Justin Cawthorne dot com

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Week 36: human

(Sept 3 – 9)

It’s been a slightly depressing week in social media land.

The early part of the week had me preoccupied with Wil Wheaton (not, some of you may note, for the first time) and his experience of the internet. Without going into too much detail (you can get that here), he decided to try out Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter (something I’ve been considering myself), only to find it just as much as of an abusive, festering cesspit as twitter. The depressing part of this is that while many of the people attacking him are undoubtedly manbabygate-adjacent, there were also plenty of others piling in who really should have been on the same side—and entirely, it seems, because of a simple misunderstanding.

It’s another case of something that is increasingly bothering me about social media and modern discourse in general. People seem to be largely intent on looking at how something impacts them, and them alone. There’s little consideration for either intent or context any more. It’s partly to do with the media we now use—we’ve all had instances where an email has been misinterpreted; well that capacity is amplified even more on social media—but people are also fanatically staking out their own corner of the culture war and attacking anyone who, in their view, transgresses.

I’m starting to think that one of the by-products of social media being such an amorphous, distributed thing is that people have a greater need than ever for something to focus on. It can be something relatively wholesome, like a new meme; it could be some event for people to get collectively outraged over (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad); or it can be a person. I wonder if Wil Wheaton, simply because he has poured so much of himself into social media over the years, has become one of those focal points with a critical mass of people using him as a handy target for their various frustrations.

The other major social media event of the week was the outcry over Steve Bannon’s various media appearances, which have included interviews on TV over here, and a [swiftly cancelled] invitation to headline the New Yorker Festival.

Let’s be clear for a moment. The views that someone like Steve Bannon holds absolutely need to be discussed, dissected and (ideally) dismissed. However, this does not mean that Bannon needs to be given a platform to present those views himself. Doing so only serves to legitimise him in the same way that the media, in striving for drama and the audience it delivers, has helped convince the world that there’s a debate to be had on climate change.

It’s depressing enough that various media outlets don’t see any problem with giving Steve Bannon a platform. But what’s truly gotten to me this week is seeing them respond to the justified outcry over Bannon headlining a major Festival with accusations of “outrage culture” and “what about free speech”. And this wasn’t just the usual right-wing suspects, this came from the left as well. It’s made me realise that outlets as supposedly distinct as The Guardian and The Australian are, in fact, closer to representing each other’s views than either are to representing whatever the voice of the people is. It’s shocking, in fact, to realise that there is now a general assumption among the media that they dictate the voice of the people, rather than reporting on it. And this at at time when traditional news is dying a slow, inevitable death.

Bring it on, I say.

Watching

This week we wrapped up Ready Player One—which, you’ll remember, we conveniently abandoned last week at the end of the second act. I’ve come out a pretty big fan of this movie, but it’s mostly because it works as the ultimate Steven Spielberg blockbuster. He was the perfect director to make this film, and he made it perfectly. Not to say that it’s a perfect film: I’m somewhat aggrieved that the otherwise strong female lead is mostly shunted aside in the final act (I haven’t read the source novel so I don’t know if this is the typical hero’s journey weakness endemic to Hollywood blockbusters, or if it’s right there from the start).

However, that aside, the film is worth watching for The Shining sequence alone.

For Fridate Horror we watched Dressed To Kill, which is a film I discovered and fell in love with during my Film Studies course at University. It’s a challenging film in some ways, but it’s a masterful work of cinema. I continued the Brian de Palma theme with a rewatch of Mission: Impossible on Saturday night (I’m aiming to rewatch the entire series, except for the second one, before I catch up with Fallout). I’m delighted to say that I managed, at last, to follow the plot this time around. It’s only taken me the last several decades to get there.

The choice of our Sunday night movie, after last week’s minor debacle of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, was given to the Elderbeast and he picked Doctor Strange. Typically I prefer smaller movies, ideally ones I haven’t seen before, on a Sunday night, but Doctor Strange really fit the bill this week. It’s building its way towards becoming one of my favourite Marvel movies. It’s not only great to look at, but has a compelling journey for its hero. It struck me after this viewing that one of its strengths—ironically, given the premise—is that it tells a very human story of a flawed man who starts out putting himself above everyone else, but ends up putting the rest of the world first.

Reading

Not much to report on The Haunting Of Hill House. I am enjoying the experience of reading it, but not enough to want to return to it every night. I will need to make a concerted effort to get into a reading rhythm otherwise it will end up on the pile of abandoned books.

Dune has also reached a bit of a lull. I’m at what I would call the start of Act 2 (when it’s all gone horribly wrong with House Atreides) and am finding that there’s much padding. This seems to be the point when Frank Herbert has grown overly fascinated with his own creation and has forgotten to keep the plot moving forward in any significant way. It’s interesting to compare to the film version which retained Act 1 in almost every detail, but skipped past huge chunks of this section without any obvious impact on the plot.

Make no mistake, it’s all great writing and perfectly enjoyable to listen to—it’s just a bit of a comedown from the pace and intrigue of the first section of the book.

cookies

Week 35: Smart

(August 27 – Sept 2)

Regular readers of these ramblings will know that one of my recent obsessions is smart devices. This started out as an obsession with bluetooth speakers, then bluetooth colour-changing light bulbs. Then I realised that I could potentially control my light bulbs with my voice and, well …

To date, I have four Google Homes in my house: one in each of the kid’s rooms, so they can listen to music / podcasts / stories; one in the kitchen, mostly so I can listen to music while I cook; and one in the front room so I can control my Chromecast and the two smart lights in there. Sure, it’s fair to say I’m not exactly using those devices to their full potential, but I’m definitely having fun with them.

