27.4.09

Liberalism and Religion

Terry Eagleton has written something very interesting over here. It points out the central difficulty of the liberal approach: 'you must be properly intolerant of assaults on tolerance'. How does a liberal state deal with individuals and groups opposed to liberalism, such as radical Islamists?

Eagleton is (according to his wiki) the most eminent literary critic in Britain. So we should take his opinion of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie seriously. But do they all 'tout a brand of western cultural supremacism'? Do they all reduce Islam to 'a barbarous blood cult'? Are they really unconscious 'of the national injury and humiliation' that underlies Islamist terrorism? I'm skeptical. These writers are too intelligent for such tabloid short-sightedness.

But I would be skeptical, wouldn't I? For I subscribe to the atheist 'creed' and am emotionally and intellectually obsessed with the idea of progress - democratic, egalitarian, liberal. Naturally, I don't see this as anything to atone for. Am I a Western supremacist? I guess I am, depending on the values we choose to define as 'Western'. The developed world is responsible for liberal democracy and human rights, and also racism and slavery. I deplore the latter, and uphold the former. Socialists and radical Islamists seem to tie the two together. Eagleton may be making the same mistake.

I'm not sure. I am confident that if handed the reigns of power, Richard Dawkins is not going to abolish religion, knock down churches and persecute priests. We are liberals, we respect freedom of conscience. What all the above thinkers are doing is engaging in a vigorous public debate, and attempting to win it. They tolerate religion. That doesn't mean they have to support it.

24.4.09

Role-Playing Games

Many golden eras ago, I recounted my first contact with the alluring world of computer games. I was very lucky, for the first two games I encountered, quite by chance, turned out to be famous and critically acclaimed masterpieces of their respective genres: the turn-based strategy Alpha Centauri, and the sword & sorcery role-player Baldur's Gate. My promise to talk about the latter has long gone unfulfilled, now I shall finally turn to it.

But not yet. First, I want to address my experiences with cult classic, and the granddaddy of all RPGs, Diablo II. I got the game off a friend fairly recently, having long been aware of its reputation - it's huge! It's addictive! You're fingertips will have eroded away by the time you complete it! So I was excited.

And I ended up disappointed. The game launched with a long, visually impressive (despite its years), but ultimately incomprehensible cut scene, setting out the story. It's a sequel, and perhaps those who have played Diablo I would understand what was happening, but I was at a loss. Next, you pick one of six possible characters as your avatar, and you're off. Missions are terribly simple: kill everything in your way. This requires little in the way of skill, but great amounts of frenzied clicking at the various hordes of nasties that attack you on sight. Having got through the first area, after much wetwork, I was presented with another incomprehensible cut-scene. On the other side, I found myself in a desert, which called for exactly the same m.o. At that point, I gave up.

The problem I had with Diablo was that the endless repetitive tasks I had to go through were not rewarded with cogent, enticing developments in character, plot or world building. It seems strange to talk about such things in relation to games, but in RPGs they are essential. Diablo gave me one character (a Barbarian) who reacted to his environment in the simplest of terms. He possessed no inwardness, and had no relationship with the identikit mercenaries you are allowed to hire. Moreover, his story was quite detached from the unfolding drama in the incomprehensible cut-scenes. It had no momentum of its own.

I contrast this with Baldur's Gate, where your avatar is the motor for a story that moves into wider world developments and comes to dominate them. You become emotionally involved in what is going on from the very beginning. Most importantly, your character isn't alone. Baldur's Gate provides a score of distinctive personalities that can join your party as you go on your adventures - Clint Eastwood clone Kivian, endless pessimist Xan, nervous wimp Khalid and the incomparable Minsc and his pet hampster Boo (GO FOR THE EYES!). These NPCs have clever scripts and can interact with one another. They have backstories and individual voices. In short, they possess an inwardness. You can work your imagination onto the models provided by the game, and fill in the blanks, You can see them sitting around the campfire, or trading insults, developing relationships. I believe this is the particular appeal of Role-Playing Games outside a computer, although I've never played them. They give you a world and the mechanics to generate plot, and then the players can get to work on imagining and building the characters that walk through it.

