Archive for the ‘UK – 2009’ Category

*blaring of trumpets*

Solace and Grief

Walking home through Bristol last night after Friday drinks with philosophers, Toby and I had occasion to stop by the waterside and eat a late dinner. More specifically, Toby ate while I, having stolen some of his hot chips, wandered over to say hello to a very patient police horse. His female rider was keeping him at a standstill near where we were sitting, chatting to her three male colleagues, all of whom were on foot. Given that this was a busy part of town at a busy time of night, there was a near-constant stream of civilians wandering past, most of whom stopped to give the horse, whose name was Imperial, a pat on the neck or nose.

As I walked up, two young men in hoodies were doing just this – or rather, one of them was. The other was keeping a nervous distance, fists clenching and unclenching as he bounced on the balls of his feet, clearly wanting to be off. The policemen were teasing him about this, which he took in good humour, but not for the reason I first thought. His friend was content to pat the horse, chatting to the policewoman rider.

‘Is this Imperial?’ he asked. She confirmed that it was. To my surprise, he then asked after two other police horses by name – apparently, this was their usual beat. The policewoman laughed and said that one of them had a new route, while the other was getting old, with a sore back.

‘Sarge will have a plod ’round on him,’ she said, grinning.

At this point, the man turned to his nervous friend and rolled his eyes.

‘Come on, mate – he’s harmless. Pat the horse!’

‘No!’

‘Bloody hell.’ He shook his head, turning to me. ‘Man’s a soldier, and he’s scared of horses. Thinks they have eyes like sharks.’

‘They do!’ the friend insisted. Nearby, the policemen laughed, and I realised this was what they’d been teasing him about. ‘Can we please go for a drink now? Another drink?’

‘Not until you pat the horse!’

‘You’re soldiers?’ I asked him. He reached up and stroked Imperial’s nose.

‘Yeah, both of us.’

‘Where have you been?’

‘Afghanistan.’

‘Well, that sucks.’

He smiled, a bit sadly. ‘Yeah. It does.’ Then he sighed, indicating his mate. ‘Bloody Afghanistan, and he’s still scared of horses!’

‘Come on,’ I said to the friend, ‘look, he’s perfectly safe. Drunk girls are patting him! I’m patting him! Not so long ago, being a soldier would’ve meant riding one of these!’

His eyes widened, head shaking. ‘No way! He’s all…all huge and hoof-y! He’s bigger than me! Can we please just get another drink?’ This last to his fearless friend.

‘Pat the horse, mate,’ one of the policemen said, ‘and then he’ll buy you the drink.’

The soldier looked between them, still uncertain.

‘Go on,’ his friend said. ‘Face your fears.’

He looked at the policewoman rider, and at me.

‘I’ll get bitten.’

‘You’ve got more chance of being bitten by a dog,’ I said, ‘and those are much smaller.’

‘Here,’ said the rider, tapping Imperial’s shoulder, ‘pat him here. Even if he wanted, he couldn’t reach to bite you.’

The soldier closed his eyes, inhaled, opened them again and lunged briefly forwards, arm outstretched to its fullest extent. His fingertips brushed the horse’s shoulder.

Everyone cheered. He grinned, and his mate threw an arm around his shoulder.

‘Come on. I’ll buy you that drink.’

Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.

When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.

When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.

Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one  in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.

Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.

At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.

On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.

Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.

Dollhouse: Season 1

Posted: October 7, 2009 in Critical Hit, UK - 2009

Warning: spoilers and intense geekery.

Hidden underground and spoken of only as urban legend, the Dollhouse, run by Adelle deWitte,¬†is a place of needs and fantasies. Populated by Actives, volunteers whose memories are routinely wiped to allow their brains to be imprinted with new, custom-made personalities, the Dollhouse can provide¬†anything from a hostage negotiator to a dominatrix for¬†any engagement specified¬†by their (extremely wealthy) clients. Kept in a blank, childlike state when not on missions, the Actives are supposed to have no residual personalities – but one¬†doll,¬†Echo (Eliza Dushku), begins to challenge that definition. As FBI Agent Paul Ballard endures the ridicule of his collagues to hunt down the Dollhouse, Echo begins to experience flashbacks to her previous life. What is real purpose of the Dollhouse? What role does the Rossum Corporation play in its operation?¬†And what secrets are hiding in Echo’s past?¬†

What with one thing and another, I only began watching Season 1 of Dollhouse this week, when our DVD copy arrived. I finished it last night, which meant that my efforts at falling asleep afterwards were¬†thwarted¬†by a strong desire to sit and think about the show. From the moment Dollhouse was announced, it has been the subject of extremely mixed¬†reviews: people both love and hate it, but there’s also a strong middle contingent who like the later episodes, but not the first five, or who are resentful of various elements. One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen centres on the fact that Echo, the protagonist, lacks a personality, making it impossible to care about her development. Given that strong characters are a Joss Whedon¬†hallmark, this has also lead to complaint within the geek community that Whedon has abandoned his strengths, and further, to the opinion that many people are only watching Dollhouse out of loyalty¬†to¬†his earlier work – that is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.

