Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas!

Season's joy to all, and here is Ronnie spreading cheer in 1981.

And here is something slightly less noble.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Voices From the Blue Nile

To start off a new regime of regular blogging, I am plugging the new website, Voices From the Blue Nile. A fascinating audiovisual archive of a people and culture which have undergone extraordinary and terrible changes, the site accompanies the new book by Professor Wendy James, sterling anthropologist and mother. In her own words:

In the 1960s, I was teaching social anthropology in the University of Khartoum, Sudan. I had the opportunity to study the languages and ways of life of a number of minority peoples living close to the Ethiopian border. In particular, I lived for a total of about 18 months among the Uduk people of the Kurmuk District of the Blue Nile Province.

The Uduk, and some of their neighbours, already poised on the frontier with Ethiopia, found themselves caught between ‘north’ and ‘south’ of the Sudan during the internal struggles of that country, especially the civil war stemming from the south which resumed in 1983. Some people I knew were drawn into the defence of their country, and some into supporting the armed opposition of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The civilian majority were displaced from their homeland near Chali, and nearly all their villages burned by Sudanese army and militias, in 1987. After years of trekking this way and that, they eventually found a ‘safe haven’ in 1993 at the Bonga refugee scheme in Ethiopia. After the peace agreement of 2005 between Khartoum and the SPLA (though the war in the western region of Darfur continues), repatriation of Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia began in 2006 and is planned to continue through 2007-8.

Over the years I have had several chances to make contact again with the Uduk people in various places of exile. Despite great suffering on their long treks, I have been struck by the way that they have shown resilience and been able to re-create something of their material practices, their music and their song, in the refugee settlement.

This website does not examine the wars or causes of wars in the region, nor the details of the refugees’ experiences over the six years of repeated displacement. It focuses, rather, on their resilience and optimism.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bad Science

Ben Goldacre writes an excellent piece on homeopathy, its frauds, its dangers and its successes. Along with the antics of the goblin charlatan, "Dr." Gillian McKeith, Goldacre has been writing about homeopathy for as long as I have been reading him, and has apparently made some enemies in the process. I look forward to the documentary he mentions in the article.

It's frustrated and sometimes patronising, but it's a careful and precise description of one of the many collapses of sense that afflict us, and that are pursued all too happily by our media. I often appreciate harmless absurdity, and Goldacre is impressive in that he is willing to give the practice its dues in terms of the remarkable human healing capabilities it prompts and reveals. However, it is not harmless, and it is not honest, it endangers patients and it undermines society's confidence in it's own strengths.

Monday, November 5, 2007

God Save the Queen

Guy Fawke's night and Elizabeth: The Golden Age have me in a whirl of anti-Catholic fervour. They're always trying to assassinate our monarchs and I for one am sick of it.

Not really, of course. The fireworks are irritating me a bit, but not to the point of religious intolerance, and while there was plenty of outrageous papist villainy in the movie, that really just inflamed my hatred of the Spaniards, not Catholics in general. I was quite fond of Mary Stuart, for example.

The film is great; it could have been a bit more consistently paced, but the themes hold it together, and where the plot occasionally fails to engage, you can always look at Cate Blanchett's dress, or the architecture. It's visually brilliant, and completely unabashed in it dramatic composition of each scene. Lots of absurdly high shots of vast palace hallways, and painstakingly delicate positioning of the cast, so that some scenes almost resemble tableaux. Particular long-held shots of Elizabeth are clearly intended to recall the austere, splendid portraits that we are so familiar with - and the execution of Mary scene really reminded me of a painting I once saw, but I can't seem to find it on the net, so I may have just imagined a resemblance to an imaginary painting.

I've always liked Elizabeth, she reminds me of an English Athena: wise and beautiful, chaste and ferocious. Golden Age matched this view, where by the end, after overcoming the earthly temptations of Clive Owen, she came across as positively Godlike. Standing alone on the shores in exquisite armour, she seems bring about the storm that destroys the armada with her own divine, elemental will - possibly with the aid of her Merlin-esque confidant, Dr. John Dee. Phillip II of Spain, meanwhile, is a bowlegged impish fiend, his darkness put out by the light of the English Queen.

One other small aspect I enjoyed was Walter Raleigh's description of his ambitious vision for his colony in the new land of Virginia: "a Shining City." This is borrowed from John Winthrop who sixty years later used the biblical image of "the City on a Hill" to describe his hopes for his fledgling Massachusetts, and from Ronald Reagan who revived and personalised the phrase four hundred years later to envisage his own America - "the Shining City on a Hill." So there you have it, this film is about Ronald Reagan, saving us from the forces of totalitarian fundamentalism.

A Scene From Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Monday, October 29, 2007

The South

The results of the latest poll are in, and you have chosen the South as your favourite direction/imagined cultural space, giving it twice as many votes as its nearest rivals. And quite right too; the North is just dull, the East is weird and frightening - even to an enlightened liberal relativist such as myself - and the West is already a bit overrepresented on this blog. This post, then, is dedicated to the South.

By the South, I of course mean Dixie, so sorry to anyone who hoped for something about Clapham or Antarctica or what-have-you. I've enjoyed rummaging Youtube for something suitable to show, and have unsurprisingly been overwhelmed by possibilities. There is too much to see and hear, too much to get across, and too much to find out. Some choices were too obvious - Lynard Skynard trashing Neil Young, Scarlett O'Hara shooting a Yankee plunderer. I considered Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit laughing it up in Disney's unfortunate Song of the South, George Wallace running for president in '68, Paul Robeson belting out 'Old Man River'. More music suggested itself - Earl Scruggs, Satchmo, Leadbelly - but I could not choose. I even considered a bit of Klan action from Birth of a Nation, but that's a bit wrong, and not nearly as exciting as it was in 1915. Anyway, while looking for the full scene of Pickett's Charge in Gettysburg, I was reminded I haven't yet seen its prequel, Gods and Generals. From this scene, it looks to be equally schmaltzy, but Stonewall Jackson is my favourite Confederate General (though I always imagine him more raggedy than this) and the First Bull Run is my favourite Civil War battle. So here's to Old Virginia and the Lost Cause!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Madman With a Razor

This week President Putin employed the tried, tested and thoroughly enjoyable debating tactic of casting doubts on one opponent's sanity. "It's not the best way to resolve the situation by running around like a madman with a razor blade in his hand," he offered sagely, referring to US plans for new sanctions on Iran. Constructive criticism, of course, which will no doubt lead to Bush, Cheney and Rice calmly collecting themselves, wiping the saliva from their chins, returning their carving knives to the kitchen drawer, and immediately checking into the nearest asylum. A lovely image too, which called to mind the wonderful Johnny, the Homicidal Maniac (above). I have a feeling, though, that it is not entirely fair to all those world leaders who have devoted their careers to refining and expressing their lunacy. Gaddafi (the original "Mad Dog of the Middle East"), the late Niyazov of Turkmenistan and Hugo Chavez, for example, delight us with their eccentric pronouncements and confusing behaviour while distracting us from their entirely serious breaches of decency. The Bush Administration, however, pursues danger and decline with a depressing sobriety.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Goodbye, Ming

How's that for coincidence? I resolve to finally send back my party membership form tomorrow (thanks, in part, to the guidance of Dunce readers), and then the leader goes and resigns! Oh well, at least this means I'll get to vote on something this year. Genuinely sorry to see him go.

Graphic Reagan

Apologies to all for the inexcusable lapse in posting.

