Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Darker Than You Think

Last Thursday the Darklight Festival 2007 began. It's been going eight years now and is a showcase for digital film and animation. Naturally I try to get along when I can and as I had the time and inclination I got myself a season ticket for the four days.

The first day was really a night and an excuse to get drunk with free drink circulating among the many student guests. In many ways my time has come and gone and no one there was a person I recognised, at least initially. I stood in the corner with one or two other billy no mates and drank my Krombacker. Luckily DATA - the Dublin 'something or other to do with technology' Association - was having a presentation on new projects and work by their members, so I got myself another bottle, installed myself in the downstairs auditorium and waited for that to kick off. Conor O'Boyle, a former classmate of mine then showed up, wandered around and then came back to sit by me. He didn't seem to recognise anyone either. Eventually things got under way.

The first presentation was by two artists commissioned to make some sort of virtual community/world for Kerry County Council. It was singularly uninspiring. Next was a networking site for sontemporary Irish artists. It did what it said on the tin, I suppose. The final presentation thankfully displayed some innovation. A French artist/geek, Benjamin Daulon, showed his many goofy projects including a shared community bin for digital assets that might be 'recycled' by artists; hooking a pc, dot matrix printer and paintball machine together for largescale graffiti; readapting the game 'Pong' for the facades of buildings; and a multiconsole musical instrument for techno/rap. It was as well his work was interesting as, like many an artist, his ego insisted on talking ad infinitum about everything he had ever done. When he stopped it was only to turn up the volume and invite 'crazy kid' audience members to come up and use his joystick keyboard to deafen themselves. I got out pronto.

This year's festival put less emphasis on screenings and more on the fora and workshops geared to workers in the multimedia industry. Friday was full of these meetings and I got myself up at 8 am (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) to attend the first one at 10. It was geared at exploring the future of television and had two mobile phone specialists (from O2 ad Vodafone) and two commissioning editors (one from RTE and one from Babelgum). The beauty of Darklight's strategy in presenting so many of these debates was that even when the discussions were bad (as in this case), it gave you an insight into what people at the top are thinking (which isn't very much in this case). The emphasis somehow shifted on to mobile phones and television and never really went anywhere else. If there is one thing I know it's that the future of television is not on a mobile phone screen, no matter what the uptake on such viewing might be. The impact of the web on television, both from the interactive and added value aspects was neglected, and I wasn't the only one who came out of that forum feeling profoundly disappointed with the narrow-minded vision of the people in whose hands the future of Irish television apparently rested. As usual RTE showed themselves incapable of taking any real pioneering step in adopting the web, but unfortunately none of the others showed any vision either.

In contrast the next workshop by Brown Bag Films dealing with their new production 'Wobblyland' and their use of the animation software, 'Toonboom', was enlightening and encouraging. At least some people are just going out there and doing it. The children's show concerned looked really nice, and, with a wonderful voiceover by Geoffrey Palmer, was very reminiscent of 'Mr Men'. I wish them luck!

A hurried cornbeef sandwich in Gruel, a few shorts in the Arthouse lounge, and the discussions began again, firstly with the future of short films. Again the breadth of the discussion was far too narrow, and, plucking up my courage, I myself asked a question when audience participation was finally allowed. I just wanted to know if new media and platforms meant that production companies might have a future just producing short movies (something traditionally made as calling cards for those seeking features). Certainly with the kind of money Babelgum were offering this seemed very unlikely. Bablegum are a new online television outfit along the lines of Joost (in fact, exactly like Joost, at present anyhow). Although their commissioning editor was in attendance, he made it clear that they do not actually commission work, instead buying pre-existing content that falls 'somewhere between broadcast television and Youtube'. As hinted at above, the prices they pay are pitiful and surely will only be accepted by those who make their money in another medium and so see it as something better than nothing. Only a German, Friedrich Kirschner, a stand-in for another speaker who couldn't make it, showed any realism, pointing out the revenues made by merchandising associated with the popular Machinima series, 'Red vs. Blue'.

The next forum on animation and games technology included some graduates of Disney and Lucasfilms. It was lively enough and if 'Second Life', which played on a screen behind the speakers, didn't figure much, tales of George Lucas' future plans for pre-production film software caught the imagination. Here at least was a possible future for garage filmmakers. While the software that made 'Terminator 2' possible is now reasonably cheaply available (or something like it), future pre-production software could allow filmmakers nonplussed about the glossy results of Hollywood to create virtual sets, costumes, etc. to tell their stories. Again Kirschner voiced a firm conviction of my own, that good stories do not always need a polished production to capture the hearts of an audience and draw them along with the narrative.

