peteg's blog

Sicario

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3.15pm session at River East 21, $9.79 + $1.17 tax = $10.96. A hazy morning turned into a beaut afternoon, so perhaps not the best way to burn one of summer's dying days. I got sucked in by Del Toro, I think, Josh Brolin (go W!), probably not Emily Blunt. It may have been Dana Stevens who tipped me over the edge with her assessment that Del Toro's performance was ace.

This is about the militarization of the police, in this case the FBI, and the unwitting co-option of U.S. domestic institutions by the CIA. Something we've seen before, like Traffic. There is also an unsubtle dig at having women in these sorts of roles; Blunt proves too weak to help the men tear down the drywall that hides the bodies in the opening straight-out-of-Se7en shocker. Moreover she is always quickly subdued (cowed) when she stands up for herself, and is regularly rescued by a man. So yeah, no country for women? I found her motivation to be so totally uncooked (essentially revenge for the loss of some redshirts) and inner life so absent that, for all the support from the blokes, I just couldn't get into it. Yes, Del Toro is totally fine here, though like Blunt he plays barely more than a cypher.

A. O. Scott is dead right that this is just violence, not a study of violence. That being the case, it may have worked better as a video game.

Tony Earley: Mr Tall

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Kindle once more. It's too damn convenient. Mostly short stories. The second half is a novella. The shorts are all about couples: so-and-so and his wife, somewhere in North Carolina or Tennessee. Yeah, the Appalachians again, but with less Ron Rash cleverness. I picked this up on the strength of Jess Walter's review, which doesn't seem like a recommendation on a re-read.

What We Do in the Shadows

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I missed it in the cinema earlier this year. The Flight of the Conchords boys have their moments, especially Jemaine on virgin blood. I fear Wellington will always be the same.

Black Mass

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4.50pm session at the AMC 600 North Michigan 9, $10.29 + $1.23 tax = $11.52. Rode the bike over from work: perfect weather for doing so, and the traffic wasn't too heavy. Johnny Depp leads, Joel Edgerton does the buddy thing. Benedict Cumberbatch is somewhat squandered as there is no Godfather to his consigliere, though he is as teflon-smooth as Robert Duvall ever was. I sort-of got the appeal of Dakota Johnson here; she's about perfect as Bulger's moll, mother of his son and suitably distraught when things go south. OK, the cast is pretty much excellent. However if the goal was to humanize Bulger, this resolutely old-school movie completely fails. He is banal, and all the granny-helping in the world isn't going to change that. Boston was more interesting in The Town and so forth.

The marriage of criminal and cop was better celebrated by Blue Murder; yeah, that cast was ace too. Between this and Public Enemies, it seems clear that Depp should abandon this genre.

A. O. Scott: "It's possible, though, to think of the shortcomings of Black Mass as fitting comeuppance for Mr. Bulger. He may have thought he was a big deal, but in the end all he merits is a minor gangster movie." Dana Stevens got more into it. Kaleem Aftab (in the Smage but lifted from elsewhere) is skeptical.

Michael W. Clune: Gamelife: A Memoir.

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His second memoir, Gamelife, on computer games as spiritual education...
— Michael W. Clune on his homepage at Case. I guess that makes his first a memoir of how heroin eases recovery from a nihilistic upbringing. Or something.

There was no chance I wasn't going to read this. Amazon makes it trivial to preorder ebooks for the Kindle, so here we are only a few days after release and I've already chowed it. The price was $US11.99. Once again his prose is so seductive that I was well into it before I realised I should be taking notes.

This is less of a spiritual education than an account of how Clune learnt to look at the world. Chicago burbs Evanston and Mettawa feature large here. ("After Mettawa the map's blank." — evokes my childhood too: our house in Orange was on the western edge of the city, and before that we were about as far south as you could go before you needed to catch the out-of-town bus to school. West of where I was born is desert; we were on the wrong side of the tracks in Dubbo, but one could argue there is no right side to that town.) So does Catholic school, and computer games. The games he played were not the abstract ones I remember, but those that liberated the DnD ultra-geek from the need to meet his fellow geeks in meatspace. I never played, not even in Sweden; I tried from time-to-time to get into Rogue-likes such as Ragnarok but they never stuck, being always too capricious or closed. And almost all of them were trivial or very frustrating. Games of the 80s were mostly born too soon; those that worked well were spawned by the heavy iron of university departments, in the same way that UNIX was birthed, or by very creative people in California.

I like to think of C++ as DnD for adults, and what a hacker Clune would have made.

