Month: September 2012

Good to Terminally Awful

You’re no Jack Reacher, son. That’s for sure.

Going to the cinema in France is not burdensome. Good films – or those they think will make a lot of money –  are in English, VO for ‘version originale’ means that you get to see the same stuff in Les Halles as you do on Sunset Boulevard.  I had promised myself that the latest offering in the Bourne franchise would be worth the price of a ticket.  How very misguided of me. The ‘franchise’ element was the first mistake. It was tarnished with yellow edges and the paint almost peeled off the characters, Rachel Weisz  (Cambridge, where else?) notwithstanding. There’s really a time to say ‘enough’ and much as the Indiana Jones films ran their course, so these have as well. The firework that is Jason Bourne burns brightly but for a very limited period and over a billion earned is more than dreams of avarice for a film producer. In conclusion, this film is the strangest sequel to come out of the Hollywood studio system in a very long time. It’s a product of shallow studio greed and staggering creative ineptitude. Let’s hope they’ll have learned their lesson and not be tempted by prequels, more sequels or remakes. For a very long time.

Very mumsie, Kate…
By contrast, I spun the DVD player around something much more interesting the other day. ’Little Children’ directed by Todd Field (‘In The Bedroom’) was made in 2006 and stars Kate Winslet whose thirtysomethingness is beginning to peep nicely through her characters. In summary, it’s the adults who are the ‘little children’, we are presented with a story about suburbia with all its antiseptic whispers, gestures and textures, involving disappointed partners, infidelity and guilt, lost love, passion and a sad, weak child molester. Its characters – even the narcissistic ones – were drawn with compassion, their follies almost become our own and their desires seem as vast as the sky. You warm to almost all of them, despite painful flaws. I found it smart, disturbing and the best satire I’d seen since ‘American Beauty’. It was a literary exercise as well and I found myself wondering whether I was at the movies or watching a play. Voice-over narration, a kind of third-person-omnipotent, holds together a rather slow midsection well. The film recovers nicely in the final part, however with an ending both predictable yet freshly conclusive. Richly textured and nuanced, I liked it.

Suits and Serenity

Available for ladies only. Sorry, chaps.
Time for a few more aimless blitherings. Over these last weeks, I have found myself becoming quite preoccupied with things about which I can do nothing, which is entertaining but something of a waste of energy. The first being the US Presidential election. It’s fun to watch determined intellects and expensively educated suits scrabble with such lack of dignity for their nominee. Furthermore, it’s always amused me how Americans so easily buy into political marketing. Would I wear a T shirt with ‘Go, Mitt! on it? Er, no.  This might look quite nice on my desk, however. Coffee and prejudice for less than a dollar. Quite a bargain, really.
It says ‘Fire’ and ‘Hire’ on the other side, in case you were wondering.
Patrons of Foggy Bottom’s 7-11 on Tuesday evening in search of a caffeine fix may have thought the store was showing support for Mitt Romney. The disposable coffee cups were emblazoned with the Republican presidential candidate’s name but no similar offerings featuring the present  incumbent seemed to be available. A customer noticed the seemingly partisan selection and asked the manager about it. Turns out he ran out of Obama cups earlier in the day. More tomorrow, he promised.  
Much as I might like to, there’s nothing I personally can do about Iran, their multiplicity of centrifuges, their underground bunkers and their sideshow of a president.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the UN was scheduled today, on Yom Kippur, something a US spokesman said was “particularly unfortunate.” No kidding, Sherlock. The Americans boycotted and the British said they would send only a “low level” presence to the speech and that officials had been “instructed to walk out”. Did they get to throw things first, I wonder?  The substance of his remarks made quite a stir, predictably. He called out what he termed “uncivilised Zionists” for posing as a “continued threat” to Iran.  Jolly good.  Long may it continue. Might have been interesting if he’d specified what he meant by an uncivilised Zionist, as opposed to any other kind.
Roughly translated, 100 lashes if you don’t die laughing
He went on to say that a “new world order” [eek!] is needed, insisting that “capitalism” had used up the earth’s “resources” and caused climate change. We’re clearly responsible for reduced numbers of polar bears as well as the Euro crisis. No prizes for guessing, really. This ‘new world order’ will undoubtedly include adherence to Shari’a and blind obedience to the benevolence of the velayat-e-faqih or rule by clerics. How very tempting. Odd, too how Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Sunni’s main man, is the new poster boy in Iraq. His gently smiling face is seen everywhere, it being conspicuously present in Sunni neighbourhoods since a pro-Palestinian day in August. Perhaps people just forgot to take them all down afterwards. 
I wonder if this guy – a freedom fighter in Aleppo,  thinks he can change much either. Perhaps he should pray the Serenity Prayer, beloved of AA members everywhere.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen, then.
“..the times, they are a-changin”

