January cultural update

This year began on an island with no internet and plenty of time for reading and DVD watching, so January gets off to a big start.

Books

Player One Douglas Coupland So I read this in no time flat. And mostly really enjoyed it. It was engaging and interesting and entertaining and maintains some of those lovely observations of humanity at which Coupland excels. It also weaved some interesting ideas and themes through the narrative, which were thoughtful. Overall I think I found it more enjoyable than JPod, which while wonderful in parts I found a little too self-indulgent. My main criticism is that, in the final chapter, the book suddenly became preachy and over-determined. I just didn’t think some aspects of it were necessary – it felt like one of those American television programs which can’t leave things implied or at the level of metaphor but has to spell everything out in tedious exposition. Sometimes I think authors just need to trust their readers a little more.

The Ask Sam Lipsyte After travelling to Port Douglas and Brussels to no avail, this book was finally read on Kangaroo Island. It is brittle and clever, funny and repulsive, frustrating and compelling. I think the fact that Milo the central character is not always completely sympathetic adds to the sense of frustration, but it itself mirrors Milo’s own frustrations. It made me laugh out loud and contains some wonderfully sharp and insightful commentary on the current cultural and social condition in Western society. But it does it in a wonderfully absurd and unpreachy kind of way. While it does veer into the absurd, it does capture some things wonderfully well – in particular the relationship between Milo and his son and the randomness of children of that age. Occasionally confronting it is nonetheless well worth the read.

Excession Iain M Banks Part of the on-going project to re-read all the Culture novel.The least dark of his novels (well, at least one of the least), it contemplates the ideas of the ends justifying the means, the nature of conspiracy, personal morality and its consequences and how we deal with the unknown. Fascinating and clever in the way it brings the Minds of the ships to the core of the novel. And surprisingly easy to read on this re-read.

Wishful Drinking Carrie Fisher This auto-biographical story of her life clearly betrays its origins as a stand-up stage show, and I think it would have been helped with a bit more reworking. Its structure is a bit too random for a book and many of the lines would clearly be a lot funnier with the appropriate delivery. I have read Carrie Fisher’s fiction before and she is a better writer than this – it seems like a lazy attempt to rush something into print. It is nonetheless quite a fascinating story, particularly the descriptions of her childhood, and very easy and quick to read. The hard-core Star Wars fan might be a little disappointed though as there isn’t a lot of inside gossip in it for them.

Television

Generation Kill Watched this over a couple of nights and now have the urge to go and watch all the Iraq war films there are out there and write more about them. I might also expand on this elsewhere, however for a start I will say that this was cleverly crafted television which captured the confusion and craziness of the war and which provided an interestingly textured view of the marines involved. Fabulous performances too. It was interesting to see the individual anguish over civilian deaths, but the systemic problems which ensured that these things kept happening. It also showed the frustrations of incompetent leadership. It was interesting to compare it to other combat genre films – it hit many of the traditional combat film tropes, but also expanded on a number of themes which emerged in Vietnam films and beyond. But I think that is a separate post. And for those of you not interested in the finer aspects of the combat genre, Generation Kill also has Alexander Skarsgard! With his shirt off! And he smiles! And we all know the smile of Alexander Skarsgard is a beautiful thing to behold. But he is all serious and thoughtful as the leading character also. So highly recommended if you are at all interested in combat films, the depiction of the Iraq war, or Alexander Skarsgard.

True Blood Season 2 This was a rewatch, done over several nights in a row, which I think was a good option. I think I enjoyed it more this time around. I still think its greatest weakness as a season is that the Bill-Sookie-Eric aspect of the storyline is more a supporting act than the main feature, but this time around I found the Maenad story less annoying. Michelle Forbes is so wonderful in the role and so seductive that you can rather understand how she sucks in a whole town, magical powers or none. And the Jessica parts of the series are an understated delight. The main strength of the season is still the Light of Day Institute parts and Jason’s story, but on rewatching I found it more balanced overall. We could always do with more Eric though. It just made me wish I had season 3 handy to start rewatching, but sadly, this was not the case.

