Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits (2011)

My fingers were, indeed, crossed.  After TheNational Anthem I was dreading what might come.  Deliberately, I’d kept clear of the television guide, for fear that once more the plot of Black Mirror would come down to a single idea; inescapable as a ACME ton weight.

Within the first five minutes, my fingers unclenched and straightened.  Within the first thirty minutes my jaw had dropped a little.

But this time there was no disgust.  No horror.  And certainly no anger.  Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits was, it’s fair to say, the best piece of dystopian science fiction I have ever seen.  What made it so good?

Well, like The National Anthem, it had an appreciation and understanding of technology.  Where it departed from TNA, though, was its prescience.  Good SF takes concepts and grows them as surely as if they were genetically modified apples in laboratory trays of bio-gel solution.  Great SF does that and injects a metric ton of emotion.  FMM did that...with extra emoticons.

Characterisation was superb.  Every figure was deftly drawn and strongly acted.  We understood motivations, dreams and fears.  We empathised.  The key tragic plot points, therefore, were devastatingly effective. 

The narrative had light and shade, not to mention genuine humour.  The whole thing felt organic and true, especially when placed against the blindly single-minded concept of TNA.  Its conclusion may not have been the one I’d have chosen, but it certainly felt like a genuine, worthwhile tragedy – something that released emotion and stimulated thought.

In my review of TNA I suggested that it wouldn’t have been made if the main character had been female.  I felt that her resultant rape would not have been broadcast.  FMM disproved that to some extent.  I should perhaps now fill you in on the general story just in case you don’t intend to watch it.  But really...why wouldn’t you?

--- spoiler ---

In the world of FMM you pedal on an exercise bike to earn ‘merits’ through generation of electricity.  Everything you use in a day costs merits (so, for example, we see our main character ‘pay’ for toothpaste, lunch etc).  All the time you’re bombarded with television on huge screens (your abode is a seamlessly covered box of screens, you pedal in front of a screen, and even the urinal has a banner screen running along at head height).

Our main character is a pedalling chappy (played by an actor I’ll always think of as Tealeaf, Daniel Kaluuya) who falls in love with a girl (Jessica Brown-Findlay)...a girl who has a heartbreakingly beautiful voice.  Something fragile and true amongst the ‘black mirrors’ of the omnipresent screens.

The tragedy begins, however, when boy gives girl the funds to allow her to enter the not at all veiled SF version of the X-Factor.  Thrust into this particularly soulless section of a soulless world, girl is taken under the wing of the judges –not to become a famous singer (that’s so last season), but to join the biggest pornography network there is.

Alone in his room, the boy is haunted by the adverts which now feature the girl he loves become headline act for a porn channel.  He no longer has the merits to skip them.  If he looks away he’s bombarded with noise until he looks again.

So he pedals away, earning merits to allow him to confront the judges (and, of course, the millions of viewers) and vent his spleen, heart and assorted viscera.  Their response?

“You’ve got something real.  Something true.  I like you’s where I am....”

And so he’s swallowed up by the world against which he raged.  And that is as satisfying a tragic outcome as you could ask for.


So, we see that FMM did effectively show the rape of a female character.  I still argue that TNA was a very different story and much more problematic.  Although effectively raped by her society en masse, the love interest of FMM is not shown on anything other than adverts after the audition.  We are not shown her functioning normally after her public rape.  We see her die a little on screen, and know that there’s no turning back from this.

The use of advertising was also particularly clever.  Not being able to escape it really struck a chord with Deb, who is much more affected by advertising than I.  I am able to let these things flow over me, and although I may end up whistling music from the catchier examples, in general I’m not aware of what’s going on (as in most things, really...).  It’s as if Deb has a particularly sensitive and aware brain that’s forced to swallow all of these images.  Spotify, for example, is running an advert by Garmin which takes the beautiful Carol of the Bells and turns it into ‘Give a give a give a Garmin...give a give a give a Garmin...’.  Every time it starts playing, she turns a certain shade of puce and looks ready to headbutt the nearest wall.

Of course, being show on channel 4 there was another level to this entirely, as suddenly they would cut to a real advertising break.  Seeing young kids prancing around in front of an x-box, and to be force fed the message ‘if you love someone, buy them this’ made us shiver.

As much as I didn’t like TNA, I’d still like to praise the use in Black Mirror of the ‘one-off drama’ format.  Indeed, Charlie Brooker wrote about it here and it is true that the thing that this format does so well is introducing something fresh and different.  It is, of course, not the cheapest or safest means of making television.  You cannot reuse sets as easily, and you cannot create a hook by playing around with the long-running lives of characters (often in ways that make no narrative or human sense).  But that is exactly why they are worthwhile.

So yes.  Of course, I still can’t bring myself to admit that my love-rival did good.  Instead, I shall put all the praise firmly in the lap of Konnie Huq, Charlie Brooker’s wife and co-writer.  She honestly seems to have taken Brooker’s caustic wit and razor-sharp-satire and mounted it in a beautifully wrought handle.  The resultant safety razor has achieved its job of stripping the numbing fluff of ignorance and apathy from the chin of society whilst drawing as little blood as possible.  Beautiful, powerful and entirely appropriate.  I loved it.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Inside the Petri Dish

"You must be warned, sweetie," she said to me, flashing a look of care, "You might get some abuse if you write it, calling you 'gay' and so on."

So, I better point out from the start that I am both male and heterosexual.  I like girls, cider and automotive technology.  I know the difference between a mole grip and a half blood knot.  I have enough chest hair to render an ECG impossible without the aid of a safety razor.  I am straight man, hear me roar.

What subject might elicit such a stream of abuse?  Well, Deborah was showing me an article about the language used by so called 'Lad's mags' and how it relates to that used by sex criminals.  Two universities in the UK have worked together to find out what normal people (thus ruling me out as a test candidate) think about portions of text taken from the like of FHM et al, and some taken from the mouths of rapists.  The results were surprising.

It seems that people expected the more extreme examples of sexually violent and degrading language to come from sex criminals.  It'd be a comforting thought, really, if the mouths uttering such sentiments were locked up behind nice thick walls with little chance of parole.  But no - this language is for sale on shelves across the nation for anyone, no matter their age.

Scary, isn't it?  Take a look at these I've copied from the Jezebel article Can You Tell the Difference Between a Men's Magazine and a Rapist? (FYI I was wrong three times out of sixteen)

"Filthy talk can be such a turn on for a girl . . . no one wants to be shagged by a mouse . . . A few compliments won't do any harm either . . . ‘I bet you want it from behind you dirty whore' . . ."

"Escorts . . . they know exactly how to turn a man on. I've given up on girlfriends. They don't know how to satisfy me, but escorts do."

"Girls love being tied up . . . it gives them the chance to be the helpless victim."

Can you guess which of these was the voice of a rapist?  None of them.  They were all what I am in no doubt would be described as 'light hearted banter'.

I vaguely remember as a kid the launch of numerous Lad's Mags.  They were billed as something a bit racy, a bit naughty, something to allow men to be men.  It's the same, people would say, as the Sun and Page Three Girls.

I must admit here and now that, although I am a red blooded male, I'm not keen on Page Three.  I have no objection to nudity, but there's something massively depressing about some young girl with no clothes on printed on poor quality news sheet.  I vividly remember walking to school with another boy on a cold and rainy winter morning.  Page Three of the sun was plastered onto the dirty tarmac of the road, portions of Suzi/Traci/Melinda's face washed away, her body become a palimpsest of the sodden layers of print.  Like I say - depressing.

So the magazines were never going to be targeted at me.  But, then, neither is Golfer Weekly or The Complete Basket Weaver.  I respect both skills, but have no interest in subscribing, if you get what I mean.  If, however, they wrote about the correct way to murder a vagrant with a nine iron, or how to weave the intestines of a recently gutted child into a handsome log basket, then I would have objections.  And so I remain qualified to write about this subject.

I mentioned 'light hearted banter' before.  I believe that these magazines have grown up in a petri dish shared with the likes of Top Gear and too many comics to mention.  It's a dish both fed and protected by a sickly coloured gel formed from the notion that 'just having a laugh' forgives anything up to and including genocide.  Any bacteria grown in this dish are safe from harm.  No one can attack them with a suitable detergent, because anyone who tries 'just doesn't have a sense of humour'.  And what's more, the disparate groups of mould within the dish gain mutual support by sharing with each other how put upon they are.  In the case of the kind of stuff mentioned above, it's often painted as an attack against masculinity.  We're just being men, right?  If things carry on like this, we won't be able to fart during the queen's speech and headbutt random pensioners in the street.

