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Sunday, Nov 25, 2007
by Brian Bethel

Contemporary comics anthologies like the Chris Ware-edited Best American Comics 2007 offer a tempting number of opportunities to make sweeping statements about the nascence of the medium, the prospect of the graphic novel ascending as the new art form of the 21st century, and the possibilities lying before its preeminent artists. Yet Ware’s anthology lends itself better to this kind of self-indulgence than most. More than any other comics anthology compiled thus far, it feels like a genuine effort to craft a truly comprehensive picture of comics as they are today, with a gentle nudging towards the various directions they could possibly go.

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Sunday, Nov 25, 2007

Every once in a while, a true gem is unearthed from the mines of musical history. This debut is one such excavation, though archaeologists might have trouble dating the contents which, on first hearing, seem to be the aural equivalent of retro-futurist designs done on an Etch-a-Sketch. Originally released in 1980, the album is conjured from a slim palette and adheres to a stripped-to-the-bone ideal of sound, yet it is close to perfection. It is hard to recall any other album to which the terms “pastoral” and “neon” could be simultaneously applied.

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Sunday, Nov 25, 2007

How do you arrange your books?

Kate Holden’s piece in this Saturday’s Age asks the question: Can you fall in love with a man through the contents of his bookshelves? Following a visit to the Alexandre Yersin Museum in Vietnam and perusing the French-Swiss doctor’s stacks, she answers positively, and sets about dissecting her own shelves, and what they might say about her.

I want visitors to think I am smart. Or indeed, to prove that I am smart. Tasteful. Erudite and eclectic. All this manifested in the concrete evidence of the books I’ve read: the range of subjects; the impressive editions, the glorious colourful bindings. I had a moment of enthusiasm a few months ago when I was procrastinating from writing a, well, a newspaper column, and collected all my orange Penguins into a beautiful if ochreous slab of mid-20th century cleverness. It was not unknown, I went on to mutter, that I had deliberately placed certain books in more visible cases — or even on eye-level shelves — in order to best array the quality of my collection.

So, of course, this had me thinking – am I a conscientious shelver like Kate? Are my books arranged deliberately? What does it say about me that I, like Kate, hide my trade-size pop-thrillers in the darkest part of the shelf, while Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine takes pride of place in the living room alongside a large range of similarly-themed works?

The more I pondered, the more I realized that while there’s an element of the show-off in my arrangements, such conceit is really just for me. The smart books are at eye-level in the center of the living room to remind me what I’ve read, and what I’ve learned. Does it make me look smart to visitors? Possibly, but, to be honest, I find most visitors are more into my partner’s DVD collection than my books. He’s the coolest guy in the world because of his Fly special edition and his Star Wars prints; I’m hardly Mrs Awesome because I’ve dog-earned the works of David M. Rorvik.

More from Kate:

There had been times, I confessed sheepishly, when I’d had second thoughts and jumped up from the couch to adjust the display to even more advantageous effect. Some people gather their collections by subject; size of volume; author; Dewey decimal system; haphazardry; or have no books at all. I group mine by affection: most beautiful editions together, then the most beloved novels ...

I can’t say I’ve ever jumped off the couch to better arrange my books for prying eyes, but I get what Kate means. It’s as though we organize out books in such a way that makes the book the star, that makes the titles stand out. I wonder if I’m not subconsciously offering David M. Rorvik a comeback through his placement on my shelves. “Who’s that guy?” you want your visitor to ask. “Well,” you’ll say, “sit back, and let me tell you about the human robot…”

Or then there’s the chance your visitor might say, “Oh! David M. Rorvik – I love that crazy old guy!” and you have a coffee, a sleepover, and a friend for life. It hasn’t happened yet, but I don’t get that many visitors.

I might not be as calculated as Kate in my shelf-arranging, but I admit to desiring a similar amount of crazed control. I can tell when a volume is out of place in a single glance. I can stare at my shelves for hours wondering if this should go in travel lit, or if that should be over in anthropology, or even if I should finally put together a separate shelf for my collection of non-fic Pulitzer Prize winners. Is Sophie’s World correctly placed over there? Should The L-Shaped Room go back over here? Do I really need that Leonard Maltin movie guide from 1994? But, it’s an ever-evolving thing, the bookshelf. Never complete, never perfect.

