peteg's blog


/noise/movies | Link

The reasons for making this movie could hardly be less interesting than the movie itself. I don't remember why I picked this one out: Otto Preminger is not really on his game here, and Paul Newman is excruciatingly wooden. Lurv in a time of nation building is quite painful to watch; apparently there are no valid arguments against violence in the service of a future state, here Israel. Everyone becomes a Zionist inside five minutes, whatever their priors, and the ethics is down at the level of Star Wars-esque who-shot-first. The dialogue is generally horrible. There is some OK cinematography but nothing for the ages. The score was very familiar: I think I've heard Mantovani's version of it before. It is very long and tendentious.

Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son.

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Kindle. I stumbled upon this Pulitzer Prize winner via a review of his shorts Fortune Smiles in the New York Times. In some ways it's an update on George Orwell, an exploration of identity in totalitarian North Korea, just as biting but far funnier than that might sound. Kim Jong-il rules with a thin-skinned capricious forcefulness that propaganda can't really obscure; the people seem to know there's more out there, but not what it might be. The leading nameless character undergoes a lengthy journey from the orphanage to the yangban milieu, from zero-light tunnel fighter to third mate on a fishing boat, to people thief, to Minister for the Mines. Some scenes shock, even though they are unsurprising. Johnson has a great talent for breaking the tension by cashing in his Chekhovian devices at what seem almost arbitrary times, at will, and wearing his research lightly. My only very minor beef is that the behaviour of several characters wasn't entirely plausible within Johnson's North Korean logic itself.

Michiko Kakutani. Barbara Demick warns that there's a lot of make believe here. Johnson talking with Karan Mahajan. Wyatt Mason at the New Yorker is more critical. I think the second half works as the setting moves to Pyongyang, itself a place of magical realism.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Bussed it to Coogee, finished reading my book on the northern headland, and had an early-evening paddle off the southern rocks at Gordons Bay. Not many people there. The wind was quite strong. I got the impression the tide was rising but it was harder work getting back to the rocks than I expected. After that I schlepped up to a modern upscale fastfood place on Clovelly Road; the fried seafood joint I had in mind had a queue out the door, just to order.


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At the Verona, 8:50pm session, membership freebie, $4.50 for a flat white. I walked there from Gordons Bay via Centennial Park and Oxford St with some hope that there was more to it than was in the short. There wasn't. The problem with using an adblocker all the time is that it makes me more susceptible to advertising when I do encounter it. There were loads of people going to something else, probably La La Land. In my absence the Verona has changed to allocated seating.

The entire thing is horribly unimaginative, featuring Brad Pitt at his most wooden, leaving it to Marion Cotillard to supply all the energy. The plot is entirely risible; in these post-Gone Girl days you can't get away with something as dumbly linear as this. In some ways it's a humourless retread of Inglourious Basterds; in others a humourless pretread of The Tree of Life. Pitt sure has been in a lot of war movies recently, and particularly WWII ones. The nods to Casablanca signal desperation, co-option.

A. O. Scott saw another movie.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

10am-ish soak with Ben at the north end of Coogee beach. Super-hot day. While having a coffee at Morning Glory, heaps of emergency response vehicles turned up; we later found out that a teenager had not quite managed to jump off a cliff on the northern headland and severely injured herself. (No media was present and coverage since has been scant.) Afterwards I schlepped back up to Randwick after for some sushi.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Got a bus to Central and hence to Coogee for an early-evening paddle at Gordons Bay. Not too many people there. Very pleasant once in, and seemingly quite clean. Lots of erosion on the beach due to runoff.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Headed down to La Perouse with Dave for lunch at Paris Seafood, and a couple of dips at Little Congwong. Beautiful day for it, occasional light wind, flat, sunny, not too hot.

Rachel Kushner: The Strange Case of Rachel K.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. This seems to be offcuts (pre-cuts?) of her first novel, Telex from Cuba. There are three stories:

  • The Great Exception, about the discovery of Cuba by the Portuguese. Cannibalism and a randy Queen. Also a credulous American lady named Aloha taking up residence and being fleeced by a Ferdinand K.
  • Debouchment: a short take on the debauched idle lives of Americans prior to the revolution, and just-as-it-happened.
  • The Strange Case of Rachel K. The leading lady is a cabaret dancer, and her customers of note are the Cuban President before Batista's coup and a French Nazi.

The writing is good, and there's something to everything she describes. It's not at all funny, or spectacularly horrible.

Boom Bust Boom

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This is a well-produced vacuity about the failure of current-day economics to be stable, and of economists to study instability. It is larded with tautology and leans on some big names who probably didn't know they'd be so bowdlerized; I guess Terry Jones's Monty Python pedigree opens doors to people who should know better. Good for Hyman Minsky that he predicted what happened in 2008; poor form of the producers to include Steve Keen and not reflect on his failure as prognosticator. Hint: it's all in the timing boys.

Ken Kaworowski was impressed.

Peter Cameron: Finishing School for Blokes: College Life Exposed.

/noise/books | Link

I read this before, back in 2009, which is why it was more familiar than I expected. This time around it took a day and an evening. Extracted from the Fisher Research Library.

