Monday, 15 August 2011

The Gibson Continuum

It has long been a source of bafflement to me that William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk trailblazer Neuromancer has not yet made it to celluloid (although word is that a version is FINALLY due to start filming next year). It means that we devotees of his work have to make do with the slim pickings that have managed to escape from Development Hell. The best known of these so far has been Johnny Mnemonic, the less said about which the better. Last night I finally got around to watching another; New Rose Hotel. Like Johnny Mnemonic, it is based on one of Gibson's early short stories for Omni magazine, subsequently repackaged in the fantastic Burning Chrome story collection. Given that the film is now 13 years old, and given my love of all things Gibson, it is a mystery to me how I have managed to avoid it until now. Still, at least I've finally got the chance to correct that oversight. Spoilers follow, if you care about such things.

Let's start with the positives: it has Christopher Walken and Willem Defoe as leads, rather than Keanu Reeves and Dolph Lundgren; so that already puts it streets ahead of Johnny Mnemonic. It's directed by Abel 'Bad Lieutenant' Ferrara, rather than someone you've never heard of (Robert Longo???). It sticks scrupulously to the short story plot rather than junking damn near everything and turning one of my favourite characters (Molly Millions) into a sad wannabe, like the writer of Johnny Mnemonic did - this was supposedly for legal reasons, but was another major reason why Mnemonic sucked so badly.

But. And I suppose there had to be a but, otherwise it would't have taken me 13 years to discover that this film even exists. It drags. It drags very badly. Fundamentally, the original short story is too slender a foundation to rest a 93-minute film on. The lack of plotting is made up for with lots of moody and mostly dialogue-free scenes in bars, clubs and hotels that fall somewhere between late 80s music video and early 90s softcore Adult Channel intros. And there's a gaping hole at the centre of the film in the form of Asia Argento as Sandii. Much respect to her father and all that, and she's very decorative, and while this was apparently her first movie in English that needn't matter as Sandii herself is supposed to be a rootless, stateless Eurasian of indeterminate origins, but unfortunately her acting isn't up to it. That's a pity, as one of the few concessions the movie makes towards trying to pad out the slim plot is to give Sandii a bit more back story, and makes creditable work of it. But at the end of the day, she can't convince me that she could manipulate a world-renowned scientist into throwing over his wife and career for her. And since that (and the fact that she does the same thing to Defoe's character - who as in the story isn't named) is the key plot point of the film, it makes it founder.

Ah well, I'll just have to wait for Neuromancer, I guess. It's being directed by the guy who did the claustrophobic under-rated classic Cube (and also Splice), so it might be interesting at least.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Shopping with violence

It's been a week now since the riots. I hadn't wanted to rush to say anything about it - I'm happy to leave that to professional politicians, who are for good or ill expected to come up with something on the spur of the moment. My confused thoughts on the subject are gradually settling, though, and so I thought I'd have a go at trying to put them down.

One of the things that struck me first - on Monday night, in fact, as I cowered in my nice flat, with looters carrying bags of ill-gotten gains past in the street outside, was that the police had been overwhelmed and appeared to have messed up quite badly. Oh yes, no argument that we're grateful for them - when they finally got their act together - but everyone could see on Monday that their current playbook of riot tactics - kettling and containing - were not working. It gave the streets over to the looters, who - coordinated by mobile phones and Blackberries - were moving faster than them. Of course we only have ourselves to blame for that. After all, we are the ones who criticised the police for their handling of previous disturbances. The public gets what the public wants, as Paul Weller put it.

But anyway, the streets have been regained. Now everyone is searching for a cause. The complexity of what has happened has made it into a kind of Rorshach test for politicians - right wingers see the fruits of the nanny state and Permissive Society, the breakdown of families and lack of respect for authority, and left wingers see the end result of Maggie, consumerism, materialism, the creation of an underclass and "there is no such thing as society". Probably both are right, to an extent. The previous Saturday's riot in Tottenham was arguably about a very dodgy police shooting and some pent-up rage by the local black community. It's hard for me, as an affluent middle class middle aged white guy, to comment sensibly on that. All I will say is that locally I see a lot of kids in my own area getting pulled over by police in their cars, and in defiance of the demographics of the area, not one of them has ever been white.

But that has been obscured by the orgy (and I think that probably is the term) of looting that happened on the subsequent couple of nights, first in north London, then across the entire capital, and then across England. These were copycat crimes, fuelled by what people saw on TV, and maybe to an extent by social networking. There may have been gangs that were a bit more organised about it. But mostly it was sheer naked opportunism. And aside from the odd jewellers shop, and an attempt to break into a gold dealership in Camberwell, the shops they picked were the ones they knew best. There is something tragi-comic about looting a pound store. Yet in Peckham, my local shopping area, where the 'Peace Wall' of Post-it notes forms a touching community response to the events, it is on the boarded-up broken windows of Poundland. Apparently women were heard shouting things like: "get me baby-gros" and "I need Pampers". To put it bluntly, these people were looting places where they would normally shop; supermarkets for a bottle of booze, Mothercare, JD Sports. It was what you might call "aggravated shopping."

A lot of ink is being spilt over why people felt they could do that. But mostly it boils down to greed and a failure to think though the consequences, and that's part of a systemic problem. On this occasion, that old detective film cliche is actually true: society really *is* to blame. How we put that right I can't even begin to imagine. And how we put it right at a time that social programmes and even police numbers are being slashed, I doubt anyone knows.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Das Kapital

Sometimes, especially in a wired world, where people are snarky just for their own amusement, it pays for us to take a step back and remember just what it is we are arguing about. Watching the 'debate' over the US budget deficit over the past couple of weeks, especially since it was occurring in a country that is deliberately polarised between Right and Left, and where the Right has a new Fundamentalist Libertarian wing to make it sound even shriller, it sounded like there was some major point of principle at stake. I ended up recalling a lot of online discussions I'd had with Americans of various political stripes - some had gone so far as to suggest that even a public education system was somehow symptomatic of a slippery slope to Socialism (not that Americans generally have much of an idea of what Socialism actually is).

The acrimonious debate prompted me to take a look at some figures, and they're interesting reading. Let's say, for sake of argument, that the proportion of a country's GDP that is controlled by the government is roughly proportional to how 'socialised' its system is. Now let's take a look at what kind of variation there is out there in the real world. The developed country with the lowest tax take in terms of proportion of GDP is the United States, with 24%. The one with the highest is Denmark, at 48%. That's it - just 24% between them.

So that 24% range - just under one quarter of GDP - actually covers everything from 'hire-em-and-fire-em capitalism red in tooth and claw' to 'Scandianvian nanny state socialist utopia'. The big reveal is: everyone actually agrees on 76% of everything - even Obama and the Tea Party. The acrimony of the budget debate has only served to obscure just to what extent there is actually a very broad consensus on how to run a modern state. Maybe Francis Fukuyama was right all along. We all seem to agree that a dynamic economy needs space for private enterprise, but that some things - like defence and policing, fire services and probably most schooling - are best provided by the state. After that, we're only arguing over one quarter of the cake.

And when you put it like that, do we really have to stoop to calling each other Nazis and Communists?