The above is from Ten Nights of the Beast, a perestroika era Batman story in which the KGBeast goes rogue and attempts to shut SDI research down forever - a dastardly scheme which will ruin the USA and involves the murder of its chief visionary, Ronald Reagan. It is not Reagan's first appearance in a Gotham City tale. In Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns we see his colourful caricature bumble and ramble and reassure Americans as disaster approaches, from the safety of a TV screen and later, a radiation suit. No doubt he pops up elsewhere in the world of graphic literature. I seem to remember his distorted, ghastly visage appear in Alan Moore's ghostly and paranoid Brought to Light - any other examples will be gratefully received.

All this is preamble to the news that Reagan has finally got his own comic book. Ronald Reagan: The Graphic Biography was published last month and has been serialised here at Slate. As some of you may imagine, news of this (which first reached me via the Good Liberal) had me giggling and twirling with gleeful anticipation. It would be a wonderful merging of my interests, something that I had imagined myself on occasion. I had even more than once promised a strangely unenthusiastic Little Red Bull a script for him to draw, encountering Reagan at various stages of his life (this never got off the ground).

It is perhaps unsurprising then that when the book finally made it through the striking postmen and into my hands, I was a bit disappointed. First off, it is too small. It need not be a 300 style monument, but the tiny A5 pages make for a cramped and jerky narrative, and the story definitely deserves some panoramic images. The other problems indicate the difficulty not of incorporating Reagan's life into a visual narrative, but of making that narrative a "serious" biography (the publishing branch behind this is embarrassingly called "serious comics"). It becomes far to text heavy, driven by the captions rather than the panels. We are presented with a necessarily undetailed text, accompanied by illustrations in which the dialogue is almost only taken from actual quotes. This is done out of the understandable desire to keep the book factual, but it means that its medium loses its strengths. There is no fluidity, no action, no drama. The panels often represent scenes days or months apart, only linked by chronology and the explanations in the captions. Occasionally the authors are reduced to the crude iconography of editorial cartoons to represent an event, or a point, which reduces the weight and the innovation of the idea.

The problem is clear - to fully exploit the medium the narrative would be dramatised, and thus fictionalised, or it would have to become a lot more abstract. I'd be happy with either direction, but the purpose here is to write biography, not theatre or art. Kudos anyway to Helfer, Buccaletto and Staton - all experienced comics writers - for the idea and the attempt. Opening up new avenues for the medium to explore is always worth the effort, especially if they are historical, and even more especially if they are Reagan-themed. The next "Serious Comic" to be published will be about J. Edgar Hoover, apparently - hopefully they will have found some solutions to the problems they met with Reagan.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Earliest Political Memory

That despicable Tory, Caroline Hunt, has apparently tagged me in a blog meme. Being relatively new to the blogosphere, I have not heard of this practice before, but it seems quite straightforward - a bit like a chain letter. So, assuming that if I don't do this I will die a prompt and horrible death, I will now describe my Earliest Political Memory.

Such a task allows for a certain amount of self-mythologisation, a projection onto one's tiny past self of a formative instance that describes who one is today, or a version of what one would like to be. I could re-imagine my responses to the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall which were, in truth, half-hearted and, well, childlike. I could invent a serious-minded five-year-old me who followed the catastrophes of the Sudanese Civil War with insight and mature world-weariness. All I really knew though, was that there was a War. What I will do, unsurprisingly, is bring it all back to Reagan.

Unfortunately, even here I have no clear memory of a single incident which set me on the course to where I am today, no recollection of any pithy insight or revelation. I do remember Reagan being The President, and that simple conflation could perhaps be the root of the fascination with which I regard him now. Scratching my head, the earliest memory of any specific reaction to Reagan involves a cartoon in Mad magazine from, I guess, 1987 or '88. I read this issue several times on that summer trip to the States, and it included comical take-offs of the movies Splash, and Big, I think. The cartoon in question was part of a series with the theme "It's cute when../It's not cute when..", and in this case went "It's cute when your children play at Cowboys. It's not cute when the President of the USA plays at cowboys." The images showed a delightful scamp in hat and bandana running around with a toy gun, juxtaposed with a caricature of the Gipper himself dressed in buckskins, grinning goofily and saddling up on a nuclear missile, to the alarm of some worried looking aides. I remember being informed enough at the time to understand why this was funny, and quite enjoying the idea of a happy man riding around on the back of a missile.

So that's it, I'll now pass on the burden and demand that dcat recount for us his memory of Strom Thurmond entering the Senate, or whatever.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Best Western

Hollywood treats us this season with proof that the Western is an irrepressible genre. The next film I go see will either be 3:10 to Yuma, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the one after that will probably be the other. I have no doubt, however, that both these movies were produced, if not conceived as well, in light of the success of HBO's Deadwood
, the third season of which I finished belatedly last night. I watched the last episode in the mistaken belief that a fourth season in a reduced form was definitely forthcoming, and have now learned that this in fact quite unlikely. I am quite distraught, but I can't bring myself to hate HBO, without whom there would be no Deadwood, and nothing like it, not to mention no Sopranos or Rome. At least there will be a fifth season of The Wire.

It is difficult to construct a thought about Deadwood without spinning off into hyperbole, but its magnificence can't be overstated. It is loyal to its genre in many ways, employing the historicity of location, character and costume in combination with the old west myths of violence and freedom, honour and villainy. The cast of characters is immediately familiar, a range of types that echo John Ford: Seth Bullock, the reticent lawman; Trixie, the whore with the heart of Gold; Cochran, the wise, drunken doctor; Wu, the comedy Chinese sidekick; Merrick, the rumpled Eastern journalist; Alma Garret, the stranded, out-of-place noblewoman; Cy Tolliver, the suave and ruthless gambler. This is not to mention the inclusion of legendary figures such as Wild Bill Hickock, the Earp Brothers and, best of all, Calamity Jane. Each of these, however, thanks to the script, the acting and the depth of presence that a extended series allows, carries an overwhelming weight of character. Going against convention, however, the central character is the saloon-keeper, Al Swearengen - a pimp, gangster, drug-dealer, murderer and philosopher played with absolutely outstanding nuance and charm by Lovejoy. While the Western iconography is there, it is unpredictable, fresh and extraordinary.

The themes of the Western dominate as well. The free, lawless pioneers are outrunning the confines of eastern civilisation, prospering through their wits and their skill, and with a savage familiarity to violence. Again though, while the traditional narrative is recognisable, it has a deliberate and subtle originality. We are shown a frontier goldrush town that both fears and needs the legitimacy of the US Government, and that is connected in every way to the vast economic and cultural networks of North America and beyond. The camp, as it forever known, throngs with Chinese, Cornish and Norwegian migrant workers who must contend with the ruthless capitalism of George Hearst. Larger forces forever weigh in on Deadwood, whether in the insidious infiltration of the Pinkerton Agency, or on one occasion, the encampment of a regiment of US Calvary - its veterans made desperate and broken by the horrors of the Indian Wars. The still recent Civil War, too, hangs heavy and silent on those who it involved.

Violence, so integral to the Western, is also prevalent in the show. The bodies pile up and are fed to Mr. Wu's pigs with a frequent and graphic regularity. But it, again, has a strange quality. It has none of the catharsis or resolution of so many Western shootouts - the slow-building confrontations that drive the narrative are always concluded or put aside with compromise, evasion and bathos. When violence occurs, it is through accident, mad irrationality or cold necessity. It is often met and meted out with a strange, sad tenderness and ritual.