Thin Skins

Most normal people are quite rightly outraged that  death threats can simply pass unpunished in some parts of the world. In Europe, if I threaten someone with so much as a fish-slice I’m quite rightly brought before a magistrate and punished appropriately. The complete, utter fatuity of the Pakistani politician, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour – the Minister for Railways, of all things – offering a $100k bounty for whoever ends the life of the filmmaker responsible for “Innocence of Muslims”, seen by nearly 13 million people, in what was once a reasonably civilised, almost postmodern, supposedly quite thoughtful society, beggars belief. In his own words: “We won’t tolerate such films” [so, don’t make them, already…] and that the issue could only be resolved by killing the filmmaker and rich people should donate money for the purpose. We can only hope that rich Pakistanis have something better to do with their money. This is the same man who in July  suggested a confederation of neighbouring countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. He said this confederation would promote co-existence since good relations are the guarantee of peace in the region. Also, it would free up the movement of people across the borders and facilitate trade. 
Of course it would. It would make AK47’s even more accessible and open up a variety of new routes for the heroin trade.
I only have one question to ask of the radicals. Why-please tell me – are you so very thin-skinned? If someone insults me or a member of my family, I don’t harbour murderous thoughts towards them and even if I did, I’m not foolish enough to articulate them. This is childish nonsense and people who are secure in their own identity dismiss such things. Satire is jokes for grown-ups and is prevalent in free societies where you’re not beaten or locked up for saying what you think. Islam needs a Reformation so that the moderates who wish to practise their faith in peace are no longer tarnished by the homicidal rage of the few who mindlessly swallow everything the imam tells them at Friday prayers.

Burning Satire

Satirical? No. Tasteless? Yes.

I’m not really a fan of Twitter. A snappy one-liner is rather too often used as a form of personal self-aggrandisement, frequently to the detriment of others. Our modern Swift, Mr. Stephen Fry, whose intellect is beyond the grasp of most of us, laughingly tweeted a link to this image, with a byline to the effect that the Catholic Church was enthusiastically embracing social media. Not unsurprisingly, this provoked a tornado of invective, often misspelled and personal. Mr. Fry with his usual, self-deprecatory winsomeness laughingly and quite unrepentantly dismissed the critics as being unenlightened as to the meaning of the word ‘satire’, inviting one of them to ‘get an education’. Before I went any further, I looked it up.  In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Quite so. Ridicule and shame in abundance. HHPB has of course made a public apology on behalf of the body he represents, so I don’t think the image could be considered satirical, merely offensive, in particular to those who suffered such abuses by members of the clergy. A dignified apology from said tweeter, alternatively some forethought, would have been both kinder and in considerably better taste.
The Catholic Church, at least in places where First Amendment type legislation exists, is often pilloried and the public are quite at liberty to express an opinion about its goings-on, whereupon it shrugs its massively magisterial shoulders and remains pretty much unruffled. No Catholic was caught making petrol bombs to throw at people like Stephen Fry, or the original author. Not so elsewhere.  An obscure film trailer which set out to deliberately inflame tensions in the Islamic world by depicting the Prophet as a fraud and a child molester, and allegedly shows him having sex can’t really be described as satirical either. The entire film has only been shown once in public, it would seem, but excerpts have gone viral on the Internet. Everyone, it would seem, is scrabbling around, trying to find someone to blame, since the whole business has triggered an avalanche of flag-burning, chanting, rioting and arson across the Islamic world, possibly inflamed by fiery rhetoric during Friday prayers. Lives have been lost and many injuries sustained and I rather wonder what percentage of the rioters have actually seen any part of the film at all, in particular those responsible for the arson and ransacking of the American School in Tunis, which is nothing more than ignorant, wilful vandalism. The finger of blame seems to be being pointed in all kinds of directions, from a shadowy film-maker with a rather murky history to the bankrollers who are suspected of belonging to the opposition in Egypt. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church issued a statement labelling the film as malicious and divisive – how very prescient of them – and condemning some Egyptian Christians living abroad who it said had financed “the production of a film insulting Prophet Muhammad”. Were all this only about a film, it might be dismissed as a rather large storm in a comparatively small teacup and like most Atlantic squalls, likely to blow over quite quickly. 
US Consulate, Benghazi

