Monday, February 28, 2011

Loss-making in internet jokes. Honestly – do you recall all the things that make you laugh on the internet? The vast majority of them would give you just a few seconds of enjoyment before you close the browser tab and move on. Perhaps you'll play them again, joke about them in person, and perhaps you'll pass them on to your friends, but after a week? A month? A year?

The other day, someone on Twitter urged someone else to make a mashup trailer for the imaginary film Uncle Buck Who Can Recall His Past Lives. But the trouble with this request is that the capital of this joke has already been spent. You've had your few seconds of enjoyment at the incongruous juxtaposition of a lyrical Thai drama and a slapstick family comedy starring John Candy.

Why would you spend your time downloading footage of the two films, snipping bits out and editing them back together again, and putting intertitles and a soundtrack on? Even if you're a really experienced editor, it'd still take you a minimum of, say, an hour to do it, upload it, and tell your online mates about it. The finished trailer might get that extra few moments of enjoyment that someone has actually made it happen, but not that many more moments than you might have got from pondering the original idea.

A mashup trailer is a relatively simple internet joke. But think about the ones that are more time-consuming and elaborate – stop-motion recreations of music videos in Lego; recreating iconic music videos using TV cartoon characters; combing an old TV series for moments of sexual innuendo; live-action recreations of the game Guitar Hero; even putting a T-shirt on your cat and manipulating its front paws so it appears to be playing a keyboard.

Many of these come about because people just think, "Wouldn't it be funny to do this?" and then they do it. That's an attitude I can respect, because I have always tried to follow through on stupid ideas wherever possible, and I am always annoyed at people whose dismissive response to these things is, "Boy, you must have had a lot of time on your hands."

But I do feel sad about the amount of effort that goes into producing a nibblet of pop-culture that is quickly superseded by the next little nibblet. All your effort – your cost of time, skills and imagination – for very little payoff.

Also, I am increasingly weary of meme-driven cultural production. If you are a major producer of online jokes, such as the Gregory Brothers, then you can actually create memes and make things 'go viral'. But even advertising agencies – people whose job it is to create cultural nibblets that take root in your head – can find it difficult to catch a genuine online spark.

Otherwise, there's the sub-meme industry in which ordinary (non-professional) cultural producers tumble over each other to get to the same punchline first, to riff a new joke and an old one to create something just a little bit more original. This strikes me as an impoverished kind of cultural expression.

The memes drawn from existing footage – home video snippets; things from the news; bits of archival gold – perhaps provide the most value. They cost nothing to produce; they're already there. Instead they are just curated. They seem to match the transience of the jokes they encapsulate.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The thing that annoys me most about Terminator Salvation. My fandom demands that I am a Terminator completist, although I have never gone as far as to collect action figures, T-800 endoskulls or a full-size endoskeleton standing on a plinth of crushed human skulls. I content myself with owning all the DVDs, including the Sarah Chronnor Conicles box set… and including last year's disappointing Batman vs Jake Sully.

Watching it again last night, I think McG unfairly took the fall for making a bad film. He's actually made a pretty exciting war film, with some spectacular, tension-filled action setpieces. There's a great shot near the start where we stay with Connor's perspective as he struggles to control a helicopter caught in a large-scale bomb blast… when finally he drops to the 'ceiling' we realise the helicopter has crashed upside-down.

The other thing I really liked about it on reflection is the way it constantly makes little gestures to the franchise's history. The way there's always a close-up of a Terminator crunching a human skull underfoot. The petrol station in the desert. Motorbike-vs-truck chase scenes. The way John Connor uses a plug-in hacking device to get into a Skynet installation much as he did in T2 to get into Cyberdyne Systems. (No "easy money" line, however.)

The way Marcus Wright asks the teenage Kyle Reese, "What day is it? What year?" – which Kyle asked in the original film. Marcus gives his birthday as August 29, 1975 – we know August 29 as the date for which Judgment Day was scheduled in 1997. Anton Yelchin also says the iconic line "Come with me if you want to live", while Christian Bale gets to say, "I'll be back."

