Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Spectre: A Pension of Nightmares

Off to the cinema to see Spectre, a terrific new action thriller starring Daniel Craig as James Bond, a swave and deboner British spy of mixed Scottish-English-Irish extraction who is ninety years old. Women love him, even when they pretend not to; some men wish they could be him; other men try to kill him; he kills them instead. It's a simple life. The Bond films are simple. Their appeal is simple and has endured remarkably well, although it has mutated since the 1960s.

Back then, Bond was the man you could never hope to be. For the price of a cinema ticket you could witness a lifestyle you would never have. In Ian Fleming's day foreign travel was expensive and awkward, Aston Martins were not sold to coloured gentlemen, and ordinary people like you or I did not have sex. In the 1960s real life for most people was nothing like the Bond films.

Fast forward to 2015 and the world is very different. Few things are out of reach of the truly committed and Bond's lifestyle is no longer particularly exotic. Even I have been to Rome and Morocco. I did not stay in top hotels, and I was taken there by Ryanair and Easyjet rather than BOAC, but I have been there nonetheless. Quite literally everybody reading this blog post has spent at least a year in Goa or Peru, and the world has run out of exotic, unattainable travel destinations. The early Bond films now look quaint but there is still something about them that can never be recaptured. Something that draws people to them. You or I might visit Istanbul, but we will never be Sean Connery sharing a coach on the Orient Express with Daniela Bianchi.

Nevermind that the train was a studio set. The Bond films, like all films, are essentially a mass of illusions designed to distract us from the drudgery of everyday life. If our Mondays were bliss, we would not need the cinema.

"Beware of the handshake that holds the snake"

Daniel Craig is eight years older than me, despite which he is an international sex symbol. It's great being a man. I can drink and watch television for the next seven years and still potentially be an international sex symbol myself, provided I work out a bit at the end. I wonder if women feel the same way about Gwyneth Paltrow. She is 43, which is very old for a woman - they age faster than men - but she is still thin and famous and everything. Women have at least until the age of 42 to pig out, at which point a simple crash diet and presto, they can potentially be glamour icons just like Gwyneth Paltrow. Yes but what's the film like? It's good. Not great. It's unusually long but consistently entertaining and never draggy. It feels less epic than the length suggests. It has weak villains and some odd quirks, but the time flashed by. It has one truly fantastic line, delivered with aplomb by Ralph Fiennes. I will not reveal the line but it is very rude and everyone in the cinema laughed.

I have often wondered if Bond screenplays begin as tough, plausible thrillers, and are then handed to a group of specialists who tear out anything that does not end with an explosion or an establishing shot, even if this makes the plot nonsensical. Spectre has all of the old Bondisms, delivered so blatantly and with such relentless force that the producers must have been double-daring us to mock the film. Bond is indestructible until the plot demands it, at which point he is knocked out with a pistol butt to the head. He is captured, but the villains don't think to frisk him. Instead of simply shooting him, the baddies reveal their plans and give him numerous opportunities to escape. When it makes sense for them to capture Bond, they send a man who tries to kill him; when they no longer need him alive, they let him live. Despite swearing an oath to protect an ally from harm Bond insists on bringing her directly into the villain's lair. Instead of tackling a man who is fleeing to a rescue helicopter Bond decides to leap into the chopper and punch out the pilot in mid-air, which goes about as well as you would expect. Bond actually comes across as a bit of a jerk at the beginning. He almost kills a lot of innocent people, and it's all his fault.

I don't want to give away specific plot points, but if I had built a villainous factory that could be destroyed with a single stray bullet, I wouldn't give the guards Kalashnikovs. I would give them highly accurate rifles and I would employ guards who could shoot straight or at least make an attempt to flank Bond instead of running straight at him. If I had the resources to build a giant explosive trap for James Bond, I would just blow up Bond and then gloat over his grave. Bond has probably seen The Dark Knight as well, he would be unimpressed with my dilemma. If I was the sub-villain, and I had essentially won, I would just keep my mouth shut and have the heroes arrested by the police for trespassing on government property. If I ever find myself tasked with following James Bond around on a train, I will ask whether I am supposed to kill him or capture him; in the former case I would shoot him from a distance or blow up the train, in the latter case I would wait for him to fall asleep and then pump gas into his carriage, because I've seen The Prisoner. The producers of Spectre appear to have seen The Prisoner as well, because one scene seemed to be a visual homage to Patrick McGoohan's TV spy oddity. If I was the chief villain I would ask myself if I was trying to kidnap Bond or his new girlfriend or both or what etc.

Despite having most of the ingredients of the old-stock, old-fashioned Bond films, Spectre feels very different. Bond in the cinema divides into pre-Daniel Craig Classic Bond and Craig's Modern Bond. Craig himself was one of the new ingredients rather than the catalyst. The real transformation happened behind the scenes, with a general overhaul of the series' entire filmmaking philosophy. For example, Spectre begins with a long tracking shot during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. We follow Bond as he goes to a hotel room with a lady who is probably famous in Spain or somewhere and will forevermore bill herself as "X, star of Spectre", despite having only two lines. Bond exits via the window and the camera continues tracking the suave bastard as he goes to work, sauntering over Mexican rooftops.

Nothing really happens during all of this. The credits don't appear, there are no cuts back to headquarters. The sequence doesn't add anything to the plot. It's pure style, and it's awesome. Cinema with a capital C, the kind of meaningless pointless artistry that makes the best art films come alive.

I would name it after the first woman I killed. But I didn't stop to catch her name.

The classic Bond films would not have had this sequence. They were not Cinema, they were instead efficient, expensive-but-cheap-looking action films. Classic Bond would have opened with a stock shot of Mexico city, followed by a few flavour shots of people dancing in skeleton make-up, and then we would cut to Roger Moore looking worried and the film would begin. Spectre has numerous moments that go nowhere and aren't even symbolism, but they work because they make the film seem like a real motion picture. At one point Bond threatens to shoot a mouse, in a moment that is both comic and surreal and hard to describe; it advances the plot a little bit, but it's one of those little things that sticks in the mind. The old Bond films never had little things. Little things would have been excised during the storyboarding process.

And there's the camerawork. Modern Bond is shot in the modern style, with everything handheld. Not shaky-cam; there's enough stability that it doesn't get nauseous. The camera is always moving. In a sequence on a train the camera tilts a bit in a way that seemed accidental, and was probably a consequence of the setup - the characters are filmed from the top of an adjacent table, past the pepperpots and beyond the ketchup - but it felt natural and added to the general looseness of style. Unless you're looking for it, you don't notice the camera prowling around and hunting focus, but it gets to your subconscious. The film is directed by Sam Mendes, who has a short but memorable body of work consisting of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, some other films that nobody talks about, and Bond. Perdition was famously good-looking, Spectre has a cleaner, less gothic style. If I remember correctly it has a loose day-night cycle, beginning in daylight before moving to night, daylight, and night again; it ends in darkness.

Everything ends in darkness. I'll give one thing away. Typically in Bond films there are two Bond girls. The mistress of the villain longs to be released from captivity, when Bond appears she betrays the villain to Bond and is dumped into a piranha tank for her trouble. There is also a second Bond girl who is less interesting and doesn't die, although she is constantly in jeopardy and has to be rescued time and again by Bond. The series has played with this formula now and again, but without much commitment (Goldfinger had two doomed Bond girls and a lesbian judo pilot; For Your Eyes Only had a Bond girl who was almost literally a girl; On Her Majesty's Secret Service folded both Bond girls into one character).

