Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

 

“I hear you’re a racist now father. How did you get interested in that sorta thing? Should we all be racists now? Only the farm takes up most of my day and at night I just like a good cuppa tea; I mightn’t be able to devote myself full time to the auld racism.” – Father Ted


I just got caught in a downpour on my way to Zoo Coffee, where I wanted to put on a movie and test my now disproven theory that I’ll watch David Duchovny in literally anything. With rain hammering down outside, I found another mini-storm on the internet. As usual, people are very vocal about the casting of the latest Doctor Who. This time it isn’t that he’s “too old” or “not enough of a mincing hipster”, it’s that he, well… he’s no longer a ‘he’ at all. The news that a quasi-immortal shapeshifting alien has finally found the ability to regenerate into something other than a white male aged 28-58 has come as quite the shock to an angry, vocal, chronically uneducated minority of ‘fans’, as if this casting decision will suddenly affect their daily life in some hideous way. The BBC is even being accused of political correctness.*

Some have questioned how the TARDIS, a  near infinitely large craft that transcends dimensions, will have enough room for tampon dispensers, and that the next thing we know it will be James Bond who’ll be female or, God forbid, perhaps even ‘ethnic’.

When Colin Salmon and Idris Elba were once considered for Bond, there were those who suggested that they “weren’t English enough”, seemingly unaware that the fact they were both born in England actually makes them at least 99% (perhaps even slightly more) English than Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, and Sean Connery. Combined.

After fifty years of asexual men in silly jumpers (and an episode where the moon turned out to be a giant egg) are you really going to take the Doctor less seriously in a a dress? Call me crazy, but I’d even be happier to watch a female Bond than I would to watch almost any of the ones that start with Roger Moore at the end of the gun barrel (national treasure or no).

The poet I mentioned a few entries ago (the fella who’s sort of a fusion between Dante, Alan Watts and the guy who wrote the soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has a philosophy. He won’t print his own t-shirts in XL or above, because he doesn’t like the idea of unhealthy, overweight people wearing his merchandise. Like me, he never liked that it’s socially acceptable for people to say things like “you look like a scarecrow” or “you look like a skeleton”, but that its suddenly not cool for us skinny folk to reply, “yeah, and you like like a pregnant elephant you rude motherfucker!”

He took a lot of flak for this view, but I always respected him for it. I took a lot of flak for my un-PC comments about many of the 40-watt bulbs that walked in our circle at the time, including some of his own pooh-flinging mates.

In a free society (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms), everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how bizarre/offensive/despicable/smeared-in-their-own-feces it may be, but if you don’t like the idea of a female Who might I suggest that you simply don’t bother watching the programme anymore? ** I don’t like the idea of American figure skaters and slinky Greek assassins falling in love with a leathery old belt, which is why I switched off whichever one that is after whispering the word ‘dogshit’.

I have nothing against fat people. I have nothing against the late Roger Moore. I have nothing against the kind of people who want to fling internet pooh at the poor actress chosen to portray the thirteenth Doctor. Nor do I give a particular fuck who plays Doctor Who or James Bond (although I’d admittedly be a little more hesitant if either of them were suddenly played by an American). Because absolutely none of this has any bearing on how I choose to live my life.

The rain outside has cleared. The storm has passed. We can’t unwatch Moonraker or David Duchovny’s self-penned directorial debut, but we can choose to ignore them.

Let’s move on.


*That hallowed and ancient organization may be many things, but politically correct has never been one of them. Ahead-of-its-time has never been another: a female Who has been rumored, on and off, since Tom Baker left.

**And I’m not posting this suggestion as a reply to other people’s Facebook comments or tweets for the same reason that I don’t have a comments section on my blog: because I consider ‘online debate’ a mild learning disability.

250 Lines of Definition

“The future is now! Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel and watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam.” – The Cable Guy, 1996


A colleague and I were recently waxing nostalgic about the 1990s. We agreed that today’s knowledge-at-yer-fingertips world is marginally preferable, but we are both happy to have grown up in a slightly simpler time when a 3 and 1/2 inch floppy was nothing to be ashamed of, and when Netflix binges involved changing the cassette every two episodes.

Ours was a weird time: 7-11 wasn’t just a name, it was opening hours; TMNT cereal turned everyone’s shit green; we suffered weird, violent 16 bit hallucinations at the robotic hands of Earthworm Jim; and – for one night only – Paul McGann was our generation’s single Doctor Who.