I got to the very end of Baldur's Gate, following the engrossing plot and exhausting every side quest along the way. The final battle I found impossible to complete, but it didn't matter. I had hacked the game to unlock the final cut-scene, acquiring the final piece of the story. For me, the gameplay wasn't the thing (although games always have to get that right). I needed to find out what happened next.

This may be why I had less success with Neverwinter Nights. First of all, the game design, like Diablo, was boxy and didn't feel real. More importantly, your party is restricted to you and a mercenary. So while you can overlay this single relationship with whatever your imagination desires, it's ultimately less engrossing than having six personalities to play with, as in Baldur's Gate. I could sustain interest only by hiring each of the available mercenaries in turn, and unlocking every part of their backstory along the way. This wasn't enough. Approaching the second big set-piece battle I lost interest in the main plot and gave up.

I want to end by mentioning the only RPG I have played that has matched, indeed exceeded, Baldur's Gate. I speak of Planescape: Torment, which I borrowed off another friend (it's good to have friends!). Visually, the game is extraordinary. While keeping a medieval tone, the design of the environments and species is awe-inspiringly weird and wonderful. It takes it's fantasy seriously. Next, the NPCs not only hint at an inwardness, they have carefully scripted moral values and philosophies. The plot is immediately gripping (starting with you waking up on a mortuary slab with no memory and a talking skull for company) and constantly surprising and engaging. Finally, the game has actual themes. Don't ask me what they were, I haven't played it in years. But I remember walking away from it amazed.

I guess the point I have been making (perhaps I've already made it) is that brilliant games require more than just addictive tasks and rewards, like say tetris. They need brilliant writing and design. The worlds and characters they create need to engage our imaginations, so that we actively seek to fill in the gaps the creators have left. The best games build worlds which we want to explore, encouraging us to interact with them to a much greater degree than the requirements of simple gameplay.

18.4.09

Poem

Shakespeare wrote a sonnet (129) about masturbating teenagers! Say what?

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Critic extraordinaire Harold Bloom says that this is actually his finest of all the sonnets, in which case I've been unforgivably crude. Sorry about that...

16.4.09

Let The Right One In

Film critics are a jaded bunch, it seems to me. It's not really their fault - they have to sit through a lot of awful movies. So when something so strikingly original as Let The Right One In comes along, the near universal praise is unsurprising. I'm not sure the film quite deserves this level of hype. It's very good, but it's not amazing. Peter Bradshaw gives a fine summary of what to expect here.

That said, the idea propelling this film is inspired. The girl-vampire Eli completely dominates Hakan, her middle-aged father/lover. She needs his support, but it's clear that she is weary of his failures. He is old and useless, and she ends up consuming him. A disturbing picture of filial or romantic loyalty, wouldn't you say? This is in some respects counterbalanced by Eli's new relationship with Oskar. He is captivated by her. She protects him from the sinister boys who bully him, and she provides an escape from his unsupportive parents and the early-80s poverty he lives in. But there is a disquieting undertone to all this. She is initially attracted to, and works to encourage, his revenge fantasies. We are also very aware of her capacity to manipulate - the way she tricks her prey by pretending to be hurt. Her risking death by entering Oskar's home uninvited is an overt demonstration of her devotion, but in fact she almost forces Oskar to accept her by playing on his infatuation and good nature. That scene ends with her straddling him, demanding that he see the world through her eyes. It looks an awful lot like a brainwashing.

