Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Frozen out

Thailand is not renowned as a bastion of sporting excellence. Thai people enjoy sport, and are enthusiastic for any sign of success. I still remember the triumphant homecoming of Thai medal-winners from the 2004 Olympics, parading down Sukhumwit Road in open-topped Bentleys. But overall, expertise seems to concentrate in sports that have yet to achieve worldwide popularity, as I discussed a few months ago.

So it's splendid news that a Thai sporting team entered the record books only yesterday. The fact that their claim to fame is being on the less favoured end of the biggest winning margin in modern ice hockey history (52-1) has not stopped the eternally patriotic Bangkok Post from focusing on the historic aspect of this achievement. And at least with ice hockey, the goalie doesn't usually have to fish the ball out of the net.

Chasms of the Earth: It's like a reading group, but with stronger coffee.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Harmony in my head

My friend Dr Beatrice has directed me to the new Myspace page of her legendary goth-funk combo The Souls of Dead Librarians, which flourished long enough for them to release a demo tape (remember them?) in 1986.

I do wonder whether there's some sort of mathematical constant, similar to pi or the Golden Mean, that lays down the ratio of bands that actually make it to a debut performance, or even just rehearsal, and those that retain the purity and enthusiasm of conceptuality. About 1:5, maybe?

I was in at least two conceptual bands, as far as I can recall. Around the age of 14, I was a founder member of Yeux Bleus. The name came first, then the logo, which I happily etched onto my army surplus rucksack and several exercise books. I even concocted some lyrics, all scrupulously marked "© TJ Footman 1982".

The music wasn't so easy. My friend Alex had taken a few guitar lessons. Stephen liked the idea of the bass (John Taylor and Martin Kemp were the babe magnets of their respective combos at the time, remember), which left the drums for me, on the basis that they required the least talent. (Apologies to any drummers out there: it must be dreadful for you.)

Before any of us actually went out and bought proper instruments, Alex went off the idea, but by that stage Stephen and I had become increasingly enamoured of various synth combos, so the loss of the neophyte axeman could be presented as "creative differences". Moreover, "Yeux Bleus" (we'd briefly been The Morons, but returned to the original name after becoming a two-piece) would look better on the posters when we landed that crucial support slot with Depeche Mode, or even Classix Nouveaux.

But Stephen and I had both fallen under the spell of the mighty Trio (famed for the glorious 'Da Da Da'), and pledged fealty to their less-is-more philosophy, which applied as much to expenditure and ability as to any specifically musical concept of minimalism. Spurning even the cheap-and-cheerful accessibility of the Casiotone keyboard, Stephen announced that he would build his own synthesiser, a device that turned out to be little more than a joy buzzer glued to a piece of balsa wood. Confronted with this, I announced that I would play my own analogue drum machine, which was a single maraca from a pair that my grandmother had brought back from a holiday in Spain.

I think that was the moment we both realised that it was time to go our separate ways. Stephen eventually went off to be a bank clerk and a devout Catholic, in that order. Alex currently manages all the property for the Anglican Church in Wales. And I went to university, where I was a founder member of equally conceptual Geschirrspülmaschine im Arschlock (which translates as "Dishwasher up the arse", if I recall correctly). All the songs would also be called 'Geschirrspülmaschine im Arschlock', and they would consist solely of the barked phrase 'Geschirrspülmaschine im Arschlock'. In a terribly elliptical tribute to Roxy Music, the line-up would consist of a fluctuating number of bass-players, with no other musicians present.

I can't remember what stopped Geschirrspülmaschine im Arschlock from moving from conceptuality to actuality, let alone Madison Square Garden. A combination of idleness and tequila, I suspect. But hey, enough of my yakkin'. Tell me about your own bands, real or imagined. Or somewhere in between. Because aren't those always the best kind?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Another fine mess

It needs to be said from the outset that Colour Me Kubrick (Dir: Brian Cook, 2005) is not a very good film. The story of Alan Conway, a London conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick, has the potential for an interesting meditation on ideas of fame, reputation and personal success. Instead, we get clunk-heavy references to Kubrick's films (bits of Strauss; two droogs threatening an elderly couple); and Jim Davidson, of all people, playing one of Conway's victims, a character that seems to be based on Joe Longthorne, channelled through Dale Winton (something that's even worse in reality than it sounds).

