Jun 25, 2009

Unbelievably depressing

Not just terrorists, note, but "terror suspects." Almost half the population of America believes that torturing innocents — which is what the torture of suspects must necessarily entail — is acceptable. The fact that the numbers so closely map the partisan divide is the only kind light I can think of to shed on this. Left to their own devices, most Americans are surely not in favour of the state inflicting pain on powerless and potentially innocent individuals. Rather: they've heard their party tortured some folks, were told it helped make them safe, and now they're simply being loyal to their party. That's my hope, anyway. 

Jun 24, 2009

Still with us

"I know what side I'm on," McCain cut in. "I'm on the side of the people. I'm not on Ahmadinejad's side or Mousavi. I'm on the side of the Iranian people and I'm on the right side of history. And I'm not going to walk on the other side of the street while people are being killed and beaten in the streets of Iran."
McCain seems genuinely oblivious to the propaganda victory he would be handing Ahmadinejad. But he can't be: he utilised that very same trick himself during the 08 election when he seized on foreign support for Obama as a sign that he was not to be trusted. Maybe that's why he isn't willing to acknowledge the tactic's existence. The possibility that America may be demonised is anathema to anyone who spends so much time demonising other countries. Its like swahili, bat sonar, birdsong — it just  doesn't register.  

At the press conference today, reporters seized on the fact that Obama appeared to have taken a tougher tone on Iran. "What took you so long?" asked one. Another asked if McCain's criticisms had prompted the new tone. I would have thought the answer for the difference in tone is obvious: between Friday and today upwards of 19 people have died.

Jun 22, 2009

Quote of the day

"All I would say on the subject, besides the standard line that it was a highly regrettable incident, is that nothing is as it seems" — CNN broadcaster Richard Quest, talking to the Guardian about the incident back in April when he was arrested for possession of drugs after being found in Centra Park, after dark, with a rope around his neck tied to his genitals with a dildo in the boot of his car.

A thought I've long nursed (at 5:24)

Jun 20, 2009

White House slam

Tony Hawk takes a glide through the corridors of the  white house. "Here is my exit," he tweeted. "Supposed to return at noon for the First Father's Event if they let me back in." 

Letting off steam versus winning

"The demonstrators are fighting on their own, but they await just a word that America is on their side. And what do they hear from the president of the United States? Silence.... The Khamenei regime is deciding whether to do a Tiananmen. And what side is the Obama administration taking? None... Our fundamental values demand that America stand with demonstrators opposing a regime that is the antithesis of all we believe. And where is our president? Afraid of "meddling." Afraid to take sides between the head-breaking, women-shackling exporters of terror -- and the people in the street yearning to breathe free. This from a president who fancies himself the restorer of America's moral standing in the world." — Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post
I've been listening to the chorus from the right demanding Obama come out with a stronger denunciation of the Iranian regime with growing incredulity. I have yet to find an expert on Iran who thinks that aligning ourselves with Mousavi would do anything but ensure his defeat — as well as unifying a crumbling regime, and retilting the balance of power back to Ahmadinejad. It would have the exact opposite effect to the desired outcome. On the plus side, of course, it might have some therapeutic value for those politicians wishing to let off some steam. It confirms what I have long thought about the Republicans when it comes to foreign policy: they don't actually want to win. They would prefer to sound good. Or rather: they start out wanting to win, but somewhere along the line, they come up against the competing desire to open their mouths. The speed with which they give in to temptation is almost comic.*

*I've been thinking about this. The following in the New York Times gave me second thoughts.
During the Bush years, Iran’s regime was able to coalesce support by uniting the country against a common enemy: President Bush, who called Iran a pillar of the “axis of evil” in a speech that alienated many of the very reformers whom the United States was trying to woo. For much of his administration, even as he strengthened Iran by toppling Iran’s nemesis Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush struck a confrontational public line against the Iranian regime. The result, according to many experts here and in Iran, was that Iranians, including reformers, swallowed their criticism of the hard-line regime and united against the common enemy. Iranians with reformist sympathies even began advising Americans to stop openly supporting them, lest that open them to attack as pawns of America.
This is why the Republicans actions seem to lend themselves to helping the the hardliners. On some level, they want them in power. When McCain shoots off about how evil the regime is he is not giving vent to anger so much as confirming his identity: I am the enemy of that. Ahmadinejad complete him. It's still self-defeating as a long-term strategy, of course, but the motive is a little more understandable.