The early nineties was a time of flipping POGs, blowing the dust off Nintendo cartridges, and taping shows on bootleg VHS (I’m old enough to remember my mum reminding me not to ‘get the little one’ from the video store, a warning against the dangers of Betamax).

The latter part of the decade was, in that pre-9/11 world, a time of looking forward: fiber-optic broadband in every home, Nu Metal in every nightclub, digital cinematography in every film. People weren’t worried that their neighbour might be an extremist plotting holy war, they were worried about the millennium bug and Bill Clinton’s dong.

I spent most of the nineties not staying in the same place, being U Haul-ed to various small towns in Alberta before seeing in the new epoch in one of England’s least interesting villages.

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Before video games started outselling Hollywood blockbusters, before The Sopranos and Breaking Bad finally turned television into a legit art form, movies were the dominant pop culture medium. 1999 is often cited as one of the great years for cinema: While James Bond hung from a thread above the millennium dome and George Lucas dropped the ball on Star Wars, young music video directors were breaking through with future cult classics like Fight Club and Being John Malkovich.*

Meanwhile, two film students used videotape and guerrilla marketing to show that an improvised folk horror about three kids and a fictional witch can make the sort of money that most of Hollywood only dreams about. A couple of brothers (at the time) from Chicago proved that it’s possible to make a science fiction kung fu action thriller that has a philosophical core (at least until it collapsed under the weight of its own cross-platform, multi-sequel bullshit). These were films that summed up ‘our’ decade and, more importantly, said and meant something.

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We Generation X-ers felt no highs or lows. There were rumours of those who did, but they were just put on Ritalin by their douchebag parents. Our spokespersons were the sort of people who dressed up as a bat instead of confronting their problems or who moved into derelict houses with their imaginary friends to plot Year Zero revolution. We didn’t even spot the irony in a monologue about how we’d never be famous or have rock hard abs being delivered by Brad Pitt.

Here in the present, there is a wave of eighties nostalgia. Touted soon-to-be sequels include Bill and Ted, The Goonies, and The Dark Crystal. Christian Slater’s agent has woken up after a long winter’s snooze where the speed dial was set on straight-to-DVD. I guess we have to wait a decade or so for Fight Club Too or Being John Malkovich Again, or yet another X Files movie.

Even if we do have to put up with a Matrix reboot.


*(a film that I swear I at least occasionally shut up about).

Sanlitun is Still a Bit Shite

“Been spendin’ most our lives livin’ in a wankers paradise.”


Beijing is cooking under a chemical haze once again. Insects and arachnids have come out of the woodwork, like late-eighties/early-nineties Cronenberg. It’s hard to be motivated to do much. Even so, I went with the gf and a Chinese friend for a coffee in Sanlitun the other day.

Sanlitun (which genuinely seems to translate as “small area about half a kilometer from Dongzhimen”) is where wealthy tourists can go in order to fool themselves into thinking they are not in Beijing. It’s a westernized, gentrified section of the city that looks exactly the same as a westernized, gentrified section of any other city anywhere on Earth. It’s home to the world famous bar street, overlooked by the equally world famous Opposite House hotel, whose celebrity clientele (including ‘The Bieber’) almost certainly leave with a false impression of Chinese courteousness and plumbing.

This is a fashionable quarter of a pretty unfashionable city. It’s easy to imagine Camus and Sartre sitting in the Bookworm, perusing the lending library and shouting over each other between sips of cappuccino, while De Beauvoir mutters about patriarchy under her breath. It’s easy to imagine Hemingway ganbei-ing mugs of Yanjing and threatening to punch the locals at Heaven Supermarket, while Joyce sits outside with a dram, complaining about the sun in his eyes.

Sanlitun is that sort of place.

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During my last visit, this area was most notorious for the sex tape recorded in a clothing shop dressing room, and an unrelated grisly Samurai sword attack outside the same store a few weeks later. Since then, I had heard the rumours that large chunks of Sanlitun have been bulldozed, with local businesses disappearing to make way for more Ethiopian restaurants, vegan leather notebook shops and Mercedes showrooms. After seeing online photos of the reconstruction work, I was interested to see the reboot for myself.