The way the T-600s totally resemble Kyle's description of them in The Terminator. ("The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy.") And the way they are larger and bulkier than the T-800s, which I liked because technological advances tend to be expressed through miniaturisation. The technique of freezing the Terminator with liquid nitrogen then melting it with molten metal.

Rewatching it, I also noticed McG and Sam Worthington explicitly using Arnie's old tropes to flag that Marcus is a terminator. Worthington's performance seemed more ambivalent and menacing to me this time, whereas I saw him as an unambiguous 'good guy' when I saw this in cinemas.

The way he emerges naked and scavenges clothing; the methodical way he scans the terrain, especially against a background of flames; the way he grabs a shotgun; an assailant punches his face to one side, then he methodically turns it back again. Even in the climactic fight scene in an industrial setting (another series trademark) the style of the beating dished out to Marcus reminds me of the way the T-1000 beat up Arnie.

Whereas the real problem was fucking Christian Bale wanting to be (Edward Furlong voice) "this great military leader" when he'd actually been approached to star as Marcus. Thus he forced radical script rewrites that gave Connor more action, more screen time, a nice happy ending, and more hoarse, barking self-identifications as "JOHN CONNOR!" Bale was utterly miscast and basically ruins the movie. Him and me – we're done professionally. I haven't even seen The Fighter, in which he is meant to be quite good.

I was kind of horrified when I heard the early reports that the script would reveal that John Connor himself was a terminator. That seemed like a profound betrayal of everything that the main characters of the franchise had striven for, but the actual original script was much more Marcus's story. In it, John Connor was an enigmatic figure known only via his radio broadcasts. He appears in person only towards the end of the film, then he gets killed by a terminator and Marcus steps in to 'become' John Connor.

This is a much more resonant 'second chance' than the silly, anticlimactic skirmish that the final film offers him. In an epic fuck-you to Skynet, Marcus gets to be the saviour of the entire human race! It doesn't matter that the real John Connor is dead because the idea of John Connor is what sustains people. ("You trust him. He's got a strength. I'd die for John Connor." – Kyle Reese, The Terminator.) Plus, he can listen to Sarah Connor's tapes to teach him about his 'past', and he's got her picture to inspire Kyle.

But none of this is what I promised in this post title – the single thing that annoyed me most about this movie. Here it is: the plot hinges on the destruction of a Skynet facility that everyone in the human resistance calls "Skynet Central". But THERE IS NO 'CENTRAL' ON A NETWORK!!! They are acting like blowing this place up will be a major disaster for the machines BUT IT JUST WILL NOT! The entire purpose of a network is to survive the destruction of any one point on the network by re-routing through the surviving points. All they have done is set the prototype T-800 development schedule back a little while. NO WONDER THE WAR LASTS ELEVEN MORE YEARS!!!

Ahh, it felt very good to write that.

Unselfconsciousness in writing. I'm in the middle of copy-editing a PhD thesis, and I just stopped for a quick procrasto-break to read some blogs. And there was this one blog post that seemed so mannered and self-conscious in a way I have really come to dislike. (Don't worry; it wasn't one of yours.)

It's so hard to explain this particular writing style I dislike without feeling vulnerable to being accused of my own pretentious stylings, but here goes: it's heavily first-person, highly aestheticised (lots of adjectives, especially voluptuous ones), self-consciously wry and arch, and balanced precariously between the retro and the right-now. It jumbles up deliberately anachronistic expressions and admiring evocations of old-fashioned pleasures with subcultural argot, pop-cultural references and jocular, internet-tinged slang. You dig, gentlepeeps? Totes!