Of course, this is an entirely faux fear created to sell whatever they're peddling.  If you're a put upon group in the playground of life, you need your mates around you to keep you safe.  This wouldn't be such a huge problem if the reality-challenged publication had a small output.  Conspiracy theory stuff isn't much of a threat to society's sanity when it's just a couple of fan produced publications.  But when something bills itself as the magazine for all young men and has the production values to pull that off?  Well, that's suddenly a massive threat.  And it's not just the magazines, of course.  All the other groups - the Clarksonites and lovers of 'Northern Funny Men' all live their lives with the same 'you just don't have a sense of humour' shield against any kind of moral question.

I know very few jokes.  I've taken one and honed it into a thirty-seven minute masterpiece of doom.  Before that I knew a few...and one day told my wonderful Mad Cow Disease joke in a medical chat room.

Two cows in a field.  First cow says to the second cow 'Aren't you worried about BSE?'.  Second cow says 'Why would I be?  I'm a helicopter.'

I'll just give you a second.

Recovered?  Well, after I delivered that joke in the chat room there was deathly silence.  Then someone wrote to inform me that they'd recently had a close relative die from CJD.  If only the world could have swallowed me whole...

And there it is!  There is that normal human reaction!  I'd not said something terrible - certainly nothing on a par with the quotes above.  But I'd hurt someone with a meaningless joke and that upset me.  At no point did I feel I should say 'some people just don't have a sense of humour' and bimble on with my life, occasionally scratching some bodily crevice or other.  I felt remorse and empathy for someone who, at the time, I didn't know at all.  But that's the great thing about being a member of the human race - you don't have to buy a magazine at over £5 a time to be a member.

It's funny, really, that I find hope for British men in a programme whose key presenter hails from the Clarksonian stable - namely James May's Man Lab.  Although not perfect, this programme focuses upon teaching practicality, appreciation and, I think, just a little enthusiasm and wonder.  In this last run, they encouraged teenaged rock bands to reform as adults, created an Eden of their office toilet block, and sent the ashes of two beloved family pets into the heavens via a pair of balloons.  Silly it may be, but there was no troublesome language.  People were treated with respect.  To be a man was not to limit ones' interaction with the world to the images sold by heartless caricatures of humanity.  To be a man, says James May, is to interact with music, literature and history, to value the ideas and skills of others (even if they are female) and to be creative.

Deborah shared with me this wonderful blog post which makes a very good point.  If we are to like something which is problematic to other people, we have to acknowledge that problem and be willing to discuss and learn from it.  If we do not, then we are twits.

Talking of which - a good example of this can be seen in the recent Ricky Gervais debacle.  If a human being had said 'mong', only to be met with upset folk asking him not to, the human reaction would have been to acknowledge the upset and open a dialogue as an opportunity for mutual growth and understanding.  Instead, Gervais informed those people that the meaning of the word had changed.  They'd just not kept up with the real world.  Society had changed and they hadn't.  In other words, not only had they not got a sense of humour, they were lost to reality.

I'd argue that it is the other way around.  A reality has been created in the minds of all these people.  This reality is covered by the 'sense of humour shield'.  They can and will say anything they like, thriving on their mutual appreciation.  In reality, of course, they are confined and alone in their petri dish and have no knowledge of normal human life and its joys.  It is our responsibility to live our lives well and to monitor the size of the dish.  It's gotten scarily large of late and I think it's time we did more to define what it is to be male and, more importantly, what it is to be a member of the human race.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem (2011)

A few weeks back, the adverts for Black Mirror caught my eye. I’m a lover of anything a little different and clever. I’m one of those irritating people who enjoy David Lynch and (to a lesser extent) Lars Von Trier and am quick to bore any too incapacitated to flee about their use of allusion, symbolism and so on. Yes, I really should be shot.

I am not, however, a fan of Charlie Brooker. This is down to pure jealousy – Deb enjoys his work and many’s the time when I’ve been talking to her about genuinely riveting subjects (like the benefits of AC over DC motors) only to realise she’s zoned out, eyes wide, pupils large, gazing into the glorious writings of her Charlie.

When asked what she particularly likes about the Brook-meister, Deb says that it is because he recognises the immensity of his subjects (television, for instance) whereas so much of what she normally reads deals with minutiae (albeit important ones). This appeals to me – so much of what I love about Greek Literature, not to mention science fiction, is the concept of meta-text. Brooker gets this. He is also able to write about his subjects with a visceral strength and bravery which is powerful to say the least.

I liked Dead Set, his Zombie meets Big Brother mini-series. He was able to take on board all the elements of reality tv and meld them beautifully with the best bits of Romero. I had problems with a few of the characters and, although there were comic elements, the entire thing felt a little flat*.

Even so, I was excited. I had no idea of the subject of the piece, but the advert looked bright and punchy and raw. Deborah and I decided to watch it. Then I read the review in the Radio Times.

Hmmm. It definitely was the first time I’ve read anything about bestiality in a TV guide before. And the shock was enough to put my back up. I couldn’t see how the narrative could possibly work, and I feared the inevitable messages and their depressing presentations. Even so, we gave it a chance.

I must point out here – I am not a prude in any way, shape or form. If I had been, I’d have not survived my degree. I’ve read and analysed literature involving paedophilia, rape, incest and more scatological references than we’re used to in our society. Bestiality isn’t exactly new to Greek myth either – Pasiphae’s story was only different because she really wanted to get jiggy with a farm yard animal. So I wasn’t upset because of the subject matter being presented. Whether I felt it was appropriate that it was being shown at 9pm is another matter, but one I won’t be going in to.

So what did I think? Frankly, I was angry. I didn’t expect to be so angry. I’m quite a calm person usually. But this really hit nerves. It was designed to hit nerves. Again, I don’t object to that – that’s the point of good narrative. Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past hit nerves and that’s one of my favourite pieces of television. Why, then, was I angry?

When you set about hitting nerves, you have a responsibility. I would classify The National Anthem as a tragedy. The Prime Minister is a tragic hero – fighting the great power of fate, blind to the conclusion we can all see coming as soon as we looked at page 62 of the Radio Times. And this is a good thing. Society needs tragedy. The drama festivals of Athens looked after the mental and spiritual health of its audience – draining them of badness through the emotional turmoil and release. A reduction in the quality of tragedy becomes part of the reason for a reduction in the status of Athens as a whole in Aristophanes’ Frogs. This means that tragedians have a huge responsibility to wield their pen responsibly.

Firstly, I have to say, I found the subject matter distasteful. This was a story about rape (not of the pig, I must clarify, although I did look at my bacon sandwich with more sympathy this afternoon, I can tell you) and I feel that because the subject of the rape was male and because he was not penetrated, the care that would otherwise have been taken, was not. If this had been a story about a female prime minister forced to commit a sex act on live television, then I don’t think it would have been filmed.

Proper tragedy follows rules. People make mistakes and pay for them. There was none of this. Although not particularly likeable, the PM character was not well developed. We were meant to fill in the back-story by viewing him as a parallel universe version of Dave. The Radio Times review even went so far as to describe the PM character as ‘reptilian’. Subtle.

Aristophanes did political satire. Some of the politicians even went so far as to sue him. His satires, though, were brave and open, very clearly pointing out the wrongs perpetrated. This was done in comedy genre, though, and although The National Anthem was described as a comedy/drama, I just could not find anything other than the thinnest dribbles of comedy. I’ve been horrified to see so many people saying how funny it was. Deb described it as an Emperor’s New Clothes deal – if you’re going to describe it as a comedy and make it shocking enough, people will see humour where it is not. And if they did see so much comedy, well, is that appropriate in a narrative about rape?

The ending, though, was what really did it. Tragedy is all about the release. It builds and then BLAM 10,000kw of pure emotion flows from every pore of your body. It should be almost audible. Then, emptied, you can be filled with comedy (the Athenian festivals were composed of three tragedies followed by a comedy). The nature of the ending, then, is vastly important. I am sure Brooker looked at the ending and wanted to try something different. The Radio Times called it a ‘logical’ conclusion – laughable though that statement is, it’s not comedy as needed in this situation. The ‘logical’ conclusion was one that dismissed the extreme damage caused by rape and replaced it with an increase in popularity and a bit of domestic disharmony. I believe if you take the story and switch genders it becomes clearer how absurd and damaging it becomes. Imagine a year on, the woman, forced to commit a sex act live on television, having a kick around at a school and waving to the media. This is where the wires of his meta-text have got crossed. 

Brooker knows TV. He’ll have seen the parallels with Rebecca Loos on The Farm, not to mention all the identikit blonde reality show contestants indulging in sexual behaviour live on air. But this is where the difference between consenting behaviour and rape become so important.

A person tortured in such a way would not recover. An ‘artist’ who felt this was an appropriate act would not kill himself, thus avoiding any sort of appropriate punishment or, more importantly, investigation and understanding. The conclusion was as far as it could possibly be from logical, and so any chance of a healthy finale was lost.

