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Monday, July 27, 2009


If the audiotorium is on fire, women with children come first. That audiorium was not on fire.

And so, to the woman who would not shut up through the entire film, a few pointers.

1. 'I'm with my children' does not equal 'I'm in my house.' The thing in front of you? That was a cinema screen, not your television. The thing under your backside? That was a seat, not your sofa. Those objects around you? Those were other human beings, not stray cushions. Maybe you are your children's home in the world and that's all very lovely, but it doesn't mean everywhere you take the little brats is your private dwelling.

2. 'I paid for my ticket' does not equal 'I bought the cinema.' Understaffed though the cinema was, it did at least have a ticket checker - from which you might possibly have deduced, if you'd been interested in anyone who carried less than fifty per cent of your own precious genetic material, that we'd all paid for our tickets too.

3. 'Ssssh' does not equal 'Please talk louder to assert yourself.'

4. 'Ssssh' is not a swear word. You know when you started saying 'I am not a dog!' because people shushed you? They were not doing it to disrespect you. They were doing it because they had some respect for everyone else in the auditorium - you know, the other human beings who weren't you or your children, I'm sure you notice them sometimes - and 'sh' is less distracting than a long conversation. We all knew you weren't a dog. Dogs stop yapping when you tell them.

5. It should not have taken several shushings, then that lovely man two rows back who shouted at you, then me fetching the usher, then that other guy who was far more polite than you deserved, before you finally got the point and left.

6. The world is full of places you can have a conversation for free. If what you really wanted was a non-stop gossip with your kids, you could have done it cheaper at home. It would have been a win-win.

In conclusion: having children does not automatically entitle you to deference. It's really not that impressive. You have sex and then the rest pretty much happens by itself. I don't know what you think it makes you the queen of, but procreation and diplomatic immunity are two separate things, and other people failing to put your kids first in a non-crisis situation is not a sign of bad character. Sure, if you have some stairs to get a buggy up or a lifeboat to board, I'll be right there putting their interests before mine and so will everyone else in the cinema, but on a Sunday afternoon where the only objective is to try to extract a degree of enjoyment from the finite leisure hours of everyone's working week, good parenting means teaching your children to consider others, not demanding special status from others. If you'd been teaching them some manners, that would have been impressive, but 'Anyone who criticises your bad behaviour is your enemy' is not a good lesson to impart. Some day your kids will have to learn that the world does not revolve around them. It's seriously important that they learn this, because if they don't, the consequences will be dire. They'll end up like you.

Was the film any good? I have no fucking idea. By the time Ms These-Are-My-Jewels finally got the point and pissed off, my ability to concentrate was utterly broken.

Don't talk to me about falling cinema figures. Until ushers are present in every auditorium and armed with cattle prods, I'm not going back.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Epic Mikalogue II


Gareth: Is that...?


Gareth: Mika, is that cat we call The Tub back in the house?

Mika: Is. Gonna duff him up!

The Tub: Oh no oh no oh no...


The Tub: Catflap, open! Our hero needs egress!

Mika: You in Mika's house! Mika disapproves.

Gareth: Okay, Tub, I'd better open the door and let you out...

The Tub: Aaggghh! Do not hurt our hero! Escape to higher ground is the only hope!

Gareth: Hey, don't go upstairs, I'm trying to help you.

Mika: Ha! Nah-nah nah-nah nah-nah, my Daddy's gonna pound you...

Gareth: There isn't going to be any pounding. Come on, Tub, let's go.

The Tub: Precarious is the hiding place, and danger looms all around...

Gareth: Get out from under the spare bed.

The Tub: Aagghh! Flee!

Mika: Pow-pow! Take that!

Gareth: Puss, I'm just going to open the door for you. Calm down.

The Tub: Oh no! The giant approaches!

Mika: Gonna kick your butt, too.

The Tub: Fly for the hills!

Gareth: Don't go upstairs agai - oh bugger.

Mika: Get him!

Gareth: Kit? Sorry to wake you, but I need your help.

Kit: Wazzit?

Gareth: The Tub's come in through the one-way catflap again, and every time I try to let him out he runs upstairs. Could you come sit on the stairs and head him off if he tries again?

Kit: Mmph. Okay.

The Tub: Secret and silent our hero preserves his safety...

Gareth: See, there he is behind the table. We just need to get him out.

Kit: You know, he's not as big as we used to think, is he? Mika used to be tiny compared with him.

Gareth: Yeah, he's just fatter. But he's not that big really. Come on, puss puss puss...

Mika: Mika the mighty tracks him down for you, Daddy! Gonna hunt him! Cannot hide for ever, Tub!

Gareth: Puss puss puss ... come on, good boy...

The Tub: Beguiling sounds, but our hero must be wary.

Gareth: Puss puss puss...

The Tub: ...And yet, cat cannot live alone. What stout heart can harden itself for ever against the call of love?

Gareth: Puss puss puss...

The Tub: You not gonna hurt our hero?

Gareth: No.

The Tub: Promise?

Gareth: Promise. That's a good boy.

