Saturday, October 28, 2006

FILM REVIEW - Freedomland

Well, this film is a bit of a hotch-potch. From the opening jump edited title sequence one expected a very streetwise and stylish edgy thriller. This was misleading, for apart from two scenes later in the movie this style was completely missing from the rest of it. I believe this exemplifies the essential problem with the script and direction. It cannot make up it's mind what it is trying to do.

The story begins with a woman Brenda ( the inestimable Julianne Moore ) wandering with bloodied hands into a hospital. When the local good guy cop Lorenzo ( the ever reliable Samuel L Jackson ) appears, she tells him that her car was carjacked by a black man. Shortly Brenda reveals under pressure from Lorenzo that her young son was in the car. This sends everyone into a spin of hyperactivity and racial tension. As the movie progresses Brenda's testimony becomes increasingly suspect.... Themes of psychological trauma, racialism, police partiality and brutality and family dysfunction are flung around with reckless disregard for plot coherence.

If the movie just stuck with the psychology of its main characters, and kept it central, this would have been a great movie as opposed to an OK one. The script is perpetually throwing in more side stories and characters. With no time to be properly assimilated it leaves you confused. An unsatisfying feeling of having wandered into someone else's argument unprepared and issues being left unresolved, permeates the movie. For example there's Billy & Felicia's relationship, there's Lorenzo's imprisoned son, there's Lorenzo's relations with his white colleagues and the Police Force generally, there's the local black leader, Worst of all is Brenda's hot headed policeman brother Daniel. Who behaves erratically and violently,and is last see ten minutes from the end of the movie running off as if he's about to throttle someone, and is never seen again. This lack of focus is the result of a badly conceived script and means the movie leaks its compulsive energy.

The director,Joe Roth,has to take some of the flack for the flaws. I've already mentioned it's stylistic inconsistency. It also is appallingly lit ( read atmospheric ) and sound mixed. Soundtrack and dialogue seem to be constantly fighting for the fore ground. Important dialogue suddenly gets ramped up and the background music faded to grey and then back again. I understand the director Micheal Winterbottom began this film project and Roth picked it up when he ducked out. Not a good sign, but it might explain the stylistic schizophrenia.

The crowning glory of this movie is Moore and Jackson's performances. Without their superlative acting skills this movie would be dire. Unlike the dodgy 'The Forgotten', where Moore's believable psychological breakdown over the disappearance of her son, gets whisked away on the ludicrous whim of an alien abduction, her performance here has credibility and consistency. She is quite in her element when conveying deeply traumatic inner conflicts. Though we never get a sense of what she was like when she was less kooky and more normal. Likewise, Jackson's character has these internal dilemmas and symptoms which are never fully explained like his asthma and family background. Within the limitations of the script both have done what they can. As a result they lift this movie several notches higher than it really deserves.


What is it with Special Features on DVD's? Generally they are so insubstantial as to be hardly worth there trumpeting it across the front of their cases. The worst aspects are the commentaries or making of the movie features. These fall into two camps. The first is a fawning luvvie fest, where director and actors fall over themselves to ensure they get more work. They can never imagine anyone else playing the part of the axe wielding masked murderer. The director is a genius, so sensitive and appreciative of the actors craft you'd have thought he'd helped them give birth to Jesus. The second camp, is where everyone knows this film is an out and out pile of poo, so all concerned rally round to justify its existence,defend this turkeys artistic credibility and fail dismally. We have just watched it after all, we know all too well.

On 'Freedomland' the writer justifies his script by saying he's lived most of his life in such districts, so understands what he's writing about. Not from the evidence before my eyes. Besides I'd have preferred not to see him, he's in his fifties, white, wrinkled and unshaven, with a fully tonsured head of luminous auburn hair. The set designer, talking about the setting for the black ghetto, said he'd chosen the area because it reminded him of an Escher drawing. I mean please! credit me with at least one brain cell to work with at least. Though maybe I've missed the point and these special features are really meant for geeks only.