So, as Kate suggests, it’s bookshelf as symbol of self. Our best airs go in front, no matter where we are, no matter who we interact with. Our dark sides hide in the shadows next to the James Patterson trade paperbacks, while the worldly, wonderful, and weird parts grab the spotlight, next to Rorvik on my shelf and Thucydides on Kate’s.

So, what was hiding in Yersin’s dark corners? Now there’s a question.




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Saturday, Nov 24, 2007

Film criticism is flawed in dozens of different ways. While there is no reliable aesthetic consensus among opinions, fans and scholars like to imply (or demand) one. And since each and every review comes down to a matter of taste, finding a harmony between all those varying personal perspectives is a fool’s paradise. Still, because greatness appears to be so easy to agree upon (even with the occasional naysayer, films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca still get almost universal kudos), readers insist that failure fulfill the same concrete criteria. Yet for every hopeless flop, there are objective arguments both pro and con. Take the Summer splat Who’s Your Caddy? An overview of the Rotten Tomatoes tracking indicates this supposed spoof earned an appalling 8% approval rating. That means, of the so-called professionals who decided to review it (and that number is also shockingly small), over 90% found it unacceptable. All of which begs the question – are they right? Oddly enough, no.

That doesn’t mean our story is something significant, mind you. When rap impresario Christopher “C-Note” Hawkins returns to his South Carolina hometown to join the snooty local country club, he butts heads with president and resident bigot Mr. Cummings. At first, his attempts at membership are rebuffed. But when C-Note buys a local mansion (and with it, property rights to the 17th hole), the club must make a deal. They decide to let the media mogul in, but on one condition. He must pass the probationary period without a single significant violation of the rules. In the meantime, Cummings hires some local hitmen, conspires with a haughty female attorney, and basically does everything in his money-based power to keep the ‘undesirable element’ out of his club. Naturally, C-Note’s genuineness, plus his secret familial agenda, helps him survive this ridiculous redneck hazing. Still, it all comes down to a head to head contest on the links. The winner stays. The loser goes.

Who’s Your Caddy? (new to DVD from Dimension Films and Genuis Products) is not the worst film of 2007, but it definitely is one of the most underdeveloped. What wants to be a sly urban Caddysack (though the constant comparisons to the marginal ‘80s entertainment is tenuous at best – more on this later) ends up being a collection of scattered scatology mixed with some decent interaction between the cast members. One of the best things director Don Michael Paul does is allow for and exploit a free flowing level of camaraderie between his actors. Outkast member Big Boi (aka Antwan Andre Patton) may not be the best musician turned movie star on the planet, but his casual mannerism with professional performers Faizon Love, Finesse Mitchell, and Chase Tatum has a real aura of fellowship and fun. Granted, we never do learn much about these purposely placed posse members. They are mere sidekicks, fleshed out by their frequently illustrated proclivities (horniness, weed loving, thug life living) without probing deeper into personality.

Even C-Note suffers from being a single element narrative device. Though Patton does manage to make him more than just a brother with an agenda, the script constantly reminds us that, no matter how winning or wise he may be, our hero is hankering for a little passive payback. The motive for this move – something to do with his late father, a record course score, and Cummings’ countermanding of its legitimacy – may have worked better within a dramatic setting. Here, the ‘doing it for dad’ element never carries the emotional payoff it promises. Even when Hawkins is delivering an inspirational, last act pep talk to fire up his troops, the premise is problematic. Seems there would be better ways for a multimillionaire media giant to take the air out of an old fashioned stuffed shirt other than beating him at 18 holes. Yet this is indicative of Who’s Your Caddy? ’s main flaw. We could care less about the reasons for C-Note’s vendetta. We just want more raunch and revelry.

Yet again, the movie fails to accommodate. There is a single scene where Love, Mitchell, and Tatum are standing butt naked (literally) in the clubhouse locker room. As his cohorts primp and preen, Jon Favreau’s favorite riffs on sexuality, body types, penis size, and clear cultural distinctions. Sure, it may all sound like a lackluster night on Evening at the Improv, but Love is so convincing, and the rest of the movie so wanting, that we’ll take what we can get. Indeed, there are moments of calculated crudity all throughout Who’s Your Caddy? that fail to make us smile. When Love lets out the world’s longest fart right before Cummings tees off, it’s so obvious as to be boring. Similarly, Mitchell is a pot loving loser who – thanks to PC thuggery – must have had much of his material trimmed. This means a brownie joke loses its luster, and a sequence where he feeds herb to a polo pony also misses the mark.