Though detailed in plot and historical context, and rich in character observation, the show is by no means an attempt at realism. It is a Western, it is fantasy and myth. It has incredible dramatic grace, a preposterously elegant and profane script, and is imbued with madness, hilarity and tragedy. These last three are no better represented by the hotel-owner and later Mayor of Deadwood, E.B. Farnum, a poetic and loathsome creep. I leave you with one of his self-lamenting monologues, as he scrubs a bloodstain from the floorboards - an act oft-repeated through the story.

ps. The Cosby Show has been voted the sitcom that best represents the cultural yadayada and whatnot of the 1980s. I refuse to comment on this, or show a clip.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fidel Castro: American Hero

To be honest, I'm struggling to find an angle on this story, but I feel it deserves a mention. This week, marking the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Fidel Castro devoted a column in his newspaper Granma to a reflection on Cuban-American relations during the 1980s, in regard to Cuban responses to attempts on Ronald Reagan's life. First up is a full transcript of a conversation between the Cuban Foreign Minister and a US envoy in Havana about the recent shooting of the president, "written immediately after the meeting." This is a curious snapshot of the aftermath of the assassination, with Smith appearing quite shaken, and Malmierca sounding, at least in transcript, somewhat officious and robotic. There's a strange freshness to the script, in which after the formal exchange of concern and thanks, the two men briefly trade small information and speculation - familiar to any conversation in response to a recent but distant important event.

Castro presents this as a rather weak example of good Cuban intentions toward the USA, but he follows it up with the revelation that in 1984, he saved Reagan's life.

"A highly confidential report submitted in the summer of 1984 to an agent responsible for the security of Cuban representatives in the UN warned of a possible assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by a far-right group in North Carolina. Upon receiving it, we immediately informed US authorities. Our official suggested that we deliver the information via Robert C. Muller, head of security of the US mission to the United Nations, with whom we maintained contact to ensure the protection of Cuban delegations visiting the international organization."

Apparently this resulted in the FBI rounding up the conspirators (something they seem to have forgotten about), and an informal word of thanks to the Cuban officials involved. The claims have been met with bafflement in the United States, but if Castro is making it up, it is not for the first time. The claim was initially made in a 1989 speech. Cuban-American relations were at a low point in 1984, a year after the invasion of Grenada and while interests clashed in Central America and Africa, where tens of thousands of Cuban troops fought wars of intervention. The significance of this, for Castro, lies in the constant threat of assassination that he himself has faced. Though by 1980, the US had officially rejected the idea of assassination, a high proportion of the 638 plots to kill the Cuban dictator were hatched during Reagan's administration. Castro seeks the high moral ground, showing that he will save the life of his enemy, even while his enemy seeks to kill him. One can understand why Cuba would likely see no benefit in allowing the murder of a US president, and the broader context of his regime, I am not quite convinced yet of Castro's benevolence. If it is true, I would certainly like to hear more details about who these right wing extremists were and why exactly they wanted to kill Reagan. I somehow doubt, however, that Castro will be forthcoming.

I'm still not sure, however, how this all segues in with the second revelation of Castro's column, that the US government has lied about its involvement in 9/11. Fidel's journalism leaves me confused, but definitely wanting more. Best line? "Blood donations have long constituted a tradition of the Revolution." No kidding.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Birthday Post

I thought everybody should know it's my birthday now. As a special treat, and because he hasn't been posting any of his pictures on his own blog lately, I thought I'd share the card that Jack Brougham, Draughtsman sent me via the internet this morning:

It is also Ben Folds' birthday today, so here is him doing a marvelous Dr. Dre song:

It is also now four years to the day that Johnny Cash ascended, so here's to him and have a rotten day!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

R.I.P. Jane Wyman, 1917-2007

It is perhaps unfair that the obituaries of Jane Wyman, who died yesterday, focus so centrally on her marriage to Ronald Reagan, considering that the President had little contact with her in the near 60 years of his life which followed their 1948 divorce. Particularly since she had so little to do with his political career - his obsession with politics following his 1947 election to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild was, it was suggested at the time, one of the reasons for their separation ("I'm so bored with him, I'll either kill him or kill myself," she is reported to have said). This is the fate, however, for America's first ex-wife of a President and mother of two of his children - Maureen, who's death sadly preceded both her parents, and Michael, the well-known conservative commentator. It is fair to say, anyway, that her lengthy and successful acting career would not merit her a mention on this blog were it not for her connection to the amiable dunce himself.

Their marriage was short-lived, and at the end tremendously unhappy, dying with the death of their prematurely born child. In its time, however, it was presented as an idyllic match, the innocent and beautiful love of two of Hollywood's favourite stars. To say it was a sham would go too far, but it was certainly an early example of Reagan's pervasive and fantastic public persona. "Jane and Ronnie have always stood for so much that is right in Hollywood," exclaimed the formidable Hollywood gossipist Louella Parsons, who claimed responsibility for the initial match and frequently presented the handsome couple as evidence of the industry's high moral values and chaste American ideals (the truth of which Parsons knew better than anyone). Such is the way of Hollywood, and you don't have to look to far to see similar games being played nowadays.

Wyman was a serious actress who met with much more acclaim and success than her second husband (another potential reason for their split), who no doubt did not envy the later supporting role of Nancy Davis. She no doubt also held admiration for Reagan's achievements, a respect most apparent in her consistent silence on their marriage and divorce.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Two months in, time for some navel gazing.

Amiable Dunce is now two months old. This is the 22nd post, which brings the average to about one every three days. Only one of those has been about David Cameron being a chump, and I've yet to descend into lengthy descriptions of What I Got up to in the Newsagents, nor even any explanations of Why I Like That TV Show That I Like. I hope you'll agree that it's not been too bad so far.

Anyway, enough about me. What you want to hear about is yourselves, that (very) elite community who can proudly call themselves Dunce readers. Unfortunately, I only signed up to Google Analytics after a few weeks of blogging, so I have no stats whatsoever for July, but since then I have been checking in and checking up daily on who is reading this thing, and why. Or at least the vague indicators of those things that Analytics offers. Up until yesterday, I have had 453 hits, which averages out to 11 a day. These have been from 168 "Absolute Unique Visitors," and I do consider you each absolutely unique, each wonderful in your own special way. You have spent an average of 10 minutes, 18 seconds reading Amiable Dunce, though I think that is collectively, per day. However, 37% of you have only visited once, for shame, and 76% of all visits have spent less than 10 seconds looking at the site! I realise this may have something to do with my irregular posting, but still, for shame!

You come from one of 22 countries so far, but not from Africa, which is the only continent I've yet to break into. The greatest amount of visits come from the good old United Kingdom, though there is a fair showing also from the good old United States. Amiable Dunce has spread into 24 of the 50 states, and is most popular in California, Connecticut and Washington. Of 40 google keyword combinations that have lead here, the most common is "Townes Van Zandt," and the oddest has been "was dr. seuss against war or for it" - though they don't seem to have stuck around to find out. The blog that has sent me the most referrals has been koplobpobajob, so thanks Simon!

That's enough of that now, I feel. I'll update in a couple more months probably, or when I hit some important milestone - all fifty states, or a visit from David Cameron or something.

Reconciliation or Recrimination?

In these recent heady days where we jittery world-watchers are on alert yet again for an imminent US invasion of Iran, it is hard not to imagine a broader agenda at work when a federal judge orders Iran to pay $2.6 billion in compensation to the survivors and the bereaved of the devastating attack on the US Marine barracks at the Beirut airport in 1983. Of course, I will not project that Dick Cheney has been pulling the strings behind Judge Lamberth's ruling, but the timing of the decision no doubt emphasises its significance, and will give support to any political depiction of Iran as a current threat and historical enemy to America. It also seems a rather strange move.