As soon as it was announced that Monica Bellucci was one of Spectre's Bond girls I remember feeling sad that she was going to die - I envisaged her floating dead in a swimming pool - but, to my surprise, she... well, if she dies, it happens off-screen. She's only in the film for a very short time, perhaps because her English isn't very good, but she makes a strong impression. Doubly so because I am a man, and I like to think that God created Monica Bellucci so that my life would have meaning.

It's easy to spell Monica Bellucci's surname. Just remember that she is hyper-woman, so she has two Ls, two Cs, and of course only one I, because women only have one eye. I have no idea if she is married, or if she loves her husband; if she is, and she does, that man has something more valuable than money. Monica Bellucci is modern cinema's Sophia Loren, in the sense that she can't act in English and thus has never really had a memorable role in a Hollywood film, but she looks fantastic and exudes the essence of Cinema from every pore of her beautiful face. She is even older than Gwyneth Paltrow, and if she could distill her essence into a beauty cream she could retire from acting tomorrow.

Skyfall was the official 50th anniversary Bond film, Die Another Day the fortieth. Both of those films had little homages to the Bond canon; there hadn't been an opportunity in 1972 or 1982. Spectre has not been released on the anniversary of anything, unless perhaps you count Goldeneye. It has been twenty years since Goldeneye. Two whole decades have gone by since I read a review of Goldeneye in the newspaper; two decades since I paid £7.50 or however much to see it at the cinema. Twenty years and half a lifetime ago. I'm going to have another drink now. Martini of course, although not as James Bond preferred it. He mixed it with something called Kina Lillet, which is apparently no longer made. You will never be Sean Connery riding on the Orient Express with Daniela Bianchi. They dubbed her, because in those days they cast Bond girls for their looks, no other reason.

Bianchi isn't the most famous Bond girl and she never had a gimmick, in fact her character was a simpering weakling who was presumably arrested by MI6 the moment she was no longer useful and deported back to Russia, comma, something or other but she was the most beautiful. Other Bond girls were sexier, some were prettier, some seemed more fun to hang out with - Diana Rigg is top of that list - but Bianchi was the one that would have caused Greek sculptors to pause and thank whatever Gods the Greek worshipped that women existed. Men admire attractive women with different parts of their bodies; some women cure impotence, some cause the heart to race, others strike a man's soul, fill his mind with visions of the desert and of the landscape that existed before human beings. It's all hormones, really, just chemicals secreted by glands inside the body. Certain visual stimuli cause the body to secret hormones that have a mood-altering effect. The same is true of films in general, indeed much of human life is devoted to stimulating these glands. I was talking about a film, a long time ago.

Spectre is cobbled together from bits of older Bond films, in a way that is clever rather than desperate. Léa Seydoux is essentially Diana Rigg from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but without the death wish. Her character is the daughter of the friendly villain; she grew up in the company of people who would kill her if they were ordered to. The Day of the Dead sequences borrow some of the iconography from Live and Let Die, thankfully nothing else from that film. There is a fight on a train that is the spit of a similar fight in From Russia with Love. A sequence in which the Bond girl takes a rest while Bond guards over her is cribbed from Tomorrow Never Dies. The villainous hideout put me in mind of Quantum of Solace, and the underlying plot of a threat to MI6 is reminiscent of Skyfall, although on reflection I suspect it's because Spectre is a direct continuation of that film rather than a homage. Bond drives an Aston Martin and carries a Walther PPK. He also seems to moonlight as a travelling salesman for SIG, and if I lived in the United States I would be tempted to look up used P226s on Gunbroker or something. The film has been criticised for its product placement, but in general it's subtle and in any case even the novels were full of product placement. Fleming felt that it wasn't enough to tell us that Bond enjoyed a drink and carried a gun, he wanted to show off his impeccable taste by having Bond drink the right drink and carry the right gun.

One thing about the product placement worries me, though. Early in the film there is a lengthy chase between Bond in an Aston Martin and a villainous henchman in a Ferrari, at least I think it was a Ferrari. The chase feels surprisingly sanitised, un-dangerous. There aren't many stunts, and neither car appeared to accumulate any damage. Even the Fiat that Bond pushes out of the way ends up almost unscathed. It felt safe, as if Aston Martin and Ferrari and Fiat had forbidden the producers from showing their vehicles in a damaged state. Presumably the Dornier or Fokker that Bond destroys later was fair game because both of those companies are defunct.

The chase also highlights the film's wandering tone. Modern Bond has to strike a deft balance between absurdity and a kind of Hollywood realism. Christopher Nolan's Batman films succeeded well at this. They were absurd, but at the same time they felt like gritty crime dramas. The early Bond films tried to pull this off as well but threw in the towel after From Russia with Love. Spectre generally succeeds at the smaller silly things. Bond teleports from Morocco to a safe house in London at just the right time to meet M, but that's okay because it would be boring otherwise. In one scene there is a desperate fight on a train that demolishes several carriages, after which everything is right again and they have a nightcap, but later we learn that they were going to be captured anyway so it doesn't matter. The Aston Martin's ejector seat however takes things too far, and isn't even necessary to advance the plot; it's a throwaway gag. That and 009's mood music. The car chase is towards the beginning of the film, and on reflection I think that Spectre gets better as it goes along. The first half feels like a lightweight Moore-era homage, albeit with a single instance of surprisingly brutal violence; the second half is a much bleaker action thriller.

Other problems? The council of baddies meets in a large mansion that appears to be guarded by just three people. The chief villain himself is unmasked late in the game, and does surprisingly little thereafter (in a break from tradition he doesn't even have a memorable death). The whole Empire Strikes Back aspect is baffling. Is it really that easy to shoot a helicopter with a Walther PPK at a range of several hundred metres from a fast-moving speedboat? Is the headquarters of Britain's intelligence services unguarded at night? How is it that so many villains are able to fly helicopters around Britain without attracting attention? Yes, these are all gripes, and I should really just sit back and let the film wash over me - I want to stress that I wasn't jotting all this down during the film, I was instead munching popcorn and wondering why people go to the toilet immediately after the film begins. Why do people do that?

Above all this, the plot tries to deal with contemporary fears of mass surveillance but can't form a convincing argument because the Bond films simply aren't capable of dealing with weighty issues. Ralph Fiennes' M makes a passionate defence of the double-oh section's licence to kill by arguing that a man with a gun pressed into the face of another man is not likely to make a mistake. I remember that they shot Jean Charles de Menezes seven times in the face; his skull must have looked like a broken china cup when they finished with him. If the Met's surveillance had been better, if the men who commanded the police had been competent, if the police had been allowed to exercise their own judgement, if their judgement had been correct, if and but if but de Menezes might not have died. A film could be made out of this. Chris Morris' Four Lions had a go. Spectre is out of its depth. Raising the issue of a licence to kill also highlights the enormous age of the Bond films. In Fleming's day you had to be a very important man to be given a pistol by the government and authorisation to use it. Nowadays even lowly policemen have a licence to kill.

Ralph Fiennes is, incidentally, excellent in his limited role as an action M. I assume he was asked to play the role as if he was in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Up the page I mention the Batman films. Beyond its obvious Dark Knight homage, Spectre ends with a band-of-brothers-in-occupied-territory sequence reminiscent of The Dark Knight Rises. The final shots reminded me of that film as well. It would have been easy to make Spectre Bond's final adventure. He seems ready to settle down with Léa Seydoux's character and have lots of Bond babies, which would be possible because even though he is 47 and thus an old man, she is only 30. That's still quite old for a woman, but she is presumably still fertile. Women love older men, I know this from the Bond films.

I'm warming to OS X. If you want to type é, you just hold down the "e" key until a pop-up menu appears with accents, and then you hit 2. Obviously you can't type eeeeeeeee without turning this option off, but how often do I do that? Not very often. The idea of holding down a key and having an accent pop up is simple and very effective. Ö, there you go. This is fun. N̈.


