Saturday, 31 October 2015


"I become very impatient with dreamers. I respect the doers more than the dreamers. So many people, it seems to me, talk about all the things they want to do. They only talk without accomplishing anything. The drifters are worse than the dreamers. Ones who really have no goals, no aspirations at all, just live from day to day..."

That's a quote from a private secretary called Anne Bogan who features in Working, Studs Terkel's groundbreaking sociological study of "people talking about what they do all day and how they feel about it", which I'm gradually working my way through in fits and starts.

I've had aspirations. I aspired to be a journalist, and now I am one. Now what?

In a recent post I quoted from Anna Karenina:

"He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires had furnished him with only a grain of sand from that mountain of happiness which he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the constant mistake people make when they imagine that happiness lies in the fulfillment of desires."

Logically Tolstoy leaves us with three options: have no desires, have unfulfillable desires, or have many desires on the go, replacing the fulfilled ones with new unfulfilled ones at the same rate. Which of these did Tolstoy advocate?

He has a character who stands for himself explicitly say in Anna Karenina that "one must live for God and not for the satisfaction of one's needs", which is option one, but as an atheist that doesn't really work for me. Plus, we know from Anne, who stands for everyone in society, that this isn't accepted anyway.

And option three is no good: the difficulty of finding desires is the starting point for this post.

That leaves option two: have a small number of unfulfillable desires.

Tolstoy also makes clear in Anna Karenina that he thinks one should seek and find a family life. Human history also indicates this might be a good idea. And one can also live "not for the satisfaction of one's needs" if one instead lives for the satisfaction of other people's needs. We can desire good lives for our family, and this will be an unfulfilled (or at least ongoing) desire as long as you and they remain alive.

But people like people with goals, as we learnt from Anne. How would Anne react if she and I were on a first date and, in response to her asking me what my goal in life is, I were to say "To make you happy"? She would excuse herself and climb out the toilet window.

Besides, it's a circular proposition. If the only desire any of us can muster is the desire to fulfill others, there isn't anything for anyone to do.

Husband to wife: "What can I do for you today, my dear?"
Wife to husband: "Allow me to do something for you, my sweet!"
Husband to wife: "Erm..."

Which is a roundabout way of arriving at: existentialism.

My next read is to be Nausea. But if my understanding is correct, that only offers an acute expression of the problem, and no answers.

Still, at least I want to read it, just about.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Everyone Moment

There comes a point in many a movie badguy's runtime at which he must impress upon an underling the scale of response needed to a certain situation, usually a threat posed by the hero. I think of this point as The Everyone Moment.

In John Wick, which I watched this morning, that moment goes as follows:

Boss: "Task a crew."
Underling: "How many?"
Boss: "How many do you have?"

I think of this moment as The Everyone Moment, and I like to think that every movie boss also thinks of it that way when their moment comes.

Why do I think of it so?

Because the definitive example of this moment, the instance every movie must now shrug its shoulders and surrender in the face of, is the instance in Leon / The Professional, as executed by Gary Oldman:

There are two reasons why this example will never be bettered. The most important is that Oldman is superb in this role, with barely a human hair's width between where he pitches it and going overboard. His isn't the scariest or even the craziest movie villain - the former honour is shared by the characters played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, to my mind; the latter I don't know, maybe Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight - but he is the zaniest movie villain who still manages to be scary.

The second is the actual scale of response the film delivers, which within the scope of my experience is matched only by the equivalent scene in Terminator 2 when the cops show up at Cyberdyne Systems. But T2's moment doesn't have Oldman.

Part 2:

A somewhat similar point in many action films is that at which the film establishes the badassery of its hero.

In John Wick this moment precedes the film's Everyone Moment by just a couple of minutes. It's a very successful, if slightly ridiculous scene, which starts with the following dialogue:

"It's not what you did, son, that angers me so. It's who you did it to."
"Who, that fuckin' nobody?"
"That fuckin' nobody ... is John Wick."

The badassery-establishing bit follows, but this is the bit that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

I haven't yet found the definitive example of this moment, but for the time being I think of it as the Ryback's File Moment, from the scene in Under Siege in which Gary Busey's character finds a personnel file on who we previously thought was a mere cook (well, not really, because he's played by Steven Seagal) and proceeds to read it aloud to his fellow badguys. It's a rather blatant scene, but effective nevertheless, mainly because of the great performances of Busey and Tommy Lee Jones:

If anyone wants to offer a suggestion as to the definitive Ryback's File Moment, have at it in the comments.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The death of Tolstoy: a short review of Anna Karenina

The idea that Tolstoy is one of the greatest novelists really must be put to bed.

Henry James called the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky "loose, baggy monsters", and in Tolstoy's case that's the verdict that should stick.

It's not that Anna Karenina is all bad, it's that the juice is far from worth the squeeze.

The highlight is that there's a decent amount of complexity and variety in the characters - not shovel-loads, but a decent amount. Characters in AK are frustrating, and you root for them as they bumble around screwing things up. And Tolstoy is also very good at describing scenes of country life, like horse racing and farming, about which he was obviously knowledgeable.

But his sentence construction is fairly pedestrian, he includes too much and, worst of all, he's an excessive and blatant moraliser. In practically every chapter you can feel Tolstoy prodding you in the ribs and going "Now isn't this a foolish / the correct thing for the character to be doing?"

The message of AK can essentially be summarised in the following extract:

"He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires had furnished him with only a grain of sand from that mountain of happiness which he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the constant mistake people make when they imagine that happiness lies in the fulfillment of desires."

Which is fine, but later on we have this nonsense, written without irony:

"What would I have been and how would I have spent my life if I had not had those beliefs, if I had not known that one must live for God and not for the satisfaction of one's needs? I should have robbed, lied, murdered."

No, Tolstoy, because EMPATHY.

I can only assume that Tolstoy's reputation is propped up by people of faith who like having that reinforced. It wouldn't bother me, but I only soldiered on with AK because of Tolstoy's standing; I felt I had to read at least one of his two tomes. Well, perhaps I'd have fared better with War and Peace, but I'm going to give it at least 20 years before finding out.

Oh, James was wrong about Dostoevsky, btw: Crime and Punishment is great.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Book review: Mythologies, Roland Barthes, 1957

Like any self-mythologising French philosopher, Barthes doesn't make life easy for the reader. He's not as nonsensical as Baudrillard, but then I think he preceded him, giving the latter the chance to up the stakes still further.

Anyway, Mythologies is about myth, which is what Barthes calls second- or further-order semiology - when something that's already been used to signify something is then used in another context to signify something else - and what happens to the original thing and what it originally signified, as well as the properties of what those two together then jointly signify at the new level. Clear? It won't be.

But there are some fun examples, like what beads of sweat mythologise in the film Julius Caesar, and what a photo of a writer on holiday mythologises. It's good stuff in places, I just wish it was less deliberately opaque in others.

Modern dating / Giulia

So modern dating now involves deciding whether you like the look of the person you've just been presented with on Tinder enough to leave their profile open on your phone, preventing any other use of said phone, until your "super like" gets renewed and you can tell them you like them, which might be anything up to 12 hours. "I waited 11 hours for you!" What romance!