Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Title: Grand Theft Parsons
Cast: Johnny Knoxville, Christina Applegate, Gabriel Macht, Robert Forster
Director: David Caffrey

Grand Theft Parsons is based on the true story of Gram Parsons’ death. A man who had gained success from his hybridisation of rock and country music. When he died, his road manager and friend, Phil Kaufman, wanted to fulfil the pact they had made together. The core of which was the one who died first, would be taken out into the desert and his soul would be set free. However Parsons’ family want to have a regular funeral, and a gold-digging ex-girlfriend is also getting involved, claiming anything of value Parsons may have owned. The result is that Kaufman feels that he is forced to steal the body in order live up to the agreement. Tricking a hippy with a bright yellow and flowery hearse into helping him, a kind of chase is set up – the father and ex in pursuit. The plot is essentially sparse within the context of the film, and while there are some laughs to be had in the first half, it doesn’t feel as though it has entirely hit it’s stride. Once the plot is established, and a momentum has been attained , the film feels as though it is flowing better and is funnier. Johnny Knoxville puts in a strong performance as Kaufman, while Christina Applegate is worryingly convincing as the “psycho” ex.

Title: The Master And Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov

With The Master And Margarita, Bulgakov presents a curious satire, one which was no doubt more relevant at the time of writing than it is now. Though at the time of writing, 1938, he found himself stifled by Stalin’s regime, so that it was 1973 before the novel was finally published in a complete form.

The Master And Margarita follows the arrival of a mysterious stranger in Moscow. With each chapter we witness the fall out of the stranger’s actions. Along the way illustrating the competitive backstabbing of the literary scene, the ease with which the slightest thing will be reported to the authorities, the increasing combat for housing, and the crimes of foreign currency. Manipulating these tensions the stranger leaves a trail of madness wherever he goes. Rumours and outlandish stories spiralling out in the wake of each encounter.

We are 140 odd pages into the book before we encounter the Master, who is in a mental hospital, and quickly deduces from a new patient that this stranger is in fact Satan. The devil has come to Moscow, accompanied by two demons, a giant, talking, black cat, and a naked woman, combining to provide a rather mischievous and perhaps malicious motley crew.

Told in two parts, the first really establishes what is going on, while the second is the climax and resolution, with which we are introduced to Margarita. Margarita is the Master’s true love, and she is haunted by his disappearance. The highlight of the book comes with this section, the encounter between Margarita and the Devil and his servants. With that leading to chaos and the climax of events that is the Ball Of A Hundred Kings.

The Master And Margarita wasn’t really quite what I expected, suspecting that the Master would be some vastly heroic figure, who would clash with the devil in some kind of epic absurdity. However that wouldn’t suit Bulgakov’s tone at all, with the resulting interactions being more surprising than that. While The Master And Margarita can at times become difficult to follow, due to the lengthy and unfamiliar Russian names, as well as the curious tangents into the life of Pontius Pilate - Bulgakov keeps the narrative readable, mixing a certain absurdist humour with his social commentary and epic premise.

Title: The Pleasure Express
Author: Sara Sheridan

As a child Kate has determined that she will leave the small Scottish town of Coatross for London. With little idea of what she will do once she gets there, the fact that she ends up in Hong Kong as a high class call girl for the Triads leading up to the handover, probably wasn’t part of the plan. But that is what happens, living in the lap of luxury with a Chinese woman of her own age, they are both on the game and become the closest friend the other has.

As far as Kate and Rosie are concerned life is good, non-stop drugs and parties, and being paid loads of money to have sex. Which is great until Rosie is sold off to a Chinese drug lord, who lives in some arse-end-of-nowhere village in mainland China . From here things come crumbling down, with Kate as narrator being forced to face up to her weaknesses and the real fragility of the lifestyle she has found herself in. The Pleasure Express takes a while to get going as a thriller, even with the prologue being the turning point of events.

From that point events flash back, following Kate’s childhood, move to London and on. This section building up to that turning point is more a diary of a call girl style. Philosophically slanted and laid back, covering the ease of getting into the lifestyle, and the suggestion of glamour at the top end of the market, while avoiding dwelling too much on the cocks and all. Once momentum starts to build it does go beyond the characters control, so that at times Kate becomes more of a witness.

Essentially The Pleasure Express is about Rosie and her resilience and determination, with Kate as commentator and Hong Kong as backdrop. The Pleasure Express while being less of a thriller than it could have been, remains a decent enough read.

Title: Pieces Of April
Cast: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Plat, Derek Luke, Alice Drummond
Director: Peter Hedges

Katie Holmes’ big screen forays have been hit and miss, being less than successful on the whole at distancing herself from the TV role of Dawson’s Creek. The Gift and Disturbing Behaviour being quite missable, while The Wonder Boys was a more memorable outing. Pieces Of April should improve her score sheet, at least if it were to get more than the token gesture run it got here.

Holmes plays the titular April, the black sheep of the family, desperately trying to take what might be her last chance to reconcile differences with her dying mother. Shot in digital, Pieces Of April has that raw and gritty feel that it provides. Combined with the heady emotions and thanksgiving theme it could easily be dismissed as being too schmaltzy. However, Pieces Of April is saved by the strong performances, and the construction of a classically styled farce. With a funny and memorable film as result.

April live in the city and is planning to prepare the ultimate thanksgiving meal. This is contrasted by the journey of her family to the city for the meal. Switching back and forth, we are given the profile of April as trouble maker and loser – the family certain that she will screw this meal up, just as she always has. Prophetic words as events conspire against April, her cooker breaking down, forcing her to throw herself on the mercy of neighbours she has never met. Clearly through this the director attempts to convey the ideas of this particularly American holiday, but along the way he succeeds in providing comedic results.

Title: Disturbing Behaviour
Cast: James Marsden, Katie Holmes, Nick Stahl, Bruce Greenwood, Katharine Isabelle
Director: David Nutter

Disturbing Behaviour is at the more lamentable end of the teen thriller spectrum. Though it would at least satisfy BBC film critic Jonathan Ross, with his recent declaration that if you are going to make a bad film at least keep it short. A criteria that Disturbing Behaviour adheres to, coming in at under an hour and twenty minutes as it does.