That's Spectre over and done with. Let's talk about the Bond franchise. It has drifted in and out of fashion since it began way back in 1962, with Dr No. In the 1960s the likes of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were the highest-grossing films of the day, but as the franchise became larger and more extravagant it seemed to collapse in on itself. Bond spent the first half of the 1970s in a moribund state. All of the films turned a profit, but early-1970s Bond was in danger of entering a cycle of diminishing returns leading to diminishing budgets leading to oblivion. So the story goes, the producers took out a huge bank loan for 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, which they extended for Moonraker; those two films made Bond a blockbuster star again.

Bond remained popular in the 1980s but the franchise felt tired, and it ground to an awkward halt at the end of the decade. It's possible to enjoy the early Bonds as period pieces, but 1980s Bond is hard to like. The films have their moments but the series wrestled with an identity crisis. Roger Moore's lightweight action adventures were popular but naff; Timothy Dalton's dour realism was less popular, and still a bit naff. The Dalton-era Bond films, all two of them, tried to be contemporary but ended up feeling like imitations of Miami Vice, a kind of affected imitation of realism.

Nonetheless the series was relaunched successfully with Goldeneye in 1995. As a reboot, Goldeneye is odd, in that it didn't have a grand concept; unlike On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Licence to Kill it didn't try to pay homage to the past or introduce a radically new style, it was simply a classic Bond film executed well. In the gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye there had been a flurry of Die Hard rip-offs, and perhaps audiences in 1995 wanted something big and silly again. Goldeneye was a huge hit and for a while Bond was hip again. Alas, the franchise gradually ran out of ideas and inspiration, culminating in the odd disaster of Die Another Day (2002). An odd disaster because, on paper, it was a huge success, grossing almost half a billion dollars, but it received generally poor reviews and felt like an excessive, muddled mess. I remember watching it at the cinema and feeling sorry for the cast.

Another hiatus ensued. At the time this seemed to last forever, although the gap was only four years; not much longer than the natural gap between Bond films. Something changed in those four years. Action cinema changed. Hollywood changed. In 2002 there was talk of a rivalry between the Bond franchise and xXx, an action spy film built around a musclebound extreme sports enthusiast compelled by the US government to become a spy. There was talk that the Bond films were fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned, and that the future belonged to hip young skateboarders like xXx's Xander Cage, or maybe the gravity-defying ninja vampires of Blade, or the physics-defying characters of the Matrix franchise.

But as it turned out xXx and The Matrix and Blade were not the future at all. It was hard to care for heroes who were invincible, hard to care for drama that took place in a cartoon world. Instead the future of action drama belonged to a pair of haunted, uncompromising professionals, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, one adapted for the cinema from a series of books, the other an original creation for television. Television spent its first forty years in the shadow of cinema, but over the last two decades some of the best writing in motion picture drama has been for television. Bauer's 24 was controversial for its depiction of torture and its decision to grapple with the issue of Persons of a Certain Religion, which is generally a no-no in cinema, because films are released all across the world and are not supposed to offend anybody.

Bourne and Bauer were pensive, modestly-built government agents who did not enjoy their job; men surrounded by death, trapped in a world of pain. The Bourne films made late-Brosnan-era Bond look ridiculous. They were successful not just because they felt more serious than the competition, but because the producers seemed to care deeply about them. The acting talent was top-notch; the action choreography, the fisticuffs and foot chases and stabbings had visceral power. The Bourne films balanced realism and thrills without becoming morose or overpowering. They still took place in an unreal world, but it was a world that had an air of verisimilitude. When Clive Owen's villainous assassin is mortally wounded in the first film there are no quips, just a mournful acknowledgement that his time is up.

Bond’s producers had wrestled with realism before, never very successfully. In Goldeneye Judi Dench’s M characterises Bond as a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, but in the very next film she asks Bond to pump a ladyfriend for information, and there’s a strong implication that she doesn't expect Bond to literally insert a bicycle pump into the woman's fanny, she instead expects him to seduce her, although ironically inserting a bicycle pump into a woman's fanny is the kind of thing that real-life intelligence agents probably do - Jack Bauer would probably do it as well - so in that respect perhaps Tomorrow Never Dies had a darker tone than I remember. This paragraph has gone on long enough. The next film after that had paragliding assassins who came out of nowhere and Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist.

In my opinion it wasn't just the Bourne films, though. It could have been Saving Private Ryan, or the failure of Batman and Robin and Die Another Day and the new Star Wars films - cartoonish travesties all - or the popularity of the slow-paced, epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, or 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq, or a wave that passed through the world, but for Casino Royale (2005) Bond’s producers tried hard to change the general tone of the Bond films. To really do it this time. The Bond films have always been about tone. They have a certain tone that is hard to characterise, but although there are elements of Modern Bond in the Classic Bond films, they are tonally incompatible and really belong to separate franchises. The producers almost blew it with the anonymous, campy Quantum of Solace (2008), but redeemed themselves with Skyfall (2012), which had a decent villain, some good lines, and an exciting action finale.

Spectre was preceded by little advertisements for forthcoming films, including a David Brent vehicle that I will not be going to see. There was the final instalment of The Hunger Games, which looks perfectly okay but I haven't seen the other films so I won't be going to see this one.

There was The Revenant, which is a survival drama starring Leonardo di Caprio, who has rocket launchers on his shoulders that can fire homing missiles (the homing missiles have smoke coming out of them). The film is a cross between Jeremiah Johnson and the cinematography of Terence Malick's The New World. The film looks fantastic. It has a distinctive style - everything is shot with wide angle lenses, with the characters leaning at the camera, and there appears to be no fill light, so it has a look that is simultaneously beautiful and harsh. I will probably go and see it, although my hunch is that it will be a terrible flop - I can't see it appealing to women or children.

And there was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The fourth Star Wars film. Given the huge success of the original Star Wars trilogy you'd think Hollywood would have revived the franchise already, but no, this is the first new Star Wars film since 1983. It has a restrained visual style and surprisingly low-key music. It baffles me that they hired Lupita Nyong'o and then rotoscoped her. Why hire the most beautiful person in human history and turn her into CGI, especially given that the film is supposed to have as little CGI as possible? Of course I will go and see it. Not because it is Star Wars, but because it looks interesting on its own merits. I felt a little disappointed when the Star Wars logo appeared. I don't know why.

Exciting action finale. The Bond films take place in a fantasy world where the authorities are fundamentally good and everybody else is bad and evil. Bond’s job is to ensure the survival of the existing order by destroying the forces of chaos. In Fleming’s day, Britain was a major world power that had brought enlightenment to the world with a combination of Roman discipline and British fair play and also masses of ships. The British Empire saw off the evil forces of first the French - who practice sodomy and allow their dogs to shit in the street - and then the beastly Germans, and by the 1950s we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our American friends against the socialists who wanted to take money away from rich people and use it to help poor people breed.

Of course, by the time of the Bond film franchise Britain had become merely the northern part of the eastern part of NATO, and nowadays we are basically a lot of banks, a tax haven for foreign gangsters, with a military that could in theory challenge one of the Middle Eastern states with a good chance of winning, but we would be unable to do any more than smash up their armed forces and only then if none of the other powers complained, and for what? We would be bankrupt at the end of it and would have to withdraw, as we did fifty years ago.

