Scott Pilgrim Vs My Eyeballs

When I first saw the trailer for “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World” I was excited to see the finished product. I have long been a fan of the work of director Edgar Wright and the movie’s recipe of nerdish pop-culture references, motion graphics, video game physics and lovable losers looked like it could be a winning formula. It hadn’t occurred to me however, that these very things were what disappointed and bugged me most about two recent films I expected to like but did not; “Zombieland” and “Kick-Ass”.

Like those aforementioned films, I left the cinema let down. “Scott Pilgrim” is an adaptation of a comic-book about a 23-year old slacker who falls in love with a delivery girl, but in order to be with her, he must defeat her “Seven Evil Exes” in video-game style confrontations. So far, so good. The problem is that director Edgar Wright from the first frame throws every single visual trick in the book onto the screen to realize this video-game world. Its not enough that the fight scenes resemble “Street Fighter II” but everything the characters do is governed by animated behavior which is drawn from not only video-games but comic books too. So, sound effects are realized as words-on-screen in a Batman-in-the-60s style, people going for a wee is represented by a diminishing “Pee Bar” like a draining battery, typography pops up all over the place, and actions are accompanied by 8-bit video-game sound effects. At first this is great, by 10 minutes into the film when its constantly happening, not so great. When the action gets going, we are treated to a constant barrage of this stuff which takes in everything from “Tekken” to “Legend of Zelda” to those Dance-dance revolution games. This leaves a mess; both visually and plotwise. As a nerd who grew up with comics and NES, I should have revelled in it, but it was too much. The effectiveness and novelty of such references were lost in the avalanche.

It reminded me in some way of “Inglorious Basterds”. A director takes elements of his style which in isolation are memorable additions to his work but stretches them out over an entire film. When Tim and Daisy in “Spaced” enter into computer-game fights in the real world the result was thrilling and original, coming as it did in the middle of a real program about people you cared about. Similarly, when Wright used his now signature quick-editing-montage in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” it was a treat. In “Scott Pilgrim” we are witness to one long, giant pop culture reference literally represented on screen using every trick in the book. The result is exhausting.

But this is not the films only problem. I suppose I could put up with all this techno-wizardry if it accompanied the story of characters I could cheer for. Sadly, the central characters of this film are simply unlikable, mean people. A friend remarked how he just felt bad for Knives Chau, a 17-year old girl Pilgrim ditches for the girl of his dreams, Ramona. Knives does nothing wrong, but is essentially cast aside as yesterdays news in fairly cruel fashion. Yet we are supposed to root for Scott.

This film really is a classic case of style without substance. It has its moments, but most of them are already catalogued in the heavily rotated trailer. When I think about it, alongside “Zombieland” and “Kick-Ass” I wonder if I just don’t have the taste for this brand of post-modern hyper cinema. Self-referential narration, tricks of typography , music-video-editing, breaking the fourth wall, and constant pop-culture references seem to be increasingly present in films aimed at the geek market. But if all this smoke-and-mirrors just clouds shallow, whiney, unlikable characters (which populate these aforementioned three movies) the films fail to stand up. What we are left with is a self-referential circle-jerk which will eat itself.

Jimmy Reid : “We’re not rats. We’re human beings.”

This month saw the passing of legendary Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid. One of the things Reid is remembered for is a legendary speech he gave when being inaugurated as rector of Glasgow University in 1972. At the time, The New York Times reprinted the speech in its entirety and compared it to the Gettysburg Address.

It opens by describing a scene which could have been penned yesterday:

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.

One of the most famous passages is about “the rat race”

A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts, and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit. Or as Christ put it, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”

It is stirring, powerful stuff and as relevant today as it ever was. A must read, re-printed on the occasion of Reid’s death by The Independent. You really should take a moment to read it.

Thanks to Caesar Lopez for linking me to this.

Cosmic Connections

“The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Carl Sagan
The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (1980) – Cosmos (Episode 1)

“If, then, I identify my self exclusively with my body, I separate it from the whirl of energy which “grew” me and, for that matter, is still growing me with its light, heat, air and water. Yet if I identify my self with the whole whirl (which would be perfectly reasonable) people would say, “Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t run the universe.” To which I reply, “Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t know how your brain works. You haven’t the faintest idea how you shaped your skeleton.” It is, then, just as reasonable to say that my self is the whole whirl as to say that it is just this particular body, for I don’t consciously manage either. I don’t warm up the galaxy. I don’t design my nervous system. It happens, and I happen. My self does not manage itself as if it were something outside itself like an automobile or a typewriter. So if I don’t manage my self – if only defined as this body – there is no reason why I shouldn’t define myself as the whole universe. Considering all, the latter definition is far more reasonable. Furthermore, it seems obvious that the universe is a system which, by means of living bodies, becomes aware of itself”

Alan Watts
The Reality of Reincarnation (1972) – Cloud-Hidden Whereabouts Unknown

“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.”

