Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A dodgy dossier for North Korea: Olympus Has Fallen reviewed

All action movies have a philosophy of violence behind them; that is to say an enemy and a justification for fighting them. 

An instigator, a victim and a seemingly righteous retaliation.

Olympus Has Fallen – or Die Hard In A White House – is underpinned by a philosophy of violence which is simple, straightforward and in places positively pernicious. Let me say off the bat that this doesn't detract from the film being something of a guilty pleasure. If you try not to think about it (and close your eyes during the brutal bits) it's a well-directed, tightly plotted slice of pie with a high calibre cast including Aaron 'Gravitas' Eckhart, Angela 'Moar Gravitas' Bassett and Morgan 'Even Moar Gravitas' Freeman.

But it's also a piece of Battle of Dorking-style jingoism which plays like a concert pianist on America's sense of victimhood, anxiety about those pesky furriners and lack of trust in its government.

The high concept plot: the North Korean enemy has struck without mercy at the heart of the country, taking the President hostage, and what can a poor Gerard Butler do but respond with equal prejudice? So he shoots, stabs, strangles, sweats and sentimentalises his way to the rescue, while the Powers That Be provide reluctant approval for his actions from the sidelines. That is, when they're not screwing up their own rescue attempts by ignoring our maverick on the spot.

Geopolitically speaking the timing for the release is perfect. With no-one being sure what the last tragicomic-opera communist state intends to the South and the rest of the world, Assault on White House 13 Olympus Has Fallen provides the cinematic equivalent of a dodgy dossier for North Korea.

Most depressingly, the fifth column at home is motivated by the values of Occupy, railing against the banks and corporate donations to presidential candidates. This is such a bare-faced, jaw-dropping piece of conflation of legitimate protest at home with dictatorship overseas, that if I didn't condemn it as insulting I'd be forced to applaud its cheek.

We'll be moving from the false certainty of conservatives to the confusion of progressives later this week, as we look at Iron Man 3.

Update: many thanks to Denise Atkins (no relation) who tells me that the baddies were actually changed in post-production from Chinese to North Korean. Make of that what you will...

Let posterity record that I once got paid to dress up as a cow

Sunday, April 28, 2013

There's a guest post by me...

... at Stephan Burn's Endless Realms writing blog. It's called Romantics and replicants: Art and escapism with Jane Austen and Roy Batty.

Like many readers of fantasy and SF, you could say with Roy Batty that I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: sorcerers’ apprentices duelling with magic for power and pride; giant sandworms with vacuum cleaner bodies rearing out of the Arrakeen desert; first contact with aliens with names from the minds of heterodox Scrabble players.
If you're interested in writing, check the whole of the blog out - in particular this fine example of Stephan's writing.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Croquet-dokey (and how green groups are or aren't embedded in the community)

This weekend I went up to my girlfriend's home town as her parents were helping to organise an open day at the town croquet club, in aid of the local hospice charity.

Avoiding the perilously complicated association croquet, I sampled straighforward golf croquet, at which I got progressively less bad over the course of the day. I was able to draw on ancient memories of whacking those wooden balls around my gran's back garden. And whadayaknow - some of those old skills came back and it was great fun.

The open day also featured excellent cakes, a bring and buy sale at which I purchased a copy of the Silmarillion for all of 50p (in the wake of my successful re-read of The Hobbit) and of course the inevitable tombola.

I also discovered you could sing about croquet to the tune of JJ Cale's Cocaine...

I enjoyed myself a great deal - but the part of me that always looks at community events with an eye for learning was asking: why aren't we here at things like this?

Or in other words: why aren't environmental charities so embedded in their communities that co-hosting a fundraising event with a local sporting club would be as easy as it would be for other causes?

I don't begrudge them their access at all - yet the fact that we don't get in there nearly as much as the social, health and animal charities says something perhaps a little sad about our status among everyday people.

So, the Magpiemoth challenge to you, o reader, is this: are you a member of a sports or social club who would like to do something with or for Friends of the Earth? If so, you know where I am...

And if you're active in a green group and already gotten all up in the community's face - in the nicest possible way - at an event like this already I'd really like to hear about it.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Too much Twitter outrage makes me want to look at cats

One of the occupational hazards of following a lot of campaign organisations and activists on Twitter is that your timeline can suddenly erupt in white hot anger over something terrible going on in the world somewhere.

Climate change; bedroom taxes; public corruption; private corruption; miscarriages of justice; ...the list is as long as the iniquities of the world.

Twitter's political updates can be informative and a spur to action at least half the time - after all, that's why I follow these accounts in the first place. But unfortunately, I tend to find I have finite reserves of outrage. 