The Bond films are often mocked for ignoring Britain's diminished world role, although I have always assumed that in the background of Thunderball and Octopussy there were CIA agents saving the world from dastardly plots we never hear about, and that on the international stage Bond was small fry. The modern Bonds have avoided this by giving Bond relatively modest challenges, but even in classic Bond there were nods to the absurdity of a British secret service agent as the world's only hope. The conflict in Tomorrow Never Dies, for example, is between Britain and China, with an implication that China would wipe the floor with the Royal Navy, and although American CIA agents are often portrayed as cheerful but not particularly bright, they generally have better toys than us. I often wonder if Tony Blair modelled himself on Brosnan-era Bond. The general stereotype of the Anglo-American relationship in Britain is that they have the money, we have the brains, and that they need us to do all the clever stuff because we had an empire when they were still fighting about slavery. This element actually survives into the modern Bonds, although to be fair the British government does not come off particularly well either.

The Bourne films, on the other hand, presented the CIA as a murderous, corrupt conspiracy that had no qualms about killing children. 24 was similarly equivocal. I can’t remember exactly what the CIA wanted to achieve throughout the Bourne films - the ongoing plot to kill Bourne was essentially a gigantic side quest - but it probably didn't involve the greater good of humanity.

American films often feature a fundamentally decent President who is unaware of an evil conspiracy amongst his intelligence chiefs, indeed the plot device of a corrupt CIA offshoot was a cliché even before Watergate. Bourne presents this in an unusually direct manner; Bourne's tortured psyche is living proof of the CIA's villainy, and they don't bother trying to arrest him, they just want him dead. There are parallels in the bleaker works of John le Carré, where the British government is shown to be amoral, but in Carré's fiction the government is pragmatic rather than downright evil. There is an implication in Carré's books that, somewhere down the line, there is a plan to shorten the Cold War and thus prevent more death. In the Bond films the government is presented in a similarly pragmatic light and there are occasional suggestions that Bond is not just expendable but potentially disposable if it should come to that. The fundamental difference between the two universes is cultural. In America the people are supposed to be horrified that their government is mean; in the United Kingdom we accept that we are ruled by bastards.

(Another thing strikes me about the Bourne films. The Bond films acknowledge the existence of the CIA, and have done ever since they begin, but the Bourne films don't portray the British secret service at all, because Britain is an anonymous irrelevance on the international stage. This is something that British people cannot comprehend. Again, I often wonder if Tony Blair imagines crowds in the Middle East, America, all across the world thanking God that Britain exists, because in my travels abroad I don't remember encountering any manifestations of Britishness at all. In the days of Empire we made things, and our Empire bought them because we had forced them to sign a trade agreement that compelled them to buy our things; and later we made things, and foreigners bought them because the factories in China hadn't got up to steam yet; now we no longer make things, and although our banks are the envy of the world it is awfully jarring to find that there is no Tesco in Italy or Spain. We may have the world's sixth-biggest economy, but if we vanished from the Earth we wouldn't leave much behind.)

Bond is, fundamentally, a bastard. Bourne is a metrosexual new man who cries whenever he treads on a butterfly. He would be fun to hang out with provided you didn't say anything bad about blacks or muslims or gays or the Irish or women, in which case he would punch you. Bond, on the other hand, loves to kill. He is thrilled to be a government assassin; when his masters try to stop him from killing villainous drug kingpin Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill, he resigns so that he can kill Sanchez in his spare time. He is angry when they take away his licence to kill and happy when he gets it back. I like to imagine that during the weekend Bond kills people on a freelance basis. Perhaps the Duke of Westminster hires him to clear poor people from some of his properties so he can rent them at higher rates. It says something about Britain that, although it is illegal to hunt foxes, there is nothing in British law that explicitly forbids the hunting of poor people.

Bond is an unusual modern hero in that he is not our friend. In Fleming’s mind Bond worked to defend Fleming’s class against THEM; for the average British person of the 1950s and 1960s, Bond was our superior but he was nonetheless one of US. In multicultural, post-Suez, post-Beyond the Fringe Britain of 2015 Bond and his world are separate from our own. The illusion that the authorities have our interests at heart is no longer tenable, and it is hard to accept that the authorities represent us, or that they are our moral superiors. If they're so good, why are they so bad? For British people of 2015, Bond defends THEM against THEM. His world has no connection with ours, indeed from his point of view some of US are THEM and the rest of US are probably in league with THEM. At the end of Skyfall Bond stands triumphant against the London skyline, in an image that was presumably supposed to make the British audience cheer; as long as Bond is around there will be warm beer and cricket forevermore. At the end of Spectre he... incidentally it should be SPECTRE, because it's an acronym for "Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion", but at the end of Spectre he drives off in his Aston Martin with his girlfriend, but I was left wondering how a civil servant can afford to live in London; what connection does this man have with my reality? None whatsoever. Q mentions his mortgage, and again how does a relatively junior civil servant afford a mortgage in London? What connection would a real-life intelligence agent have with my reality? Again, none.

The old Britain is gone, it was a sham in any case, and the message I had from Skyfall’s final shot was that they are in control, and we had better not have ideas above our station. The British State is essentially a small group of wealthy landowners who will do anything to ensure that they stay that way; all of British law is designed to maintain their position, and they are prepared to sacrifice the rest of the country - to the last man, woman, and child - to maintain their grasp on the levers of control. Bond and his superiors act to save themselves, not us. The illusion that the State worked for the people of Britain was cracked by the Great War, and although the Greater War that followed tested the limits of their power they slowly resumed control and, in 2015, are as powerful as they ever were. This is another area where modern Bond falls apart. The global conspiracy of Quantum and Spectre cannot be destroyed by killing a few henchmen and blowing up a factory, and in any case if the authorities are complicit in the conspiracy - as Spectre makes clear - who is Bond fighting for? Some kind of ancient Knights Templar revival, a cricket club, the Masons?

In real life Bond would be embedded with Shell Oil in Basra, or he would be working for an anonymous outsourcing company in Pakistan while simultaneously spying on the local population. Or he would be a local politician in Bradford, passing on information about his voters to the authorities; and in real, real life he would just make up a lot of stuff in order to get paid, and the authorities would raid the house of someone who is completely innocent and accidentally shoot that person, and there would be an inquest that clears everybody. In real life Bond would have cause to meet and perhaps work with civilians on a daily basis. In the Bond films, however, Bond appears to have no life outside of work, and during his day job he only ever meets government employees, diabolical masterminds, their henchpeople, millionaire heiresses, and perhaps the occasional air stewardess. Spectre gives us a glimpse of Bond's home life, which suggests that he sits alone at night drinking away his sorrows. He is not one of us and doesn't want anything to do with us. He is an unusual modern hero in that respect.

Typically, the modern action hero is an ordinary man thrust into an adventure he did not anticipate, or he is a policeman or specialist confronted with something far greater than anything he has had to deal with. In the modern action film, professionals like Bond are called in to deal with the villain - and are almost immediately killed off, because the villain outsmarts them. The modern action hero is a regular guy we are supposed to identify with; after the professionals are defeated, we wonder how our hero can succeed, and we enjoy watching him do so. Bond is unusual from a dramatic point of view in that he begins with all the aces and a general plan of attack.

Yet people flock to the cinema to enjoy his adventures. I imagine that audiences in the United States do not aspire to work for MI6, any more than audiences in Huddersfield or Derby aspire to having a job, and yet his adventures are popular throughout the world. Audiences are thrilled by Bond's narrow escapes and derring-do. They admire the style of Bond, his clothes and his cars and his easy way with women. I have often wondered how black audiences respond to the Bond films. If I ever meet a coloured gentleman I will have to ask him. The idea of wearing a sharp suit and having tonnes of girls and a neat car transcends race, but what did black audiences think of jolly-good-show Roger Moore or tight-assed pursed-lipped Timothy Dalton? On a socioeconomic level the actors who have played Bond were drawn from the working classes, but on screen only Connery retained his working class edge. He gave the impression that he would have been barred from posh hotels; he tried very hard to be upper-middle-class, but there was always the animalistic brutality of the working classes underneath his suit and tie. He was supposed to be Commander Bond of the Royal Navy, but he came across as a stoker who had spent his youth hanging around with well-dressed spivs, which would explain why he was good with his fists.