This week I added a few new devices to the setup. I’ve been ogling the Mijia touch-controlled bedside lamp for a while and finally saw one at a sufficiently tempting price. Now, I actually have two bedside lamps in my bed room, but I wasn’t about to shell out for a second fancy bedside lamp, so I simply fitted the other lamp with a spare Yeelight smart bulb that I happened to have lying around.

I also replaced the Google Home Mini in my kitchen with a .. non-mini Google Home (again, after seeing an unmissable offer), which meant I ended up with a handy Google Home Mini for my bedroom. Which meant I could control the lights which sit next to my bed without actually having move my arm.

After much tweaking, I finally settled on three lighting setups: “reading”, in which my bedside light is bright enough for me to read by, but the other one is set to a dim red (for that all-important red light at bedtime!); “night”, a suitably low-level ambient setup for the rare occasions when I want to Netflix and chill in bed; and the imaginatively named “orange”, a nice bright orange for everyday use.

Even more fun than all of that is the particular trigger word I need to use for the Google Home to switch on these modes for me, which is “activate”. For example:

“Hey Google, activate night.”

To which I get the response: “Okay, activating the Night.”

It’s the little things …

Watching

A busy film week this week. As the Elderbeast has been sick all weekend (and would go on to be sick all week as well) I allowed him the privilege of choosing our Monday night viewing. He picked Ready Player One which was turning out pretty good, but because it’s so goddam long he bailed at the end of the second act. I’ll have more to say about that one when we eventually finish watching it.

I also checked out the first episode of the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 adaptation of Dune. It had been much-heralded at the time, but I don’t remember very much about it. I didn’t want to watch the David Lynch film as I’m still only about a third through the audiobook and want to enjoy the end of that without another version getting in the way—also, I still seem to remember the Lynch film pretty vividly.

Unfortunately the Sci-Fi version was a fair disappointment. While plenty of the detail made it to the screen, much of the subtlety was lost. I had the impression that scenes were rushed through production (the likely peril of a TV budget back then) which diminished any sense of dramatic tension: things simply happened in the order in which they happened. It definitely gave me a renewed appreciation for the Lynch film which, at least for the first hour or so, manages to perfectly capture both the mood and drama of the book.

For Friday Horror we watched Hereditary, which is a film that will stay with me for a loooong time. It’s one of those rare films where the ending more than adequately pays off on the terrific sense of dread that has been developing throughout, but also one where it’s not just about the ending (like, for instance, Audition). Amazing stuff. I hope to see it appearing in many future lists of the best horror films ever made.

For Saturday I continued my brief Les Liaisons Dangereuses revisitation with Dangerous Liaisons, which perfectly captures the deliciousness of the source material, despite being somewhat Americanised (not least with the title). Unlike Valmont, however, you don’t quite get the same sense of the emotional journey that the characters take. I suspect Milos Forman (Valmont) was far more interested in exploring the characters, which is why he took a few liberties with the story, whereas Dangerous Liaisons was mostly about capitalising on the success of the play.

I do wish we’d managed to get Alan Rickman in there as Valmont (it was, after all, his performance in the play that first brought him to the attention of Hollywood), but I imagine we might have missed out on his legendary Die Hard casting if Hollywood hadn’t decided it was necessary to have a known actor (John Malkovich) in its film version of Dangerous Liaisons.

On Sunday afternoon I finally treated myself to Sunset Boulevard, one of several notable cinema classics that I have so far failed to see. My only surprise is that I was genuinely expecting something of a noir thriller. Other than that it’s as perfectly wonderful as everyone says it is, and it’s already earned a place on the rewatch list.

For Sunday night I stuck on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, thinking that the Elderbeast would be tickled by it. The good bits are just as good as I remember but, oh boy, does it take a while to get there. The film rides comfortably on the Caine-Martin double act, and the script is just about good enough to keep you watching. However, it seems that this movie falls into the same trap as a lot of comedies–particularly eighties ones: namely that it’s a light-hearted romp that’s oversold by having a comedy superstar like Steve Martin in the cast. We remember all the Steve Martin bits (Ruprecht the Monkey Boy, in particular) but the rest of the movie can’t help but feel a little flat in comparison.

It’s a very rare film that properly meshes the comedy and the story—when it works you get Ghostbusters or Animal House; when it doesn’t you get almost every other film starring a Saturday Night Live alumnus.

Reading

I’m continuing to make slow progress on The Haunting Of Hill House. As good as it may be, it’s hardly a page turner and I’m struggling to muster the discipline to pick it up each night. This will likely be a slow burn for me.

I’m also still immersed in the audiobook of Dune—given that this is 17 hours long this was always going to be a month-long project (at least). A few weeks back I listened to an Audible interview with Joe Hill, where he was asked what he liked in particular about audiobooks. I was very struck by his answer, in which he explained that having a book read to him had the effect, sometimes, of revealing to him how a book should be read. It makes sense. We read books to ourselves the same way each time, in our own voice, which may not be the right voice for every book we read. Someone else will inevitably offer a fresh perspective.

Joe Hill’s example was of a book that used a specific dialect and needed an actor familiar with the patois to bring it to life. Dune isn’t in that category, but it is lush with details, and has many, many characters to follow around—at least initially. I’m finding that the audiobook version is bringing the story to vivid life in a way that my previous readings of the book never really achieved. I’m picking up details that I know I missed on my previous readings, and I’m having absolutely no problems keeping track of the characters and the subtleties of the plot.