It’s a shame that such a well paced and well acted piece of television should be lumbered with such a warped and sickly narrative. Going back to the Radio Times review (have you worked out yet how unimpressed I was with it?), I thought it telling that there was no mention made of the magnificent Lindsay Duncan, who outshone all the other actors and who was the only real warmth in the entire piece. I must say, however, that RT were right in one respect – The National Anthem was perhaps the first piece of on screen fiction (Catfish achieved the same thing, but was a documentary) in which technology sat absolutely comfortably with the narrative.

Will I watch the next episode of Black Mirror? Almost certainly. With my fingers very firmly crossed in the hope that all the strands of the great meta-text of television don’t inadvertently send Brooker down a problematic narrative pathway.

* Whenever I think about Brooker, I am drawn back to a particular day on the cold landscapes of Dartmoor, and a particularly sodden patch of ground which gave way; my be-wellied foot plunging into murky nothingness. Brooker’s philosophy has something of the feeling of a wet sock inside rubber footware. You know that it’s pretty miserable and it’s not going to get better any time soon.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Oxford Greek Play 2011 - Clytemnestra

On Thursday we braved the M25/40 trudge (complimented by beautiful sweeping views of late, low autumn honey-lit landscapes and at least ten squillion red kites) in order to get to the Oxford Playhouse.  What had we gone to see?  Well, the choice was either ‘Mother Goose’ (I’m not sitting through a production described as an ‘eggs-travaganza’) or ‘Clytemnestra’.  Thankfully, the booking staff were excellent (or should that be ‘egg-celent’?) over the phone and we were sorted with three seats for the Oxford Greek Play.

The Oxford Greek play is performed in...well, Greek.  I wish I could say that I had no need for the big, clear subtitle screens on each side of the stage, but alas, my degree was entirely in translation.  Even without language skills, I was really looking forward to hearing the tragedy in the original language.  There is something particularly musical about ancient Greek which suits the long, rhythmical speeches so beloved of Aeschylus.  And this ‘Clytemnestra’, despite the name, was an Aeschylus play – specifically the Choephoroi or Libation Bearers (the second play of the great tragic trilogy of the Oresteia).

So, a quick run-down of the plot – Agamemnon, high king of the Greeks, has been a busy bunny.  Not only has he killed his own daughter for a good breeze to get his ships to Troy, he’s also sacked the city (albeit after ten years siege), and has come home, slave girl in tow.  His wife, Clytemnestra, however, was not impressed by this behaviour and, with her new beau, set about planning his end.  In the first play of the trilogy, she tangled him up in a net of fabric while he was in the bath and set to him with a knife.

So far, so Essex.

And to make matters worse, there are more kids involved.  The surviving daughter, Electra, being a girl, hasn't got much sway, but she is not impressed with mummy’s murderous ways.  Orestes (the son whose name graces the trilogy) had been exiled for fear he might interfere, but by the time the Libation Bearers kicks off he’s back in town hungry for revenge.  The great god Apollo had told him he must do something about the crime (the killing of his father, not his father’s massacre of a nation, the sacrifice of his own daughter or any of that stuff.  Priorities, you know?) and by doing what he’s told, he’ll be safe from any sort of come back.

The play, then, is all about Orestes’ revenge, and this comes down to murdering Clytemnestra’s new fella, and, eventually, killing his own mother as well.  Obviously, with such a heavy job to do, there’s a lot to talk about.  And this is what Aeschylus does so well...

So, on to the play itself.  Firstly, I object to the title.  Call me fussy, but I love the chorus of mourning women (especially in this cast – not a weak member) and as they not only start off the theme of the play, but also take charge of the narrative and force the outcome (rare in ancient Greek drama) it is appropriate that they influence the title.  Clytemnestra is really pretty inconsequential – it’s all about a man’s worth, a man’s revenge, and a man’s eventual justice (albeit with the aid of a female goddess, but that’s another play entirely...)

My other major criticism was the lack of the line “Bring me my MAN KILLING AXE”.  There has not been such an amazing line in drama before or since, and anyone who fails to use it also fails to appreciate the full weight of the drama.  It is not just a fatal axe.  It’s a MAN KILLING AXE!

Aside from that, it was bliss.  The actress who played Electra entered the stage with a fractured beauty, her voice suiting the language so well I could have wept.  The stage design (a nod to both the Greek and Oriental) worked perfectly, and there were balletic touches (the weaving of a ribbon simulating the pouring of a libation, for example) which complimented and raised the heavy verse.

My pain-killers had worn off by the end of the first half and I was in a pretty bad way.  The fresh dose kicked in as the curtains rose for the second half.  It was a rather magical moment as the light caught on metal.  In one of the best pieces of set design I have ever seen, they had constructed full size Doric columns from multiple lengths of chain suspended between solid capital and base.  Sadly, the Star Trek style door of the main building did not work (although I’d now like someone to set Medea in a hotel ala The Shining), but aside from that, the rest of the stage craft, including costume, was great.

Oh, and not to go on about things that were wrong in my opinion, but there was this:  I could see something I shouldn’t, and couldn’t something I should.  No, it’s not the pills.  You see, the ‘silent character’ is important to all the plays of the trilogy.  Agamemnon has the ‘silent’ figure of Clytemnestra (sits there for ages before screaming and leaping around) and the Libation Bearers has Pylades.  But poor Pylades was only there in name, and as such his one line (which effectively amounts to ‘go on, kill your mum, you know you have to’) becomes an uncomfortable aside.  This was a mistake.  Instead, plagued by his mothers curse, we see the Furies assaulting him when Orestes clearly tells us ‘you lot can’t see this, but...’.  I understand why they’ve done this (you get to meet the Furies in the third play of the trilogy, and they don’t want you to miss out on the ‘pleasure’ when you’re there just to see play number 2), but it somewhat misses the point of what’s so scary about the scene anyway.  If, under the influence of my pain-killers, I’d got up and started screaming about the purple spiders eating my arm-pit hair, part of the fear the audience would felt would have come from not seeing something that had so upset me.

Even so, this still remains the best tragedy I have ever seen.  Even better than the Hippolytus where Theseus tripped over his cloak when carrying his dead wife.  Yeah, I know, I don’t have a great frame of reference, but trust me, this was something special and I enjoyed it very much.

Finally, if I’d been the cast, I’d have set about the audience with an axe ( doesn’t matter which).  I’ve never known so many people to laugh inappropriately, and how it didn’t put off the actors I’ll never know.  It just makes me respect them all the more.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Britain in a Day: Deb in Bed

As part of Britain in a Day, we shot this film today. Check out the paintbrush shot - I'm hoping for a job on Watercolour Challenge when it's relaunched.


Monday, 17 October 2011

Let the Right One In (Novel and Film) - Art and Editing

Art is anything you can do well. Anything you can do with Quality.
- Robert M. Pirsig

You know how it is – in an awful display of preciousness, you are put off something which is linked in any way with a piece of art you value greatly for fear of disappointment.  It's that fear that keeps us away from revisiting childhood wonders in case they implode and crumble like a tissue meeting a candle flame.  This fear was part of the reason why it took me so long to get around to reading the novel which was adapted into the best Vampire film of all time.  Namely 'Let the Right OneIn'.  Of course, this goes to show how very silly I can be – surely the sire (to borrow the phrase so buffyfied in my brain) to the amazing film couldn’t be anything other than special?

Sadly, being a man of my room (as opposed to a man of the world), my language skills are limited, so when writing about this novel, I feel I can't comment too much about the language.  But rest assured, anyone reading the English translation should be happy.

The general story, for those of you unfamiliar with book or film, goes like this - A young boy lives a rather bleak life in which he is constantly bullied.  He meets a pale child of his own age.  The friendship which develops encourages the boy to value himself and fight back against the bullying.  Of course, things are never that simple...

The Pirsig quote, although apt when looking at the story and translation, was actually something which came to my mind when I was pondering the job of adaptation.  In this case, the novel was adapted into the screenplay by the original author, John Ajvide Lindqvist.  Lindqvist seems to have a natural grasp of the best way to cut down a story to make a successful film narrative.  I've not sat there with a stop watch checking, but I'm pretty certain the entire film falls neatly into the Syd Field plot paradigm.

Beyond this, however, Lindqvist has been able to revise his original story and polish a couple of flat points.  The ending, for example.  The film features a lovely bit of ring structure, whereby the actions of Eli and Oskar earlier in the film (namely communication through morse code) reoccur in the final scene.  It's a tiny thing (the setting of the scene is exactly the same as that in the book, it's just the addition of an action) but it made for a pleasing feeling of completion.  And is also tremendously touching (and, for those of you familiar with morse code) a confirmation of feelings denied us by the medium of film (i.e. we can't be certain of the thoughts and feelings which are kept internal).