Jun 17, 2009

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

What are the chances that Moon is a good movie? If I told you that it was a debut feature directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, its chances would have to sink sharply. First time director? Son of Major Tom? Working out whatever weird inter-planetary issues he has from the strange alienated, sci-fi infused childhood he surely had? If I tell you that the movie was financed by Sting's wife, Trudie Styler, the movie's chances surely drop off the chart. With the exception of Time Bandits, no movie funded by a rock star has ever turned out to be good, let alone the rock star's wife, who probably knew the kid when he was growing up and was happy to give him any money was lying around her husband's tudor mansion slash yoga studio while he was in the middle of one of his five-hour Tantric orgasms. It was with some perplexity, then, that I announce that Moon is not just a good movie, but a very good movie, beautiful and haunting and original — the best sci-fi movie I have seen since Blade Runner.

Let me just check that against my hyperbole meter... hang on a minute.... Yep..... It checks out. We're good. The best sci-fi movie I have seen since Blade Runner, although I should distinguish between two type of sci-fi movie, here. There's the type we get every year — exciting and fast with laser guns and exploding planets, with a lineage that stretches back to Star Wars. And there there is the other, much rarer kind — thoughtful and strange and sad, with a lineage that stretches back to Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is the kind of movie Moon is. Nor is it shamed by that company.

I'm not going to tell you a thing about it. I had the good fortune to see it blind, attracted solely by the cool poster and the beautiful stills I had seen in the paper, which exactly resemble those dusty haunting shots of the lunar surface taken by the Apollo crew with those fancy cameras that everyone wants but whose name escapes me right now. I will tell you that it stars Sam Rockwell, and only Sam Rockwell, which is fine by me because he has just become my favorite actor. I thought he was mesmerising in Snow Angels, which blew my mind on a transatlantic flight last year. There he played a charming wastrel so heartbroken by his ex-wife that it takes a while to realise that he is, in fact, psychotic. It takes the whole movie for you to realise that, in fact: it's one of the more subtle unraveling of one man's mind ever put to film. (Someone should get this man a copy of David Gates Jernigan — he's already got the narrator's rueful sarcasm down to a tee). Moon starts out in similar territory, with a character you suspect may be losing his sanity, and then..... but I'm not going to say anything. Just see it. It's one of those movies you wander out of going "where did that come from? Who made it? How? Where? When? Why?"

See the trailer here.

Jun 15, 2009

The Uighurs go fishing

Uighurs Salahidin Abdulahat, 32, left, and Khelil Mamut, 31, go fishing in Bermuda, where they're now living after almost eight years in Guantanamo Bay.

Jun 14, 2009

A.I. reconsidered

I saw A.I. again on Showtime last night and finally realised the problem with it: you don't believe the mother loves the robot boy. We believe in Joley Haley Osmont's love for her, but never hers for him. It's hard to know what the actress, Frances O Conner, could have done exactly — the part pulls her all over the place. She has to first reject her surrogate son, then grow to love him, and then abandon him when her real son returns. The rest of the film — in which Osmont embarks on a long quest to be reunited with her — seems heartbreakingly misguided. Maybe that's why it feels so desolate. I doubt this was intentional: the final ten minutes, in which the boy finally gets to spend just one day with her, is one of the more heartbreaking ideas Spielberg has ever come up with. It's almost a complete movie in itself. I wish he had decided to make it.

Jun 13, 2009

Quote of the day

We've now seen several different occasions when [Obama]'s been on the international trips, where he's not willing to say, flat out, 'I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally, unapologetically, America is the best nation that ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today.'Liz Cheney, CNN
Hmm. Most odd. I wonder why he didn't say that. I've generally found that reminders of one's innate superiority are the best way to start any conversation. Say I meet a stranger at a dinner party. They ask for my name. I tell them. They ask me what I do for living. I tell them, but before they can carry this inane conversation to its stultifying conclusion, I cut in, quick as a flash "I believe unequivocally, unapologetically that I'm the best person that ever existed, and clearly that exists today." It never ceases to get conversations off to a flying start. Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if Obama is really as smart as everyone says he is.