As mentioned above, Kirschner replaced another specialist in Machinima who was ill and unable to attend. Machinima are films made by gaming enthusiasts who use the worlds and characters of popular multiplayer games, like 'Halo' (in the case of 'Red vs. Blue'), to tell their own stories, usually by rewriting the game's own rules, something many games, such as 'Unreal Tournament', allow the user to do. In the case of 'Red vs. Blue' there are nearly a hundred episodes where 'actors' dub their own dialogue over the game's action. As long as no direct profit is made from the movies so created, the games companies seem to be okay with this.

Kirschner's workshop followed the forum and revealed him to be passionate about his topic and highly inventive. His 'Milk Scanner', using a bowl of milk and a webcamera, was a bizarre but effective way to scan everyday objects to create avatars/actors for his movies. Adapting the customised joystick for a golfing game, he made 'strings' with which to manipulate his digital puppets. He even used a digital guitar to control a banjo playing commando in his game world. It was a funny and inspiring workshop and again I wasn't alone in believing that.

Phil, my friend from Munich, was home with his family, including my goddaughter, so I dropped into see them on my way home, then joined him for a drink in Lucan. Too much drink had been had this week already (I had met several work colleagues for drinks earlier in the week), and sad to say I continued such indulgence until late in the night, but it was a good session.

Next day the round table discussions took a back seat to screenings, or they did for me. Early in the afternoon, Joe Comerford, Western Plumbers and Philip Rowley showed some of their new work. Comerford had spent three years on his piece, 'Roadside', and still wasn't finished. He passed out blank pieces of paper beforehand and pleaded with the audience to make immediate written comments after the screening. I didn't. I believe in making constructive criticism if any and I simply couldn't on this occasion (I am aware of my own hypocrisy given what follows, but tough!). The intention, to convey his characters' backgrounds and states of mind with images, may have been laudable, but it is a dated and deeply flawed concept not helped by the a very shoddy execution. While I recognise what we saw was a roughcut, and apparently he really wants to make a fine film (he told us he had already solicited a film class' comments to arrive at this cut), there was nothing there to admire. Nothing. The story was trite, the dialogue (what there was of it) banal, the images corny (a spider in its web, anyone?) and the look of the piece (constant superimposition) revolting. I do not dislike the director. I once had him as a guest lecturer and found him helpful and pleasant enough. But he should know better. Inept.

To highlight the poverty of the work we had just seen, the next two pieces, 'Commonwealth' and 'Gravity Loops', by Paul Rowley, were sublime. Originally installation pieces, they nevertheless worked as beautiful pieces of animation, combining wonderful music with stunning visuals. The agenda by those pieces was far more complex than that of the previous film, respectively trying to fathom ideology (through a synthesis of Soviet Bloc images) and explore a concept of Time (that of quantum mechanics) that can incorporate gaps and arbitrariness. Whether it succeeded in these aims is debatable, but the pieces were still gorgeous works.

The final piece, an excerpt from what is intended to be a longer work, was a Borat style comedy (subtitled 'Democracy with Beards'), where the production group Western Plumbers, infiltrated political meetings during the last election and posed some embarassing questions. Embarassing for all the wrong reasons. Fine Gael, for instance, were questioned on their policy regarding dog poop, while an environmental group were treated to a graphic display of how erosion will destroy our country (the map was torn up until Athlone alone remained). It worked well, but is a comic piece of its time and suffered a little from the narrowness of the excerpt's scope. I look forward to seeing the finished piece.

Later we were treated to the best of four years of the Halloween Short Film Festival (soon to be the 5th London Short Film Festival). Patchy though some of the pieces were, overall the programme was an entertaining one.

The planned barbeque had to be abandoned due to the lack of fine weather. Let's face it Ireland's so called summer is a constant game of cat and mouse with the rain clouds. It stays dry just long enough to fool you into leaving the house without an umbrella, than wham! A monsoon descends! Coming back on Friday evening after running from one doorway to another I eventually bought an umbrella and I keep it with me now at all times. Of course, this is surely nothing compared to the flooding that is occurring in England right now, but it makes for a very disspiriting summer. Anyway the silver lining to this particular rain cloud was that food and free drink were now served in a nearby bar/restaurant. Chicken wings and multiple bottles of alcohol cheered me up a little, though for the most part I stood billy no mates again at the stairs. Eventually I did strike up a conversation or two and met another old friend from college, but when staff alerted us that a music concert was about to start back in Arthouse, I made my way back without a grumble.

