Sunday, 19 December 2010

Ocean’s 11 retrospective

Ocean’s Eleven was originally made in 1960, but I’ve not seen that version and until a couple of days ago I’d not seen the remake from 2001. I’ve often heard good things about the film from people whose opinions I respect, but sadly I was disappointed. You might wonder why I’m reviewing a film of 9 years ago rather than one that came out recently – like say, Tron – but that would requite dragging myself to the cinema rather than watching from the comfort of my own bed.

So Ocean’s Eleven is about 11 people robbing three large Casinos in Las Vagas. The leader of this motley crew of miscreants and criminals is Danny Ocean, who was recently released on bail from jail – proof, I suppose, that the criminal justice system is worse than useless. Ocean has a personal vendetta against the owner of these casinos because, well I’m not actually sure why, the film never really made this terribly obvious. There was something about Ocean’s wife, but then if your husband was a convicted criminal you could be forgiven to jumping ship and screwing some rich guy instead.

Anyway the crew meticulously plan and execute the robbery perfectly, without any blemish or difficulty. Everyone gets on just fine (apart from one staged fight) and everything goes to plan. The bad guy gets his money stolen and the good guys drive off into the sunset, loot and woman in hand. Or do they?

The film only unconvincingly shows us that the casino owner is the ‘bad guy’ – apparently he’s pretty harsh on people he doesn’t like, which seems more like a tragic flaw than decent set up for an antagonist. Even more criminal however is the film’s failure to actually characterise the protagonists as ‘good guys’ at all. We are given no reason to like any of the eleven thieves; most of them are set up as hardened criminals, gamblers or petty thieves, none of which are likable character traits. These might be forgiven as something of a gritty dark side to their personalities if they weren’t the only things we are actually shown about the characters. Ocean does at least seem to rather like his ex-wife, but he mostly just comes across as clingy and unable to move on, especially given that the relationship is not really given any context.

This might seem to be taking the wrong approach to a film which is supposed to be admired for its fun action, stylish presentation and hunky actors, but I’m afraid all of that does not a good film make. I have nothing against well shot films and with good action sequences and attractive actors, but these should be extras that embellish the core of a film – the plot and the characters. If you remember my review of the Expendables I’m probably sounding like a stuck record at the moment, but bear with me.

Compelling characters are one thing, but I’ve spoken about why we need them before. The other thing Ocean’s Eleven lacked was conflict; the most important thing in any plot. At no point during the heist did it seem as though the team were going to fail. Ok there was one point, but by then they’d already mostly succeeded and it was pretty obvious that some ingenious solution had been devised and already enacted before the ‘SWAT Team’ arrived. The eleven members of the team never seemed to come into conflict major with one another; everything went smoothly, there was only one fight, but there didn’t seem to be much of a fall out from that.

The reason why a story needs conflict is that conflict creates tension. Once we have gained an emotional attachment to the character, causing us to want them to succeed, we then need to have those emotions tested. We need to feel the fear that the hero might die, we need to feel the excitement as we wonder how they’re going to get out of this mess. Ocean’s Eleven had no such fear or excitement because there was no reason to fear that they might not succeed. The difficulty of their task was made abundantly obvious early on, but that difficulty was never actually exploited once the heist actually began.

The other important part of conflict is conflict between characters. People fight, that’s a fact of life. When you assemble a team for a heist, especially a big team, egos are going to be at odds. You are going to have arguments and disagreements; some people are bound to dislike each other. I don’t want to keep referring back to Inception, but look at the disagreements there between the members of the team. The only time there was genuine and interesting conflict was when the sub plot between Ocean, the casino owner and Ocean’s ex-wife took centre stage. This made for some interesting conversations that actually made me want to keep watching, something that the rest of the film failed to do.

I think Ocean’s Eleven was trying, on some level, to be noir. There was some attempt to throw in a big twist and deception, but it was all very half hearted. Good noir films, like Luck Number Slevin or Fight Club have the big twist built and foreshadowed from the very start, but it still seems to come out of nowhere and shock you. There was no real built up to the twist at the end of the film and it didn’t change the nature of the story enough to be effective.

Ocean’s Eleven is a bad film with priorities in all the wrong places. But I’m guessing. Given that it’s nine years old already, my opinion is unlikely to change yours. I suppose this might also be a good time to tell you that I don’t like Snatch by Guy Richie either. Sorry if I’ve ruined your Christmas by saying that. On that subject, next week’s blog will be either late or early because there’s no way I’m blogging on Christmas Day!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Touching the Stars

This piece of flash fiction is a reworked segment from the start of a short story I've been working on. It's my first attempt at sci-fi and is a little bit odd, but I hope you like it anyway.
“Good evening London.” His voice boomed as the bass slowly faded and the clapping subsided. All that remained was the melody, rising now and complemented by a more natural, drum-like beat. The melody waved and rose as the crowd screamed.
The tall man stood on the small stage at the front of the club, with his hands stretched out either side of him. Smothered in fog that swirled and shifted around him in time with the music and changed colour with every second beat, he stood statuesquely still and watched the crowd through mirror-like sunglasses. The shades were a single rectangular strip of mirror-coated glass in a thick metallic frame.
No instruments stood on the stage. It was just the man and the fog. He needed no instrument, or mixing deck, to make his music. The notes that pounded out of the speakers were created not by the vibrations of strings or drums or by the whims of electrical pulses, but rather by the conscious will of the man in stage. He thought it and it happened. The limits of genre and instrument had been stripped from him. All he needed was his mind and a few computer chips to make sound; beautiful, enchanting, thunderous sound.
“I hope you’re listening carefully.” He paused and scanned the audience, waiting for the cheers to subside. Silence, but for the sound of his consciousness, fell on the crowd, awaiting his every word and every note. “Because I’m going to tell you a story.”
The bass boomed back and the crowd was jumping in unison, screaming in delight. The man encouraged them; fingers outstretched, he pumped his arms above his head to the beat. Eventually the pulse began to break down, slowing, sometimes missing a beat altogether. It seemed to crackle out and die. The man on stage only smiled as the beat was replaced by pulsating balls of high pitched beeps and squeals. Strange, indescribable, almost unintelligible noises came from the speakers. The crowd fell into awed silence.
“This story is about a man. His name is not important to you, nor his is age or his situation.” he began, now completely still and looking off towards the back of the club with an almost dreamlike expression painted on his fog invaded face. The music continued to whimsically, intangible drift in absurdity.  
“What is important is that he is a man just like all of you; average, ordinary, normal. Like many of you he had experimented in experience enhancing substances. Experts call them hallucinogens, but you more likely refer to them as psychedelic drugs. Today he gathers with a group of close friends to take LSD and enjoy the collective psychedelia. They put on The Dark Side of the Moon and take a tablet each.” As he mentioned the still classic album of over 100 years ago, the recognisable notes of Money rose above the sounds along with the simultaneous ringing of alarm clocks.
“Slowly, as the album begins to progress, he regresses into a state of delight and ecstasy.” The Music rose and flourished and arched as he spoke, becoming ever more random and incoherent. “He sees strange, indescribable things, experiences wonders beyond what we can imagine. He and his friends sit and stare at the world through new eyes. They wander the alien room and marvel things we all take for granted. They are like children, experiencing the world for the first time.
“Our hero, if we can call him that” The music took a tragic tone of an almost unnoticeable instant before returning to the playful meaninglessness of joy. “Plays with the light switch and watches as the bulb flickers on and off in an instant. It makes him dizzy and he sits on the sofa, staring at the stars out of the window. They’re brighter than ever before and there seem to be so many more of them. He marvels and ponders them. ‘So many tiny little suns, each one flying unmoved through space. Circled by so many more swarming planets, burning or freezing at the whims of those tiny specs of light so bright. How lucky we are that we’re here to observe them from the future.’ He thinks, but doesn’t say out loud. His friends are too busy in their own little trips to care about his existentialism.
“Two of them share their trips, mixing their tongues together in love that they did not even realise existed. Another laughs at them, but it is not the laugh of scorn, but that of joy and happiness. Our hero is happy for them also, but finds their mixing of saliva vulgar. ‘You don’t need sex on LSD’ he thinks, but does not say. He doesn’t want to ruin their fun.
“His friends are making him uncomfortable. He just wants to sit and stare at the stars. Walking dreamily towards the door, his friends cast puzzled looks at him, but he just smiles and they smile back. He’s tired of his friends. He wishes to be up in the stars so bright, not down on earth with saliva exchanging friends.” The music took on a strange, exasperated tone, a fleeting boredom that smacked of arrogance.
“He takes the stairs to his bedroom and stands by the window, throwing it open and gazing up at the night sky. He smiles at the moon and it smiles back, but the smile is on its side. He tilts his head so that his smile is on its side too. The stars stare at him. So many stars. There are so many stars. ‘There used to be more’, he thinks, but does not say; there was no-one there to listen anyway. ‘but we blotted them out. One by one.’ He reaches out to touch them but finds only cold air.
“Wishing he could touch them and feel their warmth in the cold air, he instead stares back at them, unblinking, just as they refuse to blink.” The music soared and shimmered and sounded like the kind of music that filled the empty spaced between stars. A roaring, elegantly powerful symphony.
“Our hero thinks of all the things on earth that used to excite him; the exchange of saliva, the joys of money and of power, the previously irresistible pull of friendship and of love. He ponders the lying politicians of Westminster and the slimy bureaucrats of Whitehall, the dead-behind-the-eyes celebrities and all the suffering of the world.” The music returned to earth and took on a sinister tone. Pain and anguish filtered through the gravelly, guttural noise.
“‘How trivial it all is compared to you,’ he talks to the stars, ‘how little your care about our silly little problems. Long after we have killed ourselves, you will still be shining bright and untouchable; oblivious to the petty, insignificant squabbles of man. How lucky we are to be able to see you and see how meaningless it all is. If you did not give us such perspective, how would we live with ourselves?’
“Our hero stands and marvels at the stars, letting the cold air wash over him and cleanse him of his sins. He pours his troubles and his worries into the uncaring starlight. He forgets all about his friends. He forgets all about the politicians and bureaucrats and celebrities and suffering. ‘I want to join with you.’ He calls out to the stars. ‘I want to look down upon this world with the aloof distain of your immortality.’” The music rose and swelled into an incredible, indescribable climax of beautiful noise. Just as the climax began to fade, a tragic string emerged from the mass of sounds and rose to dominance as the rest of the music fell away.
“He jumps, touches the stars and falls back to reality with a broken neck.”
The music faded away and the crowd exploded in cheers and screams and applause.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Leaky Pipes

