peteg's blog

Graham Greene: The Confidential Agent

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Kindle. Following a pointer from Rushdie's memoir. All you need to know is at Wikipedia. I would say this is not his finest outing, though it has its moments.

Captain America: Civil War

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3:40pm session, Galaxy Cinema Nguyễn Trãi, 60kVND. Fairly packed with young Vietnamese, some of whom talked throughout the movie, but not too much. It's so damn loud anyway, and it's not like the nuances of the dialogue are so very important. I guess this is another of those fantasy matchups, but to this foreigner it smelt mostly of thin-skinned American exceptionalism. Gwyneth Paltrow took a break from this one, as did Hemsworth and Ruffalo. I wish Elizabeth Olsen was in more serious stuff. I could similarly listen to Paul Bettany all day, but his character is curiously useless given how powerful he's supposed to be. (The opposite applies to Scarlett Johansson, who is mostly ornamentation in these movies.) Daniel Brühl looked familiar but from what I do not know (perhaps A Most Wanted Man). It's OK, though some of the camerawork was way too shaky for me.

A. O. Scott.

The Professionals

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A non-spaghetti Western. Notionally for Jack Palance. Somewhat farcical.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton

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Kindle. I got a bit sick of trying to find something new to read, and if there's one thing about Rushdie, it's that he's easy to plough through. Unfortunately I did more ploughing than enjoying in this overlong, overly repetitious and ultimately tedious memoir. Most of it is an account of the fatwa years, but Rushdie does not bother to provide much context for it; you are not going to learn anything about the larger issues of the day here. Indeed much of this I read recently, in Step Across This Line — that material has been lightly edited and emended for this vehicle.

Rushdie is a fine writer (becoming less so with time; call this a portrait of an artist in decline) but his claims to intellectualism are thin. His is often empty rhetoric; this is his argument that even if God did exist he'd be cool with it all:

However, even if You are Ghazali's God, reading the newspapers, watching TV, and taking sides in political and even literary disputes, I don't believe you could have a problem with The Satanic Verses or any other book, no matter how wretched.

... and of course his infatuation with Hitchens shows he's more in love with words than ideas. What did Clune say about Super Mario World? Rushdie is a long way from engaging with multifaceted identities ala Amartya Sen (et al), and his responses to Le Carré ("My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity") are almost entirely ad hominem. Often he sounds like his own worst enemy: as absolutist and unreasoned as an Ayatollah.

There are too many loose threads and incoherencies here. Are there safe houses or are there not? (Of course there are.) Did he incur large expenses for the public or did he not? (Of course he did.) Why did he convert to Islam after the fatwa? (How was that ever going to help anything?) His arguments for freedom of expression are typically vapid extremism and often sound equally like arguments against copyright; there is nothing as nuanced as Tim Parks on Charlie Hebdo here. I guess the final nail in the coffin is his surprise at how shallow and self-absorbed Padma Lakshmi is. It doesn't make a lot of sense to call her (or their relationship) "The Illusion" while maintaining that they were, in fact, madly in love at various times; if they felt it, it was real. There is no other objectivity on offer.

Pankaj Mishra at the Guardian. One of the more annoying things about this book is that Rushdie does not distinguish Sunni from Shia, which would have helped show how isolated Iran really is (as we all now know). Where were the Saudis in this fiasco? Zoë Heller argues that Rushdie has grown smaller with time.

Thieves Like Us

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Altman. Keith Carradine, roughly the same time as he did The Duellists. Also a very young-looking Shelley Duvall drinks a lot of Coke and smokes but doesn't inhale. A character study of three bank robbers, two of whom get what they want and then what New Deal America decides they deserve. Not really my thing.


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A stop-motion from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Michael Wood's review at the LRB sold it to me, alongside David Thewlis's voice work, but unfortunately the artefact as a whole does not measure up to the former's musings and the latter's ability. The picture of GWB in the manager's office is slightly hysterical. Mostly, however, banality rules the day, and I fear that that was intended. The animation is top-notch. I think the cardinal rule for puppet sex is that it has to be ridiculously funny, like in Team America.

Paul Beatty: Tuff

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Kindle. Somehow this put me in mind of Murray Bail's Holden’s Performance, which I haven't read for an age. I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as the other two by Beatty that I've read (The Sellout, The White Boy Shuffle), probably because I am less interested in and sympathetic to the rhythms of NYC street life, hard, harsh and unforgiving as it is. There are moments of Tarantino here; a black rabbi, why not... and the lead is really a ghetto thug whose thuggishness is quietened but not occluded by the extensive accounts of domesticity and mateship. The sumo wrestling is cool, but as for Tarantino, cool violence is nothing like insight. Wearing.

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris)

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Second time around. Tigôn didn't get into it so much, I think because she's a dog person... but she did find the dog scenes amusing at least.

The Jungle Book

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At CGV Liberty Central (corner of Pasteur and Lê Lợi, Hồ Chí Minh City) with Tigôn at 19:40, 120kVND each plus a large Coke and popcorn. Dinky little theatre, with subtitles; somewhat unusual as most sessions are dubbed, which makes sense for a kids' movie. (The very young children in the crowd had no hope without parental assistance.) We went as there are simply not many films showing right now.

