RIP Adam Yauch, MCA from the Beastie Boys: kids parody ‘Sabotage’

Last week we learned of the sad death of Adam Yauch, a third of the Beastie Boys. Like a lot of people of my generation, they meant a lot to me – and still do.

There are many ways to remember him – I’ve been listening to a lot of the old and new albums – but this one really touched me, funny and sad, too. It’s a parody of the famous and celebrated video for ‘Sabotage’ – but made with kids in the leading roles.

If you don’t know the original, you’re in for a treat.

RIP Adam Yauch.

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Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: an animated version

This is wonderful. I’ve long been a fan of Ernest Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea is one of my favourite of his works (you can find my discussion of Hemingway’s minimalist approach on this blog, here). This lovingly crafted 20 minute animation captures it beautifully.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6079824527240248060&hl=en

Courtesy of the excellent OpenCulture website, where you can find another animated version.

Naomi Wolf on Madonna: we apologize

Naomi Wolf writes on why Madonna receives such vehement criticism for her work. Having admitted that Madonna’s film W.E. was ‘far from perfect’, Wolf goes on to suggest the reasons why the singer and director attracts such hostility:

The reliable media theme of “Hating Madonna”, whenever she steps out of her pretty-girl-pop-music bandwidth, is so consistent that it deserves scrutiny in its own right.

Why can the press just not wait to hate Madonna at these moments?

Because she must be punished, for the same reason that every woman who steps out of line must be punished. Madonna is infuriating to the mainstream commentariat when she dares to extend her range because she is acting in the same way a serious, important male artist acts. (And seizing the director’s chair, that icon of phallic assertiveness, is provocative as hell.) She is taking for granted that she is allowed to stretch. This is intolerable, because Madonna has not done the sorts of things that allow women of immense talent to get “permission” or “to be liked”.

What is so maddening? She does what every serious male artists does. That is: she doesn’t apologize for her talent or for her influence. What comes across quite profoundly when one interviews her is that she is preoccupied with her work and her gifts – just as serious male artists are, who often seem self-absorbed. She has the egoless honesty of the serious artist that reads like ego, especially in women.

Madonna is that forbidden thing, the Nietzschean creative woman.

I’m not sure this is true of everyone and I know it’s not true of me. I think we need to look at something like Everything Bad is Good for You to recognise how far audiences have grown in sophistication. As such, audiences are easily able to separate when necessary the superstar status, the riches, the incredibly successful pop career when assessing a new film. I’ve seen some of Madonna’s films and they are not very good; similarly, I didn’t like her former husband Guy Richie’s films (to mark a convenient point of comparison) either.

It’s difficult to prove a precise ‘external’ influence when assessing a work’s reception. Even when we look at a director’s or writer’s ‘psychology’ we need to be careful when over-ascribing its effect on the work. Similarly, it’s difficult to link the pervasive inequality faced by women to encompass an attitude by an entire industry, or wider still, the entire audience. It may be true; but the kind of bald assertion we find here (necessarily, given its a newspaper piece) serves to undermine those who think they deal even-handedly with the things they see, read and listen to – which is everyone.

One way of tackling Wolf’s assertion is that there are examples of powerful women who are adored (as Madonna was for so much of her career and still is) and think of how men who have been equally successful have been reviled. This kind of necessary and sufficient conditional analysis (as it’s known in philosophy) soon reveals examples that appear to counter Wolf’s cursory reading.

I think we need to trust the audience, ourselves, more and at the same time be suspicious, as Wolf is, of the critical biases and attitudes that critics betray. Little is pure or innocent, few of us are immune from prejudices. Certainly there’s some sparkling commentary on this article of Wolf’s and so I’ll leave you with one from GregUS, who captures that odd sense of feeling one should apologise for something someone else may or may not have done:

I can’t remember ever hating Madonna, so I can’t apologize for hating her, and I’m very sorry for that. I apologize wholeheartedly for being a man who isn’t apologizing. I firmly resolve to do something for which I should apologize, since a good pro-feminist new man should always apologize for something.

