Don’t Get Me Started: X&HT Didn’t Watch Never Let Me Go

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This is not a review. This will not be fair, or balanced, or even particularly well informed. It will be full of spoilers. I’m not here to measure the virtues against the flaws.

I’m here to talk about the idea behind Never Let Me Go, why it patently, clearly doesn’t work and how dressing up a core SF trope in literary clothes is a dirty trick.

The story, as brought to us by the chronicler of the English mind Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in an England where cloning for body parts is legal and accepted. Of course, we’re not told that all at once. Instead, we’re introduced to the student body of Hailsham, a secluded boarding school. They are your usual bunch of artsy upper-middle class wet sponges, who flop about making doe eyes at each other, without the faintest idea in their heads that something is remiss here even when teachers keep bursting into tears and rushing out of the classrooms. They are educated, sent out into sheltered accommodation, and when the time is right, harvested. All of which they accept with a stoic, bovine acquiescence. There’s no sense that they can escape their fate, that they can find a life outside their defined role.

The idea of a society that would openly sanction or even allow organ harvesting is intriguing, and leads me to wonder what that world would look like. It would be a very different place.. The very idea that we would tolerate bags of spare parts that looked like Keira Knightley wandering the streets is one that takes a bit of a stretch. We’re squeamish at the best of times. We allow factory farming because it is convenient, cheap, and above all out of sight. The butcher’s counters at Tesco tend not to have attached abattoirs. Let’s face it, if scientists came up with a talking cow, the numbers of vegetarians would spike overnight

At the end of the story, Hailsham is revealed to be a failed experiment – an attempt to show that clones have souls. It’s never made clear why the school was closed. Was it that, like Philip K. Dick’s replicants, the Hailsham kids don’t show emotions, but rough approximations, fakes, large-scale autonomic reflexes that just happen to look like fear or love? Or, more likely, that the clones are indeed human, and that we don’t care? That if the program were to be shut down then the crisis that forced us into the position of creating the clones in the first place could reoccur, putting society back to square one? All of these questions are never addressed, which is a shame, because the society in which Hailsham exists deserves a second look. Never Let Me Go seems to depict us reverted to a slaver’s past, a time when we could quite easily look on certain creeds and colours as resources, as tools. But we never see this world beyond the narrow focus of the Hailsham kids, and they’re all too drippy to give a toss about.

None of this is new, of course. The nature of humanity is a core concept in SF. One of the formative books of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, deals with that very issue. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep brings us Roy Batty, rebelling against his nature and destiny to find his humanity despite the cruellest of barriers – a shortened life span. The Clonus Horror, a 1979 SF movie takes the whole idea of clones and organ harvesting and gives it a pulpy spin. Michael Bay’s 2005 clunker The Island takes the same tack, mirroring the Clonus story so closely that it led to a lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement. Both films pitch the clone factory as a conspiracy that, once revealed, brings the whole edifice down. Never Let Me Go doesn’t bother with that kind of closure. The characters simply shrug and carry on, plodding onto the killing floor with uncomplaining docility.

The primary disconnect for me comes from the idea that the clones need to have feelings and emotions in the first place. Surely if we have the technology to create something like that, it would be far more cost effective to make them obviously non-human. It’s just the organs we want, after all. Build something with a rudimentary brainstem, or the capacity for self-awareness of your average squirrel, make it mobile enough that it can feed and water itself without the ability to run away, and there you go, job done. If you can sort out a resealable zipper so you can pop out the organs you need, so be it. A farm animal, effectively.

Or, if we absolutely positively have to have intelligent, self-aware bipeds, we could quite easily condition them to embrace their position in life, so that they see their eventual sacrifice as a good thing. I’m thinking the way the lower classes in Huxley’s Brave New World are so happy with their lot that the idea of rising above their station fills them with nausea. I’m thinking the Ameglian Major Cow from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, so happy with it’s fate that it cheerfully points out the best cuts to potential diners. The one problem I always had with Duncan Jones’ masterful Moon was that Sam had to have memories of his “past life”. Why would he not simply be conditioned to be happy where he was, even to the point of tidying himself away at the end of his “shift?”