Some things do work, if only moderately. While it may have taken her a tenure on The View to learn that the world is actually round, Ms. Flat Earth Sherri Sheperd is actually quite winning as C-Note’s trash talking assistant. Her moments with the always interesting Terry Crews crackle with energy. Similarly, when Paul takes things down a notch to have C-Note visit his mother, the interaction between Patton and Jenifer Lewis has a nice amount of authenticity. Yet for every facet that finds its mark, Who’s Your Caddy? presents performers and personalities that simply lie there, DOA. This is a film that thinks dwarf gangsters are the height of originality - and hilarity – and anyone who still thinks Andy Milonakis is a misunderstood genius will realize his true limits after watching him here. He’s an unfunny void. Similarly, a well known name in urban comedy like Bruce Bruce is given nothing to do, and let’s not even question what skilled actors like Tamala Jones, James Avery, and Jim Piddock are doing here. Slumming for a paycheck, perhaps?

And then there’s Jeffrey Jones. The one time Tim Burton tent pole, able to lift any scene with a single shift of his rubbery face, has gone from winner to sinner in the eyes of the public. All the good work he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s was washed away amid scandal and alleged sex crimes. Now a bloated, bungling shadow of his former self, Jones is reduced to a Confederate cad here. Though he never uses epithets or racial vulgarities (it is up to Love to translate his comments into N-word nastiness), he’s pompous without a purpose, prejudiced as a matter of screenplay predestination. For those who love to toss the Caddyshack claim about, one need remember that Ted Knight’s jaundiced Judge Smails was more than just a superficial villain. He was dimensionalized to the point of perfection. Here, Jones is just the butt of several jibes – and most of them are unfunny at best.

And about that 1980 links lunacy? Who’s Your Caddy? is not some manner of ghetto update of that celebrated farce. In fact, it has much more in common with the crappy 1988 sequel starring Jackie Mason. Caddy actually betters that pointless update in many significant ways. If Paul had simply had more faith in his filmmaking, and allowed Patton and his costars room to improvise and gel, we’d have a much better movie. Even with the added content provided on the DVD (deleted scenes, minor making-of EPK, an intriguing audio commentary), we see a production constantly hemmed in by expectations and industry standards/mandates. What many thought would be an African American Airplane! ended up sinking in a sodden cinematic sand trap. There is the core for an interesting fish out of water tale here, a comedy of clashing cultures where new world hip-hop meets Southern conservative white repression, but Who’s You Caddy? is not it. It’s just a mindless amusement that should have been better.

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Saturday, Nov 24, 2007
New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Boy Journalist Tintin. Cartoon by Bill Leak

New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Boy Journalist Tintin. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Journalists as Candidates in the Australian Election

Australian Prime Minister John Howard was defeated in the federal election on Saturday and also seems set to lose his own seat of Bennelong, on Sydney’s North Shore, to former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Maxine McKew. She was an articulate and respected print and television journalist, working with the television news analysis programs Lateline and the 7.30 Report. She also had a column for the news magazine, The Bulletin, called “Lunch With Maxine McKew”. “With her uncanny ability to prise secrets out of people, Maxine McKew is that rare person in Australian life: a public figure who can redraw the political map in a single lunch,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald Journalist, Margaret Simons in 2003.

In an interview with 7 News during the election McKew was asked who she admires, and why:

(Burmese Resistance Leader) Aung San Suu Kyi was spectacularly impressive. Because, I suppose, of the moral leadership she provides. And the extraordinary continuity of her stance against the Burmese tyranny. (Former US Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright. And closer to home, Susan Ryan. When she became Education Minister in the Hawke government in 1983 only one third of Australian teenagers had a Year 12 qualification. And under her stewardship, during the Hawke years, that figure more than doubled. Susan Ryan fought the good fight. The tragedy now is that that figure has been flat lining. And here we are in 2007 and we need to be the smart country and we still have one in five teenagers not finishing Year 12. Among the dead, Jessie Street has always been a great hero of mine. She was talking about equal pay for women in the 1930s. She put equal pay on the map.