I will plow my car through a mailbox, in front of a patrol car, when I know a female officer is on duty. I will apologize profusely to her and to you.

Now do you like me? I apologize if you don’t.

Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 2 – Larkin and accumulation

Philip Larkin

In the first part of this three-part series, I wrote about the use of what I call ‘simple’ allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending. In this second part, I turn to a ‘complex’ allusion, where the novelist discusses ideas of accumulation, growth and loss by referring – indirectly – to the poetry of Philip Larkin.

Unlike our ‘simple’ example of allusion, where the author’s name – Stefan Zweig in this case – is referred to directly, the reference to Larkin is not direct and he is not alluded to by name. Despite this, I think we can learn a great deal about the themes of loss, accumulation and growth by thinking about Larkin’s work when reading The Sense of an Ending.

A key theme of the novel is that addition – of a lover, a job, a car and house, etc – needn’t mean a positive improvement. This is also a central preoccupation of some Larkin’s poetry, who I claim is indirectly referred to as ‘the poet’ in the novel, as we find in this extract (my emphasis):

‘He took his own life’ is the phrase; but Adrian also took charge of his own life, he took command of it… How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. As the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.

Here, I take ‘the poet’ to refer to Larkin and the poem in which he ‘pointed out’ this idea to be ‘Dockery and Son’. Here is the key section from the poem (the poem needs to be read in full to make complete sense):

[…] Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of […] how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

The narrator of the poem, like Antony in the novel, compares himself to a peer and what he finds is that addition, rather than ‘increase’, means dilution. It is a compelling, counter-intuitive idea that is captured in Larkin’s brief lines and which is explored more fully in Barnes’ novel. Barnes, like Larkin, not only challenges the very things that we ‘accumulate’ – people, things, memories –but like Larkin, disputes the very idea of accumulation as a profitable gain.

The path that Antony follows is one that many of us take: we approach life without guidance from a series of carefully-considered plans, and go on to make decisions as the opportunity arises; rather than seek out new horizons, we continue on our path of least resistance. This is why Adrian is significant a character in the novel and for Antony – he takes ‘his own life’, which literally means suicide but also suggests he takes control, makes conscious decisions rather than fulfil our obligation in the status quo. Larkin again, from ‘Dockery and Son’:

Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

The notion of ‘hardening’, that almost physiological image, reminds us that accumulation may as equally lead to a stopping heaviness as well as a comfortable ballast. Larkin used a similar image in ‘Afternoons’, a poem that laments the loss of innocence and energy of whose lives have become unravelled by time:

Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

The imagery of a person ‘thickening’ brings with it a sense of solidity; it is a comfortable state but a stagnant one and the weight of accumulations ties us to that very lethargy that removes from us the ability to shake off the weight of our encumbrances and start afresh. We’re tethered by our accumulations, like a balloon; they clip our wings.

I call these examples ‘complex’ because they do not directly refer to a specific poet or poem in name but they do share a more than coincidental connection to some of the themes. That is – it is complex because it is a significant theme, or motif, that runs throughout the novel. Referring to another treatment of this theme – by, in this case, the ‘poet’ – helps develop the meaning and effect of the allusion. It is true that the reference is short and does not reappear in quite this manner again. But it is a theme that lingers throughout the novel grows in complexity as we read on.

In the final part, I will discuss the ‘resonant’ allusive relationship between The Sense of an Ending and the work of literary criticism which shares its name.

Coda – accumulation and responsibility, from Sex Lies and Videotape

The notion that addition meaning dilution is not uncommon. In Steven Soderbergh’s film Sex Lies and Videotape (a deeply ‘intertextual’ film, in that it depends upon other films for effect), James Spader’s character Graham Dalton explains why he is reluctant to look for an apartment in this clip. Dalton finds the addition of keys – symbols of responsibility and security – an undesirable dilution to his freedom.