James Marsden (X-Men) and Katherine Isobel (Ginger Snaps) play the surviving siblings of a family beset by tragedy. Retreating from these events the family move to a small island community. There Marsden is befriended by the seemingly paranoid Stahl, and the rebellious love-interest provided by Katie Holmes (Pieces Of April). Stahl’s conspiracy theories are initially dismissed as delusion, until of course they get him. Leaving Marsden and Holmes in the firing line as the next victims.

None of these characters are really as important as the janitor of the school though, who feigns a misleading simplicity. The inclusion of him reading Vonnegut provides a connection with Marsden. And the solution the janitor comes up with provides a certain amusement.

Monday, March 29, 2004

ken macleod's newton's wake - an extract from the latest novel by writer ken macleod, currently available in hardback. though no doubt i'll wait for it in paper back, since thats what form i have his other seven novels.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Title: In Your Face
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Publisher:New English Library

Over the last week or so, I’ve been repeatedly starting books, so that at the moment I think I am part reading 5 books at once. Part of the reason for this is, while I am not having any problems with those books, I am a little unfocused, so I’ve been looking for something to grip me, something to catch me for its duration and pull me in.

Mixed in with those books I was reading were a couple of books I had gotten from my local library, to try and stem the habit of continuing to buy books, even though I have a pile to catch up on. With the return date on those books coming up I finished what I was going to, and took them back. It was in the library that I finally found what I was looking for, something that caught my attention and pulled me in.

There on the shelves was In Your Face by Scarlett Thomas, one of those novels which is on my “wanted but never seen” list. Scarlett Thomas is a young British writer, who should have her sixth novel in the shops in the next few months. But she is also one of those novelists that is too well kept a secret, with the result that are books tend to be quite hard to find. Well, her earlier ones at least, the most recent novel Going Out, is the one which is easiest to obtain.

In Your Face is the third of her five novels to date that I have read. Going Out, her story of a boy who can’t go out because of an allergy to the sun, and his best friend a girl who doesn’t want to go out because of her allergy to people. And Dead Clever, her first novel, and the first featuring Lily Pascale. For the most part Dead Clever isn’t especially easy to get, I ended up getting it in a charity shop, though I’ve seen it in the book shop once or twice since. In Your Face and the other Pascale novel Seaside, I have never seen in the shops at all, and online there tends to be some vagueness as to availability. So, ironically, one of the reasons I had gone to the library the last time was to look for books like these – that time I was denied, and came back with curious rather than prizes. Finding In Your Face this time was therefore something of a surprise.

Dead Clever is the first of the three Lily Pascale novels, introducing Lily as she leaves London with the collapse of a relationship. Leading her to stay with her mother in Devon, with the plan that it’ll only be for a little while. However once there she finds that the local university has an opening for a lecturer and she takes on the role. Having specialised in crime writing and contemporary literature it is fate that she should end up taking a class on this subject the week after a member of that class has been killed. Sucked into events Lily soon finds that she has solved the murder where no one else has been able to, and she has become involved with another member of staff. Or at least she would have become involved, if it weren’t for the one night stand that had left one of his students pregnant.

In Your Face brings us back to Lily at the end of this first term at the university. Her notoriety is starting to fade and life is looking to get back to normal. However with terms end she gets in to an argument with the other member of staff running up to his wedding, and receives a phone call from someone she was at Uni with who is hoping Lily can help her. Frustrated by her feelings for this man and the mess he seems to be making of her life, she takes hold of the excuse to get out of town. But this takes her back to London, and sees her involved in a murder once again.

Her fair-weather friend has become a journalist, with her latest article being about the rise of stalking as a crime. Unfortunately on the same day the magazine is published the three women who are featured are all brutally murdered. With the girl that wrote the article seeming to know something about it, and remembering Lily’s previous success, hoping that she can lend a hand. Matters are complicated however with the fact that the friend has vanished when Lily arrives. Undeterred she starts to investigate, ignoring the phone calls from back home that are trying to make her face up to what she is hiding from. As she goes from scene to scene and tries to put things together though, it becomes clear that someone is now stalking her, and most likely it is the murderer.

There are of course a multitude of police detectives, privates detectives, and every tom-dick and harry thinking they can solve a crime detectives, either in novels or television. But Lily comes into the category of accidental detective, reluctant detective, playing off the irony that she might be an expert on crime fiction, but she really doesn’t want to become an expert on crime reality. And yet she can’t help herself, once the clues start to be pieced together she is fascinated and compelled.

In Your Face links back to Dead Clever, though of course is pretty much readable without having read the first one. There are repeated references to the murder in Dead Clever, which play up the reputation of Lily, ranging from the bored to still be talking about it, to the I knew I knew your name from somewhere. There is also the continuation of her relation with the lecturer Fenn, and the appearance of her family at the start of the book. With In Your Face though her father becomes more of a presence, a passing contribution in Dead Clever, she is staying at his flat this time round. Though more importantly is the addition of her father’s new girlfriend, Star, a woman who works with the criminally insane, and is thrilled by Lily’s activities – giving her a sounding board and cheerleader.

Scarlett has an easy-going, readable writing style, which is particularly contemporary, working in pop-culture references which provide recognition of an environment, without going over the score. With these crime novels of her own, she creates a strong character with Lily, and does manage to create the desired atmosphere that keeps you wondering whether she will work it all out successfully. Like Dead Clever, there are curious asides in each chapter, from the point of view of the murderer. In Dead Clever those were a bit bemusing, and not entirely appreciated, so I wasn’t entirely pleased to see the same technique resurface in In Your Face. However in this case these little bits are more effective, providing a mirroring to Lily’s actions, and increasing the tension as we get his impressions of stalking her before she really realizes what is going on. Having gotten home from the library with In Your Face I started reading it that night, and pretty much read the whole 277 pages as one sitting.