Three acts played, the names of which I cannot remember. The first UK couple played with their laptops while the female member screeched and howled into a headset. Krombacker helped, me anyhow. Next two guys used empty water drums, dustbins, hubcaps on string, rusty springs and objects I will not even guess at to create a unique sound that wasn't entirely displeasing. My highlight anyhow. The next duo were comprised of a guy on laptop and another with a one string bow. This was not the monochord of the Chinese musicians though and there was such distortion and delay that it's hard to tell what the bow actually sounded like, if indeed we heard it at all.

Happily drunk, I dallied at Arthouse for a little while before going home.

Next day there was only one screening I attended, or rather two pieces in the one programme. 'Wavelength' and 'Zorn's Lemma' were two experimental works from the 1967 and 1970, neither of which was really digital or animation, but we'll let that pass. An old film buddy from college days, Marina, was along, so I was not alone in the experience and an experience was what it was. Consider spending 45 minutes staring at a room while the camera 'zooms' (remove all ideas of speed from this word) in on a picture on the wall. Meanwhile the soundtrack develops into a steadily more higher-pitched whine that threatens to make your ears bleed. What narrative there was consisted of people entering, leaving and even dying in the room, but character was very definitely secondary here. Sad to say, I could draw some worth from this and in the inevitable close on the picture with its promise of an explanation there were echoes of 'Moby Dick', 'Waiting for Godot' and 'The Crying of Lot 49' (especially that last). In comparison with the next feature though, 'Wavelength' was a Hollywood popcorn flick. 'Zorn's Lemma' took an hour to show repeatedly (oh, how it repeated) words beginning with each letter of the alphabet while gradually replacing each letter with a piece of arbitrary film. 'S' became rhinoceroses, 'B' a fried egg, 'Y' a wheat field. Each iteration I looked in hope for the next change to signal that we were one more letter closer to the end, for it could only end when every letter was replaced. It felt like the brainwashing sequence from 'The Parallax View'. I cheered then when 'C' finally became a flamingo, but cried a little when we cut to two people crossing a snow field while someone read from Pythagoras (that's what I thought; I have since learnt that apparently it is in fact 'an 11th century treatise, "On Light, or the Ingression of Forms", by Robert Grosseteste.' Ha!). This final scene went on for another five minutes while my dribble flowed off my chin. Sometimes people simply should not be let near film equipment.

The rest of the long day was spent in still more drinking with Phil and Nigel and I thank both of them for their patience.

Monday was a recovery day and what better way to recover than to see a good movie, and in 'Tell No One' I did just that. But more about that later.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Deliberately nodding to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and in particular 'Psycho', the new movie from Nimrod Antal, 'Vacancy', also treads on similar territory to such recent films as 'Hostel' (and its imminent sequel, 'Hostel Part 2') and 'Paradise Lost'. Unlike these more sensationalist flicks, 'Vacancy' tries to keep the gore down in favour of some effective suspense.

The premise is very familiar. A young couple, who have recently lost their child in an accident, are heading for divorce. Driving home from a family get-together, they take a back road and, after some darn engine trouble, are forced to spend the night in a rundown motel. Complete with creepy manager (Frank Whaley), the Pinewood Motel recalls a multitude of similar setups, from the Bates Motel to the insane inn of 'Identity', so it is no surprise when they find a stack of video tapes showing murders in a room not disimilar to the one in which they are staying. Before long they are trapped and tormented by a sadistic band of homicidal filmmakers and fighting for their lives.

With the shadow of their dead child hanging over them, and a marriage collapsing about their ears, it is not difficult to see this whole nasty scenario as a rather extreme form of marriage counselling. Forced to work together to escape their captors, the couple find much of what they had lost in their relationship and there are many tearful kisses and apologies before the film's over. But then will either of them survive?

Given the name checking of other films, it is hardly surprising to find little originality here. Indeed, it often feels like yet another remake of some '70s movie. It does have its pluses though. For one it is short (85 minutes). This means that the central couple, played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, never become too irritating. Anyway, it's difficult to take their bickering all that seriously. Wilson especially, no matter how bitter and sarcastic he tries to be, can't help but seem like a nice guy, willing to sacrifice himself at the drop of a hat, not to mention take the blame for their predicament. And there is a certain fun in ticking each of the cliches off the list (nervy hotel manager, sinister figures revealed by lightning flashes, masked killers, cannon fodder cops, etc.). Yes, we've seen it all before, but then the filmmakers know that. If it all ends abruptly (and inanely), at least it was fun getting there.