It looks exactly the bloody same. The only noticeable casualties are the guy who used to sell black market DVDs, the most ridiculously chaste sex shop in the world, and a stall dubbed ‘the psycho pervert shop’ that sold hunting knives and fright masks to I-don’t-wanna-know-who. The ‘specialist’ coffee shop run by a grumpy American* seems to have mercifully changed hands, unless he now runs a wine bar that probably doesn’t serve any wine.

The bookshops are nothing to write home about, the steak is overpriced, and I still don’t know or care what The Largest Adidas Store In The World (TM) has to offer. The mugwumps and human-insect hybrids are all out in force. Sanlitun would be a great place to stage an IRL remake not just of Cronenberg but of Dawn of the Dead.

After a little wandering and a couple of Americanos that cost twice as much as dinner would half a kilometer away, a bus took us out of the sweltering heat and dropped us somewhere back in China.


* See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/wankers/

 

Pure Imagination

“There’s always gratification in self expression.” – John Horatio Malkovich


I recently watched a video of the brilliant writer Alan Moore being interviewed at the Odditorium. I’ve no idea what or where an ‘Odditorium’ is, but I do know that Alan Moore certainly belongs there.

I like Moore’s work very much. I like his ridiculously obsessive level of ‘quality control’ or ‘attention to detail’ or whatever it is that makes the great artists such control freaks. He once joked that if he was describing a glass of water in one of his scripts he would go so far as describing the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in it. For Show Pieces, the Lynchian film series that mixes the seemingly unrelated elements of sociopathic clowns, Northampton working men’s clubs, and Egyptian funerary practices, he wrote everything from dialogue and stage directions to songs, stand-up routines, and labels for imaginary products*. That level of control over a fictional universe is enviable (and almost certainly shows why he has disowned every film project adapted from any of his comic book work).

Speaking of which, I’m actually a lot more interested in Show Pieces and the other work that he is doing these days than I ever have been in most of his comic book writing. He may indeed be considered the best graphic novelist in the world (although that’s unfair to Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman at the very least), but I find Moore’s current prose,  film and spoken word work far more engaging than his ‘heyday’ superhero stuff.

In the interview, he moaned about young people not knowing who Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary are. With all due respect to Northampton’s bearded prophet-magus, this probably just shows that he hasn’t met the right young people. I refuse to believe, despite some decidedly compelling evidence, that every young millennial is a half-sharp twat. I’d still like to think that most millennials are waking up in a way that young people haven’t been awake for a long time, and that some of them are even beginning the long search for a fire exit to the 3D movie theatre. Whether or not they will find it in time is another adventure…

As well as watching interviews with Northampton-based worldbuilders, I’ve been reading a bunch of screenplays that I found online. Most recently I read The Men Who Stare at Goats, the script behind the knockabout war comedy based on a slightly darker book and a much darker true story about the American military flirting with hippie culture as a way of appealing to young men of the post-Vietnam era.

Today’s lack of counterculture was another thing Alan Moore complained about, but do we really have much of a culture to counter these days?!? Anger will always achieve more than apathy, but does unbridled rage make any more strategic sense than going misty eyed or carrying lambs and flowers into battle like the goat staring men?

Historically, screenplays are grouped with cereal packets, technical instruction manuals and 17th century medical textbooks at the bottom of the list of things that people read for pleasure. I won’t go into the old ‘are screenplays art?’ debate but I do think that, if written well (perhaps obsessively), they are at least an often under-appreciated form of writing.

It can be edifying to compare early drafts to the finished version of some favourite films.** There are also the great unmade scripts: The Island of Doctor Moreau (adapted by the writers of The Wild Bunch and Full Metal Jacket); Sandman (adapted by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek); Neuromancer (adapted, for once, by the writer of Neuromancer). Films that you will never see anywhere but in your mind’s eye.

Screenwriting was always my own medium of choice. Despite the frustrations that come with it: Despite not feeling like a ‘real artist’. Despite directors/producers/other writers ‘reworking the material’, usually into turgid crap. Despite endless Skype calls answering questions like “but why does he stumble back, in awe? Wouldn’t it be a case of him jumping back, in shock?”**. Despite managing to upset aspiring producers by saying it’s perfectly alright for them not to ‘get’ the ending, but you’d rather find a producer who does than change it. Despite the drawers and drawers full of un-filmed work that people will tease you mercifully for: “was this written by a twelve year old?” (as if, at 23 and with your first attempt, you’re supposed to be the new frickin’ Shakespeare).

