peteg's blog

Star Trek Beyond

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At the Odeon 5 in Orange, 8:15pm 3D session, opening night, $20.50. Apparently I saw Iron Man 3 there a bit more than three years ago. Time flies.

As A. O. Scott observes, this is more of the same, somewhat squashed into action blockbuster format, and that might be OK. The interior scenes are quite quite dark in 3D. The first part is quite slow, and thematically the whole thing is entirely contained in the canon of classic Trek: for instance, Idris Elba's character is essentially Benedict Cumberbatch's from the previous one, who was, of course, standing on the toes of Ricardo Montalbán. The MacGuffin is nowhere as interesting as the Genesis device. There are many simply ludicrous moments. I'll stop right there. I spent most of the movie trying to fit what I was seeing to its source material (Simon Pegg gets a writing credit), and came to realise that this was the Trek that the Wachowskis would have made.

Sam Machkovech.

David Ireland: The World Repair Video Game.

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$45 of dead tree from Island Mag for copy number 209 of 350. Geordie Williamson lays it all out in his afterword. I found it repetitive but not ritualistic; an optimistic start quickly shaded into onerous ploughing with much difficulty in focussing on the page. The philosophizing is not spectacularly insightful, the political commentary is social Darwinist essentialism, and whether Ireland is endorsing or critiquing any particular attitude is too ambiguous; his use of calculated serial murder is substantially less powerful than Nabokov's breaking of taboos in Lolita. This resulted in more irritation than shock or outrage in my case. Still, as expected the prose is crisp.

Malcolm Knox is wrong to think those killed here are characters in Ireland's earlier books: those guys always worked, and suffered for it in that human-dignity enhancing way that Ireland champions here. (I think Ireland is saying that it is the willingness to work, to try to do it right, to endure the meaningless, and not the content of the work itself that is moral. I don't really know as I don't buy it: most work is exploitation, as he acknowledges here, and I don't see the concomitant suffering as necessary or essentially worthwhile.) This leads me to think that whoever reads this will read whatever they want into it. Perhaps it is a satire.

Nicolas Rothwell spends more time putting the publication in context than talking about its contents. He is right that this is a rumination on the "self-created world [...] where love, kindness and a sense of shared experience wither."

I guess that's the last of Ireland's for me.

John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men.

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Kindle. Teddy Wayne has the protagonist of Kapitoil read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in his [finance] boss's living room, with the wife observing the distance between that and there. This book apparently "[makes] a similar economic argument and [has] equal emotional power in a more efficient length." I got into it because I wasn't yet ready to face David Ireland's latest.

Well, it seems we're all dogs in the end, though it might make a difference as to which part of the gun you're in contact with. Steinbeck has this tick of making his characters dumbly repeat phrases in conversation, when their wit deserts them; irritating but effective, I'd say. His style is mostly spare but a tad too tendentious to unequivocally endorse. The narrative goes as one might expect, but stops off in many disconcerting locations.

Francis Spufford: Golden Hill.

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Kindle. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he'd released a novel about a month ago, apparently his first. It's a period piece: the setting is pre-revolutionary New-York, and this being a modern book, it also has a trailer on YouTube, set in current-day New York, with no mention of the quietened 99%. Richard Smith, amiable leading man, tries to keep his nose clean while waiting for his £1000 to clear, but falls afoul of gossip and ignorance of pre-existing machinations. Spufford uses this trouble to steer him around the town and set pieces of the time in extensively-researched sparkling prose. The overarching mystery is hinted at frequently, but it wasn't the only thing that kept me hooked right up to the end. Tabitha is similarly an interesting creation, somewhat hysterical but far from helpless.

I'm not big on historical fiction, at least of this less-than-didactic kind (compare with Red Plenty), but Spufford knows throughout what we're here for, and he is a master of not over-stuffing the turkey.

Steven Poole (who charges Neal Stephenson with overstuffing his turkeys). An interview at the Guardian. Lucille Turner is right, his writing is genius! Sophie Elmhirst. The lack of reviews from across the Atlantic makes me think it has yet to make it's U.S. debut.