I can deal with Never Let Me Go, just, barely, if I look on it as a kind of satire both on factory farming and a very British kind of stoic resignation to one’s fate. Otherwise, it’s simply too ridiculous a concept to take seriously. The idea hangs together if you treat it as a life-extending plot committed by the rich and powerful that will be busted and brought down by our clone heroes. But Ishiguru ties a Swiftian-style Modest Proposal to a very English love triangle, and it’s simply too unwieldy a prospect to float. The fact that it’s been sold to the public as a love story from the writer of The Remains Of The Day is dangerously close to misrepresentation. It’s a bleak account of a particularly nasty kind of dystopia that doesn’t even have the guts to give the audience a dose of closure.

Needless to say, I won’t be seeing this one. I think a rewatch of The Island might be in order. There’s a film that knows it’s stupid.

The Chain Of Life

I gave my bike a little dose of love yesterday. A good dose of lube, a bit of a wash down and de-rust, a fresh tube on the back tyre. The poor old thing gets dreadfully neglected for the amount of abuse it gets, and it’s quarterly wash and brush up is quite literally the least that I can do*.

I try not to make it look too shiny though. I lock up at Reading Station when I’m at work, and a bit of protective colouration goes a long way to making sure that the thieves keep their mitts off my wheels. Hence, although I often swoon over the gorgeous machines at AW Cycles on the Henley Road, I know in my heart that I couldn’t use them. I’m not a competitive or leisure cyclist. My four-year-old Ridgeback Motion is a mode of transport, simple as that.

You notice things on a bike that simply pass most other people by. The state of the roads, for example. Last year’s brutal cold snap took place not long after a fairly major resurfacing project in Reading – a surface that simply hasn’t held up. The side roads, in particular are drastically potholed and cracked. My Ridgy has no suspension. You feel everything. I bounce around on the saddle so much that it makes the bell on my handlebar ring*.

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Our friend here is not in the bike lane. For obvious reasons.

Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we had a decent and consistent cycle lane policy. The bike lanes around here are badly-thought out, and have a tendency to merge you into traffic or simply disappear just when you least expect it. Or, in the case of the lanes around the Vastern Road rail bridge, they abruptly cut off with whacking great stop signs. Pedestrians grumble about cyclists on the pavement – in this case I simply have no option.

Ah, pedestrians. They walk in your bike lane. They wander out in front of you. They run out in front of you. They never look where they’re going. I’ve noticed this more and more over the past couple of years. I suspect, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that it’s connected to the fact that so many people are plugged into iPods and other devices when they’re out and about. With a soundtrack in your head, you become invulnerable.

They’ll still look out for cars. The mass displacement of half a ton of steel bering down on you must trigger some latent impulse to at least look around before you step out on to the road. If you’re on a bike, you’ve got no chance. If they’re texting while they’re walking, the temptation would be to plow into them anyway. I know riders that do that just to prove a point.

The problem is that when I’m off my bike, I’m guilty of exactly the same crimes that I’ve just bitched about. I dreamily amble around, letting stories and characters flit through my head, barely hearing the scream of brakes and curses from behind me. In Amsterdam, a true cyclists city, TLC and I both nearly ended up in someone’s front forks. I really thought I knew better, but it seems that as soon as I’m off the saddle, my spatial awareness goes to pot. I’m as bad as everyone else, bitching at cyclists on the pavement when I’m on foot, at pedestrians in my way when I’m on two wheels.

Some things never change. Pedestrians hate cyclists. Cyclists hate drivers. Drivers hate cyclists. Cyclists hate pedestrians. The chain of life continues, unending as the loop round my deraillieurs.

*The more waggish members of the Readership who might postulate that I’m not talking about my bicycle here are filthy minded reprobates – and that’s probably why you’re here. Fair do’s. Carry on.