As I’m sure you’re all aware, international politics has recently suffered a crisis of honesty with the leak of numerous documents, most of which detail American diplomats bitching about world leaders to their superiors. The more interesting and sinister ones detail the private dealings of America with various other world powers to manipulate international politics. Obviously the leaks have caused America and her allies to go rushing around smothering any dissent and trying to put the man who leaked the documents into the deepest jail cell they can find, while trying desperately to retain some kind of moral high-ground – and looking like petulant children in the process.

Now I could spend all day detailing all the amusing personal comments about various world leaders; calling Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, ‘paranoid and weak’, or accusing Prince Andrew of being ‘cocky’, or calling Silvio Berlusconi ‘feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader’ for example – most of which are probably true and not really news to anyone – but that’s not really the issue at hand here. Indeed these comments are largely irrelevant and unhelpful – they are private comments made in confidentiality. They should not have been published in the first place because they do little beside provide dirt for journalists and thus muddy the water, making it harder to actually focus on the important things being leaked.

Like documents detailing how America has been launching anti-terrorist attacks in countries like Yemen without even telling the international community, while the Yemeni president covers it up by lying to his government. Or orders for US diplomats to steal sensitive information like passwords, credit card details and DNA samples from supposed allies in the UN. Or the UK continuing to store US cluster bombs, despite their illegality. Or the US offering monetary and political incentives for countries to take prisoners in Guantanamo Bay off their hands.

All of the above revelations are either illegal, immoral or both. They are indicative of America’s arrogance and disregard for international law. It is also telling that America’s obsession with their own international dominance at the expense peace, justice and morality has not begun to fade since the Cold War days. More than anything I think this whole episode has highlighted the problem with politics, both internationally and domestically.

Politics is all about gaining power. The job of an American diplomat is to try to further America’s power and influence over the rest of the world, so that the USA might continue to be a political and economic superpower. It is not to try to find the solution which promotes the most peace, justice or democracy. They are not there to find the right solution that is best for both parties and will promote international peace and good will for years to come. They are simply there to look after America’s short term interests.

Now I’m not saying that America is the only culprit here; every country enters any international diplomatic situation with its own interests firmly in the driving seat. These interests; political and economic, are to be ruthlessly pursued at all costs, even if the end result actually lands the rest of the world in a lot of trouble that will eventually cause a lot more suffering and hardship further down the line.

For examples of this we only need to look at almost any international law created since World War 2. We could look at the laws on international trade for example, that allow Europe and the USA to monopolise world agriculture, despite having much higher wages than the third world, because they can afford to play subsidies and don’t let third world countries protect their own industries with import tariffs. This means that cheap produce can flood third world countries from the developed world, undercutting local products and meaning that farmers cannot make a living out of the land, causing untold poverty and drastically slowing the development of the countries in question. No change in this situation seems likely in the future, given that the international bodies which regulate these laws, such as the World Trade Organisation are dominated by developed countries which benefit most from these unjust laws.

Politics, then, has become, or always was, nothing to do with creating a better world, trying to arrive at solutions which benefit the entire world in a non-violent, well thought-out and virtuous way. Politics is all about looking after number one. It is entirely selfish and self serving. Now those of you who know me and my political views will no doubt be wondering why I, usually so adamant that self-interest can be a force for good, am criticising selfishness. I must explain by saying that there are two kinds of selfishness; rational self-interest, which promotes one’s own interests without threatening the interests of others – indeed, it usually promotes the interests of others as well as one’s own – then there’s the kind of irrational, unthinking selfishness which is the kind that everyone criticises and it, unfortunately, predominant in politics. It’s the kind of short-sighted, ill-considered selfishness that leads to greater problems down the line, which are in turn only solved by temporary fixes which bring short term gains at the expense of long term interests.

This leads to international politics becoming based not on reason and the long term interests of the world, but based on who has the most power and from whom smaller nations can whore themselves out to; usually the USA. These leaks are mostly indicative of the countries either sucking up to the USA in order to gain political favour – like the Cluster bombs, Guantanamo Bay and Yemen cases – or attempts by the USA to manipulate world politics in their favour, like the spying case. Either way they’re all a rather chilling and deeply disturbing insight into the world of politics – a world that quite desperately needs to be cleaned up if the world is ever to become a place of widespread peace and prosperity.

Inevitably the USA and her allies have tried to cover up these leaks, shut down the website, fix the pipes and generally try to make themselves out to be the victim. In a completely flagrant disregard for anything they might have done wrong, US politicians are accusing the man who leaked the documents – Julian Assange – of causing irreparable damage to international relations and causing untold setbacks in the cause of world peace. While of course this is true, all Assage is doing is being the messenger; he is simply telling the world about all the dishonest, self-serving and largely illegal behaviour of the US and her allies. It is rather rich for the US to be accusing him of causing all this damage when it is simply the truth about their behaviour that has caused the damage.

Immediate self evaluation would be far too much to expect of a political system which has shown itself again and again to be incapable of changing without enormous pressure from voters – and even then there’s never any real change. One would hope that these leaks will at least enlighten the voters about just how shockingly corrupt and self-serving their politicians are. Whether this will cause any change, given that the only way to change the system if from within and the only way to get into the system is to be a part of the corruption and culture of selfishness in the first place, is highly doubtful. Nevertheless these revelations are incredibly important, even if they only serve to prove, once and for all, that a politician will never change his stripes and politics will always be an exercise in self-aggrandisement at the expense of virtue.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The United... Republic?

A couple of weeks ago the UK and indeed most of the rest of the Commonwealth was hurled into a torrent of joy, patriotism and nostalgia with the news that Prince William was to marry Kate Middleton; his long term girlfriend. I know this is old news, but one blog a week isn’t enough to keep up sometimes. I’m also sorry that this is so late; I’ve had a busy weekend.

Anyway, I think I was about the only one in the Commonwealth who wasn’t either very excited at the prospect of a royal wedding or at least apathetic to the whole thing. Ok that isn’t strictly true, but doubters were pretty hard to come by. The fact that so few people seem to think that the continued existence of the royal family is an affront to justice and democracy is almost as worry as the continued existence of the royal family.