The other half of the time the cumulative effect is enough to make me want to skip through until I can find some soothing pictures of cats to look at. 

Twitter in full-on outrage diva mode is like being in one of those pub-discussions-gone-wrong where people tell you earnestly that something is awful, that the world is doomed, the Government can't do anything right, or that Knightmare wasn't anywhere near as good after they introduced the Eye Shield.*

In other words: the priority is on affirming a particular world view and taking the moral high ground on an issue, not taking action to sort it out.

And then, like a call and response formula in a church service or a political meeting, you get those repetitive retweets bouncing around the echo chamber. I get it, we like to amplify our cause, but too much re-tweeting of opinion pushes the signal to noise ratio beyond usefulness.

Still another similarity to the pub meeting is the tendency of some tweeters to monologue their anger - to use tweet after tweet to hold forth, rather than sticking it all behind the click-through. Justified if you're tweeting live reportage from an event; if you're just venting your spleen not so much. 

So, comrade, some fraternal advice: 140 characters is a creative limitation, not an invitation to spam my timeline.

And then when a monologue gets retweeted tweet by tweet - aieeeeee! It burns, mother!

And I'm an activist, mark you. I should be interested in injustice in everywhere, all the time, right? But  if it's having this effect on me, what it's doing to the less committed? Those tweeters who we want to listen to us, or else we're just talking to ourselves. The people who will probably un-follow you if you wear them out by coming on 24-7 like Cybercitizen Smith.

If Twitter makes us all citizen journalists, then to be heard, it's not enough to be outraged, to feel you're right or that something is important. We need to follow the first commandment of journalism: be interesting. Heck, be inspirational, if you can.  
  • Write in such a way that the people who follow you want to read your tweets, reply to them, and help your cause. 
  • Talk about the actions you take - be the change in the world.
  • Re-tweet your causes selectively not compulsively
  • If you have a lot to say, you should probably find another vehicle for your thoughts and tweet links to it. Unless you're say, Lady Gaga, Piers Morgan or some other global megastar.
Be angry, by all means. But make your anger funny, heart-breaking, compassionate, unmissable and always, always connect it to real world action.

*Knightmare wasn't anywhere near as good after they introduced the Eye Shield. FACT.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The time I was mistaken for a member of the House of Lords - the full story

This is a transcript of text received Wednesday this week on my work mobile, edited to save the blushes of a major media outlet.
Dear Bryony, [redacted] here at [redacted] news. 

We are looking to do a discussion on our programme tonight around climate change, following the unusually cold weather we've been having. We want to ask what this unusual weather means for the climate change debate, if anything? 

Does this mean global warming is not the problem we thought it was? Are we wasting a lot of money trying to fight a problem that's not significant? Or should we still be very worried?

We would like to do the discussion live [...] I understand that you are in Brussels but we have a studio there and would love for you to join us if at all possible.

Thanks very much, [redacted].
I got this text in error because it was intended for ... Bryony Worthington, former Friends of the Earth climate campaigner, now head of Sandbag and Labour life peer in the House of Lords. I can only assume that once upon a time she had my battered old work Nokia and the number is still floating round on someone's database.

Despite the urgings of my Facebook timeline, I couldn't really pretend to be Bryony...

...so I phoned up Ms Redacted and let them know they were barking up the wrong tree and at least half a decade late.

Comedy aside, there's a serious and slightly worrying point that the media jump from 'several months of unseasonably bad weather' to 'OMG maybe climate change isn't happening' in their approach to the issue, which completely disregards what dangerous mavericks like the Met Office are saying about the cold snap. 


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Re-reading The Hobbit: better than LOTR?

To begin with, a confession: I hadn't read any Tolkien in at least ten years until last week.

As a one-time teenage fantasy reader, I'll fess up to the fact that The Lord Of The Rings remains the book I've most re-read. But I feel I've gotten what I need from it now. I'm also worried that I'd see only the character flaws and the ponderous pacing, not the panoramic vision in the writing if I were to pick it up again.

If life's too short to plough through LOTR again, let alone make time for the dead weight of saga that is The Silmarillion, The Hobbit is an altogether different proposition. 

Indeed, having just finished a new edition a friend bought for me, you could make it a case for being Tolkien's best book.

Yep, you heard me.

While it's unfair to pit The Hobbit - a children's fantasy - directly against LOTR, which even if you don't care for it remains (plus attendant scholarship) a staggering piece of work with huge cultural significance, it has less of its sequel's faults, not least because it's much shorter. However, it also stands on its own merits.