I only mention the film, because: a) while I was watching it last night, I remembered that when I began this blog, I had the idea that I'd use it to review every film, book, record, etc that passed under my nose, and I've been pretty slack in that respect; and b) I think it adds a brief footnote to a post I wrote a few months ago about the ambiguities that ensue when actors play 'themselves', which has parallels with the soul-searching about blog personas that everyone seems to be experiencing these days (see here, here, here and here).

Conway is played by John Malkovich, an actor I like, but one who is always identifiably Malkovich in everything he does. Of course, since Being John Malkovich, this John Malkovich is interchangeable in the public mind with the pompous, self-obsessed 'John Malkovich', so casting him as someone who loses track of his own self in the assumed identity of someone else is a brave move, to say the least. The obvious comparison is with Geoffrey Rush's performance in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and not just because the real 'Kubrick' appears in that film as a character. Rush, an actor who can disappear into his parts, plays a man who did the same, to the extent that his whole personality seems to have been extinguished.

No such risk with Malkovich. Even his accents are self-consciously acTORRish: as Conway he verges between Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and Keanu Reeves in Dracula; as 'Kubrick', he seems closer to a Catskills comic being Bernie Schwartz being Tony Curtis being Joe being Josephine being Junior being Archie Leach being Cary Grant, a near-infinite Russian doll of reinventions.

This can be defended: Conway was unstable and shambolic, and a key theme of the film is how easily people allowed themselves to be fooled by such an unconvincing performance. Less excusable is the sheer labour with which the metafiction is ladled on soon becomes tiresome, especially when compared with the elegance with which similar nods to the audience were handled in the Sellers film. Conway announces that he's considering John Malkovich for a role in his new film: a throwaway gag that would have been fresh and startling had Jonze and Kaufman slipped it into Being JM, but now feels trite and obvious. As Conway languishes in a psychiatric ward, and hears all this fellow patients proclaiming that they're Kubrick as well, we're supposed to pick up a hint of a great Kubrick moment, the "I'm Spartacus!" scene. But that, of course, has already been parodied out of existence by Monty Python's Life of Brian; when we see that one of the others (played by Ken Russell) has "K. RUSSELL" scrawled on the sticker affixed to his bed, we're supposed to applaud the in-joke, but that too has been told before. Ethel Merman in Airplane!, anyone? Even the nudge-and-a-wink of the film's subtitle, "A True...ish Story" has been done to death, as far back as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

This is moviemaking for film students from the Rosebud School of Spotting the Reference. "So, you've never directed a Carry On film?" asks one of the less credulous characters that Conway meets. In comparison, the Carry Ons were masterpieces of subtlety. And that's the problem with making art that says "Look at me, look at me!" The worst thing is not for your potential audience to hate it. It's for the audience to say: "Yeah, I'm looking. And?"

PS: More film-related opinionating at CiF, as I suggest how to destroy the Oscars.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Back to analogue

It was on the tip of my tongue. What was the word I was searching for? They're people like blogchums, but they haven't got blogs.

Oh yeah, that's right.

The Chasms of the Earth: grammatical quibbles, theological mumbo-jumbo and loads of Audrey Tautou fetishes, all in one handy package.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Cheesecloth and ashes

A few days ago, I watched Hotel California: LA from the Byrds to the Eagles. It was a well made doc, reinforcing BBC4's claim to be a still, small voice of critical intelligence squeaking against the celebrity/lifestyle dialectic that seems to run British factual TV these days. Since it was spun off from a book by the always perceptive and articulate Barney Hoskyns, you wouldn't expect otherwise. And I think everyone now is taking an interest in America in the early 1970s, because of the obvious resonances: a president slumping from adulation to contempt; an unwinnable war; a dream that died. For Watergate, Manson and Altamont, read Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

But, oh, sweet Jesus on a unicycle, the music! Seldom have I heard such a barrage of self-indulgent, witless, lame piffle being presented in the name of family entertainment.