The best Special Features I've seen recently were on the DVD for 'The Hours'. The luvviedom was kept to a minimum. All the movie making features genuinely helped you understand the creative choices made and the background to the subject matter of the script. The Director of that movie was Stephen Daldry, a highly experienced English Theatre Director. Perhaps I'm just repulsed by American sentimentality and their slushy sense of what is 'meaningful and profound'.

Friday, October 27, 2006


I’ve been off work for the last ten days taking a well earned break. I’ve spent most of that time doing exactly what I wanted, which has been mostly writing. I’ve been working on a Dharma essay entitled ‘The cold in my bones’ which draws on a single sentence discourse by Dogen which goes as follows :-

“If this greatest cold does not penetrate into our bones, how will the fragrance of the plum blossoms pervade the entire universe?”’

I’ve found this an absorbing task, through exploring my own responses and analysis. It’s main theme is the necessity to reflect deeply and consistently on impermanence. For me it has raised issues of what effective practice is, particularly for a 21st century Western Buddhist. As is usual with my longer written pieces I coasted two thirds of the way through and then I hit a sandbank. I am beginning to learn that that is when real graft is required. I just need to keep writing regardless of quality and coherence. Eventually enough of it makes sense that I can precis, edit and polish the results As it currently stands its about 5,500 words long. Today, I’ve started refining a couple of earlier essays on Dogen discourses, one called ‘Binding oneself without a rope’ and the other ‘Enter the grass and transmit the wind’. This writing, and the study I’m doing with Paco, is helping me to re-engage with the Dharma in my own way, after the last few years when all interest had seemed to desert me. So far I’ve not shown anyone my Dharma writing, though I think I might be getting ready to break that silence soon. I have an idea that these essays could constitute a little book one day, who knows !

Another achievement was driving David and myself up north to see my parents. I’ve never driven such a long distance before, particularly not on motorways. Newly serviced, the car ran very smoothly. I realise, to my shame, how neglectful I am of it so longs as it starts and runs at all. I could give it a bit more care and attention than I do. I’ve never been that interested in cars, so I guess its asking a lot to manufacture one now. Travelling up there went OK. With three breaks for coffees and breakfast I was pretty brain dead by the time we reached my parents house. Coming back Sunday night in persistent drizzly rain, was also a challenge, but perhaps was not quite as dreadful as I’d imagined beforehand. It did demanded a lot of concentration and I wouldn’t like to repeat such a journey too soon. I prefer train travel, at least you arrive relatively relaxed and rested.

The main event of the weekend was David meeting my parents for the first time. It was also the first time I’d taken any boyfriend home. Though I had a restless night beforehand, I was quite relaxed about it all on the day. I think all that driving absorbed any nervous energy. David understandable was quite apprehensive. I think it went fine. David is such a easy likeable man, I didn’t see how my family wouldn’t warm to him. He seemed to enjoy himself, though I think he’d had enough socialising by the time we left on Sunday evening. My Parents, Sister, Brother in Law and Nieces were all pretty much as they usually are. No one appeared to be nervous or self conscious. My Mother was good natured and as lively a talker as ever. David was worried that there might be lots of embarrassed silences where no one knew what to say, but then he’s not met my Mum before.

It’s been interesting to ask David how he saw my family. I’m so used to them and obviously have a rather set way of viewing their behaviour. As usual, I got into a bit of a pissed off downer after a day of my Mother’s incessant blathering. I just found it draining to be forced to listen all the time and not be engaged in normal conversational dialogue. This is a very old frustration which I tire of hearing myself intone justifications for. I really should have grown bigger than it by now. It would, however, seem I have not.