Given that I’m a fan of all those ealier shows, and having been knee-deep in negative press since day one, it’s something of an understatement to say that I’ve brought nerves and tredpidation to Dollhouse. I was braced for it to be awful or melodramatic, perhaps after the fashion of the Jasmine arc on Season 4 of Angel, of which I was not overly enamoured. In accordance with the views of various blogs, I was prepared to endure confused plotlines, bad characterisation, a proliferation of¬†unnecessary detective/cop elements, cheesy sets and untenable ideas – not all at once, of course, because everyone percieves things differently, but I was keeping an open mind as to where the flaws would lie. In short, despite my great affection for Joss Whedon, I had donned the mental equivalent of mourning garb. Watching would be like attending a funeral: there would be moments of great beauty and sadness, but overall, the sense would be one of loss, missed opportunity and things gone wrong.

Instead, I loved every minute of it.

The writing is brilliant – wry, wacky, intelligent¬†and with that subtle thread of poetry I’ve come to expect from Whedon’s work. The sets¬†are beautiful. The acting is brilliant, as is the versatility and range of the actors. Superficially, it’s different from anything Whedon has done before, but the soul of the show is built around questions of identity, moral grey areas, the boundaries of science¬†and the¬†essence of¬†human nature, which, quite arguably, are¬†at the core of all his previous endeavours. In accordance with the universal dictum that¬†nothing is perfect, the fight scenes, though choreographed with a certain savage¬†beauty, are irksome. Unlike the equivalent biffo¬†in¬†Buffy and¬†Angel, their length and extreme violence¬†lack the justification of supernaturally strong protagonists. A better move¬†might have been to¬†borrow from¬†Firefly, where the encounters¬†were short, brutal and tended to result in actual, visible injuries.¬†But as¬†gripes go, disliking the fight scenes is hardly pivotal: what matters¬†are the plot and characterisation, neither of which suffers¬†for having Paul Ballard thrown into one too many tables.

¬†For me, there is no truth to the assertion that Dollhouse is a¬†major departure for Whedon.¬†Going back to his earlier shows, it’s easy to see a genuine and prolonged fascination with¬†questions of identity, choice, morality and human nature.¬†Looking at¬†Buffy, the show¬†is rife with scenarios designed to make the audience think about who the characters really are. Though its mechanisms are different – robot copies, soulless vampire dopplegangers, split selves, bodyswaps, magical compulsions and spirit possessions all stand in for the mindwipes and personality imprints of Dollhouse¬†– their purpose is the same: to show us the impact of different¬†personas inhabiting the same body. In the Season 4 episode Who Are You, for example, Buffy and¬†rogue slayer faith¬†Faith swap bodies, allowing each to see how the other is nominally treated.¬†By viewing herself from the outside, Faith literally comes face to face with the truth of her own crimes, such that, when she is forced to attack her own body, she lays into it with a vengeance, screaming obscenities, not at Buffy, who she is osentisbly fighting, but at herself. Compare this scene to¬†the end of Omega, the 12th Dollhouse¬†episode, where¬†Echo’s body plays host to an amalgam of every¬†personality imprint she’s ever used,¬†while her original, pre-Dollhouse persona, Caroline, is downloaded into the body of a random girl.¬†Echo tells Caroline that, in signing up for the Dollhouse program, she has effectively abandoned herself: that the person speaking is not a person at all, but only a ‘porch light, waiting for you to come home.’