Having just written the above, I’ve opted to use one of my Audible credits on the audiobook of It (which has received superb reviews). It’s another book that I’ve read many times, and am very familiar with. However, I stalled on my last rereading and am now fascinated to see if/how the audiobook version brings a fresh dimension to the book.

cat sitting in grass

Week 34: Dim

(August 20 – August 26)

There has been an interesting theme of disruption and lack of focus this week. Politically, the week started with a leadership challenge in Parliament in which the least effective Prime Minister in Australian history was challenged by a strong candidate for the least suitable person ever to [almost] be Prime Minister–and given the catastrophically low talent pool currently available in the Liberal party, and the fact that we’ve already had Tony Abbott, that’s really saying something.

Fortunately the leadership bid made by Peter Dutton, possibly the one person in the world less fit to be in charge of people than Donald Trump, failed.A second attempt followed at the end of the week which Dutton still lost (because apparently he’s really, really bad at this), but we still ended up with a new (and just as awful) Prime Minister. We also endured the shameful spectacle of the government shutting down Parliament for a day simply because it was all too hard for them to get on with their jobs.

Meanwhile, over in the USA, Donald Trump inches closer and closer to impeachment and grows more paranoid and deranged as the day approaches. I haven’t checked in on the UK for a while, but I assume the government there is continuing with the catastrophic omnishambles that is their Brexit negotiations, and which shows every sign of wrecking the country in the long run.

Closer to home, I’ve all but given up on being particularly productive during my morning (writing) shifts. I’ve continued to write, but I’ve struggled getting up most mornings and my concentration is shot. I’ve turned out paragraphs here and there, but nothing substantial. I’ve decided to mostly write off (hahahaha) August, by which I mean I’m not going to stress too much about not writing, and I’ll make an effort to return to normal business in September.

Hopefully the world will have calmed down a bit by then and things won’t be quite so distracting.

Lol.

Watching

It’s been another week of not watching anything TV-wise. On Monday the kids and I dropped in on a very excellent Lego group, which particularly rekindled the Elderbeast’s passion for LEGO. As a consequence we sat down and watched the LEGO Brickumentary later in the evening. It was pretty good and offered a very rounded view of the world of LEGO. My only complaint was, like most of these feature length pop culture documentaries, it focused a bit too much on the fans. I can talk to LEGO fans anytime—what I’m really interested in is how LEGO gets made, how the sets get designed, all of that stuff we don’t usually get to see.

Also, all of the Americans who keep saying “Legos” can get in the bin.

For our Friday horror film this week we watched a British offering called Ghost Stories. This was excellent, very scary in parts, pretty oddball in others. It was not unlike the portmanteau chillers of the seventies, which would typically wrap up by delivering a severe moral judgement on its various participants. This one ended up in a different place—which I obviously don’t want to spoil—but it was nice to see that the British industry can still deliver top quality horror.

The Elderbeast chose Spider-Man: Homecoming for our Saturday night film, which was as good as I remember it being first time around.

For Sunday I was a little stuck for something to watch, and eventually chose Night of The Hunter, which I’d recently bought on bluray. I’d only seen it once, many years ago, and there turned out to be a lot I didn’t remember. It’s a remarkable film; at times chilling, lyrical almost to the point of surrealness in others. I’m very glad I now own a copy that will allow me to revisit the film a bit more often than previously.

Reading

Still reading The Haunting Of Hill House. Still listening to Dune. More next week. Maybe.

garden lights

Week 33: “I hope all your children have very small dicks! And that includes the girls!!”

(August 13 – August 19)

This week was mostly about the slow, ponderous return to full health after my illness last week. Although I was up and about, and going to work, and generally passing for human, I was still feeling pretty shabby. It wasn’t until Thursday that I finally felt the bonds of illness slipping from my shoulders and began to feel like myself again.

I suppose that’s one of the benefits of a minor sickness: you get to see your everyday self in sharp relief to your ensickened self. You get to realise that it’s quite nice being able to do things, even if it’s just boring, everyday things like cooking dinner—and being able to cook dinner without it feeling like a marathon effort.

Talking of dinner, I also got my new stovetop installed this week. Which was nice.

Watching

Following a random mention on twitter this week, I felt compelled to end my working week by watching The Tall Guy. This is one of those films I used to watch regularly in my late teens and it was a delight revisiting it now. In fact, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to remind myself why I used to love it so much. Perhaps a fear—ultimately and definitively unfounded—that it wouldn’t match up to my memories.

I believe this was Richard Curtis’s first film as screenwriter, and there are plenty of his tropes already on display. I won’t pick through them here, but it’s certainly fun seeing this almost-forgotten comedy showing off many of the things that would eventually make it into his subsequent blockbusters.

Of course, one thing you get with a debut screenplay, including a low budget, is the sense that Curtis hasn’t quite yet worked out what he’s doing yet. Consequently, he’s willing to take a few more risks here, to throw jokes at the screen instead of whittling them down to perfection. As a result, one of the [many] charms of The Tall Guy are the random gags and one liners that bring a wealth of colour and characterisation to this otherwise tiny tale of people caught in the swell of London life.

One surprise on rewatching the film was how much of a role the music plays. In truth, this shouldn’t be a surprise at all, given that I found myself humming along note for note to almost every music cue—and remembered the music far better, as it happens, than the dialogue (which was more in the realm of comfortably familiar). In concert with some fine editing choices, the music absolutely builds the mood of the film throughout, adding a rich emotional depth to what is, basically, a silly movie about two people falling in love. When the characters do fall for each other, we really feel it; when they’re maudlin and reflective, so are we; and when we get to the (spoiler) happy ending, the music doesn’t overplay things; instead it lets us enjoy the moment.

Also; try not falling in love with Emma Thompson in this movie. I dare you.