Better off Ted Season 1 So this is very funny. Funny and funny in a clever way. Sometimes a stupid clever way, if you know what I mean. In fact, it is probably the most consistently funny thing I have seen for a long time (Weeds and Modern Family notwithstanding). Its take on corporate advertising and identity is hilarious ( I still want to show the “bosses” one to my staff). The other really cool thing about the show is that, even though the characters could be easily be straight caricatures, the narrative manages to make them well-rounded and genuinely likeable. Even Veronica, the apparently heartless boss. Who Portia de Rossi plays brilliantly. Watched the whole series in about two sittings, so it must be good.

Movies

Black Swan Intense and compelling, its isn’t really “enjoyable” in the normal sense. A fascinating portrait of obsession and psychological imbalance. To me, the over-riding theme would seem to be that what is needed to succeed in an area as intense and obsessional as ballet will also destroy you. Fantastic performance – Natalie Portman is amazing. Although plastic surgery has not been kind to Barbara Hershey, somehow her distorted face fits perfectly with the distortion of her world. She carries off this complex and not entirely sympathetic character well. Overall, not for the faint-hearted.

Atonement The film does something which one most needs a literary adaptation to do – be faithful to the overall feel and intent of the novel, if not scrupulously the same – but I think it goes beyond that and uses the benefits of the film genre to the best purpose to make this a truly wonderful cinematic experience as well. The design is fabulous – the green dress which Cecelia wears is stunning in its colour and texture, while Briony’s white dress is beautiful and captures her youth and lack of understanding. Some of the shots and cinematography is absolutely marvellous too – the long continuous tracking shot through the exquisitely designed Dunkirk shows what cinema at its best is capable of. The film is of course horribly tragic and sad, but it is aesthetically wonderful and, as such, I highly recommend it.

Arlington Road As I may have mentioned before, I love a good suspense thriller. This was not one of those. Poorly paced and at times somewhat boring, a relatively unsympathetic main character was just not helpful either. Tim Robbins was appropriately creepy, but Jeff Bridges really has gone to the Al Pacino School of Overacting. And why didn’t he show any interest at all in the wife. It was unlikely and unbelievable, though it was a little redeemed by the ending and twist (though I did see part of it coming).

Games

Carcassonne While this is hardly a new game, and one that the grown ups of the family have played before, it finally entered our household at Christmas, as something that we thought the small boy members of the family might (eventually) be able to play. It has turned out to be an instant family hit, with even the 4 year old proving quite adept. Using logic and puzzle skills means that everyone can play in a meaningful way, even if their strategy isn’t always flawless. Highly recommended if one is looking for a game one can sit around and play with both the youngest and the eldest members of the family.

War on moral relativism

From http://www.the-medium-is-not-enough.com/2008/07/review_generation_kill_1x1.php

Towards the end of Generation Kill one of the marines observes that they have done their bit, while another notes that if they had been back in the US and had done what they had done, they would be in prison for the rest of their lives. Thus is the central dilemma of Generation Kill and, it would seem, the modern (Hollywood ?) soldier.

Generation Kill is a new(ish) take on the well-worn combat genre. It picks up many of the tropes of the combat film as particularly articulated by Jeanine Basinger (The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre 2003); we see two mail call scenes; there is a particular focus on equipment; the enemy are mostly distant, unseen and can strike at any time and so on. What I find is interesting is the extent to which the series picks up the themes of the 1980s Vietnam War films – the confusion of war; the confusion of purpose; the killing of civilians and, very strongly, the theme of the incompetence of officers. It also draws on the idea strongly expressed in Black Hawk Down that the rationale for fighting is not necessarily for the wider good but is “for the man beside you.” Unlike Black Hawk however, motivation is not that simple, and each marine has a slightly different set of reasons which have brought them to the frontline of the invasion of Iraq.

Picked up is also some of the black comedy of films about the first Gulf War, particularly Three Kings and Jarhead. In both of these films there was a strong focus on the confusion of these wars, on the sense that the American forces were largely wandering about aimlessly in the desert with little real strategic purpose or mission. There is a fair bit of this in Generation Kill with the humvees rolling combat-less from one abandoned mission to the pointless seizing of an undefended airfield. There is a touch of the black humour of these films, though it is rather more tempered than in either of them.