Angel, too, plays similar games with our notions of identity. In Season 5, Fred’s body is hollowed out and ultimately stolen by the demon Illyria over the course of two episodes, A Hole in the World and Shells. Fred’s soul is destroyed, but Illyria still has access to her memories and can, indeed, mimic her behaviour exactly, forcing¬†a constant¬†evaluation of¬†her own identity. At the same time, Fred’s lover, Wesley, finds himself constantly haunted by the physical presence of the woman he loved. Illyria is drawn to Wesley, and offers to become Fred in¬†order to comfort him, but Wesley refuses: it might be the same body, he says, but¬†Fred’s soul is gone, and anything Illyria offers him is a lie.¬†By contrast,¬†Episode 9 of Dollhouse, A Spy in the House of Love, sees a lonely Adelle trysting¬†secretly with Victor,¬†having fallen in love with one of his imprinted personalities. One poignant scene has Victor suggest the two run away together:¬†Adelle knows this is impossible, but still talks¬†longingly of a world¬†without clocks, where it it just the two of them.¬†The pretense ultimately proves too much for her: by the end of the episode, she¬†orders the beloved¬†personality shelved, all while watching Victor, now in his doll state, walk obliviously by.

It’s harder to make comparisons with Firefly. Not only was it shortlived, but it was also a different sort of show, arguably constituting a greater thematic departure from Buffy and Angel than Dollhouse has done, though certainly not in any negative sense. Even so, the episode Our Mrs Reynolds still manages to provoke questions of identity, when Saffron, ostensibly a naive¬†young woman, stows away on Serenity, claiming to have been¬†married to Mal the night before in payment for the crew ridding her settlement of bandits. As things turn out, ‘Saffron’ is a highly trained conwoman and assassin: her transformation from one persona to another makes for a fantastic twist, but also serves to highlight the difference a change of behaviour makes in our perception of the same person. To all intents and purposes, ‘Saffron’ never existed – like Echo’s personality imprints, she was a means to an end, but that doesn’t mean¬†there’s noting¬†underneath. More generally in Firefly, the technology used to turn River Tam into a psychic is an interesting predecessor to the Dollhouse chair. Both are tools with an immediate, illicit¬†application linked to¬†the murkier, higher purpose of a shadowy organisation: the Rising Sun Corporation in Firefly, and the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse. Given Joss Whedon’s penchant for naming all things with a purpose, the phonetic similarity hardly seems a coincidence.

To my way of thinking, the most powerful Dollhouse episodes¬†in Season 1 are Echoes and Needs (7 and 8, respectively), which¬†recall the very best of Whedon’s not inconsiderable abilities. As part of his continued seeking after identity, a favourite technique has been the addition of some new element, be it magical or chemical, which causes the characters to¬†behave differently. In Echoes,¬†this is a drug which causes a loss of inhibitions: Adelle, Dominic and¬†Topher¬†act like stoned children,¬†while the supposedly immune Actives undergo traumatic¬†flashbacks to events they were meant to have forgotten. In Buffy, there are many¬†equivalent examples to choose from. Chief among these¬†are Band Candy (Season 3),¬†in which a shipment of enchanted chocolate causes the¬†adults of Sunnydale to revert to their teenage personalities; Something¬†Blue (Season 4), where a grieving Willow accidentally lays a series of magical compulsions on her friends;¬†and¬†Tabula Rasa (Season 6), wherein a memory spell backfires, causing every member of the main cast to forget who they are. Angel, too, has similar moments, although these play as direct counterparts to earlier Buffy episodes:¬†Spin the Bottle (Season 4) sees¬†our heroes revert to their¬†teenage selves, while Life of the Party (Season 5) has Lorne in Willow’s shoes, unwittingly causing¬†his friends to take his instructions to their literal extreme.

¬†There’s¬†a lot of mischief¬†to these episodes, a topsy-turvey examination of¬†the logic behind our actions, and¬†– perhaps more significantly – the fact that our logic changes over time. Remove¬†the guidance of earlier¬†lessons, these¬†stories suggests, and our behaviour certainly alters – but what of our personalities? In her original life as Caroline, Echo was strong, capable, a lateral thinker, compassionate¬†and determined. We are given glimpses of this in flashbacks, but¬†her core¬†behaviours are also evidenced at moments of vulnerability, when the brainwashing of the Dollhouse breaks down and her real personality emerges. The extent¬†of¬†this¬†phenomenon¬†is¬†explored throughout Dollhouse, but particularly in Needs, when several of the Actives are allowed to escape. The purpose of the exercise is to¬†bring them emotional closure: once they¬†find what they want, a sedative in their brains¬†kicks in. They are then retrieved and¬†restored to the Dollhouse, ready to be wiped.

