Saturday, 29 November 2008

Wednesday's a nerd's day

I was hoping to review ‘Chinese Democracy’ today, but I think I need to listen to it a little more before passing judgment. So instead I’m gonna ramble on about nothing in particular and hope that you don’t notice that I’m just killing time because I have nothing else to talk about. In fact I’m going to tell you all about the incredibly nerdy day I had on Wednesday.

The classics department at my school (and you know it’s gonna be nerdy as soon as you read that it was organised by the classics department) organised a trip down to London to see Oedipus at the National Theatre. They decided to make a day of it, so we visited the British Museum and National Gallery as well. Yes I was all cultured out by the end of it.

We had about one hundred hours too few in the British Museum, the National Theatre is a concrete monstrosity and the National Gallery is so horrifically pretentious that I nearly threw up. Other than that it was a really good day out and well worth £25. Yeah, I can’t go anywhere without moaning about something, it is a testament to the awesomeness of the British Museum that my only complain was that we did not have nearly enough time in there. Free entry to one of the finest museums in the world? At times you have to admit socialism has its bonuses… NO! Stop! Get in character damnit!!!! Socialism sucks ass.

The play itself (the reason we went down in the first place) was pretty good. I wont bore you with the details of the performance, but I want to mention a few things I didn’t like so much. For one it took a long time to get going, especially Ralph Fiennes (better knows as Lord Voldemort), who pretty much carried the entire thing – as you might expect from a main character. The play is of course a Tragedy – written originally by Sophocles (as if that information will get you anywhere in life), so you expect a fair amount of dramatic wailing, but at times the actors got a little carried away and there was little one could do but laugh at the over-dramaticism (and word is telling my that dramatisicm is not a word… well it damn well should be). The last thing that got on my nerves was the fact that all the cast looked like city executives; they were all wearing black suits and ties. Seriously, could they not afford authentic Greek costumes? I don’t know if it was meant to be some subtle political point or just laziness on the part of the costuming department, but either way it was pretty bewildering, especially when the play was in no way re-written to fit a modern context. Other than that, I really liked it. Shame it was I such a pathetically dull building.

As you can see from the picture it has 1960’s written all over it. Clearly concrete was the in thing when this was built. Granted they try to liven it up at night by lighting in a rather pleasing way, but you can polish a turd all you want, it’s still a turd. The most bewildering thing is that they didn’t even bother to decorate the interior! Most of the wall is still just bare concrete, full marks for originality I suppose. The theatre itself was rather better than the building in which it was situated, which was nice.

Last on our whistle-stop tour of the cultural attractions of London was the National Art Gallery. Suffice to say we decided to abort our tour round the place as we approached the modern art; we were all Classicists or Ancient Historians, so venturing past 1000 AD was an adventure in itself. I mentioned before that it was the definition of pretentious and I wasn’t kidding. Half the security guards were French, one was balding and still had a ponytail and several were more than a little camp. Not that I’m stereotyping or anything. The art itself was nice, but the place seemed very full of itself (yes I’m aware of both the hypocrisy and the fact that the Gallery is inanimate and therefore cannot be full of itself, it’s a turn of phrase you arse.). Even the Café was pretensions; it was all weird flavoured smoothies and organic fruit. I suppose they’re just appealing to their customer.


Right, so that was my cultured and very nerdy Wednesday. I think I’ve managed to garble on long enough to distract from the fact that I have nothing much to say. Next weekend is hectic, but I shall endeavour to write a review of Chinese Democracy and get it up as some point…

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Failout

Anyone who has paid any attention to anything over his or her lifetime will no doubt recognize the fact that anything the government touches ends up being wrapped in so much red tape that it resembles a poorly wrapped gift that is so hard to unwrap that you end up breaking it before you get inside. Many have been rubbing their hand in glee at the recent financial crisis, claiming that is a deathblow for the Free Market, but when you look at the details of the events in the financial market in the run up to the crisis you will see the fingerprints of government all over the place.

To be fair to the government, they are trying to fix the fuck up they’ve created, although they’re doing it with borrowed money, so government debt has gone sky high, debt that the taxpayer will only have to pay off later.