The short story is that there are some good bits, and the CGI oftentimes convincing. The child actor is the weakest link, though the excellent voice work regularly masks this. I was disappointed when Walken, hitherto so successfully channeling Brando in Apocalypse Now, became a song-and-dance ape in a temple that looked like it had been in some other movie.

Manohla Dargis talks more about Disney's 1967 outing than the current one, as does Sam Machkovech, who also looks forward to the Andy Serkis-directed version from Warner Bros. Anthony Lane also noted the hat-tip to Apocalypse Now. Also Christopher Benfey.

Sam Quinones: Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic.

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Kindle. The New York Times reported that it won an award, alongside Beatty for The Sellout. This is a fine piece of investigative journalism that needed a sterner editor. Quinones tells the story of how "heartland" America got addicted to heroin, via the gateway painkiller OxyContin (I now understand the drug spam) and cognates, and the Mexican suppliers from Xalisco, Nayarit. The latter was my main reason for picking this up: a vertically-integrated transnational operation with a built-in conflict resolution mechanism is a little bit fascinating. (Everyone knows everyone back home, so cheating and violence can lead to severe repercussions for loved ones.) It is amazing that they can engage in non-lethal competition in a traditionally ultraviolent enterprise; for instance, the various cells apparently lend drugs to each other when supplies are low, and just-in-time deliveries (etc) keep their activities below the excitement threshold of the DEA and friends. So this is somehow a free market of drugs (decreasing prices, consistent and high purity, convenient service, robust) that has avoided capitalism's antinomies thus far. But of course profits are huge and the markets are still expanding.

I now also understand what a pill mill is, and why Paul Le Roux got into it. I just wish the text had been half as long.

Susan Barker: The Incarnations.

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Kindle. So-so; some good bits, many bad bits, much that is hackneyed, and too much sex that distracts from her larger story. There are elements of Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. Some observations are shallower than Kim Huynh's. There is a larger China out there, outside the bedroom, and I wish Barker had spent more time in it.

Simon Winchester at the New York Times.

Hail, Caesar!

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The latest from the Coen brothers, a return to screwy Hollywood comedy, a step away from character studies, despite Josh Brolin anchoring the thing and appearing in all the best scenes. Some fall completely flat; I'd say it comes out fifty-fifty. I'm less convinced by Scarlett Johansson than ever. Clooney struggles a bit here. Alden Ehrenreich is a find, playing a reassured, unabashed Southern hick. Tilda Swinton's character is lifted directly from The Big Knife, and overall there's less on offer here than in Maps to the Stars. ... and was that really Christopher Lambert?

Manohla Dargis. Francine Prose.

Jarett Kobek: i hate the internet.

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Kindle. On the strength of Dwight Garner's review in the New York Times. Kobek is scathing about the "social media" internet in a tendentious, categorical style that reflects what he loathes. I wonder if he is aware of The Sellout; there he would find a deeper engagement with race in California. Almost all the tropes of geekdom are slaughtered here (Heinlein, Doctor Who, ... — collectively branded juvenalia) and blamed for the infantilisation of emotion and conflict that one finds on the anonymized internet. (Indeed this is something of a book-length expansion of the greater internet fuckwad theory.) Hardy's Jude the Obscure and A Clockwork Orange get some grudging respect. Google's executives are likened to the Greek (or Roman?) pantheon. The closing riff on Galt's overlong speech in Atlas Shrugged is quite funny; I can hardly wait for the women-only internet called for there.

I wish he had spent a bit of time thinking about the rest of the net, where plenty of communities get along just fine. The key, of course, is to come together around non-trivial mutual interest and to tolerate other people's quirks. I guess that involves some loss of anonymity.

Unfortunately Kobek's earlier Atta does not appear to be available as an ebook.

Wings of Desire (1987)

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I have been meaning to see this since forever, and I guess re-reading Salman Rushdie's spray against co-writer Peter Handke was enough to tip me over the edge. This is Wim Wenders defining art house cinema circa 1987, doing Nick Cave's career a favour or too along the way. The black-and-white/colour mashup was a bit heavy handed, as was just about everything else. To enjoy this you have to indulge Peter Falk and the aforementioned auteurs beyond the demands of most artworks (and reason). I found the ending unsatisfying, the philosophizing empty-headed, the understanding of what peace takes to be absent. Just how plausible is it to meet the woman you've been creepily (ectoplasmically) stalking for days at a Nick Cave concert that you both walk out of? ... and for her not to be creeped out? Humans über alles, oh my, think of the people please.

Roger Ebert: four stars as a "great movie" in 1998. Janet Maslin: a Critic's Pick and yet a heavy grind.

Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs.

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Kindle. On the strength of Fiona Maazel's glowing and indulgent review in the New York Times. This covers similar territory to Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown (which I read but did not write up?!?) and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mahajan aims to show how various people get entangled in and affected by small-scale terrorist activities; specifically bombs in marketplaces in Delhi that kill fewer than a hundred people, and happen often enough that they are quickly forgotten by the city and country at large. Stripped of its local colour, things go as you might expect. The ending is somewhat limp. Modi features here in his earlier guise as governor of Gujarat.

I don't think any of these books are very insightful about the origins of terrorism.

Hari Kunzru.