Chief among those is a lightness of touch LOTR mostly lacks after the initial chapters, with its dominant epic/grim mode broken up by passages aiming for comic effect but ending up in bathos

The Hobbit is altogether more mock-heroic, with a strong comic reading of the text showing Thorin & Company as semi-competent at best, Bilbo at least as lucky as he is able, and several characters (hello Bombur, the Fat Owl of The Remove Lonely Mountain) purely there for comic relief. Even if you veer towards a more serious, high fantasy take on it, the playfulness of the narration bubbles through and allows for a much more convincing tonal changes than LOTR.*

And how the tale is told is one of the best things about it. Derived from bedtime stories by Tolkien to his children, it reads as if it has been honed and refined in the telling. To put it another way: Lord Of The Rings is a book that has been written; The Hobbit is a book that has been spoken. Like his beloved mythologies, it's a piece of oral tradition that has been committed to paper.

I would also go out on a limb and argue Tolkien writes much better when doing so for a more demanding audience - i.e. children. Any readers of high fantasy claiming to be a tough, selective crowd, raise your hands now. No? thought not... Each chapter in The Hobbit is a clear set-up/encounter/resolution which moves the journey along at a rate of knots, unlike the sequel. Bilbo's interior journey is shallower but not essentially different to  Frodo's, but he learns the same life-lessons in a quarter of the time and returns home, lickety-split.

The Hobbit is Tolkien as a lean, un-donnish, writing machine, and all the better for it. It has faults - the ending feels a little contrived, the poetry is wince-inducing, and it displays the cultural attitudes of your great-grandfather -  but it is a great piece of storytelling with high adventure and a sense of humour about itself.

Better than LOTR, for all its gravitas? You bet.

More Hobbit posts on this blog

Providing precious Hobbit quoteses for Friends of the Earth

Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

* In retrospect, one criticism of the Hobbit film which I've heard from others is that it basically turns the story into the LOTR prequel, tonally speaking, forgoing some of its YA roots and playfulness.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I've finished a story - Swanmaiden's Blues completed!

I am busy finishing off and uploading all my thwarted attempts at writing short fantasy and SF stories and an effort to build up a portfolio. The first one is now finished. So here is Swanmaiden's Blues - be gentle with it.
Believing herself hunted, the Swan prefers to hide in plain sight. So she fits into a scene, like she's done before; she adds a few piercings and brings more black into her wardrobe; dyes her hair a deep orange-red; learns the difference between true and false metal, cult and kvlt. Wears an Angel Dust or Great Annihilator T-shirt when she wants to make a private joke.
Swanmaiden was an attempt at writing a modern fantasy short story I made several attempts at in 2010 and 2011. It's still a little on the Bronte/Tenessee Williams end of the emotional spectrum but it's now relatively underwritten compared with previous unfinished versions.

All constructive criticism welcome. You do not need an account on Fictionpress (where the story has been uploaded) to contribute your thoughts - there should be a free-text box for reviews at the end of the text where you can add your comments.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lemmy: Metal Clarkson or existentialist hero?

Over Easter weekend, I read Lemmy's autobiography White Line Fever - a charity shop purchase, honest! If you've ever read any interview with Mr Motörhead, it's exactly what you'd expect: debauched, hypermasculine, brutally frank and narrow of vision.

It would be easy to write a blog post which catalogued all the accidental Partridge moments in this book.
I think that's what women like about horses - a being so strong that gives in without fighting back ... It won't do the washing up, but that's a small price to pay.
It would be just as easy to cast him as a Jeremy Clarkson figure when he writes things like this: 
In those days, we still had sissies, see. They weren't running the country like they are now.
But the book and the man deserve a (slightly) more rounded perspective. The former is at least a darn sight more entertaining than  Tony Iommi's, the last comparable book I read, probably because Iommi's art is his music, while Lemmy performs his life at least as much as his music.

The man, too, is more self-aware than his reputation (or the quotes above) might suggest. He genuinely likes women, and is a lot more live and let live on equality issues than otherwise.

He's also a self-made man in every sense of the word. After being fired from Hawkwind, he resolved to be master of his own future. Forming Motörhead, he painted his psychedelic amps black and moulded himself into an avatar of greasy, hard-living, toxic-blooded rock 'n' roll. 

And unlike many of the others who trod this path, this focus on a constant state of being rock 'n' roll hasn't been subsumed by the temptations on offer. Not has Lemmy fallen prey to the alternatives of pursuing a quiet life or elevating his music to capital-a Art.

There is only constant, forward momentum - to stop, to doubt, is to be un-Lemmy. And there's something curiously noble about this dedication, in spite of the fact I'd disagree with him about a lot of things.