Content, which in the novel gets a little extreme, is toned down into something more appropriate for cinema viewing, whilst also retaining the possibility for reading between the lines.  I don’t want to spoil the biggest ‘cut’ to the novel narrative (*cough*) which was given away to me by the Great and Powerful Nick Lowe in his Mutant Popcorn film review of the American remake (which I am yet to see and of which I am, unsurprisingly, rather wary), but the editing does not spoil the narrative one bit.  In some ways it was nice to read the novel and have the screen narrative expanded.  I am imagine that, had I come at it from the opposite direction, the removal of parts of the story would still have not felt intrusive, thanks to the ambiguity left on screen.  Ambiguity as a narrative device should be used more often.  It costs nothing other than a certain degree of faith in your viewers.

So, back to Pirsig.  Quality and art really do go hand in hand.  It is the quality that defines the art rather than the item itself.  I’d like to think that a few things I have created in my life qualify as art.  But they are all constructed from different media – the words that fuel my writing, the wood I craft into objects, the light that I collect and form into a photograph.  Lindqvist has managed to create two pieces of artwork, separate to each other, crafted from words but becoming something more.  The revision of one does not lessen the other.  

Monday, 1 August 2011

Disablism on Top Gear

I like cars.  In fact, I think it's fair to say that most people who know me have at least an inkling that there is a part of my heart devoted to all things with wheels that go brum.

I feed this love with websites, magazines (although only occasionally...have you seen how much they cost?) and television.  As a non-sky subscriber, my choice of car related television is relatively small.  I love the BTCC, and do watch F1, but my love of cars is not really about speed as such.  I enjoy design, tech, culture and all the other little things that combine to create the deified concept of 'car' in my heart.  Television programmes dealing with cars outside of motorsport are even fewer, though.  In fact, it's fair to say there are only two - Fifth Gear and Top Gear.

Fifth Gear tried to become Top Gear minus the clever photography.  That put me off and I stopped watching ('though I must say, things have improved from what I saw recently).  Top Gear has always been less about 'cars' than I'd like.  But this has got worse over the years, and increasingly they have courted controversy to gain ratings and the kind of rep sort by 13 year olds in a 'not as rough as they think it is' secondary school.

For my sins, I have drawn Deborah into this world of idiocy and she has borne it with grace and perseverance.  She has even done her best not to roll her eyes and throw things at the television.

But last night things changed.

This series I've been increasingly fighting the draw to watch the programme but this has been made difficult.  They featured the Eagle Speedster and re-engineered Jensen Interceptor (two of my favourite vehicles of all time) forcing me to watch at least two episodes.  Last night featured a test of two electric vehicles (Nissan Leaf and Peugeot iOn).  I am also a fan of these vehicles, but knew already the report would be flawed.  It was.  I'm tempted to list the flaws, but honestly my correct information will not change the damage done by Clarkson.  He claims that no one pays attention to him because of his bufoonish ways.  Rubbish.  People take his word for gospel.  I've already seen people quoting five year battery life etc.  Damage is done and I can't change a thing.

But this is damage that can be defended by the huge car companies who supplied them the vehicles.  It can be defended by the large number of people who actually drive electric.  Indeed, there are already a lot of messages on twitter and the internet in general explaining how an attack on the electric car was shrouded by faux impartiality.

In comparison to this, however, I've only seen a couple of references to their use of two disabled parking bays in said piece about electric vehicles.  Picture me lying down on the sofa, my feet in Deb's lap.  I was quietly grumbling about the inaccuracies of their maths etc.  And then boom.  Jaws hit the carpet.  They didn't?  They did!  How?  Why??

Four disabled parking bays, prominently displaying the markings.  I don't know if it's just my imagination (I can't check the programme at the moment as I'm away from a stable broadband connection) but I can even remember the angle of the shot emphasising the wheelchair logo.

Obviously this was a potentially illegal act.  But even if this is the case, it's never 'just' that.  It's an attack upon the vulnerable.  And that's something which more and more has been a staple of their 'humour' (which the BBC has been so quick to defend).

In trying to get Deb to watch the programme, I explained that Top Gear, though insulting of many people, was actually quite pro disability.  They'd featured a blind chap driving the reasonably priced car around the track.  They'd talked to a disabled driver at the Nurburgring.  I'm not sure I can think of any other examples...but you know, that's not bad, right?

But no.  Not only do they use the disabled parking bays, in summing up with 'electric cars don't work', the camera tracks across to the mobility scooter driving along beside them.

Deborah recently wrote about the challenges of using mobility scooters whilst holding hands.  In it she wrote that around here we have very little negative attention.  After writing this, we had a 'humourous' comment or two aimed at us by a man with all the brains and charm of...well...Jeremy Clarkson.  And this shot of the cars and the scooter was much the same thing.  It was a snigger.  These things just don't work.  Rolling their eyes.  And I'm sick of it.

After the segment finished, we turned off the television.  Over the years I have watched every episode of the 'new' format Top Gear.  I will not watch another episode ever again.

So this morning I decided to write this blog post.  Deborah's writing one of her own at the same time.  But when I went online to see what the response had been, what did I find had been the final segment of the programme?


Yes folks, they were featuring proper cripples.  War heroes.  Men who laugh in the face of access.  And these heroes were going to undertake the Dakar Rally.

If you think I'm being silly here...that maybe this story offsets the harm done with their snide anti-disability messages in the electric car piece...then take a look at this message lifted from a random forum;

"The nature of their injuries is horrific and if you missed the programme tonight then make a point of watching a repeat of these astonishing, heroic men overcoming injuries that would render lesser men hopeless cripples."

The message of pathetic cripple vs heroic cripple has been solidified.  If you're not attempting the Dakar Rally having been physically disabled in defence of your country, then you're a hopeless cripple.  A parking bay is really just enabling decrepitude.  If you want to access M&S to buy a new set of undies, try travelling across Argentina and Chile first, eh?  Just as the misinformation about electric cars has been spread far and wide, so the misinformation about what it is to be a 'good' cripple has spread.  And we don't have a huge car company to defend us.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Rocking Rockbox!

When I make a mistake, I become one of the most irritating people on the planet.  I will spend hours trying to sort it out, and only if I succeed will the black cloud of my upset lift.  Until that point, I am lost in gloom, self hatred and other forms of silliness.  It is far from attractive and I try my best not to fall into these holes.  If anything, I should view these mistakes as a chance to demonstrate my genius.

Deborah decided she wanted an MP3 player.  She has a huge  (and, at times, somewhat dubious) library of music on iTunes.  Not being a fan of the apple, I don't know a great deal about this exotic piece of software, but I was aware that files are sometimes encoded as AAC files rather than good old fashioned MP3.  So I kept this in mind when Deb asked me to look at players for her.  A long time ago I read about the original Sansa Clip and had fancied one myself.  Cheaper than an iPod Shuffle and with twice the storage capacity, I thought this would be the perfect player for everything from Guns n Roses to Evanescence (see what I mean?*).

I did think about AAC files, but I must have phrased the internet search incorrectly, as I ended up convinced it would work happily with iTunes.  Indeed, it does.  But if you want it to be able to actually play the files once they're uploaded, then you're out of luck. AAC support.

I was, it is fair to say, rather annoyed with myself.  On the plus side, I didn't sink into despair (helped by the amazingly cheap price of the player) and looked around for sollutions.  It was then that I remembered Rockbox.

I don't know how I would have heard about it in the past, but Rockbox is a custom built OS for quite a range of MP3 players including, thank goodness, the Sansa Clip+.  Along with a host of benefits (it even comes with tiny version of Pong preloaded!) it will play AAC files.  I could have wept with joy.

The process wasn't quite as straight forward as I'd hoped.  The automatic installation didn't work, and I ended up having to dive into the command prompt to install it manually.  So a little time later we had a brand new, blue Sansa Clip+, which had been deified. becoming an awesomely cool god amongst MP3 players.  It plays the AAC files perfectly, sound is superb, and thanks to the open source software, it is geekily wonderful in a way we both find ever so pleasing.

Rockbox 1

So get your geek on - buy a Sansa Clip+ and rock it up with Rockbox!

* To be fair, these are the low points, and her general music taste is stellar.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Painting the town...

Painting the Town... 2

The day had gone well. Despite leaving late, assertive use of the accelerator and a relatively clear run meant that I was at the dentist in good time. The anaesthetic was administered with such care that not the slightest pain was felt. It may not have reached the depth of the tooth, meaning that I was very aware of the second pin-hole being drilled, my high pain tolerance meant this was not an issue. The job was a neat one and fixed a tooth that's been broken for nearly a month now.

But later that day, I crashed. I had been asleep, feeling as if the drugs had filtered deep into my brain. I dimly cursed myself, wishing I'd requested he not use an anaesthetic at all. And then the pain began to creep.