So is it a classic in the Hitchcock tradition? Definitely not. Is it a fun night out? Go get your popcorn.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

In a summer of threequels, Soderbergh regroups the team behind 'Ocean's Eleven', and 'Twelve' for another outing that could either follow the verve and entertainment of the first movie, or the selfindulgent folly of the second. In the event 'Ocean's Thirteen' falls somewhere in the middle.

In this outing for Danny Ocean's motley crew, Reuben (Eliot Gould), his mentor and friend, is double-crossed and left for dead by William Banks (Al Pacino), casino owner and all-out bad guy. Having tried the softly-softly method (and failed), the gang decide to exact revenge in the best way they know how, ruin Pacino's new casino (and steal some diamonds).

The movie is what it is. In such a free-wheeling piece of popcorn, there are few if any deep messages or grand insights. Even the Robin Hood aspect to the gang's plan (fix the games so that the customers win and get away with their winnings) is dampened by the fact that most of the casino's (pre-)opening night players are extremely wealthy to being with. A lighthearted subplot regarding Mexican workers in a dice factory does try to smuggle in some dark truths about America's poor neighbour (especially given the opulence on display everywhere else), but to belabour this would be a mistake. The movie strives to entertain with a clever, if unlikely, hodgepodge of a plot involving crooked gambling, a diamond robbery, doublecrossing and hotel reviewers. Any tension there might have been is diluted by the lack of any real teeth in Pacino's property shark and you sometimes long for Joe Pesci's character to stumble in from 'Casino' and break a few legs.

Clooney and Pitt are curiously subdued throughout. Perhaps this is generosity on their part to their fellow cast members or maybe they're just tired of doing the same schtick again. Whatever the reason, there is even more of an emphasis on ensemble playing here than in the film's predecessors. As a result it almost plays like an Altman piece with constant cutting between each strand of the complicated plot. With Altman though the ensemble would play as an ensemble; Soderbergh's strategy is to give each character their place in the sun for a few moments. Whether these little performances actually work is debatable. Cheadle's faux daredevil is irritating, but mercifully brief, while Caan and Affleck's double act is deadpan enough not to grate. Matt Damon is not so lucky and, engaging though he is, he's saddled with a one note character that hasn't much to do (and yes, the nose was a bad idea). As the villain of the piece, Pacino chews scenery like a rampant goat, and Barkin, his sveldt sidekick, in the first movie I've seen her in for a long while, matches him bite for bite. Depending on your mood these grandstand theatrics may entertain you. The mood is so light that the chances are they will.

So is 'Thirteen' unlucky for Soderbergh and company? The movie is glitzy and entertaining, but also very shallow, and slick though it is, the charm of the first film is sadly lacking. Nevertheless, like Vegas itself, as long as you don't stay in the place too long, you should have a good time, and 'Ocean's Thirteen' doesn't outstay its welcome.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Friel, Here I Come!

Finally I picked up Brian Friel's 'Performances' yesterday. Being obscenely short I read it in a sitting. It deals with the Czech composer Leos Janacek, his last quartet, 'Intimate Letters', and the love letters to a woman forty years his junior that inspired it. Interweaved throughout the play are pieces of his music, including the quartet. My copy of the quartet is hidden away in a box in the garage (I kid you not), so I had to make do with listening to his first quartet, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' (after a Tolstoy story, after a sonata by Beethoven). Not really acceptable given how intrinsic the music is to the play, but what could I do?
Now Brian Friel is fairly well-known. If you didn't do 'Philadelphia, Here I Come' for the leaving certificate, you may yet have heard of 'Dancing at Lughnasa'. Generally regarded as one of Ireland's greatest living playwrights, one would expect quality work. And that is why the play angered me. The play, short as it is, exists primarily for one speech, one rebuttal and a performance of the quartet in a theatre setting. Otherwise drama there is none. Action there is none. We find out a little bit about Janacek - 74 when having an affair and writing his best work, he likes lettuce, he had a son who died, he married a fifteen year-old - but so what? This is mere exposition. The drama such as it is is concentrated is a short argument between the composer and a student writing her thesis on his later work.
Before I have irate aesthetes beating me over the head with Friel's fame, let me say that there is are two point to the play and good ones: a.) an artist's relationship with his/her muse is very much two way, transforming the muse as much as the artist, and b.) an artist's commitment to life probably is more important than to his/her work. However, these are themes for a work or else points made within the context of a short story. If such a message is going onstage, a little more dressing is required for the lettuce. Granted Janacek's music deserves to be heard, but not when you are going to the theatre to see a new play by the great Brian Friel. Again to be fair, playing the music is probably essential to understanding the themes (pun intended) pervading any account of Janacek's last days, but here it just strikes me as a lazy way out of doing what a playwright should do, which is to reveal the world in a bright new light to a blase viewer using the tools of theatre. Here to emphasise the element of laziness, we have Friel tell us (not show us) what it is he sees in Janacek's last romance, a composer taking an ordinary woman and idealising her for the sake of his work. In scriptwriting we would call such declamatory writing on-the-nose dialogue. To have the student protest and offer the more humane, romantic view, that Janacek actually loved his amour for the wonderful person she was (as opposed to what he made her), is simply a standard trick in the writer's arsenal calculated to give a little ambiguity to the story; this is great 'art' afterall. Anyway I wasn't fooled and Friel should know better than to foist such charlatanry on the ticket buying public.