But the purpose of today’s blog is not to have another go at the financial mess; instead I want to turn to another plea for government intervention coming from the States. The so-called ‘Big Three’ carmakers in America: Ford, GM and Chrysler, lobbied congress for over $25 billion of bailout money. This bailout won’t work, it is against the principle of the Free Market and is typical of the governments we have both in America and Britain. Fortunately the bailout has not yet been accepted by congress.

The sign of a strong company is not that I can be profitable in good times, but that it can survive through bad times. If Ford, GM and Chrysler cannot remain economically viable in the current climate, they should not be propped up by a government that claims to be in support of the Free Market. Pumping unconditional funding into companies that are no longer viable gives then no incentive to become viable; if the ‘Big Three’ know they can rely on government bailouts, they will not make as much of an effort to become more efficient. The Bailout may keep these companies in business for a few more months, but it will only delay the inevitable failure of these companies. To say that they should be allowed to fail would be to imply that we have a choice in the matter, we don’t. Unless Ford, GM and Chrysler make an effort to change their business structure to one that will be profitable they cannot survive, any attempt to change that is ultimately doomed to failure.

The reason that they are not able to compete with the Asian based companies like Honda and Toyota is that that are making inferior products. If they made cars better than their rivals, they would be fine because people buy the best that is on offer at the price that they are willing to pay. The basic principle of the free market is that companies succeed or fail depending on the quality of the product produced. To distort this by pumping money into inferior companies is to fly in the face of all the rules of the Free Market. Indeed any government intervention is anti-Free Market.

But why does the government do it? Isn’t the free market a good thing? Many would say that it isn’t, but I disagree. The worlds past adventures into the deep dark realms of Socialism should be more than enough evidence to prove that it doesn’t work. The government intervenes in the Free Market because it thinks its job is to cater for the needs of its citizens. This implies that need is a qualification for rights. It isn’t. The government is constantly providing its citizens with something they don’t deserve; why does anyone have a right to anything they haven’t worked for?

Had the US Government given this bailout to the ‘Big Three’ it would have been protecting the employees of the companies. But protecting them from what? Unemployment? Well yes, but this implies that the employees of the ‘Big Three’ have a right to a job. They don’t, they only have a right to get a job. The reason the bailout fell through was not a sudden realisation that it would be immoral, but the fact that there are plenty of other companies making cars in America who would quickly scoop up the former employees of the ‘Big Three’. Those companies are economically viable; they can replace the ‘Big Three’ very easily and no doubt will.

I think ‘Big Three’ will come crawling back to the government to beg for more money. Let us hope, in the name of the Free Market, that the government sends them packing again.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

NaNoWriMo

It’s November, in case you hadn’t noticed. With the American Election, Fireworks Night, Remembrance Day and it being fucking cold it is a pretty busy month. Because of this it may have escaped your notice that it is also National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, which just sounds retarded). In a short NaNoWriMo is when loads of long-suffering and repressed potential novelists (I use the word in the broadest sense) each try to write a fifty thousand-word novel in a month. Morons.

A cursory glance at their website’s info page will tell you exactly why I think this is a really really really bad idea. Possibly the most worrying statement is the patronising reassurance that ‘it's all about quantity, not quality.’ So I could write 50,000 words of incoherent rubbish and it wouldn’t matter? I think whichever bright spark came up with this idea need to re-evaluate his or her ideas about what makes a good writer. There is no point writing lots unless you actually write with the aim of improving. If you don’t set yourself the aim of improving, you wont become a better writer. You don’t improve as if by magic, it requires grind and effort; you can’t just churn out pages and pages of poorly written prose and awkward dialogue with a strained and underdeveloped plot and cliché, poorly constructed characters and hope that if you do it often enough without actually setting yourself a standard to achieve you will stumble upon the kind of talent that is required to write a good novel. The blitz approach that NaMoWriMo (that sounds more ridiculous every time I write it) is useless for prospective novelists.

Lets look some more prize pieces of wisdom from the info page shall we? Here’s a good one:

‘Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.’

Eugh! Writing loads of crap does not help! Writing loads of crap is futile. You may stumble upon a neat turn of phrase or beautiful metaphor, but that does not indicate progress any more than randomly throwing darts at a dartboard and by chance hitting the bulls-eye does. Purposeless spewing of crap does not achieve anything, if anything it will make you a worse writer; it will get you into bad habits of being satisfied with less that your best. If you forgo quality for quantity you allow yourself to write poorly and so you get into the habit of writing poorly.