The Tub: Hm. The giant strokes our hero. Maybe it's safe to creep out - aha, an open door! Our hero tastes freedom!

Mika: And stay out!

Kit: Gosh, Mika's grown a lot.

Mika: Now feed! Feeeed! Is breakfast time!

Gareth: Okay, you're right, Mikatude. I'll get some kibble.

Mika: Mika showed him, huh?

Gareth: Yes, sweetie, you're very big and clever.

Mika: Goway, is eating.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Big dumb cinema

My husband, who sat through the first Transformers movie and had a bit of time on his hands, entertained me the other day by leafing through various reviews of the sequel, noting the following fact: once a movie hits a certain level of incompetence, it inspires critics to get creative with their slagging off, perhaps under the impression that somebody needs to say something clever quickly just to counterbalance the dumbness. For instance:

"at once loud and boring, like watching paint dry while getting hit over the head with a frying pan"


"so loud, you could stick the famously deaf Ludwig Van Beethoven in a concrete bunker a mile away from the nearest cinema and he'd still be gassing about the impressive use of Dolby Surround... by the time the umpteenth building is demolished by a stray Decepticon boot, you'll find yourself amazed at how little (an estimated) $200 million buys you these days."

or Mark Kermode's little mini-film on the subject, or my favourite: 'I don't just feel like I've just seen a bad movie, I feel as though I've been DEFEATED by some malevolent force'.

To express his support for these critics, he found some action clips from the first movie and showed them to me. I was genuinely surprised. I'd been expecting rather dull action scenes strung together with bad dialogue, but this was such an overestimation I had to revise my standards. I didn't know anyone could make action scenes like Michael Bay's. It wasn't just that they were loud and crude: they were confusing. There's a very basic task any action director has to perform, which is to communicate to the audience what's going on. For that to happen, you need a rough sense of what is where and how the various objects and characters stand in relation to one another. Watching those scenes was simply bewildering: as far as I could understand, the soldiers were running in random directions, the village was on some kind of massive turntable that kept rotating to different angles every time the camera moved away, and judging from all the differently framed shots of gunplay, I would imagine that most of the casualties in the Transformer Wars were victims of friendly fire. The scene was simply all over the place, an extreme object lesson in why conventions like the 180 degree rule exist, and why you need to be Stanley Kubrick to get away with breaking them.

However, when we discussed this with a mutual friend, she explained that some people she knew had actually liked those movies. This really surprised me. A good action movie is a pleasure to watch, but those action scenes simply didn't make any sense. Perhaps they were trying to convey the confusion of battle, but in a real battle you're always clear on at least one point, which is what direction you yourself are facing. Your own angle of vision is the baseline. With cameras leaping about like drunken crickets, even that certainty disappears. You could have as much fire and less confusion just setting light to a skip.

Her intial explanation was this: they liked films in which they didn't have to think.

And that got me thinking.

You see, it's an explanation I've heard many times: I like to go to a bad movie so I can relax my brain. But you know what? I'm calling shenanigans.

Watching those confusing action sequences, I had to think like bloody beggary. Everything reeled about at such a pace that I had no idea what was going on; I had to work it out based on limited clues. At top speed. With no help from the cameraman. I've watched Agatha Christie adaptations that stretched my deductive powers less.

The real problem with this idea is simple: it implies that a film has to be bad if you want to watch it unthinkingly. But even a brief glance at movie history disproves that theory. Other action movies don't make you think either, and yet they're excellent. When the evil T1000 Terminator bore down the mass of his huge truck on poor little John Connor's fleeing bike, I didn't think anything at all except, 'Go faster, John! Go faster!' I didn't think because I didn't need to: James Cameron had done my thinking for me. Shot for shot, he laid everything out: the road, the bridge, the huge vehicle, the crash of fender against wheel, the cruising chopper thrumming in to save the day ... it was all set out in perfect sequence, taking me through a complicated set of manoevres while making no demands at all on my intellect. It was no work at all to keep up. Cameron had done the work for me.

What it did do, though, was make me feel, and therein lies the problem. The chase scene might not have triggered many intellectual reflections as I sat enthralled, but it did give a very vivid sense of what it was like to be John Connor: small and smart and scrappy and helpless, suddently out of his depth, just not fast enough, not strong enough, not big enough to escape the horrific inevitability barrelling down on him. If I want a subtle or domestic portrait of childhood I'll watch La Gloire de Mon Pere, but Cameron, in flight, manages to give a high-octane and breathless rendition of a genuine childhood experience: I'm in trouble and I can't cope with this much longer and I really really want my dad. Schwartznegger's weighty mass homes in just in time, and the secure authority with which he lifts the pre-teen John and carries him to safety - one-handed, like a regular father snatching his toddler out of the traffic - captures genuine drama without sacrificing one drop of adrenaline. It's the drama that makes the adrenalin flow: if we didn't care about John, the chase would be like watching a tennis match between two contestants you'd never heard of - fast, perhaps, but who cares who wins? And if we don't care who wins, do we need to watch at all?