All the Way

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A HBO telemovie about LBJ's first election, and the civil rights fight/mess/campaign/... of 1964. It's a touch hagiographic, as one would expect given the generally poor(er) quality of presidents since. I hadn't realized how young he was at the time. Bryan Cranston is mostly solid in the lead, as is Melissa Leo as his wife. The lines are a bit too pat and didactic, posturing, for this to really work as it may have on the stage. Anthony Mackie does not succeed as Martin Luther King Jr. Bo Foxworth is a serviceable Robert S. McNamara, albeit more robotic than the original ever was, I'd guess. Ray Wise, from Twin Peaks, plays Senator Everett Dirksen.


/noise/movies | Link

Chauvel, 3:30pm session, $16. I also signed up for the Palace Cinemas movie club again for $19 for a year. The mostly-grey audience hardly made a dent on Cinema 1. A new Jarmusch: I enjoyed the last one (Only Lovers Left Alive) and figured I could do with another love-letter to an American city. This one is more about the small things in married city life, and would be more appropriately billed as studies in sleeping together. Adam Driver does passively OK with very little material, but his wife (Golshifteh Farahani) is far less persuasive. The dog carried most of the comedic moments. I can't help but think that Hal Hartley was wise to keep the poetry off screen in Henry Fool. It's meditative, and not much happens.

Manohla Dargis. Jake Wilson was less convinced.

Joshua Cohen: Four New Messages.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Three shorts and a novella. All are a lot like Kobek's i hate the internet but generally funnier and more effort to parse. The inventive language is sometimes laugh-out-loud ludicrous.

  • Emission. A drug sub-dealer's life is ruined by ... the internet. It's revved up, and Cohen has some with the characters' epistemics: the shady fix-it lady already knows all that we know. Some great terse, economical imagery.
  • McDonald's. Should writers use brand names? A quote near the end — "[...] there's a clock there, ticking shifts above the citations and mugshots: Employee of the Month wanted for armed robbery, nonsupport." — evoked the missing-persons board in the Maccas on Broadway. There's no plot and not much to hang onto, but certainly Halalabad.
  • The College Borough. Washed out writer goes to ... Iowa? The prof exiled from NYC literally addresses his students' writing flaws by prescribing apt vocational manual labour. They recplicate the Flatiron, he jumps. I guess it's a riff on the shopcraft as soulcraft meme, current at the time.
  • Sent. Ruminations on internet porn, the amateurs, small town Eastern Europe, finishing school and failing to launch.

Mildly surprisingly to me, Rachel Kushner reviewed it for the New York Times about six months (early 2013) after Dwight Garner (mid 2012). Both are spot on, and make me want to dig into Kushner's oeuvre.

Million Dollar Baby

/noise/movies | Link

Second time around.

The Wailing

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A segue from The Handmaiden via its IMDB forum, where many claimed The Wailing to be the best Korean feature of 2016. Well, perhaps not: this ghost/horror/zombie flick is mostly derivative and only terrifying in its length. The lead actor is too hammy to take seriously, perhaps due to the character or direction or both. I'm not going to pretend I understood what was going on, though those who enjoy reading things into tealeaves may enjoy the loose and confusing plot. There's a sacrifice scene in the middle that aims at Apocalypse Now. The cinematography is decent but uninspired, and there's not much humour. I guess the Japanese serve as stereotypical devils for the Koreans, and the literalism struck me as entirely lazy.

Glenn Kenny.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Ben near Museum Station and got the L94 down to Little Bay. We snorkelled from the southern beach along the rocks and back around via the northern beach. Quite a few people, and a bit cold in some patches. Nothing but the usual fish species to be seen. We had some lunch up at the cafe on Anzac Parade.

Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Budda in the World.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. I figured I should assign some attention over Christmas to Mishra's attempt to explain the Buddha to us Westerners. What I actually got was a bitzer: part memoir, part travelogue, much book-learnt philosophy, some religion, history. That it didn't know what it wanted to be meant that the best bits were mostly the ancillaries. It was written before, during, and after The Romantics, and so contains some of the raw material that went into that novel. The game is classical: to map the search for inner meaning onto a traversal of geography, in this case the lower reaches of the Himalayas, and later, London and the U.S.A. (Similar structures can be seen in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, Kaag's American Philosophy and countless others.) Mishra is, of course, very forward about being Indian and skeptical of Western pretensions to having solved the condition of Man.

My major beefs are with Mishra's discussion of Western philosophy and his inadequate presentation of the Buddha's thinking, which is to say that it doesn't fulfill the promise of its title. For starters, his take on David Hume is misleading (60%):

Consciousness is a flow of tiny instants that have no separate existence or essence; they are constantly being triggered by each of the tiny changes in the world outside — the process creating the impression of what we call reality. When broken up into its aggregate parts, consciousness reveals itself as profoundly conditioned, ever changing and relative, and far from the substantial entity we believe the individual self to be.