What’s so intriguing about the show is the success with which¬†it juggles the morality of the Dollhouse.¬†We do not hate the¬†sharp, wry¬†Adelle, who runs the house, nor do we depise Topher,¬†the babbling boy genius in charge of the imprint technology. Neither are we comfortable with the practise of what is, essentially, slavery. From flashbacks, we know that Echo signed a contract to spend five years in the Dollhouse, and that she knew exactly what she was getting herself in for. At the same time, we know that Sierra, at least, had no say in the matter, and that Adelle is not beyond turning her enemies into dolls. In at least one instance, we have seen an Active complete their term of service¬†and leave, fully paid and unharmed,¬†despite having¬†no memory of what they’ve done.¬†But this¬†is still¬†not an ideal solution: as Echo/Caroline struggles to assert her personality, it becomes clear that she won’t be whole until all her memories are restored to her – not just the ones she came in with, but knowledge of everything that’s happened to her since then. There are moments of moral clarity, and moments when we know, with absolute certainty, that something is wrong. But between these extremes are many shades of grey, and one which, so far, Whedon is doing an excellent job of exploring.

For all my doubts and preconceptions, I enjoyed every episode of Dollhouse. This is intelligent, challenging television, and an in-depth look at some of Joss Whedon’s most favoured and long-standing themes. I haven’t started Season 2 yet, not having access to it, but if what I’ve seen thus far is anything to go by, we’re in¬†for some clever, moving and thought-provoking narratives – which is exactly what Whedon has always excelled at providing.

Heading¬†just finished¬†Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, I found myself wondering, not for the first time,¬†why vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves make for such popular subjects. Even accounting for boom-and-bust periods, they still dominate in comparison to stories about other kinds of semi-human mythological creatures. Fairies, angels, demons, witches¬†and succubi all have strong followings, but what is it about shapeshifters, bloodsuckers and the undead¬†that we just can’t get enough of? Why are nagas, centaurs, sylphs, dryads, ifrit, djin and selkies (to name but¬†a few) so comparatively¬†underrepresented?

There’s no one aswer to that question, but as I was mulling things over, it occurred to me that, unlike any of the other creatures listed above, vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves exist outside of any specific¬†religious context. Historically speaking, they are creatures of folklore more than creatures of myth, and while many cultures have stories about shape-shifters, the concept is strong enough to stand apart. By contrast, succubi, incubi, angels and demons are all heavily embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition; witches have been¬†demonised by and therefore incorporated into¬†many religions, but are also associated with a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions in their own right. Nagas hail from the Vedic/Hindu tradition; centaurs, sylphs, dryads, hamadryads, oceanids and¬†nereids are part of Greek mythology;¬† fairies and selkies are from Celtic and Irish mythology;¬†and¬†djinn and ifrit are from the magic of old Arabia.

While religious and mythological origins are hardly a barrier to¬†the reimagining of fantastic creatures¬†for new stories¬†– indeed, they¬†frequently contribute to a rich sense of¬†worldbuilding – perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this selfsame quality also forces¬†writers¬†to¬†address the¬†traditional context of (say) angels¬†before a new schema can be introduced. Which isn’t to say that vampire (or zombie, or werewolf) stories don’t have¬†to tackle existing preconceptions of their main species, so to speak –¬†rather,¬†it’s a question of associated beliefs.¬†Zombies, vampires and werewolves don’t exist as part of any religious or mythological canon.¬†Mentioning a vampire protagonist does not¬†infer¬†the existence of old gods in the way that dryads or¬†demons might, and while there’s certainly a strong tradition of involving Christianity in vampire, zombie and werewolf¬†narratives, the fact remains that neither species¬†is an¬†intrinsic part of Christianity or the Christian mythos. Instead, their ungodliness has been extrapolated in retrospect, making it¬†comparatively easy to remove.¬†Challenging the ungodliness of demons, however, or questioning the saintliness of angels, requires a much more determined assault on established cannon.

Put simply, it is easy to turn¬†vampires, werewolves and zombies into secular protagonists – and therefore to adapt them to modern scenarios – precisely because¬†they lack concrete allegience¬†to established mythological frameworks. Other creatures and species, of necessity, bring more baggage¬†with them: there are stronger assumptions to be overwritten, and especially when¬†the existence of one race (say dryads) goes hand in hand with the existence of another (say centaurs), it is less common to try and¬†recreate dryads as the sole magical¬†species of a given story. Which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest – but it might go some way towards explaining why vampires, weres and zombies are constantly being reinvented, and why their mythological bretheren tend to dwell in¬†bigger, more magical¬†worlds.