The precedent seems to be Libya's agreement in 2002 to compensate the families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, but the differences are clear. Libya's payment, combined with something of an admission of complicity in the atrocity, were part of Gaddaffi's post-9/11 rapprochement with the west - a consensual political gesture, not the result of a unilateral ruling by a foreign domestic court. Iran, of course, refuses to pay, to recognise the authority of the court, or to admit to any responsibility for the attack. One might ask what the point of such a ruling is, when there is no hope of any forthcoming payment.

The Lockerbie bombing was also by anyone's definition a terrorist attack and an act of murder, but can the same be said for the barracks bombing? The barracks, after all, were a military installation in the middle of a warzone. While political expediency in face of the War Powers Act meant that in Washington, the Reagan Administration insisted on defining the Marine deployment as a neutral peacekeeping force, the reality on the ground was that the Multinational Force was aligned on one side of a civil war. Though bound by stringent rules of engagement not to fight, the Marines' vague objective to protect the crumbling Lebanese Government and train its army marked them out as a clear enemy to the various militias vying for control of Beirut, and even, to a lesser and more indirect extent, the IDF. The barracks bombing, while villainous and atrocious, was an act of war - how many acts of war result in demands for compensation?. Can the families of the Marines killed by sniper fire expect a similar court ruling?

Other questions arise, such as why Syria, also considered to be involved in the creation of the early incarnation Hezbollah which is generally credited with the attack, has not received a similar order. Then there is the fact that the extent of Iranian involvement in the attack is simply not known - did Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen order it? plan it? carry it out? or did they just give it blessing? All this is uncertain, which makes the basis for the ruling shaky. Stretching the questions further we might ask how the US government would respond to demands that it pay compensation to the Iranian victims of Saddam's army using US-made conventional or chemical weapons - let alone the civilian victims of the Contras. The court ruling seems to have little real authority, whether in precedent, logic, or in practical result.

At its very worst, this decision is politically designed (even if simply by one man) to escalate American public hostility towards Iran. At its best, it is an attempt to give relief and a sense of justice to over a thousand still-grieving Americans whose boys died on a mission of the best intentions but ultimately with no meaning or consequence. Either way, it is an odd, and entirely symbolic, use of the US justice system.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Like Beckett, but shorter and with animals.

I haven't posted for a while, but until I come up with something substantive, I'm offering about the best distraction I can think of. Road Runner was always my favourite of the Looney Tunes, I think it was something to do with the mad, epic landscape with its impossibly high mesas and endless, directionless roads. Looking back, I am also tickled by its enthusiasm for the inventive potential of 1950s science, however inevitably flawed the final ACME product.

PS. Due to overwhelming lack of interest, I am also extending the current poll. Vote or Die!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ancient China at the British Museum

Three years ago, the British Museum put on a fascinating exhibit containing several artifacts on loan from Khartoum's National Museum and detailing the rich, long and complex cultural history of Africa's largest country. It should be mentioned that the accompanying forum involved one Professor Wendy James, Sudan expert, anthropologist and mother to Amiable Dunce. The following year, the Museum opened an exhibition devoted to the objects of the ancient Persian Empire, which I wrote about at the time on Dcat's blog (I did go, and it was incredible). Next month, the British Museum will offer up its latest installment in its apparent series of exhibitions about dodgy nations with overlooked and extraordinary histories: The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army opens on September 13.

The exhibition contains a fractional selection of pieces unearthed from the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the most important archaeological discovery of the twentieth century (perhaps the most important ever). Shi Huangdi is credited with the unification of the lands that have since made up China (the name, in fact, descends from him). Such a task unsurprisingly involved many years of brutal expansion and violent control and resulted in an immense power which is reflected in the size and magnificence of his resting place. It is a vast and only partially explored underground city inhabited by treasure and artworks including over eight thousand lifesize terracotta soldiers and dancers, twenty of which have made the trip to London. They are so large that the doors of the museum's delightful Reading Room had to be removed.

My knowledge of ancient Chinese history has largely been gleaned from the work of Larry Gonick, and I doubt that many can claim much more. The exhibition will be undoubtedly enlightening for the many tens of thousands who visit. The story of China's birth will be understood, however, through knowledge of the current state, its increasing global power and the continuing atrocious treatment of its citizens. In the next year, as the momentum of the Beijing Olympics increases interest in and scrutiny of the Chinese state, we can expect growing efforts by the Chinese government to improve its image in the eyes of the world. This exhibition, which could not happen without at the very least the permission of the Chinese state authority, must be read in that context. The same, indeed, can be said for the previous collaborations by the British Museum with Iran and Sudan. Does this mean that one of Britain's greatest cultural institutions has become a mouthpiece for the propaganda of despicable regimes? I don't think so. For a start, it would be a lunatic director who would turn turn down, or even not seek out, the opportunity to display some of the rarest, most exquisite treasures of global history. While politics may dabble in cultural exchange, politics should not stop it. These exhibitions represent more than political gestures, but the cooperation of British curators, archaeologists and scholars with their perhaps relatively isolated counterparts, and not to mention the rich, once-in-a-lifetime experience open to any who wish to stop by.

Scanning the programme of events accompanying the exhibition, it is clear that this will not be a myopic affair, sheltered from the contemporary context. It will be delicately handled, to be sure, like the ancient objects themselves, and primarily a cultural and artistic exploration, but it seems quite conscious of the reality of modern China. Lectures include an examination of Mao Zedongs' own Mausoleum, and a discussion which directly addresses the historical and contemporary 'rise of China.' While these terracotta soldiers may be the new Pandas for the Chinese state, they certainly represent a coup for the British Museum and for the rest of us. Not to be missed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Close Reagan Aide Dies

"My obit will probably say 'Close Reagan Aide Dies,'" predicted Michael Deaver in 1988, "that doesn't bother me a bit. That's my life." Perhaps an easy call, and proved correct this week in the responses to his death on Saturday at 69 - Reagan's age when he won the presidency. Scanning the obituaries, the focus is on Deaver's role in Reagan's circle, from Sacramento to Washington, as his publicist and image-maker - his "director." Along with the above, most quoted is his modest and intriguing claim that "the only thing I did was light him well. My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn’t make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me.” Deaver's talent was not to manipulate or to pull the strings of the Reagan puppet, but to compliment and magnify Reagan's own gift for the visual and the emotive.

It is modest of Deaver to reduce his position to that of stagehand, his influence in the administration was considerable, steady and helpful. It was apparently Deaver's stance that at least in part solidified Reagan's reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and prompted the President's private recrimination of Begin, halting the attack. Deaver also worked (with Jim Baker) to minimise the influence of the militant Al Haig upon the President, perhaps softening US foreign policy as a whole, and effectively ending Haig's political career. It certainly seems true that had the White House remained under Deaver's, and Baker's, scrutiny into the second term, the Iran initiative may never have gotten off the ground, certainly wouldn't have been left in the hands of fanatics like Oliver North, and would never have emerged as such a threatening scandal. Deaver's influence on such areas, while perhaps disproportionate considering his lack of expertise in foreign policy, could at least be described as level headed and decent.

It was the symbolic packaging and presentation of Reagan that was his job, however, and for better or worse, he will be remembered as an early master of the image-centred politics that is so prevalent today.

Monday, August 20, 2007

David Cameron Kills Art

The Campaign to Protect Rural England's recent fundraising campaign involved asking sixty of Britain's artists and noted figures to commit to a postcard a creative effort that expressed "their love, hopes and fears for England’s countryside." The results will be auctioned this week at Bonham's, and can be viewed here.The collection is a mixture of the image and the written word (as all best postcards are) and contains some interesting stuff, such as Timothy West's Old Great Western Rialway, and some quite striking landscapes, such as John Emanuel's Cumbrian Fells.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, media attention has homed in on the efforts of David Cameron, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Tory pretender to Downing Street.