Title: Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore
Author: Ray Loriga

Previously when I wrote about the book Electric by Chad Taylor, I dismissed it somewhat as just being a drug novel, rather than what I had perhaps expected it to be. One of the problems with it being “just a drug novel”, was that I had just read Tokyo doesn’t love us anymore.

Tokyo doesn’t love us anymore is something I’ve been trying to write about for a while now. One of those things you start to write before drifting off into uncertainty of how you are going to approach it, or whether what is being written is really getting the idea across. Which is perhaps ironic given the way that the central character himself experiences repeated efforts to go through events, and an increasing inability to keep track of what is going on.

Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore is the latest novel by Spanish writer Ray Loriga, published by the Edinburgh publisher Cannongate. The narrator is a nameless man who seems to be writing to address a woman he knows from the past. The narrator is salesman for The Company, who sells a Chemical. Like the narrator the company and chemical never gain a name. The company specialises in a chemical which erases memories. Unfortunately like so many drug dealers, the narrator has started to use the merchandise. With the result that this can be considered to be something of a drug novel, charting the stages of the salesman’s decline through the stages of abuse.

Told in sections we follow the narrator as he works the American/Mexican border, introducing us to him and the business of the chemical. With each section the character gets deeper into trouble with the company, due to his use of their product. Seeing him moving to Bangkok and hitting bottom, discarded by the company, and starting to lose track of reality. The result of his chemical abuse and this period is that he loses all track of memory and is institutionalised.

Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore is pretty effectively written, Loriga capturing the increasing loss of reality, which leads to basic repetition just to get through the day. In some ways he is no doubt presenting some commentary about the ultimate abuse of drugs and the negative effects that can result. On the other hand, while the year is put at 2003, and the narrative is contemporary there are undertones of science fiction. Several of the threads present seeming to dip into the territory of Vonnegut, or more so, Philip K. Dick. Chemicals were often featured in the work of Dick – for example the novel I read most recently “Now Wait For Last Year” featured a chemical which affected time perception, coupled with the most recent film based on his work Paycheck, which had the erasure of memory at it’s core. As well as these kind of themes, there is something about the style which echoes that kind of fiction.

Title: Thirsty
Author: M.T. Anderson

I think M.T. Anderson is really considered to be targeting the teen market, though his novels don’t necessarily make a big deal of that, and are certainly readable enough as they are. I had previously read his most recent novel Feed, which was his science fiction contribution. Revolving around the idea of people developing plug-ins for the head, which provide direct links to the Feed, a network evolved from the internet – with all the pros and cons of today’s internet, i.e. an abundance of information and entertainment, with the targeted marketing and bombardment of adverts.

I recently came across Thirsty in a sale, his second novel. Like Feed, Thirsty features young adults, going through a crucial life phase, presented with problems particular to the themes of the book. While Feed’s theme was technology and the future, Thirsty is about vampirism, or more subtly in terms of what it is really about, it is about changes in the body and how frightening and alarming these can be.

The main character is a school kid, struggling to keep friendships that were key when he was younger, and discovering the appeal of girls for the first time. This is set against the background of a small town, at the time of its annual spring time celebration. However, the particular thing about this celebration that makes it different is that it is a sealing ritual – the annual reinforcement of the bonds that keep the first vampire buried beneath the local lake. Of course to make the main character’s life difficult, he realises that is actually experiencing the early stages of vampirism. To make things even worse, he is approached by a strange man, claiming to be an agent of light, warning that the vampires are planning to disrupt the ritual, returning the ancient one to earth so that he can lay it to waste, with the idea of course, that only this young boy can help him save the world.

Thirsty twists and turns this kid around, isolating him from his peers, struggling to come to terms with what is going on. On the one hand fantasising about a girl at school, how she might save him, or how impressed she’ll be if he saves the world. On the other feeling increasingly uncertain about how things are going to turn out, each night losing a little bit more of his humanity, and recognising the momentum events are taking on around him. M.T. Anderson writes novels that flow well, bringing in his big ideas that give them that touch of madness, driving those forward in a smart way, with a good mix of humour and concept. Perhaps not literary masterpieces, but the kind of thing that is an easy and fun read.

Title: The Wicker Man
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt
Director: Robin Hardy

Perhaps strangely, I have just seen the cult classic The Wicker Man for the first time. I had heard vague things about it, seen references to the climactic scene in other media (most memorably, the last volume of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles). These kind of things had suggested that The Wicker Man was something of a horror film, but anything I knew hadn’t really prepared me for the unsettling and disturbing experience that awaited me.

It is possible that this could be considered a spoiler, but I think it is only fair to warn others of things that I wasn’t warned about. Which is, essentially, that The Wicker Man is a musical. Worse than that, it is excruciatingly twee, with every opportunity taken to burst into song, and periodically dance. The material presented here is the kind of material I loathe, I really cannot abide this kind of folksy music, regardless of the fact that the intent is to reinforce the idea of how outrageously pagan the whole island is.

A policeman on the mainland gets a letter telling him about the disappearance of a young girl on a private island off the Scottish coast. This sends the pompous and self-righteous Sergeant Neil Howie off to Summers Isle to investigate. From the start the devout Christian is shocked by the rituals of the island, being more about earth rituals and fertility rites than the proper worship he expects. Initially the islanders lie to him, there was no such girl, but somehow he is drawn in, a little hook at a time. The whole while he is bombarded with the awful music, staying at the Inn he is forced to endure nightly jam sessions in the bar below his bedroom.

As well as the final scene, there is some interest to be gained from a number of scenes. The children of the island carrying death from the village, which echoes similar scenes in Carla “speed” MacNeil’s Finder: Sin Eater Vol.1. Then there are things like the non-consecrated churchyard, with each grave having a tree planted, and one having the memorable engraving “protected by the ejaculation of serpents”. The culmination of the whole festival, with the islanders all in animal masks and the like, is effective and evocative – ideas like the animal masks being echoed in all sorts of fiction over the years, from Moorcock’s Hawkmoon to Aylett’s masked bank robbers.