Bill Hicks
Revelations (1992)

The images are taken from this New York Times graphic which compares a computer simulation of the Universe with an image of the neurons in a mouse’s brain cell.

The 442nd Infantry Regiment

This is a repost from my old blog. I was reminded of it when I went to see the remake of the Karate Kid the other day, and I wanted to share it again.

I have an annoying (to some) habit of going onto Wikipedia and reading about anything I have just come into contact with. I often bother my girlfriend after we have seen a film “based on a true story”, by trying to determine the accuracy of what had just seen and informing her of the deviations from reality. But this activity pretty much extends to any film or television show I have watched.

So the other day, after I enjoyed a festive showing of the classic 1984 film “The Karate Kid”, I duly fired up Wikipedia, and began reading about the film I had just viewed (and have done about one hundred times).

There’s a scene in the film when Daniel goes through some belongings of Mr. Miyagi. One of the artefacts is a letter informing Mr. Miyagi that his wife has died during child-birth whilst she was in an internment camp. Then Daniel finds Miyagi’s war medals. I had always found this odd, as the idea of a US Officer having his own wife imprisoned in an internment camp whilst at the same time serving in the Army of that country just impossible.

Wikipedia confirmed however, that he was indeed a member of the US Armed Forces, and the article speculates as to whether Miyagi had been a member of the (real) 442nd Infantry Regiment. And as is also my want when on Wikipedia I duly clicked on the hyperlink to a page dedicated to the 442nd.

I was amazed with what I read.

The 442nd Infantry, formerly the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army, was an Asian American unit composed of mostly Japanese Americans who fought in Europe during the Second World War.[2] The families of many of its soldiers were subject to internment. The 442nd was a self-sufficient fighting force, and fought with uncommon distinction in Italy, southern France, and Germany. The unit became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

Not only did Japanese-Americans fight for a country who at the same time had imprisoned their families, but they did so with unrivaled bravery and honour. Mind-boggling. I guess it speaks volumes about the utter madness that is war.

Check it out for yourself, the 442nd Infantry Regiment on Wikipedia.

Alan Watts Autotuned

I’m always on the lookout for good, short passages of Alan Watts that I can share with people to act as hooks into his work. I know soundbites may seem superficial, and people tend to groan a bit at the guru-ish quotes people fire out on Twitter and the likes, but I am interested in getting more people into Watts’ work. Truth be told, I have found it hard to find short quippy 140-character nuggets of Watts that help convey his ideas in a way that would make people want to explore more. The other thing I am always on the look out for is short clips of his work on YouTube. There is a kind of sub-culture of Alan Watts videos, clips, remixes etc, culled from the extensive collections of recordings he left behind. Watts’ son Mark actually encourages this kind of thing, as long as the author makes some kind of effort to add his or her own flavour to the clip.

Probably the best known of these are the short animations done by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. These excellent animations help illustrate some very well chosen/edited Watts talks. Nearly every day someone on Twitter shares “Music and Life“, probably the best of the bunch. I like to think that some of the people who retweet this on see it as more than a little self-help/spiritual pick-me-up and as a gateway into the thoughts of a fascinating philosophy. Inspired by these I am always listening to recordings of Watts with an ear to finding a good, short piece that has its own, self-contained thought, but also leads the way to more. In reality, the best way to get into Watts however is too dive right in to one of his 50-60 minute audio lectures, or one of his books. The more I read/listen I think he’s finest achievements were his hour-long lectures, which balanced showmanship, humour, reality and some intriguing and very deep thoughts in a way which was accessible and fun. Still, as I say, I do like to find smaller, shorter clips for sharing to try and hook more people!

The other day I came across my first encounter with an Alan Watts Autotune video. Autotuning (that little piece of techo-trickery that turns average singers into average robotic singers) has taken on its own alternative life on YouTube. Of course, the masters are Auto-tuning The News, but there’s also the equally inspiring/entertaining Carl Sagan numbers, which pit his monologues to strange, uplifting dance music. I suppose it was only time, then, that someone did the same to Watts. The clip I found is taken from “Conversation With Myself” a programme Watts did in the 1970s. (The original is available online, and I highly recommend you watch it all). I’m not sure how I feel about it. It certainly encapsulates some central Watts ideas, but I always think of the Autotune thing as more of a goof on something. I don’t think it trivialises Sagan, but for some reason it felt a bit jarring here. Still on the whole, its a well put together clip, and I hope it will intrigue enough people to explore the ideas in more detail.