Climate Change was the major issue in the Australian election. I live in the Sydney electorate of Wentworth, which has been retained by John Howard’s former Minister for the Environment, Malcolm Turnbull. John Howard refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The candidate for Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party in Wentworth, George Newhouse, had his campaign team hand out postcards at the Kings Cross Farmers Market with a drawing of coal smokestacks belching out smoke, with two words written under it: Ratify Kyoto. This seems likely to be Kevin Rudd’s first act as Prime Minister. The Age today reports on a phone call Rudd received from British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has personally congratulated Kevin Rudd on Labor’s federal election victory and welcomed his plan to quickly ratify the Kyoto protocol.

Mr Brown telephoned Mr Rudd from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where he is attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), shortly after outgoing prime minister John Howard conceded defeat on Saturday night.

“I have talked to Kevin Rudd ... and congratulated him on his election and talked to him about some of the issues, including climate change, that we are discussing here today,” Mr Brown told reporters.

“Kevin Rudd has told me he will immediately sign the Kyoto agreement and he is proposing these binding agreements in the post-Kyoto talks that start in Bali in a few days’ time.”

Former SBS television journalist Patrice Newell has operated a biodynamic farm in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales for the last twenty years and created a coalition of independent candidates around the issue of climate change. She and Australian Broadcasting Corporation science commentator Dr. Karl Kruzelnicki ran for the senate, unsuccessfully it seems. But the Greens Party gathered more votes. “Tonight we have seen Australians vote for a greener, more compassionate Australian Parliament,” Greens Senator Bob Brown told ABC News. “Right across the country, seats are changing hands from the [Liberal / National Party] Coalition to the Labor Party on Greens preferences. Welcome, Kevin Rudd, new prime minister of Australia. This is a remarkable vote by the Australian people for a new era for this country to tackle climate change, to tackle inequality.”

Still from Kundun, Martin Scorsese's movie of the childhood of the Dalai Lama

Still from Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s movie of the childhood of the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama Considers Changing How the his Successor Will Be Chosen

In an interview with the Japanese newspaper the Sankei Shimbun, the Dalai Lama said that he and his aides are considering replacing the tradition of searching for a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama among Tibetan boys born around the time of the previous Dalai Lama’s death.

“If the Tibetan people want to keep the Dalai Lama system, one of the possibilities I have been considering with my aides is to select the next Dalai Lama while I’m alive,” he told the Sankei Shimbun in an interview published November 21st. That could mean either some kind of democratic election among senior Buddhist monks or a personal selection by the current Dalai Lama himself, who is the 14th of the line. For 13 successive incarnations, monks have fanned out across Tibet with relics of the deceased Dalai Lama to try and find his next incarnation - a boy who recognized the objects and thus signaled that the Dalai’s soul had passed into a new earthly envelope. It is a ritual that both affirms and reflects the basic foundations of Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation and the rule of a revered group of repeatedly reborn monks. That the protector of Tibetan culture would consider scrapping a core tenet of Tibetan tradition and possibly undermining his own legitimacy are sure signs that China is solidifying its dominant position in the decades-long standoff.

The boy the Dalai Lama recognised in 1995 as the reincarnation of the second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, mysteriously disappeared shortly after and the Chinese government named its own Panchen Lama.

To counter this, the Dalai Lama appears to have set on finding a suitable successor himself, one whose legitimacy is unsullied by unseemly squabbles over ritual with China and who has been handpicked to take up the advocacy work on behalf of his people once he dies. Making his succession an issue at this time may also be an attempt to tweak the Chinese - sensitive about their reputation in the walk-up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 - into taking a more accommodating position regarding the Tibet issue. Unlike more radical Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has always advocated autonomy, not independence, from China; and he has always said that he admired Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. Beijing, however, has consistently lumped the Dalai Lama with the rest of what it calls the “splittists,” or those who would break up China.

Freedom of Expression in China

The New York Times today reviews the novel A Free Life by Chinese novelist Ha Jin, who left China for America after the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Nan and Pingping Wu, a husband and wife, are the sort of persevering newcomers, firmly set on a legal path to citizenship by way of unremitting thrift and toil, whom presidents like to point to from the podium during major addresses on the economy. Much as Jin himself did, the Wus came from China to study, not to stay, but they realized after the Tiananmen Square massacre (as Jin did too, he’s said in interviews) that they couldn’t go home again and be themselves, since both their selves and their native land had changed. “A Free Life” is the story of their family’s naturalization — bank deposit by bank deposit, dental appointment by dental appointment, appliance purchase by appliance purchase — and like most novels of what professors call “The American Immigrant Experience,” it’s chiefly a tale of trial and error. The trials provide the drama, the errors the comedy, and their overlap the pathos. It’s an orthodox format, hard to reinvent, mostly because reinvention is its theme.