In the mid-to-late 60s, Los Angeles was home to the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, the beauty of whose sunny harmonies barely cloaked the seething dysfunction that lurked beneath. The music scene was also home to a delicious strain of subversive humour, that encompassed the likes of the Monkees, the Turtles and Frank Zappa. And what replaced them? Po-faced singer-songwriters who insisted on embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, and charging the listener to accompany them. Personally, I've never understood the critical kudos handed out to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons, nor the redemption from ignominy that Jackson Browne and James Taylor have recently enjoyed. Then there was Linda Ronstadt, who escapes censure as part of the vile singer-songwriter tribe simply by virtue of the fact that she never wrote anything.

But the solo dullards were wimps who could be batted aside. The groups were harder to argue with, not least because their shrill harmonies formed a sort of choirboy wall of sound that created a mixture of paralysis, pain and nausea in any listener not under the thrall of marijuana, cocaine or fringed buckskin. And their egos made things worse. When David Crosby (of the the tedious, fey Crosby, Stills and Nash) indicated how bored he was by the tedious, obnoxious Eagles, I started constructing a new circle of hell for anybody found in possession of an acoustic guitar and an offensive poncho.

What was so infuriating was that many of these people were highly talented, often with excellent back catalogues. Crosby, of course, was a Byrd; Carole King was responsible for some of the best pop songs of the previous decade. Altamont and Manson didn't just kill the 1960s dream, it would appear; they killed self-deprecation, humour, balls, fun.

One figure transcended this ludicrous, up-their-own-arses-like-an-ice-cube-up-Gram's cabal, while still being counted among its number. He did not deign to be interviewed, but he was glimpsed in archive footage on many occasions, usually hovering to one side, glaring balefully at the proceedings from beneath his simian brow, or wielding a pair of BBC coffee cups as if they were offensive weapons. Towards the end of the film, we heard his alien yowl, as if he and only he knew how low music had fallen:

"The king is gone, but he's not forgotten. This is the story of Johnny Rotten."

Of all these tiresome people in their foolish cowboy boots and misconceived moustaches, only Neil Young, bless his curmudgeonly heart, understood how utterly necessary punk rock was.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Right, I said to myself, I will not get involved in the latest Big Brother controversy, I don't want to give them any more publicity, it's demeaning, it's banal, it's a waste of time, it's...

Ah, bollocks.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Angkor management

As I attempted for Manila and Tokyo, I offer five things about Cambodia (or, more specifically, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor).

1. The Khmers invented Poohsticks. You put an identifying mark on a coconut and drop it down the well at the Bayon. About a week later, it should reappear in the great lake of Tonlé Sap; if you spot it, good fortune will be yours.

2. Coolest cigarette brand in the world: Alain Delon.

3. In the centre of Siem Reap, local people (mostly, but not exclusively, women) peddle second-hand books from carts. It's the usual mix of guidebooks, lurid volumes documenting the foul excesses of the Pol Pot regime, and the tome that now appears to be compulsory reading in the backpacky community: Mr Nice, by Howard Marks. Each cart has a large placard attached, giving a potted biography (in English, sometimes also in French) of the seller: name; age; number of children; disabilities and illnesses of any family members (polio, landmines, etc). It's difficult to know whether the details are accurate but, as spin doctors now tend to put it, the narrative is plausible. I think of the tart cards left in London phone boxes, and immediately feel guilty that I've made such a connection. But do you get my point?

4. Avoid the superficially charming monkeys of Angkor Wat. They climb trees and throw coconuts at innocent tourists. Bastards.