Reading

In audiobook world I finally finished Redshirts, which was pretty great. I had a small selection of purchases to choose for my next listen and eventually—and ambitiously—opted for Dune. It’s something like a 17 hour listen, which will be interesting with my 40 minutes of so of listening time each day. I read the book many years ago, and have revisited it once or twice since then. I’ve been meaning to give it a fresh read for a few years now, so the audiobook seemed like a good opportunity.

So far I’m gripped. The narrator (Simon Vance) is excellent, and there are some full cast dramatised sections which I’m also enjoying. I’m finding, perhaps, that I’m following the detail of the story more easily with the audiobook.

I also started reading The Haunting Of Hill House, which has been on my Kindle wish list for some time, and conveniently went on sale this week. The Haunting (Robert Wise’s adaptation) is one of my favourite films and so far the book and film are very close. As vivid as Shirley Jackson’s prose is, I’ll admit I’m finding the ‘old fashionedness’ of it a little hard to wade through at times. It’s fascinating the way that prose styles change over the decades and centuries, and how our ‘reader brains’ get used to one style over another.

unikitties

Week 32: Sick

(August 6 – August 12)

This week I have mostly been sick. Not quite bedridden sick, but definitely incompatible-with-work sick. Meanwhile, the other big story of the week—well, in social media land at least—is Twitter’s Jack Dorsey deciding not to boot Alex Jones (curator of horrible lies about Sandy Hook and, well, almost everything else) off his platform. This is after Facebook, and YouTube, and I’m sure some others, have all already shown him the door. Naturally this has attracted the ire of many Twitter users. And, oddly enough, there’s a connecting theme to me being sick.
You see, when I’m sick I avoid going into the office in order to avoid passing my sickness to other people and making them sick. Because that’s how sickness works. Me not being in the office prevents the office from becoming an infectious—or toxic, if you will—environment.
Twitter has famously been overrun with manbabies, toxic fanbois, racists, literal Nazis and all manner of other abusers in the last few years. It’s transformed the platform from being a place where random people from different corners of the world could talk about breakfast foods, into a place where celebrities routinely quit due to abuse, and women have to maintain and share block lists to protect themselves from the abuse they receive from simply sharing an opinion.
This is not unlike a sickness. One or two unpleasant characters can’t usually do much on their own, but they empower and embolden other unpleasant characters. One person freely and shamelessly giving voice to their racist views encourages the impressionable person, or the one who hides their racism, to speak out about their own noxious opinions. If left uncontrolled, this spreads across the platform. It’s the equivalent of going into an office while sick: that virus is going to spread, the office environment is going to become toxic, and sooner or later all the otherwise healthy people are going to be affected by it.
The obvious answer is to remove those peoples’ access to the platform, and thus make it safer for those who are not actually using the platform to abuse others. While some may say there’s a [highly tangential] free speech argument that makes banning people from twitter a [not really] uncomfortable prospect, there’s ultimately no argument at all. For one, free speech basically means that you won’t get arrested for airing your views. Twitter is a business, and has the right to ban anyone who doesn’t conform to their terms of service (which should damn well include not abusing or causing harm to other users). They don’t have the right to throw you in prison.
On that note, free speech is not design to protect you if your intent is to cause harm to others. If you cause harm to people by abusing your free speech, then other laws come into play—laws against hate speech, for example.
Finally, because it needs to be said before some squawking bigots asks: “but isn’t banning people like Alex Jones from twitter just like refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple?” No, it’s not. Because it’s not discrimination. It’s not a case of banning someone because they’re a conservative, or because they’re a white man, or because of any one of the reasons that outraged right-whingers would have you believe. It’s banning a specific person because their specific actions have caused harm to other people.
And twitter should just fucking get over itself and ban him.

Watching

My viewing choices in the early part of this week were determined by my need to either lie on the sofa or in my bed, and watch relatively undemanding fare. On the plus side I was able to enjoy some classic Doctor Who, but also made the mistake of watching the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Now, I’ve been interested in watching this for a long time, but was naturally put off by the scathing reviews.
Now that I’ve watched the movie I understand those reviews. On the surface, this film is relatively inoffensive—in fact, it starts off as quite an intriguing reimagining of the classic movie. Then it ends, and you realise that not only has the story gone nowhere, but it’s also managed to subvert the intended message. In the original film, humanity is left with a choice: become better, or be destroyed. In this remake, humanity (represented, of course, by the US military) ignores Klaatu’s warnings and is in the process of being destroyed, but he decides to save them anyway. Wha…?
Anyway, for Fridate Horror we watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula—a much delayed follow up to us watching the Hammer version several months ago. It’s a vibrant and dynamic retelling that takes delight in throwing all sorts of classic cinema trickery at the screen. However, I can never decide if it’s a good film or not. On the one hand you have the extreme hamming of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins, but then you have the starched woodiness of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder (neither of whom are truly terrible, but neither are playing to their strengths here). Part of the film wants to be a fun romp, but part of it wants to be an epic love story. Despite this, I came away with the same impression that I did the first time I saw the movie: the love story, the one major (possibly sacrilegious) element that was added to the story, was one of the most successful parts—it gives the film a much needed emotional backbone, without which it would probably just be two hours of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Reading

I started a new book this week, but because I’m the World’s Worst Reader I almost immediately abandoned it. In my defence, I was sick and wasn’t reading much of anything once I got to bed each day: opting, instead, for the far more tempting option of instant sleep.
During my convalescence, I did browse through the comic library on my iPad and decided to revisit Paper Girls. I picked up the first volume after reading an article (“things you might enjoy if you enjoyed Stranger Things”) and loved it. A month or two ago I was able to get the next two volumes cheap and have been looking for an excuse to read it again.
It’s got everything I love about comic books: simple art, but not so stylised that it takes you out of the story; rounded characters that I enjoy spending time with; and a story that I still can’t quite figure out where it’s going.
Let’s see if I make it through more than the first volume this time.