Hoping (nay, expecting!) to extend the run of good reads, upon finishing this I rushed off to buy his Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin from Amazon.

Jarett Kobek: ATTA and The Whitman of Tikrit.

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This book has no electronic edition! The horror. Some dead tree cost me $US12.78 from Book Depository, and I bought it on the strength of Kobek's recent spray against the internet's more social zones in combination with the bleak outlook of what was up next on the Kindle. It turned up in less than a week. I certainly cannot fault their efficiency.

This is billed as a fictional biography of Mohamed Atta, and runs on twin tracks straight for 9/11. Kobek's imagining of his internal life is similar to what David Malouf did for King Priam in Ransom (and other characters in other works). There is no shortage of raw material, I'm sure, and Kobek is sufficiently across his subject that his spare prose is never overstuffed with irrelevant detail; in other words, he avoids the inexcusable self-indulgence of old hands Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Atta's is something of an Odyssean journey, featuring dreamt Sirens and a bin Laden who is blind in the right eye. There is also a dash of Arabian every-readies Harun al-Rashid and Scheherazade, the latter in the form of Palestian temptation Amal, who tells him a story in classic cliff-hanger style. Is it through weakness or impregnable fortitude that Atta does not return to her family's house to find out what happens next?

Kobek focuses on Atta's education as an architect and mines his TUHH Masters thesis on the Citadel of Aleppo, painted as a natural Islamic urban environment inherently superior to the sterilities and missteps of the West. The Tarnak Farms present as a paradise where no man gets between Muslim and Allah (p126), and yet there is hierarchy; is this Atta's inability to see past his own nose? His initial skepticism of bin Laden yields to his visceral revulsion of Modern Brutalism (p131):

He speaks. The plot is outlandish. It involves a journey to America, into the toothy maw. He assures us it will work [...]

And then he names the target. And I am his. High rises of high rises, the mid century assault. Minoru Yamasaki's children, the twin abominations.

Somewhat ironically the backlash that Atta and co unleashed eventually led to the mauling of the old souk in Aleppo.

Atta has a persistent hum in his head, which sometimes becomes a voice that is not quite Allah's. (The reader may worry that this is Kobek's mechanism for taking Atta beyond human comprehension and moral culpability.) He feels nothing at the climax of his Hajj, on the Plain of Arafat amongst his Muslim brothers. He attempts to understand the West through its cultural output: Times Square, Disneyland, horror movies. (I think that once you've seen Army of Darkness you've seen them all.) This is Kobek's vantage point for criticism, and a good one it is. Still, why does Atta's disgust with the West shade into violence? He is radicalized at the mosque in Hamburg, but most who are do not go to the lengths that he did. To be horrified by the suffering in Palestine is not to think that further death and destruction will help in any way. (Was empathy an invention of the Englightenment that failed to influence scholars of Islam?) Kobek also does not discuss the status of democracy in Islamic thought, nor explore Atta's leadership role; he is mostly exasperated with the Saudi musclemen and his fellow conspirators, and suspicious of bin Laden's hubristic propaganda about a new Caliphate.

[p61, After analyzing Walt Disney's film of Kipling's The Jungle Book...]

A story repeats itself. A man, or his parents, or his parents' parents, come to America. Hard work, toil in obscurity amongst unknown wretches. Great open land. The one who works hardest reaps eventual reward, rises to prominence, achieves great things, makes himself a name.

This also is my story, thinks Atta. I am Sayyid Qutb! I too am an immigrant success.

The second, far shorter piece The Whitman of Tikrit imagines Saddam Hussein's final day before his capture by American troops. The conceit is that Rumsfeld slipped him a book of Whitman's poetry back in the 1980s. Hussein is far more fiery and scatalogical than Atta, further showcasing Kobek's technique and fine grasp of personality.

Unfortunately the other texts in the semiotext(e) series are very different to this one (mostly critical theory/Marxist tracts).