Walter Kirn. The New York Times. November 25, 2007

In 2000, The New York Times published a long profile of Ha Jin, focusing on his powerful eye for the details of everyday life observed close up while other writers of his generation quote life refracted through the media.

If the lucidity and focus of ‘‘Waiting’’ puts you in mind of Russian masters like Gogol and Chekhov, that’s no accident. Jin reads and rereads these writers, he says, to remind him of what fiction is supposed to be. ‘‘You read so many novels these days by young writers and they feel so ephemeral,’’ he says. ‘‘They are full of references to TV shows and movies. What’s important is to get human feeling onto paper. That’s what is timeless, and that’s what you get from Tolstoy and from Gogol and from Chekhov.’’

In a funny way, says the Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen, the timeless quality of Jin’s writing may be among the few really new things happening in American fiction right now. ‘‘The whole idea of looking to masters instead of overturning something is very Chinese,’’ she says. ‘‘On some level, Ha Jin has chosen mastery over genius. It’s as if he said, ‘I am going to make something like that.’ This never happens with American writers. We are too beset with the anxiety of influence. What he’s doing is very challenging, and I am interested to see how the American literati pick it up and deal with it.’’

Dwight Garner. “Ha Jin’s Cultural Revolution.” The New York Times. February 6, 2000.

In 2006 Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra visited China. The liberal Chinese intellectual Zhu Xueqin told Mishra that he’d come to admire Gandhi after reading a book on him by Chester Bowles, who had been America’s ambassador to India in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Gandhi and Nehru were greater men than Mao, Zhu had said, and I briefly wondered if this was meant as a gesture to me, his first Indian visitor,” wrote Mishra in the London Review of Books in November of 2006. “But such comparisons were once part of everyday conversation for many Chinese and Indians. In recent years, the two countries have increasingly starred in a triumphalist narrative: essentially, of Western capitalist modernity showing non-Western peoples the path to progress and development. Yet for many Indians and Chinese, their national experience and identity were shaped by the struggle for freedom from Western military and economic domination.”

Indian politicians and businessmen, and their supporters in the English-language media watched with envy the flow of capital into China – ten times the total foreign investment in India – and the rapid transformation of its coastal cities. These new Indian elites, impatient with Nehru’s vision of economic equality and social justice, pointed to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as evidence that the creation of wealth must precede the eradication of poverty, disease and illiteracy. At the same time, many Chinese intellectuals had watched closely as India’s granting of universal suffrage at a stroke ensured a much greater degree of public accountability than exists in China. But many privileged Indians increasingly see representative politics as a nuisance – one of the reasons, they say, that India has not received as much foreign investment as China. For what China proves (though this is left unsaid) is that an authoritarian system helps rather than hinders economic growth on the neo-liberal model, by ensuring that labour laws, trade unions, the legislature, the judiciary and the fear of environmental destruction do not impede the privatisation of state assets, the appropriation of agricultural land, the provision of subsidies and tax cuts to businessmen, or the concentration of wealth in fewer hands.

Pankaj Mishra. London Review of Books. 30 November, 2006

Pankaj Mishra talked to novelists, film-makers and journalists who report on the lives of everyday Chinese people.

One of the best-known literary novelists, Yu Hua, told me that he had started out as a formally experimental writer in the 1980s, looking up to Borges, García Márquez and Robbe-Grillet in conscious reaction to the official norms of socialist realism. But as the 1980s wore on, he felt less and less need to challenge state propaganda, and instead chose to portray the experiences of ordinary rural and small-town people in such straightforward narratives as To Live (1992) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995).

When I met Yu in Shanghai he appeared to be enjoying the success of his latest novel, Brothers (2006). It describes how two siblings, orphaned during the violence of the Cultural Revolution, fare in the aggressively materialistic China of the 1980s and 1990s. The younger brother sets up a beauty contest for virgins, while the elder has a breast implant in order to peddle a line of breast enlargement gels in the countryside. With its explicit, and often exaggerated, violence and sex, the novel must have tested the censors. But Yu insisted that he had only described a commonplace reality. ‘Things were bad during the Cultural Revolution,’ he said, ‘but what we are seeing now is total moral breakdown.’

Pankaj Mishra. London Review of Books.




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