Cultural Round Up: August

I am currently totally failing to meet my blog-posting/article-writing KPIs for this period of leave from my real job I am having. Anyway, here is a first attempt to address this.

Anyway, here is something cool: If We Don’t, Remember Me.

 Books

Singularity Sky Charles Stross This is an interesting a very readable book which is one-part ordinary spy thriller, one-part wide-ranging exposition on the vagaries of humanity and the nature of revolution. The idea of the Festival – an incomprehensible body which seeks information and in return grants wishes – allows a fascinating examination of the impact of change and disruption on people. The central spy drama is also entertaining with engaging characters, making the book very readable. I love the concept also of the Cornucopia machine which acts as a revolutionary device by undermining the  economic structures of a serfdom based society. Anyway, a fun read with a lot of interesting ideas in it, even if some of them are quite weird.

Winter Holiday Arthur Ransome Set in winter and introducing new characters, Winter Holiday  is a particularly delightful part of the Ransome oeuvre. At its heart are the adventures of children which one could really see happening, as well as some lovely insights into the nature of responsibility. I like the fact that in the book the children aren’t miraculously happy with each other all the time, that the older ones are occasionally annoyed by the younger ones when they do things that younger children do. The children are believable with their own characteristics and foibles, but they are also clever and resourceful in a way you would like your children to be. The new mantra in our house when people complain of boredom: What would Nancy do?

Television

Dexter season 5 This season of Dexter has some very clever writing, some fantastic performance – not least from Julia Stiles – and a deep sadness and humanity at its core. The horror that people inflict on each other is redeemable and understanding and love are central to that dedemption. Overall the season is well written and the central plot compelling – the major side-plot does just disappear at one point without further explanation and I do wonder why it was never resolved in the way one would have expected. But the story of Dexter and Lumen was compelling, as was the story of how Dexter and his family recovered from what had befallen them. Worth it for the acting performances alone.

True Blood season 4 eps 1-10 With only a couple of episodes left, I would like to think that this season could pull itself together and make something a bit more compelling out of the general incoherence which has gone before. I’m not counting on it though. This season seems to have got itself confused with too many characters doing too many things that don’t seem particularly linked or driving toward some central narrative goal. Now that might be what life is like, but it doesn’t make for fantastic television.  Bits of story occur and then end and nothing seems to come of it, and nothing further gets mentioned. The journey that Lafayette and Jesus has been on has been torturous to the point of unwatchability, and ditto Jason. The central Eric and Sookie storyline makes me wonder what is it about season 4s and the need to neuter and emasculate the sexy arrogant male characters (see also Spike and season 4 of Buffy and Queer as Folk and Brian). Anyway, after what I thought was a fantastic third season, this has been disappointing and not nearly as compelling. I hope that before next season they plot it out in a more coherent form.

100 sci fi women #67: Nan Flanagan

Before getting to the topic above, a quick bit of link action. Den of Geek have come up with a list of 10 sci fi performances worth of Oscars. As they note, anything in the sci fi/fantasy type genre is sorely under-represented in any type of award action – generally genres is not weighty or worthy or something. So, worth taking a moment to celebrate some of the performances which really are up there.

Nan Flanagan True Blood

Nan is a women for the modern moment. That she is, no doubt, extremely old, has nothing to do with it. As the face of the American Vampire League, Nan has been at the forefront of making vampires respectable, bringing them out into the open and introducing them to the world. Nan is articulate, intelligent and very skilled at putting fanatics like Rev Steve Newlin in their place. Rarely appearing ruffled, Nan presents a professional ‘human’ face of vampirism to the world. But she is a politician, not entirely truthful, though she is clearly committed to ending the more brutal practices engaged in by vampires, recruiting Bill Compton to this program when she sees that his nature is less savage. She understands spin and the importance of image as she fights, not always entirely fairly, for tolerance and equal rights for vampires. Often she is more worried about the PR damage of an incident, than the actual damage…but then, she is a vampire – and a media hack.  She has a whip-like tongue and knows her own power and how to wield it. An episode of True Blood is usually well improved by her presence within it.

(clip contains season 4 spoiler)

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.

Discriminating vampires

This article contains season 1 spoilers!

Having just watched season 1 of True Blood (no Season 2 spoilers please!), it is clear that one of the central themes of the show is around discrimination. From the opening credits with the “God hates fangs” graffiti, the show is continually engaging with discrimination and it companions of fear, prejudice and hypocrisy.

Naturally, a lot of the discrimination subtext revolves around vampires. As far as I can tell, this is a relatively new trope for vampire depiction (and I must admit I haven’t seen or the read the Twilight books so I don’t know how they deal with the idea of vampires being out in the open). Shows like Buffy and most traditional vampire fiction involves the vampires being unambiguously evil. And in Moonlight the vampire thing goes without too much drama. However, I would be interested to hear of other situations where this idea as vampires-as-minorities is utilised.

But back to True Blood. So there is a strong thematic element of discrimination around vampires. The background discussions of the vampire rights act frame this idea about the way that vampires are treated and their minority status. They are also clearly persecuted by the police as we see the police raiding Fangtasia and the sheriff immediately assuming vampire involvement in crimes. What does, however, make this discussion of discrimination rather more complex is the fact that the vampires are, in fact, dangerous and guilty of some of the things people assume they are. Bill himself kills and covers up crimes and points out that vampires have become very skillful at covering their tracks. The murder of the anti-vampire preacher and his family underlines a certain ruthlessness, and we clearly see that vampires themselves are even more bigoted against humans than humans are against them. The idea that Bill could be harshly punished for killing a vampire to save a human, shows the disdain with which vampires hold humans. So while the humans are clearly not in the right, neither are the vampires innocent victims of discrimination.  The argument that Bill tries to make to Sookie, however, is that humans also kill for all sorts of ends, including political, so why should vampires all be judged for doing so. In essence what we see is the argument that each vampire must be judged on his or her merit. The fact that more vampires seem to be bad than good does not negate the wrongness of discrimination. Just because the bigot may be right more often than he is wrong, it doesn’t mean he or she is always right, and even being wrong once, makes the prejudice unfair and wrong. We should never judge a person just because they belong to a particular type or class of people. It is more challenging to force people to consider not being prejudiced against the morally dubious, than to always make discrimination about the less powerful as it creates some extra moral challenges.

This is reinforced by the fact that those who are bigoted are warped, hypocritical or stupid. And in most cases anti-vampire discrimination is linked with other forms of discrimination.a Rene’s murders of women involved with vampires shows both a misogynist and anti-vampire bent; the rednecks who burn the vampire nest are also show to be homophobic as is the hypocritical politician-client of Lafayette.

Lafayette though seems constructed entirely to be about prejudice. While Tara as angry-black woman often articulates issues of racism, the Lafayette presents another in control, morally complex character who is the focus of discrimination. Black and gay he is the anti-redneck. And we never see him as a passive victim of discrimination. When he licks the hamburger bun of the rednecks who complain that their burgers might have AIDS because he cooked them, he takes control. Just as he does when he confronts the hypocritical politician who has sort the stimulus of V – vampire blood – from Lafayette but had to make do with a head job before he gives a speech where he condemns both vampires and homosexuals. Lafayette is on the margins, but he does not allow this marginal status to control him.

Between African-Americans, homosexuals, “loose” women, vampires and shape shifters we see a constant stream of prejudice and hatred in True Blood. In season 1 the program does not, however, resile from the condemnation of this discrimination, even when acknowledging that, in some cases, the judgement resulting from the prejudice may, on occasion, be founded. As an exploration of prejudice, this, I think, makes True Blood more powerful and more thought-provoking.