Good, Bad, Bester

In the genre of science fiction, one name frequently tops the critic's top tens again and again: Alfred Bester. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, in the 1950s, Bester came out with at least two novels that dazzled the community and a handful of short stories that mesmerised many. 'The Stars My Destination' is frequently cited as one of the very first cyberpunk books, a subgenre that really blossomed in the '80s I say 'one of' because his first novel, 'The Demolished Man', winner of the first ever Hugo Award, is often credited as being the first. His invention and breakneck storytelling style became legendary, and even today writers like William Gibson and Robert Silverberg still celebrate him.
Okay, eulogy over. Outside of 'Fondly Fahrenheit', a short story about a homicidal android and its doomed owner, I was never convinced by the legend. The famous timetravel short, 'The Men who Killed Mohammed', was a joke compared to the fabulous fun of Heinlein's true classic, 'All You Zombies'. And then I read about the infamous Gully Foyle in Bester's second novel, 'The Stars My Destination' (aka 'Tiger, Tiger!'). It does hurtle along, and yes, there is a lot going on, and yes, in that it differs to a lot of the traditional space operas of the time, it was an original use of the science fiction medium. But comparable to 'Moby Dick'? A classic tale of vengence and transcendence? In the words of Macauley Culkin, 'I don't think so!' All one need remember is that around the same time as Bester, the likes of Theodore Sturgeon ('More Than Human' anyone?) was writing some truly mature science fiction with strong themes and great originality. Philip Kendred Dick began to be published in the early 50s. In Britain, John Wyndham was churning out so-called 'cosy catastrophes' that nevertheless brimmed with intelligence and character. What 'The Stars My Destination' had in apparent cool, it lacked in character and substance.
In an effort to complete my education, I turned then to 'The Demolished Man' with a certain air of resignation. It tells the story of a billionaire's attempt to murder his rival in a world where telepaths have made murder obsolete. In what amounts to a very elaborate episode of Columbo, the tycoon (whose name I have already forgotten) must try to outwit the Grade 3 Telepathic police inspector while battling his inner demons (in this case his nightmare nemesis, 'the Man with no Face'). The novel is sprinkled throughout with little sidelights on this new society, at once more permissive and more uptight than ever before (telepaths are everywhere). In an obvious thematic attempt to deal with fascism and the mob's fear of the outsider, there are small eruptions of concern over the telepathic Guild, its internal struggle against elitism, and attempts to quell society's fears. To keep us on our toes, there are endless twists and turns of plot and the occasional strange gadget (a harmonic gun, for instance) thrown in for colour. Any attempt at characterisation is kept strictly at a Hollywood B-movie level (and Bester used to write in this format). To say that there is a happy ending all depends on who you mean there is a happy ending for, the police inspector or the reader. I actually gave up my time for this tripe.
Which is not to say there isn't a clever mind behind all this. Bester can put together an exciting train of events and it is often easy to see the movie in progress. Even his silly scrambled pages of telepath talk, looking like - and I stress looking like - some lost poetic doodles of George Herbert, even they might have a cinematic corollary. But despite all his Freudian (yes, him again) mumbo jumbo, his characters are thinner than the paper they're written on and when you can't care for characters, it's hard to care for the story.
Bester's early preeminence, for he fell from grace later in his career (when colleagues refused to review his last novel out of kindness), reminds me of the music world's Viennese wunderkind, Erich Korngold. From an early age, turn-of-the-century Vienna heralded Korngold as a new Mozart. Richard Strauss and other luminaries celebrated each of his early works. Yet he almost completely disappeared, spending his last years writing scores for Hollywood swashbucklers. What caused a sensation then also bewilders most critics now; his music really wasn't that good. So why the big deal? Many suspect the fact that his father was Vienna's most important music critic might have had something to do with it. Now Bester didn't have a famous critic father (not that I know of), but it's hard to know today what politics were played in the world of sci-fi in those heady days.
Anyhow I'm glad that's over.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jonathan Carroll and 'Voice of Our Shadow'