‘An affront to justice and democracy’ is a pretty bold statement to make, so it deserves some form of explanation. Let’s define terms first; justice is the concept of getting what you deserve. If you work hard, you’ll be more successful that if you bum around; if you commit a crime, you will be punished; if you treat other with dignity and respect, they will treat you likewise. It’s a basic concept which forms the basis of any society. When if fails, you are left with either tyranny or anarchy. In short justice forms the basis for society.

One born, or indeed married, into the royal family is born, or married, into undeserved and unearned privilege. Palaces and luxury are yours by birthright. From the moment you first draw breath you are destined for wealth and high office. Royalty are destined for privilege that no other citizen can even dream of attaining, no matter how hard they work, and yet they have to do nothing to earn such honour.

Unearned wealth and privilege goes against any rational definition of justice and the royal family embody unearned wealth and privilege. Of course the same can be said of any kind of inheritance, and I would agree with you, however this inheritance is such a gross and overwhelming one that all others pale in comparison. There is no way that any of the royal family could possibly attain what they inherit by their own efforts.

We must not forget also that royalty does not only embody wealth, but also high office. Here is where the democracy comes in. The ideal of democracy is that those deemed most able by the populace is appointed to lead them for a select period of time. It is, in many ways, an extension of justice – a collective choice of leader is made of he who is most deserving and, depending on how good the decision was, the people are either served well or badly. If things go badly, they only have to blame themselves.

The royal family are destined for high office. Prince William, so long as he doesn’t die before hand, will eventually inherit the throne. That means he becomes the official diplomatic, military and political leader of the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth. The people over whom he rules have no say in the matter and have no constitutional capacity to depose him. He will have done nothing to deserve it beyond simply being born for it. His wife will have done nothing beyond being lucky enough to be the object of his affection.

Unelected, indefinite power is not democracy. Sure the King/Queen has no real power – that lies with Parliament, but they still have a significant diplomatic and official role in the country. They often act as our spokesperson and act on the world stage in a very significant way. We cannot possibly call this democracy.

So the royal family is clearly and demonstrably undemocratic and unjust, so why do so many people celebrate their ongoing existence? Most of it is a rather fond nostalgia, harking back to the days when Britain was the world’s only super-power, rather than an increasingly isolated and insignificant island, neither in Europe, nor outside it. This is complemented with a rather large dollop of conservatism.

These arguments are impossible to refute, because they are, at heart, an emotional response that can only be refuted with introspection. There are some arguments, largely straw-men, which can be tackled head on.

The most significant of these is the appeal to tourism. It is argued that the royal family and all the pomp they represent are good for the tourist industry. They are a veritable magnet for visitors to the UK and Buckingham palace is on every tourist trail worth following. The problem is that if you go to France, the Palace of Versailles is just as popular, and yet no living monument to bygone days squats there. No tourist would shun the palace if it were to become an empty shell of our history, rather that a living piece of it.

I don’t think we should shun and forget the rich and long history that the UK has, of which the royal family has played an integral part, but there is a different between celebrating history and living in the past. Just like the monarchies of ever other European country, the gross injustice of monarchy belongs in the past. It should be remembered and the deeds of the great men and women who occupied the position should be celebrated – just as the deeds of the rather worse men and women (of whom there are just as many) should be bemoaned.

The rulers who occupy the pages of history should be studied so that we might understand how the UK came to be the way it is today, but they should not continue to be written into the history books. They have no place in a modern society in which justice and democracy rule, because they contradict both. No amount of nostalgia can fix that.

Speaking of nostalgia and how it is no excuse for progress, you might notice the rebranding. I have a new name for this blog because I didn’t like the old one. The content will not change, but now I won’t be quite so embarrassed by the title. 

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows… Sort Of

I stopped really enjoying Harry Potter books and films a couple of years ago when I realised that it contained very little that was terribly original and the books were not actually that well written, so I was not expecting much from the latest HP film. I was not disappointed. Well I was disappointed, but not at all surprised.

I have many problems with the books and, by extension, the films. The principle of these is that it’s all too cliché. Rowling extracts, pretty much unaltered, almost everything that popular folk law has to offer and stuffs it clumsily into her world. Creatures from across the globe cram into the forest outside Hogwarts without any attention paid to the context and subtleties of the myths with which they’re associated. This leads to a paper thin and rather unsatisfactory world in which the story it set.

The magic in the story suffers from much the same problem. Rowling never really sets any rules, either implicitly or explicitly. There are vagaries about relative strength and many of the Witches and Wizards at Hogwarts struggle to get to grips with the stuff, but once they reach adulthood, it seems that they can do pretty much anything that needs doing without too much trouble – unless of course the plot demands that they have trouble with something for the sake of tension. As such Magic just becomes a convenient plot device to be wheeled out whenever something needs to happen, rather than an integral part of the conflict, contributing in some meaningful way to the characters or themes being explored.

Examples of this is seen repeatedly in The Deathly Hollows; right at the beginning, for example, when Hermione extracts herself from her parent’s life with magic – which is an incredibly complicated and difficult thing to do properly when you consider the profound influence even relatively minor people in our lives can have. Magic is used here to perform the act with relative simplicity, but healing flesh wounds seems to be beyond the talents of everyone. If wounds were healed with as much ease as memories were selectively wiped, the tension and difficulty created later on by physical injury would be shattered. Magic has limitations when it’s convenient, but now when it doesn’t need to, and it becomes somewhat jarring.

Rowling’s world, on the whole, is pretty paper thin. It compared very unfavourably to the incredibly vivid worlds created by other Fantasy writers such as Tolkien and, more recently, Robert Jordan (one of my personal favourites) among others. Of course world building is not the be-all-and-end-all of fantasy. As with any story the plot and characters are by far more important that the setting. Rowling’s focus most certainly lies with the former, so it’s prudent to examine those further; writers should, on the whole, be judged according to their own priorities.

Rowling performs somewhat better in terms of characters and plot than she does on setting, but it still lacks complexity. HP essentially boils down to a very simple and overused fantasy structure; a young hero ignorant of his past and of his true place in the world is thrown into the world beyond his limited childhood and faced with his shadowy past. He much strive with his friends (many of whom are in a similar position to him) to foil the undoubtedly evil antagonist, who is somehow linked to the hero’s own past, in his plot to rule the world. Now this in itself in not inherently bad – Jordan’s Wheel or Time series is based on exactly the same model – but is only effective if it is build upon by interesting and original layers of complexity, as well as well thought out characters.

While Rowling does succeed in making it slightly more complex than the above model, it’s still pretty shallow; Voldemort’s motivation beyond being an evil bastard is pretty weak and the setup of Harry’s character is very standard. The link between the two is relatively interesting and well played out, but the lack of ambiguity spoils it somewhat.

Indeed the lack of ambiguity is one of the most glaring flaws in the series, along with most fantasy of similar ilk. There is no question of whether Voldemort or any of his cronies are evil; indeed the evil is, at times, cartoonish. The antagonists of Harry’s childhood; the Dursleys, are a perfect example of the unrealistically dislikeable characters. They are straw people designed to ally the reader’s sympathies with Harry straight off. The opportunity was to pose interesting questions on the tragedy of an unwanted child for whom the parent’s can’t care for, but it was ignored in favour of a childishly simplistic foil to the protagonist.

This is a theme through the books. Think of all the ‘bad guy’ in the series and try to think of one with whom you can actually sympathise. As far as I can remember, they’re all comically hate-worthy, with hardly a single saving grace amongst them. In the film for example, it is reinforced early on that Voldemort’s secret council is full of evil people (as if that wasn’t obvious by the fact that they all look shady and murderous), by having them feed some random Witch to a snake, just in case we didn’t realise that they were the bad guys. Similarly the Ministry of Magic is turned into some modern reimagining of Nazi Germany, just to make sure we were aware that they were the bad guys too.

This kind of paper-thin, black-and-white, good-vs-evil setup is so simplistic and juvenile as to be insulting, even keeping in mind that the books and films are aimed at a young audience. Young people can still understand and grapple with ambiguity. The books and films would be far richer if they encouraged the audience to consider the arguments of both sides and displayed an appreciation for the moral greyness of reality, rather than propagating a rather simplistic idea that there are good guys and bad guys and no-one in between.