I knew something was wrong when I was no longer concerned with my face and head. The burning, stabbing, tearing sensation just below my rib cage started slowly...a tidal flood. And soon I was under water and drowning.

I vaguely remember vomiting, not from any need to remove something from my stomach - I'd not eaten for ten hours - but in reaction to the fire. I believe I lost consciousness for a few seconds only, curled up on the bathroom floor. The ambulance arrived in what felt like either seconds or hours.

All I remember after that was the journey and cursing whoever thought to invent speed bumps. If ever I am judged harshly, Hell will be that journey...forever.

And then we were there. "Mind your elbows, or else we'll have to take you to orthopaedics...and by this time of the day they'll all be drunk" he said as he wheeled the trolley through the narrow ambulance doors.

And we were there. The familiar brick and blue plastic structure. I went to school less than 200m away from the automatic doors they wheeled me through.

A nurse with a familiar face took my blood pressure. In the ambulance it had been way over normal. Lying still and focusing on my breathing, placing my mind away from the pain (which had began to ease) I managed to get it down below my normal rate. Power of positive thinking.

A black doctor with exquisite bone structure went to wheel me through and then remembered the wrist band. It had apparently been a long shift and he had a new child at home. I smiled at the richness of life around me as the clip snapped shut.

Painting the Town... 1

"Would you take off your shirt please? We need to do an ECG" she said. One look at me, and she left to retrieve a blue safety razor.

Patterns were shaved out of my chest hair. She apologised for the harsh blade which I did not feel. The cold sticky tabs were placed over my body.

It was 11am the following day that I remembered to take the remaining ones off my legs.

Painting the Town... 3

The pain faded slowly. By 9pm I was desperate to be home. It had been three hours, my blood tests had returned back normal. My sugar levels were "...better than mine!" said the black doctor, checking the luminous green watch on his tunic.

It took an hour for the other doctor to discharge me. A cannula was still in place in my arm. A nurse approached, saying she'd just 'whip that off'. I feebly offered the suggestion that 'whip it off' wasn't a phrase to inspire confidence. She smiled back and said she'd remove it lovingly and with great tenderness.

To be fair, she did, and there is minimal bruising from the needle. And you can see this clearly thanks to the complete lack of arm hair.

Painting the Town... 4

It was an interesting evening, but not one I plan to repeat any time soon.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Vlog - Classics - a summary in seven books

I've not been around much on my blog and on flickr of late, and as the reasons for this have been quite important, I wanted to let you all in on what I've been up to.  So here we are - my first Vlog.  Scary, no?

P.S. I know.  As thumbnails go...well, I wish I could say it's not typical.  But most of the time I look that stunned, shocked and bewildered.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Podcast - Catfish Review

Cross posted at Diary of a Goldfish

Link to the MP3 for download

Full Transcript:

D: Hello. We've decided to do an audio-review
of the film, Catfish, in order to test out Stephen's new microphone.
The film Catfish is one where there's no way to review it without
major spoilers, so if you want to watch the film and enjoy it in its
completeness, you need to stop listening now.

S: Quite right. And thank you very much for the microphone. It's very
beautiful, thank you.

D: You're welcome. Would you like to tell the listeners – I was about
to say “viewers” - would you like to tell the listeners what the film
is about?

S: I don't think the microphone is that good.

D: No.

S: The film is about – it's a documentary following a photographer,
who has an office in New York, who strikes up an on-line friendship
with “Abby” who is a seven year old girl from an American state
beginning with M.

D: Michigan.

S: Michigan. I keep on forgetting this. We've had a trial run and I
came up with Massachusetts and

D: Demure

S: Des Moines. Even I know that there isn't an American state called “Demure”

D: There isn't an American state called “Des Moines”.

S: Is there not? Is that a city?

D: I don't know but I know there aren't any

S: I so want to Google it and I can't really do an “Excuse me a minute
while I get out my phone”

Right so, Michigan.

D: It was Michigan.

S: Michigan. And he was in New York and apparently there is quite a
large space between those two places.

D: Cause it's in America.

S: Cause it's in America and America is big.

D: It's all spaced out.

S: Is it? News to me. Okay. So they strike up a friendship via
Facebook. She paints his photos that are published in various

D: Makes paintings from his photos.

S: Yep, paintings of his photos. And he then becomes friendly with
her mother Angela and her sister Megan and in fact the relationship
with Megan becomes very romantically-inclined.

D: Yes, I think he thinks he's in love with her.

S: Yeah. And the thing is filmed by his two friends who both use his
office space. But the documentary starts out as really looking at his
relationship with this family. They call it the Facebook family
because he “friends” them all on Facebook. And we see all of these
lives meshed together. A brother who worries about how he's treating
Megan. And it's quite in depth and detailed. But the action takes a
bit of a tumble when he realises that a song that Megan claims to have
produced within about twenty minutes or something - he requests a song

D: Yeah, he requests a cover of a song and suddenly

S: Tennessee Stud, I believe it was.

D: Yes it was.

S: Yeah, see I can remember that. And Tennessee is somewhere in America.

D: And uh, yeah. No it wasn't, it's the name of a playright, Tennessee Williams.

S: Oh I see.

D: I think perhaps they named a place after Tennessee Williams.

S: It makes sense.

D: It's a bit like Denver and John Denver.

S: And Denzel Washington.

D: Yeah, I don't know, I think perhaps Washington was there before
Denzel Washington.

S: Okay. So, this song. He receives this song as an MP3 or whatever.
And I can't remember why but they go looking for other versions and
they actually find the song on Youtube.

D: I think it was a different song. They were getting lots of songs
and it was a different song that they searched for but they realised
that the recording sounded exactly the same as a cover on Youtube.

S: So they'd recorded the audio stream from Youtube and then sent it
on to him. So initially he thinks, “Oh no, this love of my life is a
plagiarist.” But the story unravels more and he ends up with his
friends – because they're relatively near to where these people live –
going and dropping in on them and so the secret unravels.

Now we were, prior to this point, or certainly you were convinced that
this was a “Mockumentary”.

D: Not a Mockumentary! I thought it was a “Blair Witch” style fake

S: A spooky unsettling horror type thing.

D: Or “Spinal Tap”. I thought it was a drama pretending to be a
documentary. And it is beautifully done.

S: Yes it is beautifully done. The filming, some of the scenes

D: The use of technology, the use of Google Earth when they're moving about

S: And Street View to kind of focus in on these places

D: Really nice use of tech, which is still quite rare in films, to use
on-line technology that looks like the on-line technology that we all
use. But it just, it is real. It really was real. I think we
realise this, without a doubt, when we finally meet the character of

S: Or the person who is really Angela.

D: The person is really Angela, who doesn't look anything like the
photographs we've seen. And turns out to be responsible for all these

S: Twelve separate accounts on Facebook.

D: Which include the daughter. She does have a daughter, but the
daughter doesn't resemble – well she physically resembles but she
isn't a painter, she isn't this bright spark that has been having this
e-mail correspondence with the photographer. And the older daughter,
who the photographer believes himself in love with, as well as a
brother, some cousins, some friends. And she's fabricated the whole
thing. And we were talking about the way that that's changed. You
know, having been on-line since the late 90s, I think we feel a lot
safer with the people we meet on-line now because we are so

S: Yeah, the evolution of social media has created a smaller degree of
separation. Just the other day on Twitter, someone I follow who is
involved in electric vehicles ended up retweeting from someone I am
aware of through disability activism so the reality of both people
becomes more solid as they're both linked together.

D: And the people, certainly the people I know. I mean, I don't use
Facebook but the people I know through blogging and Twitter and all of
that, there are sort of strange connections between people. But you're
not having to appraise one person who could be fooling you, if they're
fooling you, they're fooling a lot of people. Because they're
interconnected. But of course this woman had created an entire
network of people, all of which were backing up this narrative. I
mean, she was a frustrated novelist really, she didn't know that
that's what she should have been doing with her time. But she was
managing twelve Facebook accounts and presumably Twitter accounts and
things, as well as having two mobile phones so she could pick up the
phone as herself and she could pick up the phone as her imaginary
daughter. And the whole thing, all these characters and interactions
and everything they were doing amongst themselves were an entire

S: And she had been the person producing these paintings. Really out
of a love for this

D: She was very much in love with the photographer.

S: He was – I think with his interest in dance, which she shared and

D: They did have a lot in common.

S: They did have a lot in common and they seemed to get on very well.

D: Except for the fact that she had obviously deceived him in a
terrific way. She'd made him fall in love with someone who didn't
exist. And she was terrifically in love with him.

S: Whilst being a married housewife. But we begin to understand her
situation as we begin to her house in – what I would say was a very
isolated community?

D: It's difficult to judge.