What does everyone else think?

Part of me wants to preface the following rant with an introduction to Vegemite, how it’s an Australian intitution despite being owned by an American company, blah blah blah, but really, that’s Googleable data. Let’s cut to the chase, viz: iSnack 2.0, the recently chosen and¬†equally recently abandoned name for Kraft’s new Vegemite-with-cream-cheese spread.

I mean, seriously: iSnack two-point-oh. There are so many things wrong with this that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Cribbing Apple’s lowercase i-prefix in an ironic context is one thing – it falls into the same category as using ‘Mc’ to denote cheap, homogenised and tacky produce, a la McDonalds – but¬†bestowing a stolen moniker on an actual, honest-to-god product? It’s like Kraft has set out to mock themselves.

Pardon by French, but what the fuck does a glorified condiment have to do with the already amorphous¬†concept of¬†¬†Web 2.0? Both technologically-oriented parts of the name¬†constitute the most¬†dismal attempt at being Hip To The Young People I have ever seen. Even the civilian who came up with the title as part of Kraft’s ‘Name Me’ campaign admits it was ‘all a bit tongue in cheek’ – something which Kraft, in their rush to appear savvy, seem not to have noticed. The name was chosen, they say – or said, before the mockery set in –¬†‘based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite.’ Say wha?

How does Vegemite with cream cheese constitute a personal call to action? How is referencing the internet and the products of a successful¬†computer company in any way relevant to snacking? I mean, wow. Really. That is some grade-A bullshit right there. And another thing: given that Kraft presumably wants this product to endure in the same way regular Vegemite has, why would they name it after the techno-cultural ephemera of the noughties? When Web 2.0 is but a naff reference to past events and Apple or somesuch corporation has long since replaced the iGen fad with something newer and cooler, how obsolete would something called¬†iSnack 2.0 be? Give it a couple¬†of decades, and maybe it would be retro, but until then, you’re stuck with an unberably passe product name that causes mass hysteria and blindness.

Even by the standards of bad marketing, this¬†stands out as¬†a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Kraft might change the name, but it’ll be a long time before they live this error down – and rightly so.

Warning: total spoilers.

By and large, I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof are among my favourite films, and I’m far from averse to cinematic violence. I hadn’t heard much about Inglourious Basterds, but given that it was Tarantino, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is not a course of action I would reccommend to anyone.

Inglourious Basterds is, without a doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It is a Tarantino production only insofar as there is graphic violence, and even then, it’s not up to his usual standard. But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, before we proceed any further, a plot summary.

Our story begins in Nazi-occupied France, where Col.¬†Hans Landa, central antagonist of the film and¬†nicknamed the Jewhunter, is in the process of questioning a¬†local dairy farmer, whom he suspects of¬†harbouring a Jewish family.¬†Drawn out over roughly half an hour, their conversation serves to introduce three¬†plot elements: Landa’s facility with languages, his conversational eccentricity, and the eventual massacre of the Dreyfus family, who¬†are hiding beneath the farmer’s floorboards. The latter is relevant not only as a means of demonstrating Nazi brutality, but because the teenage Shoshanna Dreyfus,¬†our soon-to-be heroine, escapes and flees¬†for the hills.

Cut¬†to Brad Pitt – sorry,¬†Lt. Aldo Raine – addressing a group of Jewish American soldiers, the titular¬†Inglourious Basterds, as they prepare to head behind German lines. Their mission, as¬†described by the distantly part-Apache Raine, is to collect the scalps of one hundred Nazis apiece, a task they are positively hankerin’ to accomplish. Over an hour passes¬†before these two plotlines meet up, but then, at two and a half hours long, the film is quite happy to take its time. Eventually, however, all becomes clear, or at least marginally less uncorrelated: now four years older, Shoshanna Dreyfus is running a cinema in Paris under an assumed French identity, where a young Nazi soldier, Fredrick¬†Zoller,¬†the subject of a soon-to-be-released propaganda film produced by Joseph Goebbels, starts to take an interest in her life. Almost instantly,¬†Zoller decides that Shoshanna’s cinema will be the venue for the premiere of his film – at which point, enter the Basterds and some British allies, who, with the help of¬†German actress-slash-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark,¬†are planning to blow up the opening night, thereby killing not only Goebbels, but¬†all of the Nazi high command and even the Fuhrer himself. Shoshanna,¬†meanwhile, having been forced to endure¬†a meal in the company of both Goebbels and Landa, has her own¬†plans for¬†eliminating the Nazis on opening night, operating parallel to, but not in concert¬†with, the efforts of the Basterds.

