, almost out of spite. The massive punch-ups – while derided by some – are precisely what CGI and summer blockbuster films should be about. And while the film takes itself way too seriously, its spectacle is intense and often inspiring. If only it let itself have fun and let more than a tiny crack in its relentlessly humourless grind peek through. Who else felt a sigh of relief when the Captain smiled nervously and admitted Ol’ Supes was ‘kinda hot’? Superman should be fun. It’s why Grant Morrison was put on the Earth.

Still, the basic storyline of the film – where Clark Kent tries to navigate between the OCD pragmatism of Earth Dad Kevin Costner and the vainglorious benign(?) megalomania of Space Dad Russell Crowe – is a fascinating premise. He has to grow beyond them both and become his own man, as implied by the film’s title.

But I’d go so far as to say that the film goes deeper. In essence, the film is a clash between Clark Kent’s (eventual) moderation and the fanaticism of the other characters. Both his Dads are well-intentioned, but both go too far. There is something chilling and inhuman about Earth Dad’s suggestion that maybe his son should have just let everyone on that school bus drown or that he should just take all that abuse with nary a flare of anger, while his final demand that Clarke does not reveal himself is both fatal for himself and horrifying to behold. Utilitarianism and over-protective parenting can be ugly businesses, especially when they are elevated above the most basic expressions of human love and kindness.

Not that Space Dad is any better. Moral in his own way he may be, but there’s still something troubling about Jor-El’s predictions that his son will be seen as a ‘God’ and someone who will lead humanity to better things, whether they want to or not. (This is the same individual who argued against his people’s lack of free will, remember, and lectured Zod on the perils of eugenics.)

Meanwhile, his all-but-ordering of Superman’s mother to let her son go and his own reckless heist on the matrix suggests he may even be a bit of a psychopath, just one that’s more housetrained than General Zod. The blitheness in which he condemns both himself and his wife to death because they are somehow tainted by association with Krypton also suggests that Zod and chums aren’t the only ones who are still taken by that world’s ugly politics. It’s just that Jor-el seems to think that a natural birth cures all sins. Only a zealot could believe in absolution to such an absurd degree.

Fanaticism afflicts many other characters in the film. The military are paranoid, trigger happy and ineffectual for the most part, mainly because they can only see the ‘other’ as a threat. Lois Lane’s journalism-at-all-costs outlook nearly ruins everything until she takes a step back from the precipice. Altogether more unrelenting is her editor, Perry White (“since you’re agreeing with me, make that three weeks!”) whose own high-handed belief that the public needs to be protected from the truth comes back to haunt him with a vengeance. (Parallels with Earth Dad are, of course, inevitable.) And then there are the rogue Kryptonians themselves, utterly convinced they are right and so completely justified in what they do.

Which brings us to Zod, the most tragic figure in the film. His fanaticism is not in doubt, of course, but neither are his principles. Unlike Jor-El, he shows remorse for the things he does, and like Jonathon Kent, he puts ideals ahead of life itself. It’s just that his ideals are so set in stone that he will still do terrible things precisely because he is – in his own way – deeply moral. But his principles get in the way of what’s right, up to and beyond the point of genocide. His is the fanaticism of the others taken to its logical extreme. He fights for Krypton every much as hard as Jonathon Kent fights for his son and the common good. Few villains truly see themselves as such.

Zod is also the character, irony upon ironies, with the least volition in the film. Bred by a fanatical system to be a fanatic, he is nothing without his purpose, which explains why he ultimately chooses Suicide by Superman over any retreat from anything. It’s not that he doesn’t want to so much as he is utterly unable to. Fanaticism ultimately reduces us to absurdity and tragedy, as the film continues to remind us.

And what of Superman? While he sometimes echoes the arguments of both his fathers, in the end he chooses his own path that takes the best of both parents but leaves aside their dogmatism and replaces their alienation from human feeling with a deep, reasoned compassion.

(It’s worth noting that Superman and Rorschach, another famous DC comic book character brought to the silver screen by Zack Snyder, both reconcile with their humanity from completely opposite directions. For one, it is an absolute refusal to cross a line. For the other, it is the rejection of extremes to begin with. Both become truly good men as a result, perhaps because morality must, at its core, be reconciled with empathy.)

Superman neither needs to be a God nor someone who hides in the shadows, slumming it in dive bars and shit-shovelling odd jobs. Through his secret identity, he gets to be both super and a man. His life is no longer an either/or binary opposition. Sometimes a disguise is the most honest thing one can put on.

Instead we witness his final triumph at the end of the film, but not by becoming a superhero. By becoming Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, he is finally his own man, with gauche clothes, geeky glasses and messed up hair. He gets to be a decent human being, and what better way to end such an epic journey?

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Thanks for the increased traffic!