The film was made in the early 70’s and it shows, leaving no doubt that The Wicker Man has become considerably dated. Not only in the quality of the film stock, but also in some of the concepts it embodies about religion and the like within Scotland. However there remains something effective about the film, certainly with all that bloody singing I would have been crawling into the wicker man and setting a light myself!

Title: Personal Velocity: Three Portraits
Cast: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk
Director: Rebecca Miller

Personal Velocity is a series of three short stories, which while I expected them to be somehow interconnected aren’t really. The only commonality between the three is that each of the stories features the same news report at some point. Each of the stories features a woman who is trying to lead their life, and in the process gain a separation from the lives of their parents, however as things go on it becomes clear that they are instead repeating their mistakes.

Delia (Kyra Sedgewick) is a woman in her 30s, with a couple of kids. She has fallen into the trap of love. Initially she comes across as sassy, but it soon becomes clear that the relationship is an abusive one. As she is beaten, her kids screaming, she recalls her mother left her father because of the violence. With little hope she flees from the home, and tries to make up for the last few years.

Greta (Parker Posey) is a woman in her late 20s. She feels that she has become a failure, not really having gone on to become what she was expected to. But at least her husband loves her, and would never leave her. Yet it becomes clear that for all she rejects her fathers habit of replacing wives every few years, it seems that she has inherited the same trait. With the introduction of promotion, and the possibility that she might be a success after all, she is forced to face up to the reality.

Paula (Faruiza Balk) is a woman in her early 20s. She ran away from home, fled to the big city. There she met a man who took her in, helped her, and they have been together ever since. However the news that she is pregnant, and being present at the accident that we keep hearing about, has thrown her into a turmoil. While driving to get away from her problems she picks up a hitchhiker, who in some ways reminds her of her own running away.

The first two stories have more of a negative tone, mixing in more of the past, which explains who the characters are, but also emphasises the fact that they are just living on repeat. The third story is more focussed on the present, its more about immediacy, interpreting signs, and is most clearly hopeful in it’s conclusion.

Sitting watching something like this by myself at home, I found that I was a little like Greta, at times too restless. Which meant my attention wandered a little too easily, exacerbated by the format of these three short unconnected stories. The film is done using digital recording, which gives it that gritty, hard reality feel – another of the films from the same company that were behind the more recent Pieces Of April. One of the extras on the DVD, which allow for a greater appreciation of the film, of the stories and the characters is a conversation between the women involved. Parker Posey and Faruiza Balk talk with Rebecca Millar the writer and director of the film, who adapted the first two stories from short stories she had published in a series, and written the third part specifically for the film version. With this conversation you get a better idea of how things came together, the process involved and how the actresses approached the piece.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Title: Hokkaido Highway Blues
Author: Will Ferguson

will ferguson is a canadian writer, with a handful of novels and a previous book on hitch hiking across japan. of those i am only aware of one novel and this travel guide having been published in the UK, both by the edinburgh based canongate. happiness tm covers the idea of what might happen if the ultimate self-help book was published, if people actually all started to become happy. having read that novel lead me to this journey across japan.

ferguson was one of many foreigners who take advantage of corporate sponsorships to put english language teachers into japanese schools. there he took part in the annual sakura celebrations, a big event across japan, which celebrates the coming of spring as marked by the arrival of the cherry blossom. at one of these celebrations, ferguson drunkenly proposes that he will travel across japan one year, following the front of the spreading blossoms. in the morning he has no recollection, but everyone else does, and they think its a great idea.

having put it off for so long he comes to the point where he really has to put his money where his mouth is. but rather than do it the easy way ferguson decides that the real way for him to see japan is to hitch hike. while hitch hiking might not be something particularly common/smart in japan, he insists on doing it, feeling that each journey he takes gets himself into the lives of people. with that part of the experience of this book is the ups and downs of hitch hiking, the trials of trudging along endless roads, the difficulties that sometimes come waiting in the rain.

the japan that is presented is a land of contradictions. on one cape pretty much tropical conditions, the area where americans touched ground. on the opposite cape, the winters are long and hard, more siberian, which at times had been held by the russians. as he travels from cape to cape ferguson mixes in many layers of japanese culture, covering the pop culture of sumo wrestling which he has become a great fan of, through to the temples and the buddhist/shinto traditions that have gone with those. the pages are filled with information, anecdotes, history ferguson picks up about each town he stops in. this is contrasted and enhanced by the mundane, the every day details, the people he meets - families, single people, salary men, old folks, young folks - some who go out of their way to help him on his journey, some who kick him out as quick as possible. through the times where ferguson becomes frustrated, petulant, drunk, or filled with despair, there are enough points where he is touched by the kindness of strangers, propelled by the love/hate of japan, and over all a level of humour, which keeps ferguson going, and keeps him readable.

until this point, most of the travel writing i have read has been more on an article by article basis, rather than a full book. hokkaido highway blues was a good place to start, covering a lot of the kind of ground i find interesting with travel reports, as well as being written to be read, unlike some of the dryer material that is out there.

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho

the alchemist is an internationally acclaimed novel by brazilian writer paulo coelhos, which was included in the recent "big read" campaign by the BBC. coelhos seems to have had something of a checkered path, which includes a time spent trying to become an alchemist himself. while some of his work seems to be of a more auto-biographical nature, the alchemist is presented as a fable, with the intent that its content should cover all the main points in understanding and discovering alchemy. this gives the book quite a religious aspect at times, though it manages for the most part to avoid getting bogged down in the particulars of a sect, even with references to "god" and "allah" based on certain characters. the religious aspects tend more to the idea of the one soul of the world, and how it is all linked together, and those who can speak the language of the world can see into that one soul.

throughout the book the main character is referred to as "the boy", nameless from start to finish, though for some reason the back of the book seems to say that he is called santiago. the boy was raised to be a priest, but decided that it wasn't the life for him, so instead he became a shepard. wandering across andalusia, the boy shelters one night in an old church, there he has a dream of pyramids in egypt for the second time. in the nearest town he is advised by a gypsy woman that if he travels to the pyramids then he will find his treasure. somewhat cynical, the boy determines that he will continue with his own plans, continue to travel as a shephard. however he is then met by an old man, who knows everything about the boy, and claims to be a king. the man urges him to follow his destiny, and so persuaded, he travels to tangiers, following the omens and trials one step at a time.