I'm not saying that Eli doesn't love Oskar. If she didn't, she would have simply taken one of the many opportunities to kill him. It's just that her love for him, as her burnt out love for Hakan, is vampiric. She eats away at her lovers until nothing of their former lives remain. The love between Eli and Oskar is sweet and moving, but it always retains a sense of tension. This is most brilliantly captured in the scene where they kiss. The action is obscured, and we fear that Eli may actually be sucking Oskar's blood. By the end of the film, the two elope into a Bonnie & Clyde existence. This would be a comforting romantic happy ending, except that we have already glimpsed a foreshadowing of the couple's future - Oskar's fate may well be the same as Hakan's. Love can be both achingly beautiful, and savagely destructive. You have to let the right one in (see what I did there?).

Not amazing? That sounds pretty great to me! Well yes. The problems come when the film gets involved with the lives of a bunch of secondary characters. Granted, some of the most off the chain moments involve this group, but they are a distraction from the love triangle at the heart of the piece. They could easily have been cut out. Also, on a personal note, the arthouse letting-the-camera-do-the-work approach is effective and creepy, but I dislike equivocation. I wanted the film to be blunter and more in-your-face disturbing. I hear Hollywood is already planning an English language remake. If they don't chicken out of the pessimistic take on love which is the centre of this fairy tale, we may end up getting an even better film than the one the Swedes have made. On the other hand, how likely does that sound?

Hey Joss, if you're not doing anything...

15.4.09

Amy Winehouse

About a week ago, I was casually absorbing the second half of the Queens of British Pop documentary. Not a lot was actually absorbed. Apart from the extraordinary Annie Lennox, the incomparable Kate Bush, and the subject of this here keyboard-bashing exercise, I didn't much care for the selection of artists the program covered. I mean, Geri Halliwell? Really?

Anyway, the documentary was followed by a BBC recording of an Amy Winehouse concert, which I stuck with out of inertia and faint feeling of dread. For you see, I have sampled bits of the Winehouse Show before, and it was a somewhat uncomfortable experience. You may know what I'm talking about. First of all: visuals. Amy Winehouse is four years older than me. And yet she sports the look of a 46-year-old drag queen, complete with pin-up tattoos on the arms. This is not aided by her awkward, stumbling movements on stage - those skinny legs in those high heels struggling to support the giant beehive hairdo. Then there's the vocal performance. On record, Winehouse manages to contain her warbling within the parameters of beat and rhythm. A soul singer should never be entirely confined by her environment. Winehouse certainly isn't. Nevertheless, in the studio her vocal is focused enough to make the punchy pop of 'Fuck Me Pumps' work. Notably, that track - a standout on her debut album - is not on the set-list. Live, Winehouse's words are loosened, stretched and distorted over the efficient foundations provided by her backing band. Through all the noise, their meaning becomes difficult to decipher. I found this frustrating.

But not on that night a week ago. Nothing had changed with the Winehouse Show. Beehive was in place, the whine as distinctive as ever. But this time I finally got it. Around that time, I had been listening to, and loving, Van Morrison's first album Astral Weeks. His vocal was strikingly similar to Winehouse's - the emotional wail stretching out syllables, with little heed paid to the rhythm thumping beneath. But Morrison is riding some transcendental Romantic high - nature, romance, campfires and off into the mystic. Winehouse slurs her words because she's drunk. And she's drunk because she's fucked up (her words, not mine). During the concert, she tells the audience (in her surprising Soufgate accent) about the very painful nature of her songs, and how it was weird to belt them out at a roomful of strangers. She's completely right. It's indecent. Distorting her lyrics may be her way of dealing with this uncomfortable, embarrassing situation.

But there's more to it than that. During the rubbish documentary, Winehouse's father was interviewed, although his daughter was not. He revealed something quite vital. Winehouse was raised on a diet of jazz and Frank Sinatra. Her debut album - Frank - is named in honour of him. Her father described how Sinatra performed his songs with an air of sincerity that made you believe he was really feeling what the words in the songs described. Winehouse is doing the same thing. But there is a crucial difference. Sinatra was an actor, his performance was an act. With Winehouse it's real. Her lyrics are hers. They directly express what she herself feels. And those feelings, as previously stated, are very private and painful.