David said he found my Mum very positive, bright and engaging, much like I can be when I’m at my best, Owch, bulls eye !!! Other things he noticed were particular expressions and habits which my Mum and I share, and a laugh that my Dad has, which is similar to one of mine. He also noticed the time when I asked my Dad a direct question and my Mum answered for him, one of her habits I sincerely hope I haven’t copied. Still it is all very useful to hear this because it gives me another perspective to view them from. It also highlights how much I anticipate situations and overreact ,such as to my Mum’s talking. It’s all very salutary and sobering like other words beginning with S such as sibling.


Freedom is being content to be where you are.
Prison is wanting to be somewhere else.
The Free World is the world experienced
by one who is content.
The real freedom is freedom from desire,
never freedom of desire




Before and after,
they kept each other warm
by telling tales of themselves,
to exchange stories
like borrowing clothes,
though they couldn’t really wear each other,
they might easily wear each other out,
night after night,
favourite stories like favourite songs,
played repeatedly,
lose their addictive freshness,
dull their essence,
allusions and allegories
turn to being obvious,
but they had the lust
for the impenetrable, inexhaustible questions
a quest to lose themselves
in each others jungle thicket,
with a thousand and one questions,
on a thousand and one nights,
producing stories they passed the time with
between the evenings and moments
of intimacy,
stories short on substance,
long on length and detail,
four omnibus volumes
soon to be remaindered for a fiver,
their kisses could not be just kisses,
their sighs could not be just sighs,
their love could not be just love,
without an appendix of fiction,
only in the mornings when they awoke
alone in separate beds,
still alive,
did the clean knives of insight
cut deeper and stir
the unloved ,forgotten stories
about death.


Saturday, October 14, 2006


Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy.
Faber & Faber , published 1987.

I’ve just finished reading the ‘The New York Trilogy’ All three short stories are linked subliminally and stylistically. Auster takes the private dick genre and brings an subversive existential twist to it. The narratives tease out a private detectives obsessive streak. Sometimes so all consuming that they exclude everyone except the person being trailed. In the process they try to understand what motivates their prey, the purpose of their surveillance, and in these details and questions the detective loses the sense of himself. All the stories explore in some way identity in the urban cityscape. How it breaks down through such over-identification, falling into alienation and destitution. They’re all quite cleverly written stories and on their own level enjoyable reads .

I do, however, continue to yearn for a contemporary writer who is more than just clever. Where are the perceptive writers, that write compelling narratives, whose writing style grabs you by the proverbial balls and doesn’t let go of you’re imagination? A writer one could love, and get so addicted to you’d want to read all their books one after another. This hasn’t happened for me for quite some time. I think it last occurred when I discovered Anton De Saint Exupery, about seven years ago. He also died many many decades ago. I fondly remember my first read of him, and before that of Armistead Maupin, Ronald Firbank, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, to name a few others .

Contemporary writers can be so self conscious, particularly of leaving a literary legacy and a reputation, that they’re painful to read. The novel becomes just experiments in construction, testing the readers preconceptions and patience to breaking point. Does no one colourfully and compellingly engage the readers imagination anymore? Genuine originality in a writer seems almost extinct. Contrived novelty in writing style is so predominant. Coldly analytical ,the narratives so knowing of theme and purpose that the characters, the people inhabiting the novels become mere ciphers.

Of his generation I would acknowledge Paul Auster does seem to be a cut above the rest. I would certainly not object to reading some of his other novels. I’m aware though that I do so in a manner of mild interest, when really I’d love to explore with energy and great enthusiasm.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Questions are good, questions are necessary,
without questions there is something to defend,
and where there is something to defend
trouble and suffering are not far behind.



The Erotic Explorer.

Sometimes he’ll lie back,
face resting, just looking up
as if the stars were out
ruddy and sharp
in our darkened room,
and I’ll have no idea
what he might be thinking,
I could only imagine,
and do imagine
that it might be about future days,
storms, adventures,
simple small triumphs
and other flowers of pleasure
featuring me
embarrassing the veins of his cheeks,
or of me
against his quaint buttocks
smooth like a velvet peach,
the stone removed but ruffled
around a wine dark pith
entering a gentle undulation
our bodies become twinned,
my imaginary paths
no matter how carnal,
fail to grasp
the scent of his alcohol,
his specific volume,
evades his essence,
though roughly described
as ‘my lover’
the label disclaims :~
‘do not drink too deeply
of your lover, as we
cannot be held responsible
for acts of use or consequences
for which this product
was not made.’