Watching really bad action, on the other hand, you generally don't much care who wins. It's fairly predictable that the good guys will, the director hasn't managed to trick your adrenals into believing this time they might not, and so you might as well go get some more popcorn: it's not as if you'll miss anything. Your brain may be switched off, but nothing else will be engaged either: your heart and your guts can stay safely untampered with as well.

What you're left with, in fact, is a movie noisy and sparkly enough to give you something to do for a few hours while making absolutely no threatening passes at your emotions. I'm beginning to suspect that some summer blockbusters are aiming precisely at this demographic: not people who are unwilling to think, but people who are afraid to feel.

These big, dumb blockbusters are, above all, guy movies. Not little-boy movies; despite its basis on a set of toys in the 80s, Transformers is not a children's film. The target audience is young men - but also men in their thirties, which is, after all, the age those little boys who played with Tranformer dolls will now be. My brother had one or two, and he's thirty-five, way older than the regular teen demographic. I don't think he'll be going to see the movie, but the point is, the movie is pitching at an age range that stretches well above the basic 14-24 bracket who make such an uncritical audience (partly, I'd speculate, because at that age there are very few places other than the cinema you can afford to go if you want a night out).

Now, the majority of men and boys are well-adjusted people - but we do live in a culture that puts a lot of pressure on masculinity. The lesson a lot of boys get hammered into them as that weakness is effeminate, and that feeling is weakness. Anger and aggression, perhaps, but fear? Compassion? Love? No way.

The trouble is, suspense involves a bit of fear. You're scared something bad will happen to a character you care about. That's how it works. If the hero is completely unassailable there's no tension: they'll win, so why get interested? You already know what's going to happen. Conversely, if the scene is going to have any dramatic tension, there has to be a chance the hero will suffer, will lose, will fail.

It occurs to me that if somebody is really, really knocked about by the image of masculinity, then feeling almost anything, even in a movie, may feel like a crack in the armour. Sympathy for a character in a frightening situation - what most good action scenes require - means being able to picture someone else's vulnerability, and to have compassion for it.

And if you feel compassion for someone else's vulnerability, that means something in you recognises common humanity with it. Identify with someone vulnerable, and you end up remembering you're only human.

On the other hand, a film that fails to provide genuine drama doesn't run this risk. If the action is hard to follow in detail, bad stuff flies past leaving no impression and we can simply assume the hero will probably win. If there's no suspense, we feel no fear.

After all, despite the apparent randomness of the shots I saw, somebody must have storyboarded them. Or if they didn't, they must at least have spent a lot of time in the editing room splicing them into sequence. It's not as if somebody's dog got into the cannisters and chewed up the reels, however much it might look that way: somebody must have deliberately put those shots in that order. The film makers must be aiming for a specific effect.

Going to the movies has become a summer ritual for a lot of people. Summer is the season of blockbusters, we expect big movies with explosions, and going to see them can be a social event. It's possible, then, that part of the reason is simply that for some people, going to the cinema rather than seeing the film is the main purpose. But that doesn't entirely explain why people would claim to like the films - and I don't buy, either, the suggestion that explosions or robots are simply enough to make people happy. I'm starting to believe that there's a school of cinema deliberately trying to avoid touching people's feelings, like a small boy tiptoing through a field of traps, knowing that any mis-step into drama will set off a terrible chain reaction that ends with the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, you're not as strong as a giant robot after all.

In consideration of this, I'm not sure if I share all the reviewers' anger at Michael Bay. I wish that studios would stop giving money to bad movies and kick some towards getting my novel adaptation out of development, because, well, I'd have more money then, and I wish too that studios would spend their money on making good movies rather than movies that aim no higher than filling up the horrible, horrible silence for a few hours without triggering any dangerous emotions. But I have the feeling Bay makes this kind of movie because it's the kind of movie he wants to see. How fragile do you have to feel before that's the case? I'm wondering if, perhaps, we should feel a little concerned for him.

On the other hand, I'd just like to remind anybody who actually spends money going to see the movie: it's your fault movies like this get made. If they lost money, studios might be more careful next time. Let's not ennable this emotionally-avoidant behaviour. Do your part for manhood and stay away!

Friday, July 03, 2009


Hear the conversation...

Been a bit of radio silence this week, for various reasons; however, following the panel last week, if you click here, you'll hear a recording of said discussion! (You may also hear brass instruments playing in the background from time to time; this is because there were other meetings in the building, including a concert.) If you want to identify me, I'm the voice that begins by talking about the 'Nine Parts of Speech' poem. It's very peculiar hearing my own voice recorded; I don't sound like that in my own head.

It was very pleasant meeting my fellow panelists, all of whom were nice people. While there, I also met a delightful woman who told me about her work at the following charity: Reprieve, a truly admirable organisation that campaigns for the rights of prisoners, including those at Guantanamo. I strongly advise everyone to check them out - and, if you can spare it, consider making a donation.

Several questions came up. Does Britishness affect one's writing? How so? Do you think of yourself as a science fiction writer? (Guess what I said about that.)

Anyway, have a listen if you're interested, have a look at Reprieve, have a good weekend.


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