Those games were like books in demanding acts of imagination while technology gestated. Interactive text adventures, decreasingly fake 3D. Clune was never a mathematician so he's not going to pretend to understand fractals. Apparently he avoided programming, so there goes the demo scene and the relative merits of various shading algorithms. (The exotic Phong shading from my youth, a piece of Vietnamese technology I now learn.) His impressions of life in 2D seemed quite alien to me, text being my natural habitat. Maps, yes. That a 2D object on a screen may have an obverse never occurred to me; on the other side of the screen was an electron gun in a vacuum. He similarly demonstrates no awareness of the chiptunes microscene.

Clune observes that, leaving aside FRUSTRATION, those games notionally offered VICTORY and DEFEAT. Their sheer repetitiousness ("Nintendo", in the limit) was an early harbinger of adulthood: at some point we run out of the truly novel and are left only with the choice of what to do again; we level up, we walk the hedonic treadmill, grind for status, score the next hit. Strangely enough I learnt method from another game Clune rubbishes, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: I enumerated all properties of all cities, criminals, etc. and reduced it to a pure lookup activity. He is right to question the educational value of those "pedagogic" games. Oregon Trail, yeah.

Personality, I mean that's what counts, right? That's what keeps a relationship going through the years. Like heroin, I mean heroin's got a great fucking personality.
— Sickboy in Trainspotting.

Seeing as his video game addiction outlasted his one for heroin, Clune must therefore draw the obvious conclusion that these games have superlative personalities. Unlike his segue from text to DnD to first-person shooters (Nazi hunting comes in for special scrutiny in this book), my experience was more Lolita-like: I was fixated on Lode Runner from circa 1988, an artefact of a Band of Brothers. Being perennially late to the party, I finished it only recently. It felt like VICTORY until I started on Championship Lode Runner, where I learnt that I had learnt nothing.

Leaving aside the games, Clune recounts a few brutal stories: his mum comes across as fearful, neurotic, and superstitious: somehow tarot is OK if it comes from the right direction, but the runes on a game's box are not. His father disappears after the divorce, and is replaced by poverty. A kid gets his uniform completely trashed after gym class. As always he is comic at the sentential level, and like Oscar Wilde, makes me want to respond, to write. That's a huge achievement in itself. Similarly he is crazy-brave, especially when alluding to the heroin that ate his 20s.

Clune's publicity hounds have been highly successful:

  • Gabriel Winslow-Yost at the New York Review of Books. In response to his Section 2, I would just say that Clune remembers the game because he has no choice: these things are etched deeply into our brains. As is observed further down the article. He is dead right about games being curtailed versions of life. I remember the colour of the sky because I got it wrong in art class. I didn't notice that the sky gets lighter towards the horizon. I used warm blue rather than cool. My sky comes out just after the sun properly sets, before the night fully kicks in. My mate Stuart got it right for the rest of the day. Pick the empiricist.
  • Christian Lorentzen doesn't quite seem to get that what's happened since World War II has required the U.S. to engage with shades of grey. Hitler was the last moral certitude on offer. That's Clune's point: ethical ambiguities are not fun.
  • An interview on NPR. On addiction:

    I believe that heroin addiction for me and drug addiction was the absolute opposite of the experience I had when playing games. Addiction removes you from any world. It completely — it isolates you, but ... your isolation has none of the richness of the solitude that I experienced in games.

    With addiction I was continually like a rat in a maze trying to capture the very first time I ever had that first hit. With games, the first time I played them was very difficult and awkward. Only gradually, when I mastered their commands, was I able to inhabit that world.

    And so, if with addiction I was trying to continually recapture a first time I never could, with games I was exploring a world, and exploring myself, in a way that I found meaningful, whereas I felt addiction stripped my life of all meaning.

  • David Auerbach at Slate sinks the boot in. I don't think he's wrong to do so, but he fails to consider that Clune may be merely baiting the hook here. Perhaps that's all he could do if he had it as backward as this review asserts. Games taught us not to give up, just because we're not making progress toward the impossible with manifestly inadequate tools.
  • Bijan Stephen.
  • Ethan Gilsdorf at the New York Times (October 17, late to the party).

I'll stop as the internet is infinite but life is not, and close with a quote that was Andreas Rossberg's signature for an age:

Computer games don't affect kids; I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we would all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills, and listening to repetitive electronic music.
— Kristian Wilson, Nintendo Inc.

Clune, of course, would not have given Pac Man the time of day.

Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower

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Read on the Kindle. I'm getting used to the thing. I found this via a Guardian page that Google likes. Justin Webb's recommendation has it about right, modulo recommending it: this text is heavy on colour and light on insight. It's all Bob Woodward fakebelieve, insider hagiography and boosterism and doubtless score-settling. The Pulitzer must have been all down to having adopted that style. Those working in the bias-confirmation mode circa 2006 surely got their money's worth by dredging it for quotes to support their positions. Or even just getting positions in the first place. I think you'd be better off following your nose from the relevant Wikipedia articles.

A sort-of jag from Mori's far superior memoir. (At least he was there.)

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers at Logan Center for the Arts.

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It was a perfect day for cycling, so I figured I'd ride down to University of Chicago along the Lakeshore Trail for this gig. Had lunch at the Chicago Curry House, which was OK for a buffet, a snooze in the park near 39th Street Beach, and a coffee at the Bridgeport Coffeehouse in Hyde Park. There's more to that place than I realised. I got some takeaway dinner at Siam Thai on 55th and hightailed it over to the Logan Center for the Arts. I was a bit surprised that I'm fit enough to do bike rides of this length without too much discomfort. Well, at least when there are no headwinds.

The place (same as for Ishiguro) was packed for the first act: Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa. The City of Chicago World Music Festival blurb:

Aziz Sahmaoui sets out once more with his magical group, conjuring up sonorous dreams and intoxicating trance states. On this new journey, in which heady refrains are coupled with a divinely undulating groove, the Moroccan poet-singer has achieved a glorious harmony between Maghreb rock, jazz and gnawa music. With the full fire of his spellbinding voice, the cofounder of the Orchestre National de Barbès and former associate of Joe Zawinul, he confirms his reputation as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of contemporary world fusion music, a reputation that reaches across Europe and beyond to the Middle East and the United States. They will be touring the US in Fall 2015 fresh off their latest, critically-acclaimed release, Mazal.

Yeah, north African dance music, high energy and happy stuff. After intermission the Pakistanis set up, with almost no English, and about a third of the crowd departed, as if they hadn't known what they had signed up for, after a couple of songs. I somewhat concur as the first two-thirds was not especially inspired call-and-response. As they loosened up, and responded from some good natured heckling from those in the crowd who spoke Punjabi and so forth, things got more free-form and electric. They closed with Kangna and another piece of a similar style. A bit muted, but still awesome, and let's not bother with a denouement. There's not a lot to look at, though I'm sure there's a fairly rigid hierarchy at work within the ensemble.

The City of Chicago World Music Festival blurb:

Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers are masters of Qawwali Sufi music as well as classical genres such as tarana, thumri and khayal. They learned the art of Qawwali from their father, the late Ustad Raziuddin Ahmed of the Delhi Gharana, a music school founded in the 14th century that can be traced back over 700 years to its original founders, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Hazrat Amir Khusra. The group sings in multiple languages including Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, Bengali, and Purbi. Weaving together devotional and secular traditions, Ayaz and company have been bringing Qawwali music to international audiences for over thirty years.

Country of Origin/Based: Pakistan
Genre: Qawalli

I took the Green line back to Lake-at-Morgan, and cycled home from there. I'm told that things get a little sketchy after dark between Hyde Park and the City, and anyway I was tired.

Theatre Y: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences: Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger

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The last Theatre Y show at the Lutheran Church on Francisco Avenue near Logan Square, a preview. No tickets this time, and the customary free beer, before and after; a full house, an appreciative crowd. Where else were you going to be on this Friday night?

This play is about a Dutch librarian who thinks he is Poirot. That this is already a totally preposterous premise for worthwhile theatre should have you planning to be at one of the out-and-about taking-it-to-the-people editions. Darren Hill is the sole performer and perfectly inhabits the character. (The accent and mannerisms so obscure his native self that I wouldn't have guessed he was from Blackpool.) In the talk afterwards the production was unpacked as a collaboration between Darren, who had been fascinated by the play itself for several years, and Melissa, who as director helped him completely realize the Dutchman, in particular by constructing a vocabulary of physical tics that were startingly persuasive. The character's identity is ambiguous. Melissa observed that it was unusual for her to be part of a production that drew laughter from the audience. She said it was unlikely to be reviewed by the mainstream Chicago press as it was not in a traditional format, with a fixed address; I'm wondering how the bar-goers of Chicago are going to take it. Twin boys (age 12) framed it with ukulele-based musical pieces, in bluegrass (?) style.