Wacky hijinks, as they say, ensue. Or at least, that seems to have been the general intention. But¬†despite its complex tangential plotting,¬†eccentric supporting characters and bizarre premise, Inglourious Basterds is anything but entertaining. Though usually a master of black humour, witty dialogue and satisfying revenge plots, Tarantino has, in this instance, unfathomably failed to perform in even one of these categories, let alone all three. The grand finale, which¬†features Hitler being shot with a machine gun as the leaders of the Nazi party burn to death, fails on so many levels that it’s difficult to articulate; and when watching Jewish soldiers gun down Hitler in a Tarantino movie isn’t¬†even remotely funny, satisfying or relevant, then it’s fair to say that, somewhere along the line, things have gone spectacularly wrong.

More than anything else, Inglourious Basterds stylistically resembles a Tarantino version of the most recent Cohen Brothers offering, Burn After Reading. Both featured casts composed almost entirely of vile, morally bereft characters, none of whom were the least bit likeable, which consequently made them difficult to watch; both featured loosely interwoven, anti-cathartic plotlines where an excess of human error and mad violence saw everything go horribly wrong; and both starred Brad Pitt as a weird guy with a moustache, although at least in Burn After Reading, he was given a couple of good lines.

At every turn, the viewer encounters a mess of contradictions. We are meant to enjoy seeing Nazis shot, burned and beaten to death on principle, as Lt. Raine’s opening speech makes abundantly clear – a somewhat redunant message, as this¬†will be¬†the automatic position of most viewers. But from thereon in, the Basterds themselves¬†are endowed with¬†no personalities, no histories, no redeeming qualities: they are viscious, avenging demons, which might still be workable were it not for the fact that every Nazi they encounter is given more depth, more humanity and better dialouge than the whole group put together. This makes for some grim, uneasy scenes: there is simply nowhere for the viewer to turn. Raine and his men are faceless brutes, impossible to like,¬†while the Nazis, though more complex characters, are still¬†Nazis. With both sides thus rendered unpalatable, the only hope of narrative salvation lies with Shoshanna Dreyfus, but even there, the audience is denied. Tarantino has a solid history when it comes to revenge films, particularly as orchestrated through the actions of strong, wronged women, but in the final wrap, despite the fact that Landa is directly responsible for murdering the Dreyfus family, he¬†ends up the only¬†Nazi of our acquaintance¬†left alive. Indeed,¬†Shoshanna never so much as singles him out for revenge,¬†instead concentrating her suicidal efforts on bringing down¬†the whole Reich establishment, and while¬†this is not a cardinal sin in and of itself, it¬†stands as¬†a massive¬†and poorly-executed departure from Tarantino’s stock in trade.

Smaller problems, too, abound.¬†Samuel L. Jackson’s token voice-overs are bizarre, given that (a)¬†he doesn’t¬†have so much as a cameo role¬† and (b) the film is otherwise entirely unnarrated. The deliberate misspelling of Inglourious Basterds is shown only once, carved into a rifle butt,¬†with no explanation. We see one character flash back to being whipped, presumably by the Nazis, in an incident which has hitherto never been mentioned,¬†but which appears only minutes before the subject is killed, thus rendering it pointless. Shoshanna and her lover plan death for the Nazis, but while suicide is never discussed, neither do they try and save themselves. History is completely abused in orchestrating the grand finale, but tiny¬†fragments of¬†accurate socio-historical¬†minutiae, like¬†accents, hand gestures and detailed¬†cinema knowledge,¬†nonetheless prove the undoing¬†of multiple characters. Arguably, this latter point is the straw which breaks the donkey’s back. Having spent over an hour painstakingly building up one suite of characters, Tarantino then kills all save one¬†of them¬†in the type of scene which is best described, in the immortal words¬†of Something Positive webcartoonist Randy Milholland, as belonging to the¬†‘Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies‘¬†oeuvre.

I wish I could say otherwise, but when push comes to shove, Inglourious Basterds is two-point-five hours of my life – and yours – that can never be reclaimed. If you want to see a gripping action film with brilliant scripting, awesome effects, humour, genuine insight and future cult status, then I suggest you buy tickets for District 9. Anything else is folly.

The following was written as a comment in response to this article in Trespass Magazine, wherein Lyrian Fleming postulates that the number of gaffes made by public figures on Twitter will eventually prove to be its undoing.

