BG 27 – Fantasies of Mere Competence : Football Manager 2010

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

It is a development of some of the idea expressed in this column from a few months ago but rather than looking at Fantasy as an avenue for escapism, I decided to look at the more modest and mundane ways in which people aspire and escape.  A trend embodied in TV programmes like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and games like Football Manager 2010.

I’ve also decided to take a slightly different approach with next month’s column.  Recently, I have been using games as springboards to look at wider issues.  This is partly a result of my own game-laying experience of late which has seen me bouncing out of new games and returning again and again to games I have already written about like GTA IV, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age.  However, I think that it would be good for me to keep my feet on the ground with regards to writing about games so I have decided that next month at least will herald a return to a closer examination of one particular game.

The Crazies – Past and Present

The Zone have just put up my twin reviews of The Crazies :

It is interesting to note that both films deal, on a thematic level, with the way in which America wages its wars :  Romero’s version is a tightly focused critique of the idea that one can wage war in an ordered and rational manner.  The film paints a viciously satirical portrait of an American military weighed down by petty bureaucracy and staffed by incompetent boobs.  Meanwhile, Eisner’s version is a much vaguer indictment of the savagery stirred up by America’s decision to topple the Iraqi and Afghan governments.

Russian Ark (2002) – Nostalgia is Always Beautiful… Tyranny isn’t.

Let us begin in the manner in which we intend to continue : By considering a point of medieval philosophy.  The 14th Century Logician William of Ockham once noted that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.  This venerable principle of ontological parsimony is most often wheeled out in order to see off the speculations of some of our more extravagantly theological or mystical co-humans.  Those who would wish into existence a vast metaphysical infrastructure where competing theories would make do with the smallest of particles and the most elementary of forces.  Given a set of facts, why would you not choose the explanation that accounted for those facts in the simplest manner?  In order to answer this question, we must first ascertain what constitutes simplicity.

The problem is that simplicity is one of those slippery terms that philosophers wheel out when an impasse is reached.  When discussing a philosophical theory, differing thinkers will first look for logical inconsistencies, then for factual incongruities, but eventually they will fall back upon a host of rather subjective and nebulous aesthetic principles : “It is counter-intuitive!” they will sniff.  “That solution is unclean when compared to the alternative” they will remark.  “It is insufficiently simple” they conclude.  Of course, this is a cynical and simplistic characterisation of the problem.  Theorists of Artificial Intelligence such as Ray Solomonoff and Marcus Hutter have made great strides in devising mathematical and statistical models of ontological parsimony fleshing out that which has, for far too long, been a refuge for intellectual scoundrels.  My assessment, however, does raise an interesting question.

Is simplicity culturally relative?  Following Ockham, we demand that extraordinary claims be supported by extraordinary amounts of evidence but what this often means is that unpopular and dissenting opinions have to work harder to gain traction.

Consider, for example, Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (2002).  At the end of the film, the protagonist refrains from killing the tyrant because he has seen the wisdom of a state where the value of political harmony and a single driving vision outweigh the benefits to be gained from the competition of differing opinions.  In other words, Zhang Yimou seemed to be suggesting that a one-party state such as modern China was preferable to the democratic states of the West.  When the film was released in the West it was met with howls of outrage.  Given that the film was partly funded by the Chinese government, many Western thinkers characterised it as propaganda.  But why is offering a different opinion seen as being tantamount to propaganda?  Hundreds of films every year express opinions in the same unrigorous manner as Hero without being labelled as such.  Is it just that when it comes to arguing against democracy, we set the bar higher?  Do we demand extraordinary evidence before we are willing to engage with contrary opinions?  Should we be more forgiving of dissenting opinions even when we see them as monstrous?

Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is three things : Firstly, it is a love letter to the Winter Palace (now occupied by the Russian state Hermitage Museum).  Secondly, it is a technical exercise in so far as it is a film made up of one continuous 96 minute long take.  Thirdly, it is a wistful apologia for the Tsarist regime.