Rather than offer an original sketch, compose a few lines, or promote a specific issue, Dave has simply cut out a copy of his Party's logo and pasted it onto the postcard. In one way, this does rather sum up Cameron's hopes for the English Countryside - that its inhabitants will vote Conservative at the next general election.

This is the latest shot in Cameron's media blitz to promote his clumsy rebranding of the Tory party as something fresh, modern and conceptually bite-size. Like the rest of his efforts, it will no doubt enthrall, embarrass and enrage his base in equal measures. Artistically, this is only "modern" in the most superficial sense; the French have been doing this sort of stuff for a nearly a century, and nowadays only the most perversely "traditional" see the abstract or conceptual as outside the norm. What it is is a bland and bleak response to the richness of rural England. The logo itself is only a year or so old, designed to emphasise the newness, greenness and oak-tree-ness of Cameron's party. It carries no weighty symbolism, and brings to mind not the ancient patterns of the English landscape, but the stark and airy, skyscraping London office in which (I presume) it was designed - by (I presume again) young city-bred graphic designers who had never seen an oak tree until they checked google image. Surrounded by a blank margin, the image offers no detail, no thought, and all the charm of a rubber stamp.

England's landscape is vital to its identity and culture, something which the CPRE clearly depends upon, has grown out of, and seeks to promote. Images of the landscape can contain a tapestry of emotive ideas. Looking at a Constable, for example, the viewer can find in it the brilliance and dynamism of a cutting-edge artistic style, the comfort of pastoral tradition and the picturesque, or a social concern for depleted rural industry. In his vague gesture, Cameron has avoided all this potential in favour of a probably lazy, possibly jokey attempt at self-promotion. Ann Widdecombe's is much nicer:

I believe I have just out-Toried the Tory leader. Alarm bells should be ringing for at least one of us.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Poindexter wins in 50% landslide!

Despite an horrific level of voter apathy, Admiral John Poindexter has been chosen as Amiable Dunce's favourite Reagan Administration National Security Adviser, winning a full two of the four votes cast. That is twice as many as each of his closest rivals, Bud McFarlane and Colin Powell. Poindexter advised Reagan from 1985-6 before becoming a casualty of the Iran-Contra affair, for which he was convicted on multiple felony counts in 1990, reversed in 1991.

I would like to think that the admiral gained the respect of Dunce readers through his noble displays of loyalty his chief. "The buck stops here with me," Poindexter declared as the scandal mounted, hoping to protect the President from incrimination - to take a bullet for him, I'd say, like a good soldier. Unfortunately, this position instead contributed hugely to the impression that Reagan was not in control of his administration, an impression that brought Reagan closer to impeachment than any implication of his involvement in selling arms to Iran.

However, I doubt that Dunce readers are really concerned with such things as the virtue of self-sacrifice, he probably only got so many votes because he has a funny name.

Here's to you, Admiral Poindexter!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Mercenary Song

This is a clip from the extras of Heartworn Highways, the film in which the Townes van Zandt song I posted earlier originally appeared. It is an excellent documentary which I heartily reccomend, many thanks to honky tonk musical font DJ Shamblin' Sexton for the lend.

In it, a tired and emotional, and surprisingly pretty Steve Earle sings a song about mercenaries in the early Twentieth Century. I've always found the historical war song genre strangley irresistable; examples I can think of include "Waltzing Matilda" by the Pogues, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by the Band, "Houses on the Hill" by Whiskeytown, and "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin, why not? Please offer your own suggestions for a compilation.

(ps. I am on an iBook, and can't figure out how to do hyperlinks or italics - this may get sorted out eventually.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

You Won't Have Nixon To Kick Around Anymore!

Just to give a taster of Hopkins' performance, for those who haven't seen it.

Also, it's worth pointing to Stone's likely future projects: a film documenting the Bush administration's handling of the aftermath of 9/11, and another one about My Lai. Sounds like he is back on track.

Oliver Stone and History.

In the past two days I have submitted myself to two lengthy, ambitious films by Oliver Stone, each dealing with formative and critical events of recent American history: yesterday, World Trade Centre (2006); this afternoon, Nixon (1995). Beyond sharing an author and seeking to truthfully depict the important past, however, they are hugely dissimilar movies.

WTC portrays an event in extreme close up through the experiences of a handful of characters: two policemen trapped beneath the rubble, their families, and their rescuers. It is confined physically by the large portion of scenes which take place within the collapsed trap of the towers, or the smoke-shrouded, hulking rubble above. It is confined thematically by its limited focus. We get little sense of the broad political impact and intent of the attack, much less its consequences in the years to follow. We do not get a complete impression of the immediate response in New York, nor do we even see the attacks themselves (as if we really need to); the main characters are buried by the first tower with only the barest knowledge of what is going on. The film discards a broad scope in favour of an intensified portrayal of the responses and experiences of a few individuals. In this, it is something of a failure, particularly in comparison to the incredible United 93. It feels hackneyed and dull, rather than harrowing and inspiring.

Nixon has a much more expansive narrative, being both a biography and a portrait of an era. It is certainly not either hackneyed or dull, but is rich, deep, involving and completely mad. It may even have earned a position amongst my favourite films, but that might just be because it has the brilliant Bob Hoskins camping it up as J. Edgar Hoover. History is a central theme to the story, and not just in that it recollects events and people which reverberate in American memory (and will always do so). History is a deep concern of Hopkin's caricature of Nixon, his own impact on it, and what he can learn from it.

As he descends into the consuming mire of power, he seeks solace from his peers. In the corporeal world, these are Mao and Brezhnev. On meeting, the former urges Nixon - suddenly uncomfortable - to recognise what he is: " You're too modest, Nixon. You're as evil as I am. We are the new emperors....Why are you so interested in peace? The real war is in us. History is a symptom of our disease." Later, Brezhnev laments the tragedy of a great man felled by petty circumstance. When he recognises his fate, it is not how he will be remembered by his own people that initially concerns him, but how he will figure in the memories of his two contemporary equals in power as they continue their reigns and he drifts, small and criminalised, into obscurity. Nixon also turns to the only others who can match him - his predecessors, the former presidents whose ghostly portraits coldly observe his apparent mania. It is Lincoln who haunts Nixon the most (though neither can he escape the spectre of Kennedy). In the president who fought a bloody civil war, ruled over a divided America, and wielded an unprecedented imperial power, Nixon seems to find a kindred spirit, perhaps imagining that he too will one day be carved reverentially in marble, at last loved by his people. Nixon is epic, dramatic, illusionary history, shot with with an hallucinatory style that weaves together the emblematic images of the sixties and Nixon's own memories, and evokes a paranoia that may belong to author, or subject or both. Stone presents a dark, apocalyptic tale of America's past - cautionary, revolted and delightful.

Nixon's burden is to represent a divided, darkened, and savage America - not politically, but as a reflecting symbol. WTC also serves to represent America through symbolic characters and historic events, but here Stone exonerates his country. The theme is bravery, and hope. Nic Cage tells us that in 9/11 we remember not the evil that is possible in man, but the good that arises in response to it. America is not about plotting in gloomy White House offices, or the heady weirdness of international politics, but, if the first few pre-attack scenes are anything to go by, local democracy, baseball, country music and the daily work of ordinary citizens. Post attack, America is about recovery, family and community. There is also an interesting religious aspect to it - the ex-marine who finds our trapped heroes is told by God to go to New York and help; he ignores the organised rescue effort and goes on alone into the night, as if with the vague knowledge of the part he is destined to play. As he approaches, one of the trapped men sees a momentary image of Christ within the flames above. God, we feel, is protecting and inspiring America in it's time of crisis. Not so in Nixon, where religion, like everything else, comes across as distorted and weird. In one great despairing moment, Nixon pleads and harangues Lincoln's portrait in the Oval Office: "What is it about death, Abe? Who's helping us, is it God, or is it death?" At the end, the president bleakly describes himself as America's blood sacrifice to its Gods of war.