In fairness this is more a criticism of fantasy as a genre than HP specifically, because the latter is very much a product of the former. Even Tolkien is not above unambiguous and poorly characterised straw-man villains. Nevertheless, in HP it is even more cartoonish and over the top than usual. Again the story here is of missed opportunities. Clearly Rowling is going for a Nazi parallel with the obsession with blood and the understandable superiority complex of some of those with magic over those without, and at first this is rather well done, but it becomes somewhat overplayed in the final book and all subtlety is lost. The most jarring thing is that most wizards seem to just go along with it, when there seems no reason to do so. It’s clear that Harry Potter isn’t the villain here because Voldemort so obviously is, so why don’t ordinary people smell a rat? It’s not like the situation in Germany when in the 1930s is anything like the situation in the wizard world; at least if it is Rowling fails to show it sufficiently for the parallel to be anything more than vulgar.

All of the above is forgivable. While there are many major flaws, these could be carried along by sufficiently strong characters. Unfortunately the characters are very much the same as the rest. I’ve talked about the straw-man villains, so let’s talk protagonists. Admittedly Rowling is able to create some likable and well developed characters, but the most interesting tend only to be side characters. The principle protagonists, Harry, Ron and Hermione are, by far, the weakest. Ron is little more than a goofy sidekick who occasionally shows some inconsistent glimmerings of valour to save the day, but spends most of the time just being annoying. Harry meanwhile is brave and heroic to a fault. His boldfaced attempts to try to do everything by himself are noble, but gets extremely annoying after a while. His pathological failure to realise that what he’s dealing with is not just about him gets jarring when it happens in every book. His insistence that no-one risk their life for his sake in the most recent film is not noble; it’s just plain stupid. You’d hope by now that it he’s work out that it’s not all about him, but apparently such intelligence is beyond him. Meanwhile Hermione is the super-rational, emotionally dysfunctional prodigy who is very much like Dr Temperance Brennan in the American crime drama ‘Bones’. The difference is that ‘Bones’ is very tongue in cheek, whereas HP is far too straight faced to pull off such a character without it being unintentionally silly.

Well, what was supposed to be a review of the recent Harry Potter movie has turned into a rant about why I don’t like the franchise, with a smattering of references to the actual film, so I guess I’d better pull out the stops and talk about the film for a bit.

The director was always in for a challenge with converting this book into a film because it’s just so damn big! It’s not just the size, but also the fact that so much happens. In fact one of the problems with the books was that they lacked pacing. Everything happens quickly. Sure it keeps you interested, but Rowling never stop to really describe anything in vivid detail or build suspense. To quote Alan Bennett, ‘it’s just one fucking thing after another’. This means that there’s a lot to cram into a reasonable time space. They’ve already split the thing in two, but still if felt rushed.

There was very little suspense created because there was just so much to get through. Events happened to quickly that no-one, not even the characters, really had time to stop and take stock of what just happened. There wasn’t enough time for the characters to react to events because the next event happened straight away. As such there was very little opportunity to really form the emotional connection with the characters needed for the audience to actually give a damn what happened. Of course it didn’t help that they all acted to jarringly unrealistically and unsympathetically throughout.

There were some positives however; the story of the creation of the Deathly Hallows was really well done, and as ever the magical duels looked fantastic. Editorially it was very well put together and, as you might imagine, no expense was spared in making it look very pretty, however this is all style. Style is great, but it’s nothing without substance.

The film suffers from being part 1 of 2, because the ending is really weak and I left the cinema with a very unsatisfactory feeling. That being said I wasn’t exactly given a great deal of reason to look forward to the next one; I can’t say the characters really interested me enough to want to see any more of them. The books always managed to keep me interested and engaged, even if they were rather unsatisfactory, the films have all pretty much failed to do the same. It’s not just because I know what’s going to happen either; I’ve read the earlier book multiple times and they still engaged me.

In short, save your money, (re)read the book because it’s far more entertaining, or go pick up a much better fantasy series and get into the instead.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Phone Tag

Another little short story for you, because it's been a while. I decided to write this in the first person, partly because I don't write nearly enough in the first person and it's quite enjoyable, but mostly because I feel a little guilty putting so much exposition in when writing in the third person; I prefer to show rather than tell, but that takes much longer, especially when there's so much you need to know to get the point of the story. The pay-off isn't big enough to justify a longer piece, so I decided the change of person was necessary. That being said I rather like the characters, so I might think about a longer story featuring the same people.

Anyway, enough explanation of  my thought process, enjoy Phone Tag.

Andy struck one of his cheesy rock-and-roll poses as he strummed the final chord of ‘Killing in the Name of’ on Guitar Hero. Just as the note faded into the cheering or the crowd, his phone rang. Jumping up, Andy frisked himself in search of his phone and nearly gutted me with the end of the crappy, garish plastic guitar as he spun to find the source of the high pitch tone.
Andy’s face dropped when he saw the caller ID and the excitement of pretending to be a rock star in the living room faded.
“Sorry Steve, I have to take this.” I shrugged and pulled the strap of the guitar over my head. Leaning it on the side of the couch, I slumped into the comfortable seat.
“I was getting bored of Guitar Hero anyway.” I smiled weakly as he pulled the phone up to his ear and turned to leave the room.
“Hi Karen!” Steve called jovially into the phone and walked out of the door into the kitchen of the small flat we shared.
The mention of Steve’s girlfriend snatched my attention. I pulled the remote from down the side of the sofa and hit ‘mute’. Climbing over the furniture, I arranged myself so that I looked relaxed enough, but was as close to the door as possible so I could try to listen to the conversation.
Andy had been acting strangely ever since he got back from work, so I’d had guessed that something must be up, but whenever I’d brought it up Andy had dismissed it as ‘nothing’ and had got angry when I tried to pursue the issue further.
“Listen, Karen, I know what you think happened, and I can see how it seemed that way at the time, but if you’ll just listen, it’s not what you think.” Stress strained Andy’s voice.
I wondered what Andy had done wrong. There was a lot of stuff wrong with Andy, but an adulterer he was not. There were only about two things of which you could be certain when it came to Andy; that he loved Karen and that he was hiding something from you. Andy was a compulsive liar with huge trust issues, which were probably hangovers from his days as an amateur drug dealer back when he was living in Seattle. Since moving to California and meeting Karen he’s cleaned up his act, but he remained a hard man to trust.
“Yes I know I promised honey, and that’s why you know I didn’t do it.” He was cut off mid stream. “But you do matter to me. I love you, which is how you know I’m telling you the truth.”
I wasn’t entirely sure why Karen put up with Andy. He loved her to bits, but was pathologically incapable of showing it. I’d grown up with him, so I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to living with him, but Karen didn’t have the same excuse. He’d barely been in Frisco for a month and they’d hooked up. Karen was my best friend, so I was a little worried when they got together, but it’d turned out surprisingly well so far.
“That’s not true Baby. You know I’m trying. I didn’t betray you I swear, you’ve got it all wrong.” Again he trailed off for a moment. “Of course I want this relationship more, you know that… I have got better and you’re why. I don’t do that any more… What you saw isn’t what happened… No of course I’m not, you’re the smartest person I know, but that doesn’t mean you’re not jumping to conclusions here… I know you don’t trust me, I get that, but please hear me out.”
As I lay on the couch, listening to half this argument, I wondered what Andy had done this time. I was pretty sure Andy hadn’t gone screwing some other chick; Sex had never been Andy’s weakness. I thought Andy had cleaned up has act with regards to substances, but now I was having my doubts.
“OK, I’m coming over, Steve’s here and I need to talk to you in private. You know how nosey he is.” I felt my cheeks heat slightly. “I don’t want to get him involved in this; it’s not fair on him.” I smiled slightly; maybe he had changed since moving from Seattle.
There was a click as the phone was folded shut. Andy walked out of the kitchen with a neutral expression. “I’m heading over to Karen’s, dunno when I’ll be back.”
“Anything up?” I asked from the couch.
“Nah,” he waved a dismissive hand. “It’s nothing.”
As he walked out of the flat, I noticed telltale needle marks on his arms. Maybe he hadn’t changed after all.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

‘They shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’ (Lessons from history 7: The gunpowder plot)

On the night of 4th November, 405 years ago last Thursday, a servant of the English king, James I, searching the store rooms below the Houses of Parliament, found a man who called himself John Johnson and 36 barrels of Gunpowder. The man, who was actually called Guy Fawkes, was executed, along with his fellow conspirators, on 30th January 1606 for plotting to assassinate the king by blowing up parliament.