A long time ago I had the good fortune to read Jonathan Carroll's 'The Land of Laughs'. A first person narrative told in a deceptively simple style, I found it touching, funny and deeply unnerving. Later I picked up his last novel, 'The Wooden Sea', and though it was again funny, humane and enjoyable, it was also shallow, crowded and ultimately silly. So I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up his 'Voice of Our Shadow', his second book. I had heard it was frightening and certainly I have seen it referred to as horror as opposed to fantasy, but what constitued horror for Carroll? Certainly after 'The Land of Laughs' I knew it was a far more skewed, unsettling horror than Stephen King, somewhere between Groucho Marx and Shirley Jackson.
Prior to my starting the book I also read a piece by the writer Michael MacDowell on Melville's 'The Confidence Man', a book I can appreciate without in any way liking. He wrote about how Melville's work alerted him to the treacheries of the narrator, even in a third person narrative. This piece was timely as it has often been hinted that Carroll's first book, ostensibly a fantasy, may instead be the ravings of a mad narrator. Whatever view one takes on this, 'Voice of Our Shadow' showed me that sometimes this doesn't really matter. Afterall ravings of a madman or document of a sane person in insane circumstances, it is all just fiction, and, given that we are dealing with the 'subjective' experiences of our first person narrator, one must question the nature of any fiction's 'reality'. What the work of fiction in this case constitutes is an encounter with solipsism and the madman/fantasy dilemma only has value inasmuch as it adds to our enjoyment of the work.
So after all that preamble let me say I enjoyed Carroll's second book. However, though it is a relatively short book, it still took me a week to read because above all it is an uncomfortable read. It almost seems like a sequel to the first novel, though there are none of the same characters nor a continuation of that initial book's storyline. What is similar is the centrality of a young writer with a love/fear relationship with a member of his family, in this case his brother (in the last his father). And it is never just one family that features. In 'Land of Laughs', the daughter of the children's writer being researched, Anna, looms large as does her mostly dead father, Marshall France. In 'Voice of Our Shadow' there is another surrogate family, the Tates, with an alluring female character, and, a threatening, though charismatic, oh, and dead father figure. If ever there was a writer preoccupied with the uncanny aspects of Freud's model of the family, Carroll is that writer. These families give the narrator the opportunity to work out in a very real way the Freudian tensions of his own childhood and Carroll repeatedly implies that Joe is not fully grown. In some ways the whole novel reads like some perverted rites of passage piece. This makes the ending of both books all the more chilling.
I think it's worth noting that his father was a writer too, helping to adapt Walter Tevis's 'The Hustler' for the big screen. His mother too apparently was a Broadway actress, so though there is hardly a direct autobiographical element in these books, I think it's easy to see where some of his fictional family dynamics arise from.
Quite apart from his subject matter, Carroll's easy narration belies a strong style, all the stronger for being almost invisible. Joyce's image (borrowed from Liebnitz) of the watchmaker standing outside his work paring his nails while it ticks on independently is particularly apt here. Unlike Fowles' erudite style which sings out for recognition (and whose 'The Magus' is not dissimlar in some ways to 'Voice of Our Shadow'), Carroll is content to let his narrators do their talking without any apparent prompting from him.
Eh, anyway I like his work. And apparently Jonathan Carroll has a blog.

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Apologies in Advance

Just to let you know that what follows are a number of reviews (they're like buses) so ignore them if you so choose. I'm sure there'll be something of interest soon. The last few weeks I've been reading a lot, so that would explain it. There's a Christopher Priest novel (the author of 'The Prestige') I've read too, but haven't written of yet (a lot of science fiction lately, I'm afraid), and movie wise I was at 'Ocean's Thirteen' yesterday, oh, and the fairly scary '28 Weeks Later', and 'The Godfather' for the umpteenth time on Saturday, but let those lie for now.