Several actors have played Bond. When British people discuss the Bond films conversation inevitably turns to the question of which actors was the best. The obvious answer is Sean Connery. For some people this is too obvious. It's like saying that Viva Hate is your favourite Morrissey album, or that Mozart is your favourite classical composer. It's tempting to pick one of the other actors to show that you have thought about your choice, rather than picking the first name that cames to mind. The problem is that the other actors are so grossly inadequate that it would be absurd to choose any of them, so Connery it is. But Connery is too easy. And yet the other choices are no good. This kind of thing keeps people awake at night.

I sat "grossly inadequate". Perhaps I'm being unfair, but ranking the Bond actors is a bit like ranking the actors of Star Wars; if we assume that Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were guest stars, the list would consist entirely of Harrison Ford, because none of the other actors were in the same league. The Bond actors are apparently great guys in real life, but only Connery had genuine screen presence. He had poise and grace, and it was fascinating to simply watch him; Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan had a little of what made Connery special, but only a little, and it was always overwhelmed by the film.

The older Bond films cost a fortune to make but always looked cheap. The model effects were almost uniformly awful, and even when it was obvious that millions of pounds were up there on the screen - the giant sets of You Only Live Twice or The Spy Who Loved Me, for example - the films looked as if they had been shot by television directors. I have always assumed that the production staff, like the actors, were chosen for their expendability. Until the modern Bonds, the directors were not notable outside the franchise. The only members of the creative team that seemed to have major independent careers were the composers. If Brosnan and Moore do not stand out, it is because they were not really supposed to.

Sean Connery retired from acting several years ago. It's hard to evaluate him as an actor, because he always played a variation of Sean Connery. He wasn't entirely one-note, however. His character in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is Sean Connery, but it's not the same Sean Connery that appears in The Man Who Would be King or The Untouchables. Connery was genuinely good as Bond, and is the main reason that the franchise still exists. Sadly he was often wasted in the role. He might have pulled off a more nuanced, more book-like portrayal of the character, but Connery's films became progressively sillier until Bond was a trivial appendix to a bunch of sets and explosions. He eventually grew frustrated with the role and left, and then came back, and left, and several years later came back, and left again. There have been occasional rumours that he might appear as a villain or as a supporting character but they have come to nothing, and I imagine the next time he appears in the newspapers it will be because he has passed away.

Connery was worried that Bond would be the end of him, and in a way he was right. During his time as Bond he struggled to establish a parallel career as a leading man - despite getting to work with Alfred Hitchcock - and throughout the 1970s his star power waned. In the 1980s he was reduced to supporting roles, which ironically saved his career; he had a short cameo in the cheap but enjoyable Highlander (1986), and thereafter became one of Hollywood's most in-demand supporting actors. Without Bond it's hard to see how his career might have gone. A decade earlier he might have had some of the roles that went to Stanley Baker, but there wasn't much demand for uncomplicated action heroes in British cinema of the 1960s, and without the Bond persona he wasn't urbane enough to become a young meteor along the lines of Terence Stamp or David Hemmings. His hairy-chested, woman-slapping masculinity was embarrassing even at the time. Unlike Michael Caine he didn't really embody the new upwardly-mobile working class, and he had no desire to do stage work, or branch out into a singing career. I have no idea how Connery would have paid the bills without Bond.

George Lazenby's career is fascinating. He was Sean Connery condensed into a single act. He began as a male model and appeared in a few commercials; with a supreme effort he willed himself into the role of Bond. Connery's casting was a fluke, but from that point onwards the producers decided to pick actors who were not famous enough to demand a huge salary. Actors who could be disposed of, and who were aware of this. Lazenby was the apotheosis of this trend. When he became disillusioned with film stardom the Bond producers let him go and didn't ask him to come back. George Lazenby had the good fortune to appear in one of the best films of the series, one of the few that would work as a general action thriller outside the Bond canon; he is good in the fights but feels very one-note otherwise. Lazenby concluded that the Bond franchise had no future, and in his defence the next few Bond films were terrible - if he had not left he would have gone on to star in Diamonds are Forever, which is awful, and perhaps Live and Let Die, assuming the series had continued that far.

It is difficult to write about Daniel Craig's performance as Bond. As with Christopher Eccleston in the rebooted Dr Who, or Christopher Lee's Hammer version of Dracula, there is nothing to compare him with. He plays Bond with a wry detachment, as if he has seen it all several times before. He is a block of granite. Craig successfully plays a man who has a human core locked behind a wall of granite. So successful that on the few occasions his version of Bond is shown to lose his cool, it still feels like acting. In contrast Connery was granite all the way through, and Roger Moore just seemed uninterested in his surroundings. Craig gives the impression that he could, with an effort of will, become a normal person again. My hunch is that Craig's Bond is scared of growing old and weak, scared of ending up like Mr White, sitting alone in an unfurnished flat just waiting to die. Every so often there is a news story about a pensioner who died in his flat and was not discovered for weeks. Bond strikes me as a man who would end up like that. Assuming he did not die in the line of duty, he would outlive his superiors, outlive his organisation, and end up as a lonely old man with a pension of nightmares waiting for him.

Roger Moore is a great mystery to me. He was James Bond on the telly when I was a kid, and perhaps because of this I can't step back and view him objectively. In his first couple of films the producers tried to make him a cruel hard man, but it simply didn't work. He was never a convincing man of action, and as an actor he never struck me as any more complex than George Lazenby. In my opinion a good Bond actor needs to have four attributes. He should look good in a suit; he should be convincingly tough; he should be irresistible to women; he should act like a dedicated professional. Bond is, after all, continually beset with temptations, and could probably use his position to become a multi-millionaire crime boss, but instead he is a civil servant for Her Majesty's government earning a relative pittance. This element makes him fascinating. Harry Palmer was drafted into the intelligence services against his will, but Bond volunteered, and deep down he is driven by something other than greed or hate. Bond has no close friends or family, so he's not driven by a desire to protect his loved ones; in fact he doesn't love anyone. Does he fight for Britain because he believes in Britain, or because he detests foreigners? Is he simply an overgrown boy for whom MI6 is a surrogate father? Didn't Kingsley Amis write a book about this? I haven't read it.

Timothy Dalton was in two Bond films. The first had been written for Roger Moore, the second was an original story. There was a great show of making Dalton's version of Bond more complex and truer to the books, although this only came through fitfully. Licence to Kill has something of the modern Bonds but feels small, something it shares with Quantum of Solace. A case of right idea, wrong pussy; despite a nifty truck chase the execution was dull. Dalton had all of the characteristics of modern Bond but they didn't gel. If he had been a member of the Royal Family he would have been Prince Edward.

There were plans for a third Dalton film set in Hong Kong to be released in the early 1990s, but this fell through and the series instead entered a six-year hiatus. Dalton seems not to have cared overmuch about losing the role, so I have to assume he was paid a fortune for his two films and didn't have to work again. He isn't blamed for the long hiatus, but in general not many people miss him as Bond. He took himself very seriously and came across as a pompous windbag.