Trying to write a novel in a month is an impossible task. It will doubtless cause endless stress, sleepless nights and frantic typing with no regard for whether what you are writing actually makes sense. Now for writing prose, this is not too bad; some very good prose has been written in such conditions, but for constructing a coherent plot it is disastrous. Any novel needs a massive amount of planning; the plot needs to be decided upon before the first words are even written. That is not to say that the plot cannot be tweaked as you go along, but the basic outline has to be there. Just as you plan an essay before you write it, you have to plan a novel before you write it. It is especially important for a novel because it is so much longer than an essay; how can you hope to write 50,000 words (which is only about 175 pages by the way) and stay coherent without planning what you’re going to write before hand? If I were attempting to write a novel (which I don’t plan on doing) I would spend a long time before I started writing in the planning stage, which is simply not possible in a month.

Some of you may be wondering at this point why I am complaining about this? If people want to kill their creativity then let them, right? Sure, I just think that it is a terrible idea. If you seriously want to write a novel, or even be a good writer, their method of blitz and hope is a terrible one. It maybe entertaining if you are a masochist, but it is a short cut to creative ruin.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Quantum of Solace (contains spoilers)

Until last night I had been looking forward with a mixture of excitement and apprehension about the Quantum of Solace; it’d had mixed review from people who had seen. Nonetheless it is a Bond film so I was kinda hoping it would at least be half decent; I mean with an established format and a very good actor as the main character, how far wrong could they go? Answer: very. But I suppose every cloud, no matter how black has a silver lining; I now get to spew bile about it here.

The Quantum of Solace is little more than a series of shitty expositions leading into progressively more gratuitously unlikely actions scenes, vaguely held together by what could be described as a plot is we were being very generous. This is no more a film than a heap of metal is a car.

We are used to rather absurd car chases in Bond films, so I wont criticise the opening scene too much, it did seem even more unlikely than most chase scenes we see in Bond film though. Instead of just the one, maybe two high speed chases that we normally get as part of the Bond package we had no less than three, in order; a car chase, a boat chase in which Bond kicked the arses of two top of the range motorboats with a fucking metal fishing boat, and a plane chase in which Bond managed to outmanoeuvre a fighter plane in a big fuck off carrier plane. The car chase was acceptable, the boat chase less so and I almost walked out in the middle of the plane chase. Whichever prick at Bond HQ who decided that the more ridiculous and unlikely the chase the better deserves to be taken outside, put against a wall and shot by a firing squad and point blank range.

The high-speed chases were not the only actions scenes however; we also had a couple of chases on foot and a lot of rather unlikely fight scenes. The second action scene in the film is a chase across the rooftops of a foreign and not very well-off city, deja vu anyone? Just because at worked in Casino Royal does not mean that it’ll work again; this time it just felt like they’d already run out of ideas for chase scenes and so decided to reuse some; I would not be surprised if they had even used some of the footage from Casino Royal; there didn’t seem to be much, if any difference. However, in terms of sheer lunacy, the final action scene takes the bacon. Bond running through a burning building with beams and staircases collapsing without getting more than just a couple of scratches and very sweaty? Come on guy, lets try to at least flirt with Realism for a bit, you don’t have to sleep with her, just talk for a while, look at her, sitting on that table alone and neglected in the corner of the action/adventure nightclub. No wait, she’s not alone, you seem to have left Plot sitting crying in the corner as well you asshole. Ok, this metaphor has gone far enough.

In the first paragraph I said that Bond has an accepted formula; there are certain stereotypes and catch phrases that we associate with the films. This is not a bad thing. Someone at Bond HQ seems to think it is. I don’t remember hearing in the words ‘Dry Martini, shaken not stirred’ or ‘Bond, James Bond’ during the entire film. ‘Bond always get the girl’; is one of the fundamental tenant of any Bond film. Any reason why Bond didn’t get the girl this time? The answer of course is that some twat wants to try to move Bond away from its accepted formula. Why? Because if we don’t change things from time to time, they get stale. Bullshit. The ‘Bond Formula’ is not broken; it works, it is accepted by Bond fans worldwide, why the fuck change it? As ever, when you try to fix something that works perfectly well already, you end up cocking it up. Thank you whoever you are for cocking Bond up.

