Archive 012 (19 MAR - 03 MAY 2004 )

a dusty old archive by chris lawson

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  Misreading the stars
  Site upgrade
  Review: LXG: The Lump of Extraordinary Garbage
  Review: M. Hulot's Holiday
  Behaving like animals
  Good news, bad news
  The Precautionary Principle goes to Baghdad
  We wish to inform you that we did nothing
  The Panda's Thumb
  Another GtB review
  Review: State of Play
  Counter-Intuitive @ Ticonderoga
  Great town names of Southern New South Wales

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Misreading the stars

03 MAY 2004 | source The Onion | permalink

Best horoscope parody of all time.

Leo (Jul 23 - Aug 22): The stars have always been a great influence on your fate. This will never be as true as it is next week, when a certain yellow G-type variable star cuts loose with a really impressive flare.

Sagittarius (Nov 22 - Dec 21): A bizarre misunderstanding on your part will result in your going to church every Sunday and speaking sincerely to invisible entities with the belief that it might do you some sort of good.


Site upgrade

23 APR 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

I've just tweaked the main home page. Sorry about the added bandwidth required. Feedback welcome.


Review: LXG: The Lump of Extraordinary Garbage

18 APR 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

I knew it would be awful. I really did. I had read the reviews. I had seen the botch-up they had done with From Hell. I knew they had turned Alan Moore's sardonic masterpiece into an action movie and added two characters: Tom Sawyer for the blatant purpose of having an American interest and Dorian Gray for reasons I did not understand (and now, alas, I do). It smacked of disaster. Worse, it smacked of an affront to civilisation. And yet I had to watch. I could not turn away.

What drew me to spend an evening watching this piece of brain-dead drivel? Partly it was because I am always fascinated by movie adaptations. Seeing how a screenwriter and a director pull apart a book and nail it back together as a film is extremely instructive. It is especially educational in the case of great adaptations, such as Silence of the Lambs and To Kill A Mockingbird. But even travesties tell you something. It is like neurologists studying unique head injuries. Seeing what doesn't work teaches you about what does. Until now, the worst head injury of a film I had ever seen was Enemy Mine, in which Barry Longyear's emotionally rich and moving novella got turned into Uncle Tom's Cabin in space, with bonus action combat scenes. In that film, the producers were so worried that the audience wouldn't understand the title that they actually inserted a mine, yes a goddamn freaking literal mine, complete with mineshafts and miners. Even knowing that the producers of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or LXG as the marketing gurus put it, would screw it up meant there would be some new narrative pathology to describe.

But even that doesn't explain why I watched it. I had a sort of strange anticipation, a quivering of foreboding, that had to be satisfied. I didn't just want to see LXG to see what new stupidities could be put on screen. No, I was entranced by the prospect. LXG was a pile-up on the highway, beckoning to the passing drivers to take a look. It was a war memorial that draws you to it by the promise of stimulating your grief. It was above all an opportunity to pay my respects to the great works of art that have died in vain in Hollywood.

I was not disappointed. As disasters go, this was the film equivalent of Mt St Helens. God it was awful. They took away the broken, drug-addled Alan Quatermain of the comic and turned him into 007 only older. I half-expected Sean Connery to introduce himself as "Quatermain, Stephen Quatermain." They took away Mina, the courageous and resourceful leader of the troop and turned her into an action fantasy figure with no leadership role. They took away the dangerous, amoral Invisible Man and replaced him with a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold. They took away Jekyll/Hyde and replaced him with a caricature. They took away the torn and contradictory Nemo and replaced him with yet another kick-arse action figure. They took away M and replaced him with a weird cross between Dastardly Dan and a Saturday morning cartoon villain. They took away almost all of Kevin O'Neill's art and left it in at inappropriate places. They took away the glorious Nautilus and replaced it with a vessel the size of a city. They added Tom Sawyer, for no reason other than that they thought they needed an American in a film about Victorian England. They added Dorian Gray because they needed a villain and had already turned all the pre-existing League members into good-guy action heroes. They added a giant secret fortress-cum-factory in frozen Mongolia, complete with vast, cavernous spaces apparently built at enormous expense in order to allow small armies of intruders to wander about unnoticed. They added Venice, for no particular reason. And they added bombs. Lots of bombs. Bombs everywhere. In one scene, the only way to stop a chain reaction of to bomb the bombs. With a guided missile. In 1899. That is targeted by a flare. That is launched from a six-wheel sports car. In 1899.