It's fashionable nowadays to shit on Pierce Brosnan. In publicity for his films he came across as a timid corporate man who was eager to toe the line; post-Bond there was an air of melancholic bitterness about him, but he still comes across as a man who has signed a contract forbidding him from uttering certain truths. He is the only Bond to have been sacked from the role, which is doubly unfair because his last film made a tonne of money and its failings were not his fault. Nonetheless he woke up one morning to find that another actor had been hired as Bond. I mentally associate Brosnan's Bond with the Sony Playstation and the Spice Girls, and of course Tony Blair, although Goldeneye was actually released when John Major was Prime Minister. Still, when Tony Blair thought of James Bond, he thought of Pierce Brosnan. Perhaps this is why Bond fans hate Brosnan so much. He promised and lot and delivered one great film and tantalising glimpses of greatness, but just like Tony Blair he was necessary and then it all went sour. If he was a Batman film, he would be Batman Forever.

It's hard to appreciate just how much impact Goldeneye had at the time; even the computer game was awesome. The post-modern synthesiser score was infamously divisive and hasn't aged well, but on the whole Goldeneye is one of the series' best films. Along with Tomorrow Never Dies it sold a lot of DVD players. Tomorrow Never Dies, the next film, had an awful villain but was otherwise almost as good, with a neat Bond action girl and an exciting opening sequence. Brosnan's third film, The World... have I missed one? The problem is that Brosnan's films were competent action thrill rides, but I find it hard to separate them.

Pierce Brosnan was an amalgam of the actors that had come before him. He was good-looking, charming, bland. Mildly upset, mildly amused, occasionally perturbed. There was an odd, fake air about him that may or may not have been clever acting - Bond is a facade - and given that he tends to give cryptic answers to interview questions, we may never know. The Bond films don't have time for character studies, and in any case complexity of character is not Bond's defining attribute. He is a do-er, his actions speak louder than words. Spectre acknowledges as much in a pensive moment when Bond's latest squeeze asks him what he will do if he stops; he admits that he hasn't thought about it, and the conversation moves on. What is there to say about a man who is not real?

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Motorola Moto G, 2nd Generation: Refrigerator Mother

Hola, Moto

Let's have a look at the Motorola Moto G. Some time ago I owned an Asus Transformer TF101, an Android tablet from 2011. Despite being absolutely ancient it was still very useful in 2014, and I warmed to Android. The Moto G is essentially a miniaturised Android tablet with built-in voice communications functionality; a kind of "smart telephone".

I'm not interested in making phone calls - if human beings were supposed to talk, God would have given us mouths - but as a small Android tablet it impressed me. My review will concentrate on a few practical aspects of the Moto G; for the most part modern smartphones are like cars, they are much the same.

That reminds me of a joke. Why are cars like rainbows? Because they only come out at night.

OpenStreetMap / OsmAnd is one of the few naively idealistic trendy young person open source "free" projects that I have donated money to. It has saved my bacon a couple of times.

The actual place, as above, the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore.

I haven't made any phone calls with my Moto G. I dislike phone calls. They remind me too much of a dark period in my life that I would rather forget. Suffice it to say that people's bins are public property, and if Helena Bonham-Carter doesn't want to speak to me that's fine, there's no need to involve the police. Why did I pick a Moto G? I'd like to say that the Moto G picked me, but that's not true. It didn't pick me. It's a mobile phone, not a bloody cat.

I wanted a handheld device that could store airline boarding passes, which rules out anything with Windows Phone, because Windows Phone has a dismal app store with no airline apps, or decent apps of any kind. A small tablet would be fine, and I briefly looked at a iPod Touch, but the screen resolution is too low. I suspect this is deliberate on Apple's part to boost sales of the smaller iPads. There doesn't seem to be an Android equivalent of the iPod Touch - the Samsung Galaxy Player was discontinued a long time ago - and it struck me that telephony might come in handy if I fall into a ravine and need to summon help. A telephone then.

It's a lot cheaper if you book in advance. The Italian train network makes me wonder what is wrong with Britain that it should cost half a day's wages to travel for ninety minutes on the train.

I didn't want to spend a fortune because telephones are a terrible investment. Preferably it should have a full-sized SIM slot because my SIM card is ancient, although in the end I abandoned this idea and ordered a new tiny SIM.

Of the iPhones, the 3GS is now very cheap but technically obsolete; the 4S is also cheap but on the verge of obsolescence; the 5 was still (just) current when I made my decision, so Android it is. My impression is that in the future people will look back on the iPhone 4/4S as the high point of the iPhone range, but alas in 2015 it is behind the curve. The iPhone 5C is relatively cheap, but I would rather carry a generic Android phone than an iPhone 5C. A generic Android phone says nothing about me - I could be an airline pilot, a student, a nobody, a top surgeon, a European politician - whereas the 5C broadcasts to the world that I want an iPhone but don't have enough money for one of the good models.

On to Android. It should have the most generic, unfucky implementation of Android allied to the best spec at a good price, resolution-memory-card slot-processor speed-no quirks in that order. I came very close to buying a Google Nexus 4. The Nexus 4 is ancient, but it was top-of-the-range when it was new and the spec is basically the same as a modern good-quality landfill Android cheapy. But they are old, and mobile phones live a hard life. Like Welsh people, they are subject to lots of abuse and even though they may look good on the outside, you can't tell what is broken inside them.

The Moto G then leaped out at me because it's cheap, I've heard of it, Motorola's Android is almost stock, it has a bigger screen with a higher resolution than the Moto E and it is cheaper than the Moto X, which adds very little. There are other phones, but that way madness lies.

In this very narrow context, in PC terms the Moto G has the computer power of a 1.83ghz mid-2000s Pentium M. But with a much better graphics card, in a handheld case that runs for a day or more on battery power without needing a fan.

Although it does have a fan. Me! It's jarring when I jump from the captions into the text. I won't do that again.

The Moto G is very popular because it does nothing wrong and it's very cheap. It has been Motorola's salvation, the phone that made Motorola popular again. Mine is a second-generation model which I bought as part of a clearance sale; there is a plethora of subvariants, and mine is the standard UK model, the XT1072.

The third generation Moto G adds water resistance and some incremental updates at a higher price, the first generation has a half-inch-smaller screen and is only available used. The Gs all have a similar spec, with a 1280x768 screen, 1gb of memory, a Micro SD card slot, GPS wth GLONASS compatibility, sufficient processing and graphics muscle for most things. Everything else is par for the course with a modern Android smart telephone e.g. dual cameras, a headphone socket, software-defined buttons, torch. Some variants have two SIM slots. The top of the range, 16gb mark three model has 2gb of memory.

The view from Sirmione

A similar scene, shot with an Olympus Pen FT using Fuji Velvia, illustrating why you should never leave a graduated neutral density filter at home.

The Moto G has had lots of positive reviews and has widespread grassroots support. Forum dwellers enjoy the low price and the stock Android, but generally have two complaints - the battery is fixed in place and the 2gb model sold out quickly. Android runs fine on 1gb machines, but more memory is always a good thing.

Before I continue, I want to point out that I have no commercial relationship with Motorola. I already roll the nickels, I have no need of Motorola's dimes. I bought my Moto G with my own money. Money I scraped from the hard soil with the bloodied, bandaged fingers of my own two frozen hands. The opinions expressed in this blog post are entirely my own. My last wish is that German unity should remain, and that an understanding between the East and West will come about and bring peace for the world. If God has seen the things I have done, he didn't seem to mind. The world is growing dark.

And cold. I mention GLONASS support because I wanted to see whether I could use a mobile phone as a portable navigator instead of my old Garmin eTrex Legend HCx. Here's my eTrex:

It has seen better days, but haven't we all. I said better days, not good days. It's all relative. As you grow older every day is worse than the last. The HCx was launched in 2008. It runs from a pair of AA batteries - lithiums last ages and weigh almost nothing, so I generally use them - and connects to a computer via USB. It has a MicroSD socket, and it can read OpenStreetMap map files.