My only disappointment about this show was in not seeing Melissa perform one last time. I managed to unload The Moon of Hoa Binh on Evan, and was the last to leave. It was raining earlier in the day so I took the bus and Blue line there, but walked home in clear skies.

Update 2015-10-03: Review in the Reader.

Mike Leigh: Meanwhile

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An early (1984) effort featuring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Marion Bailey as Barbara is the gudgeon of the thing, and Phil Daniels plays the central character that is something of a prototype for David Thewlis's character in Naked. Mostly set in a council estate where the doors don't even slam, and the windows come away in your hands. Skinhead Oldman in a large bucket, surreally banging away. Tim Roth as cowed rain man. Vintage Leigh.

Michael Mori: In the Company of Cowards.

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This book was one of the motivations for buying the Kindle: it hasn't gotten a U.S. release in any form in the year since publication, and getting it shipped from Australia is way too expensive (something like $AU30 postage when I looked). It turns out that it's easy to change stores on Amazon, so I got it from their Australian eBook site for $AU14.99 ($US11.10) on 2015-08-15.

This is more-or-less what you read in the news at the time, with the addition of a brief introductory biography of Mori himself and many tantalizing legal and backroom details. I knew that whatever he wrote wouldn't be totally satisfying as there are many parts of the story that no-one can commit to paper without severe sanction (even now), and I wish he'd had more to say about his life since the case came to a close; it was good to see that the Marines did hold (much) of a grudge, for instance, but how about talking about what he's been doing in Melbourne? I hadn't realized that Joshua Dratel was involved, and was hoping for more colour given his supposedly klutzy handling of the procedural aspects of the Ross Ulbricht Silk Road trial.

Mori is right to paint this as perhaps John Howard's biggest political miscalculation; Mori outfoxed him by refocusing the Australian public's attention away from Hicks to the fairness of the process. The open face, the ready laugh and the sporting metaphors, including an attempt to understand cricket, doubtlessly made the critical difference; an attempt at a similar line of argument about Schapelle Corby's treatment by the Indonesian legal system did not garner her as much sympathy. I guess Mori learnt the lessons of Vietnam (in particular, when the system is that rigged against you, your best bet is to sway the public's opinion of your opponent) better than his superiors did.

Who are the cowards of the title? These slip between the cracks of his narrative as Mori chooses to focus on the brave. It would have helped to have an organizational chart. I also wonder if Hicks ever got his British passport.

I came to this thinking that Mori was a great American who was charged with taking a big bite from a shit sandwich, and left thinking the same. I'm glad he wrote this, and I hope he has the opportunity and energy to continue this kind of lawyering from Melbourne.

A matter-of-fact review by Daniel Flitton at the Smage. David Marr in the Guardian got to speak with him in Melbourne in late 2014. The ABC has many interviews still available, but finding them is another matter. Miriam Cosic summarises the book at length.

Renaissance

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On Roman W's recommendation. I got all excited when I read the IBM credit at the start, thinking that Watson had developed the plot, cast itself in the lead and done the animation. And built itself a girl to get from a spare rib. Well, the animation was top-notch, and the aesthetic a few steps along from Sin City and so forth, but the story was slightly abysmal. I wish the geeks with the tech would be less possessive about their projects. Put me in mind of A Scanner Darkly too, but I barely recall that one.

Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon

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Another eBook from the Chicago Public Library. According to Wikipedia, Ahmad spent a lifetime in the tribal areas along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan and he shares some of his experiences and accumulated knowledge here. Unfortunately he started late and this is the entirety of his literary output. In some ways it is like Kipling's Kim, reflecting on colonialism, the reverberations of the Great Game and so forth. His account of the closing of the Af-Pak border to the nomadic peoples is despondent. Score one more to the nation state. There is little of beauty here — more hard-scrabble people eking out hard lives in breathtaking surroundings — and while the women are accounted for, they never amount to personalities or have much volition. There is, of course, generational tribal/family feuding and slave trading, some city life. The overarching conceit is of a violently-orphaned boy who learns to survive, even thrive, by doing as needs must. He appears in all the stories but is almost never at their centre.

Basharat Peer and Kamila Shamsie both reviewed it for the Guardian. (I somewhat disagree with her about the portrayal of women, though I don't fault Ahmad for this given the culturally-enforced separation of gender.)

... and Coke Studio Season 8 has started!

Oracle Theatre: This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro at the Public Access Theatre.