Unfortunately, the death of the US ambassador to Libya, together with ferocious civil disorder in Tahrir Square, with all the usual ‘Death to America’ and’ Death to Israel’ sloganeering now requires US diplomacy to develop a very light touch indeed. If the timing of these events, calculated in some dark corner, was designed to upset the US election campaigns, its timing was badly flawed. Whatever the cause or indeed the motivation, the events appeared to underscore how much the ground in the Middle East has shifted for Washington, which for decades had close ties with Arab dictators who could be counted on to crush dissent. America can’t just pay up and hope for the best any longer. Indeed, why should it?

Angelina and Me

It’s all rather odd, isn’t it. 10% of the entire Internet userbase are members of Facebook which if you’ve never heard of it basically means that you’ve been in a semi-vegetative state for several years or have recently arrived on an intergalactic shuttle. Its founders and code-scribbling cubiculi have made fortunes out of an evolving psychology which may not be well understood. Facebook is pretty, addictive and compelling. Most of the time; the new user interface notwithstanding. I am amazed to see how vitriolic people have become about what is essentially a software upgrade which, it has to be said, is unashamedly manipulative but people will learn and stick with because the dopamine highs they get outweigh the inconveniences. Microsoft have been doing it for years.

Like all social platforms, Facebook is personal PR where one’s own little light can, for an instant, shine fractionally more brightly. Most of the time, everyone is putting their best foot forward since we don’t much like to read about the trudging humdrummery of people’s vacuous and often quite pitiable lives. Instead, we post pictures showing first class departure lounges in Singapore airport – ‘is that Angelina Jolie in the left hand corner?’, as if by so doing we identify in some meaningless and irrelevant respect with the lives of the rich and famous. I am no exception – and am ashamed to admit that I have posted from exotic places with the unspoken thought that my friends – most of whom I clearly don’t deserve –  will somehow not actually experience feelings of envy, rejoicing with me instead over the small privileges which being in such places has afforded me. Many tell me how jealous they are, producing undeserved frissons of pride thus inflating my already overbloated and wobbling ego. I’m appalled with myself sometimes, but take comfort in the notion that most people routinely overestimate the happiness of others and hopefully won’t feel worse about themselves by making irrelevant comparisons between themselves and me.

Current research suggests, apparently, that using Facebook adds stress to users’ lives. Causes of stress include fear of missing important social information – whatever that might mean – ‘have I been invited on Saturday? If not, why not?” fear of offending contacts, discomfort or guilt from rejecting user requests or deleting unwanted contacts or being unfriended or blocked, the displeasure of having friend requests rejected or ignored, the pressure to be entertaining, criticism and intimidation from other Facebook users, and having to use appropriate etiquette for different types of friends *note to self – don’t call the vicar an arse, even if he is one*.  It would seem that many people who started using Facebook for positive purposes or with positive expectations have found it has negatively impacted their everyday, ‘actual’ lives. I find it interesting to read that in the UK, up to 33% of divorce petitions cite Facebook as a cause.

Why are we all still here?