The Gunpowder Plot, as we now know it, has been popularised by ‘Bonfire Night’ a night were we burn an effigy of Fawkes on a bonfire. It was also the inspiration for the graphic Novel, later turned into a film, called V for Vendetta, which is a fantastic film and you should all watch it. The film portrays Fawkes as a hero of freedom and free speech, attempting to commit treason in the name of the people and paying the ultimate price for failure. However history is very rarely so clear cut or idealistic; Fawkes was not some hero of freedom, fighting for justice and righteousness.

By 1605, the Church of England, having been established in the middle of the previous century, was well established as the principle religion of England; Catholicism having been repeatedly persecuted by Henry, Edward and Elizabeth, with only a brief reprise under Queen Mary. With the end of the Tudor dynasty however, it had been hoped that the Stewarts, descended in part from Mary Tudor, might be a little more lenient on Catholics in England. Indeed in James I’s early reign it was; he prefered to deport renegade Catholics, rather than behead them. However with growing fears of papal attempts to regain influence in England, and a preference to strengthen ties with the very protestant Scotland, of which James was also king, his position against Catholics became arguable more strict that his predecessor. This was made worse by the influence of Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State, who was very Anti-Catholic.

Guy Fawkes, and his fellow conspirators; he was not even the ring leader, just the man caught red handed, were Catholics seeking greater freedom to practice their religion and indeed seeking the return of Catholicism to being the official religion of England. They were not only seeking freedom from oppression, but dominance of their own view. They were not V for Vendetta’s heroes of freedom and justice, but then Catholicism isn’t such a universal theme on which to sell a hero, so we might just let that slide.

On the face of it the plot was simple enough; blow up the House of Lords on the State Opening of Parliament, killing the king and many leading political figures, decapitating the English leadership and paving the way for a more sympathetic government to be installed in their place. It’s very doubtful that it would have worked had they not been found; given that most people had a stronger allegiance to King and Country that to Rome and Catholicism probably means that things would only have gotten tougher for English Catholics.

Unfortunately among those set to be blow up were a number of Catholic Members of Parliament. One in particular, William Parker; Baron Monteagle, was the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators. Monteagle received an anonymous letter in late October, warning him to stay away from the State Opening of Parliament, warning that ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’. Inevitable Monteagle reported the letter to Salisbury, who, having already has some suspicions of a treason plot planned for the opening on Parliament, ordered a thorough search of the House. In the search Fawkes was found with the gun powder and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

There have always been some doubts over the story and many through history have asked if it was all a setup. These questions do have grounding in some facts which seem to be a little suspicious. For one the conspirators were allowed to rent a cellar under Parliament suspiciously easily, especially given that they were Catholics. Likewise they were able to obtain an incredibly large amount of Gunpowder; a commodity monopolised by the Government.

There have been some, even professional historians who have claimed that it was all a set up by Salisbury. What better way to ensure the ongoing persecution of Catholics than to catch them in the act of committing treason and murder on a massive scale? It’s unlikely that Fawkes and his fellows were Martyrs for the cause of Protestantism, but it’s argued that they were effectively duped into thinking they were pulling off a coup, when really they were all part of the plan.

Appealing though this story of intrigue and subtle manipulation is, the evidence simply does not add up. Gunpowder may be a Government monopoly, but the Black Market existed then as it does now. Smuggling was rife and determined men could easily have obtained enough Gunpowder for the plot. The cellars under Parliament were often rented out to members of the public and the conspirators used fake names, so there was no way to know that they were Catholics. None of the confessions even begin to suggest a conspiracy and neither does the plotters actions after being caught. While we should never rule out such a possibility, it seems unlikely that Salisbury planned it all from the beginning.

That is not to say that all is how it seems however. Such a large amount of Gunpowder might well have attracted attention and Salisbury’s spies no doubt watched the houses close to parliament. No doubt Salisbury suspected something and the Monteagle letter simple confirmed his suspicions. However the letter was delivered on 26th October, well before the opening of Parliament. Why then were the cellars not searched before the night of 4th November?

It seems clear that the most reasonable explanation lies somewhere between the extremes (as is so often the case in history). Salisbury had an idea that something was being planned at the Opening of Parliament, but decided to wait until the eve of the Ceremony because he was chasing publicity. The closer the plotters got to kill the king, the greater the backlash against Catholics. Salisbury manipulated events to make sure that he could make the most of the plot that he had pretty well under control. As a result the king turned even more strongly against the Catholics, just as he wanted.

And as an even more ludicrous PR exercise, 5th November became a national day of celebration and anti-Catholicism, Guy Fawkes is the national enemy who tried to kill the king and we are all encouraged to ‘remember, remember the 5th of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I know of no reason, why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Trick or Treat? (Lessons from History 6: Halloween Edition)

Today is the 31st of October (as those of you who have calendars will no doubt be aware). Likewise those with any knowledge of popular culture will be aware that today is Halloween; the one day of the year when it’s totally appropriate for little children to take sweets from strange men. It’s also a time when there is nothing but Horror Films on TV and people actually buy pumpkins.

As you might expect, behind all the modern secular traditions, ruthlessly exploited by soulless supermarkets and commercialised almost to the same extent as Christmas, there is some historical explanation as to why little children dress up and threaten people into giving them unhealthy food and why we carve comically ugly faces into large hollowed out vegetables.

You might remember from my discussion of the origins of Christmas last December that the newly founded Roman Catholic Church was really rather fond of adapting Pagan festivals into their newly popularised religion. I also alluded to the fact that Roman Polytheism had a habit of absorbing local cults into its Parthenon. While last time the cult in question hailed all the way from Syria, this time the festival is very Celtic indeed, which explains why Halloween is celebrated mostly in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent England, as well as the USA; which was highly populated with Scottish and Irish immigrants in the early 20th century.

The festival in question is Samhain, which mean’s summer’s end. The end of October and the beginning of November have long been associated with the end of summer and the start of winter, especially in cold of Northern Europe. The Celtic calendar divides the year in half, the winter months from November through to April are the dark half of the year, whereas the months from May through to October are the light half of the year. As such Samhein marks the transition from the light half to the dark half, just as Bealtaine in late April, early May, marks the transition from the light half of the year to the dark half.

Samhain is known as a festival for honouring the dead, because it is believed to be the time when the barrier between the living and the dead are closest. The symbolism here is pretty standard; the dark half of the year is associated with death, because darkness and the colour black are pretty synonymous with death. Darkness is essentially nothingness, just like death in many ways. Similarly the winter months are characterised by lifeless trees and coldness, which is also associated with death. By contrast, the light half of the year is associated with life, for the opposite reasons. As such, the day in which the light half of the year and the dark half of the year meet is bound to be associated with the thinning of the barrier between life and death.

So what has this got to do with Halloween? Well when the barrier between life and death meet, evil spirits have a horrible habit of escaping their dark prison and infiltrating the world of the living. In order to protect oneself from these evil spirits, it become customary during Samhain to dress up as an evil spirit, so that they didn’t realise that you were actually living, because apparently evil spirits are not only dead, but incredibly stupid. It also became customary to protect your houses by placing a guard carved out of turnip (the Pumpkin is a later, American innovation). Bonfires were also lit around this time, but that has not transferred over to Halloween, but another common celebration that happens in a few days (I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about, if not, tune in next week!)

I alluded to the Roman habit of absorbing conquered rituals and cults into their own Parthenon earlier, and Samhain was no exception. When the Romans conquered Britain they associated the practice with their own Festival to celebrate their dead, Feralia. Unfortunately this took place in February, so they also associated it with the day honouring the autumnal Goddess Pomona, which fell in October. The Goddess’s association with apples is thought to be the reason why Apple Bobbing is popular around Halloween.

The Roman influence is not as strong as the Christian one on the festival however. While the Catholic Church was trying to establish itself over the whole of the Roman Empire, many common cults and practices were morphed into Christian celebrations. Samhain, then, was turned into All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, a day for celebrating the entire Catholic Parthenon of Saints and all dead people respectively. These days fell on the first and second of November, so the 31st of October became All Saint’s (or Hallow’s) eve, what we now call Halloween. All the spiritual stuff about revering one’s ancestors became associated with first two days in November, whereas the slightly more spooky stuff about guarding against evil spirits continued to be practiced in more Celtic areas like Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall and was later commercialised into what we now know as Halloween.