I know hard-arse bastards and action films go together like sweating panting paedophiles and children’s play areas, but, as the analogy suggests, this is not necessarily a good thing. Now I’m no expert, but I’m sure that characters that seem to show some element of humanness are easier to connect to than fucking robots that never change facial expressions. In fact, come to think of it, the robots in ‘I Robot’ showed more emotion than Daniel Craig did in the Quantum of Solace. I know Bond is meant to be really good at not showing emotion, but it might make it easier for the audience to connect to him if he did. Even when he was throwing himself around in all those horrific action sequences he didn’t show any pain bar a few grunts here and there. No matter what happened he carried on going like a fucking machine. Some might say this shows his great strength, I would argue that Realism has now stormed out of the nightclub in disgust. I think she’s gone to drink herself into a stupor so that she can forget that everyone is ignoring her.

The other characters in the film were actually quite good, or would have been if they’d had more than a few minutes worth of half-hearted characterisation. At no point in the film did I feel that I knew the characters. I walked out of the cinema wondering what the motives of the villain were, who the hell the fucking love interest actually was (apart from than pretty hot) and how they were actually connected. It seemed like the writers were just going through the motions of characterisation so that they could get to another action sequence. Parts of the plot that did not allow for another action sequence were rushed through and most of them just provided more excuses for Bond to go somewhere and therefore set up another exposition for another action sequence. Because of the sheer weight of action sequences, the film felt rushed. As per usual with the film industry, it was squeezed into well under two hours, although the performance was over two hours because of the stupid number of adverts at the beginning and the annoying long opening credits (which is one thing I would like Bond films to do away with). There is no reason to shorten films like this; if you need longer to actually tell the story they take it, you don’t have TV schedules to fit into, just don’t bloody well rush through it for fuck sake.

The most disappointing thing was that the film had potential; the plot actually vaguely serviceable as far as the genre goes, the characters could have been pretty good as well. If they’d actually tried to allow the plot and characters to fully develop instead of wasting their budget on shitty actions sequences, the film could have been pretty good. Instead the monkey who was running the show decided that the accepted methods of film making; such as a focus on the story and the characters within it no longer applied. It seems that most filmmakers these days are under the delusion that special effects and high adrenaline action sequences with more explosions and villains with questionable aim than you can fire and AK47 at can act as a replacement for plot, or characterisation. The truth is that they can only supplement these key features of any story, no matter what the medium. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious twat: movies are still a form of art; they require certain key features that give it some sort of structure. A plot line is not something upon which to hang gaudy actions sequences; it is the core of any film. The actions sequences add to the entertainment, but they are just padding, they cannot replace plot. The whole point of art is to provide entertainment, bad art is bad entertainment and Quantum of Solace is just that; bad entertainment.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Questionable Content and other, non-Bond things

I mentioned last week that I would be watching the new Bond film today and then reviewing it tomorrow or Monday. Unfortunately a combination of sporting commitments, awkward train timings, living in the middle of fucking nowhere and my friends all living in Birmingham (50 minutes train journey away) has meant that I will be spending this fine Saturday evening doing nothing as per fucking usual.

I will watch the bond film at some point, I haven’t set a date yet, but I will get round to it, and when I do, it will be reviewed here. To distract you from the lack of a Bond review I shall tell you about some of the interesting stuff I did this week. A bet you’re looking forward to that aren’t you?

This week I have been on holiday, which for me involves sitting on my arse either watching TV or fucking around on the Internet trying to find some source of entertainment to fill the long lonesome hours. As you can probably gather I don’t really socialise, mostly because I can’t be arsed with the hassle of going into Birmingham to find any friends to socialise with, and because I’m an antisocial git.

So, this week, while surfing the Internet for something to do I came across a pretty looking webcomic. Without realising that it was comic number 1260, I clicked first and started reading. Several hours later I was totally addicted to this webcomic and three days later I was up to date. The webcomic is called Questionable Content and is drawn by the very talented Jeph Jacques, who has a funny name.