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Undercooked: the three types of food TV

Cookery shows have very little to do with the fine art of gastronomy. They’re aspirational, set in the kitchens that we want, in the houses we dream about. If you try making a dish out of the recipes shown on these shows, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come a cropper. Either that, or the washing up afterwards will be of biblical proportions.

I reckon there are three different kinds of cookery shows. First, there’s the celebrity chef show, which is as close as you get to a standard cooking sketch these days. They take all their cues from the master of the form, dear old Keith Floyd. Four or five dishes will be prepped in a modicum of detail. If there is shopping to be done beforehand, the chef will go to a picturesque deli in an upmarket street, and definitely not Asda.

There will be very little chopping. Some of the ingredients will be in bowls, in tiny dice. Everything will be impeccable. There will be no limp mushrooms or half open packs of bacon here. The kitchen will be spotless, and the size of an aircraft hanger. The chef will waft through it all, airily informing you what a simple mid-week supper a samphire and duck liver souffle can make. Oh, and the word supper gets used a lot. The only supper I’ve ever been interested in is the one that comes out of a chippy.

Then we have the travelogue, where the chef goes on holiday and cooks a few meals along the way. Wacky transport will be involved here – giant RVs, motorbikes, barges, specially adapted VW campers. Inevitably, the cooking sketches are either on a beach, a harbour or in a town square. The food will be cooked on a tinpot gas range, and there will be tame locals on hand to taste whatever comes off that grill and mildly insult it. There will be lots of shots of very pretty scenery. it will be very nice, but faintly dull.

At the bottom of the barrel there are the reality shows. These attempt to redefine cookery as combat, pitting one chef against another in an orgy of ego, tantrum and spilt dairy. There will be lots of fast cutting and sweaty closeups. The host will frown a lot.
The music will be better suited to an action movie, and there will be a pause before the winner of the show is announced that lasts for the length of the last ice age. They have as much to do with cookery as The Weakest Link, and are about as entertaining. Except Iron Chef. That’s so lunatic that it’s crossed over into genius.

Delia is the exception to the rule, but she’s more of a national institution than a cook these days.

Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss whether it is actually possible to get decent cooking tips from a TV show. Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of grub has made me a bit peckish. I’m off for a zebra carpaccio with smoked green tea foam on rye. So easy to make, you know.

The Tax Hike: something to talk about

I'm proud to say that I was one of the thousands that contributed to get this poster into papers and onto the sides of buses.

As the tax rises start to bite, the question that is
starting to be asked more and more is not “How will this affect
me?” but rather, “Are they necessary in the first place?”

That’s a
pretty good question. Tax hikes and cuts to essential public
services will save some money. But chasing down big corporate tax
evaders and getting them to simply pay what they owe will pretty
much clear the deficit with none of the pain.

It should of course
be noted that the pipsqueak that put these austerity measures into
place sees no problem in dodging tax himself.

“We’re all in this together.” Really. I’d love to see the wallet-tightening measures in place at Dodger Osbourne’s house. One less serving of swan a week, perhaps.
The most excellent website False Economy has come up with a handy
guide to the hikes and cuts, and why they’re not just unnecessary
but potentially suicidal. Chillingly, the economists and financial
experts that contribute to the site note that there’s a country
that has recently tried austerity measures almost identical to
Dodger’s. That country is Ireland, and we all know how well they’re
doing at the moment. At least the press across the water knows how
to call out a government that can’t help but run a thriving economy
into the ground.

The False Economy primer can be downloaded from their site here. Please, download, read, learn and share the knowledge. We are being lied to. It doesn’t have to be this way.

2011: Calling time on The Hootenanny

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Hang on, lads, I know just what that 4'33" needs...

I realise that Jools Holland’s annual dose of comforting musical cheese has dropped below the radar of a lot of so-called serious music critics, but I still find it worthwhile of a little attention. TLC and I don’t do The New Year Thing, choosing instead to stay in, cook (fish pie), watch a movie (Hot Tub Time Machine, beer-spittingly hilarious) and doze out in front of that good ole boogie woogie pianna.