the alchemist is a journey, one which manages to present a positive view point, at times close to being a little too over the top, but on the whole managing to refrain from going too far. the ideas of alchemy are woven into the novel, the boy encountering a wannabe as well as a real alchemist on his way. the concepts go past that of the conversion of lead into gold, delving into the ideas of the philosophers stone and the elixir of life. but all those are an aside to the more spiritual basis and core of coelho's work. a classic adventure story, steeped in legend and the explorations of the traveller.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Kraftwerk - doors opened at 6.30, no support, Kraftwerk on stage at 8pm. At least that is what the ticket said, a couple of us meeting about 5 and going for Chinese, before heading to Mono to meet the rest of the group. When we got to the Academy it was about 7, with the queue already reaching round the front of the venue, and right round the side. Which was as impressive as it was annoying, given the rain and wind that we were hit with as we wove our way forward.

The gig was sold out, one of a handful of dates that the band were doing in the UK this month. The only time previously that any of us had been at this venue was for Ministry last year, the queue, and the feel as the hall started to fill made it clear that this was going to be a much busier event. From getting in till the band went on stage the crowd just thickened, the only sound the din of conversation, accompanied by the cycle of sequenced lights up the side of the stage. A stage partitioned by a great set of heavy curtains.

Eight came and went, so that it was more like 20 past when the first sounds of Man Machine started. Lights kicking in behind the curtain, so we got a giant projection of these stark figures through the curtain. The bass kicked in, and we could all feel it, with which the response from the audience was deafening. The curtains pulled back, revealing the four figures stood on a raised platform, beneath which coloured lights added to the feel through out the performance. The four of them were dressed in black suits, red shirts and black ties, each stood on their own mini dais, along with a desk of gear and what appeared to be lap tops. The two on either end having the addition of headphone/microphone rigs for the vocal contributions.

From there they played for an hour, covering a range of classic Kraftwerk material. The whole time the back screens presenting visuals, photographs and animations, keeping with the themes of the music and the band. Various cycling clips, and route projections during Tour De France. Fizzing vitamins, car shots, the train of the Trans Europe Express, each set of imagery fitting precisely – ranging from classic shots, to updated and state of the art imagery. The whole time that stripped down, classic electronica playing to a rapturous reception.

As the Academy was packed it quickly became incredibly hot, and at times it felt like you were being hemmed in by bodies on all sides, pressing through spaces to ensure that you could still see everything on stage. The downside of which was that there were times where we started to feel quite overloaded by the environment. But the atmosphere in the hall, and the timing of classics/upbeat numbers kept the night moving along.

After the first hour, the curtains closed, and there was a short break. Coming back on the band now had the addition of ties with flickering diode lights. Shortly there was another break, which was followed by the classic Robots track, with the band being replaced on stage by mannequin styled automatons, robotic arms moving in synchronised sequences, backed up by the full range of classic robotic imagery, and the latest animated robot images going through the choreographed moves.

This worked as an interval, during which the band were changing clothes. The curtains closed once more, the robots were removed, and the band returned once more in their neon lit outfits, the whole Tron style feel as the four of them were lit up. Concluding the now 2hour long set with a couple of tracks from the new album, including the single Aero Dynamik. Another excuse for the bass to kick across the hall, and a strong conclusion, as the band left the stage one at a time. Its been a long time since I’ve witnessed the level of applause Kraftwerk received, the enthusiasm from start to finish was a constant, deafening applause, whistling and cheering between every track, and for some time after the house lights went back up. People taking their time to clear out of the venue and away from the street out front, despite the continued weather conditions.

Title: Principles Of Lust
Cast: Alec Newman, Sienna Guillory, Marc Warren, Lara Clifton, Julian Barratt
Director: Penny Woolcock

Principles Of Lust is a British Indy film, which is described in some places as pushing the limits of its certification – which with the explicit sex and violence is a pretty fair comment. Recently a friend was talking about the humour to be had from Britifying Hollywood films, which is to take these glossy big budget items, and make them grim and gritty and typically British. On that theory Principles Of Lust is a British Fight Club, and that theory goes past the tenuousness of the comparison of bare knuckle fighting. Though in this case, the fighting has to be that much grittier and grimmer – the combatants being 10-11 year old boys, track suited neds from council estates. On top of that the principle of lust bears similarities to the propositions put forward by Tyler Durden, the descent to the bottom, the degradation of spirit by releasing it in the most carnal/cathartic fashion.

The main character is Paul, who is on the dole, though claims to be writing a novel. In one day he meets the two people who will change his life, and give him so many ups and downs in such a short period of time. On the way to a friends opening at an art gallery his car is hit by Billy. Billy straight from the start is a wild and in your face proposition, and before Paul knows what is happening he is in a pub watching Billy’s girlfriend “Hole” strip for money, snorting coke the toilets, and recognising Billy as a photographer responsible for a controversial book about bare knuckle fighting. Finally managing to make his excuses and leave he makes it to the gallery showing, where he meets Juliet, a friend of a friend. Before the night is through the two are having wild sex in a friends bedroom.

From that point he forms quick relationships with both these characters. Moving in with Juliet, looking after her young son while she works, and working on his novel. While ending up at wild weekends in the country, filled with raves, illegal fighting and drugs. On the one hand Juliet seems to offer a certain stability and happiness, but on the other she seems to represent a trap, so that he could get caught up in the domestic, the domain. With Billy representing a care free and nihilistic freedom that contradicts those stifling trappings.

Many of the ideas that come through do have that same feeling as Fight Club, even the way that Billy seduces and serves propaganda to Paul having parallels. But this is a grimmer feeling film, the characters having more of a tendency to look there worst. The bloody children tearing chunks out of each other while debauched celebrants look on creating an entirely different sensation to that of the celebration through participation. Joy riders, bruisers with protection rackets, council estates, and social workers – steeped in that grey reek of Britishness.

