Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Archive for September 2010

Overthinking A Plate Of Brains

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I have written about zombies and velocity before but I haven’t written as much as Christopher Thorne. He’s just published ‘The Running Of The Dead’, a 9,000 word essay on the political philosophy of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Zack Synder’s Dawn Of The Dead and fast zombies. Admittedly, the first 2,000 words of this essay is a rather sloppy introduction to Hobbes but then we get to his moment of epiphany after watching Synder’s remake of George A Romero’s 1978 classic:

I was completely wrong. It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre. I find this utterly fascinating. It seems like a small change, little more than a tweak, like defragmenting your hard drive. And it leaves nothing untouched.

To condense his argument absurdly: slow zombies are about the fear of the state and society whereas fast zombies are about fear of the absence of the state and society (hence Hobbes). Over the final half of the essay, Thorne then contends that 28 Days Later deliberately subverts this:

the movie that for all intents and purposes created fast zombies, was already the movie that demystified them. The subgenre stands permanently indicted by its own author and source. Boyle’s movie is not the progenitor to [REC] and Quarantine and the Dawn remake and Justin Cronin’s vampire-zombie novel The Passage; it is their accuser, the one that calls them out on their despotism and aufgehobener race-hate.

It is an enjoyable if strained and rather hasty essay. (Via MetaFilter which has additional discussion.)

Written by Martin

7 September 2010 at 16:12

Posted in criticism, films

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‘Johnny Mnemonic’ (1981) Vs Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

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This is the opening paragraph of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for. If they think your crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myelf; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers – all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.

And this is the opening text from Johnny Mnemonic, adapted by Gibson himself and directed by Robert Longo:

Second decade of the 21st Century.
Corporations rule.
The world is threatened by a new plague: NAS
Nerve Attentuation Syndrome, fatal, epidemic, its cause and cure are unknown.
The corporations are opposed by the Lo Teks, a resistance movement risen from the streets: hackers, data-pirates, guerilla fighters in the Info Wars.
The corporations defend themselves.
They hire the Yakuza, the most powerful of all crime syndicates.
They sheath their data in black ice, lethal viruses waiting to burn the brains of intruders.
But the Lo Teks wait in their strongholds, in the old city cores, like rats in the walls of the world.
The most valuable information must sometimes be entrusted to mnemonic couriers, elite agents who smuggle data in wet-wired brain implants.

That is quite a contrast. With Gibson’s original story, the game is afoot. Initially we know very little; we don’t know who the narrator is or where or when the story is set. But we can tease things out. We know the story is concerned with technology, we know it is important not just how things are constructed but how they are marketed (“Adidas bag”), we know the story is set in a world where a shotgun is arcane. We know violence is planned, we know our protagonist is smart, we know the world is hard. The whole techno-noir tone of the story is set by a single brilliant line: “If they think your crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”

The film, on the the other hand, takes the PowerPoint approach to narrative. Here is fact one, here is fact two. There is a nice, accidental poetry to “like rats in the walls of the world” but otherwise is composed of perfunctory sentence fragments. Before the the film has begun, it has already given the audience the information needed to dismiss it. Scrolling introductory text is never needed in a film: it assumes the audience are stupid; it usually indicates fundamental flaws later on in the film that should have been addressed at source; if a wodge of exposition really is required, a voiceover is always better. This example is particularly egregious because none of the information is actually necessary and the viewer is likely to end up more confused, not less.

I should say that I highly doubt Gibson had any hand in writing that introduction, it smells like the product of an anonymous studio hack. This is Gibson commenting on the film in a 1998 interview:

Basically what happened was it was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its prerelease life, and it went from being a very funny, very alternative piece of work to being something that had been very unsuccessfully chopped and cut into something more mainstream.

There is a huge sense of squandered potential to Johnny Mnemonic; Longo is an acclaimed visual artist – this was his first and last feature film – and Gibson is William freakin’ Gibson. It could have really been something. Wired organised a fascinating conversation between the two prior to the release of the film which features this depressing exchange:

Gibson: That meeting we had yesterday, though, with some of the studio hotshots – I came away from it with the feeling that there were people there who clearly didn’t get it. Who still didn’t have any sort of a clue about what we had been doing all this time.

Longo: Ha! We did a good job! They gave us $30 million and we gave them a movie they can’t understand. All riiighht! [Laughs.] It’s interesting that this started out as an arty 1 1/2-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30-million-dollar movie because we couldn’t get a million and a half.

The joke was on them.

Written by Martin

7 September 2010 at 11:36

The Most Important Meal Of The Day

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I think Hackney must be approaching cafe critical mass. Kingsland High Street is lined with Turkish cafes, Church Street has got the yummy mummy market covered, Broadway Market has got a bit of everything crammed in there and at the weekend I read that Chatsworth Road has now reached saturation too. Cafes are also springing up all over the borough in less obvious places. Towpath have managed to carve out a cafe in a tiny bit of frontage on the Regent’s Canal, two have sprung up on Wilton Way and now Mouse & De Lotz have opened up at a slightly stranded location on Shacklewell Lane. It has the ubiquitous grey sign and nice, minimal decor and, to be honest, it stands out like a sore thumb. Fingers crossed it lasts because it is a nice place but it wasn’t exactly busy when I went last Sunday (and, although the service was very friendly, I do question the wisdom of insisting that your customers order at the counter when your cafe is empty).