Stone can certainly make some strange movies. Perhaps more on this, when I finally get around to watching The Day Reagan Was Shot, produced by Stone, starring Richard Dreyfuss as Al Haig.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Virtue and the Cityscape.

While the reign of George VII will undoubtedly be definitive, glorious and highly enjoyable, the heir to the throne can certainly be wrong about things - in particular, the London skyline. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe," quipped Charles in 1987, "when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that." He has since voiced his unhappiness with the corruption of Christopher Wren's cityscape by certain fantastic towering edifices such as the Gherkin and Renzo Piano's Shard of Glass (as yet unstarted, due for completion in 2011). Without going into too much detail, and without giving too much consideration to the Prince's reasonable points about the role of architecture and the public space, I will say that I disagree and think that these buildings are fucking aces.

The issue was brought to mind yesterday when I was flicking through a book about the artist John Virtue, and his London Paintings. Until now, Virtue has been unknown to me (hoho), and I was struck by the grimy brilliance of the images, which were created while he was artist in residence of the National Gallery two years ago. I was also struck, not for the first time, by the greatness of the subject as I saw the Gherkin lurch in fine synchrony with the shadow of St. Paul's, and the Thames shine beneath the the heavy beauty of London City. Despite the modern intrusions, there is an unsurprising timelessness to the images, recalling a tradition of London landscapes including those of Turner, Monet and Canaletto, and the ingrained mythic idea of the smoky, grim and monumental city. Interestingly, Virtue apparently edited out the Millennium Wheel from his view, ignoring its flimsy lightness in favour of the stone and steel around it. Perhaps with London, and with any city, you see what you choose, and take beauty where you find it. Unfortunately, the exhibition has been over for two years so I'm not sure where I will get to see his paintings in the flesh - apparently, they're massive. Any guidance or enlightenment on this matter will be much appreciated.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The blogroll unfurls an inch.

Just to draw everyone's attention to the fact that I'm about make my first link to a blog that is not written by a friend of mine (facebook friend, anyway!). Jack Brougham has drawn my attention to The Fate of the Artist, the blog of Eddie Campbell, who drew Alan Moore's From Hell. Congratulations Mr. Campbell! Jack was motivated by this post (scroll down a bit) about George Herriman, the creator of the marvellous Krazy Kat. Eventually I'll write about Herriman, the Kat and Ignatz, but I realise that this site has been getting a bit comics heavy recently, so I'll leave it for a bit.

I'll also link to Stripper's Guide, by Alan Holtz, which looks pretty interesting, and, what the hey, Harry Hutton's funny stuff. Congratulations Mr. Holtz and Mr. Hutton!

One day I will categorise everything nice and neatly.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The History of the Universe goes on.

When I was about twelve, I picked up The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great while on holiday in the states. I read it, loved it and reread it until about three years later, when on another stateside trip I stumbled across The Cartoon History of the Universe II: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome. I was equally enamoured, and painstakingly painted copies of the panels detailing Jesus' teachings onto my schoolbag. After a painfully long wait, in 2003 I found The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance in a St. Louis bookstore (possibly the same in which I had found Vol. 1? I'm not sure) and happily devoured its depictions of Islam's ascendancy and the Crusades while the allies settled in in Iraq. Since then I have mastered internet shopping, and have been twitching with excitement since last week when I realised that Larry Gonick had published the fourth collection earlier this year: The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part I: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution. It arrived this morning, and I have been reading it with a strange sadness of understanding that in a few years I will happen upon Part II, and the history of the universe will be over.

They are a truly marvellous series of books, written and drawn with flair, insight and wit by Larry Gonick, interviewed here. He has a great feel for the interconnectedness of history, drawing links between geographically and chronologically disparate events. It's an angle which suits the form. A fifty page comic (one chapter) is necessarily selective and fast paced, and Gonick manages to use the structure to create a broad continuity, while also cramming in as much curious and hilarious detail as he can. As a result, Cortez does not seem that far from Caesar, whether in action or in caricature. Amusing despots rise and fall; ideas and diseases race each other across the world; and the narrator despairs at having to draw massacre after massacre (I can't think of a comic which contains more corpses), while exclaiming with glee whenever an elephant pops up in the story. The narration is knowing, always on the lookout for irony, and aware of the medium's deficiencies: Gonick's wild-haired alter ego lets us know early on that Herodotus is his favourite historian, because he makes up all the dialogue. I really can't think of a better thing to do with one's life.

Unfortunately, Larry Gonick does not really look like this.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Road

I am unfortunately and somewhat shamefacedly unfamiliar with the work of Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses has been on my shelf for over a year now, despite me having started and enjoyed it, then for some reason been distracted. I may now restart it with renewed interest having read The Road this weekend, McCarthy's recent Pulitzer Prize winning and Oprah-celebrated novel.

As I understand it, McCarthy is a novelist who has largely worked within the West, that broad and unrepressable American myth. The Road, however, deals instead with the mythic future of the post-apocalypse, describing the journey of a man and his son across an America burned and shattered by some unspecific catastrophe. These two legendary spaces bear some similarities - just ask Kevin Kostner. Each is defined by its landscape, and each demands survival of its characters, survival against the wilderness, and against lawlessness. The Road's desperate family are migrants - pioneers - who must live off an unfamiliar land, scavenging ghost-cities and ashen forest floors, endure the terrible elements, and avoid the roaming savages who have shed civilisation in favour of brutish cannibalism. They do not head West , however, but South, to escape the killing winters; and they do not travel with either certain or illusory promises of gold and land, orange groves and opportunity. They go with no "long term goals," as they realise, only the ebbing determination to live, the vague hope of encountering other "good guys," and most importantly, the assurance that they are "keeping the fire."

The fire is the remaining embers of old values, old culture, and keeping it is no easy task. The man (unnamed, as are all in this world), must represent to his son, born in the months following the catastrophe, the memory of the old world. They play cards with an incomplete deck, forgetting the old rules so inventing new games; they lose their books so must invent new stories; the child plays with a toy truck, while real trucks, to the extent that they now exist, only represent danger and fear; the father carves a crude flute for his son, who can only play tuneless weird sounds - the last music - and who eventually discards the instrument. The fire, however, is perhaps best and most fully represented in their simple refusal to eat of the most available nourishment - other humans. It is an extraordinary book, written with brilliantly stark and lyrical language, frightening and redemptive. Do what Oprah tells you - read it!

Monday, July 23, 2007

More on Superheroes

Since writing the previous post, my housemate serendipitously bought and lent me the first issue of Warren Ellis' new title, Black Summer. The front cover should give an impression of what happens:

Yes, a white-garbed super-powered fellow named John Horus decides to brutally murder the President, the Vice President, and much of their staff. "I also had to kill or injure some secret service agents," he tells the White House press room, "which I regret." This isn't a President who is secretly in thrall to baby-eating aliens, or who is bent on a plot to turn the world's population into zombie-slaves, but one who very much resembles our own dear George W. Bush - less through the features of the blood spattered corpse above, but more through the record described by Horus as he explains his actions (illegal war, torture, election fraud etc.). Nor is Horus a typical supervillain determined to take power for himself, we understand, but a hero who has in previous years protected and served in the name of what is good and just, and now wishes to restore America. Ellis discusses his idea:

If we invite or condone masked adventurers to fight crime outside the law, do we get to draw a line where they stop?