And that's not the worst of it. There is a scene (invented for the film) in which the Nautilus submarine has its hull breached (by bombs, what else?) and starts to flood uncontrollably. The ship is saved by Mr Hyde, who dives down into the sinking vessel, finds a giant lever, and pulls with all his might. The submarine fills with air and surfaces. Everyone is saved. Hooray! Hooray! Hyde is a good guy after all! But what the hell do the producers think happens in submarines? Do they really think that submarines with massive internal flooding due to hull breaches just happen to have magic levers that plug the holes and make air spontaneously appear underwater? Apparently so.

I guess the film is so awful after all that there's not much to learn from it. You don't need a pathologist to figure out what killed the man under the ten-ton block. But there is still a mystery to explain. How does a film this bad get made? And out of such rich source material? And for the answer to that...

...We turn to the commentary, in which we learn that the producer of this travesty was also the producer of From Hell, the previous travesty based on an Alan Moore comic. We learn that the producer was given $93 million and still couldn't get a decent script or consistent special effects. We learn that the one decent line of dialogue in the film was nearly cut because the producers didn't understand the joke; they left it in because Sean Connery laughed during the script reading. We learn that you can have nuclear-powered submarines in 1899 because it's a fantasy and "anything is possible," just like Jules Verne intended. (Yes, that sound you hear is indeed the corpse of Jules Verne trying to escape his coffin and wreak revenge from beyond the grave.) We learn that the producer has no idea about story-telling. He actually says that you have to introduce all the main characters in a rush before the adventure can proceed; it's some unbreakable law of narrative...but that is the precise opposite of what Alan Moore did in the original comic. Moore uses the first half of the story as a series of vignettes in which Mina slowly assembles the League and each character is introduced as part of the continuing adventure. And we learn that the producer had a contractual obligation -- that's right, a contractual obligation -- to deliver a PG-13 summer blockbuster. Now I have nothing against PG-13 summer blockbusters, nothing at all. I quite enjoy them in small doses. But if they wanted a big dumb action extravaganza for the ADHD teen market, why in God's name did they buy a sophisticated adult-oriented graphic novel full of explicit violence, semi-explicit sex, and a biting cynicism about conventional heroes? Next they'll have Detective Columbo wander into Crime and Punishment because it's just another crime story.


Review: M. Hulot's Holiday

15 APR 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

After two weeks of dealing with children's illnesses, the Bride of Frankenblog was desperate to get out of the house. The Astor Theatre is midway through a mini-festival of Jacques Tati films, and the Bride was entranced by the idea of watching a master of comedy from a softer era of cinema. Frankenblog himself was not so keen. He had seen M. Hulot's Holiday and remembered it as a film with wonderful moments but an awful lot of slow, almost glacial sequences.

The Astor, to its great credit, did not just drag out Tati's most famous films for the festival, it has also scoured film archives worldwide to come up with a number of Tati's short sketches. Before M. Hulot's Holiday, the audience was treated to School for Postmen, a glorious fifteen minute exercise in physical comedy. It is said by actors that the hardest job in the business is acting like a bad actor. It must be equally true that awkwardness is the most difficult thing for a man with Tati's acrobatic ability to emulate. This sketch shows that as a physical actor, Tati was just as good as Keaton and Chaplin, and among modern actors, Robert Downey Jr and Vincent D'Onofrio.

Then came M. Hulot himself, Tati's most enduring creation. Hulot is a tall, shambolic bumbler, but always the perfect gentleman. He cannot walk past a pile of suitcases without helping the owner lug it inside. When he sees a stranger miss a bus, he pulls his car over and offers to drive to catch the bus at the next stop. When he sees a handful of toffee slowly unwinding on its hook, he becomes visibly agitated as it approaches the ground. M. Hulot's Holiday has absolutely no story, at least not in the traditional beginning-middle-end sense. The film is, in fact, nothing but a series of sketches beginning with people leaving Paris for their summer holidays, and ending with Hulot driving off in his car, leaving a lingering shot of an empty beach. In between these bookends there is no plot, no romance, no life-defining decision, and no success against the odds. If this film were being made today, it wouldn't get past the pitch.