Winehouse can't do this kind of honesty in concert. She faces away from, or stares through, her audience. She doesn't perform for them. Instead, singing transports her back to the situations and emotions that inspired her songs. And she relives them for our entertainment. On 'Rehab' she stands straight-backed behind the mic stand, arm on hip, glaring at some invisible accuser (her father?). On 'Back To Black' she's crouched knees to chin, staring away at the rafters, visibly sinking into shame and despair. She runs through sexy, innocent, damaged, strong, beautiful, ugly, one after another, with breaks where she retreats back into the present, again becoming stand-offish and shy. She is coquettish one moment, before rolling her eyes the next. Her body language maps out the emotional terrain she is traversing. We can't see what she is seeing. All we get are hints.

Her vocal goes through the same process. Her emotional state and the memories she relives, lubricated by liquor, impacts and distorts her singing. The bleats, whines and warbles communicate everything you need to know with a power that words cannot encapsulate. They become unnecessary. Instead we get the noises of the human animal stripped bare, expressing those primal emotions that contain the essence of who we are - pain, fear, loss, anger, regret, joy. The polite applause at the end of each rendition did no justice to what I was witnessing.

Unlike before, I found her performance electrifying. I was watching with rapt attention as she shifted from one state to the next, trying to glean an insight into the inner life that was playing out before her eyes. The cheery reggae number that closed the show felt incongruous with the emotional self-punishment that came before. Winehouse shouldn't do parties. She's the aging barroom entertainer in Altman's Short Cuts, and the only reaction she deserves, apart from sympathetic embarrassment, is awed silence.

7.4.09

Waits on Island

Hard as I try, I can't love all of Tom Waits's songs on his late 1980s Island Records trilogy of albums equally. Of the three, I go with most and pick Rain Dogs as my favourite. But I depart from convention by putting Franks Wild Years over Swordfishtrombones. The latter was a bit too weird for me. None of these albums are perfect, imo. They all have tracks that skirt too far away from the captivating and evocative blues I worship Waits for. So playlist time. I had to kick things off with '16 Shells From A 30.06' which is my personal favourite Waits song and one that captures his appeal immediately. I also had to closes proceedings with 'Anywhere I Lay My Head', which has an appropriate (deliriously happy) finality to it, although it provides no lasting answers. In between, I've tried to mix up the rawkus foot-stompers, the flirty rhythm shuffles and the ballads so things are always unpredictable. This is what I ended up with:

1. 16 Shells From A 30.06
2. Jockey Full Of Bourbon
3. Cold Cold Ground
4. Hang Down Your Head
5. Way Down In The Hole
6. Big Black Mariah
7. In The Neighborhood
8. Clap Hands
9. Yesterday Is Here
10. Hang On St. Christopher
11. Swordfishtrombone
12. Blind Love
13. Telephone Call From Istanbul
14. Time
15. Down, Down, Down
16. Train Song
17. Gun Street Girl
18. Johnsburg, Illinois
19. Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)
20. Union Square
21. Anywhere I Lay My Head

Have that on your boombox while you're slurping bourbon, puffing cigarettes and cradling your shotgun...

6.4.09

W.B. Yeats and Culture

To a Wealthy Man who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were Proved the People Wanted Pictures


You gave but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen's pence
By Biddy's halfpennies have lain
To be 'some sort of evidence,'
Before you'll put your guineas down,
That things it were a pride to give
Are what the blind and ignorant town
Imagines best to make it thrive.
What cared Duke Ercole, that bid
His mummers to the market place,
What th' onion-sellers thought or did
So that his Plautus set the pace
For the Italian comedies?
And Guidobaldo, when he made
That grammar school of courtesies
Where wit and beauty learned their trade
Upon Urbino's windy hill,
Had sent no runners to and fro
That he might learn the shepherds' will.
And when they drove out Cosimo,
Indifferent how the rancour ran,
He gave the hours they had set free
To Michelozzo's latest plan For the San Marco Library,
Whence turbulent Italy should draw
Delight in Art whose end is peace,
In logic and in natural law
By sucking at the dugs of Greece.