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Free, $20 donation at the end, booked 2015-08-27. Took the red line up as I was feeling lazy, and the weather was supposedly dicey. This was a recreation of a debate in the Cambridge Union in 1965. Apparently the original is online. The opening statements by the two Englishmen were provocative; for the negative, the argument was that the American Dream would be further along if the American Negro had been treated better. (The title elides "has been achieved".) The main part of it was essentially a pair of monologues from James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr, and I found neither particularly edifying. Buckley in particular made it clear how much American rhetoric rests on the invocation of tribal shibboleths that are substantially irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is perhaps why it is unconvincing to foreigners. I gave up trying to process his assertions very early on. But where are the contemporary debates held now?

The production is quite OK, and has been staged multiple times. Aimee Levitt at the Reader got right into it.

Profiles Theatre: The Jacksonian.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $6.50 service fee = $16.50, bought 2015-08-06. I met up with mrak and Ang for lunch in Chinatown. We took the water taxi back to Madison, and as I was too lazy to cycle I then took the red line up to Sheridan. Those stations are seriously not accessible; carrying the bike up and down stairs and squeezing through those gates is not fun. My old reliable Asian Mix Cafe was closed, this being the Sunday of the Labor Day long weekend, so I had to make do with a couple of donuts and a 312 beer. I got talking to Vicky, who wrote Late Night Catechism.

So, this is another Southern gothic with a girl running around a hotel room in her undies (at times). There's a demented dentist who loses it as his family life decays. The barkeep is a tad psychotic and the maid on the make. Yeah, it's a solid production of some tired and mediocre material. I saw Juliana Liscio in Take Me Back; here she has a meatier role but is still somewhat squandered.

The cycle home was pleasant, though there seemed to be a mild, steady southerly all day.

Tony Adler. And many others.

U.S. Eagles vs Wallabies, Soldier Field.

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$97.44 ($75 face value), bought 2015-05-30. I bought these as early as I could as I was expecting something like last year, when more than 60,000 people went to see the All Blacks. Well, the second or third string of the momentarily number two team in the world doesn't have that kind of drawing power, with only about 23,000 people turning out. The result was 47 to 10, with the hosts scoring a try (!). Before the game I thought par was a fifty point margin, and afterwards simply much more discipline. (The biffo in the middle of the second half was farcical.) If any of the first-string players get injured at the world cup, the jig is up for Australia.

It was a beautiful day for cycling around, though I didn't do too much of that. Some wag put Springsteen's Born in the USA on as a warm up: not too much killing of the yellow man here today, or even conscripting of the man in yellow to help with that. And yeah, Khe San. The fashion question for the Americans fans was whether to go with the stars or the stripes: revolution or one happy union?

Smith Henderson: Fourth of July Creek

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Second time round on the Kindle. It's addictive, making it easier to pick up a promising book than to make progress on any side project. Oh well. I read most of this on the plane back to Chicago from ICFP in Vancouver, and a little in the evenings before that.

Set in 1979 and a bit later, Montana and thereabouts, Twin Peaks territory but nowhere as kooky. The myth-minting is highly unoriginal here — Reagan is the antichrist as he survived an assassination attempt, for instance — which makes me think that it is not Henderson's point. But then all his characters conform to type: Mary, one of several gone girls, has been through more institutions than she has fingers and toes, was serially abused in the obvious way and is now a paid functionary for this system while moonlighting as a nymphomaniac prostitute. Pete Snow, the central character, is a social worker who is similarly bent. Almost everyone is soaked in alcohol. So that really just leaves the plot, which takes a neat swerve from the "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" cliché to the modern indistinguishability of deep spirituality from mental illness. Which may have been his point. That and Christ's inability to save himself.

While I enjoyed it, this left me with a feeling similar as Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut, that I'd read the same websites at approximately the same time and the cutting insight did not really arrive. There is a hell of a lot of gesturing at "fiat currency" here, a big topic within the libertarian community, and some dissonance: apocalyptic Pearl converts his USD to gold and argues that the latter has no inherent value... so if he's only going to use it for trade, why not stick with USD, or go all-in on the instrumental goods? Isn't gold ultimately subject to the same pathologies as fiat currencies, being manipulable by powerful (state) actors? Ultimately can't the state futz with any and every market? Argh, too many rhetorical questions! Or unsurprising answers.

Henderson does some nice writing in the small, but has too many pieces on the board for things to add up satisfactorily. I got this book on the strength of Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times. Her observation: "The daughter's story is a chilling reminder of how much damage parents can unwittingly inflict on their children." links this to Deborah Robertson's book. "It may remind readers of many different writers, even though it's such an original." is a funny way of saying that it's entirely derivative, but she liked the synthesis. Imitation is the sincerest form, and so forth.