This particular Symphony of Science “We Are All Connected” echoes nicely the same thoughts Watts promotes in “The Real You”, but here being espoused from a different angle by some of the greatest scientific minds of our era. Food for thought.

On Stuff

I have been thinking alot lately about all the stuff I own. It goes hand in hand with a general period of contemplation I’ve been having about the amount of clutter in my life; both tangible and digital. I’m interested in this current trend for ‘minimalist’ living that has spawned a cottage industry of bloggers and book writers. I’ve spoken here before about trying to cope with living in the full torrent of the digital stream; of trying not to be overwhelmed by the amount of information I subject myself to and trying to focus on whats important. This has extended to the world around me; do I need all this stuff? I am a hoarder, and I come from a family of hoarders, and this has resulted in a bedroom full of stuff and an increasing anxiety about what to do with it.

These minimalist living types promote ideas like getting rid of all your stuff, or living with just 50 items. This however requires a giant shock to the system for most of us, a ruthless culling. This seems too much, but I can see the appeal. Then I read this post on Zen Habits which offered a half-way house solution; put everything away and only take stuff out if you really need it. If you havn’t taken something out in a long while, ditch it. It seems like a good approach to the problem. I’ve started by doing it to my computer. Archived then wiped, and I’ll only go back for the stuff I need. In some ways i’ve been doing this my entire computer-owning life in one way or another; moving machine or when Windows XP just couldn’t hack it anymore and you had to go for a fresh install.

I then began a real-world de-cluttering by ditching half my wardrobe. Stuff I haven’t worn in years,and wasn’t likely to has been thrown out. It was harder then I thought. Even though I have little attachment to clothes, I still found myself doing that thing that us hoarders do. “Ah, I’ll hold on to that, you never know when I might need it”. This is the quintessential habit of the hoarder; and it leads to a life of living with boxes of NME’s and Select magazines from 1998, old Nokia phones with the green screen and monophonic ringtones, VHS cassettes of “Aliens” recorded off ITV in the mid-90s late at night and a shelfful of CDs now duplicated to digital copies and gathering dust, never to see the inside of a CD player ever again. I don’t need any of this stuff. Some of it I never look at ever again, but some of it I do. I occasionally wistfully flick through old Empire magazines, or pull out the liner notes of a Method Man CD from 1994. Less to actually ‘read’ them, but more to reminisce on the time when I did read them for information, for when I bought them.  And of course, to enjoy that increasingly dying artform, the art of the record/CD inlay. But more and more I find less need to do this.

I haven’t bought a physical CD in years, I am a full convert to the paid-download school. I have in recent years stemmed my DVD buying, as I have found that I simply don’t watch them enough. (Someone needs to get the paid-download-film market done proper.) The only vices I have are t-shirts from the net, and books. In many ways I don’t collect a lot of stuff anymore. I rarely buy magazines, and am more or less content to do most of that reading online. But I still have a legacy of old stuff.

Photo owned by Brianfit (cc)

In the midst of all this thinking, I read this wonderful article by Stewart Lee in the Guardian about his life time of collection stuff. Whilst I was never as meticulous or as dedicated a collector as Stewart I definitely sympathize as he laments the passing of the age of the collector.

And all this stuff, in the digital age, is literally worthless financially, and losing any value it had daily. There’s nothing here a burglar would even bother with. I’m aware I’m a social relic from an age when you walked through the shopping centre with an unbagged album under your arm to show like-minded souls who you were, and when the book as an object was quietly fetishised. Now kids stake out their personal space with knives and guns and gadgets, and working stiffs flip falsified pages of virtual books on Kindles. I’m like a character in a dystopian science-fiction novel, holed up in a cave full of cultural artefacts, waiting for the young Jenny Agutter to arrive in a tinfoil miniskirt, fleeing a poisonous cloud on the surface, to check out my stash and ask me: “Who exactly was the Quicksilver Messenger Service? Who was this Virginia Woolf? What kind of man was Jonah Hex?”

There is a definite loss of tactile feel and nostalgia that digital archiving just can’t compete with. In many ways I feel oddly sad that I don’t feel more kinship to this stuff like I once did. That this decision to de-clutter isn’t tougher than it is. What has happened to me? Has the digital age chipped away at some pure, dusty part of me? But none of this is clear; although I am very much interested in the idea of eBooks and digital reading devices, I haven’t bought one, and I look at a shelf of Alan Watts books I have been amassing over the past few years and I just can’t see how a digital version could compete.

The key probably is, as always, a Middle Way. It’s too much to ask most people to just dump everything, and live with only the ‘essentials’. At the same time, it is unhealthy to indulge your every consumerist fantasy and amass a temple to your belongings and a mausoleum to your youth as expressed through the things you owned. There is a definite need for things; special, beautiful, meaningful things. I guess the trick is finding out what they are.