REVIEW - Sparks Live 2006

Wednesday October 4th 2006 - Cambridge Corn Exchange.

You would have thought that after thirty odd years they’d be very tired. You might also think that a Sparks audience would mostly be a nostalgia seeking sway of forty somethings. You would not be wrong with that latter assertion. However, any misconception that this show would consist of just feeble readings from their extensive back catalogue, was instantly dispelled by the first song. ‘Dick Around’ is a hurricane of a song about a man dumped by his girlfriend, who doesn’t know what to do with himself. Part pop song, part mini operetta, it was the first of a track by track run through of ‘Hello Young Lovers’, their twentieth album.

On this showing Sparks have lost none of their musical or lyrical acuteness.
If anything they appear to be having a renaissance. This hasn’t produced any hits and perhaps may never do. Part of their revival seems to be a reawakening of that quintessential Sparks quality of perverse originality. They’ve always been intelligent, clever word smiths and musical kleptomaniacs. This makes them very distinctive, but rarely in line with contemporary tastes.

Lyrically their subject matter is free ranging, partly fond and partly satirising aspects of male romantic behaviour. Other targets are leaden rock music and even contemporary politics in ‘Baby, baby, Can I invade your country?’

Each song was accompanied by impressive back projected visuals. These had the same touches of invention and wit we’ve come to expect from the Mael brothers. Their humour largely originates from Ron Mael, his blank faced caricature, developed over the years into being both slightly sinister and comedic. Whether he’s fighting with his screen self on ‘The very next fight’ or playing the guitar hero on ‘Rock Rock Rock’ he conveys an impish irony. Every cheek has a tongue firmly placed in it.

The first half was definitely ‘a show’ and a very cool one at that. In the second half, the gloves were off. We could finally see and hear that very tight trio of young musicians, who ably supported the Maels as they produced an hours worth of hits and oddities. Opening with ‘Achoo’, and continuing on through ‘No 1 Song in Heaven’ , ‘Something for the girl with everything’ and ‘When do I get to sing My Way?’ Their most famous song ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ was given a version of spunky gusto with a refreshing rawness. It was no weary retread. This song alone tells you why this band has remained so influential, in so many ways, over so many decades. They concluded the evening with a clutch of songs re-arranged for voice and piano ,‘Suburban Homeboy’ and a final re run of ‘Dick Around’ These displayed the quality and versatility of Ron Mael as a song writer and the youthful verve of Russell’s nimble vocals. Sparks may have become more polished by time, but their creative pulse still has a very big beat.

A version of this review was published in The Independent on 11/10/06

Monday, October 02, 2006


All things change when we do



Uncertainty is predominant today, in the world and in me. I’m uncertain exactly where I’m heading ,apart from toward death. I’ve rarely felt certain. I’ve frequently found myself admiring people who seemed certain. At the same time I distrusted certainty as being primarily a compensatory assertion. We can never really be absolutely certain. We just behave as if we are, because otherwise we’d never do anything.

It’s always a mixed bag of emotions and motivations. I’ve spent a great deal of mental energy sifting and appraising ,trying to discern what I was certain of. Certainty is more akin to a feeling, based on a desire for stability. Not to be confused with conviction which appears, on the surface at least, to be a more thought through position. Uncertainty is also such a feeling, a particularly debilitating one as it blocks purpose, action and sense of progress. Perhaps, after all, this search for certainty has always been a waste of time and effort.

I like certainties, people likes certainties, our society likes them too. Politicians love them and get voted in because of them. They also get voted out when we become uncertain about them or we no longer believe in their certainties anymore. The pursuit of certainty is a beautiful but false god.