When the film was over, the Bride agreed completely with Frankenblog's original assessment: moments of comic genius in a sea of padding. But what surprised Frankenblog was how much he enjoyed it the second time round. It was not the usual thing. Frankenblog did not see dozens of jokes that he missed the first time. The jokes were all there to be seen and there is nothing rapid or hidden about them. How very un-Simpsons-like. No, what made Frankenblog sit up and take notice was the brilliant characterisation. It was easy to miss because many of the characters are standard comedy stereotypes: the grumpy hotelier, the passive-aggressive waiter, the naughty schoolkid, the beautiful girl who is only partly aware of the effect she has on middle-aged men, her snooty mother, and so on and so on. On first viewing, the characters are broad and formulaic.

But the brilliance in characterisation is not so much in the people themselves as in the character that the people impose on Hulot. Tati's script divides its people into three categories. There are those who see Hulot's innate nobility and find him amusing and fun to be with. There are those who are unaware of him except when he races across their peripheral vision; these characters often do not notice him even when he is doing them a favour. And then there are those who cannot stand Hulot, whose car makes a racket, who leaves muddy footprints on newly-cleaned floors, and who is a perpetual nuisance. These last people are blind to Hulot's nature, and they are the key to the brilliance of Tati's creation, because the real character of the movie is not Hulot himself but the virtual Hulot that others create in their own heads, usually by way of finding someone else to blame for their mistakes. The unlikeable characters in M. Hulot's Holiday are perpetually saying "It's not my fault" and blaming Hulot for distracting them, when of course it really is their fault. In Tati's gentle universe, hatred is a projection of one's own personal failures.

Oh, and the jokes are still wonderful, even across the divide of another continent, another language, and half a century.


Behaving like animals

13 APR 2004 | source Deinsea via Panda's Thumb | permalink

Behold ye "The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae)" by C. W. Moeliker in Deinsea 8-2001.

The abstract sounds like Veterinary Hospital meets Law & Order: SVU.

On 5 June 1995 an adult male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) collided with the glass façade of the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam and died. Another drake mallard raped the corpse almost continuously for 75 minutes. Then the author disturbed the scene and secured the dead duck. Dissection showed that the rape-victim indeed was of the male sex. It is concluded that the mallards were engaged in an ‘Attempted Rape Flight’ that resulted in the first described case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard.

Dr Moeliker secured the scene but was not able to apprehend the perpetrator. The alleged necrophile mallard rapist is still on the loose. Authorities say the mallard should be approached with extreme caution and a handful of stale bread. Police have released a photo ID and are appealing to the public to come forward. "This is a very serious case," said Detective Chief Inspector Hans Dortdrang. "We believe that the perpetrator may have already taken flight. We are also concerned that naïve members of the public could identify innocent birds by mistake and we don't want to end up on a wild goose chase."

Not content merely to shock, Dr Moeliker of the Unnatuurmuseum Rotterdam has opened a philosophical debate. The paper shows explicit photographic depictions of homosexual necrophilia between ducks. Does this count as pornography? What are the community standards on this? And Moeliker really throws down a challenge with his list of keywords: "homosexuality, necrophilia, non-consensual copulation, mallard." But is it possible for necrophilia to be non-consensual? I await with interest the inevitable argument and counter-argument in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.


Good news, bad news

12 APR 2004 | source Wired via David Shanahan | permalink

A nice email dropped in my lap the other day (no, not literally!). David Shanahan, a reader, kindly contacted me to point me towards "Steroids For Everyone" by G. Paschal Zachary in Wired. This essay reflects the themes I explored in a story called "Faster, Higher, Stronger" which was first published in Spectrum SF #9.