The result however doesn’t really pack a punch, perhaps thankfully too many of the things which are thrown in, in an attempt to assault the viewer are transitory and fleeting. For all the graphic sequences, the film is really comprised of people sitting around and whining about their lot in life, about how they’ve worked themselves into traps, feeling sorry for themselves. Arguing and fighting against each other, so that the film starts to stretch out, into a kind of emptiness. Based on a book, one has to wonder how true this adaptation is, or what detail that could have actually made the piece worthwhile was sacrificed. With an explicitness which is more common in French cinema, Principles Of Lust is probably more comparable to the controversial, yet disappointing, Baise Moi, than the thematically comparable Fight Club. Though with the threaded suggestions of greater literary reference Principles Of Lust would probably like to think it was better than either of those pieces – which it certainly isn’t.

Monday, March 15, 2004

pictoplasma - one of the coolest things i found in the art section of my local book shop was a design book called "pictoplasma 2", the follow up to the first one, obviously. a collection of character design covering a range of style and use, the book is a pretty impressive collection, and as soon as i can justify it, i'll be picking up a copy. periodically i've been doing searches to see if i can find some of the kind of stuff that is contained in the book, tonight the search has rewarded with an actual pictoplasma site. exploring it as i type, but it looks like it contains plenty of the kind of stuff that is in the books and is probably worth spending some time exploring.

Tape - one to watch - richard linklater film with ethan hawke and uma thurman, showing on bbc 2 this thursday.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Shadow Huntaz @ Glasgow School of Art, 9th March 2004 - this was the third gig of the five that are on the cards for the month of March, and our hope is that it would make up for the disappointment of the first two. The Old Vic Bar is not really the most obvious of venues, the bar part of the Art School’s student union, as opposed to the club part which is upstairs. The area where the pool table and the like would normally be had been cleared, with a scattering of mismatched tables and chairs in front of the bar itself.

Turning up about 8, which is when doors were listed as opening, getting into the bar there were already a scattering of people. Most of whom were familiar faces from the Machine Drum gig, although this event had the Rubadub record shop behind it’s organisation. At this point the Shadow Huntaz were in fact still sound checking, seeming to take sometime to be happy with the sound through the microphones.

Support was provided by Marcia Blane’s School For Girls, who I am familiar with only as a name. At about 9pm, three guys took to the stage, set up behind a table on the right, which unfortunately meant they were only partially visible from the main bar area, where most folk were sitting. There sound covered a mixture of styles, tending towards drifting pads of ambience, mixed in with elements of melody and beats. Chunks of the set being pretty down beat, though there were a couple of times where they brought it up more. At one of those points the sound came across as too cluttered, too much going on, so that they lost it. While at another the build was more focussed, leading with harder beats, that worked more effectively. Overall Marcia Blane provided the first enjoyable performance of the last week, backed up by a complimentary sound system, that would perhaps have served some of the other night’s bands better.

Marcia Blane played for about half an hour, and were followed shortly by Funkarma. The Dutch brothers have released a number of albums under this name, as well as others like Quench. At times some of their material has been dangerously close to making them an Autechre tribute band, though they do enough to get past that. Which is where they went with this set, the two sat at the back of the stage, with two mac laptops set up on a table. Ranging from upbeat mechanical rhythms, to increasingly spare and deepening bass levels. At times they got bogged down in the abstracts of their sound, which obviously was when they were at their least accessible. On the whole the set was good, and it was pretty cool to get a chance to see Funkarma, as we hadn’t expected them to do a set.

After a short break Shadow Huntaz took to the stage, the Shadow Huntaz being two MCs, one from Manchester and the other from New York. With each release they seem to work with different backing artists, taking it to the next level of hip-hop as they said. In the case of the most recent material the Shadow Huntaz worked with the Funkarma brothers from Amsterdam, an album and a couple of singles being released on the Skam label. Musically Funkarma played a more decidedly hip-hop, beat influenced style, while the two MCs rapped over that. The result was well received, the enthusiastic crowd thickening past the Funkarma set, and joining in the chants – MCs shouting “shadow” or “funk” to be greeted by “huntaz” or “karma”. Of the three sets this was the most focussed, concentrating on the one sound really, which worked pretty well for what it was, though perhaps could have been more enjoyable with more variety – like the two sets that had gone before it.

Monday, March 08, 2004

sore thumbs - new online strip, only one up so far, and it looks ok. so we will see.

Adam Johnson @ Miso @13th Note, 6th March 2004 - Johnson has been lined up to play Glasgow’s monthly Miso night a couple of times in the past, but was finally delivered on Saturday night. Support was listed as being Edinburgh based Benbecula signing Operator, but on the night it turned out there were two support bands, so it wasn’t till later when we were able to ascertain who was who.

The first guy sat behind his PC monitor, with one hand propping up his head, while he performed single handedly. The music he performed was pretty straight forward electronica, probably appealing to fans of Benbecula and the like, but no more than wallpaper to the rest of us who felt as bored by his performance as he appeared. This was followed by Operator, who had a load of gear, which seemed to see him concentrate on vocals effects and a beat heavy sound. There were moments where he was certainly more interesting than the previous guy, and on the whole he certainly seemed to be doing more. But personally he just annoyed the hell out of me and couldn’t end his set quick enough.

With the bands the night before and those here I think I was starting to get some kind of performance fatigue coming on. As when Adam Johnson went on after Operator I had little enthusiasm left. The result being that his performance seemed to be okay, and might have even been enjoyable under different circumstances, but ultimately he didn’t seem too much better than the first guy that had been on.

Hopefully Shadow Huntaz tomorrow night won’t disappoint, or I’ll be writing three bad live reviews in a row – good way to get more hate mail!

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Machine Drum @Ad Lib-5th March 2003 - we started the night in Pivo Pivo in Waterloo St., one of those beers from all round the world, at 7pm. which despite the high prices is where we stayed for the evening, but it was a good atmosphere and kept the beer enthusiasts happy. from there we turned the corner into hope st., got some munchies, hit the cash machines, and were into Ad Lib.