 

These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

tashapotamus
#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.

 

That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…

 

Above and beyond irony: Madonna and David Foster Wallace

Madonna on stage

Years ago, around about the time that sub-culture was dominated by an ironic distance, evidenced by grunge and Nirvana and Linklater’s ‘Slacker‘ and Coupland’s ‘Generation X‘, pop-culture’s Madonna said the most remarkable thing. At a concert she called out to the audience of actual and wannabe teens and said something like this: “Don’t let irony get in your way. Irony can mean not trying. You’ve got to try.” As equally as Cobain’s ‘When I was an alien / Cultures weren’t opinion’ from ‘Nevermind’ impressed me, so to has Madonna’s call to action moved me. She’s on to something. I’ve always been saddened by those who adopted the ironic distance that implies: ‘I could, but I’m not going to’; made suspicious by that that coolness which suggests: ‘Now that you and the rest of the world like it, it’s so over’; felt uncomfortable by those who would mock rather than make. It was easier to stand back, shake the head slowly at the naivety and sentimentality, grin that sad, knowing grin – and walk away.

David Foster Wallace speaks so eloquently on the withering effects of irony that it’s a wonder I didn’t just stand back and leave it to him (although without the mocking and knowing grin). In the BBC Radio 4 documentary on Wallace, it’s suggested that his time in self-help centres for depression and addiction contributed to his hostility towards irony as a cultural and especially literary approach that undermines truth and authenticity.

This entire documentary on Wallace is informative and inspiring, but at 18.00 minutes there begins a short discussion of irony, starting with a reading of his in which he describes the ironist as ‘a witch in church’ in the group of recovering alcoholics:

His fiction, and especially ‘Infinite Jest’, is a way of exploring that tension created by the desire to move beyond irony and yet retain a protective layer that shields us from our fears. Wallace says of irony in this clip:

“Irony is this marvellous carapace that I can use to shield myself from seeming to you to be naive or sentimental or to buy the lush banalities that television gives. If I show you that we’re both bastards and there’s no point to anything and I was last naive at about age 6, then I protect myself from your judgement of the worst possible flaws[s] of sentimentality and naivety.” (19:45)

It’s ironic, listening to Wallace who attributes the desire to shield ourself from judgement to popular culture (and television in particular, which he is critical of in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never do Again’) that Madonna should say what she did in the face of irony as the dominant mode of discourse. But she did. And she was right.

Is it safe? Countdown to pain

I had root canal therapy yesterday without anesthetic. That’s right. Read it again if you have to, suck up exactly what that means. Root canal therapy without anesthetic. If you’re squeamish, don’t read on.

The reason I had no pain relief was, the dentist told me, that he needed to know when it hurt so he could stop. He pushes thin needles into your root canal, you see, and if he goes in willy-nilly because I don’t feel a thing, he could push too far. When the anesthetic wears off, I’d certainly feel it then. I thought it was a good idea then, and I think so now: my dentist is an excellent one, and I trust him completely.

So he said – I’m going to do six things – and most of those left me reeling in sharp, breath-taking but happily short-lived agony . His was a countdown to pain, the relief felt at one completed annihilated by the anticipation of the next. Needless to say I grabbed his arm and begged him to stop. I have never, I am certain, felt pain like it. Now I know how The Marathon Man felt.

There are some events in life, small moments, that makes us almost instinctively repeat a phrase or gesture. Often these rituals are funny ones. So, for example, when I press my foot on the pedal of the rubbish bin and the metal lid makes a clang – I feel a knee-jerk reaction to exclaim: “The Emperor has arrived!”, as if the sound of the bin were nothing less than the emperor’s gong.

Today I feel I’ve added another one. Whenever I go to the dentist again, I know I’ll feel an almost uncontrollable urge to say: “Is it safe?”