5. Most of the temples have been reclaimed from the jungle, but at Ta Prohm the trees have been allowed to take over. As a result, the stones are constantly shifting position; the tree trunks, meanwhile, seem petrified, a little like stalagmites. The whole place seems to sum up two key elements of Buddhist philosophy: anicca, the notion of impermanence; and the belief that existence is a never-ending cycle of life and death. It's not often that a man-made structure accidentally comes to embody the very concepts that it was built to commemorate.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

And the slum’s got so much soul...

I'm reading White Noise by Don DeLillo. It's set at a fictional university, and the popular culture department is described thus:

"The teaching staff was composed almost entirely of New York émigrés, smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia-crazed. They are here to decipher the natural language of their culture, to make a formal method of the shiny pleasures they'd known in their Europe-shadowed childhoods – an Aristotelianism of bubble gum wrappers and detergent jingles."

I think that last bit might end up under the blog title before long.

This is what I'm doing for the next few days:

Back Thursday. Check out Chasms of the Earth in the meantime. It's getting heated over there, and we're still only on Chapter 7.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

King Ken

One of the advantages of living so far out of the loop is that it's very easy to avoid the latest manifestations of Celebutardery, although this can sometimes be frustrating. I've missed Myleene's showers ("Hmmm, I wonder, if I stand under cold water, maybe my nipples will show through my bikini, and lots of people will watch..."), the unlikely resurrection of Steve Strange, and a parallel universe in which England cricketers can actually do something right (although not cricket, it must be said). And it would have been nice to have experienced Ken Russell's brief sojourn in the Big Brother house, especially as it gave rise to this thoughtful appreciation of Jade Goody and her family:

"I grew up in the slums of Southampton and we had a word for people like that - guttersnipes. There should be a Devil's Island where we can send these people, they're all going to Hell anyway. I've met people from all walks of life but no-one so vulgar. It's almost as though they've been programmed to be vulgar, horrible and objectionable. They speak in a language which is deliberately limited. They didn't even seem to know how to use a knife and fork."

This from a man who once filmed Vanessa Redgrave getting an enema, not to mention Oliver Reed's genitalia.

Also: something for the Who fans at CiF; a contrarian view of media interactivity from the LA Times (thanks to Wyndham for spotting this); Patroclus needs your blogging epiphanies for the book that's going to make her rich and famous and the scourge of lifestyle journalists everywhere; and The Chasms of the Earth has staggered back into life, although they're still dicking around in the Louvre, and Ian McKellen hasn't started overacting yet.

And please don't talk to me about the Morrissey/Eurovision thing. I'm already experiencing a strange mixture of elation and nausea.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Doug and dusted

First, thanks to all of you who took part in the Coupland contest. It was very difficult picking a winner, especially because none of you gave the right answer. If you're the slightest bit interested, the odd one out, the Coupland-free zone, was "In the future, everybody will mime to the Backstreet Boys between ironic fingers on YouTube for 15 minutes." There, that was worth the wait, wasn't it?

While I'm here, something odd has happened. I don't normally do the personal diary type blogging. But here you go. About four years ago, around the time I came to Bangkok, I changed my e-mail address, because the old service provider suddenly decided it wanted to charge me for the privilege. I notified everyone in my address book, but my old details presumably stayed in various mailing lists, in particularly those kept by a number of small, interesting record companies, and the PR companies working on their behalf. (Before I moved continents, I used to write for a small, interesting music magazine, now sadly departed.)

In the last few days, for reasons that aren't immediately apparent, e-mails sent to the old address have started to pop up at my current address. I presume someone's been sending them since 2003, presuming all the time that I've been receiving them. Two responses: a look back at myself four years ago; and the feeling that a parallel reality has been going on, and I've been granted a fleeting glimpse of what might have happened in my life, had I made a few different choices, or if circumstances had gone another way. All those potential connections, disappearing into god-knows-where. I half expect a gaping hole to appear in the narrow membrane between what happened and what might have happened, and hundreds of messages to gush out.

Maybe I need to stop watching Torchwood. It's not that good, after all.

Today's post is dedicated to the memory of Magnus Magnusson. "Dum der-der dum... DER dum..."