On other matters, I have been informed by a reliable source that all the weight I lost on my travels, I have now put back on. The reliable source is my mother, so it must be true. So much for Mother's Pride.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Place to Be

Wednesday the 6th of June, a friend of mine, self-styled singer-songwriter Nigel Place was playing a gig in London and I was going over ostensibly to see him, but also to meet up with some friends from my travels.

I should say I had gotten what I thought was an incredible 2 cent return flight from Ryanair, but when I checked my confirmation email last week I discovered that they had booked me on a flight from London to Dublin on Wednesday and vice versa on Thursday. After many, many attempts, I finally got through to their optimistically named 'Help' centre. Naturally no 'help' was to be had. I may be prone to idiocy, but I am pretty sure I made the correct booking to begin with and I have my suspicions. Certainly I resolved not to book with Ryanair again, then went on to their site and paid full whack for my flight. Yes, weakness, but the only other option at the time cost fifty euro more. If only Aer Lingus would be a little more competitive, I don't know anyone who wouldn't choose them above Ryanair.

I had met up with an old college friend of mine the night before and ended up drinking until 1. When I got home I discovered my brother would drive me to the airport (where he works), but he had to be leaving before 7, so an early start was in order. That meant 6; not a good time for a hangover, nor, for that matter, anything. In the event after I had washed, eaten etc., he decided to lie on until 8. The day had not started well.

Dulin Airport is undergoin some renovations right now and one of the upshots of this was a 12 mile hike to the departure lounge which, once I got there, turned out to be a huge barn of a prefab. If ever I was depressed beforehand, this place made sure of the job now. Not feeling up to reading, I stuck my headphones in my ears and tried to doze. The stereo started to go on the headphones there being something wrong with the minijack connection. Like I say, the day had not started well.

Nigel was on the same plane as me and after an hour or so (I had been in plenty of time), he turned up. Ryanair did their usual premature announcement that the gate was open (it wasn't and wouldn't be for another 15 minutes), but eventually we boarded, got adjoining seats and where soon in London.

Phil and Helen from the Indochina leg of my world trip had agreed to meet me at arrivals, so leaving Nigel to find his guitar, I headed off for lunch with them (he had an engagement too).

Most people don't change too much in the course of two months and thankfully Phil and Helen were among those people. They looked relaxed and well, but it did feel like we were meeting up for another slightly delayed leg of our trip. They had married almost immediately prior to travelling and for them travel was still a part of life. It would be too until another week or so when they would go back to Switzerland to settle down once more and try the domestic side of married life. Anyhow they were cheerful about things. A job for Helen seemed likely and Phil was recording songs for a second album (I liked his first).

We tried to find a pub run by Jamie Oliver's dad, but ended up in The Three Wickets (which I half suspect was our intended destination), where pub grub was very appetising indeed. There was a good selection, but when in England...I settled for steak and kidney pie. I had put on nearly half a stone in weight the night before eating in the new Yamamori on the quays. Now I completed the full measure.

They dropped me back to the airport to catch my train(!) and all things running smoothly I made it to Balham, the location of that night's gig and my B and B, by 4.

Two Eastern Europeans greeted me at the reception to the Balham Lodge. The place looked nice; a large, spacious, adapted Victorian house. I was given a keyring with no key and initially thought that this was another variety of the any swipe devices for hotel rooms. When I got to my room I discovered it wasn't. There just wasn't any key on it. I went back to reception, but the key could not be found, so they gave me another room, one closer to the kitchen. There was a good bit of noise and the door seemed like cardboard for all the noise exclusion it gave. Nevertheless I was still exhausted and grateful had a shower and a rest for an hour.

Mary from the New Zealand leg of my tour was to meet me for dinner, so by 5.30 she was in the neighbourhood and we were walking down to Balham town centre. It was definitely the same old Mary, chirpy, happy and full of fun. She hadn't had a Nando's chicken since she had gotten back, so to Nando's we went. I was still reasonably stuffed after lunch, but I found I could manage my burger, corn, fries, olives etc.. Make that two stone.

Mary had her infamous scrapbook with her. This is a wonderfully eclectic momento of her extensive travels incorporating bus tickets, drawings, magazine clippings and short written asides. I had seen it quarter-ways filled in Auckland, but now it was full and covered Australia, America, Canada and Mexico among other hotspots. Poring through this brought us closer and closer to gig time, but when we finally did arrive at the Bedford Inn, Nigel was shivering alone outside the venue. He didn't want any pre-gig alcohol and was waiting for some other expected guests. It was getting cold though, so we convinced him to come inside and if not drink, at least warm up.