The theme is fairly unoriginal; a young adult male (who is probably based on the author) with no luck with women meets a nice girl with whom he falls in love. Another girl then appears; who complicates the issues blah blah blah you know the rest. One hell of a lot of amusing incidence and plot complications later and you are at over 1000 comics with a really strong readership. The same theme can be found in most story-based webcomics out there; sexually repressed nerds tend to write about their fantasies. The thing that sets this comic out from others (mentioning no names – C.A.D) is that the delivery is AWESOME. This guy knows how to tell a joke and still allow a semi-serious slightly parody-based storyline flow. While I admit that some of the jokes are rather predictable, not all that amusing and ever so slightly lost on people who don’t listen to astonishing amounts of Indie music (like the jokes on webcomics based on videogames that are lost on everyone who does not play Xbox for days on end), it was interesting enough to keep this unforgiving cynic reading for 1260 odd strips. Ok so I didn’t exactly have a lot to do with my week, but hell, it kept me entertained.

There are a few rather more interesting and original features of this webcomic, which must be commented on because most webcomics floating the sea of raw sewage that is the Internet has not a scrap of originality and would be best be represented in the aforementioned metaphor as massively oversized shits floating through the semi-viscous gunk with an even more oversized following of flies who buzz around claiming that the shit actually tastes quite good and you should try some. No thanks. Sorry where was I? Ah yes, the original bits of this webcomic. As I have eluded to, instead of banging on about videogames and making very poor gags about them, which generally involve jokes about how applying videogame logic to the real world doesn’t work, with apparently ‘hilarious’ results, Questionable Content is more concerned with various different genres of music and the culture associated with them. It is unclear whether Jeph is as Indie as his lead character, or whether he is parodying the entire thing extremely subtly. I would like to think it is the latter, but I reserve judgment. Another original thing, that occasionally gets a bit strained, is that all of the characters have hopelessly dysfunctional parents who occasionally make appearances to the utter bewilderment of all (me included).

So this week I spent far too much time reading Questionable Content. I also acquired (entirely legally…) the new Metallica album; Death Magnetic, the new Rise Against album; the pretentiously named Appeal to Reason and Rise Against’s previous album; the slightly less pretentiously names The Sufferer and the Witness. While trawling through over 1000 comics I listened to these three, the Rise Against ones because I am seeing them in February and the Metallica one because I wanted to know if it was as good as everyone has been saying, which, much to my surprise, it is.

A few issues with Death Magnetic to start with. Some of the songs are a little samey, they are good to have on in the background, but it does not always stand out to the casual listener. Some songs however very much do stand out, All Nightmare Long, The Unforgiven III and The Judas Kiss for example. One big problem I have with the Unforgiven III is that it sounds nothing like the Unforgiven I and II; the first two, while not being the same song sound very similar, they work when you play number 2 after number 1. Try playing number 3 after the first two and they are clearly different. I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to music, so I cant put my finger on why they sound different, it’s just a different style. While a damn good song in it’s own right, it does not go with the others and so it seems to be misfiled. It smacks to me of an attempt my Metallica to associate themselves with their past music, distancing themselves from St Anger, which is probably a good thing when you think about it.

Now onto the Rise Against albums. If ever an album could be accused of being anonymous, is it Appeal to Reason. Bar some notable exceptions such as Hero of War, actually pretty much just Hero of War, all the songs sound the same. Individually they are pretty good, some are better than others, but together it is hard to see where there is any diversity at all. The same can be said of the Sufferer and the Witness, but to a lesser extent; Roadside and The Approaching Curve both offer some change in tempo and songs like Ready to Fall, Prayer of a Refugee, Drones and The Good Left Undone strand out much more than any track does in Appeal to Reason. One of the major appeals of Rise Against is that they are very political; they have an agenda and are not afraid to plug it. All their songs are written with some meaning behind them, they are not just spewing out lyrics that sound good but have no really meaning or purpose like many bands do these days (like all the ones you see on MTV on the odd occasion when they actually play music these days). This agenda is still there in Appeal to Reason and long may they continue to write meaningful songs, just a bit more diversity in terms of style next time please boys.

In any case I imagine that they will be just as good in February as they were back in June when I saw them at the Download Festival. Oh sorry, did I not mention that I went to the Download festival this year? Well, I guess I’ll have to end this Blog on a smug note then.

Also, welcome to November.