The Shape Of Water on TV

Week 31: Communication (let me down …)

(July 30 – August 5)

This week I had the privilege of going to vote in my local by-election—only the second time I’ve been able to vote since becoming an Australian citizen. Because of this, there’s been a lot of political messaging flying about lately. The government, however, didn’t even run a candidate (which is a shame, as it deprived me of the opportunity to put them last), leaving the opposition candidate to steal the show with flyers, posters and the like everywhere. In a surprise to no one, he won.

This week has also seen continuing discussion about getting the Nazis off twitter. While twitter management appear to be doing very little in that area, it does turn out that they’ve enabled banning of Nazis in Germany and Poland—where Nazism is [rightfully] outlawed.

So, in one instance, we have a right-wing party who have decided not to contest an election, and consequently spend no money on communications of any kind. On the other hand, we have fascists continuing to have access to a free communications platform that enables them to spread their repugnant views.

In an odd way, it reminds me of Coke. Bear with me.

When I was growing up I was always puzzled why Coke would continue to advertise: everyone knew what Coke was, and the little red cans were everywhere, virtually advertising themselves. Turns out that brand awareness is an important thing: if we’re not continually reminded that Coke is a spectacular lifestyle choice then we might realise that it’s nothing more than sugar and water and stop drinking it. The veil may slip once the lack of advertising gives us space to think for ourselves.

It’s no different with politics. Don’t run a candidate, and people will vote for the other person. Stop giving the Nazis a platform to broadcast and share their messages on Twitter (and other platforms) and people will (hopefully) move onto the next thing.

In the US, Australia and UK the right wing has become a huge political force largely due to the wrangling of the Murdoch press. Take that messaging away—that bullhorn voice that shouts in the public’s ear and stops them considering the alternatives—and I suspect that we’d be living in a much nicer society right now.

Watching

Two more episodes, this week, of Mark Kermode’s excellent Secrets Of Cinema. This time covering heist movies and coming of age movies. And someone out there really needs to produce a list of all the movies that Kermode covers, so I can remember which ones I need to watch.

Friday’s horror movie was Brian de Palma’s Sisters, a fun horror movie that manages to be a slasher movie, detective thriller and psychedelic chiller all in one. It features an excellent performance, in one of the leading roles, by Margot Kidder. Seeing her here makes a bit sad that her career ended up getting completely subsumed by the Superman movies, and makes me wonder how many other fascinating and excellent performances that we ended up losing.

I finally caught up with The Shape Of Water, which was absolutely lovely. It’s a film steeped entirely in the language of cinema; that exists purely in reference to and reflection of other movies. I’ve been very critical of Guillermo del Toro’s storytelling limitations in the past, but you can see that this is one of those films where everything clicks perfectly right from the start—music, light, mood, performance, story: it’s all there. I’m not surprised that this film, as oddball as it is, scored the Oscar wins (and nominations) that it did.

Over the weekend I also had sufficient time to wrap up my Dirty Harry marathon with Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool. By far the most disappointing part of this entire process was coming up with the perfect hashtag—#Harrython—as I was watching the final movie in the series. I guess I’m all set if I decide to watch all the Harry Potter movies again.

However, both films were highly underwhelming. Sudden Impact was a serviceable enough thriller, but was let down by Harry acting out of character (basically, acting like a gentleman towards the leading lady, who happened to be Eastwood’s girlfriend at the time, so of course their characters are going to have a thing) and by moving the location mostly away from San Francisco. It was a perfectly serviceable thriller, and a story I could see it working well with the late seventies Dirty Harry aesthetic, but this one just didn’t feel much like a Dirty Harry movie.

The Dead Pool fared slightly better, though still suffered from the late eighties traditional thriller dilemma. This was a year when a lot of traditional movie genres were struggling to find their place in front of audiences whose tastes were rapidly changing. The biggest hits of the year were typically movies that offered something unique or different (Rain Man, Big, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Twins) and had a strong leaning towards comedy. Meanwhile, the biggest thriller of the year was Die Hard—a film which could almost have worked as a Dirty Harry movie, except that it firmly injected the action component into the genre and showed up the fact that an aging Clint Eastwood wasn’t really the actor to carry that type of movie any more. It’s possibly no coincidence that Eastwood released Unforgiven a few years later: an excellent movie that partly works because it provides a rumination on Eastwood’s aging (and reformed) gunfighter dealing with the sordid victories of his past.

Reading

I finally wrapped up From a Certain Point Of View this week, with a set of stories set around the Death Star battle and its aftermath. While there’s only so much that a writer can do on the fringes of those particular scenes, I’m once again impressed at the different perspectives that this book offers. We have a story about the ill-fated Biggs; a story about a pilot left behind, unable to join the fight because there simply aren’t enough X-Wings; and a story about a ground crew member watching silently as her friends and colleagues are killed by TIE Fighters.

I’m also very, very close to wrapping up my audiobook of Redshirts.

pasties in the oven

Week 30: Privac’est la vie

(July 23 – July 29)

On my mind this week is a post I recently read over at Wil Wheaton’s blog. I have a lot of admiration for Wil Wheaton: he’s had a lot of crap to deal with, and he’s very open and honest about all of that as well as his efforts to improve himself and his life. However, since he’s on the internet, and is generally compassionate and wants everyone in society to be treated fairly and equally, he typically cops a lot of abuse. In this latest post he’s outlined how the internet, and particularly Twitter, has changed over the last several years and why he’s not going to sharing his life so openly across social media anymore.