David was also kind enough to tell me "FHS is one of the best stories I've read in a long time and in my opinion it justifies purchasing Written in Blood (not that I didn't enjoy the other stories!) It should be compulsory reading for all athletes going to Athens."

Thank you, David. It's always nice to get positive feedback, especially in a week which included another rejection. (It was a very nice rejection, but rejections always smart no matter how gently the editor does it.)


The Precautionary Principle goes to Baghdad

02 APR 2004 | source London Review of Books via Robert Cook | permalink

Robert Cook has pointed me to an article by David Runciman on Tony Blair's use of the precautionary principle to justify invading Iraq. It ties in nicely with my (very sporadic) series on the Infinite Precautionary Principle. I've decided that I'd be better off writing broad opinion pieces from now on, as doing the more precise, fully-researched approach takes me too much damn time. Expect the next instalment soon...


We wish to inform you that we did nothing

01 APR 2004 | source Sneedle Flipsock | permalink

Frankenfriend Margaret Ruwoldt at Sneedle Flipsock (what? don'cha know your Dr Seuss?) has marked the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan Massacre with comments on Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You... and, in contrast, Linda Polman's We Did Nothing. Like Margaret, I was extraordinarily impressed by the character of Paul Kagame after reading Gourevitch, even though I had the nagging feeling that Kagame was being lionised. Subsequent experience has taken some of the gloss off Kagame, but it is hard to imagine that Rwanda would be even half as far along its path to recovery without him. I guess when you are a journalist like Gourevitch who has wandered into the most appalling conjunction of human malice and political machinations in modern times, even an average man looks like a saint -- and really, anyone who managed to keep an average quota of human decency in those circumstances is a saint.

To put it bluntly, I think Polman got a lot of things wrong. Not the facts per se, but in the moral analysis. Let's give Polman her due. Polman is by nature distrustful of almost everything about American foreign policy, and she describes the American Colonel Max during the occupation of Haiti in almost cartoonish terms, but she is honest enough to admit that the only time she felt safe in Haiti was when she was with Colonel Max. She knew that none of the Haitian homicidocracy was game to lift a finger while Colonel Max was in charge. Her analysis of the hypocrisy of the US in blaming the UN for failing to control Somalia and Rwanda is spot on: the UN makes its decisions based on the voting of its member states, and the US had voted for the Somali intervention until the Black Hawk Down riot made them want to pull out -- and blame the UN for getting them involved. And Polman has one big advantage over Gourevitch: she was in Rwanda during the massacres, while Gourevitch came soon after and followed the trail of destruction to his story.

But this surface advantage, in my opinion, actually turns out to be a major problem. By immersing herself so deeply in the horror of Rwanda, Polman lost the ability to stand back and analyse fairly. Polman was caught up in a standoff between a UN peacekeeping unit, a horde of Hutu refugees, and a handful of Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers who had the refugees cornered and weren't about to treat them kindly after the massacres inflicted by the Hutu Power génocidaires. Her description of the standoff is compelling and almost unreadable in places. The sight of refugees throwing their children over barbed wire fences in the hope that the UN soldiers will save them must have left a passionate scar in Polman's heart, and that scar made it impossible for her to see the moral issues clearly.

Here's how she falls down. A troop of Belgian peacekeepers was murdered. Because of UN Security Council obstruction, the peacekeeping forces in Rwanda were not allowed to intervene by force unless they were fired upon. This meant that several massacres took place under the noses of UN peacekeepers who had orders not to intervene. At one point, a Hutu Power leader decided to show how much muscle he could flex. He surrounded a troop of Belgian blue helmets. Because he did not order any firing, the Belgians were not allowed to open fire to defend themselves, and once they were surrounded, they had no choice but to surrender. They were disarmed without a shot being fired, taken off to Hutu Power headquarters, tortured and murdered. Gourevitch's description is spare and heartbreaking. How does Polman describe it? She criticises the Belgian government for withdrawing all their forces after the incident. In Polman's view, what did less than twenty deaths matter in a massacre of nearly a million? To Polman, the Belgian withdrawal was the rotten core of Western passivity.