Kobek's is a rich source text, in addition to being a satisfying read all by itself. Richard Byrne observes his acute analysis of Americana. Jonathan Raban lays out further historical context at the New Yorker. John Cotter takes the time to diss Martin Amis's go at the same subject (The Last Days of Mohammad Atta) while praising this book.

I just ordered Kobek's BTW from 2013; again, it has no ebook edition.

David Ireland: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.

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Kindle. It's the late 1960s, beautiful Kurnell, Botany Bay, the Puroil refinery, ugly up close. When they're not at the Home Beautiful, being schooled by the Great White Father in living for today and not tomorrow, the men are taking notes for the Great Australian Novel that each will write after their release from industrial prison. This is David Ireland's, and was the first of his to win the Miles Franklin in 1971. (text publishing has reissued his early works, but not his later ones.)

The style is similar to the subsequent The Glass Canoe and so forth: mostly disjointed vignettes that riff on why and how the working man is bound to, and chafes, his corporate master. I would say that little has changed, but the baubles on offer to the natives (here industrial prisoners, captive to a European transnational oil enterprise) are shinier than ever. This somewhat attempts to do what George Orwell did for the mid-century in 1984 for Australia at a time by which everyone knew the joke: they unquestionably love their company.

The characters come thick and fast, and it's hard to track them all with only their nicknames to hang onto, some having a touch of Australiana disposability. The slang tends to the obsolete, and while Two Pot Screamer might be an ocker original, some cursory Googling suggests Humdinger is pure Americana. Beyond the blue gate of Puroil, the Yank welders are held in awe as they work effectively and efficiently due to being paid by the job and not the hour. Ireland looks almost wistfully to the U.S.A. and wonders what could have been. The inefficiencies at the plants are immediately familiar to anyone with experience of modern corporate Australia, despite their probable lack of Ireland-esque industrial chops. The prisoners engage in small-minded vindictive retribution that is provoked by small-minded short-term cost-control by management, such as not paying sick leave until and unless the injured party fronts the right office worker (here "white shirt"). The machinations around company-funded pensions — that the rate is tied to salary at retirement, and the period of employment is calculated to the day — make me think that superannuation might be fairer despite it being wide open to the financial markets. The results, as you would certainly expect, are chaotically catastrophic.

The Home Beautiful is the countervailing life force, tawdry, once powerful, now debilitated by easy access to credit; in other words, a bordello set amongst the mangroves, segregated by the Eel River from Puroil. Ireland uses it to explore prostitution (of the self-knowing but not golden-hearted kind), homosexuality, alcoholism, mental health, and to observe close-up that the prisoners would not know what to do with freedom if they had it. He charts the distintegration of the Unions (fully realised under Hawke et al in the 1980s) and shows that organized labour was never going to be a match for financial innovation, or men with military training ("they had no tradition of operators never doing tradesmen's work, they were used to working with tools and used to obeying orders without thought or question."). Religion is no help either, even if it causes some of the the men some pause, from time to time. Thievery is rampant.

The text is highly referential. There is much to enjoy, though I'm sure many would find it bleak; the dedication of a new plant to "The Unknown Industrial Prisoner" is completely apt. It tipped the balance towards his latest novel, which I ordered from Island Mag (out of Tasmania of all places) for the ridiculous price of $45.

Lisa Hill enjoyed it less than I did. She claims that times have changed, but goes on to observe the same deterioration in industrial relations as Ireland, and the fact that Australians (really, everyone) prefer to buy cheaper stuff and not bother too much with the politics. I think Ireland was right to think that the undereducated / less intelligent were headed for the industrial scrapheap; the new knowledge work employs fewer people to do more stuff and make more profit than ever before, as the lawyers will be learning in the next decade or so. (These issues were ambient; see, for instance, Barry Jones's classic cure for insomnia, Sleepers Wake! from the early 1980s.) What she calls cynicism I took to be Ireland's empathy for his fellow prisoner, expressed in the great Australian (OK, British) tradition of "characters" adopted by, for example, Henry Lawson. She's right that there is a lot of humour here. I would say that it has similar aims to Herbert's Capricornia, and if I ever get to it, Poor Fellow My Country.