Friday, January 05, 2007

Bloodless Coupland

I mentioned in a post that's already been dismissed by the fashion police as "sooo last year" how I'd expected JPod, by Douglas Coupland (Bloomsbury) to end up as my favourite book of the year, not least because it seemed to have the potential to encapsulate the whole Web 2.0 thingy.

It doesn't do that, though. I mean, it touches on some aspects of online existence, such as the narrator's karaoke embarrassment going viral, and the delights of unexpected e-mails from Nigeria. But it's either nodding backwards to a previous generation (Coupland himself makes several appearances, which serves only to remind us that Martin Amis was cutting edge once, as well) or stabbing at futurology (Ethan, the narrator, travels to China, which sets us up for a droll contemplation of the coming Asian Century, but this never really happens either). As far as contemplating now goes, Coupland hovers on the surface, content to watch, rather than engage and dissect in the way that Pelevin does. He is the anti-Forster: ”Only disconnect.”

It wasn’t always thus. Coupland began in the very early 90s as the wry, detached chronicler of wry, detached people who peppered their speech with phrases that sounded mighty Couplandy. Later, though, he diversified into less detached, almost tender depictions of suburban families with unusual dysfunctions. In JPod he finally unites his two favoured genres. His main characters are underachieving geeks working for a video gaming company; but there's a backdrop of batty Moms and crushed Dads, not to mention a ballroom-dancing people smuggler named after an actor who appeared in Hawaii Five-O. A previous novel proclaimed that All Families Are Psychotic. In this version of Coupland's Vancouver, All Mothers Are Dope Farmers.

There’s a sense that Coupland’s really not trying that hard any more, being content to slap his characters into freaky scenarios and watch them sweat through their ironic t-shirts. At times, it’s like Carl Hiaasen on autopilot, or a low-budget Coen Brothers, but with more Morrissey quotes. However, even if JPod doesn’t exactly work as a novel, it still made me laugh more than any other book last year. It’s as if he’s spent the last 15 years jotting down droll aphorisms and non sequiturs, and then tried to cram as many of them into the story as possible, with the barest reference to context or relevance.

Since Coupland also has no qualms about padding out his narrative with found text, like a too-cool Bryon Gysin (page 10 is the phrase ‘ramen noodles’ on apparently infinite repeat; 213 to 228 comprises nothing but prime numbers), I am unashamed about filling the rest of this post with the author’s best one-liners. In fact, this could be the basis for a Random DC Aperçu Generator, but the existence of such as beast is so archly Couplandesque in itself that I’m not sure it doesn’t exist somewhere in his fictional world. (A self-parody of a self-parody? The mind reels at the upitsownarseness of the concept.)

Anyway, here are some slivers of JPod that would have adorned my school folder were I currently 17 years old, although, come to think of it, maybe kids don't have folders. OK, here are some slivers of JPod that may at some point end up in that oh-so-self-consciously-deadpan zone just under the blog title:

