Monday, 7 April 2008

Dubliners. Because I don't just do lowbrow...

I think of myself as widely read - not well read, because I think of that as a near impossible feat, there'll always be authors and/or genres that elude even the most catholic reader, whether it be scary doorstops such as War and Peace and Ulysses, Jeffery Archer's potboilers, Eastern European literature, ghostwritten celebrity cash ins, science fiction or the much derided Mills & Boon romances. There just isn't the time (nor breadth of interest) to try everything. But there's plenty of 'classics' I haven't read, either through allergy to other works (Sense and Sensibility's just a tad too smug for me to contemplate any more Jane Austen) or just not getting round to them (the likes of D.H. Lawrence). James Joyce fell into the latter category for me, reading his earliest 'classic' would decide whether I'd got the interest to proceed to his more notionally imposing works.

Dubliners is a collection that's far stronger than the sum of some fairly insignificant parts. It's almost a trial run for Ulysses' panoramic portrait of a Dublin day, using snapshots to build up a picture of a lively city, drawing these snaps from all ages and social strata. It's the former that lens a structure to the collection, the protagonists moving from a child experiencing the concept of death for the first time that to the most famous of the tales here, The Dead, a man realising a truth about his wife late in life. The concept of death in both the first and last tales lends a symmetry to the collection, evoking the circle of life. Each tale hangs on an epiphany for the central character, built up to by the events of the story. Some epiphanies are more important than others, particularly the ones toward the back end of the collection where experience allows the character to grasp the consequences of their revelation more, the stories therefore being richer. The likes of Eveline cover ground already trodden a thousand times, but then it's largely the case that the lack of life experience means younger characters are less dramatically interesting, particularly when they know little outside Dublin's city boundaries.

The Dead is clearly the standout story here, the theme of the dead always being with us haunting the dinner party and main character. Despite being by far the longest tale in the book, it doesn't feel like the longest to get through. Of course, that might just be a consequence of it's position as the finale. Personally, my favourite was A Little Cloud, since I could certainly relate to the thwarted literary ambitions of the protagonist, although in my case those are due to cowardice (and yet I'm blogging - go figure! Maybe the cojones are there after all) and, aside from The Dead, the poignancy of A Painful Case and late comic interlude of A Mother, seemed most successfully realised. For me it's at its least successful when dealing with the then hot political issue of nationality, important in establishing a sense of place and time, but of less interest or importance today.

I'm a fairly fast reader but Dubliners took me a fair while to get through, it's a combination of Joyce's deliberately simple language and the stories increasingly having the weight to demand that they be reflected upon. My edition was cursed with an overlong introduction (informative but could've done with losing a good ten or twenty pages from fifty) and overenthusiastic footnotes (the contextual notes about period Dublin were handy but when it goes so far as to tell what the Wild West was, it's going a long way overboard. but then I'd rather have too much context than no context, particularly when the city's as much a character as any of the people in the stories. Worthwhile, but despite the simplicity of language and story, don't expect an easy read.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Doctor Who 4.1 Partners In Crime

Fans today, they just don't know they're born. Twenty years ago we had to put up with Doctor Who being treated as schedule filler, an underbudgeted anachronism shoved in the Timeslot of Death against what was then the invincible ratings juggernaut that annihilated anything in its path, Coronation Street. A show that shared that slot with high concept low brain US sitcoms like Doogie Howser M.D. In the days when recordings weren't factored into ratings that's kiss of death scheduling. Now a show that achieves the Holy TV Grail of high ratings and high audience appreciation, that changed the mindset of what you can do with Saturday evening viewing, that kills whatever ITV puts up against it for fun, from Celebrity Wrestling to ITV's golden boys Ant and Dec, gets moved forward by forty minutes against probably the tiredest show on television, You've Been Framed, and the end of the world is nigh. Moreso when comedy marmite Catherine Tate's been cast as the companion. If DWB were around today it'd probably have done an RTD Must Die! front cover by now.

And of course it gets 8.4 million viewers and the usual astounding appreciation index rating and all is right with the world. There'll be moans that it's lost five million or so since Voyage of the Damned next...