The Legend is generally good and would make a lot of sense in adverse environments - in the cockpit of a boat, or in a microlight or something - but the screen is small, the map redraws slowly, and the sticky-out joystick/button tends to catch on things when I put the unit into a pocket, adding spurious waypoints every time it does so. The GPS receiver takes a while to get going but is tenacious when it finally gets a fix.

I took it with me on holiday, but after the first day I ignored it because the Moto G's GPS was just as good, and its screen was much better. Using the same basic OpenStreetMap data I could easily swish the map around Venice and Milan trying to find my way. With the eTrex I would have very slowly chugged along with the joystick. The Moto G uses wifi to increase precision, which feels like cheating but works in an urban environment, and it locked on to the satellites within a few seconds, even indoors.

In Venice it navigated me efficiently from the train station to the cemetery to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum to the ferries and back again with the minimum of fuss. Not once was I confronted with something unexpected; I did not have to interact with the locals or use my wits to survive. My enduring memory of Venice is of looking at OsmAnd+ on my Moto G. The Moto G was more useful to me than parents or the government. It kept me safe, and I developed an emotional attachment to it. I feel scared and alone when I do not have it. In future I will not remember Venice, or being alive, I will instead remember that time I used a Motorola Moto G for the first time.

This is why Apple has such a hold over its fans. Apple Fans develop an emotional attachment to their phone, and emotion overwhelms all other human impulses. It feels strange to have an emotional attachment to an Android phone. Android is generic and meaningless. Falling in love with Android is like falling in love with a metal framework covered in cloth, as in the famous experiment with the monkeys.

But the monkeys did fall in love, and so did I. At night I like to touch it. And plug it in to my laptop, because it recharges with USB. It doesn't come with a mains adapter, you have to plug it into a computer to charge it up. If only there was a way to plug it into my heart. Then it would always be charged, because the power of my heart would give it wings. Mine came with a cable that transferred power but not data; I had to buy a data cable in order to transfer music to the Moto G.

The panoramas look okay small, but up close they're very low-res.

The camera's images benefit from a contrast boost. It generally tries to expose to the right - it doesn't hurt much to dial down the exposure a little bit.

Battery-wise I didn't do any formal tests. In Venice, from roughly eleven in the morning until midnight, it ran OsmAnd+ with GPS plus phone reception and some music, no wifi, and was at forty percent charge by the end of the day. The headphone socket is on the top of the phone, so you can stuff it into your jacket pocket and listen to music. There's an FM radio which uses the headphone lead as an antenna.

Out in the wilderness or during the rain I would take my eTrex. The eTrex is waterproof and could easily survive being dropped on the ground. But can I phone for help with an eTrex? Will it store timetables and other things? What if I fall into a ravine that has no mobile reception but there's a wifi hotspot at the bottom? What if I am kidnapped by a tribe of warrior women who threaten to kill me unless I can make their crops grow, so I use the Moto G to browse Google for crop-growing tips, and then the queen of the warrior women decides to keep me as her personal sex slave? It's unlikely, and I imagine that a tribe of warrior women would have their pick of men, but what if they're underground and they only have access to two men, and the other guy doesn't have a Moto G? I'm sorry pal, but there can be only one.

The camera has an eight megapixel sensor allied to a 28mm-equivalent f/2.0 lens. There's a clever HDR mode that's genuinely effective. I'm not sure whether it boosts the shadows or layers several bracketed shots. Annoyingly you can either control exposure compensation and focus point or have HDR but not both. There is a panorama feature which takes a while to develop its images. They look nice on the phone but are only a megapixel or so, I have no idea why.

Crap photo, but the HDR effect is really good and stands up to close inspection.

Peter Boardman's The Shining Mountain. "bong peg". As an ebook the screen is really too small, but it doesn't pretend to be an ebook so that's okay.

What else? OsmAnd+ is rubbish for car navigation, I just use it as a moving map. It tries, but I can't rely on it. The camera is decent. The 1280x768 screen is bright and clear with the brightness pumped up in daylight, and the blacks are deep enough to merge with the black of the bezel if you look at it straight on. There's a white Moto G, but it looks rubbish because the front camera and light sensor are still black. The screen is too small to read books comfortably. I've always wondered what impact screen size has on the enjoyment of porn. Obviously your brain understands that the images of women on a large monitor are much smaller than an actual life-size woman at the same distance, but does the brain assume that pictures of women are real women at a distance? In which case the brain must assume that a naked woman on a mobile phone screen is very far away and thus unattainable, which might be why porn doesn't work on a mobile phone. The Moto G's vibrator is nowhere near powerful enough to work as an aid to masturbation, besides which the case isn't moisture-resistant.

My Asus Transformer began with Android three point something, was upgraded by Asus to Android four point something, and then I used the popular KatKiss ROMs to it take it to Android four point four something or something. In my experience newer versions of Android were actually faster than the older versions. My Moto G came with Android 5.0.2, which looks a little bit slicker than late-4 Android but otherwise doesn't seem to add very much. Over the last few days it has updated to Android 5.1, although curiously despite going through the motions of this the phone's setup screen still thinks that it's running 5.02. It works, and that's what counts.

Ports-wise, there's a headphone socket on the top, plus a MicroSD socket underneath the back cover, and my standard UK Moto G has one (1) one single individual SIM card slot. There's no easy way to connect the phone to a monitor, and of course no USB ports, which is something the TF101 tablet has over the Moto G. I say this because the Moto G is powerful enough to double as a simple computer. The Moto G will apparently cast to a television via Google's Chromecast dongle.

The touchscreen surprised me. Even in portrait mode with the keyboard squashed into the bottom of the display I could type, at a pinch. As the saying goes, it's impressive enough that a dog can talk, it doesn't matter what it says. Did you know that there was a film called Shootfighter? It was a straight-to-video martial arts film. I used to think the name was stupid, because it was a martial arts film; they didn't fight with guns. There wasn't any shooting. But it turns out that shootfighting is the actual term for a certain type of mixed martial arts fighting, so I have to concede that the producers of Shootfighter were smarter than me. Or at least they knew more about their onions than I did.

And that's the Moto G, it does nothing wrong and I haven't mentioned the body yet. Physically it feels well-made although at this price point it's on the verge of being cheap enough to just chuck away if it breaks. It has a Gorilla Glass screen which attracts smudges but wipes clean easily. Officially none of the internal components are replaceable, but judging by iFixIt a teardown is fiddly but conceptually easy, essentially lots of screws plus carefully separating things. The components, particularly battery and LCD/touchscreen combos, are widely available on eBay. Unless you are given one for twenty pounds or so, it's not economical to buy a broken Moto G and repair it at home. Everythin' in the modern age is disposable, includin' th' phones, the end.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Island in a City of Cranes

Several years ago I had a look at Adox CMS 20, a slow-speed lith film. I began the roll in Milan and ended it in Shoreditch, where it ran out. Shoreditch and its mental environs are of course infamous for being trendy sixteen years ago, but trendy in an ironic way. Back then I mingled tangentially with some of its people. They meant no harm. Can you mingle tangentially? That's a bad phrase, I'll have to rewrite that bit. It will be swept away, everything will be swept away, but for now it remains. Enjoy it while it is still there.

I remember a fanzine called Shoreditch Twat, which mocked the culture of Shoreditch whilst simultaneously being part of the very culture that it mocked, which is ironic if you think about it.

Nowadays Shoreditch is a kind of digital hub, although as with all of the rest of London it's a thin shell lying on top of property. It's just up the road from Liverpool Street station, and the developers are on their way, as they have always been and will be. It was fields a long time ago, one day it will be a thin later of concrete dust underneath something else.