So dressing up and Jack-O-Lanterns come from Celtic traditions, Apple bobbing probably comes courtesy of the Romans, and the tradition of children begging for sweets probably dates back to the tradition of the poor begging for food from the rich on All Saint’s Day. So we owe the bizarre celebration of Halloween to the Celts, the Romans, Medieval Christians and an awful lot commercialisation.

The more you know, eh?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

My Top Ten... Video Games

You might remember that over the last few months I’ve done a trilogy of Top Tens regarding music. Well I’ve run out of musical things to do it on (well when you’ve done albums, artists and songs where else can you go?). So now I’m moving onto video games. I’m not a massive gamer; I don’t sink hours and hours into video games like some do, not have I played a massive variety of different games, but I have played enough to make a decent list. Again in no particular order.

  • Bioshock: I’ve mentioned before how incredible Bioshock’s story is. Wonderfully self aware, with a really interesting setting and an outstanding plot. To cap it all it’s also very well written. Not only this, but the gameplay is superb. Probably the main flaw I found was that the difficulty setting were too extreme – medium kicked my ass, but easy was a breeze. Other than that it was pretty outstanding.

  • Assassin’s Creed: I actually just finished playing through this one. Really well written, excellent characterisation. The plot is a little overblown and suffers from trying to raise the stakes a little too high, but still succeeds in making me want to know what happens next; it’s just a shame it ends without really resolving anything. I guess I’ll just have to play the second game instead. The gameplay gets a little repetitive at times and the game drags between assassinations, but it’s still really fun when hundreds of guards start chasing after you. I was a little dubious about the part of the game set in the present, but I very quickly warmed to it because it’s so well written.

  • Prince on Persia: Sands of Time: So good to see an interesting and well characterised female protagonist and a well written love story in a video game. Another really well written game that really sucks you into the story. The pacing a little off because it really drags through the middle part, but the gameplay is good enough to get you through that. The platforming keeps coming up with interesting new things. If anything the difficulty curve is somewhat off, leading the combat to drag a little (not helped by the lack of variety). The camera is pretty horrible at times, but you get used to it eventually. Shame the writing fell away for the sequels, because Warrior Within fixes many of the gameplay issues.

  • Portal: Need I really explain it? Fantastic story, wonderful aesthetic and brilliantly imaginative gameplay and excellent voice acting. The only problem is that it could have been longer, but then the challenge modes at the end serve to extend gameplay somewhat, so all is forgiven. Now where is Portal 2?

  • Psychonauts: I’ve discussed this one before. Charming story, hilariously written and always fun to play. There are a few issues with the gameplay, but they’re not deal breakers, especially when you consider that the game contains a psychic bear, Napoleon’s ancestor playing strategy games in his own head with Great-daddy Bonaparte and, well a psychic fucking bear!

  • KotoR 1: The only RPG on the list. One of those Western RPGs from back in the day when they still followed a fairly linear plotline, just with a large number of sideplots and a bit of freedom as to which parts of the plot you tackle first. This meant that it actually had pacing and was pretty water tight, unlike more modern RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, both of which are decent games, but are simply too bloated and meandering. In both games my save got wiped and I didn’t really care enough about the plot to go back to them. I’m one of those gamers who does everything in the game because I assume it is necessary to the plot, so I just end up getting bogged down in all the bullshit side quests. You could do this in KotoR without losing track of the plot, which, by the way, was awesome.

  • Rome Total War: Finally I’ll stop going on about games with good writing, because R:TW doesn’t really have much of a story, it’s just a really, really good Turn Based Strategy game with lots of replay value. While Empire tended to get a bit too overwhelming and repetitive, Rome had a really simple and still interesting mechanic that meant you could just keep on playing it for hours on end, which I did.

  • Battle for Middle Earth 1: Another strategy game that I have sunk hours into over the years. Shame the sequel was rubbish, but you can’t have everything I suppose. BfME managed to stand out from the crowd of Age of Empires clones by adding in some really interesting original features that I mention in my review of the sequel. It’s a really well balanced game that really is piles and piles of fun.

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum: I wrote a review of this a while ago, so best just to check that out. It’s another really fun platformer with much better combat than the other games of the same ilk already listed. Not as well written and with a few gameplay flaws, but the story holds the game together well enough and the flaws are nothing too major. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out.

  • Half-Life 2: Finally a game with actually pretty bad writing. I mentioned before that Half-Life 2 is not actually all that well written and fails to appropriately characterise the Protagonist. That being said, it’s fun. I mean really fun. Really well balanced weapons, a variety of different enemies and a good difficulty curve. If you want a good shooter with some interesting physics puzzles then Half-life is as good a bet as any.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

It's in the Game

This week EA Games released the new Medal of Honour game. Normally I’d ignore such news because I’m not a huge fan of shooters, especially online ones. However this particular release has caused a media storm because it allowed the player to play as the Taliban against allied forces online. I said ‘allowed’ because EA have since backed down and renamed the Taliban ‘The Opposition’. This was a terrible decision and indicative of a wider problem with Video Games as a medium

The problem has to do with Video Games in the popular imagination. People see them purely as entertainment and not as art. People do not see that video games can make an interesting or profound point about the state of the world. Nor that they can tell a moving and engaging story. People who don’t understand video games think that they’re only there to entertain people. Games like Medal of Honour and Halo suffer from this especially because they are primarily online games in which no real story is told once the painfully short single player campaign is done with.

It does not need to be said that this assumption is entirely untrue. While there are some who would still dispute this, to most commentators in the industry, Video Games are most certainly an artistic medium. That’s not to say that every Video Games is a work of art and certainly not to say that the industry has produced as many great works as the film industry, even when you take into account their relative life spans, but the fact that Video Games can be used as a medium to tell as story and invoke an emotional reaction in the player means that they most certainly qualify as an artistic medium.

This popular misconception means that, whenever a video game has some content which is controversial, the media does not see it as an attempt to make an artistic point and make people think about the issues being raised, but simply an attempt to increase sales in some clever popularity stunt. This problem is compounded when the game itself is seen as rather juvenile; the image associated with a shooter like MoH is of an adolescent sitting in a darkened room getting over excited over shooting someone through the head. It’s not a great image and certainly one which acts as a barrier to viewing something as an attempt to make a mature comment on current affairs.

While this viewpoint is not without merit, it oversimplifies things. Calling the opposition ‘the Taliban’ probably was, in part, done because it would doubtless attract attention and increase media coverage and hence sales. No doubt many of the players would fail to comprehend the significance of playing as the Taliban beyond it being pretty cool. However for the majority of the audience, no matter how juvenile, the experience of playing the Taliban against the allied soldiers would be slightly more meaningful. Rather than the Taliban just being the bad guys who we all shoot against, the perspective changes and the allies becomes the bad guys who are shooting you. The realisation is that war is a pretty scary experience for them as well as for the allies. When you’re playing as ‘the Opposition’ it doesn’t quite have the same effect because it’s not rooted in reality and so the change is not quite so shocking.

Admittedly calling the opponent ‘the Taliban’ and allowing them to be played on multiplayer is pretty weak as artistic statements go, but if Video Games are ever going to be appreciated as an artistic medium, they are statements that have to be made and staunchly defended. If someone were to make a film told from the perspective of the Taliban fighting the allies it would probably be hailed as a racy and controversial work of genius. Sure there would be some who would oppose the issue, but most of the media would come to accept it in time. Indeed films like The Hurt Locker and Jarhead explicitly criticise Allied forces, but no-one bats an eyelid because films are accepted as a mature artistic medium. There’s no reason why a game should not be able to deal with mature and complicated moral issues with reference to current affairs without being criticised.

The fault here largely lies with EA, who rather weakly backed down in the face of media pressure. Developers have to stand up for video games as an art form or else the popular perception of them will not change. Indeed the industry has already shown how it is capable of weathering media storms; remember the controversy over the sex scene is Mass Effect 1 a few years ago? Now think how many RPGs have sexual relationships as part of them? Pretty much every RPG deals with sex and relationships in some way now. Perhaps if EA had decided to be a little braver many more shooters would be presenting modern conflicts with enemies taken from real life, rather than simply being set in ‘Oppositionstan’. Maybe even single player campaigns will start allowing you to play as the Taliban as well. I mean we’re used to playing as Nazis against the Allies, who’s to say we shouldn’t start playing as the Taliban as well?