In the last few years I’ve been trying to create a new personal manifesto. Though it’s content is changing all the time. First, I leave my job to pursue a different relationship to work and life. I decided then that I actually wanted to work part-time, to devote more energy to painting and writing. The part-time work leaves me in debt, so I’m forced to look for fulltime work. Lately I’ve wanted to train as a counselor. I’d work full time in order to clear my debts and save money to pay for it. Today, all those previous initiatives, which felt pretty certain at the time, now feel uncertain. The energy and emotion behind them having run out of steam.

Previously, out of uncertainty, I allowed circumstance to deal me my future course. Desire playing second fiddle to it. On a practical level this worked. On a spiritual level, it took its consequences on the robustness of my body and soul. Whilst I’m currently trying to avoid perpetuating this approach, my lifestyle is inevitable in a fragile balance between circumstance and desire. Basically, I’ve never really wanted to work, but have had to of course. Money being a necessity in order to function. Work gives some financial stability, but its pragmatic urges suffocate purposeful desire and replace them with consumerism. In trying to give my desires time and space to breathe, I keep having to work around obstacles that life throws in my way. It’s a bit of a bugger, but this is how reality works.

I believe on some unconscious level I hold a childlike view that life is a wish fulfilling jewel. Where I only have to be certain what I desire the most and so it will appear. The consequences of this, in the failure of the universe to comply, are pretty grim. For its a dreadful fairy tale to unwittingly be living you’re life by.

I am beginning to believe I should take uncertainty more seriously. It is surely more in alignment with reality. The outright pursuit of certainty just leads to frustration and depression. Paradoxically, by embracing purposelessness and insecurity instead of pursuing fulfillment, I might be happier. Happiness, as Quentin Crisp puts it, is the art of living in the present, desire being entirely future orientated.

“ The essence of happiness is its absoluteness. It is automatically the state of being of those who live in the continuous present, all over their bodies.
No effort is required to define or even attain happiness but enormous concentration is needed to abandon everything else”

The things one could abandon are the desire for fulfillment, security and ultimately the desire for desires itself. Which brings us back to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths yet again; desires lead to craving; craving leads to suffering; one becomes free from suffering by being free from craving and desire; one learns how to be free of suffering by practicing the Buddha’s teachings on sila (ethics ) samadhi ( meditation ) and pranja ( wisdom ) .

All the things in life that I’ve pursued in order to find happiness have rarely been durable, which has just left me craving for something else. Perhaps I need to be more perverse instead of persevering. Recognise and enjoy happiness when it comes along and not be too down hearted when it doesn’t. Ultimate happiness lies well beyond certainty and uncertainty. If only I could see that more clearly now, through the fog of desire and the daily drizzle of circumstance.


The Archeologist.

He walks the fields,
circling the ancient burial mound,
grassed over and ringed
by elders and hawthorn,
barbed crowns around
an eroded tumuli,
that might hold within its testes,
shields, caskets or ships,
he kneels in ribs left by ploughs,
passes earth from hand to hand,
examines texture, composition,
odd coins and shards
bound in clods greasy and wet,
this claggy soil absorbs his fingers,
moulds to creases, marks and veins,
prints curls around the fist
of his energetic imaginings,
about the past, your history that fashions a form
which may describe you,
sometimes he sees you
as a god with phallic power,
sometimes he sees you
as a snake wriggling in his grasp,
sometimes he sees you
as an imp that’s hard to catch,
sometimes he sees you
as a pot of gold found beneath floorboards,
sometimes he sees you
as an empty cupboard he remembers being full,
sometimes he sees you
as a movie with slow gratuitous silences,
sometimes he sees you
in a half full cappuccino dusted with cinnamon,
of these he makes
an intoxicating dynasty,
that is never as near to you
as the walls, floors, windows
and recorded artefacts
that he shares a room with.