David Hume among western philosophers had a view of the self closest to that of the Buddha:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

Be that as it may (Hume was championing empirical materialism over Cartesian dualism), there is still the question of how the self perceives itself; at times there seems to be something reflective going on that does not necessarily involve the external world. Hume wasn't satisfied with his own story, and it took Kant significant transcendental complexity to take it further. It's difficult to link any of this to the Buddha's proposition that the self is an illusion, given the presupposition that there's something doing the perceiving.

Mishra says that the Buddha would have us be mindfully present in every situation, to be in the now. I found this hard to square with the idea of meditation, which if nothing else involves being mentally absent. This state is attractive to Westerners as the modern world is all about being elsewhere, and meditation comes at all price points. The assertion he attributes to Einstein, that science and Buddhism are compatible, is apparently apocryphal. Science offers the most reliable way out of the "jungle of opinions" just now, if not when the Buddha was philosophizing.

My central problem with Buddhism is its obscurantism, that its practictioners present it as a body of arcane knowledge that resists modernization. (The Mind Illuminated, for instance, is long on promise but expends much effort early on in constructing a lexicon rather than basic practices, and therefore lost me.) Around the 59% mark Mishra struggles with the idea that this knowledge is somehow beyond language:

I was full of wonder at the immensity and complexity of Buddhist literature, the work of thinkers and scholars now almost lost to memory. But I couldn't understand much of what these philosophers had written. The most fascinating among them was Nagarjuna, who had challenged even the Buddha by asserting that there could be no such thing as a Right View since all intellectual constructs had no essence. But how did one understand the concept of Emptiness, not to mention the assertion that Emptiness itself was empty?

I guess Wittgenstein would (impolitely) ask them all to be quiet. This move strikes me as deeply problematic: while the meditative states may be transcendent (non-empirical) there are still linguistic means of describing how to get there and roughly what it's like. I mean, they do that anyway, and even to assert the emptiness of language requires language. This is all a bit hard to square with the existence of ancient Sanskrit linguistics which surely must have exposed some of these issues around the time of the Buddha.

Mishra contends that Buddhism has no political prescriptions, and says that the Buddha himself suggested that small groups of people make decisions by consensus, and those who can't abide with those go off and form their own groups; "if you don't like it then leave" is a common refrain these days, and clearly it doesn't scale. At 65% we're told that the Buddha didn't expect his guidelines to last too long, perhaps 500 or 1000 years, which to me suggests he expected them to be improved, possibly by a successor. By 71% we're told that Buddhism can be sometimes violent but there have been no wars between Buddhist groupings; Westerns are said to hold the same true of liberal democracies, which until recently was thought to scale.

Like Kaag feels in his American Philosophy, apparently "there [is] no private salvation waiting for [us]," where salvation/liberation is from karmic reincarnation (67%). We're supposed to "[feel] the conditional and interdependent nature of all beings," which makes it sound like enlightenment leads to feeling all suffering everywhere; hardly a desirable state in itself, and Mishra observes (93%) that vanquishing desire is prima facie more scary than liberating. It does square nicely with conservative dogma however, redemption being individually achieved and not collectively organised.

Despite targetting a Western audience, Mishra does not really help flush Christian priors; for instance, karma is harsh and there's no forgiveness. The proposed alleviation of suffering sounds more like "suck it up" than a mechanism for real change, which we might idly call progress. I never understood why a Buddhist ever had to act; in contrast the Ten Commandments do not allow one to be entirely passive. Will Self could probably have developed a quantity theory of suffering and tried to square the idea of reincarnation with a growing population, and how much we should discount the suffering of future generations. I wonder how Buddhists think about climate change.

The book was widely reviewed at its time, mostly by people who nodded along and accepted Mishra's erudition at face value. I mean, they're all busy people, right? — and just for them, Mishra slipped in a chapter on how dubious a reconciliation between U.S. values and Buddhism conceptually is, all the time stroking his beard in erudite skepticism. I'll leave those to Google.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Walter at Coogee for some brunch and a long chat. Read some more of my book on the headland north of the beach, and had a mid-afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay. There were so many people that I got in off the beach, which is slightly tricky due to the rocks underneath some murky water. Quite pleasant and clean once I got far enough out.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Bussed it over to Coogee in the mid-afternoon, read my book on the northern headland, and had a paddle at Gordons Bay. There are lots of people collecting shellfish (abalone?) from near where I get in on the south side. Still a little cold in despite reports of it being 21C. Not too many people around. Dinner at Yen's afterwards and a pleasant walk from there back to Glebe.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

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This one is for the fans. As a very part-time fan I struggled to get into much of it; I think of Zappa as funk/jazz with a side of weird, and that doesn't really get a go until past the halfway mark. (There's no Muffin Man, for instance, or Valley Girl either.) Zappa's philosophy strikes me as coherent, or at least consistent: he's partial to the notion of ownership, which is mildly incompatible with spreading one's creations as far as possible. There was plenty of opportunity for things to get interesting, if only someone took him seriously. The whole thing might have benefited from alternative viewpoints, though I am thankful it steered me towards his 1986 Jazz in Hell album: it's a tad too frenetic take on Vangelis-style synth-pop.

Neil Genzlinger.