S: It's difficult to judge, but. And looking after, it would appear
looking after full time, two young men who were both physically and
mentally disabled. And she seemed to have a very empty life? Is that

D: I think she had a very frustrated life. She obviously had a lot of
time on her hands. And I think, compared to the life of a photographer
working in New York, going to all kinds of Arts things, I think she
felt very frustrated. She didn't have the access to that kind of art.
She had a very frustrating life.

S: And this had driven her to trying to create something better,
something richer. Which I think is a symptom of society that reduces a
degree of social care which is necessary. People need the connections
she was creating. People need rich lives.

D: She was one of these characters that you do know – I think, when
she appeared, you knew straight away that there was no doubt that this
was a genuine documentary because she was not a character you normally
get in films. She was a compulsive liar really, but she wasn't a
crafty criminal mastermind type. She sort of – she was a very
sympathetic character, you felt quite sorry for her even though you
could tell that she was

S: And even the break down of her life on film was heart-breaking.

D: It was.

S: Because she's confronted very gently. They did do very well. They
weren't angry with her.

D: I think they were a bit angry but they were keeping it under control.

S: They weren't vindictive, sorry.

D: No, they weren't malicious or... They could have humiliated her or
just bamboozled her with what she'd done.

S: Yeah. But the truth is relatively gently brought to light. And
she's given the opportunity to almost come clean. She doesn't quite
get there, she does produce quite a few more lies.

D: One of the things that really shoke – was very familiar was um...
She had very long hair which she was very proud of. And she'd sent
them a photograph that was supposed to be her and the only similarity
between that and her was that the woman in the photograph had very
long hair. She was complimented on this and she said, “Well, I won't
have it for long because I'm on chemotherapy.” Which really kind of
struck a chord because, of all the sort of stories that you hear of
romances that turn out to be other than they are, on-line, cancer does
seem to be a recurring theme.

S: And it also does stop any further conversation because it is the
topic to end all topics.

D: Yeah. In the late 90s, the very first one I came across was a
friend, a sort-of friend who had this girlfriend who was supposedly in
hospital dying of cancer, although she had internet access, which
seems unlikely given the time. And she had a PO Box address which
seemed a bit suspect. And it seemed unbelievable then to everybody.
Most of us hadn't been on-line very long and we just couldn't see how
someone could get sucked in like that. But the guy felt himself in

And then a couple of years later there was another friend who was
exactly the same – well not exactly the same thing happened. But again
there was this guy who had seemed to have had a very tragic life and
then he had cancer and there wasn't much time and so the whole
relationship was very intense. And of course people do have cancer
and people do have very intense relationships at the end of their
lives but it does sort of, it is a bit too familiar, isn't it?

S: So this was the film. It was quite shocking. We were both – we
chose it because it would be – we had a choice between this and Titus
Andronicus and I think we went with the lighter option.

D: I still think it was probably the lighter option than Titus Andronicus.

S: Well you say that. Yeah perhaps okay. But we were both quite shocked.

D: Could we do like a Facebook version of Titus Andronicus?

S: Um, well Livinia does have her hands cut off which would limit her
options for, anyway. So we were both quite shocked by the end of the
film and as well as wanting to test the microphone, we wanted to talk
a bit about it because it moved us.

D: Yes, it was very moving. And we talked about, I mean we've both
been on-line since our... I don't know, how old were you?

S: I was a teenager still.

D: Well, I was a teenager still. I was going to say late teens and I
thought perhaps it was your mid teens.

S: It may have well been mid-teens.

D: When you were young and naïve.

S: And I was called “The Very Cowardly Lion”.

D: That's really – the very cowardly lion?

S: The very cowardly lion. I know, it's really sad isn't it? But anyway.

D: [pause] Yes. Um.

S: That's a bit of a stopper, isn't it? Sorry.

D: That's a bit of a stopper.

S: I wasn't. I was just called Stephen. That was what my username was,
it wasn't the Very Cowardly Lion. And I didn't go onto very early
chatrooms and not say much apart from “Hello, I'm the Very Cowardly

D: Yeah. I can't remember an awful lot of my old usernames and things.

S: That's probably for the best, I now feel very embarrassed. In fact
I may cut this bit.

D: I don't think you should. Because people will want to Google it to
see if there's any evidence of you.

S: I bet there isn't. That was in the days of Netscape.

D: Wow. So were you ever tempted to be someone you weren't?

S: Well I almost signed up for Second Life, after a friend of mine
joined. But I think there's a desire often with, especially people
who are ill and could be – aren't very satisfied with there lives, to
try and create a new, more fulfilling existence. And the internet's a
wonderful tool for this, because you don't have to show you're
physical form. You can build a physical form that works with your
idea of what you want to be.

D: Amanda Baggs, who blogs at Ballastexistenz. She is non-verbal
autistic and she is a wheelchair-user and she's talked about using
(bless you) using Second Life and that experience being completely
different, because she is non-verbal, to be able to talk and interact
and not be a wheelchair-user and her whole experience of life is
completely different.

S: And it allows an extra dimension to life.

D: I don't think that is on any level pretending to be other than you
are. I mean, Second Life, it is to do with a version of yourself, I
don't think it's even an idealised version of yourself.

S: It depends on the person.

D: Yeah. It's a bit like in the Matrix when he incorrectly says, I
think he says, “It's a mental picture of your digital self” when he
really means – it's one of those many points in the Matrix when he
gets his words wrong.

S: I did have a Yahoo chat account with several different identities.
And I used them for times when I didn't want to be contacted.

D: I think organised crime is another issue altogether.

S: Yeah, back in the days of the Yahoo Mob, yeah. No, that was when I
wanted to. When I was unable to socialise and yet wanted to be around
some form of people.

D: Like in a petri dish.

S: Yeah, when I used to experiment on these poor tormented internet
souls. I used to a put on a disguise to just sit quietly. But I
didn't use that to become someone else. I just had one that was a
Latin term and one that was actually a couple of words from a
Portishead lyric, both of whom allowed me to sit quietly in a room and
not be bothered.

D: Was that “Machine Gun”?
S: Um, no. It was “slave to sensation”. Which, if you've ever been to
Yahoo chat, makes you sound like, um...

D: I think we know what that makes you sound like.

S: And so you never ever get bothered, which is wonderful.

D: I'm quite surprised you don't get bothered. I'm quite surprised
people weren't interested in what particular sensations you were slave

S: Anyway, that was a long time ago. And uh, sorry, I have forgotten
where I was.

D: I've pretended to be a man on-line.

S: Have you?

D: Yes, I put on a deep voice like this. [convincing masculine voice]
Hello. Hello darling. [resumes feminine voice] That's my

S: It's very convincing! I can almost hear the chest hair.

D: But I've not actually

S: Just a warning to anyone who hasn't watched the film and yet is
still listening to this, in which case shame on you. You do see an
awful lot of chest hair. He has, he has got an awful lot and you
know, in this society where chest hair is banished from the front of
magazines, it is quite shocking.

D: Okay. I have pretended to be a man on-line but not actually, to be
honest I didn't really try hard. I just let people refer to me in the
masculine and call me mister and so on, and not challenge them.
Especially when I was younger, I think I very much felt that people –
especially on political matters – I felt people took me more seriously
if they thought I was a man. I wouldn't do that now.

S: I'm glad.

D: Because I think the sort – I mean it's an implicit bias, so it's
not actually people who are horrendously sexist, but at the same time
I think it's better that I might be taken a little less seriously but
that people see that my point of view is that of a woman.

S: Yes.

D: A lady. I think it's particularly interesting for people who

S: have some sort of internet existence.

D: Yeah and also know people who are – I have know people who are – I
mean we've obviously both been isolated at different times. But
people who are isolated who turn to online communities to resolve
isolation and there's nothing unhealthy about that in itself. But I
think it sort of demonstrates where it can go.

S: The power of honesty. The importance of honesty. And the
inevitability of lies.

D: Because you meet people and you don't believe who they are. I mean
you meet people in real life and you don't buy, you know, there are
lots of people who are full of...

S: Yeah.

D: We need a word that isn't a swearword to describe...

S: I do have that Bleep App on my phone. But I'd have to go and get my phone.

D: Yeah. Okay, how about you go “Beep” and I say it? There are people
who are full of b....

S: [silence]

D: You've got to beep! There are people who are full of b...

S: I think you're all very glad I didn't beep, aren't you? Because
that was far more funny as it was. I think they get the point.

D: There are people who are full of [beep]. Can we beep that afterwards?

S: There are indeed. There are people who lie, and we do have to be
careful. But we also have to be caring because often people lie for a
reason, a reason that is... well no, often don't, some of them are
just idiots.

D: But lots of people do tell lies for a reason. Unfortunately
though, they do tend to carry on lying, in experience. I think this is
the thing. I think they get found out and, because it's a defence
mechanism and as such it is very difficult to help people who tell
lots of fibs.