Ad Lib, it has to be said, is an odd venue for a gig, or a club for that matter. this was the first time i had been in, the same being the case for all but one of our five man team. apparently during the day it is an expensive little restaurant, with food that doesn't live up to those prices, i gather. the venue is laid out in the form of a bar at the front, long and narrow strip in front of the bar, with the body of the restaurant at the back. along one wall there are a number of booths, which are already occupied. along the other, there would presumably be other booths, but these have been taken apart, and lined up along the wall as one big bench. this leaves us the option of sitting here in a row, with the rest of the room now a kind of "dance floor". in the back corner a DJ booth sits, in which Machine Drum, support, and DJs are all set up. with a VJ on the table in front managing the projections on to one corner, that is pretty much out of sight of most of the hall.

the place seemed to fill up quite quickly, so that when it wasn't long before the support went on, there were already enough people milling about so that you could only rarely catch sight of his bobbing head and smug grin. his music is a considerable mix of IDM, cut up beats, and melodies, with moments that work quite well in a heard-it-before-but-pleasant fashion, while the rest of his set tends more towards the self-involved-wankathon. the DJ then went on, being greeted with a cheer as he played some apparently popular tunes. checking the flyer the music for this event was described as "glitch-hop", while not entirely sure what the full of definition of that might be, i am relatively certain it wasn't what was being played. regardless, whatever it was that was playing was pretty generic electronic pop, with cheesy vocals and the like, which was almost enough coupled with the support band for members of the team to make a bid for the exit. finding out when machine drum were actually going on i was able to talk them down, briefly.

unfortunately the start of his set was a little too beat heavy and directionless, blending in to everything that had gone before and not really boding well for his performance. so a track or so in, half the group left, while the rest of us stayed for about 45 minutes of his set. which on the whole was hit and miss, there were some cracking moments, where he coupled the beats with melodies and sampled vocals, capturing the spirit of some of his recorded work. but on the whole it never really hit the spot, and even though he probably didn't have much longer to go, it felt like it was time to make a move.

morvern callar - one to watch - just spotted that morvern callar is being shown on BBC2 sunday night, check it out.

Title: Shanghai Baby
Author: Wei Hui
Publisher:Constable and Robinson

shanghai baby is apparently the fourth novel by young Chinese writer Wei Hui, although it remains the only one to have been translated into English to date. As a novel it is perhaps inspired by her own life to some degree, her main character being a young female novelist in Shanghai, called Coco. For me it seems inevitable that I should compare Shanghai Baby to the only other Chinese novel that I have read – Lili. Both being written by young Chinese women, and being received with controversy – also, both these books feature Chinese women who take foreign lovers. However the two come from different periods to some degree – Lili is set in Beijing and leads up to Tiananmen, while Shanghai Baby is very much up to date, and is more of a Gen-X kind of deal, set in Shanghai, obviously.

Coco, as she is nick-named, has had a collection of short stories published, and was working for a magazine. But she decided that working for the magazine wasn’t going to help her with her writing career, so she quits, takes a job as a waitress and starts work on her first novel. It is working in the café that she first meets Tian Tian. He is an artist, but is pretty much free to do what he wants thanks to an allowance from his mother in Spain. The two become lovers, and move in together. But the fact that Tian Tian is impotent is something that stands between them. Through one of Tian Tian’s friends they meet a German guy called Mark, who is infatuated with Coco. Being a foreigner there is something exotic about him for Coco, and the fact that her boyfriend is impotent doesn’t help. So it isn’t long before the two are lovers. Which puts Coco in the position of juggling her two partners and her novel. Of course Tian Tian suspects something is going on, and turns to drugs.

In some ways Shanghai Baby is about how globalised and modern China is, although the fact that Wei Hui was initially championed and then turned upon by the establishment as a result of this book perhaps offers a stark contrast. The text is filled with pop references, from Portishead to Sonic Youth, quoting from Western literature and film, while contrasting that with more natural Chinese references. The Shanghai that is painted is a vibrant one, filled with a kind of bohemian generation – artists, writers, hackers, fun and trendy pubs, and foreigners.

Title: Karloff's Circus (Accomplice 4)
Author: Steve Aylett

karloff’s circus is the fourth and presumably final book in steve aylett’s accomplice series, which I’m sure was originally described as being a trilogy? For me I would perhaps say that the accomplice series has been most like the territory covered by the invisible volunteer. I haven’t gotten into this series as much as the beerlight series or the assorted other bits and bobs. Perhaps the stronger “fantasy” elements present in the accomplice work, or the fact that I’ve not found them quite as funny, could be the reasons? Certainly the work is as far out there in terms of coherence and madness as any of his other work.

Like the Beerlight material, Accomplice is a place, which just happens to be sitting above hell, and populated by all kinds of weird and wonderful and weird characters. At the core of the series is Barny Juno, who is a friend to all kinds of animals, so that they pretty much dominate his house. Unfortunately, way back at the start of the series Barny stumbled upon an alligator, which he took home. However the alligator just so happened to be in a creep channel, a passage between dimensions, stored there as a light snack to a grand demon. Incensed by this snack theft the demon swears that he will have his revenge on his bumbling nemesis.

So each of the four books – Only An Alligator, The Velocity Gospel, Dummyland, and Karloff’s Circus feature the misadventures and catastrophes of Barny and his friends while the demon lord goes to greater and greater lengths to try and destroy Juno. Of course Juno remains mainly unaware of events, caught up in so many other things. As a culmination Karloff’s Circus features plots taken to a whole new level, as well as keeping running jokes running. With the arrival of the circus we have the machinations of the circus master Karloff and his dastardly clowns, as well as continuing demonic attacks. Along with the ongoing pranks and character flaws Aylett continues to explore the nooks and crannies of this town gone mad, an eventful landscape filled a wealth of recurring psychopaths and excuses for cult phenomena.