The Belgians withdrew because the operational orders of the peacekeeping mission were so compromised that they were not allowed to do anything to stop the genocide, and a clever Hutu Power general had worked out a method of killing small groups of UN peacekeepers without any risk at all to his own forces, and did so for the sole purpose of boosting his standing among his genocidal colleagues. What was the point of Belgium staying under those conditions? It was clear to Belgium that it had no role in Rwanda. Polman believes they should have stayed to throw more soldiers onto the funeral pyres. The West should have atoned for its role in Rwanda by the ritual sacrifice of peacekeepers.

Polman, despite her trenchant criticisms of US foriegn policy, glosses over the French machinations that neutralised the UN as an effective force in Rwanda, and she presents the Operation Turquoise, in which the French landed fully armed forces, without UN approval, to defend the retreating Hutu Power génocidaires -- in glowing terms! In Polman's history, Operation Turquoise was the action of noble France stepping in when the UN was dragging its feet. She has completely disregarded France's pivotal role in knackering the original UN operation, and the fact that France did not step in while Tutsis were being massacred, saving their energy to protect the génocidaires they favoured politically. It would be easy to conclude that Polman was simply a continental anti-American, but that would not explain her respect for the muscular Colonel Max. I believe that her experiences in Rwanda burned her too deeply to see clearly. She had seen Hutu refugees being treated with inhumanity by the RPF, so it was natural for her to support the French Operation Turquoise. (I should note that Gourevitch, although he is an American who reported on Rwanda for The New Yorker is also damning of American passivity in Rwanda...but does not let the French off the hook for their gutwrenchingly amoral actions.)

Is this just a matter of opinion? Polman vs. Gourevitch? I have read a lot about Rwanda (part of my novel in development is based on some incidents there), and the overwhelming consensus of observers, UN workers, Red Cross workers, and other involved parties generally vindicates Gourevitch's position.

The difference between these two books is illuminated by the way they end. Polman's epilogue quotes the wire service again:

Kigali, 9 March 1996 -- A frustrating mission that failed to prevent genocide or protect refugees, has ended. The UN flag was lowered by Indian, Ghanian and Malawian peacekeepers in Rwanda to shouts of 'Go home and don't come back.' A Gurkha regimental band played while Rwandans jeered. The Rwandan government declined the UN's proposal to uphold a 1,200-strong UN force in the country. (Reuters)

In the context of Polman's book, this is easily interpreted as the awful Tutsis jeering at the useless UN officers. But the full context makes the Rwandan reaction perfectly understandable. The UN peacekeepers had sat by and watched while Hutu Power massacerd 800,000 Tutsis in twelve weeks. When the RPF finally drove Hutu Power out of Rwanda, the French landed fully-armed soldiers to protect the Hutus -- and the Hutu refugee camps continued to act as headquarters for genocidal murders under French protection! No wonder the Rwandans jeered the UN. And the UN forces got off lightly. They were jeered for Christ's sake. Hutu Power had murdered peacekeepers for the prestige of it.

Here's a comparative quote from near the end of Gourevitch's book. The delicacy of Gourevitch's prose is dazzling. You may also note that it is hardly pro-American.

In May of 1994, I happened to be in Washington to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum…Waiting amid the crowd, I tried to read a local newspaper. But I couldn’t get past a photograph on the front page: bodies swirling in water, dead bodies, bloated and colourless, bodies so numerous that they jammed against each other and clogged the stream. The caption explained that there were the corpses of genocide victims in Rwanda. Looking up from the paper, I saw a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wore the lapel buttons that sold for a dollar each in the museum shop, inscribed with the slogans ‘Remember’ and ‘Never Again.’ The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as ‘an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.’ Apparently all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated…

If those books aren't terrifying enough, this week's Economist has an account of the post-genocide reconstruction of Rwanda. And you might want to get your hands on the Red Cross's book Hard Choices, which is all about the moral dilemmas facing aid workers. There you will find Romeo Dallaire's account of his command of the impotent UN peacekeepers in Rwanda. The story of how his every attempt to stop the genocide was actively resisted by UN politics is the most disturbing thing I have ever read.

And that is not hyperbole.