I can’t blame him, and it’s prompted me to think about why I do these posts. Obviously I’m not even remotely in the same boat as Wheaton; for one thing most of my stuff barely gets noticed, which is a safety net in itself. I do, nevertheless, exercise certain precautions. For example, I avoid naming my children. It a near certainty that anyone who actually reads this blog already knows their names, but that doesn’t mean I want to broadcast my family to all and sundry. I also generally avoid naming other people that I mention: this is because their right to privacy belongs to them, not to me, and it’s not my place to breach that on my blog.

None of that, of course, answers the question of why I do these posts. My conclusion for a long time has been that I do them for myself. I’m happy for other people to read them, and there is something about sharing all of this that appeals to me (perhaps it’s my latent egomania, or some deep-buried extrovertism). However, after a year and a half of doing this there are two reasons that are fairly clear to me:

One is that journaling is good therapy: I find it useful to reflect on my life. If nothing else it helps me realise that I have things fairly good, and it’s certainly helped when things weren’t quite so good last year.

Secondly it’s just a good excuse to write. I get up most mornings to write stories. Sometimes the writing’s easy, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the writing is in my own voice, sometimes I have to find someone else’s voice to write with. When it comes to these diary post I can basically write whatever I want as flippantly or as seriously as I want to.

And if any of you end up reading it; well, that’s a bonus 🙂

Watching

This week I started watching a French series called The Forest on Netflix. I was hoping it would be more like another Dark, and less like another Requiem. In the end it was more of a Broadchurch type affair. It was perfectly good, but not really different enough to keep me watching beyond the third episode.

Friday’s horror film was our third entry in the Final Destination series, colloquially known as “Final Destination 3: you know, the one with the roller coaster”. It was possibly the goriest instalment so far, and the first to be almost exclusively populated by characters whose deaths I was genuinely happy to be witnessing. That said, it was still good fun. The writers didn’t take quite as much relish playing with audience expectations and crafting elaborate death scenes as the writers of Final Destination 2 managed, but there was still a decent level of morbid creativity on display.

For our Saturday family movie, we finally caught up with Coco. It was good—very, very good, albeit not quite at Moana or Inside Out levels of greatness. The Elderbeast seemed to connect with it, however: he spent a lot of Sunday listening to the songs on Spotify, and then picked up the novelisation to read.

My final item of viewing for this week was Extinction (another Netflix special) on Sunday night. As regular readers of this blog (*tumbleweeds*) will know, Sunday night is ‘hidden gems’ night, where I’ll endeavour to watch something new and interesting—ideally something a little thought-provoking, often in the sci-fi genre—that might have otherwise escaped my attention. Extinction doesn’t really fit the ‘hidden gem’ bill, given that Netflix is promoting the kahooey out of it, but it’s definitely got the sci-fi part going on. I can’t give too much away, suffice to say that there’s a great twist about halfway through, but it’s definitely not the failure some reviewers would have you believe (although you can clearly see how it ended up in the Netflix movie graveyard).

Reading

This week I’ve continued to listen to Redshirts, and have continued to enjoy the experience very much. I’m also still making my way through From A Certain Point Of View (the book of short stories set around the periphery of A New Hope). After what felt like an eternity on Tatooine, we’ve now made it to the Death Star—with a couple of brief Alderaan related interludes.

Standouts this week included a story by Wil Wheaton (yay, Wil!) with a twist that will rip your heart out and grind it into jam on the sidewalk while you sit there sobbing feebly to yourself.

My favourite, was a story that follows the mouse droid (you know, that tiny beeping box on wheels that Chewbacca roars at in one scene) around the Death Star. We get to know his owner, intrude on what might (hilariously) be a passionate and secret love affair between himself and Tarkin. Then, things take a tragic turn. Suffice to say that the droid’s owner is not one of the characters who ends up on the right side of Han Solo’s blaster. Meanwhile the mouse droid, traumatised by its encounter with Chewbacca, does not make it off the Death Star before the story’s fiery climax.

Cheerful stuff.

black and white cat

Week 29: Too much, too soon

(July 16 – July 22)

It’s back to school for the Kinderbesten this week, which means back to the school routine for me. Namely: getting the beasts ready in the morning; making lunches in the evening; and enforcing a reasonable bedtime.

In the end, it turned out that I was so worried about mornings becoming hell again that I massively overcompensated. Lunches were made, clothes laid out, breakfast things left ready the night before. Consequently, we were a full ten minutes early to school on the first day. This over-efficiency mostly continued through the week too (helped, I have to say, by the Kinderbesten being pretty damn good at getting ready).

It made me realise that being too organised, that following a routine too aggressively, had partly de-anchored me from that very routine. Sure, we were all ready on time, which was a pretty big success—but we also ended up with a big chunk of time spent standing around in the cold waiting for school to open. Being too early for something is still, technically, poor scheduling.

Watching

After a few lengthy hiatuses, the Elderbeast and I finished watching Lost In Space (the new Netflix version) on Monday. It was really good and I’m definitely ready for more. I enjoyed that the show introduced a compelling family dynamic while avoiding the now-cliched dysfunctional family route: the Robinsons in this version are a highly functional family, albeit one with a few wounds to heal. Equally, giving both the robot and Doctor Smith a new spin allowed the writers an extra few layers of intrigue and threat, while including a number of other colonists gave this first series a much broader canvas series to play out against.