Described in the blurb as the Rosetta Stone to the Accomplice series, Karloff’s Circus certainly escalates events, tying threats together in an explosive fashion. However, anyone that claims to have become fully enlightened during the course of Karloff’s Circus, or any of the Accomplice novels for that matter, is a liar and not to be trusted, either that or is in need of some real help. Here is to re-reading all four at once!

Title: Electric
Author: Chad Taylor

We didn’t want to come down. We did another line, in the men’s room. I lit her cigarettes and talked about modal jazz, why the band wasn’t very good. She talked about karma and neutrinos, the particles passing through matter, every second: through walls, metal, food, skin.
-Electric – Chad Taylor

Sam Usher is getting through each day with as many drugs as possible – having survived a car crash that wrote off his car and his long term relationship. Working as a data recovery expert means he is sitting on a gold mine, or at least has enough cash coming in to fund his habit, especially when Auckland is hit by a series of power cuts. This is how he meets Jules and Candy, fascinated by the mathematical modelling systems he recovers on their computer. Getting to know them he finds that they share his chemical interests, and he falls for Candy at the same time. The threesome moving from party to party, while the city becomes a kind of alien environment, shifting from day to day with the repeated blackouts. Against this background things get weird, Jules is found beaten in the streets, with a letter for Sam which consists of the three words “anyway freedom goodbye” and a page filled with numbers, and in the meantime Candy has vanished.

Electric is essentially a drug novel, with elements of a thriller coming in as Sam tries to understand what the sheet of numbers means, why Jules was beaten up, and where Candy has gone. In amongst this he has to deal with the police, drug dealers, prostitutes, and a city gripped by the hottest summer in years and mad power cuts. However the tension really isn’t in it, and with the drugs as fuel the book at times loses the plot – verging into a level of incoherence with the turn of a page, as things start to come together plot wise they fall apart in terms of dialogue, so that certain events seem to flip us out there entirely.

At just over 200 pages Electric is a decent enough read, reasonably enjoyable. Though it isn’t entirely what it claims on the cover blurb – describing “candy and jules, two drifting mathematicians, each after a holy grail”, while the reality is that they are more like jet-set travellers, cruising the diplomatic circuit, smashed out their heads on drugs, with the occasional reference to pet projects. Further “sam’s pursuit of the truth will lead him into an underworld of chaos and turbulence, where numbers rule” is a considerable exaggeration. Visions of nomadic mathematicians, driven by hardcore math, revealing universal truths were one of the attractions for me to Electric. Instead there are a couple of references to wave theory, a couple of tattoos of mathematical formula. The chaos comes from the altered states of mind provided by large quantities of drugs and the unpredictable power cuts, which are an entirely different proposal.

So, aye, Electric, its not bad, but not really what it could have been.

Title: Chaos And Desire [La Turbulence Des Fluides]
Cast: Pascale Bussières, Julie Gayet, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Geneviève Bujold, Norman Helms, Vincent Bilodeau, Gabriel Arcand, Jean-Pierre Ronfard
Director: Manon Briand

Chaos and Desire was showing as part of the third “North of Hollywood – A Canadian Cinema Showcase”. Unlike many of these kind of events it almost seems that this is the smallest of the three so far. The last couple of years being coordinated better and including guests, this year the festival seems to have been reduced to four films, with Edinburgh having them in January while Glasgow got them a month later.

In real terms Chaos And Desire is really just a small indie film, with which it perhaps isn’t anything particularly remarkable. But personally, I really enjoyed it. Alice is a seismologist, a Canadian woman in the specialist centre in Tokyo. When she is called in to her bosses office one morning, she is less than pleased to find that something has come up in Canada. The locals aren’t equipped to investigate events properly and have asked for some assistance, and being from Canada it seems that Alice is the obvious choice. Especially when it turns out the problem is in the very small town where Alice was born. However this logic isn’t one that makes Alice pleased, but it seems she has little choice, so reluctantly finds herself heading back to Canada.

Despite having born in this small coastal town in Quebec, Alice never actually lived there, her parents having been passing through when she was born. As such she really doesn’t know what to expect, but luckily it turns out one of her old college friends is also in town. Providing her with a side kick as they set out to investigate why the tides have stopped, and whether it is a precursor for an earthquake. However what they find instead, is a town filled with people behaving oddly, all of which seems to be attributed to the missing tides – sleep walkers, aliens using a micro wave to send messages in Morse code, the boy who receives radio waves in his mouth, and other assorted oddities. All of which leaves an insomniac Alice bemused and without answers, well at least as things start to piece together, without answers that make sense.

There is something about the way that all the little details are put together and the way the characters interact that makes Chaos and Desire really work for me. The fact that it unfolds nicely, displays just the right amount of humour and all ties together in a pretty satisfying fashion also helps.

Title: Besat
Cast: Ole Lemmeke, Kirsti Eline Torhaug, Ole Ernst, Niels Anders Thorn, Jesper Langberg
Director:Anders Rønnow-Klarlund

Besat (Possessed) is a Danish thriller, following events sparked off by the arrival of two men in Copenhagen on a flight from Rumania. One is a Rumanian man, who dies soon after arriving, apparently of a disease, which resembles Ebola. An ambitious virologist at the Copenhagen hospital wants to follow it up, too make sure there isn’t going to be an outbreak. But his superiors think he is just trying to make a name for himself, and would be happier to dismiss one unexplained death than invite the circus that would accompany a CDC investigation. Meanwhile the second man appears to be a German priest, who is fleeing Rumanian police after becoming a suspect in a fire bombing. Reports of the suspect having boarded a flight to Copenhagen prompt a young officer to persuade his superior to allow him to check out the local hotels in case they have an arsonist on their hands. From the beginning it is clear to the viewer that the two threads are connected, but it takes some time for the two men on the trail of separate events to start seeing just what the connections are. Besat is atmospheric, mainly through the visuals, a level of filtration seeming to be in place from the start, while the scenes in Bucharest (where the doctor is trying to trace the possible virus) are particularly grim – stray dogs, decrepit industrial buildings, and furious locals. The culmination is perhaps not as intense as it could have been, but it certainly builds with the revelation of a connection and the ravings of the arsonist.

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