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. Picador 1999

Linda Polman, We Did Nothing: Why The Truth Doesn't Always Come Out When The UN Goes In. Viking 2003

Jonathan Moore (ed.), Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention. Rowman & Littlefield 1998

And to Margaret: I hope you enjoy Edge of Darkness.


The Panda's Thumb

29 MAR 2004 | source The Panda's Thumb | permalink

Frankenfriend Ian Musgrave is one of the contributors to The Panda's Thumb, a new polyblog devoted to defending evolutionary theory against the neo-Creationists. Ian looks to be the only contributor from outside the US. He was invited to join on the strength of his contributions to Talk.Origins and it is a well-deserved honour.

Igor says: Check it out!


Another GtB review

23 MAR 2004 | source Infinity Plus | permalink

In my eternal quest for self-justification, I have come across another review of Gathering the Bones that praises "No Man's Land", the story I co-wrote with Simon Brown. It is a long review by Robert Guy Cook and it deals with our story at length. Here is what Cook says:

For me, though, the most disturbing tales, the ones that still give me the existential creeps several weeks after reading them -- and therefore, by my initial measure, the best -- are Chris Lawson and Simon Brown's 'No Man's Land', Mike O'Driscoll's 'Sounds Like', and Robert Devereaux's 'Li'l Miss Ultrasound'. Aptly enough (and entirely unplanned, I assure you), that's one from each continent (Oz, the UK, and the US respectively). And oddly enough, the source of much of the horror in all three is sound.

Lawson and Brown's 'No Man's Land' is set in the trenches of WWI France, with a rapidly dwindling squad of Tommies telling each other ghost stories between aborted forays over the wire. The stories they tell focus on the carrion-craving ghouls that are thought to roam the eponymous field of mud and bones between their own trenches and the Hun. The narrator finds the line between story and reality blurring as more of his comrades are lost in pointless attacks, until he discovers for himself exactly what it is that lurks in the lethal non-space between the lines. This story is soaked in a constant and remorseless sense of contrast. The first words plunge us into the endless din of battle, and we veer from that to the sibilant quiet of night and whispered ghosts and back to the brain-shattering noise until we wonder, much like the grunts in the trenches, what is really being heard, and what is the very last thing they might hear.

Tellingly, 'No Man's Land' is also marked by a contrast-that-isn't: this is a horror story, and a scary one at that, but it's not as scary as some of the others in Gathering The Bones. The real horror here is the war itself, something that actually happened, that was real. The fact of it, the fact of what war makes men do to survive it, washes into and through the imagined horror, so that the fiction -- the monster, the bogeyman, the dreaded thing itself -- becomes the filtered, manageable aspect of the reality. The imagined thing is still, always, terrifying, incapacitating, not of this world and therefore beyond understanding -- and so, finally, almost a relief. It is the end result of something we made, though we did not ourselves make it; so all we have to understand is that we are frightened of it. War, on the other hand, we are too frightened of to understand. 'No Man's Land' is neither the best written story in the collection, nor the out-and-out scariest (though it's in the top third on both counts). But it tells us to be frightened of something that matters. It compels us to see that horror is always, finally, real.

I disagree with one thing Cook says at the start of his review. He opines that horror is all about fear "pure and simple." There is a writing style that is about fear pure and simple and that is suspense, which is more a technique that cuts across genres than a genre in itself. Horror is not suspense. It is not really a genre either. Most horror belongs in the genres of supernatural fantasy as in Sixth Sense, or science fiction as in The Thing, or crime/mystery as in Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. Marketing is the force that cleaves horror from its sources and binds it to the retailer's bookshelf all by itself. Horror is not a true genre. Horror is an emotion, or more accurately, a class of emotions. It is dread; it is disgust; it is regret; it is distress; it is grief; and yes, often it is fear. Horror is a colour. Fear is the most common primary colour on the palette, but there are many other ways of blending and many other shades of horror.