Of course, the downside of finishing (and enjoying) a series is that I, typically, haven’t felt like starting anything else new (TV-wise) this week. So I didn’t.

For Friday Horror this week we watched Train To Busan, which was astonishingly good. A zombie movie with all the thrills and a whole bunch of emotions thrown in for good measure. It reminded me at times of the classic 1970s disaster movies, particularly The Cassandra Crossing, but also struck me how well it could work as a 28 Days Later prequel. It’s a tad slow to get going, but once it gets down to business it’s truly relentless and doesn’t stop to give you a break until a closing scene that will have you weeping gently into whatever snack or beverage you’ve chosen to accompany the movie with.

Later in the weekend I continued my Dirty Harry marathon with the third instalment: The Enforcer (a.k.a The One With The Hippy Terrorists). It’s a perfectly decent movie, but definitely began to feel less like a Dirty Harry movie than the first two.

I was struck by two things on this viewing. Firstly, how much like a late seventies TV production it looks. Watching this film is almost like settling down for an episode of The A Team, obviously with added violence, gore, language, etc. I know we’re at a point now where TV and movie production values can pretty much pass for each other, but when I was growing up there was typically a much more profound difference: you only need compare the original Battlestar Galactica TV series and, say, The Empire Strikes Back to see it.

The second thing—which probably should have struck me years ago—occurred as I was once again trying to rationalise my appreciation for the Dirty Harry movies, their obvious right wing politics, and the softening of Harry Callahan’s character through these first three instalments. I realised that Eastwood almost always plays the outsider in his movies: a renegade (Dirty Harry); a rebel on the wrong side of a corrupt system (The Outlaw Josey Wales); a near-mythical figure who exists on the fringes, or beyond, of conventional society (Unforgiven, High Plains Drifter). Even when he’s unambiguously the hero (In The Line Of Fire) he’s still presented as someone out of his time.

The potential message here is that, whoever or whatever the antagonist in these movies might be, the real enemy—the real ‘other’—is, in fact, the rest of the world.

Reading

I’m continuing to read From A Certain Point Of View, the book of Star Wars short stories. I’ve been progressing in fits and starts, so I’m still at the point of the narrative where the characters are in Mos Eisley (remember, this book plays around the outskirts of the plot for A New Hope; or Star Wars, if you’re a purist).

The standout tale for me this week has been a caper following four or five barely glimpsed aliens from the cantina scene. They may not have been given names in the movie, but a quick look at Wookiepedia reveals that they not only have names, but remarkably detailed backstories as well. And we should all take a moment to remember those who gave up their time so that this could come to pass.

Anyway, this particular tale brings several of these characters to rich life, and depicts how the events that transpired in the cantina that day—specifically those revolving around Luke, Ben and Han—end up having a huge impact on those lives. I’m a big fan of coincidence when used well as a narrative tool (think: the butterfly effect) so that’s probably why this one was a big winner for me.

I’ve also started listening to Redshirts, by John Scalzi, on Audible. It’s mostly a delight: the story is hilarious; the narration by Wil Wheaton is spot-on (especially the bits that are definitely not in Klingon because that’s probably trademarked). The only thing that lets it down (slightly) are scenes like the below:

“Bla bla bla,” character said.

“Bla bla bla,” other character said.

“Bla bla bla,” character said.

“Bla bla bla,” other character said.

Basically there’s an excess of dialogue tags. Now, every bit of writing advice you’ll ever read will tell you to only use ‘said’ or ‘asked’ when writing speech because it’s distracting to the reader if you get too creative with that sort of thing. While reading, your brain is programmed to automatically skip through dialogue tags (which is why it becomes distracting if a writer does something different). However, the audio version really highlights the repetition because your brain can’t ignore the rhythm and repetition of spoken words quite so easily. It’s only a couple of scenes, but it’s almost comedic when it happens and I have to wonder how Wheaton managed it without rolling his eyes.

(Funnily enough, a short while after this, I saw John Scalzi tweeting about much the same thing. Turns out several of his novels were released before audiobooks became a big thing in his career. It was only after listening to the audio versions that he realised how jarring it could be, and now makes a conscious effort to write for listeners as much as for readers).

backyard toad

Week 28: Do Nothing

(July 9 – July 15)

This week slid settled naturally into the eternal conflict between doing nothing and the need to get things done. It began on Monday morning, as the week typically does, when I woke up with a thumping headache. It was so bad it pretty much forced me back into bed until the later afternoon.

Now, I normally like sick days—I like the excuse to sit on the sofa, wrap up warm, and allow myself to do nothing. This, however, was not one of those sick days. This was one of those days when retreating to bed and attempting to sleep was the only answer. Naturally, I kept thinking of all the things I could have been getting done with a full day off work.

It’s the paradox of doing nothing: when we’re busy, we work towards the moment when we get to sit down and do nothing; when we have time to do nothing, we inevitably crave filling that time by doing things.

I had a peculiar echo of this later in the week: a day without meetings. This is always welcome: it’s a day where you finally have all the time you need to catch up on the things you’ve been too busy to do all week. Of course, you’re also faced with the mighty struggle against the inertia of not having to leave your desk and do something else in twenty minutes or so. It’s a challenge to structure your work around days that have no structure, and to maintain motivation when movement is at a minimal.

Watching

I finished the very excellent Killing Eve this week, which presented me with the dilemma of what to watch next. After much consideration, I eventually decided on: nothing. This was after continuing to be underwhelmed by a second episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s weird: an eccentric, alt-history period tale about magic in Victorian times produced by the BBC is something I should love, but I’ve watched the first two episodes now and it just isn’t working for me. Oh well.