The problem that Video Games have is that it’s not just the protagonist who is the Terrorist, it’s the player. Video Games are interactive media, so the audience is not just viewing passively, but actively taking part in the action on screen. This is a fantastic tool for emersion, but sadly makes any attempt to tell a story from a controversial point of view far too racy for the media to accept. This is a great shame because in terms of making an artistic point it’s fantastic. Any story attempts to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes and nowhere is this done better than in Video Games because you are literally in the protagonist shoes. The potential for creating an emotional reaction is much greater because part of the work of creating an emotional connection is done for you.

Video Games have great potential to create an emotional response, indeed many of them do, however they have some huge hurdles, many of them self made, to get over before people take them seriously enough to consider them art. The most important one of these hurdles is the image of being nothing more than entertainment. Developers need to start taking themselves seriously and consider their games art. They need to stand up for artistic decisions and start making people appreciate games as more than just entertainment. I’m looking at you, EA.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

National Poetry Day

I doubt that you know this, but Thursday was National Poetry Day in the UK. While the necessity of giving poetry its own day is up for debate, I don’t want to pursue that path because frankly I don’t really know nor care about the answer. Instead I thought I’d share some of my own poetry. I’ve not done this before because most of the poetry I’ve written is pretty crap. However of late I’ve started writing some poems that I actually quite like.

The premise is that I start with a photo that I’ve taken on my travels around the world and use that photo as inspiration for a short poem. The theme is Man’s relationship with the natural world, but I’ve only been sticking to that pretty loosely so far. The reason I’ve started doing this is that I keep getting bouts of inspiration and desire to write something, but no idea what to write about. A photo provides a really good focal point for this inspiration and allows me to channel it into something tangible.

Below are three examples, the first of which is about Hiroshima. To get some of the references you might want to check out this Wikipedia article .

Grey Skies and Falling Rain

Across the river from the bombed out husk
Is the bell that will always be rang,
And the flame that will never go out.
Sombre monuments to our destructive

Innocent white cherry blossoms bloom,
Stark contrast to the empty concrete.
The solemn grey reminder of the tragedy
Of human progress,
In the hands of the barbarous.

The grey skies and the falling rain
–Nature’s pathetic fallacy–
Punctuate the grim scene.

The rain will not extinguish the flame,
And the bell will keep sounding
For peace.

While bombs rain
And sky’s greyed
By mushroom clouds

The second is inspired by a photo taken when I was skiing in Austria back in 2008.

The Cable Car

Jagged white peaks carve the perfect blue sky,
The shadow of the mountain bathes half of the valley in darkness,
As the sun gleams off the snow.
Sprawling forests dirty the perfect white floor
With snow-speckled dark green carpet.
Defiant, shoulders of rock peak out from the snow,
Breakers of permanence swimming in the sea of white.

Through the valley floor a road carves and curves into the snow,
An earthworm of humanity against the mountain giant.
A car streams along the road, flying towards the town,
Nestled just out of sight,
Surrounded by trees and half shadowed by the mountains.

And the people in the cable car sit and watch,
As they fly over the mountain along cords of ingenuity.
Their glass castles swaying in the cool alpine air,
As they observe man’s wild and untamed

And the third is inspired by my recent trip to the Northern Territory.

To Steal the Soul of Death

In the swamps of North Australia
In the Billabongs and the rivers,
In the shady jungle at the water’s edge,
Floating just below the surface,
Of the serene, wind-rippled water,
Lives Death.

And from the boat we peer into the middle distance,
Straining our eyes to catch a glimpse.
Lifting our cameras to steal the soul of Death.
To capture the moment we were mere meters from him,
To immortalise our close encounter,
In mere pixels.

So we can go back to our homes in the cities
And boast to our friends that we were so close
And show them the pixels to prove it.
And relive our risk filled trip into the outback,
In fictional detail.

While in the swamps and the Billabongs,
The crocs keep ignoring the boats,
And the straining eyes
And the cameras.
And wait for dinner to enter the water.

Two other poems in this embryonic collection have recently been published in Downright Fiction, which I encourage you to check out, not only because it includes some more work by me, but also because there are some truly fantastic pieces of work by others.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Up top!

Some of you might know that I’ve spend the last week and a half travelling around the Northern Territory of Australia, which is why there has been no Project 365 for a while and no blog last week. Well I’m making it up to you by posting last weekend’s blog post today and also posting one on Saturday. I will also update Project 365 at some point in the next few days.

So anyway, I flew up to Alice Springs early Saturday morning (September 25th) and got in about midday, so I had the afternoon to relax by the pool and wind down before the tour started on Sunday. This way fortunate because it was an early start on Sunday – we had to have our bags on the bus at 6:30 in the morning! After a bit of breakfast we started the long trip to Uluru (4 or 5 hours on a bus). We had lunch in our resort before heading out to the Rock for the afternoon.

Uluru was very beautiful. Although some of the group climbed to the top, the Aboriginals request that you don’t, so I decided not to. Instead I did a walk around the bottom and took some very good photos! In the evening we sat and watched the sun set over the Rock, which was a wonderful experience.

Then it was back to our resort and into bed after a bit of supper in preparation for another long day. We woke up for breakfast at 5 am in order to get to Kata Tjuta (some big rocks a few miles away from Uluru) for sunrise and then do a two and a half hour walk around the domes before the heat set in. We retraced our steps in the afternoon on the way to King’s Canyon; our stop off point for that evening. Again it was dinner and an early night in preparation for another early morning the next day.

The early morning was so that we could walk through King’s Canyon before the heat of the day. This walk was probably the highlight of the trip; even better than Ayer’s Rock! The rock formations reminded me a lot of pictures I have seen of Cappadocia in central Turkey; needless to say it was absolutely stunning. That evening we returned to Alice for dinner at a charming pub called Bojangles. I ate an 800 gram steak, which I think was about 2 pounds! I got a certificate for my trouble from the restaurant and $5 from a friend, so it was worth it.

The next morning was a late start (thankfully because we’d stayed at the pub until late the last night). We travelled up to the Western MacDonnell Mountains and explored some of the beautiful rock formations in the morning and then went back to Alice for the afternoon. Some of the group stayed in Alice the afternoon, but about half a dozen of us (me included) went Quad biking, which was absolutely awesome! We then returned to our resort for dinner and entertainment in the form of a live Guitarist and a reptile handler. I got to have a snake wrapped around my neck!

From Alice we spend the next 2 days heading 'up the track' to Katherine. This involved 2 days of solid driving through some of the most desolate and deserted landscape I've ever seen. Apart from the occasional rest stop and a couple of small towns there was almost no sign of civilisation for miles on end. The small patches of civilisation were all pretty quirky as well. Two of the best were probably Daly Waters; a pub in which passers by have left pretty much every kind of memorabilia to adorn the walls. We left a vest signed by the entire tour to add to the extensive collection of crap, and Wycliffe Wells; the self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia.

Eventually, after many long hours on the bus, we arrived in Katherine; the third largest town in The Territory. We had a bit of time to shop here before heading off to our accommodation for the evening. The next day we went Kayaking down the Katherine River before cooling off in the pools beneath Edith Falls - the first of many swimming stops over the next few days, which were much needed due to the oppressive tropical humidity. In the afternoon we headed into Kakadu; the largest National Park in Australia, and got settled down in our accommodation. Unlike the rest of the tour, this accommodation was in permanent tents, which was an interesting experience, but very humid given that they lacked air con!

The next morning I, along with half a dozen other people from the tour, went on a scenic flight over the national park, which was absolutely stunning. It proved to be a superb way to see the park both because of its vastness and the humidity making it impossible to spend too much time outside the air conditioned bus. The rest of the morning was spent exploring some of the Aboriginal art sites around Kakadu, which was a really interesting experience. It's a bit of a shame that we don't really know what most of the paintings represent. In the afternoon it was back to the camp site for a relaxing time in the pool and at the bar watching the Rugby League Grand Final.

We were up early the next morning so that we could get to Corroboree Billabong to get up close and personal with Australia's deadliest species - the Salt Water Croc! Fortunately no-one was eaten and we got to get a close look at both fresh and salt water Crocodiles as well as a plethora of bird species that inhabit the Billabong. After our close encounter we got back in the bus and drove to Mt Bundy for our final night together! Another tour member and I went on a guided horse ride through the homestead, which was good fun - and I didn't even fall off once! We saw lots of Wallabies and Kangaroos roaming the homestead as well as some huge termite mounds.