Ay-up, ovine ones. Many thanks for visiting my blog! It's been great to see the boost in traffic as you all fall over yourselves to dig up dirt on me. If you're really good, I might even bless your forum with my presence someday. And yes, I read it with great interest...

So I hope it really offends you to be reminded that Nu Who is occasionally good, mostly shit and not helped at all by the blind faith and Kool-Aid guzzling faithful who think every episode is the Best Ever and can't bear to have their circle jerk interrupted.

But as they say, if two people agree with each other totally, one of them becomes redundant. Perhaps that's the true allure of the online echo chamber. It is the giddying promise of mutual self-annihilation:

In the virtual world… creators and readers can pick and choose who to call on and who to entertain. But it can… mean that you can limit interaction to people just like you… If one chooses, it is possible to never meet, never speak and never understand those whom you don’t want to, spending your days living in a virtual ghetto.

Stephen Duncombe, Notes From Underground ‘Zines And The Politics Of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997), p. 72 

Anyway, stay stupid, and rest assured your other bugbear says hello too.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

2012 London Olympics: What a load of arse

While on my way to a job interview near Angel today, I found myself in the middle of the Olympic Torch Relay. Crowds of people were lining both sides of the road, from Islington High Street, down through St. John Street, around the corner towards Rosebery Avenue and then onwards to who gives a toss where.

I walked some of the route with a friend. I was tired and stressed, so didn't feel like mincing my words. "Hubristic", "waste of money", "ovine" and "glorified school sports day" were some of the words I was using in a very loud voice as we proceeded through the throng, while the strigiformic stare of  Jessica Ennis emanated disapprovingly from bus shelter advertising.

The thing about the British is that they claim to be individuals, but tend to go along with the group. Anyone around during the time after Diana Spencer snuffed it in a Paris Underpass in 1997 and the resulting hysterical mourning will know this only too well.

The British also don't really have a sense of irony or the absurd, which may come as a surprise to some, but how else to explain people getting excited about a superficial non-entity, fag-end celebrity or Person You're Officially Meant To Feel Sorry For running down the road with a lighted torch? The last time anyone got this collectively excited about flammable objects was during last year's riots. Now that certainly brought the community together.

As I was about to cross the road, all the while wondering if I was going to get arrested for doing so (there were a lot of police about, which makes a change), two of the bicycle outriders collided, with one rider thrown off his bike. He didn't seem too badly hurt, but I didn't want to stick around to see a fight.

While I hurried along, I noticed someone had left a dolly and a pair of sunglasses on the edge of the low-lying wall that surrounds The Lab Building. Even as the crowd chattered loudly amongst itself, I felt an odd sense of melancholy, like something was being lost.

I glimpsed the two bikers cycle past as if nothing had happened.

I managed to get down an empty side street into a secluded avenue of shops before the main spectacle staggered along. That way, at least, I didn't have to see it. In the background, the onlookers sounded like a rowdy funfair full of candy floss-addled 14 year olds while some MC roused the crowd to cheers, despite the torchbearer not even having arrived yet.

The street was comparatively peaceful, though some people were sitting in the coffee shops. I also spotted a fair number of bikers going past as the pedestrianised road had a cycle lane going through the middle of it.

The quiet didn't last long. I saw lots of people run around the corner and past me at speed. They were spectators who couldn't get a good view of the torchbearer and wanted to try their luck up the road, using this backstreet as a shortcut. It was a weird paralell to the run going on nearby.

A little girl was running with her mother. She fell over hard and started crying.

"Oh is it THAT bad?" the mother complained, exasperated as her daughter wept loudly with pain.

Then the mother remembered her priorities. "COME ON! We'll miss it!" The still-sobbing girl limped slowly as she tried to catch up with her mother, who was already running on ahead.

Is it wrong to want to punch someone on the street? No more than wasting huge amounts of money on cheap spectacle and vanity projects for politicians. Other priorities can just go to hell.

I was reminded of what Will Self thought of the 2012 Olympics. They "suck dogshit through a straw", he said. I could only agree.

It seemed like a dreadful waste of a bright sunny day, under the pure azure gleam of a clear summer's sky.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Prometheus - The Film Says What The Movie Does Not Say

Prometheus was a mess; an incoherent, badly structured mush full of appalling characterisation, hilariously bad acting, a criminally squandered Idris Elba, and shoddy dialogue. The latest by Ridley Scott also offers deus ex machina, plot holes the size of a chest-burster's exit wound and a story by some plonker who used to write scripts for Lost (apropos of nothing, one of the shittest shows ever).

In many ways it's a perversely grand achievement. Put simply, someone has effectively remade Inseminoid with a $130 million budget. And if you don't believe me, compare the 'disco impregnation' scene from the former with the caesarean scene from Prometheus. It's laughably bad.