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Nada (1974) – The Political is in fact The Personal

It was never going to be easy for Claude Chabrol to move on from his most productive period.  Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Chabrol produced a series of films that would not only secure his reputation to the present day, but also leave an indelible mark upon what comes to mind when one thinks of French cinema.  Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La Bete Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1970), Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) and Les Noces Rouges (1973) were shot almost on top of each other with a similar cast of actors who almost came to resemble a repertory company performing only the works of Claude Chabrol.  A company of actors who knew exactly what was expected of them in a series of films that positively simmered with anger and resentment at the provincial bourgeoisie who ran the country and defended the status quo while angry young men such as Chabrol climbed the barricades in the hope of creating a better world.

However, watching the films of this period, it strikes me that Chabrol and revolutionary politics were never going to be a perfect fit.  Chabrol’s vision of the world is deeply morally complex.  When he looks out the window he sees shades of grey rather than the stark black and white demanded by revolutionaries willing to use force to change the world.  In fact, while films such as La Femme Infidele, Que La Bete Meure and Les Noces Rouges did a brilliant job of critiquing the middle classes by suggesting a world of sex, passion, drink and self-destruction beneath the mannered politeness and brass-buttons, these criticisms also humanised them.  There is something almost comical and easy to empathise with about the husband in La Femme Infidele who kills his wife’s lover but never mentions it to her or the man in Que La Bete Meure who tracks down his son’s killer only to discover that the man’s entire family are hoping that someone will kill him for them.  These are not the kinds of people you simply put up against a wall… these are weak, pitiful and ultimately on some level sympathetic creatures.  They are victims of the system just like everyone else.  Given the general timbre of Chabrol’s work during the late 60s and early 70s, Chabrol’s political history and the political climate of the French cinema scene at the time (Cahiers du Cinema was run by a Maoist collective during the mid-70s) it was clear that something had to give and the result was Nada, a satirical comedy-thriller based upon a noir novel by the influential French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, that sees Chabrol turning his ire from the bourgeoisie to the functionaries of the state and the radical Leftists who would overthrow them.

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The Language of Dissent

One thing that old Ludwig Wittgenstein got profoundly right was the suggestion that the meaning of language is fixed by use.  What this means is that words have no intrinsic meaning.  They are not defined by the characteristics of the objects to which they refer, they do not even need to correspond to actual objects in the world in order to have meaning, nor do they need to have clearly fixed boundaries in order for them to be useful.  Instead, words acquire their meaning through the social context in which they are used.  As Wittgenstein put it “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.  We could not understand him because we have only the faintest idea of what the inner and social life of a lion is like.

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‘Fuck you Pay me’ – Money and the Arts

A few months ago, The Guardian’s pet right-wing columnist Simon Jenkins wrote a piece about funding for the arts.  In his piece, Jenkins attacks the government for spending billions on high-end pieces of capital investment while the cut and thrust of British cultural life is mostly self-sustaining and subject to the laws of the marketplace.  Jenkins wants us to take away from his piece that British cultural life does not need state funding but what I take away from it is the fact that the government has failed to focus on the right thing.  A cultural life is not necessarily one based upon consumption of high-end artistic products such as the output of the Royal Opera House (which recently received a £2.4M recession bail out), but one based upon creation and participation.  Which would benefit the most people?  £2.4M so that the Royal Opera House can continue charging £60 instead of £80 for seats with only partial views of the stage or £2.4M for small theatre companies, amateur opera productions and magazines drawing attention to both?  Culture is something that is there to be participated in.  A healthy amateur scene not only gives future professionals a means of perfecting their crafts, it also makes it easier for people to try their hand at art and engage with it in a way other than through consumption.

The problem is that while scenes (whether they are theatrical, operatic, musical, artistic or anything else) are funded largely by good will, they do frequently depend upon people who demand rather more concrete remuneration than good will and social capital.  These demands create over-heads.  The higher the over-heads on artistic production, the greater the drain on good will.  This leads to higher ticket prices, expensive membership subscriptions and greater and greater demands upon those people who are willing to contribute for the good of the scene.  These demands are part of an attitude that can only be described as “Fuck you Pay Me”.