 

While I agree that celebrities and other public figures are currently struggling to walk a fine line with emergent digital media like Twitter, I don’t think their turmoil will kill the oeuvre. On the contrary, there’s few things our rubbernecking media machine enjoys more than a good old-fashioned gaffe, and in a culture where the cult of celebrity requires an almost non-stop stream of updates about its beloved stars, there’s nothing quite like Twitter for providing insight into the daily lives of the rich and famous. Those are both fairly cynical examples, but in broader terms, I’d contend that all the current spotlighting of public figures who dare to express a personal opinion are part of a bigger, currently unanswered question, viz: where do we draw the line between public and private in an age of instant media, and under what circumstances?

It’s not just about celebrities and Twitter; it’s about employees being fired because of content on their social networking pages, cyberbullying in schools, videos on YouTube – even the debate over the street-level images of private homes in Google Maps. These are all disparate examples, each of which has different quirks, different potential solutions, but what they all have in common is our need to establish etiquette for the use of technology whose rate of developmental progress has far outstripped the speed at which we are constructing rules around it. Twitter will eventually be superceded by something new, yes, but only because the next leap forward in virtual communication will replace it as a matter of course, and not because its existence has contributed to an already ongoing debate about public vs. private in the digital landscape.

Quite simply, I’d be extraordinarily worried if we, as a society, saw Twitter collapse simply because it forced us to reexamine our behaviour. The issues it’s raised – or rather, which have arisen as a result of its use – aren’t bad questions to be asking. With or without Twitter, we need to know how to live with technology. The Freedman case is a good example of this, whereas I’d argue that Kyle Sandilands acting like Kyle Sandilands is less an issue of his choice of media than it is a question of his being¬† an obnoxious tool who perhaps shouldn’t be paid obscene amounts of money to abuse people on air.

Should public figures have the luxury of private opinions in a public forum, or not – that’s the real question underlying these examples. Conventional wisdom seem to say ‘Yes, but ony for so long as they don’t say something offensive.’ However, given the level of media scrutiny currently attached to any gaffe, regardless of its objective severity – Freedman deserves no heat compared to Sandilands – I’d suggest a case-by-case policy of caveat orator. Let the speaker, whoever they are, beware. Because if they weren’t before, the world and his wife are certainly watching now.

This week, it seems, I am pretty much incapable of not ranting. I’ve ranted to the Sydney Morning Herald about education in NSW (scroll down for my letter); I’ve ranted about paranoral romance – and now, it seems, I’m ranting about tweens.

Not being a parent, let alone an American, I’m probably ill-placed to judge how crazy this article on tweenage freedoms may or may not be. For starters, its about tweens in New York City, which would seem to be a fairly unrepresentative slice of Americana, but that doesn’t stop it from raising alarm bells. I’ve long since accustomed myself to the notions of helicopter parenting and cocooning as repugnant (if apparently widespread) symptoms of the modern age, and yet somehow, I’ve never really sat down and thought about the age bracket in question.¬†Most often, I rant about teenagers being downtrodden by foolish adults, and while I’m certainly familiar with tweens as a concept, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that they might be copping an even worse end of the stick.

Of all the lines in the article – the sentiment of which, for the record, I wholeheartedly agree with – there’s one which made me pull up short and sit down, once again, to rant. It’s this:

‘”Kids like to feel that they are doing something of value,‚ÄĚ explains Michael Thompson. ‚ÄúBoys who like organized sports like them because it feels like they‚Äôre doing something valuable, and by that I don‚Äôt mean getting good at soccer. I mean entertaining adults.‚ÄĚ’

On the one hand, Michael Thompson clearly means well. He’s identified a problem facing tweens – not being allowed out of parental sight for fear of cataclysmic life failure – and is trying to suggest ways of fixing it. On the other hand, it would seem to be a fairly self-evident statement, when removed from an ageist context, that people generally – and not just ‘kids’ – like to ‘feel that they are doing something of value’. Actually, scrap that. People like to actually do¬† things of value, and not just be given the illusion of same. Which is where I start to get angry – not at the article, or even (necessarily) Michael Thompson, but of this damnable habit we seem to have fallen into of treating everyone as a separate demographic. Has it become completely alien to our sense of being that some things, regardless of whether one is nine, nineteen, forty-nine or ninety – or, for that matter, male, female, religious, agnostic, atheistic, a ufologist, black, white, Hispanic or¬†Chinese – might be universal? I’m not talking about complex moral truths, for heavens’ sake: just a simple recognition of the fact that we are all human beings, and therefore¬†hold a certain type of base need in common.¬†