But I have to hand it to Cook for doing something very rare: he puts into words something that I had not quite grasped when I wrote the story. I was clutching at it. I knew it worked but didn't quite understand why. Cook says, "The imagined thing is...beyond understanding -- and so, finally, almost a relief." And that's exactly right. The ending works because the horror at the end is a quiet, inclusive sort of horror. The end comes as a relief to the narrator. Held up against the Great War, his final human moments fill him with a sense of frozen release. Cook has illuminated my own writing for me. Simon Brown, I should say, was probably aware of this all along and just assumed I got it.

NOTE-I know Robert Cook through personal communication and one very pleasant meeting. He is a literate reader and a warm, involving person. The cash I slipped him in the plain paper bag had nothing whatsoever to do with this review.


Review: State of Play

22 MAR 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

State of Play is the best political thriller I've seen in years. This outstanding BBC production was shown on the (Australian) ABC in three weekly instalments, ending last night. Anyone with an interest in screenwriting, or indeed any form of narrative, ought to get hold of a copy and watch it carefully. Written by Paul Abbott, the dark writer behind Cracker, brilliantly directed and edited, and with stellar performances, State of Play has received rave reviews comparing it to Edge of Darkness, which is still to my mind the single best thing I've ever seen on television.

On this background of effusive praise, I'm about to give a negative review. Well, not so much a negative review, because I loved it. But I am about to embark on a clinical critique because, good as it is, it ain't no Edge of Darkness. Not even close. The reviewers who think these two shows are on the same level betray their own lack of understanding of narrative technique. Too harsh, you say? Read on...

Now before we go any further, let's just put in the obligatory spoiler warning. I am not writing this for the reader who is considering whether to watch it. To that reader I say simply, "Watch the damn show. It's great. Come back to this review after you've seen it." Got that? I mean it. This review is written for readers who have already seen the show and are interested in talking about it and pulling apart its narrative structure to see how it all works. If you are that sort of reader, then read on.

State of Play is a sophisticated political thriller set in the office of a London broadsheet paper. Senior reporter Cal McAffrey has a strong friendship with rising political star Stephen Collins, and once worked as his campaign manager. Their friendship is put to the test when Sonia, one of Collins' staff members, suicides by jumping in front of a train...or so it seems. McAffrey gets an anonymous tipoff. A young street thief has stolen a briefcase, which turns out to contain an unfired pistol, and a surveillance profile of Sonia. She was on a hit list. And the police are not satisifed with the suicide story. McAffrey's investigation puts him at the centre of a maelstrom of powerful oil companies, senior government ministers, and media interests. State of Play is hard and compelling, but not as bleak as Cracker. Most of the characters are compromised, just like real people, but none of them is as compulsively self-destructive as Cracker's Fitz.

As storytelling goes, this is strong stuff. But what seems to have eluded almost all of the reviewers is just how manipulative it all is. Characters behave in ways that appear to make sense at the time, but once the final revelation is made, it is clear in hindsight just how unbelievable it all is.

Consider Dominic Foy, a wonderful creation, Sonia's handler, out of his depth, scared of everything that moves, and a habitual liar. So why the heck was he sending anonymous faxes to Collins' wife? Paul Abbott has cleverly structured his script so that the discrepancy is well disguised, but it's a major flaw in the plot. Foy had no reason to send the faxes. In fact, the faxes could only make his position more tenuous. Foy's actions contradict both his logical self-interest and his character.

Consider the oil company manager who, after finally disclosing a key memo to one of McAffrey's colleagues in order to buy his privacy, then commits suicide. The suicide scene has a brilliant irony to it, and the story's structure needed a minor climax there, so it's easy to let it wash over you. But it makes no sense. Why would he do this? He has just acted to protect himself and his family after a gruelling decision, then he goes and kills himself?

Consider the murderer responsible for Sonia's death, who finally decides to reveal the story in public. Yep. That's right. Apparently the murderer is hoping to blow everyone else out of the water, but somehow expects that his own culpability will remain hidden. Not bloody likely.