What happens when a superhero's pursuit of justice leads him to the inexorable conclusion that he must kill his President to save his country?

This is the freedom of doing a piece of superhero fiction outside the auspices of company ownership or the weight of continuity: the big questions can be asked in a very direct and brutal manner.

Ellis is a good writer who has some excellent titles under his belt. He often deals with themes of conspiracy and the defiance of all-encompassing power; sometimes with an ingenious panache, as in Planetary, sometimes with hilarity, as in Nextwave, and sometimes with a certain smug heavy-handedness, as in Transmetropolitan. This new story clearly is in danger of falling into the latter category, but is almost certain to develop into something interesting.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Aside from playing too much scrabble through facebook, in recent days I have been watching the first few episodes of Heroes. Of heroes, Reagan said:

You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they're on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They're individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.
Unfortunately, he was wrong. Heroes are people who can fly, or shoot fire from their fingertips, or grow several extra pairs of arms, or whatever - and who will do so always with a mediocre quip on hand, and always in the service of good. The series seems promising. Based on a failsafe cool idea, it offers some innovation amidst a classy handling of traditional ideas - time travel, flight and saving New York from nuclear destruction. It's perhaps an unnecessarily complex plot, I'm finding the shadowy government (?) organisation hunting down our afflicted heroes a bit tiresome, and the suspense is less an "ooh wow! I can't wait to see what happens next!" than a Lost-esque "why won't they tell me what the hell is going on?!" It's also similar to Lost in that the characters, however enigmatic, are frustratingly obtuse when it comes to figuring stuff out. The concept stems from the tradition that has sustained and confined comic book culture for the past seventy years. It is a strange phenomenon, perhaps, that such a limiting (if hugely pliable) theme could come to define an entire medium, but it has created a massively rich and intertextual genre, of which Heroes is only a recent example.

The show pays homage to its forbears, to its concept's original birth-form; indeed, it is accompanied by the publication of a concurrent comic book. I read a few of these a while ago, and, oddly, felt that perhaps the story didn't quite suit the graphic form and would be better suited to a television series - someone should tell the writers. In its basic idea of "ordinary" people (such as a candidate for congress, or a heroin addicted painter) discovering "talents" within themselves brought on by over-explained genetic evolution it is a clear tribute to Marvel's X-Men. In it's content, though, there are overt references, and not only in the occasional ironic remarks about Super- or Spiderman. A comic book is in fact nicely included as a driving plot device: Japanese teleporter/time-jumper Hiro (do you see what they did there?) is guided on his mission by a comic book from the future about himself, and drawn by the aforementioned precognitive junkie painter.

There is some attempt at cerebral contemplation of the consequences and meaning of the emergence of superhumans, provided in the snippets of narration by geneticist Mohinder, who has no power unless it is the ability to accidentally stumble upon things hidden by his dead father, or by the suitably creepy supervillain Syler. It all seems a bit trite, however, and I wonder whether they will truly delve into the questions of how people might be changed by their powers, and how their existence may change the world around them. These have been questions explored relentlessly by recent generations of comics writers, whether in the teen angst and social conflict of X-Men, the celebrity heroes of Brian Bendis' Powers, or in the recent expansive, civil rights themed Marvel story Civil War, in which poor Captain America is assassinated after leading a resistance against governmental measures to restrict, regulate and segregate the power-blessed. Probably the best author to tackle these ideas has been Alan Moore, in his seminal Watchmen (soon, stupidly, to be made into a film - why can't they just leave well alone?), and even more so in his fantastic Miracleman, which due to copyright issues remains unfinished and uncollected (but can be found on the web in scanned form for all those scummy enough to fileshare). Miracleman takes the idea of the superman to its full Nietzschian limits, displaying the brilliance and wonder of power, and its horrific controlling potential. In its shadow is Mark Millar's Red Son, which imagines a Ukrainian, rather than Kansan, Superman, ruling the world through super-ability and Soviet ideology. Heroes is unlikely to become so drastic, but it really needn't, as long as gets the plot rolling and throws in a good fight scene or two.

Hiro gets all intertextual.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Where is John Wayne?

"I am sure it is quite embarrassing to General Torrijos to be called a 'tinhorn' dictator, and I didn't feel that was your style. I hope they weren't your words. This is more the style of a liberal punk who doesn't have to answer for his words."

So advised John Wayne in an open letter to Ronald Reagan in response to his railings against Jimmy Carter's (previously Ford's) Panama Canal Treaty - "We bought it. We paid for it. We built it. And we are going to keep it." The restraining words of a gruff sergeant to his overzealous young officer, perhaps, or of an older, wiser cowhand to his inexperienced colleague.

Reagan and Wayne are inextricably linked in American history thanks to their shared Hollywood careers, their similar public personae, their celebrity conservatism or even the fact that each shed midwestern roots for those dreamy Californian heights. Its a link reinforced, if not originally defined, by the superb historian Garry Wills, who has written books on each. Reagan's America is long familiar to me, and I picked up John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity yesterday for £2.50 in a crummy little shop that despite its complete lack of charm continues to reward me with useful finds. I also got Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home for the same price.

The purpose of Wills' book is to chart not the details and course of Wayne's life, but his image. It is an image that is familiar to us all and that is unique not just in it's singular applicability to one actor, but in its breadth of meaning as an emblem of national myth and identity. "There is no better demonstration of the power of movies than Wayne's impact on American life," Wills writes:
"He was not like other actors, who simply hold political views. ...Wayne embodied a politics; or his screen image did. It was a politics of large meanings, not of little policies - a politics of gender (masculine), ideology (patriotism), character (self-reliance), and responsibility. It was a matter of basic orientation."

The idea of Wayne looms. See the mimicry of the near-children in Full Metal Jacket as they try to comprehend their war; see the struggling posture of "John Wayne" McCain. Joan Didion, apparently, was more familiar with the Duke's face than her own husband's. The question is, is there any equivalent encompassing icon in modern American culture? No, is the obvious answer, but you can see the efforts of some to present themselves as such as well as, perhaps, efforts to find one. Two superficial possibilities occur, each political - potentially in the above sense - and each aligned with the hero and the patriot and the manly. I mean of course Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis.

Gibson, whose early American work included the comically suicidal Vietnam vet Riggs of Lethal Weapon, as well as a leading role in the anti-CIA romp Air America, has since made up for these lapses of conformity. We all know what he's about, and each new product serves to reinforce Gibson's mythic status as Soldier, Protector, Patriot, Christian - even as his 'real life' antics don't. We Were Soldiers, in fact, bears strong resemblance to Wayne's polemic, Green Berets, except in quality - Gibson's effort is the far superior film. Each is about the honour of the American fighting man, and each includes a liberal journalist who saves himself by picking up a rifle. We Were Soldiers, however, carries the hindsight knowledge of defeat, while Green Berets - the only film to be made about Vietnam while the war still raged - carries an assumption of victory. Willis is of course back, dying hard again, as John McClane (John Wayne McClane?), the epitome of the manly individual with a gun. His own contributions to the political discourse have been somewhat flat-footed though. He's yet to pay the $1 million he offered for the capture or death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the rumours of a Green Berets-esque Iraq movie about the Battle of Fallujah appear to have been a non-starter. Wayne's impact, I believe, was peculiar to his time - to the industry and culture of 20th century film, to the America he inhabited, and, indeed, to his own style.