Knocked up

Letterman offered no apology, but more of his usual postmodern, I'm goofy; feel sorry for me; "got the wrong daughter;" I'm Dave after all junk. The fact remains that in three separate references he slurred the female governor of Alaska and her 14-year-old daughter on a recent visit to his New York. And when he tried to contextualize it, all he did was make it worse by suggesting that he meant instead Governor Palin's 18-year-old daughter, who recently delivered an out-of-wedlock child.
Oh come on. The joke only works if it's about Bristol. There is no joke unless it's about Bristol. She's the only one of Palin's daughters who was knocked up. And it was her mother who then pushed her into a ludicrous public position as an advocate for abstinence. The humbug is self-evident. The joke makes itself.

Its fun to see Palin back in the spotlight, though. I've missed her immensely.

Jun 12, 2009

Jive talking

'Travolta's Ryder is not your average villain. He’s that modern type: the brainy sicko, an all controlling puppeteer who uses his vast knowledge and power to manipulate others into jumping through a series of ever more difficult hoops. Frequently, he calls out of the blue, using the public payphone system to pose a series of bizarre riddles to the hero. It normally ends with a mad race across town in the middle of rush hour. Cultural critics are in disagreement over the precise roots of this phenomenon — the plunging Dow, the rising tide of alienation and anomie in today’s cities — but agree that it allows audiences a good working knowledge of what it is to go to lunch with Ari Emanuel.' — From my piece for the Daily Beast about OCD villains

Jun 10, 2009

Tom Shone, novelist!

A finished copy of my novel arrived in the post yesterday. I opened the package, took it out, placed it on the chest in the living room, and haven't moved it since. Occasionally I will go and have a look, like a caveman creeping up to a refrigerator, give it a poke, cry "oogga-boogga" and flee to a safe distance to peer at it again. I'm not sure why it should fill me such primordial dread but it does. It's like someone has sent me a chicken foot in the post, or a set of nuclear codes. Clearly I am going to have to pull myself together before promoting it in London later in the month. It's not so bad, really. The cover looks great; the pagination is neat; the dimensions, to my mind, just right — not too onerously long, not too skimpily short. My worries about it looking too dialogue-heavy have been eased; inside it I find pages, sometimes whole consecutive pages, of uninterrupted text, just like a normal book. And yet it makes me feel like a perfumed imposter — like Inspector Closeau in that Pink Panther movie, grinning and gurning his way through a Bluebeard impression while his fake nose slides down his face.

Best news of the week

The Heavy metal band Anvil, immortalised in the movie Anvil! The Story of Anvil! will open for AC/DC when it performs at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. on July 28 and at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on July 31. This is excellent news — maybe not as important as Obama's speech in Cairo, or the subsequent defeat of Hezbollah in the Lebanese general election, or the decision by the Pacific archipelago of Palau to take in the 17 Uighers in Gitmo, but still: one of the weeks better pieces of news I've heard this week. Those who are as obsessed as I am can check out what the band got up to in Cannes here.

Jun 6, 2009

What my grandfather was doing 65 years ago

"The week following the Rhine crossing got a bit hectic because the army was advancing fairly rapidly into Germany and we flew every day sometimes to attack German front line positions to soften them up for the army and other times on sweeps deep into Germany to attack the trains and road vehicles that were bringing supplies to the German troops. We much preferred the attacks on front line positions, there wasn't any flak there because it was always pulled back when the army got too near. I had had a couple or so small holes in my aircraft when I was hit by small shell fragments or by the odd bullet but nothing of any consequence. That all changed on 31 March 1945 when I was one of eight aircraft that were sent from where we were in Southern Holand on a sweep to the North to attack the German transport that was retreating from Holland into Germany.