As we warmed up in the crowded bar (the England-Estonia soccer game was on), we were soon joined by Tom (another schoolfriend from home) and two guys Nigel used to work with. Then suddenly Nathalie was standing there. Nathalie had been on my Australia trip in 2005, the Contiki one, and I had not seen her in over a year. She hasn't changed a bit, lovely, sweet soul, and she is getting ready for some more travels of her own, ones that dwarf any of mine, involving working holidays in Australia, Japan and months in South America. She filled us in on the details while some of the others went for a bite to eat.

The Bedford seems to be a minor place of showbiz fame and covering the walls along the stairwell to the location of the gig were pictures of comedians etc. who seem to have gotten their break there, or at least performed there in their younger days. Where Nigel was to play was right at the top and small enough. The acts seemed to enter the stage from a balcony by the side. In all there weren't more than thirty people. Nevertheless the lineup proved to be impressive. The gig was organised by City Sounds and was one of many being held in various locations over four days or so (indeed each performer had a gig the next day). In the past Razorlight and Amy Winehouse have performed in this festival, so it does have a strong reputation and so a reputation to maintain. No one playing was a beginner and indeed most were flogging an album. (Nigel Place in contrast was giving his EP away and he had 170 copies with him to give away).

Each of the four acts was given a three song space in the first hour, then after a short break, each played again. Nigel was first on. He has a very distinctive voice to complement a songstyle that's far from the mainstream. Certainly those at our table who had not heard him before were very pleasantly surprised. I have heard Nigel before, many, many times, so I can recognise a strong performance when I hear it and this was one of his stronger ones. Among the professionalism of all who played that night, his unique sound stood out, and an A and R man came in search of his cd afterwards. Which is not to say the others were no good. Jennifer Clarke, from Cork, followed with a very professional set. At this level, where each act could definitely play, it was all down to whether you liked their sound or not. Jennifer was a little too safe for me, I am afraid to say (Mariah Carey-ish tunes as one person described her work to me). Next up Gaz Something or other was the open shirted rocker type, a calculated girl pleaser, but certainly accomplished. Finally Ahab, a long-haired wisecracking duo, gave more rock-tinged professionalism and entertained. Whether I'd go out and buy any of the albums by these last three acts I am not sure, but for a free gig, we more than got our money's worth.

We stayed a little after the gig, drank some more (though neither of the girls were drinking), but when Nigel, Tom, Pat and Michael decided to hit another bar, I passed. After the night before, and then the early morning, a night on the tear was not for me. Nathalie got a tube, while Mary drove home. I tried to get a bite to eat, but found surprisingly little in the way of a chipper in Balham. I had to settle with a leg of fried chicken and chips from an unsavoury place near the tube station. On my way back to the B and B I came across several foxes lacing through the leafy gardens in search of food.

After a fry for breakfast and a last doze on my bed, I headed off to the Tate Britain for a gander. As usual I left it too late. Getting there around 11.20, I had only two hours or so before I had to leave to meet Nigel for lunch. Nevertheless I got to see a good deal. George Romney's very rough 'Lady Hamilton as Circe' stood out among the more polished Gainsboroughs etc. in a room of mythical scenes. I cannot say I care too much for Constable's tranquil country scenes, though again his rough and unfinished sketches did impress (particularly his sketch for Hadleigh castle). Then there were the pre-Raphaelites (including some interesting Ford Madox Brown works), Sickert, Bacon and more. A Turner exhibition was just being prepared for the 14th.

Lunch was had at Nigel's next venue, a cafe just off Carnaby Street. We were there at 2 and he wasn't to play until 4.30, so we had a leisurely feed and a couple of drinks out on the pavement watching the world go by. Jennifer Clarke was playing in a cafe just opposite, so we listened to her for an hour during that time. Later Jasmine Falconer, the photographer who took pics for Nigel's EP, came along with a friend of her's, Isla, an event promoter, in time for his performance. A Sony rep turned up too and video-taped the gig. I just ate, chatted and drank, oh, and gave out free cd's. When it all was over we had to leave promptly to catch our train to the airport.

In contrast to getting to and from Stansted Airport, Dublin Airport is a disaster. Arriving at 11 that night, we emerged from the terminal to a taxi queue a mile long. There was no hope of catching a cab in the next half hour or more, so getting the final bus into the city instead (after immense trouble trying to get change), we ended up getting a taxi from O'Connell Street. After the energising effect of London over those two days, every step home was a heavy (and difficult) one.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cambodia Photos