One of the very interesting aspect of the film is how it deals with the (rather large) number of civilian casualties the platoon we are following racks up. It is clear that the more seasoned soldiers find it appalling and wrong, but they are also clearly hardened to it. The wrongness is not generally expressed in a sense of moral anguish, but in terms of the self-defeating nature of it, the way that it undermines the purpose of what they can achieve. I think that what we are presented is not the sense that they don’t care, but the way that it is necessary for career military to process these deaths to maintain their own sanity. They also seem to hate the unprofessionalism it represents; it is poorly done work and this disappoints their pride in their own role, their work as “warriors”. But there is a moral element to it – when a young shepherd is shot and the “Godfather”, their lieutenant colonel is not willing to “cas-evac” him to the nearest trauma centre, some of the seasoned soldiers bring him to the tent next to the Godfather to die, exerting moral pressure on the Godfather who then allows the evacuation. These are not unthinking baby-killers, even if they are inadvertent ones.

Nonetheless, the approach to the civilian deaths is just a bit too glib at times. Tremont, the youngest of the soldiers, gets the moniker of “Whopper Junior” to highlight his status as a baby-killer, and his fellow soldiers can’t help but admire his aim. Tremont has to be given a speech by the Gunnery Sergeant about the fact that Iraqis are people too. When another soldier kills a civilian at a roadblock because he fires without orders he is traumatised; but his lieutenant assures him that he “has done nothing wrong” when clearly his crack in concentration has resulted in a death. I wonder if the show gives the marines a little too much of a free pass at times regarding the civilian casualties, but it does also show the way that the Rules of Engagement and the pressure to follow orders, no matter how ridiculous, leads to these things. In this way Generation Kill offers a significant critique of the entire military effort; we see the RoEs go from only firing on clearly hostile and armed targets to essentially free-fire within days. And the priorities of the most of officers are clearly whacked – the Godfather seems obsessed with proving that they are “on the general’s radar” while Captain “Encino Man” gives orders without any thought for the implication for the men.

The roles of Encino Man and “Captain America”, the incompetent lieutenant who freaks out in every battle, fires of captured enemy AK-47s at random and attempts to bayonet captured soldiers on at least two occasions, echoes the theme of weak or incompetent officers which is apparent in a number of the mid-late 1980s films about Vietnam. This increases the idea that the men really have only themselves and each other to rely upon, a theme which has grown in strength in combat films particularly since Black Hawk Down. This idea helps to remove the politics from the arena of the soldiers, but this depiction of politics in the post Gulf War one era is different from that of the Vietnam era films. In these films the politics was often considered satirically and dismissed or viewed as completely irrelevant. What we see in Generation Kill is not a dismissal of the politics, even if they are not wholeheartedly embraced. There is clearly an awareness of Vietnam which is apparent in the language used and the approaches taken – at one point when a grateful Iraqi kisses the lieutenant, Ray yells “It looks like you have won some hearts and minds there.” When the marines are told they no longer need to wear their chemical weapon suits, the embedded Rolling Stone reporter notes with horror that this means that the whole invasion is probably illegitimate, however the marines barely notice. Marines like Sergeant Colbert who worry that the approach to the invasion is “fucking it up” clearly have some concept of and belief in the politics driving the war, but it is not discussed in the sense of being zealots for a cause. Many of these men are career soldiers who see themselves as warriors and take pride in their professionalism. They toast their service in Afghanistan which they see as a real war, a war which requires warriors, rather than the disorganised chaos of the invasion.

The bonus of the ensemble cast approach to Generation Kill is that the multiplicity of views and the complexity of the American actions in Iraq can be extensively explored. I think it achieves this, but I also think that the reluctance of post 1980s American popular discourse to criticise US servicemen and women themselves too much – the “love the soldier, hate the war” attitude – is also clearly at work. The US media, even the more liberal side of the media and entertainment worlds, tends to fall over themselves to humanise or even honour serving military, that I think there is a danger that some of the horrors of war are underplayed. The idea that we should not “spit on” returning troops has embedded a reluctance to criticise the ordinary servicemen or women too much. What needs to be remembered is that much of the “spitting on” was mythological or exaggerated, a tactic of the right. Soldiers should not be demonised, but they also shouldn’t be let off the hook for indiscriminately killing civilians. I think we are still struggling to find this balance.

Generation Kill is totally worth the effort (and conveniently is currently showing at 9.30pm on Mondays on ABC 2). It is a modern examination of a modern war, much more alive and real than the stodginess of something like The Pacific with its completely conventional take on the dilemmas of death-dealing.