S: So I think that's just about it.

D: Yes, I think it is.

S: So thank you for listening.

D: Yes, thank you. I hope we haven't wasted too much of your day.

S: And if we have, tough luck.

D: Yeah, you should have spent it on Facebook. [phone noise] Oops! Sorry.

S: And with that beep of modern technology, we bid you Adieu.

D: Goodbye.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Oh Boris, where art thou?

AKA Why I deserve a free Tesla Roadster

BADD 2011

I must warn you all, I am going to get a little car geeky during this post. Sadly there is no Blogging Against Boring Nerds day, so I will accept your yawns as best I can...but I have a point. And it starts with Mayor Boris Johnson.

Earlier in the year (13th of February to be exact), Mayor Johnson wrote a post entitled 'The blue badge of the disabled fails those who need it most'. Not the most catchy of titles, true. I must admit here and now that I am more than just a Boris fan. He is my secret love child. It happened on a quiet day in 1996 - a brief tryst between myself and a peroxide over-dosed Gena Davis. I've done my best to leave behind those heady, hormone addled days (I was only 14 after all), but through a series of events so simple and straightforward I cannot even begin to explain them, Boris overtook his father's age and became Mayor of London. I was very proud.

Proof, you ask? Well just look at this

[Image showing the rather lovely Gena Davis sporting blonde locks and a semi-automatic, myself with wayward locks and a look of extreme fatigue, and the Great Boris in all his glory]

Pretty conclusive, I think you'll agree. But more than the physical similarity, we both share a love of the classics. In almost every article he writes, he manages to bring in the wisdom of the Greeks. But not on the 13th February 2011. This was his first mistake.

Sadly the dear old fruit of my teenage loins made other, more serious errors. The piece is riddled with poorly constructed thought process. At one point he says;

There is talk of new independent medical tests, after auditors revealed a few years ago that about 16,000 blue-badge holders were shamelessly using the entitlements of dead relatives.

Independent medical tests? To do what? Confirm that the people using the badges aren't dead? The criminal act of abusing the system by using the badges of the deceased is transformed into an act of fraud by the claimant themselves (you know, the dead ones. Workshy corpses...when the zombie plague comes they won't have things so cushie...).

The ability to park on a single or double yellow line with the badge will, we are told, cause London to seize to a standstill. I think it's important here to note that it's only legal to do this if parking does not cause an obstruction. It says so in the rules. Honestly. I read them and everything. So how will London seize to a halt if people are parking on double yellow lines whilst not causing an obstruction?

What's more - why should there be a need to park on a double yellow line? Does this mean that there's a lack of legal parking? Well, it would seem so. I have travelled to London once whilst being ill, and because I wouldn't have coped with the act of trying to find roadside parking and then the journey through the crowded streets, we parked in a privately managed carpark. And it cost a flipping fortune. Blue badge didn't lower the cost at all. But what it did make sure that there was plenty of space around the car so that a wheelchair could be removed easily.

Then we get to the idea that there are only a very small number of 'genuinely severely disabled people who drive cars'. Oh where to start?

Genuinely severely disabled? What an horrific phrase. I say some stupid things some times, but if I were Frank Gardner, whom Boris is quoting, I'd be looking for a distant ski-lodge in which to hide my shame.

OK so ignoring the horrible phrasing and the horrible idea behind it - the blue badge can be used by a 'genuinely severely disabled person' WHO DOESN'T DRIVE! They could get a taxi to take them somewhere and get the driver to pop it in the window while they went to, say, visit the doctor. Or they could be driven by a partner. Or a friend. Or a family member. Just because no one wants to share a ride with Mr Gardner* does not mean that the only people who deserve the ability to park in an appropriate parking space are those who are driving themselves.

I think they're probably right, though. Not about severely disabled drivers, but a new system would help that catagorises disabled badge holders in such a way that appropriate parking is available for all, whether they are able to move on two legs for a limited distance or on wheels. This way all people are valued and looked after. And there are no loopholes in my thought or writing that can be exploited by ignorant, hateful monsters as has happened on the telegraph website. Just look at the comments. Honestly, I felt I had to report one that went on about Muslim doctors getting people onto benefits without any real health issues. There's still plenty to get angry about, including some that, if it were followed through, might see me assaulted or murdered, but I'll leave that for you to read.

That's why days like today are so important. Why we all need to be aware of disablist attitudes and guard against them and be careful in the things we say. Clearly Boris was having an off day and will make up for it by encouraging the building of plenty of well laid out and cheap to access carparks in London, as well as setting out a new and clear blue badge system giving the right help to all. He will decry the criminal acts of people using blue badges illegally, and make people see that when someone with a heart condition or MS or some other invisible disability uses a space, it should make the world proud that we're looking after our citizens, rather that inciting violence.

So where does the Tesla come in? Well, it occurred to me that as well as reforming the blue badge system, the government could make another change.

For those of you who actually have a life, the Tesla Roadster is an electric sportscar based on the Lotus Elise and converted in California to run on battery power. It can be charged on a normal power supply and will do 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. It maxes out at 125mph and has a range on a single charge of 245 miles.

It also costs £100k+ but don't worry about that, because the government should buy each and every member of the crippled masses one. And here's why;

1 - It's green. Heaven knows we consume a lot of resources being disabled. I mean, we've all been told recently that disability benefit fraud is why we can't afford, well, pretty much anything any more, right? So do we really want such a wasteful lot consuming any more of the precious go-juice that's left hidden in the crevices of this planet we call earth? No we don't! I say leave the petroleum products to the deserving abled. We'll make do with electric motors.

2 - We need the speed. Until Boris gets the parking situation sorted, we'll be left trawling the carparks and streets looking for spaces. And Boris even admits, in this world where fraud is everywhere;

At last, you see a haven, a blue-badge zone, and you start to make towards it; and just as you are about to indicate to begin the parking manoeuvre, a car shoots past you — blue badge in the window — and then, with all the insolent grace of a Las Vegas valet parker, the driver reverses into your spot and bounds out, whistling, remote-locking with a backwards squirt of electrons, and leaving you to get on with your search.

Aha! But this is where the Tesla comes into its own. 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds? Do you think anyone will ever pinch a parking space from us ever again?? No chance!

3 - It's only a two seater. As we've seen, it's hard enough for dear old Frank to get anyone to sit in the car with him. And we know that even the merest mention of disabled sex is enough to make even the most hard-working normal go all sickly and wan. So if you give us a two seater car, you need never worry about disabled procreation ever again! We simply won't be able to fit a baby in the car with us! Plus, with a car this beautiful, what need is there for the physical act of love?

4 - It's tech we're used to. I already own an American EV. It was produced by Pride. It is taxed and insured. And at the flip of a switch it goes from road speed down to a maximum limited 4mph. This makes it legal to use on the pavement and even in shops.

Now I must admit that the Tesla is a little lacking in boot space. If you've ever tried to get a wheelchair into the boot of a Lotus Elise (and who hasn't?) you'll know it's not a straight forward matter, and this applies still to the Tesla upon which it's based. But never fear! If Tesla will just put a little button on the dash (you know the kind of thing - turtle on one side, cheetah on the other), we'll be able to limit it to 4mph and go around M&S without ever getting out!

5 - We need to boost our street cred. It's been a tough year for the Disability PR people. In the popularity rankings we are somewhere between Bubonic Plague and Nick Clegg. We are the workshy. The fraudsters. We waste the money of the deserving and even dare to have a feeling of entitlement (fancy feeling entitled to a national insurance which covers every British citizen? We're just a bit inadequate like that). And I for one am fed up of it. I was never particularly popular, but this is silly! The disabled are a diverse bunch of people full of interest and spark and wonder, just like any bunch of people. But we've been painted in a way that makes us pathetic jobs to be pitied, or schemers who should be beaten and discarded.

The only way I can see to improve my street cred after all that rubbish is if David Cameron puts his hand in his pocket and buys me a Tesla Roadster Sport. I'll take mine in green.

*I have never met Frank Gardner. As a war hero and extreme sportie type, I am sure there are all manner of people queueing up to drive him places just to share in the glow of his amazingness. I'm simply being silly for comedic effect. Which is better for everyone than getting genuinely angry at a divisive and damaging statement. Possibly.

Monday, 18 April 2011

BADD 2011

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2011Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011 will be happening on Sunday 1st May. Don't miss it! I will be writing about a subject very close to my heart...

For more about this fantastic blogging festival, see;

Sunday, 13 March 2011

'F' (2010)

Exams approach apace. I've got my dates, so in only a couple of months I will be sat in a room lost in an equal mix of terror and concentration. I am a little behind - there is a seminar, which officially ends today, in which I have not yet contributed. So why am I writing here? What could possibly be so important that I take time away from study?