This year, something went wrong, and I switched off at half past twelve. The exact point? Halfway through Roger Daltrey’s painful version of Mannish Boy, backed by the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. This was the moment where I got heartily sick of every other bloody song being a bad cover version from the band with a “special guest” who more often than not turned out to be … another member of the band.

Now, they’ve been pulling this trick for years. It’s fine, especially as the quality of musicianship in the Orchestra is so good, and includes some genuine legends. But the balance was so fatally skewed towards them that you have to ask the question: where was everyone else? Bellowhead and Vampire Weekend were fine when they could get a word in edgeways. Plan B was fine. He was smart enough to stick to the singles, and delivered them with energy and verve. And that was it. Everything else just blurred into an endless, major-key exercise in ho-hum.

In times past, the Hootenanny has grabbed my attention by the star power of the guests they could bring up, or by the sense of discovery and surprise they could bring to an essentialy mainstream music show. Later… is still the best place on telly to catch the greats along with exciting new voices, and I still think the Hootenanny should reflect that. This New Year’s Eve, it didn’t. It felt, smug, outdated, and fatally caught up in a net of nostalgia. Alongside the endless tranche of old soul and R&B, the new acts were for the most part looking backwards rather than forwards. The Secret Sisters, two sweet Nashville gals, were doing nothing that the Carters hadn’t done fifty years previously. Rumer was another one of those chantooses that Joolsy seems so enamoured with, spooling out smoky Dustyisms in a creamy contralto. It just all seems so… lazy.

Look, the Hootenanny has given me a lot of pleasure over the years, introduced me to a ton of new music and been the soundtrack to innumerable New Year’s Eves. I’m disappointed, and I hope the “will this do?” exercise I was subjected to this year doesn’t happen again. It’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t watched it to the end, and I’ll be wary of doing so again. It’s a low down dirty shame.

(Pic courtesy The Telegraph)

Tron and The Conspiracy Of Surfaces

This post contains discussion of the plot
and characteristaion of Tron: Legacy.

Consider this to be your Spoiler
Warning.


I’m prepared to be an apologist for Tron: Legacy. I am, after all, the
perfect example of the film’s target audience. I clearly remember
going to see the film as an impressionable 15-year-old, and going
to an arcade afterwards that ACTUALLY HAD THE TRON GAME. I was a
late convert to the unsetting pleasures of girls. I drooled over
lightcycles instead.

So, for the most part, I had no problem with the reboot (yes, I’m going there). Tron
is perfectly tooled and cheerfully blatant nostalgia bait. The
acting is significantly better than in the original. The cast do a
sterling job of playing the absurdities of the plot and dialogue
absolutely straight. Apart from Michael Sheen’s green-screen
chewing performance as the treacherous Zeus. Ziggy meets David
Frost. Jeff Bridges somehow gets away with being The Dude again,
and Olivia Wilde plays action pixie girl Quorra with the right
level of crush-inducing flair.

The film sports a perfectly serviceable script that hits the right beats at the right
time. The characters are properly motivated and have a bit of
depth. And I like the idea of the villain of the piece being a not
very good copy of the star. CLU is the creepy new textbook
definition of the Uncanny Valley, and I applaud Digital Domain for
not getting it right.

I mean, I’m under no illusions. Tron: Legacy is rubbish. There are some supremely dumb
bits and longeurs. It’s over-long, and over-earnest. But the
original had what Leading Man Clive called “plateaus”. I, being
less charitable, consider Tron to be a film of one half that slows
to a crawl when Flynn and Tron reach the portal. Legacy is pacier,
prettier, and understands the audience. The little nods to the
earlier film and to eighties rivals such as WarGames made me
smile.

So why, then, did I walk out of the BFI IMAX with a frown and a headache?

It’s that bloody stereoscopy again.

Tron: Legacy should be the perfect film for 3D. It is a film about transparent
surfaces, of action glimpsed through slabs of glass, of characters
framed through the empty centre of discs. It It provides us with
the illusion of depth.

