Sunday, 31 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman needn't prove his artistic worth to anyone. He's written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. For some reason, the 50 year old writer's worried about his heritage, his mortality; he's still trying to show how broad, vivid, inventive his imagination is.

Synecdoche, New York is a vanity project. Kaufman is not entertaining anybody's concerns; he's just telling us all of his own. He is 50; it's time for his pièce de résistance, his magnus opus (not necessarily his masterpiece).

What a world he depicts: a central character insecure, unhappy, unhealthy, deserted by his wife, longed for by a receptionist whom he cannot fuck, admired by an actress whom he does fuck, ... Meanwhile, he receives a generous grant and embarks on a lifetime project lasting 20-25 years, in which actors play actors playing actors (ad finitum). His project becomes a full replica of an NYC cityscape, with the stories of his main characters taking part inside apartments.

An epic imagination; a crazy, fevered desire to leave, make a mark, to have insight; a bleak, nihilistic, vision; a dream.

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Sunday, 10 May 2009

That pig cull


The Egyptian government ordered a cull of all pigs. Western popular opinion sees it as an attack on the Christian minority. That perception indicates more the Western mindset than reality.

The cull

A day or two after the appearance of 'swine flu', the Egyptian government announced it was slaughtering all 300,000 pigs in the country. Initially, it said the measure was a public safety measure. Egypt had suffered about 25 deaths from bird flu, and the government didn't want to be caught out again.

Within about 48 hours, international expert opinion began to come to a consensus that a cull is not necessary, that once the flu has spread to humans, it is more likely to continue spreading via humans, not via pigs. Indeed, there seemed to be an opinion that the mere idea of flu transferring from pig to man is laughable, which it isn't - it is possible.

The Egyptian government came out with a revised opinion: this measure isn't about avoiding swine flu only, it's also about restructuring pig rearing in Egypt. Pigs are not bred in farms in Egypt, instead they tend to be hemmed in with garbage and left to do what they like. These dumps-with-pigs tend to be inside Cairo, surrounded by not far from dense human quarters, in the illegitimate slums known as "ashwa'eyyat" ('randomites', 'vagarites').

This Economist article does a good job of succintly explaining some aspects of the rubbish-and-pigs set-up.

British hypocrisy

I can't say I've conducted a comprehensive survey of British opinion via the media, internet and street opinion, but it was very interesting to me that the story was given an immediate Christian-Muslim angle. "The pigs are reared by Christians, eaten by Christians, thus when the (Muslim-dominated) government orders a cull of pigs, this is clearly aimed at the Chrstians, it's a subtle form of persecution, it's Islamist opinion getting strident and using a health-scare to score 'told-you-so' points. After all, the Muslims don't eat pork because they believe it to be unclean, and so Muslims can now gloat about their religion's wisdom and have an excuse to kill off all pigs."

I live in the UK, so I'll take aim now at British hypocrisy. For a country that culled cows - when there was the mad cow disease scare, a country that undertook an equivalent of a holocaust in the history of sheep (killing almost ALL sheep in the UK) - because of foot-and-mouth disease, I found this particular strand of British opinion to be shameless. So those Egyptians are backward, unscientific, driven by medieval religiousity, but we Brits, we took things slowly, one step at a time, and only escalated to a complete cull when we had no choice. I see.

Same outcome! Human beings kill animals at will: If it comes down to: us or the animals, light up the furnaces.

And let me just follow the logic here: we do NOT want to kill animals in a mass-slaughter fashion because ... ?? We want to fatten them up, and hela-hopp, slaughter them when the market needs them.

It's the synchronised killing that's the problem here. If we could just stagger the process, mix-it-up a little, not have them all scream at the same time, that'd be fine. Spread it out. Maybe Mondays and Tuesdays, and the fourth Thursday of every month. That's all we're talking about here, y'know what I mean?

'Egyptian style'

Incredibly, this is now exactly the Egyptian government's policy. It will spread the cull out over the next several months.

Egyptians have this instinctive understanding (sometimes) of how to stroke other people's egos. Okay, so you're offended because pigs have got nothing to do with spreading the flu? Oh, well, erm, it was an overdue, much-needed restructuring of pig rearing. You guys still not happy? Okay, we'll spread it out, we won't have a bloodbath, promise. Happy? Tell you what, we'll financially compensate the rubbish collectors, and parade a bunch of doctors wearing masks and holding giant injection needles in front of the world's cameras - that should reassure you. Still, no? Okay, get a female lead doctor, let the leader of the medical operation be a woman, and let her talk about all the _humane_ precautions the team's taking. Get all men out of the camera frame, repeat, leave the uncovered, decent-looking, well-qualified female lead to take the full shot. Thank you.

What, still not happy!

PS. Vegeterianism is the solution.

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Friday, 1 May 2009

Same language, different countries

Roger Cohen writes in the NYT about British English.

A good read, that piece, and one that I see is very popular on the NYT website. Americans love Britishisms. So much so, I suspect that many of the words Roger Cohen pointed out affectionately will seep into educated, American middle-class usage.

Meanwhile, the youth of Britain have become more and more at ease with the various youthful Americanisms that they see and hear in the popular media. There used to be a generation of British people that scorned any American usage, they hunted for it and shot it down in contempt. But the young people of Britain, certainly here in London, they're "cool" with it. Like, totally. Duh!

I detect this subtle age-gap thing, where younger English people adapt to, and find cool, any exotic use of their language. Particularly, when inflitrated with Americanisms: the Noo Yewark intonations, the Black-American rhythms of speech, "The Wire" drug-dealers-and-cops talk, mafiosi speak, Al Pacino fuck-you-you-owe-me-a-cadillac explosive delivery, ... these are all welcome, these are signs you're tuned-in.

It's perfectly normal to hear a 20-something in London have a conversation on his mobile (cell, if you must) that goes like this:

- Hey, Andy.
- Wassup dude?
- Cool man, awesome.
- Was just wonderin if you wanna hang out at my place tonight, play some Wii shit.
- Nice, man, nice. Ahahahaha.
- Okay, well sweet, mate, catch you round 8 at my place then.
- Byebye, bahbye, bah.

On the other side of the ocean, I detect an increasing influence of British pop culture. British The Office is seen by many Americans as infinitely more pleasing than the American version. Before there was an American version, Gervais and Merchant had to start a special section of their website to translate the various Britishisms of the show to an ever-so-keen American audience.

Jeremy Clarkson's "Top Gear" is probably as popular in America as in Britain - who'd have thought (I can't stand him)! Clarkson is very contemptuous of popular American culture, but American audiences laugh with him and love him for it. Simon Cowell - need I say more?

A friend who lives out in San Franciso dropped by London recently. We spent a few hours together. He was very complimentary about London, and the "cleverness" of British opinion. To him, reading an article or essay written by a British author, is a more pleasurable and intelligent exercise than one written by a typical American author.

In the past, Britain was seen as a fading power. It was listened to only amongst the elite of the US. But it has regenerated its image. Now it's seen as a thriving livewire of talent and sophistication. And whereas in the past, it sought to separate itself from the US - because it thought itself superior, now it freely mingles with US culture, able to communicate with it, use it, learn from it, and deal with it as an equal, a wealthier, bigger equal.

On the plane from Seattle to New York a few months ago, I sat next to two American guys of about 17 and 19. They were both keen followers of British culture, able to discuss Jeremy Clarkson, Ricky Gervais, Tony Blair with ease and fluidity. Likewise, I keep meeting young British people who have travelled America up and down and are extremely familiar with its popular culture.

It seems to me the cultural divide that Roger Cohen writes of is receding.

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