Also, to me it's a feminine blogging style. The best American lady-bloggers can do it quite naturally, and I blame Australian writers' fawning adoption of American literary styles for its insidious spread here. Personally, I think it fails when it no longer seems like the writer's own voice but rather a 'voice'. You can see the effort it's costing the writer to make it work – like when the water goes clear and you can see the little duck-legs frantically paddling away to create the serene glide across the surface.

Take, for instance, this history of the death ray from The Awl. The writer, Becky Ferreira, has an entertaining style at first, but to me she seems to lose her authority over the material and resorts to making silly, unconvincing jokes. Here's a sampler:

So, yikes! The Allies began to catch wind of all these proto-fascist countries using their geniuses to build electromagnetic warfare, and that wind sure smelled like scary World War Two farts.

But never fear, Allies, because as it turned out, you’re had one hell of a coil yet to shuffle off: Nikola motherfracking Tesla.

Tesla was the bestla. He just was. If you disagree, you are wrong and stupid.
What bothers me about this writing style is that the writer seems deliberately out to impress. A quick glance through these blog archives will tell you I've written some pretty tryhard things in my time (and I know I have a problem with being longwinded and parenthetical, with crappy metaphors, and with stringing together long, involved necklaces of adjectives), but as an editor – and also as a writer – what I aspire to now is the clear, compelling expression of ideas.

I see serious, unselfconscious writing as the definition of elegance. When I say 'seriousness', I don't necessarily mean density, pomposity or humourlessness; seriousness emphasises the act of communication and displays a certain assurance that one's ideas will be respected.

And when I say 'unselfconscious', I mean eschewing the act of performing oneself as a writer. Not pre-empting an imagined reader's criticisms; not using clichés, memes and stylistic quirks for rhetorical effect; and most of all, not refracting everything you write about through the prism of your own experience.

It seems as though many writers believe that once they develop a distinctive 'voice' they will be hired for that voice, rather than for what they write about. Dispiritingly, this often turns out to be true – but I am endlessly frustrated to see writers mistaking self-consciousness for elegance, when I think elegance lies in unselfconscious clarity of expression.

Of course, there are writing gigs where the house style is 'young', or 'ironic', or 'persuasive', and you bend your own style to that. I respect the challenge of working within these constraints. One of the toughest stories I've ever written, tone-wise, was an exegesis of hipsterism and hipster-hating for an audience of 18-25-year-old music magazine readers.

And let me be explicit that I don't seek to iron out the lyrical possibilities of language. I'd be alarmed to find myself in the joyless corner of people who protest that good writing 'shouldn't call attention to itself'.

I've been reading with interest the reaction to Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Fish's book urges us once again to delight in a perfectly crafted sentence, and to develop a feel for the wildly different ways in which a sentence's form and rhythm – not just its content – can speak to us.

As Adam Haslett notes in his Financial Times review of the book, the "vigour" and "brevity" prescribed by influential American editing bible The Elements of Style had the effect of making the terse style of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver (whose prose was notoriously pruned to the point of ghostwriting by editor Gordon Lish) come to define 20th-century 'realism'.

"This is a real loss," Haslett argues, "not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to “omit needless words” (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem."

It seems ironic to me that what began as an urge for bold, muscular prose should now inspire limp dullness; and as Zsuzsi Gartner writes in Canada's Globe & Mail:
…there are so many 'literary' authors who take no evident joy in the sentence, whose assemblages of subject, verb and predicate are barely living things. Their sentences are drones on a death march, ankles shackled together, one plodding foot in front of the other. Or their drones are perfumed nightmares. Or their drones have a tin ear and, like white men, can’t jump.
My feelings on poetry are not especially generous; however this week I watched the movie Howl and was struck by the way that Allen Ginsberg's poetry depended so much on its rhythms, and on the startling incongruity of his word choices. In the film – which was scripted from interviews with Ginsberg and transcripts from the work's obscenity trial – the poet explains how he came up with some key phrases, notably "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows".