Must everything be looked at in terms of marketing? Sure, it might be a comparably slender percentage of likes which bind us together, but I’d wager they hold a pretty deep significance for the same reason. People want a purpose. Why is that such a difficult notion for society to understand?¬†Kids might be less emotionally mature than adults, but that doesn’t make them stupid, and it sure as hell doesn’t make them any less human. Children like to entertain their parents, but past a certain age, they also want to feel like they’re getting older, a quality which, up until about age 19, is most readily identifiable by the grade we’re in at school and how we’re treated by adults. And if the latter isn’t there, the former doesn’t matter a jot, because one of the most pivotal reasons students recognise their school years as a valid progressive hierarchy¬†is¬†that it leads to the adult world. ¬†Nobody goes to school for the sake of school itself, ‘school’ here being distinct from a concept of learning.¬†What grade you’re in is based almost solely on age, not any kind of meritocratic policy. If each successive birthday from six to sixteen brings no increase in social respect, parentally granted autonomy or actual real-world power, why shoudn’t tweens be sullen – indeed, why shouldn’t they become disrespectful, disobedient teens in turn?

During a recent conversational rant about the failings of education, another adult asked me why I still gave a damn. After all, I’ve been out of school for five years, and despite my complaints, I did well enough while there; it’s been over a decade since I was a tween, and almost five years since I ceased to be a teenager. Why was I still ranting about problems which no longer concerned me?

But the thing is, they do still concern me. Part of what bothered me then – what still bothers me now – is the extent to which, despite every study telling us that children are learning increasingly more each year from younger ages; despite the leaps in technology which are picked up most readily by the young; despite the fact that tweens and teenagers are the future, adults are still persistently talking over their heads, treating tweens and teens as if they don’t matter, when everything about our new society is screaming that yes, they do. Even worse, this realisation of increased child-knowledge compared with their relative lack of emotional experience has spawned a rash of parenting techniques designed expressly to prolong the gaining of wisdom by wrapping one’s offspring in cotton wool, as though emotional experience can be achieved without any kind of learning-through-error. I keep ranting about things that no longer concern me directly because they do concern me, and everyone, indirectly. The current social system with regard to youth is predicated largely on the assumption that nobody under the age of 18 is worth listening to,¬†while everyone over the age of 18 can no longer be bothered arguing, having managed to escape¬†the conditions they were previously so animated about.¬†It’s stupid, and irritating, and more than anything else about growing¬†up, I am terrified that one day¬†the Adult Brainwashing Machines will get me, too, ensuring that not only will I forget what it was like to be young, but, in losing all interest in youth beyond self-perpetuation, I’ll forget that there is more than one kind of youth; that the Youth of Today are just as human, just as bright and gawky and volatile as I was, but that they nonetheless¬†are not me, and that this is not automatically a cause for concern.

So, parents: let your tweens go down to the shops or pick up the laundry or¬†– horror of horrors – take the train alone, but don’t act as though you’re doing them a favour. Don’t be condescending in your permissal of freedoms, because if you are, then they’re not really freedoms at all. The difference between extending a privilege and acknowleging a right is the most profound difference in the world, once you’re aware of it – and with the current rate of information absorption among tweens, it’s a safe bet that most of them are.

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then,¬†the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that¬†a given work¬†ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other¬†demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years¬†with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the¬† – still¬†relatively recent¬† – history of geekdom,¬†things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and¬†even straight fantasy¬†were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea¬†of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is¬†something which,¬†it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently¬†occurred to¬†the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by¬†network politics¬†from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting¬†who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been¬†innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows –¬†once computer processing power made the concept seem¬†more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to¬†take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly¬†felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since¬†the established stereotypes of Who Buys¬†What went flying out the window – and¬†though¬†this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the¬†blurring¬†of¬†genre lines, far from deterring¬†potential readers,¬†has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that¬†particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did¬†Anne Rice.

Both¬†despite¬†and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF¬†remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right.¬†But¬†if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why,¬†to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully¬†feminine – and proud of it.¬†More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance¬†feels like the response of¬†a¬†market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent,¬†imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it¬†– have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust.¬†

Ironically, it’s taken¬†a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of¬†grown women¬†lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly,¬†passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.