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The Trap, The Wire and The Loop : Individualism as a Political Force

Over the past week, I have been thinking about two particular works.  The first, is Armando Iannucci’s spectacular In The Loop (2009) and the most recent of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Trap (2007).  Both works examine the social and political fall-out from Tony Blair and New Labour’s decade or so in power.  Both present us with a post-modern political landscape in which facts and values are not only seen as open to manipulation by people in power, but where facts and values are seen solely as expressions of personal preference.  Far from being a hyperbolic and polemical accusation or a satirical construct, this understanding of human cognition is shared by people on the left and the right and has come to dominate the political and conceptual landscape to the extent that it is almost impossible to think of an alternative to it.  However, some films, such as those of Paolo Sorrentino present a radically different vision of human cognition.  One in which rational self-interest serves as a mask for much deeper and darker passions.

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Obama in Pakistan : Critical Readings in Foreign Policy

Who can honestly say that they were surprised when President Obama decided to bomb Pakistani villages along the Afghan border?

Certainly not I.  During the election campaign, Obama made it clear that he saw Iraq as a distraction from the vital strategic problem posed by Afghanistan’s slide back into Taliban control.  Obama made it clear that while his position differs substantially from that of the Bush regime – particularly regarding Iraq and the importance of diplomatic engagement, even with America’s apparent ‘enemies’ – he accepts the over-arching vision of the world embedded in Bush’s War on Terror.  But does he really?

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Gang Leader for a Day

Based upon notes taken during his eight years of PhD field work in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of Chicago’s bleakest housing estates, Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day – A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line is far more than it appears to be if you judge the book purely by its title and cover.

Gang Leader for a Day’s cover makes a valiant attempt to portray the book’s author as some kind of fearless rebel; a sociological Dirty Harry who cares little for rules and procedures when it comes to getting to the truth.  The cover even features him in a leather jacket standing on a stairwell and gazing into the camera with the kind of thousand-yard stare that says “I’ve been in the shit”.  The title might even convince you that this is an icy examination of the Thug Life full of the tricks and techniques that drug dealers use to keep the product flowing.  However, the truth is that Gang Leader for a Day is a warm and human book about what it means to be poor and Black in America today.  Venkatesh paints a picture of a community abandoned by the state and left to the devices of highly-skilled and manipulative robber barons who mercilessly exploit their neighbours for private gain whilst hypocritically championing the values of community and togetherness.  Worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as not only The Wire but also Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (2007).

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Waltz with Bashir

Charitably viewed, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is very close to being a flawless work of cinematic art.  Its subject matter is relentlessly ‘serious’ and ‘important’, its visuals are not only stylish but arresting and its structure is a genuinely inventive demonstration of the links between psychoanalysis and detective stories.  However, beneath the veneer of artistically slick visuals and introspection lies a film which, uncharitably viewed, is not only confused but actively confusing.

The film begins with an arresting scene in which a pack of wild dogs run through the streets leaving chaos and terror behind them.  They eventually stop beneath the window of a friend of the film maker Ari Folman.  In a bar, the dog-attractor explains that he has been having this same dream for years and he suspects that it is inspired by his time in the IDF when he had to shoot the guard dogs before his squad moved into a town.  Upon asking Folman if he has any similar dreams, Folman responds by saying that the war and ensuing massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian paramilitaries are simply not present in his system.  However, soon after he begins a recurring dream about him and two other soldiers floating in the sea as yellow flares light up a city.  Upon seeing the flares, the young men walk out of the sea and climb into their uniforms.  Concerned about this apparent memory resurfacing, Folman shows up on the doorstep of another of his friends, a therapist, and asks him what to do.  The therapist suggests tracking down the other people in the dream and the other people present at the time in the hope that they will help Folman’s memories return to him.  The rest of the film is made up of interviews with Folman’s friends and a few other people who share their memories of the war and the massacre, gradually helping Folman to remember his time in Lebanon.

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