I am getting off course here, but I mention Howl to bring up that I do appreciate the glamour of the phrase, and that whatever you think of Ginsberg's style, it has a confidence – an energetic, urgent quality – that you just don't find in certain simpering blog prose.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Getting dangerously close to actual cooking skills. So on Saturdays I like to eat huevos rancheros at North and read the A2. Well, it's not the A2 any more, is it – it's the Life & Style. But since I still contribute to it, I had better not say any more on that front.

Last weekend I was away and would not be able to eat my traditional brunch, so I decided I would cook huevos rancheros for my friends. There were only five of us, so I figured it was doable. Because I am a Shit Cook™ and didn't really time my cooking well, the results were not as piping hot as I would have liked, plus I forgot to cook the chorizo, but it was still pretty delicious!

Here's how I did it.

Mel's Huevos Rancheros

grated cheese
salsa fresca (see recipe below)
bean salsa (see recipe below)
chorizo sausages, chopped on the diagonal into rounds

Grill tortillas until they look toasted and kind of puff up. Put on plates and sprinkle generously with grated cheese. Top with a generous dollop of bean salsa. Fry two eggs per person and nestle them, sunny side up, on the bean salsa. Top with salsa fresca. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve with fried chorizo pieces, hot sauce, and extra cheese and salsa.

Salsa fresca/pico de gallo
1 tomato
1 avocado
1 red capsicum
1/2 red onion
Lazy-man chilli to taste
squeeze of lemon juice

Chop all ingredients finely (except for the chilli, which has already been helpfully minced by the jar people) and combine in a bowl.

Bean salsa
1 can refried beans
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 brown onion
Lazy-man chilli
Lazy-man garlic
ground cumin

Fry up the onion, chilli and garlic in a saucepan. Add generous shake of cumin. Add the beans and tomatoes and mix until consistency is smooth and even, and the mixture is heated through.

This is an outrage! For years it was my custom to visit my parents for Sunday night dinner. Then we would all sit down and watch whatever was on the ABC.

And I got into the ridiculous habit of singing along to the theme song from Compass. I think I did it once and made my mother laugh, so I started doing it every week. I would feel such joy when I knew that it was coming up, because I would have two chances (three, if you count the end credits) to nail that faintly Islamic-sounding wail.

So last night I was over there and was all ready for my solo, when I discovered that they have done away with the old theme!

I sat speechless and bewildered through about two seconds of bullshit, before Geraldine Doogue came on and said, "Welcome to the new-look Compass."

As if that wasn't appalling enough, then there was some indulgent, poor-cousin-of-Enough-Rope special where we have to sit back and find out what various Australian celebrities think about the meaning of life. Bah! They get enough airtime as it is! What has happened to the interesting investigations into ethical and religious matters that Compass used to present?

Appalling! I went into the Wild West of the Compass messageboards to see if anyone had complained about this, and was rewarded by a rich feeling of righteousness as I read the following:
On the down side, sorry guys, but I don't like the new music at all. Compass' original theme music is iconic. It is in the same category as the theme music of 4 Corners. You don't change something that good just for a change. I have always loved hearing the Compass music as it felt like a call to soemthing worthwhile to watch on a television landscape that is pretty barren these days. Please bring back the old music! The new sounds like 'dashing through the snow.'

Monday, February 14, 2011

I know, right? There are few things more gratifying than sharing that fierce, bright spark of connection implied in the phrase, "I know, right?"

It can happen when you tell someone an idea or opinion and they fire back, "I know, right?" You get an instant shot of being on the same team. The pair of you both know this thing, together.

This is why I love the moment at 2:08 in the trailer to the forthcoming Green Lantern film, starring Ryan Reynolds. He is just giddy with exhilaration.

Having this knowledge that you have truly communicated – been witnessed and understood – is a powerful feeling. In this world, it's so easy to feel that your thoughts – the markers of your Cartesian identity, your total selfhood – simply vanish unheard or are frustratingly misunderstood. When you can't communicate, you can't feel valued.

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