And what we get with Partners in Crime is an indication that the series is still reassuringly at the top of its game going into its fourth year. Like previous season openers this is Big Dumb Fun that won't require you to think too hard, what Old Skool Fans used to call a romp, but Big Dumb Fun with agreeably dark undertones.

Let's get the most controversial element out of the way first. After three years of young lasses going moon eyed over a Time Lord, Donna is a refreshing change. After three years of apparently answering When Harry Met Sally's question of whether mean and women can be friends without sex getting in the way with a firm 'no', RTD seems to have changed his mind. The Doctor-Donna dynamic looks to be going for more for Steed-Mrs Peel than Steed-Tara King, a slight but necessary reformatting. Another year of a girl going moon eyed over a centuries old and it'd start to look like RTD could only write a companion generic to his vision of Who, but he's far too smart to fall into that trap. He does still appear to believe that viewers can only relate to London companions though. Tate also has the chemistry with Tennant that neither Rose (since, by design of her character, she works better with the Ninth Doctor) nor Martha (arguably because Freema Agyeman's not a great actress) did, right from the comedy masterpiece silent conversation, through the plot resolution scene where she provides the MacGuffin that foils the Evil Plot, to the last 'mates' conversation. The last half of The Runaway Bride proved there was more to Donna than just the shouting, particularly in her realisation that Lance betrayed her, and her final scene in the snow so for the moment, I'll just go along with my usual assumption that RTD knows how to run a TV show better than any of us and look forward to seeing how their relationship develops over the remaining 12 episodes.

The other casting masterstroke in the new recurring cast is, of course, Bernard Cribbins. There's a real understated pathos to the stargazing scene, paying off with a lovely coda. Another refreshing change - the female companion has a strong male family figure who's always been there for her, which compensates for the usual disapproving mother figure.

As for the Adipose - well, I don't mind a cute monster, they can be far more effective than the monster designed to scare. What's more scary - teeth and tentacles or the innocent grin that conceals fangs? They're largely played for their comedy potential here, not being directly harmful to anyone aside from how they're formed. After this, I expect Who to have conquered one more frontier, either the cuddly or stress toy market. It's a stroke of genius to use the miracle diet phenomenon as the basis of a Who story (even if it seems indirectly inspired by Andy Lane's Torchwood novel Slow Decay). Sarah Lancashire's chilly turn as their 'mistress', the supernanny Miss Foster gives the Doctor some suitably strong opposition for the episode too, until she's literally brought down to Earth.

And then there's that last scene. I twigged about two seconds before the turn to camera who it was, but then that's how the scene seems to have been designed. Absolutely gobsmacking, well done to Cardiff for keeping that one under wraps. It's a bold move but, given the pre-publicity told us she'd be back, it's the only way her return has shock value. Again, I'm looking forward to finding out just what's going on.

There's flaws of course, Donna's sudden pursual of anything unusual isn't convincing (surely she'd have moved to Cardiff?) and the Doctor and Donna narrowly missing each other goes on a scene or two too long. Given past form it's unlikely to win any season polls or be remembered for anything bar setting up the season. What it provides is the laughs, chills and spectacle that have come to be de rigeur for a Who season opener, and a promise that after four years, RTD's Who still isn't close to jumping any sharks.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Torchwood 2.13 Exit Wounds (spoilerific from the off)

Well now we know how Chris Chibnall sees Torchwood, essentially an SF version of Spooks. And he's the new Eric Saward. And that means, since we've seen since Doctor Who's second season working for Torchwood is dangerous, dammit, we have to prove it!