My pet theory is that Future London will be just a lot of solid concrete blocks. Not functioning buildings with doors and windows and water pipes, but solid concrete blocks. Already large chunks of London are unoccupied. The buildings are owned as investment vehicles rather than dwellings or businesses. Why not simply build empty shells instead? Hollow concrete shells with no doors or windows, just metal bars inside to stop the walls from collapsing inwards, to stop people from breaking in and squatting. They would be gigantic blocks of currency.

No-one would be harmed, because no-one lives in London anyway. There are precious few remaining businesses, and they could easily migrate to the internet. Without people, London could be simplified immensely; there would still be access roads so that investors can monitor their property portfolio, but there would be no need for cables or sewage, no need for restaurants or public transport, no need for petrol stations or drains. In my dream Future London will resemble an early 3D video game, just solid blocks in a grid pattern separated by unmarked pathways.

London is divided lengthwise, widthwise, horizontally and vertically, by class and location and ethnicity and every which way. Men are forced by tradition to use the outside of the pavement; women are not permitted to stand up on the bus; the other four genders must wear special socks. Shoreditch is in North London, but it feels like a mutant outpost of South London.

The stereotype is that North London is hard and harsh, full of tourists and businesses and Clive Owen barking into a mobile phone, whereas South London is a throwback to the Victorian age, with old men and their whippets eating jellied eels, and there are no tube stations and everywhere there is a field with people drinking beer as if in an Ocean Colour Scene video. Yorkshire is in South London.

South London is kept safe from North London by the River Thames, which marks its northern and western borders and envelopes it in a big cosy hug.

Shoreditch is an amalgam of the two ideas. It has buildings and businesses, but there isn't a tube station; it has young middle-class white people, and sometimes they do eat jellied eels, but in an ironic way. I wandered for a while, taking artfully composed snapshots with my vintage 1960s Olympus Pen FT half-frame film camera, acting out of the part of an urban hipster whilst being uncomfortably aware that no matter how much I dressed or acted the part, I would never be one of them.

For the hipsters, Shoreditch is a rite of passage, a gap year holiday before going back to the real world of contracts and working hours arrangements. For them it was part of their trajectory, for me it was akin to the hidden island in the first level of Goldeneye on the N64, distant and shrouded in fog, and when you visit there are no items.

The cranes approach to sweep it away; they are right next door, and if they don't destroy it, the sunshine, wind, rain and weeds will.

I turned away and walked off to the Tate Modern, which has a garden that resembles a vision of the future from a sci-fi film of the 1970s. Triangles were invented in the 1960s - it wasn't until computers came along that people could make three-sided polygons - and they still looked very modern in the 1970s.

No doubt once the plants have grown there will be a riot of colour, or alternatively the great weight of the plants will cause the scaffolding to collapse. Time will tell.

From 2000 to 2012 the turbine hall had thirteen major installations, all sponsored by Unilever; people remember Shibboleth (the big crack), Embankment (the big boxes), and Weather Report (the big sun), to a lesser extent How It Is (the big dark box). All paid for by sales of Pot Noodle. None of them have been disasters and no-one has died as a result of them - at least one person has died at the Tate Modern, falling from a balcony - but there's always a first time.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Milan with an Olympus Pen: Bad Phrase

Off to Milan once more. Every other time I have been there it has rained. Big fat soaking raindrops, fresh from the udder. It's not the quantity, it's the size. They've tried to solve the unemployment problem by taking away the counterfeit goods and giving the hawkers wet weather gear to sell, and every few steps I was offered an umbrella. Perhaps on sunny days the hawkers offer swimwear instead. I picture them thrusting speedos and bikinis into the hands of passers-by.

There was a big advertising push for #LIKES, or #MCLIKES, a new journal or website or poster campaign by Marie Claire. In Barbarella the angel Pygar pointed out that "an angel does not make love - an angel is love", and I like to think that the same is true of Milan and advertising. Milan does not contain advertising, Milan is advertising, and the reason there are no Bruce Lee jokes is because Bruce Lee is not a joke. Bruce Lee nightingale thank you.

Early to bed, early to rise, it's no jolly good if you don't advertise, as the saying goes. I often look back through my older blog posts, some of which now have almost no misspellings or bad phrases; unlike every other blog on the planet I try to write articles that will still be entertaining many years from now, when you are dead, which is why I generally avoid contemporary topics. Other blogs muse breathlessly...

Can you muse breathlessly? You muse with your mind, and your mind doesn't draw breath. Your mind can't be breathless. It can be higgeldy-piggeldy, but not breathless. That's a bad phrase, I'm going to edit that out.

Other blogs are driven by a need to publish content as rapidly as possible roundabout decay, and so they're full of transient pseudo-news. Things that were not known before but are of no significance beyond the moment. Short articles about coriander - should it be banned? - or the redesign of Apple's wireless mouse, or collections of photographs of celebrities with short captions. I have always admired the people who produce tabloid newspapers, because they generate a novel's worth of content every day; whether you love or merely adore the Daily Mail's political stance, you can't dismiss the hard work that goes into it.

But newspaper men are like foxes in winter, they have to fight for their meals, and if they don't get their back into their living they perish. Like sharks swimming in the weeds, they have to keep knitting, otherwise the ice will crack and they'll end up sleeping with the vultures, which will peck the lard from their sausages.

As a blogger I don't have the same constraints. I can post nonsense indefinitely, I just have to allow the words to flood out. But the commercial pressures that drive newspapers, the fear, the fear also drives them to greatness, but I have nothing pushing me, nothing pulling me. I have enough cans of Stagg chili and powdered macaroni and cheese to survive in case of economic collapse, and the traditional rewards of the blogger - a brief mention in someone else's blog - do not appeal to me. Why is Stagg chili so disliked? Because it's not hard to make home-made chili, and it generally tastes much better, and it's cheaper if you're making lots of it. Stagg chili is the Fray Bentos of chili, in the sense that it's not as good as the real thing, it's not much easier to cook, and it's not even cheaper.

There is no real reward for blogging. If I advertised the blog more, would it be more popular? Individually the words are brilliant, and occasionally some of the sentences are pretty good too. The photography is a cut above. But that by itself is not enough; blogs better than mine, that meant more to the creative minds that breathlessly mused them, have perished leaving no trace, while an awful lot of tat thrives. So what keeps me going? Behind his eyes he says "I still exist".

The ghost looks like a speech bubble coming out of the kid's mouth but the ghost itself has a speech bubble except that it doesn't have a speech bubble, the word "BOO!" is just floating unsurrounded by anything, and that's almost a metaphor for life in general. We are the words in a speech bubble that evaporated long ago, leaving us floating through the luminiferous aether in search of fertile soil. Who spake us? Which mind breathlessly mused us? Is God in showbusiness too?

I took along my half-frame Olympus Pen FT and its cute little 25mm f/2.8 lens, loaded with some old Fuji Superia. The meter is more than accurate enough for print film. I spotted Cara Delevingne's face on an advertisement only once, which upset me. The world feels unfamiliar without Cara Delevingne's face staring at me from every flat surface. There are other faces, but I don't know them. In life, you are either a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, or you are the final image, or perhaps you are the box.

The reason for all these adverts is that my visit coincided with Milan's Fashion Week. The idea of a fashion week in Milan is odd given that Milan is fashionable all year round, and that Italian people by and large dress well even when they are slobbing at home. Nay, nay, thrice nay spoke the riders of portoville vinegar Suggs.

Wouldn't it be great if there was an anti-fashion week? Italians would be allowed to wear unfashionable things in public, just for one week. Ugg boots and bin bags, Burberry everything. And because the week would only be seven days long, there wouldn't be enough time for the unfashionable things to become fashionable. In the words of Google's Android operating system, there are seven updates available, but Android System WebView ain't one.