This is, in essence, my problem with the 3D process. It’s the “deck of cards” effect. There is no real sense of depth and solidity. Instead elements in the frame are
placed in a series of flat planes, much like a toy theatre where
paper cut-outs are slotted in and out of a proscenium arch. This
isn’t such a great idea when all you have to play with is a
close-up, and the nose is on a different plane to the
cheeks.

There are tricks to make this less apparent. Selective
focus becomes vital. Objects that we are supposed to perceive as
being further from the viewing plane are carefully defocused in
post. The problem is that this is frequently misjudged, especially
in shots where you are looking through windows, or in the case of
Tron, transparent walls. There are innumerable shots where
characters will walk towards camera and stay in focus throughout.
It’s as jarring as the split-screen effect used to keep two actors
sharp when they’re at opposite ends of a room.

3D claims to be a technique for enhancing storytelling, for involving the viewer more
deeply in the story. All it does is constantly remind you that you
are watching a 3D film. Things are shoved in your face – sort of.
Things rocket overhead – kind of. You have to wear a silly pair of
plastic shades. And then you have to pay extra for the privilege.
Tickets for the IMAX set me back £15, and got me a seat that was so
close to the screen that my eyes were watering after ten minutes.
And I can tell you, it’s disconcerting when odd eye-protein amoebas
start swimming around in the imaging plane and bumping into Jeff
Bridges. I can see a situation where you’re asked to pay extra
extra for the seats in the central sweet spot of the
range.

The sad thing is, that IMAX projection does a much better
job of allowing you to lose yourself in the image. 3D depends on
the proscenium arch effect, pushing elements backwards and forwards
from a flat imaging plane, the screen. An IMAX image is so big that
it extends past your field of vision. You are engulfed in the
picture. You are not being poked at, or peering through a window.
You are inside the picture, and it’s an utterly overwhelming
experience.

A reminiscence. There was a fairground attraction when I
was young that involved a 70mm film of a rollercoaster ride
projected onto the inside of a canvas dome. You stood in the dome,
gripping rails that had been driven into the ground. You needed
them. When the film started, the huge image fooled the brain into
thinking that you were on the ride, and you tilted and swayed
accordingly. No specs needed. You were elsewhere, and it was an
amazing ride.

Much in the same way as The Dark Knight moved between
35mm and Imax to pull the audience into the action sequences, it
would be interesting to see what would happen if, rather than 2/3D
to show the differences between our world and The Grid, Kosinsky
had chosen to shoot the Grid in IMAX. Imagine that first shot of
the Recogniser coming down through the clouds suddenly filling the
whole height of the cinema.

I think you know where I stand on 3D by now, Readership. I find it distracting, irritating and until my eyes settle it simply doesn’t work for me. I spent the first 45
minutes of Avatar thinking that there was either something wrong
with me, or that some pranker had swapped the lenses of the glasses
over (if you do this, according to Mark Kermode, the 3D is
cancelled out. Might have to try that).

I’ve given it a try, and I can now state as a New Year Resolution that I will never
see a film in 3D again. It’s a fake, a parlour trick, a conspiracy
of surfaces that makes a poor shadow play out of the most immersive
form of entertainment there is. 3D adds nothing to a film, and in
my opinion distracts from its pleasures. I was quite prepared for
Tron: Legacy to be a bit of silly fun. I walked out of the cinema
feeling both frustrated and disappointed, for reasons that had
nothing to do with the film.

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Also, I look ridiculous in the glasses.

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Early CGI tests were not promising.

I have a review of Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time up at MovieBrit, in which I am not entirely complimentary. Not at all complimentary, in fact. As WDW, who runs the site, is a massive Gyllenhaalic, it’s good of her to run it uncut (although she couldn’t resist the temptation to adorn it with lots of pics of the man with his shirt off. I guess that’s what you call editorial input). Anyhow, go read. It’s one of your five-a-day of snark, bile, angst, over-reaction and humbug.

The fun starts here.

More fun here – a reminder of why Prince of Persia was the most frustrating game I’ve ever played!