The wise ghost of John Wayne in Garth Ennis' & Steve Dillon's Preacher.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A note about administration.

Being only one of the newest members of the new media, I'm still learning how to use this thing, but I have worked some things out - anybody can now comment, provided you can read wonky letters. I've also learned how to check my "site feed", and apparently I've had no hits in the past 24 hours, so who am I even talking to? Oh well, good night.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Reagans (2003)

"This film is a dramatic interpretation of events based on public sources. Some scenes and characters are presented as composites"

So I was warned as I settled down to watch this three hour film of the story of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, their family and their White House (originally conceived as a miniseries for CBS). Pedant that I am, I was pleased to spot a historical inaccuracy in the very first minutes, where Michael Deaver comes to warn the couple of Senator Tower's conclusions in his investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, distracting Ronald from a western on the television. Deaver had in fact resigned from Reagan's staff two years previously, and was, or would soon be, facing his own investigation into his practices as a Washington lobbyist. Such factual deviations litter the film, but don't truly ruin it, and I won't insist on boringly listing everything it gets wrong - fun as it may be.

It was questions of interpretation, rather than detail, which caused the controversy. CBS decided to pull the series from its primetime autumn schedule, broadcasting it instead later in the year on its smaller cable channel Showtime, following angry preemptive reactions from conservatives, accusing bias and distortion. Though I haven't yet done anything near a full survey of the criticisms, they seem to fall into two categories. First, that James Brolin's Reagan speaks words which are unverifiable, untrue and ill-reflecting, in particular a comment about God and AIDS which was excised from the final cut (though similar to a comment Edmund Morris ascribes to his subject in his biography, Dutch; Dutch, of course, met it's own criticism). Secondly, that the characters of Ronald and Nancy are portrayed derogatively - Ronald as doddering, shallow-minded and not in control; Nancy as manipulative and astrology-obsessed. Also, the pair of them as distant and neglectful parents. However, in broad-stroke, these are characteristics which are apparent in all but the most simpering, hagiographic literature on the Reagans. Also, though the film is a drama, and dramatises these attributes in a pretty clunky manner, it takes pains to nuance its subjects with more positive, admirable qualities - love, compassion, ambition, principle, wit, and so on. Again, qualities that seep through into all but the most simplistic anti-Reagan hatchet jobs.

I suspect that the conservative reaction to the film was more rooted in an instinctive horror at an attempt to represent the Prophet, particularly a representation smeared with the fingerprints of the dastards of the 'liberal media', and motivated by the film's handling of Reagan's political achievements, which are the framework of his current iconic status. At least, his partisan iconic status. Essentially, they are breezed through and overlooked. His principles and ideology are reduced to a few already familiar soundbites, and events broken down to simple, signifying scenes. My favourite is one set in 1986, where George Schulz (a cipher of a character) rushes into the Oval Office waving a piece of paper: "Mr. President! You've ended the Cold War". US-Soviet relations are not mentioned for the rest of the film, replaced by the apparently more dramatically interesting internal machinations of Iran-Contra.

There's much more to be said about this, and about the manner in which it constructs Reagan's life and American history in general, but I sense this is getting too long, and will sign off with my own critical response. Not very good, really - though it is possible my own familiarity with the story added to the sense that it was simply covering events one-by-one. Judy Davis gave the best performance, but that still felt a little Dynasty (not that I've ever seen Dynasty). I was, however struck, not for the first time, by the filmic potential of Reagan's life. In general, it has great dramatic and visual possibilities, and a better script and actor could get alot of mileage out of Reagan's character (Brolin really just gives a passable impression of the President - as well as a good one of Reagan doing Carter). There is also great comic potential in Reagan's administration, which was enjoyably but tantilisingly explored here. Psychotic Al Haig, ever-mumbling Bill Casey, creepy and sly Don Regan, and the apparently inseparable troika of Deaver, Baker and Meese popping up in doorways and muttering their schemes ("You're always looking at each other" yells a justifiably paranoid Haig) - all this raised a chuckle and should definitely be made into a sitcom.

Someone should have a proper go at filming Reagan. Maybe Scorcese, when he's finished doing Edmund Morris's Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, should make a film of Morris's semi-fictional Dutch? That would be very post-modern, bound to piss everybody off.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

A conscientious ex-pat American, my father made sure I was brought up on Sesame Street and the books of Theodor Seuss Geisel. I learned many valuable lessons from this education, including that going to war over how you buttered your bread would be stupid, that eventually you could pester someone into eating anything no matter how weird it looked, and that if a bird asks an elephant to tend their nest for a bit before going off an extended holiday, it would be presumptious for the bird to then expect the elephant to give up the hatchling he has looked after for so long. Also that any such hatchling would be an interesting cross between a bird and an elephant.

A more deeply thinking child would have realised that the good Doctor's books revealed a social conscience amongst the bizarre creatures and amusing machinery, one that had been initially informed by the rise of fascism in Europe and latterly by racial discrimination at home. Seuss' views were first expressed in the cartoons he drew for New York's PM newspaper between 1941 and 1942, now collected in this book which I have recently been re-admiring. Seuss targets Charles Lindbergh and the America-Firsters (as well as Hitler, etc.) with vicious glee, and with the striking comic imagery so familiar from his later tales. Animals feature heavily, such as Lindbergh's "Ostrich Bonnets," all wonky necks and brainless smiles ("Forget the terrible news you've read, your mind's at ease in an ostrich head"), or "Vanquished Europe" as an enormous moose happily taking a bite out of a bemused Hitler's arse ("Quite dead I shoot him...unt still, by Himmel, he bites!). Best is Uncle Sam as a plump and scruffy eagle - his physique not dissimilar to the Cat in the Hat's - recurring frequently with a full range of emotion. However, despite the consistent and righteous polemic against anti-semitism in Nazi Europe and American isolationism, and against Jim Crow in the military, there is a sad and unwitting irony in Seuss' representation of the Japanese, and of Japanese Americans. All have the same sly, squinty ugliness, and are quite openly portrayed as a fifth column. One hopes that Seuss eventually came to terms with the stars on Japanese bellies.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Townes Van Zandt

When treated as a young man with electro-shock therapy, Townes Van Zandt lost from his memory the images of his childhood. This collapse of identity, eventually and patchily reconstructed from the stories of others, had to contribute to the bleakness of his songs. That and the depression that brought him into hospital in the first place. The alcoholism too, of course, and the fondness for the smell of glue. Be Here to Love Me (2004) tells the life of Van Zandt, which was sad and too short and apparently largely made up of hilarious anecdotes of self destruction. It was not all grim hopelessness though, he was a committed fan of Happy Days. He also spent his life doing what he loved, and was good at it.

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world - and I'll stand
on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that" - Steve Earle

It's deeply American music, as is the story. Van Zandt grew up in Texas (where his family has a county named after him) playing the folk music of the South - blues and country. In California, of course, he first met success and lived as a hippy, before drifting between Colorado, Texas and Nashville, and touring the country, apparently following his psychiatrist's advice to "just wander for a while and find himself" ("what is this doctor saying?" his first wife recalls wondering). Old sounding songs of woe and fear and love and death and addiction (and banditry); here's a taster.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

What the internet really needs is a new blog

Hello, reader.

As you are probably aware, there is a dearth on the web of trite musings, ill-explained secondhand opinion, half-baked ideas and lengthy explanations of personal annoyances. I am here to fill that void.

I am a DPhil student at Sussex University studying Ronald Reagan, to whom this blog's title is a tribute. Hopefully this will act as something of a record of my work, as well as of my more inane distractions. Many thanks to dcat, the sometime host of my meagre ramblings, and to all the millions of my future readers.