Peter Pierce in his introduction pulls out the right quote: "the Sumpsucker knew that though they were tall, bronzed, rugged Australian individualists, more or less, they would end up doing exactly as they were told." — and oh yes, the hereditary scar on the ankle, itching madly.

Teddy Wayne: Kapitoil.

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Kindle. Computer geek from Qatar goes to New York City just before Y2K and makes his struggling finance company a lot of money by algorithmically analyzing the news, before pulling out because he wants to apply the same technology to epidemiology while the big boss just wants more money. Of course he gets entangled with the only other semi-fleshed-out character, co-worker Rebecca, but goes home at the end. The secondary characters are richly sketched but in outline only. This is apparently a satire, but Mr Wayne is clearly standing on the outside of geekdom looking in. The prose is masterfully executed but there wasn't a lot there for me.

David Ireland: A Woman of the Future.

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Kindle. Ireland got a third, and final, Miles Franklin for what now seems a complete misfire, and I am about as lost for words as Kate Jennings was in her introduction to the Text Classics edition. I spent the first half getting misanthropic Never Let Me Go vibes and the last half wondering if Ireland wasn't trying a bit too hard to marry Nabokov's tropes with Burroughs's. The odd minor observation about the great continent of Australia, typically stashed away in some mediocre poetry or overly adolescent letter, cannot redeem what is mostly just eye-glazingly repetitious trash.

Bill Holloway put more effort in than I'm prepared to.

David Ireland: The Glass Canoe.

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Kindle. Apparently David Ireland was deemed a success by the Australian literati in the 1970s but soon fell out of favour; his recent revival points to the poverty of the current scene. He writes well, here recording the carryings-on of the regulars of the Southern Cross pub in Northmead. In some ways this is a Western Suburbs Trainspotting, and shares a bed with Wake in Fright. Ireland leavens the sex and violence with some pop philosophizing and a deep appreciation for the role of mystery and wonder in life. This culture is probably almost defunct with the lockout laws and so forth, and unlikely to be mourned by many. I wonder what else he has to say.

Matthew Cobb: Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code.

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Kindle. On the strength of H. Allen Orr's review at the New York Review of Books. I had hoped to learn more about genetics than is on offer here, and the import of various things like Watson and Crick's discovery of the (geometrical) structure of DNA; suffice it to say that even once that is somewhat settled, it sounds like it's not much help in figuring out the genetic code itself. I didn't find any of the experiments particularly beautiful (far too much manual labour, radioactivity and inconclusivity), and the text gets quite repetitious in its put downs of cybernetics and information theory. Cobb is too narrow about the latter; the field includes things like error-correcting codes, which DNA presumably addresses somehow. Shannon's model is but a starting point.

Brief Encounter

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An early and short David Lean, written by Noël Coward. The story of two people married to other people falling in love is somewhat tired, but as usual Lean's direction makes up for all deficits. There's a stuffiness and humourlessness to the whole thing that would have had Oscar Wilde reaching for his satirical pen.

Graham Greene: The Tenth Man.

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Kindle. A quite pedestrian outing, almost entirely predictable from the initial uninspired conceit. Probably the worst thing I've read from him yet, and at least he is honest enough to admit that he lifted some of it lock-stock from Shakespeare.

Paul Beatty: Slumberland.

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Kindle. This was the last of Beatty's novels for me to read. Here he is, writing about music and being black in transitional 1980s Berlin, at the Slumberland bar. I read it in so many small chunks that it didn't form a coherent whole in my mind. As always he is supremely funny in the small.

Judgement at Nuremberg

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More IMDB top-250 completism. This one is #150 and involves so much talking it might work better as a radio play. The Americans run military tribunals of the German judiciary circa 1948. There is a lot of hand wringing and political considerations with the concurrent occupation of Czechoslovakia and Berlin Airlift. I don't think the legal stuff really holds together well, being a bit too absolutist, but it is somewhat saved by some very passionate and ruminative performances. William Shatner puts in a servicable showing as a womanizing US Army Captain (heh).