Well, yesterday, as I was resting, I watched a film. And I think it ranks as the worst film I have ever seen because it was both the least well constructed and potentially the most damaging. And so I wanted to warn the world.

Firstly, I must admit that I quite like 'bad' fiction. I've watched Neighbours for a very long time. I like soap opera narrative. In some ways it is the most life-like narrative in its sheer daftness. There's lots of scope for people to be silly, cowardly and to procrastinate about subjects they should just get on and deal with. So very much like our daily lives.

I also like horror. I believe that Zombie films (especially the work of George A Romero) are a very useful and uplifting thing to watch. Indeed, on the evening after my grandmother's funeral I chose to watch Dawn of the Dead (1978). In the Zombie world things are broken down a bit - responsibilities are quite clear. And what's more, Romero zombies are relatively benign - it is always human frailty, greed and selfishness which leads to destruction.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is a great film. It was partly inspired by Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), but it's definitely not a zombie film. The forces bearing down on the beleaguered police station are anything but benign. It takes a concerted effort to fight off the violent Street Thunder gang members. But at the same time, they have to keep a unified front in their defending group of police officials and previously incarcerated criminals. The silenced weapons used by the Street Thunder gang and the blood oath they've sworn in vengeance, not to mention the creepy way they're shot moving outside the station, gives a slightly supernatural feeling. It is unsettling, exciting and, like Zombie films, to me at least, very uplifting.

So yesterday, in part because it uses a similar premise to AoP13, I watched the British film 'F' (2010).

The basic idea is that a teacher, traumatised by a brief but violent assault by a child, then has to deal with a mass assault of faceless 'hoodies' on a school whilst trying to keep his wayward daughter safe.

Part of me was wary - school violence is a tricky subject, especially in the UK where there have been far fewer acts of extreme violence than, say, the US. My father was an OFSTED inspector and worked in some problem schools, so I know a lot about the issue of student assaults on teachers. He would get injury lists with some of the rougher schools. So I remember distinctly reading about teachers being kneecapped etc.

But here's my first issue with the film - reasons and consequences. It is true that in life not everything that happens has an easily definable reason. People are assaulted in the street for no reason. It happens a lot around here.

They are *always* carried out by one or two people off their heads on something. They are always done to a single person on their own or a couple (hetero/homosexual). And there still is a reason to this - the reason being that the attacker is a bit of a psycho-loser.

In 'F' we see only two bits of violence with any kind of reason to them - one is the original assault on the teacher, triggered by an 'F' grade and accompanying sarcastic comment. In doing this, the teacher breaches official policy. This is made into a PC Health and Safety style rant. Why can't the teacher give an 'F'? And why can't he say these things? Well, these are very important questions - but they're not really addressed. All we see is a grumpy old man getting a head-but.

The other act of reasoned violence is the slapping of the wayward daughter by her alcoholic, teacher father. This is reasoned away as being appropriate because she was mouthing off in a disrespectful manner. More (much much much more) on this later.

The rest of the violence is reasonless. One review I read of this film (in the Guardian, no less) said that the gang assault on the school was led by the child who assaulted the teacher at the beginning of the film. This is never ever shown. We never see the faces of the 'hoodies'. They are deliberately blacked out. No one says anything. No 'this'll teach you for doing x'. No motive. Nothing. Now, as I said, this is fine if you're dealing with a few psycho-losers, as that psycho-loseriness is their motivation. But this group of hoodies is silently coordinated, acting with great grace, speed and purpose. To do this they'd need a lot of planning, equipment and communication.

The other option would have been to make them supernatural enemies. Indeed, I think they were trying to suggest this (a little like the subtle supernatural feel of the enemy in AoP13). It fails completely. Whenever they're on screen there is a truly annoying distorted playground 'lalala' music. You never see their deliberately blacked out faces. They are silent and graceful. And their violence is extreme and also apparently lacking a motive. In this way they'd make a great supernatural force. But in order for that to work you'd need to have some hint to solidify them as a supernatural force. Maybe some question as to their reality (a lack of reflection, say - or someone not being able to see them). Indeed, at one point I wondered whether the big reveal would be that the violence had all been carried out by the alchie teacher and the faceless force had all been in his head. But no. No subtlety, no explanation, no reason.

This is dangerous. The entire point of this kind of film filters back to the stuff I'm studying. Tragedy has a reason. People do the wrong thing. They exceed mortal bounds. They strike out at the gods. They transgress and are punished. All of the (sometimes just as extreme) violence is justified by, what can be an unfair, set of rules and regulations. By watching the tragedy unfold, we the audience learn a lesson. This is what makes great tragedy.

What AoP13 does which is so clever is that the violence is due to police action which has relatively nothing to do with those trapped inside. They are innocent parties caught up in the responsibilities of others. And they fight against it. This makes them heroes. Bringing in another classical reference - they are Hectors, fighting for Troy when the reason for the battle is Paris' abduction of Helen.

The story, lacking a reason, completely loses track of the audience. There is nothing to be fought against, nothing to be overcome. There can be no climactic boss battle between Alcoholic Teacher and Violent Pupil where the violence is reversed (indeed, he does kill a 'hoodie', but this is lacking any emotional content due to the eternally faceless nature of the enemy - he might as well have stabbed a hat stand). Likewise, as there is no link between teacher and hoodies, there can be no growth for the teacher - he cannot apologise for his actions or gain forgiveness.

Much more interesting would have been an attack on a teacher who had been abusive (possibly sexually) against a group of boys who then get together to get excessive revenge. Alternatively, the faceless assault on the school could have been shorter and led to them being tracked down and punished by the aggrieved teacher. But no luck. There is no resolution. The teacher leaves the school with his injured daughter, leaving his wife to die. Everyone else gets got. It is pointless.

But my biggest problem by far was its misogynistic nature. I've been made more aware of this kind of thing by doing my Women in Ancient History degree. But I have always been quite smug because no matter how silly Aristotle was, he's been dead for quite a while now and we've evolved.

Apparently not.

There are five female characters;

Head Teacher
Gym Teacher?

Oh, and I've just remembered - there was a male/female pairing of police officers. Guess what happened to them?

The librarian is a caring character who tries to look after the alcoholic teacher. I like her character and can't complain - but her death is anonymous and nameless and lost.

The Head Teacher seems to earn her death by not heeding the warning given to her by the alcoholic teacher about the downed telephone lines. She also pays for not supporting him after the initial assault and effectively 'siding' with the parents of the boy who want to sue. Confronted by the boys she's not even capable of calling the police - she just waves her phone at them.

Now, I am not 100% certain, but I guess that the character who hardly looked long out of college herself was a gym teacher. When I first saw her, I expected her to become a rape victim. Jogging on the treadmill? Sure sign that someone's going to rip some of your clothes off. But I hadn't realised that these characters would have no apparent motivation. So no rape, but the most extreme violence is still kept for her (a word was cut into her exposed stomach, more cuts are inflicted on her thighs, and the lower part of her face is removed) and left crawling away from the toilets in which she was attacked).

The Daughter,as well as being slapped by her father, is stabbed in the stomach whilst trying to save him.

The Mother is left alone in the school, presumably, we are left to believe, to be killed in an horrific way.

Women are nothing but victims. They have no chance. Admittedly three men are also killed (one burnt to death, but the other two we don't see dead, just on the way to it), but less screen time is taken over this. The violence against women is glorified in. There is no chance that any of them will be proactive. They don't get angry. They just crumble and weep.

What's more (much much much more) the slapping of the daughter is effectively explained away through her bad behaviour. She's then shown willing on a bruise so she can then use this against her father. But everything is forgiven when he comes to find her and she effectively gives up her life saving him from the knife attack. He then tries to save her, but in so doing, sacrifices his wife.

So violence against a child is ok if they're being really mouthy and you save them after. No repercussions for the teacher in any way. Other than the death of his ex who's already left him. No sign of guilt from him...but then as there's no apparent link to him, there wouldn't need to be.

So all the potential power of the plot is lost. The humanity of the hoodies being removed (and by the way, the exclusively white cast vs the blacked out faces of the hoodies? The racial element, though never actually said, was equally worrying). No supernatural basis to compensate for this. No responsibility, consequence or explanation. And no resolution. Just the teacher driving away with his wounded daughter. An over-long look into his eyes from the rear-view mirror. A scene which would work wonderfully well in a film respecting the psychological process of character and narrative. But here it just exposes everything that was weak and shallow. I.E. the entire thing.

No, that's unfair - some of the shots of the school and the people were beautifully done. The shallow depth of field was very nice and I liked some of the colour tones.

So really, do yourself a favour and don't ever watch it. Spend the 80 minutes. or whatever it was, contemplating the nature of responsibility and consequences in life. It'll be better for your soul.