The weather was pretty foul, the visibility was not much more than a mile and the cloud was 8/8 at 2,000 feet. We had to fly lower than that which meant we were sitting ducks for German flak. Because of the bad visibility the formation leader led us over a German airfield which he hadn't seen and they always had a lot of guns. There was flak everywhere and I was very quickly hit on the starboard wing. I climbed into the cloud to get away from it and when I was clear of the airfield I descended until I was below cloud. There was no sign of the rest of the formation and our orders were that if one was alone one went home very quickly because it wasn't very safe to be a single aircraft over German territory. I turned and headed for home flying very low so as to make it difficult for anyone to hit me, until I saw some of our army vehicles. Thinking I was now safely away from the Germans I climbed to about 1500 feet and started looking at my map to find out where I was. It wasn't as safe as I thought because there was suddenly flak all around me and I was hit in the port wing and behind the cockpit. I felt a thump behind my right shoulder as if somebody had punched me and a number of holes appeared in the perspex cockpit canopy. At the same time I saw what looked like smoke streaming back from the port wing.... My shoulder began to feel a bit funny and I could feel something trickling down my back so I realised I had been wounded. It took about 15 minutes to get back to Helmond and by the time that I got there I couldn't move my right arm and had to do everything with my left hand. It was a bit difficult to reach the undercarriage control lever and the flap lever because they were low down on the right hand side of the cockpit but it was a case of reach them or do a crash landing and I didn't fancy doing that. I figured that I had had enough risk for one day."
From my grandfather's account of his time flying Typhoons for RAF Squadron 137. Derek was 17 when the war broke out, 18 when he enlisted and 22 when he was wounded. He carried the shrapnel around in his body for the rest of his life. When I was 7 or thereabouts, a piece of it worked its way out of his knee. I remember being very impressed by that piece of metal's journey, also by how unfazed he seemed to be about the whole thing. Was there any more? Didn't he want to get it all out? What happened if he walked past a very strong magnet? When was the next bit coming? Which bit of him would it choose to come out of? I definitely knew I had something special on my hands after that. Nobody else that I knew had a grandfather with odd bits of aircraft fusillage floating around their bodies. Just mine.

Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald

Jun 5, 2009

Album of the summer

A strong contender. June, certainly. Two standout tracks: Girlfriend and Countdown.

Moral Equivalence: what is it and how can I avoid it?

Moral equivalence — how everyone hates it! I'd never really come across the term before but have soon learned that the quickest way to defeat an argument in American politics is to accuse your opponent of moral equivalence, then sit back and watch them unwind. So what is moral equivalence and how can I avoid it? Apparently Obama's speech in Cairo was full of it:
Another example of moral equivalency: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” That is accepting the (false) narrative of the Iranian Revolution, which holds that America’s role in overthrowing Mossadeq more than half a century ago — a development that would not have been possible had the leftist prime minister not lost support in the Iranian street — is just as bad as the campaign of mass murder and kidnapping that Iran continues to support at this very moment.
Ah. I see. It means taking umbrage at the most featherlight critique of American foreign policy. Obama did not say America's overthrow of a democratic regime was "as bad as" Iran's current day activities. He simply pointed out that America' record was not unblemished. That, apparently, is moral equivalence. Someone says something minorly critical of America's record, you jump in, infer value judgments that are not there (he's saying we're as bad as the nazis!) and then accuse your interlocutor of making them. Hmm. I will have to try it some time.

Jun 4, 2009

Early Amis fiction

"Remembering the lipstick, he doubles up laughing, “I was so bad at it. At duplicity.” But he wasn’t, he was very cunning. There was a dinner at a Greek place in Charlotte Street with Clive James and the critic Lorna Sage, when I thought that Martin and Lorna were doing more than just sitting side by side, and after picking up the fork I’d dropped, had my suspicions confirmed. Tears and recriminations later were a waste of energy, because Martin’s defence tactic was to turn the tables of blame, attacking me for making an issue out of something so unimportant. This was Martin at his worst—nasty, facetious and belittling—and I didn’t have the confidence then to know that his behaviour was unacceptable, not mine.... His notes to me from this period until the end of the year are almost all alibis. All-night poker sessions with Tony Hard-On [Anthony Holden] were the most convincing, provided his tracks were covered (eg,“Don’t tell Rob abt poker ’cos he’ll bitch abt not being asked”)."

— from Julie Kavenagh's piece in Intelligent Life about being romanced and deceived by Martin Amis. The current issue also contains my article on great writer drunks but they haven't posted it online, presumably because their sales would plummet unmercifully if they they did.