I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel. | The buzzword is so horrible I have to spell it out in ASCII. | It’s like casual Friday at the Asian Studies department of a Midwestern university. | I suggested North Korea should change its name to something friendlier, more accessible. | Greg tells me that all you eat is Doritos and fruit leather. | En route to Costco, I was phoned by John Doe for details on an upcoming Tetris tournament, but we got sidetracked and ended up discussing work. | Drinking Zima is something Douglas Coupland would do. | I wanted to pretend I was living inside an Archie comic. | You’re always making these ironic comments that don’t quite work. | Sim City? That’s pretty vanilla, John. | Everyone looked awkward, as if Angela Lansbury's aging collie dog had noiselessly passed wind. | Haven’t you noticed how nobody ever allows their forearms to be exposed here? | If I ruled the world, every day would be a Thursday. | I caught Evil Mark licking his stapler. | In the future, everybody will mime to the Backstreet Boys between ironic fingers on YouTube for 15 minutes. | I’ve come to the conclusion that documents are thirty-four percent more boring when presented in the Courier font. | Is it so wrong to like toast? | You look like the host of a faltering Japanese game show. | Carrots coast through life. If they were any colour other than orange, they'd be extinct by now. | Toblerone's not just for mini-bars any more. | Wears yellow-lensed Fendi sunglasses that make him resemble a repeat sex offender. | This doll is the spokesmascot of Japan's most beloved mayonnaise company. | How strange that all you have to do sometimes to meet somebody is to walk up to their house and ring a doorbell, and magically they appear as if from nowhere. | Acupuncture's one of the few Chinese things that actually works. | I hereby strip you of the ability to perceive cartoons. | Wired? How 1996. | I bought a bootleg DVD of outtakes and bloopers from the making of Schindler's List. | In order to prevent confusion, the 2003 strain of SARS that appeared in China and Toronto is now being called "SARS Classic". | I looked into Coupland's cold eyes; it was like looking into wells filled with drowned toddlers. | I hate guys who flaunt their eighties geek credentials. | We take the unwanted girl babies, dry them out, and then grind them into a powder, which we mix with latex paints to make anti-skid coating for the military's helipads. | Tell me something about mini-bars I probably don't know. | I've already gotten an advance for the novel I'm going to write based on the contents of your laptop. | I honestly don't know how gore websites could exist without contributions from Mexico and Southeast Asia. | What do lesbians have against capital letters? | Just don't try to give a clever answer on any topic at all. | Let's go and buy a statistically average meal from a large multinational restaurant chain. | The plan was to rig the condo lights of a tall, empty downtown tower to simulate the Tetris grid. | I'm so fucking sick of Google. | Dad showed up and got whacked out on Japanese apricot sake and some leftover date rape drug from a Chanel frangrance launch the night before in Hong Kong. | I think I hear the sound of someone who didn't make the high school math stream. | You look like a 1982 liquor store clerk with herpes. | The air smells like five hundred sheets of paper.

Taking a lead from Coupland (see pp 212, 237-8, 331, 352) I've included a line that is not a Coupland original. The first person to identify it wins something branded, worthless and trite.

And please, whatever you do, don't regard the list above as any kind of plagiarism. Rather, it's a meditation on the fluidity of notions of intellectual property in a Wiki-universe. See, Mr Coupland, I am so much more 2.0 than you.

PS: And at CiF, the latest twist in the Danish cartoons saga, and the ramifications for postmodernism in the British legal system.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A way with a manger

Over at The Chasms of the Earth, Patroclus is rightly sniffy about using anagrams as a supposedly clever literary device. The annoying thing is when you can tell that a slightly peculiar name is an anagram, but you can't work out what it's an anagram of.

In The Da Vinci Code it was Sir Leigh Teabing, soon revealed to refer to two of the authors from whom Dan Brown didn't - repeat, didn't - rip off most of his plot details. It's such a daft name, you just know it's got a hidden meaning.

And now Torchwood gets in on the act. In fact, that's an old story, Torchwood itself being an anagram of Doctor Who. But the season finale indicates that this is one habit the scriptwriters can't shake off, as dancehall caretaker Bilis Manger (played by Murray Melvin like a cross between Kenneth Williams and a cobra) is revealed to be an acolyte of the demon Abbadon.

Bilis Manger? Immediately, the biro came out. The best I managed were:






Any improvement on these?

Oh, and it seems that the tabloids have run out of news after just three days: H off of Steps not that into girls, actually, shock horror, says The Sun.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bang, OK

Thanks for all your messages following the bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve. As with September's excitement, life has returned to normal very swiftly. The problem is that nodbody seems to know who was behind it, although General Sonthi Boonrayatglin, the coup leader, has ruled out the possibility that the culprits were Muslim insurgents from the Southern provinces. As he put it, "If southerners came up here to Bangkok they would get lost and wouldn't have been able to escape."

Meanwhile, a more cheery response to 2007 was offered by demonstrators in Nantes. Down with this sort of thing, indeed.

PS: Here's the CiF take on the events of 31/12, as they won't be known.

The Chasms of the Earth: for all your conspiracy schlock needs!