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A friend from England recently dug out an old horror script that we’d written together and has decided to film it (after rewriting it of course). It will be nice to see some ‘new’ work come to life, as always (even if the writing is only half mine, and even that half is not my best work). But I have yet to master the God-like level of control over my sporadic screenwriting that an artist has.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is not a great screenplay. It deals with a lot of the stuff I like: shamanism, counterculture elements, redemption stories. But it’s also a little preoccupied with Joseph Campbell and Star Wars references. I like my shamanism bubbling under the surface like an Alan Moore story, not smacking me in the forehead like a Dim Mak.

In a world that has lost its way, we need more people like Alan Moore (not people who copy his writing style or fashion sense, but people who do good, creative, uncompromising work). We need more artists, writers, journalists, performers. People who can see or do what others can’t and then try to explain some of those wyrd things to us.

When a world is undeniably fraying around the edges, the best coping mechanism is devoting time to something you love. Some people have the good fortune of being great at what they love, others just have to keep working at it and hope for the best. Ken Robinson, the educator and writer, calls this sweet spot ‘the element’; Joseph Campbell calls it ‘bliss’ (after a rough translation of ananda, one of the gateways to enlightenment in the Hindu Upanishads); I call it ‘the stuff you do when others have given you the courtesy of getting the fuck out of your face’.

FADE TO BLACK.


CODA:

But isn’t it frustrating?

Yes. It is. It’s frustrating to write short or long form scripts that you know are unlikely ever to see the light of day (for film, TV, web, or any other scripted media).

Yes. A script that isn’t filmed may as well not exist. Unlike an unpublished novel, one that can always be rediscovered and published years later, an unmade screenplay is just a map or a blueprint to a place that doesn’t exist or a building that was never constructed.

But as Vonnegut said in an earlier entry, “you will have created something”.


*One of which, Tunguska Vodka: This One Will Flatten You, could only be dreamt up by a demented alchemist like Mr. Moore.

**An epic puppet battle between John Malkovich and the devil may indeed have made great cinema, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t make it into the final draft.

**Yes, this was a real conversation.

A Touch of Silk

“Oh, you come back again, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Unintentionally.”


 

I believe in the power of signs. If I see something, anything really, that I feel could be interpreted as a sign or portent leading me somewhere, I tend to follow it. I’m aware that it’s a dubious practice. Life is a random series of uncontrollable events, and some have accused me of outright insanity for trying to impose a narrative structure on anything as chaotic as my own human life. Nevertheless, when I saw a (very literal) sign that said:

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I thought, “Sure, why the hell not.”

Back in my salad days of substance abuse and Bacchinalian excess, I used to hang out with a brilliant but troubled young poet. We used to chat pseudo-philosophy, exchange pub physics Judo moves, read work to each other; all that sort of rakish, no-homo, lower middle class stuff. I’ve still no idea if I was Dante to his Virgil or if it was the other way round, but either way the  seven circles of Northampton’s Abington Street were pretty much our oyster. We were often greeted at the Penny Whistle with a weak grin and a “You guys, again?”

One night we visited a strip club. My poet friend correctly pointed out that every bloke should visit a strip club so that they have at least an inkling of what it’s like to be constantly harassed by attractive people who just want your money but won’t actually stoop to petty theft. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was a perfect training ground for Beijing’s legendary Silk Street market.

Everyone here speaks a single, perfectly-rehearsed sentence of  English. Like doe-eyed, heavily accented automata programmed to say things like “Hi, you want suit?” or “Hey, you really want tablecloth, right?” or, in the case of one poor bastard in a toy shop whose job seems to be sitting behind a spinning, whirring neon something for who knows how many hours a day, “Hello… uh… UFO?”

If Daedalus, master craftsman of the ancient world, had fallen through a tear in the space/time continuum and found himself in modern China, perhaps he would have been set the task of designing this place (possibly with the devious assistance of HH Holmes), before being exiled to a little tea shop somewhere deep inside.

The entrance itself warns of the labyrinthine horrors within, like the psychic barriers of Cirith Ungol: A  Hall of Fame displaying huge photos of Christine LeGarde, George H.W. Bush (who’s face appears spattered with a mysterious creamy white substance), and other people described simply as ‘Celebrated Businessman’ or ‘Former Estonia First Lady’. Whether these people ever solved the multicursal mystery and lived to tell the tale is undocumented, but I would not be surprised to find a spent Belgian ex-Prime Minister quietly touting Mao t-shirts somewhere inside.