The monsters (as opposed to the aliens) were bloody awful too, rendered with obviously fake CGI and looking very much like props from one of those godawful Alien rip-offs they churned out in the early 80s. (Like, err, Inseminoid.) It hurts to see a once great Ridley Scott make Phantom Menace-levels of arse. And you thought Alien Resurrection had problems...

Even the blatant Alien allusions (like the Ripley-esque sign off at the end) seem a calculated slap across the face, a stinging reminder of what could have been, like a punishment for daring to expect a better experience that this.

That, at least is a review of Prometheus The Movie, as in, the experience Ridley Scott and friends wanted you to have. (For some reason.) Prometheus The Film (as in, the non-corporate, genuinely artistic bits) is a different matter altogether.

So let us deconstruct the film and draw the obvious conclusion: It's really about David the Android, played masterfully by Michael Fassbender, who channels Peter O'Toole via John Le Mesurier. Fassbender endows his character with a depth and soul that eclipses the cardboard cut-outs that pass for the 'real' humans in the film. A complicated, nuanced character, he ends up, by accident, as the real protagonist and, indeed, the only point of reference for the humans watching in the cinema.

Elizabeth Shaw's ridiculous line of dialogue at the end of the film (as opposed to all the others), where she proclaims that there are things that humans know that robots can't, acquires a certain poignancy from this perspective. Because David is the only real 'human' in the film, and the movie realises this. It seems desperate to over-compensate with a single bigoted remark.

There's also a genuine sense of wonder to the film, when Ridley Scott deigns to remind himself that he once knew how to make rousing cinema. The landscape shots, set designs and grandeur of the setting are amazing, though fittingly only David seems to notice this, the child-like delight on his face during the star map scene hinting at what the film could have been.

The aliens – or rather the Space Jockeys - (never mind that ‘Engineers’ bollocks) are impressive too. Understatedly unearthly, and strangely in sync with their surroundings, the Space Jockeys constitute the only other achievement the film manages – you really can imagine them piloting the original ship the doomed crew of the Nostromo encounters in Alien.

But it’s not enough. The film has promise but the movie sucks balls. Why, Idris Elba, WHY?

Still, there is one intriguing possibility. Perhaps the Space Jockeys didn’t create humanity, but rather, they were created from human DNA. If so, by whom?

If David is right and the Space Jockeys destroy life before creating it, then perhaps the true creators of the Space Jockeys took all they wanted from Earth (human DNA), like cosmic jackdaws, then decided to order their servants to purge the rest of the planet prior to colonisation.

The Space Jockey sacrificing himself at the start of the film may have simply been softening up the planet’s gene pool for the final attack… But don’t expect any sequel to have such an intriguing premise. In fact, don’t expect much at all.

FOOTNOTE: It’s worth pointing out that Inseminoid was produced by Sir Run Run Shaw, who redeemed himself by then producing Blade Runner. This was, however, directed by Ridley Scott who directed Alien in the first place and then went on to piss it all away with Prometheus. It’s all rather circular, when you think about it.

FOOTNOTE 2: As the ‘Elizabeth Shaw’ reference suggests, there’s a bit of Doctor Who worship going on here. Though ripping off Inferno and characterisation that would shame RTD is hardly a fitting tribute.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

In an ideal world...

Having endured the never-ending hell of specious application forms and pointless bureaucracy that HR departments like to inflict, particularly on job applicants, I'd like to make the following three suggestions:

ONE: Make it a legal obligation to accept a CV as is, without requesting further information. (If they're that desperate for details, they should invite you to an interview.)

TWO: The right for applicants to withhold information on application forms, especially if the request is of a spurious or time-consuming nature. Also, making people write long essays/begging letters as part of the application process should be banned.

THREE: For all HR departments to be publicly horse-whipped until they stop being such self-serving, self-justifying twats.

(The third suggestion is optional.)

Still, I have a serious point to make here. For people who often have to apply for multitudes of jobs, often under trying circumstances, is making them wade through pages of application forms really the right thing to do?

One wonders if HR departments are their own justification. By making applicants jump through hoops - for example, Robert Gordon University makes you write mini-essays several times when a simple glance at a CV and a chat with a reference would suffice - HR is simply making work for itself.

As a parasitic institution, Human Resources is barely tolerable during the good times. During recessions, their petty, red tape excesses are unforgivable.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Royal Jubilee 2012: If only...

Troll, troll, troll...

And before anyone gets suitably provoked, I'm not advocating we cut the Queen's head off. But rather, just tell her to piss off and spend more time with her money.

In any case, the scandal of unemployed workers being forced to work for free at yesterday's Royal Pageant kitschfest (with added rain!) is surely more offensive.