If you've been watching carefully it's been fairly easy to guess who's not going to make it through to season three. Naoko Mori was permanently underused in the show, all of her character's plot functions being pretty much duplicated between Ianto and Owen. And every time she got centre stage there was only one plot - fall in love, get hurt due to time/species incompatibility issues. If you've got such a limit on the character it makes sense to get rid of her. Fair play to Naoko Mori though, she got the best dramatic scenes she's had in two years and made the most of it, giving the overly drawn out death scene pathos and impact, although Barrowman's mugging undercut it just seconds later. As for Owen, Burn Gorman's raging against the second dying of the light was the sort of thing he does best but the lack of a definitive final scene meant Owen's finale just tailed off. If he did survive I like the idea of Owen feeling abandoned by Torchwood and being King of the Weevils. I've got a great image in my head of the team marching in and finding him sat brooding on a Weevil throne. Killing him undermines the emotional arc from his earlier death though - oh he's dead again, bet he's back. At least this series redeemed the first season's treacherous rapey bastard to an extent, finding some sympathetic character traits that he utterly lacked before. It's hard not to see Martha's temporary substitution for Owen earlier in the series as a trial run for her being his permanent replacement.

Aside from that the finale fumbled a few very cool ideas. James Marsters stole the show again, even if Spike lite Captain John was largely wasted - was he just written in after being so damn good in episode one? There's a lot of dramatic mileage in the sundered brotherly relationship, and one blaming the other but you need decent actors to do it. John Barrowman's got charisma, but he's basically a stage actor, not a TV actor, so every emotion is overplayed when the nature of television enhances the small gesture and lampoons anyone going OTT. And Jack being buried alive for nearly 1900 years? Surely anyone would go somewhat nuts at that, and nothing we've seen from Jack before indicates he'd go for the meek acceptance he gives here, even for his brother. Essentially that storyline hits all the wrong emotional beats, rare for a show from the modern Doctor Who stable. And was it me or did Gray's plan make any sense whatsoever, particularly when most of it had no dramatic payoff? As a Newport lad it was fun to see Cardiff blown to smithereens, but the plot didn't demand it when the Rift distractions lured the Torchwood team out anyway.

And damningly, just when it could have done with it most, Torchwood abandoned the snarky sense of humour that had raised it from the swamp of angst and despair series one sank itself in. Not coincidentally the last three largely humour free episodes have all been Chris Chibnall's. The ending implied we won't be seeing too much fun next season, at least to start with, since Torchwood seems to demand angst. So it'll be back to square one unless we can get some characters (or, please God, writers) who can lighten the tone. A few more episodes along the lines of Something Borrowed , a few less angsty episodes that play to the fans, would be a stride in the right direction.

Two years in I'm not sure anyone quite knows what to do with the show, which is a shame since the first episode of each season offered tantalising of what a smart, sexy show Torchwood could be, modern, witty and slick, adult in the truest sense and providing enough subtext to fuel generations of fanfic-ers, something we've only seen intermittently since. There's a sense that lessons were definitely learned from the mistakes of season one, but there's still a frustrating sense that this could be so much more.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

33 1/3: Let's Talk About Love - A Journey To The Edge of Taste

That's it, I've blown my non-existent cool quotient already. Here's me blowing it further - it's one of the most interesting books about music you're likely to come across. But hey, if you stick with it through this you might even come back in future. And it's early days, so I haven't really established any expectations of what I'll blog about, so I might as well use the opportunity to blog about anything and everything. On with the show then...

I love the approach the 33 1/3 series takes. It's fairly simple - the writer takes a 'classic' album and takes an in depth look at it. No restriction on how they talk about the passion, but the editorial team appear to encourage a ' more personal the better' approach, and that's something I'd rather read than a standard band and/or recording history. I don't necessarily enjoy each book (the volume on R.E.M.'s Murmur turned me right off by attempting a clinical dissection of every aspect) but it's more than made up for by relative triumphs such as Bowie's Low or Meat Is Murder by The Smiths, which is far more about how fans related to The Smiths than a flat out review. And then this, for me their finest achievement.

If you're anything like me, you're wondering why a 'classic' album series goes anywhere near the Celine Dion ouevre - yep, in the late Nineties she was pretty bloody ubiquitous with godawful squalling ballads like Think Twice, the Titanic love theme abomination My Heart Will Go On and making a new generation relive the nightmares of previous ones with covers of Jennifer Rush's The Power of Love and All By Myself (those links, incidentally, come with an aural health warning). That's where the genius comes in - for all the column inches expended on cult favourites such as The Smiths or Radiohead, Dion's sales dwarf theirs into insignificance. Readers of Q, NME, Rolling Stone or Spin would rather cut their ears off than willingly subject themselves to her overpowering, turned up beyond 11 voice (one of Wilson's most insightful asides is his take on Dion's music as 'hair metal on oestrogen'). Well, unless irony is involved. So Wilson goes beyond the usual remit of music journalism and, without once breaking into the regulation music journo's sneer at the bovine masses, goes to find out exactly who's buying these albums and why. Oh, and why we Cool Kids can't bloody stand her of course.