Consider McAffrey's final insight. The reporter turned Sherlock Holmes. The murderer makes a slip of the tongue and McAffrey figures, "How did he know that?" This is such a hoary old chestnut of mystery stories that it is a great disappointment to see the final resolution hinge on it. And worse, it has very little weight. At this point in the story, the sequence of events has become so convoluted and the information sources so compromised that it was not really possible to pin a man's guilt on such a small tidbit. But let's allow the cliché to slide. Disappointing as it is, the real problem with this cliché is the gaping plot hole it reveals. McAffrey's insight prompts him to investigate the background of the hitman who killed Sonia, whereupon he discovers all the connections necessary to link the hitman to the suspect. Fine...but surely he should have done this when the hitman was killed (and identified) in the second episode? And so should the police. Nobody seems to think of tracing the hitman's connections until after the slip of the tongue that McAffrey notices. Which is about as plausible as a polka-dot elephant.

Consider the hitman himself. Several times he is shown buying a newspaper, reading the lead story, and making decisions based on what he reads. But the clue that finally links him to the suspect is that the suspect taught literacy to Army recruits and the hitman's Army file describes him as functionally illiterate. I guess it's possible that the literacy program worked wonders and turned the hitman from a functionally illiterate footsoldier into a regular reader of broadsheet newspapers, but I don't buy it.

And finally, what really irks me, especially as it has become a staple of recent political thrillers, is that the conspiracy doesn't add up. The oil company didn't order the hit. The government didn't order the hit. So where's the conspiracy? Why were so many officials manipulated by conspirators who didn't exist to protect a secret that didn't exist?

The single worst example of stupid conspiracies in entertainment belongs to Chain Reaction, the Keanu Reeves/Morgan Freeman movie in which Freeman blows up a scientific laboratory to keep its findings secret, then pursues the sole survivor, Keanu, across the country, trying to kill him at every turn. When he finally traps Keanu, he doesn't kill him, but offers him a job in a secret government laboratory doing the same research. Was I the only one whose brain cracked at this point in the film?

State of Play isn't as bad as that, but the big conspiracy turns out to be relatively minor infringement of due process. Terrible thing to do, and worthy of condemnation, but not bribery, not corruption in the standard sense of the word, and certainly not enough to explain the events. As the energy minister said, "Why would we kill her? The stakes weren't that high." And if the stakes weren't high enough to kill her, the stakes certainly weren't high enough to manipulate the police tactical response team and the coroner's toxicologist in order to protect...nobody.

One of the main differences between State of Play and Edge of Darkness is the arbitrary nature of the former's villains. The bad guys in State of Play are the oil companies, even if the murder itself was not their doing. Well that's all well and good, but nothing in the plot hinges on this fact. The bad guys could just as easily been a large multinational software company, or a monopolistic waste removal industry. It made no difference to the story. And as a result, all the criticism of Big Oil comes down to characters whingeing about the state of the world in the author's voice. In comparison, Edge of Darkness would have made no sense at all if was about any industry other than nuclear waste disposal. Everything in the plot, from the bad guys to the involvement of the rogue CIA officer and the killing of Craven's daughter, was a logical extension of the premise. (Edge of Darkness is not perfect, by the way; the attempt to make Craven a symbolic representative of nature is ham-fisted bordering on insulting, but none of its flaws impact on the central story, whereas the flaws in State of Play undermine its narrative integrity.)

So there are major flaws in State of Play. It's still a damn strong brew. The characterisation is superb, the dialogue wonderful, and the performances exemplary. Paul Abbott maintains fine control of suspense without piling up corpses, and the final scene as McAffrey takes off his ear protectors to hear the print run clanking away is devastating in its understatement. It isn't the best thing since Edge of Darkness -- that honour belongs to House of Cards and its sequel To Play the King -- but it's very nearly the best thing since Edge of Darkness and that's high praise from me.


Counter-Intuitive @ Ticonderoga

21 MAR 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Ticonderoga Online has launched its first issue in its new incarnation. Alongside stories by Martin Livings and Jay Caselberg, interviews with Sean Williams, Stephen Dedman, and Grant Watson, and assorted reviews and editorials, you can find "The Shape That Kills", a short essay I wrote about prion diseases.


Great town names of Southern New South Wales

19 MAR 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

• Tumbarumba
• The Rock
• Wheeo
• Burrumbuttock
• Jinglemoney
• Brawlin
• Numbugga
• Tomboy
• Delegate
• Smiggin Holes