We departed Mt Bundy on the last day of our trip and headed to Lichfield National Park, where we spend a relaxing day travelling between waterfalls and swimming in the beautiful pools. Our last stop was Darwin, where we had dinner and hit the pub to say goodbye to everyone! I unfortunately had a plane to catch in the early hours, so I didn't stay for the duration. Even so it was a really good end to a really good trip and I look forward to my next one.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Forbidden Flowers

Here is something I wrote a while ago but then decided I didn't like. I recently returned to it and actually thought it was quite good. It's fictitious, but something more in the form of a monologue than a story. I also think it raises a really interesting point. Enjoy and let me know what you think, especially concerning the style in which it's presented.

My name is Francis Dunn, and I am in love.

I know I’m only 18 and she’s only 17, but this is for real. I know that most relationships in adolescence break under the strain of changing hormones and changing lives, or are meaningless, temporary flings; vague pretences at feelings we don’t understand, but this is different. We both know it. You can’t choose who you fall in love with.

I’ve known Elly – that’s her name, Elly; Eleanor – for as long as I can remember. We used to play together when we were young, we’ve always gone to the same school, except that one year between Primary and Secondary – she’s a year below me – and we’ve always been best of friends. We have been a constant fixture in each other lives. We know each other better than anyone else knows either of us.

We have always been more than best friends however. We’ve always, as far as I can remember, been in love. Perhaps the love we felt for each other was different when we were still sitting on my bedroom floor building Lego castles and pitting Lego Pirates against Lego Red Indians in battles and games and stories that only we understood, or when we used to play on the swing in the garden, trying to get as high as we possibly could, but always just failing to go all the way over the bar and back to where we started again, no matter how hard we tried. Maybe that love was the sort of love you find between friends so close that they are almost siblings, but the seed of our current passion was planted in our playful, carefree youth.

That seed lay beneath the soil of our upbringing, watered and nourished by our continual friendship, until it sprouted and poked its head tentatively above the ground. The rain and the sun of the ups and downs on our early adolescence allowed that shoot to grow and a bud to appear, concealing the beautiful flower of our love, afraid, for now, to bloom and show itself to the world.

Then one night, as we sat up, talking as we can do for hours on end, about nothing and everything, our lips met in a spontaneously and simultaneously acceptance of the feelings we had both acknowledged, but feared to express before. The petals opened and a wonderful red flower erupted from the bud, blossoming in all its forbidden glory. At that moment we both cast aside the trepidation and the prejudice of our society. We ignored the cultural taboo and allowed our love to open its face to the world and shine, more brightly than all the stars in the sky on a clear night in the country, where there is nothing to blot out the billions of burning suns, so many light-years away, yet looking so close, so tangible, as though we could reach out and touch them.

We haven’t told our parents yet, afraid that they’ll refuse to accept our relationship, to see our love for what it is. Just like everyone else, who thinks we’re just attention seeking, joking, being silly or just plain wrong. We’re afraid to tell anyone because we know they won’t understand, but it doesn’t matter because they are just people with opinions, and their opinions have no effect on the truth, and the truth is that Elly and I are in love.

I remember that night when we consummated our love, in my bed, when all the stars were out and no-one else was at home. We were a tangle of arms and legs and bedding and the love we were making. I remember we lay in each other’s arms, exhausted, but refusing to allow sleep to rob us of that moment. When sleep finally took us, it found us inseparable, so took us together, arms wrapped around each other. When we woke we refused to get up, lying in bed until the temporary need for food pulled us apart long enough to gobble down a hastily made sandwich, before returning to our long embrace.

The thing is; the thing that makes us scared to tell even our parents, the thing that means we are bullied at school and abhorred in principle by society, the thing that sets our love apart from every other teenage relationship, from the deeply loving to the superficial and self-deprecating, is that Elly… well she’s my sister.

And no-one seems to be able to accept that you can’t choose who your fall in love with. We’re soul mates, Elly and I, no matter how abhorrent everyone makes that out to be. No-one can come to terms with our love because they’re taught by society that it’s wrong and so they assume that we’re mistaken, or lying, or attention seeking, or just plain evil. We’re not.

We’re had counselling for issues we don’t have and problems that don’t need to be solved. Self appointed experts have tried to examine us and our upbringing, to find some fault that has caused us to be who we are, always looking for ‘psychological trauma’ or ‘unfulfilled desires’. They patronised us, telling us that it was just a phase and that we’d get over it. It’s all bullshit because we know that our relationship is better than those of all our peers who are all going out with each other, hopping from one unfulfilled, meaningless relationship that is really little more than sex to another, yet they are never counselled, or examined for ‘psychological trauma’ or ‘unfulfilled desires’.

We were even sent to see the school Chaplain so that he could explain to us in no uncertain terms that it was unnatural and not how God wanted us to be. I asked him why He’d made us like this in the first place if it was so unnatural and he babbled some mumbo-jumbo about The Fall and a test and free will and I stopped listening because I realised that, for all his reading and learning at his posh university where he got his degree in Theology, and his Dog Collar, he was just another drone wheeling out the same old excuses, condemning an act because no-one accepts it, not because there’s anything wrong with it.

We cannot choose who we fall in love with. Everyone acts like I should feel ashamed because I love my sister, not as a sister, but as a lover. There’s no reason to feel shame at love because it’s unconventional. I would feel shame if I had refused to acknowledge my love for Elly, and told myself, like everyone else told me, that it was a phase, a mistake, unnatural, immoral. But I didn’t.

My name it Francis Dunn, and I am in love.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Pope comes to town

In the last week the UK has had a very powerful, important and controversial visitor; The Pope is making his long awaited state visit. This visit has caused outrage among many non-Catholics ever since it’s announcement in April. The most outspoken and widely reported press campaign against the pope came from our old friends Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen who, with the typical diplomacy of a sedge hammer wielded by a maniac, threatened to have the pope arrested and charged for crimes against humanity. Unsurprisingly these threats turned out to be hot air, but there remained a large group of people who protested the Pope’s visit this week, claiming that he had no right to a state visit to the UK.

You might already know that I’m not the biggest fan of organised religion and indeed I think the world would be a better place without some of the dogmatic, ignorant and frankly irrational views of some of the world’s more extreme religious groups – and yes I count the traditional Catholicism that the pope represents in that group. However whether we like it or not the pope is the leader of one of the world’s largest religions, and one which hold considerable clout in the UK. He is also the Head of State of the Vatican City – his country may be small, but it is still a country. He has every right to a state visit just as any other state leader has, as indeed does any other major world religious leader.

Just because the pope has visited the UK, does not mean that the British Government stands behind all of the pope’s views – many of which display an almost painful irrationality and backwardness. Traditional Catholicism is a horrifyingly dogmatic and intolerant religion which has done much to damage international relations and has held back progress in some of the poorest and most hunger stricken parts of the world. The UK government should in no way support or endorse many of the pope’s policies. This is not to say however that he should not be allowed to make a state visit to our country and be allowed to voice and propagate views with which most reasonable people will see to be utterly absurd.

We might object entirely to what the pope has to say, indeed we should, but that does not remove his right to say it. As a head of state and the leader of a major world religion he has every right to a state visit and to meet with important British politicians. To deny him such is to be as intolerant as the views that he propagates. Tolerance of those who are also tolerant is easy – there’s no reason not to accept accepting people into society – it is tolerance of the intolerant this is far harder because we know their views are abhorrent. However in the same way as legalising something does not make it moral, tolerating someone does not mean agreeing with them.

Just as the pope has every right to a state visit, we have every right to tell him that we believe his views to be abhorrent, irrational and deeply damaging. Rather than protesting that the pope has no right to come to our country on a state visit like petulant children who can’t stand the thought of people with whom we disagree being in the same room as us, we should act like mature, responsible, intelligent human beings and tell the pope by whatever means possibly – and, the UK being a democratic country, there are plenty of them – that we disagree with his views. I very much doubt that the pope will be moved to completely change his views on fundamental issues, but at least we will be able to hold our heads high and say that we tried and did so in the best way possible.

In fairness to this protests it is principally trying to do just that; demonstrate to the pope that we disagree with him on fundamental issues, however it is unfortunate that, as is so often the case, intolerance of the intolerant crept into the protests and made it too much about whether the pope should even be allowed on a state visit to the UK and too little about why his views are so unpleasant. As is often the case, the intention was good, but the execution sadly failed because it is far too easy to be unpleasant, intolerant and unfair and far too hard in the face of the same unpleasantness, intolerance and unfairness to be civil, tolerant and just.