It's clearly not for her public persona, which is largely bland bar an outburst about impoverished victims of Hurricane Katarina in New Orleans. She comes across as almost teeth grindingly nice, reassuring Elliott Smith before both performed at the Oscars, donating a cool million to those hurricane victims and, most reassuringly of all, not being sure that My Heart Will Go On was any cop when asked to record it. No, as Wilson concludes, it lies in her being deeply uncool and about as close to emotionally direct as you get in the music industry. Think about it, how few cool acts directly confront emotion but instead rely on the smoke and mirrors of metaphor. Irrelevant here, but importantly to me, it's that emtional directness that Russell T Davies has tapped into to gain Doctor Who a female fanbase and popularity undreamt of since the height of Dalekmania.

Wison also employs some dense cultural theory to good effect, employing studies of whether artistic or popular taste is scientifically quantifiable and proving that Dion hits plenty of the right buttons in popular taste, and follows that up by playing with notions of cool. It's not always comfortable for those of us who automatically equate Dion with uncool either - cool is, of course, one of the adman's favourite weapons to sell product. The Dion devotees are largely untroubled by such notions of cool, which perversely might make them cooler in real terms than the fans who provide the music press with the bulk of their readership. And her fandom's activities are uncomfortably close to those of any other online fans you care to name - there's fanfic and online confessionals reminiscent of fanboy/fangrrrl sites, fans who attend as many gigs as humanly possible and obsess over the minutiae of her back catalogue. They're just like us. And they don't care about what others think of their Celine love. Of course, this gets undercut when you see the ruthless marketing of Dion for various territories, the various strategies employed to ensure every country in the world buys her records (such as her recording in various languages, singing on film soundtracks or singing with local backing bands). Cool or uncool, the marketing execs will find a way to sell you product, which is a tad depressing. Still, it gives you something to admire Celine Dion fans for, we music press readers are the herd animals who don't know we're the herd.

A good friend of mine who died last year had My Heart Will Go On played at her funeral, naturally I thought of it at the time as something to be tuned out, but it left a hell of a lot of people blinking away tears. It's the sort of thing that makes you feel what 40s detective movies used to call a heel, it was as meaningful to her as any of my touchstone tunes are to me. Maybe I've been wrong all along. I can't say I'm ever going to enjoy a Celine Dion tune but I might not dismiss it with the mandatory thoughtless sneer. If this book can get someone like me, violently allergic to Dion as I am, to rethink such ingrained assumptions then it has to be classed as something of a triumph.

What it's all about

I've set this blog up as a place to collect miscellaneous thoughts and reviews about well... any cultural artefacts you care to name - books, comics, TV, DVDs, plays, albums, songs, gigs, gadgets, whatever I've been experiencing at the time. Anything remotely personal's going to be at - there'll probably be some crossover, but I thought I'd finally make some use of this account for something except for commenting on other people's blogs.

So what sort of thing to expect? Well, my main interest is reading and I try to be as catholic as possible in what I read (and I'm not talking Vatican related there) so there'll probably be plenty of literature, most of it not too highbrow. And while I'm old school indie (from before the time the majors nicked it as a way to legitimise MOR guitar bands like The Kooks) I'm prepared to listen to just about anything, unless Louis Walsh or Simon Cowell's been involved. So y'know, slightly leftfield stuff but not cooler than thou cutting edge. And the same sort of thing for TV - I used to be an uber TV geek (it probably isn't a coincidence that I've set this up a couple of days before the new Doctor Who series), although I've deliberately watched a little less of late. But not that much less.

Basically then, anything that's got an interesting take, or that I can be eloquent about why it's less than interesting to me.

Let's have fun kids...