Over the weekend I had an urge to revisit the Dirty Harry films. I found enough time in my schedule to watch Dirty Harry (a.k.a The One With Dirty Harry) and Magnum Force (a.k.a The One With The Vigilante Cops; or The One With David Soul if you prefer; or The One With Starsky Or Hutch, I Can Never Remember Which, if you’re like me and can’t be bothered to use IMDB). I remember both films fondly from my formative years, and totally enjoyed revisiting both.

It did strike me, however, that these are both very right-wing movies, which is not something I would normally enjoy, and yet I don’t find them objectionable. I think it’s because the first movie, at least, posits such extremes (a terrifyingly insane serial killer, a ruthless cop, and a legal system that isn’t equipped to deal with either) that you really have very few qualms about siding with Harry. It’s a Spielbergian masterclass in audience manipulation. Of course, it also helps that the film is extremely well made and easily earns its Cinema Icon badge of merit.

The second movie, if anything, confuses matters even further by having a group of vigilante cops who could almost have been inspired by Harry’s actions in the first films. And yet, here we have Harry rejecting the judge, jury and executioner methodology and siding with the system—even though his solution, of course, is to kill off the bad guys rather than put them through that same legal system.

I shall have to catch up with The Enforcer (a.k.a The One With Cagney Or Lacey, I Can Never Remember Which) next week.

Reading

I was looking for an easy read this week and picked up From A Certain Point Of View, a collection of Star Wars short stories that caught my eye some months ago. I knew, going in, that it featured stories about various background characters from Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you want to be annoying). What I didn’t realise is that the stories also follow the chronology of that movie and gradually, piece by piece, fill in all the things that were happening just off-screen to characters that we glimpsed (or, in some cases, simply heard) throughout the movie. I’m mostly loving it so far, and the stories are just short enough that I keep falling into that “just one more” trap.

Yes. It’s a trap.

I also listened to another Audible freebie: The Despatcher, written by John Scalzi and read/performed by Zachary Quinto. It’s another damn good listen. Short enough and good enough that I wished it was longer once it was over!

fallen easel

Week 27: A break from the old routine

(July 2 – July 8)

It’s the second half of the year–already!–which means it’s time for a slight change of format on this blog. As usual, I haven’t quite decided what that new format will be yet, but my current plan for the rest of this year is to try and find one theme to focus on for each week. Or possibly to find a way of linking some disparate observation from my week into a single overarching narrative.

Or not.

Either way, if you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll already have a pretty good idea of the minutiae of my daily/weekly routine, so there’s no need keep on prattling about that any longer. Which brings me nicely to this week’s topic.

This is not only the middle of the year–and, most pertinently, the dawn of a bold new age on this blog–it is also the start of the school holidays. For many parents this brings a deep sigh of dread; heralding two weeks of having to find fresh ways to keep the kids entertained; two weeks of arranging and/or paying for daycare so you can continue going to work and pretending to be a productive member of society; two weeks of bored kids who have not had their energy reserves drained by a day at school.

For me, however, it means two weeks of not having to get three humans (including myself) out of the house to a strict deadline five days a week. It’s two weeks of not having to make lunches. It’s two weeks of waaaay less traffic on the roads. It’s two weeks in which I can take an extra half hour each morning to do writing if I want to.

It’s two weeks of awesome! Bring it!

Update: I’ve also, randomly, decided that each of my posts for the rest of the year shall be accompanied by an entirely context-free photo that I’ve taken during that week. For the first such example, see above.

Watching

This week I started watching Killing Eve, and loved it immediately—literally within the first two minutes. I’d been holding off watching it for a some time, mostly in case it didn’t prove to be as good as I was expecting. In the end it was every bit as wonderful as everyone had made out; way better, in fact, than I expected or even deserved it to be. A real treat.

The week was also capped off by a weekend of watching films with the Elderbeast, starting with Fridate horror (for which the Elderbeast was the guest of honour). This week we watched Final Destination 2 which was, if anything, even more fun than the first one. It had all the smarts of the first one, but with a knowing wink and a nod, and everything turned up to 11. Enormous fun.

On Saturday we watched Star Trek: Beyond. As I may have written previously, this was a movie that I had originally dismissed due to the marketing but am now thinking that it might be my favourite of the new Trek movies. It’s got the fun and action, it’s got the classic Star Trek values, and it’s kinda pissy that Paramount got themselves a perfectly good Trek film and then cocked up the marketing. Anyway …

On Sunday morning we went out to catch Ant Man And The Wasp, which was awesome and eminently delivered on the promise of the first movie. I’m already looking forward to the third entry.

Reading

I’m sort of in between books at the moment, having drifted away from Endurance (by Scott Kelly) after being irresponsibly distracted by Buffy Season 8 comics. I nearly started reading The Only Harmless Great Thing, the new novella by Bo Bolander (who wrote one of my favourite short stories of the last few years) but I opted at almost the last minute to continue with Buffy Season 8. Yes, I am weak. In my defence, I enjoyed the first half of season 8 so much that I decided it was best to continue riding that wave, safe in the knowledge that Bo would be waiting for me on the other side.

I’ve also been continuing an unplanned voyage of discovery into the world of audio books, thanks to a recent Audible promotion. My latest listen has been a dramatisation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses which, unbelievably, was absolutely free. It’s an abridged reading performed by the cast of a recent theatre adaptation and has immeasurably enlivened the drive to and from work over the course of this week. High point is absolutely Janet McTeer’s reading, dripping with haughty scorn as the deliciously wicked Madame de Merteuil (the role played by Glenn Close in the movie adaptation). I’m now keen to revisit the films (yes, films) all over again. Eventually …

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