It has an extremely limited menu, presumably through necessity but very much the opposite end of the spectrum to the Turkish cafes just round corner, so I skipped straight to the lunch section and ordered cheese on toast. This was a massive success: two wodges of sourdough, slathered in mustard, loads of cheese, tomato slices humming with worcester sauce and even a bit of chutney as well. When I’m served something like this it makes me wish all restaurants would hack their menus down and pour their love into a few dishes.

Then again, I am a fickle thing; I do like to rove around a menu and there is precious little chance of that here. Mouse & De Lotz strikes me as much more of a coffee house for composing your novel than a cafe for eating off your hangover. Perhaps it is a bit too sophisticated for me which could also be said of Homa on Church Street where I had breakfast yesterday. In a typical Sunday morning outfit of hoodie and stained trousers, I felt decidedly under-dressed. They welcomed me with open arms nonetheless.

The split-level building used to be a basement bar and pizzeria but they have completely overhauled it and now there is a cafe upstairs and restaurant downstairs. I think, I didn’t go downstairs and there there is a slightly confusing sense that Homa is trying to be all things to all eaters (the website is equally vague). Usually this would be a warning sign but I think they’ve pulled it off. It helps that the refurbisment is absolutely wonderful, mixing contemporary with antique in a way that is easy to get wrong but looks so good when it works. So there are high gloss yellow plastic units and dark wood cabinets as well as reclaimed wooden counter with lots of stools and lots of sockets for the manuscript wrestling coffee drinkers.

This aesthetic and the underlying care taken with it applies to the smaller things too. My tea was served in ex-hotel silver (the teapot came from the Ritz, the milk jug from Claridges) which could have seemed pretentious but actually charmed me completely. It was a also a bargain as the pot was big enough to have served two. I then kept with the hotel vibe by ordering egg Florentine with smoked salmon which was another generous portion and perfectly presented and cooked.

If Homa was just high-end hotel breakfast without the hotel that would be good enough but I suspect it is lots of other things as well. I will have to return for a proper investigation.

Written by Martin

6 September 2010 at 16:39

Posted in food

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All Tomorrow’s Hangovers

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Last week I read Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is an excellent example of the post-apocalyptic novel and I’m grateful to the judges for shortlisting it for the Arthur C Clarke Award as otherwise it would have passed under my radar. However, not for the first time, I wondered about the enduring popularity of this form. Why is that when authors from outside the genre write science fiction they invariably produce post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction?

Yesterday’s Guardian featured another pair of these: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shyteyngart, reviewed by Tibor Fischer, and Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, reviewed by Justine Jordan. As Fischer remarks: “another drawback to the dystopian novel is that once you’ve read one you don’t need to read another; ditto the post-apocalyptic novel”. There is definitely something to this, particularly with regards to post-apocalyptic fiction. There is only one story to be told after the end of the world – the struggle for survival of body and soul – and whilst that is a story with a lot of mileage, it is still inherently limited. The equivalent would be if whenever an author wrote about the Second World War they only ever set their story in the gulag.

Another thing that has often puzzled me is the casual conflation of dystopia and post-apocalyptic. Jordan’s review was completely derailed for me by this line halfway through:

Where recent eco-dystopias such as The Road or Year of the Flood conjured an environmental degradation that degrades humanity’s moral sense beyond repair, Amsterdam’s tone is refreshingly unapocalyptic, and his novel is more interesting for it.

I will be charitable and assume that Jordan has read both those novels but I don’t see how the term “eco-dystopia” can be applied to either. This goes beyond conflation to total mischaracterisation: The Road takes place after a nuclear holocaust, The Year Of The Flood takes place both during a standard dystopia of late capitalism and after the release of a bio-weapon which has wiped out humanity but left the planet intact. In the case of Margaret Atwood’s novel there is simply no humanity left to have its moral sense degraded and, whilst there is plenty of moral degradation on display in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, to say it is degraded beyond repair is to miss the whole point of the novel. Jordan opens her review by stating: “Apocalyptic fiction tends to follow an irresistible drive towards vanishing point, the moment the last lights go out.” I would say the opposite: apocalyptic fiction is usually driven by a need to keep the flame burning as long as possible. Despite the brutality of Far North, The Road and The Year Of The Flood not all hope is extinguished and there is a chance that the light will last just a little longer.

Written by Martin

5 September 2010 at 11:46

Posted in criticism, sf

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If Your Life Had A Face I’d Punch It In The Balls

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My review of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010) is up now at Strange Horizons:

Just before I went to see this film, my editor (who had already seen it) remarked that he was somewhat surprised that anyone who hasn’t read the comics has made any sense of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. For the first fifteen minutes I couldn’t see how someone who had read the comics could enjoy the film. After that I found myself smiling and then laughing and enjoying the film on its own terms. But then, for the final fifteen minutes, I once again found the schism between the film and the comics too hard to overcome.

Living in the UK and writing about a US film, it is easy to get gazumphed. In this instance, I dilligently ignored all the reviews only to find, having written my own, that Abigail Nussbaum had already written it.

Written by Martin

3 September 2010 at 08:45

Posted in films

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‘In the Year 2889’ by Jules Verne

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So unutterably boring I was lucky not to slip into a coma. I have absolutely nothing to say about this story apart from thank God I wasn’t born in the olden days.

Quality: *
Hardness: *

Written by Martin

2 September 2010 at 13:30