Your open hand but shows our loss,
For he knew better how to live.
Let Paudeens play at pitch and toss,
Look up in the sun's eye and give
What the exultant heart calls good
That some new day may breed the best
Because you gave, not what they would
But the right twigs for an eagle's nest!

I'm not sure what 'Paudeen' means, but I'm willing to bet it's not a adulatory epithet. In all, elitist much? Let the ignorant, swinish masses 'play at pitch and toss'. They have no clue where to start when it comes to culture. It has to be imposed from above - a trickle down effect that will eventually ennoble everyone. So hand your friggin' money over, boyo!

Sidetrack: I noticed Yeats's curious way of describing the eventual goal as 'breeding the best' - cultural sophistication is weirdly tied to improving the genetic stock of the race. At the time Yeats was writing, I have learned, such ideas - eugenics, basically - were accepted and stimulated a lot of interest. It's interesting to find a faint echo of this in this poem. But that's beside the point.

How do we feel about Yeats's attitude? Perhaps it's unfair to jump up and down on him all the way from our modern perspective. He was writing a hundred years ago, where literacy was certainly not universal, and cultural awareness/competence could not have been what it is today. Nevertheless, I do feel the poem contains a disappointing lack of regard for low/folk culture, instead aiming to 'look up in the sun's eye' - seek a transcendent inspiration removed from the barren ground around you. Culture is surely more interactive than that. The stuff that bubbles up from underneath can be just as vital as what is produced by educated elites in traditional cultural institutions. Moreover, cultural producers and arbiters cannot be removed from their environment. They are shaped by, and seek to reflect, the hopes and fears of others. Art can only succeed if it targets, or can be interpreted by, a mass of people. The influence from the bottom up is very great. I think it's something that Yeats misses.

I find this idea of cultural interactivity enormously exciting. Personally, I am drawn to cities that have been former capitals of empires (London, Rome, Istanbul). As centres of cultural and religious patronage they would often have an artistic heritage that is greater in quantity and quality. But they would also be places where a huge variety of peoples and cultures clash together, and in the friction between them the chances of getting new ideas and artwork is very great, both in the courts and the taverns.

In the modern world, the internet allows for such cultural interaction on a mass scale. A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend of mine about journalism. Both of us wouldn't mind being paid for wittering on about stuff that interests us. I mentioned how blogging pretty much scratches my writing itch, particularly because there is absolute freedom, it can be informal and your writing doesn't have to be perfect (right..?). But the thing is, I don't get paid for it, as my friend reminded me. On a sudden waft of inspiration, I considered how the future of news could be affected by user-generated content (see current.com and demotix.com). Perhaps paid journalism will get increasingly crowded out by news and comment generated for free by individuals close to the action. Basically, most of modern society becoming active journalists and bloggers. I don't think we should fear information overload - the internet has come up with ways to deal with this (see delicious.com and digg.com).

This may not happen, but I can't help feeling excited about the prospect. It would represent the resurgence of low/folk culture, swallowing up and dismantling traditional formal avenues of cultural exchange - the increased interactivity meaning you get access to more new ideas, information and works of art. We won't be looking up at the sun, but at each other. But this means getting your stuff out there. Confining your thoughts to your own head or circle of friends prevents you from joining a wider discussion with people you don't know who you can learn from. I would encourage you to write, draw, photograph, film, compose, and get it all out there. If it's rubbish it'll fall by the wayside and be forgotten. But if it's something good, then you will find an audience and maybe, hopefully, make them think or change them for the better. The 'right twigs for an eagle's nest' are among us. We just have to pick them up and pass them around.