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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On the QANTAS inflight iPad(-mini?), Singapore to Sydney. I had hoped to sleep but they didn't turn the lights down until three hours into the flight. I wasn't the only one who got a squawk out of the thing; they should silence the internal speaker, and make it clear that the headphones go into the device and not the armrest. Who said these things were intuitive?

Anyway, this movie was about as bad as the reviews said when it got released. Henry Cavill is far better as Superman, though I don't think anyone else could have done suave smug any better. Similarly Armie Hammer nailed it as the Winklevii in The Social Network and had no room here. The central problem is that Guy Richie tries to objectify Alicia Vikander, giving her the role of a scrumpet when she has excelled when challenged (and not just ogled). The film makes it clear just how long it's been since he's done anything watchable. Strip mining boomer TV has surely run its course... until the next Star Trek at least.

Whiplash

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... and yet more IMDB top-250 completism. This is (a not credible) #45. Dave gestured at this a while back. I think we've seen it all before and better in Full Metal Jacket (etc). We are supposed to take on faith that Fletcher (JK Simmons, Oscar winner for it) is great or capable of identifying greatness and his is the best method for developing it. The lead character Andrew (Milles Teller) is a moppet, purportedly of the black swan variety. Somehow the frission of their interactions or the jazz or the tuff luv or whatever is supposed to add up to something. Go tell Einstein that awesome requires an abusive pressure cooker and all is technique.

Dana Stevens. How quickly the homophobic slurs have dated this movie. She is happy to indulge Fletcher in ways I could not. A. O. Scott thinks there is some comprehension of greatness here. Anthony Lane, being English, is more flippant. Richard Brody offers some cold water.

Zootopia

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Tigôn talked this one up, and she's right: I wish I had seen this in the cinema. Also more IMDB top-250 completism: this is #148. Lasseter has succeeded in Pixar-ing Disney. Just about every sequence has something going for it. It's fun, don't think too hard.

Anthony Lane. Neil Genzlinger.

Twelve Monkeys

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More IMDB top-250 completism. I remain surprised by how many star Bruce Willis. This is #217, third time around for me, and was totally OK for burning time on a Saturday afternoon. Brad Pitt does a surprising amount of his Fight Club schtick here. I find it pretty coherent but not very thought provoking; well, I think it is causally well-founded...

X-Men: Apocalypse

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At Galaxy Cinema Nguyễn Du with Tigôn, 2D, 7:10pm, 85kVND each, bought the day before in the hope of getting not totally terrible seats. It is about as bad as the early reviews suggested, but I had hoped for a little more originality from the plot. (I tend to think it's a reheat of X3, which director Bryan Singer has reputedly derided, and yes, this is again substantially about convincing Magneto to ease up.) Oscar Isaac does an awesome job (without a cat!) when he gets the chance (which is not often), and Fassbender is clearly wishing this was a sequel to Macbeth and not the third in an endless comic book franchise. Jennifer Lawrence is substantially matter-of-fact about it all, workmanlike, paying the bills, which comes a bit unstuck in the final scenes where she has to serve up some terribly cliched motivational pap. Rose Byrne does wide-eyed clueless a little too convincingly. Evan Peters as Quicksilver again has the best scenes and lines. They blanked "Vietnam" when mentioning the war early on. The tedious, bloodless destruction of cities continues apace.

Stalker

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IMDB top-250 completism: this one is #201. Halflife had to lift their post-apocalyptic aesthetic from somewhere, and nothing does post-apocalyptic like Soviet Russia mid-apocalypse. Andrei Tarkovsky is more famous for the lesser-rated Solaris, which seems to canvas a similar concept: what happens when we get close to something that can satisfy our deepest wishes? I found the dialogue in this movie to be excessive and pretentious; it is easy to ask the deep questions and make something of the "essentially" human, but it is much harder to show it in combination with a story that makes something of what cinema is good for. The cinematography is not very inspired and overly heavy on motif.

There are some surprisingly good discussions about this movie on the IMDB discussion boards. I just wish it had made me care.