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A display case promising ‘High Quality Goods’ stands tellingly empty. This is a Kafka story. An Escher painting. A Quay Brothers film. One of those Christopher Priest novels where the geography just doesn’t add up.

I lasted twenty minutes before confessing all of my earthly sins to a complete stranger, pulling the ripcord on my wax wings and riding the thermals to the nearest coffee shop. I sat shivering over a very strong Americano at a table overlooking others entering Silk Street, soon to abandon all hope.

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Ten Rows of Teeth

“Characters you’ve created occasionally stop by to say hello, or try to hunt you down and eat you.” – Steven Hall


I sat in bed the other night, sipping a bottle of Nongfu Spring and reading over some old journals from my Vancouver days. Although I enjoyed that time in my life: sipping craft beer, strolling along the beach and exchanging ridiculously literal small talk with Canucks, I don’t actually miss Vancouver that much. Most of the travellers that I met there lamented the fact that they had moved to Canada to get on with their life but had just found themselves in the same dull routine they’d been trying to flee from: minimum wage jobs, drinking in the same bars, going to the movies to escape the crippling spiritual emptiness. It’s a lovely, beautiful city (albeit one punctured with many needle marks), it just never felt like home to me.

One of my favourite contemporary novels is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, a slipstream narrative that puts a fairly original spin on the old cliché about someone waking up with no memory of who they were the day before. The only clues that the protagonist has about his life are a breadcrumb trail of notes and packages that arrive, claiming to be from his past self, explaining that a predatory ‘conceptual fish’ has devoured his memories.

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In one of my journal entries, I wondered what would happen if I had woken up sans memories like the hero of RST (or Memento or Dark City or a dozen other stories); how would I feel about the guy from my past who writes down these little life notes? Would I like him? Would I understand his thought processes? What would I deduce about him just from the many pen scratches that he’s left behind in various colorful notebooks from hutong bookstores?

Well, the first thing I’d probably notice is that he complains a lot. Secondly, that he’s pretty bloody keen on writing. He’s lazy and procrastinatory, swimming in a sea of neuroses, but he enjoys life and makes quite a lot of strides towards his goals, sometimes doing breast stroke, sometimes doggy paddle. I don’t know what Amnesia Me would make of all this, but I kind of like the guy.

There was one thing I quite enjoyed about the lackluster TV adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (and it is certainly not the way the date is written, nor is it the lead performance by People’s Choice nominee and surely-at-least-a-little-dead-inside James Franco). It was that whenever time traveller and very occasional actor James Franco tries to change anything in the past (usually with a sort of Shatner-esque dramatic flailing that many Americans often mistake for performance art), the past pushes back against him. Every time he tries to change something in the sixties, he is nearly run over or set on fire or shouted at*.

There’s one scene, if I remember correctly, where Empire-Award-nominated polymath James Franco is driving through the streets of Dallas searching for a lone gunman in a book depository,** shouting at no one in particular “We gotta be prepared, man! We’re going up against… The Past!” Then, BAM. Flat tire.

If I am ever likely to be assassinated, and somebody finds a magic cupboard that will send someone back with three years to adequately plan and execute a brilliant rescue attempt, please do not send the guy who failed to kill Tobey Maguire on three occasions.

In that Star Trek film I watched recently, the one when I had no voice but was still trying to swear at the telly for showing me a really long widescreen nineties TV episode about silly foreheads, the bad guy describes time as “the fire in which we all burn”.

Is the past really some kind of predator? One that swims around waiting to bite or burst into flames and ruin the day of Captain Picard or multiple-MTV-movie-award-nominee James Franco?

To be honest, I find the little packages from my past self kind of liberating. It’s fun to see what has changed in the year or almost-year since these journal entries, and what has stayed the same. It’s fun to see journeys taken and not taken, little predictions proven right or wrong. Hobos and junkies encountered and written about.

Maybe the past, or time in general, is against us or downright out to get us. But I rather doubt that it actually gives a shit about us. And I doubt we should give much of a shit about it. Except to occasionally read about it, see what we can learn from it, and then go shark hunting with a harpoon made of words.

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*Admittedly, the past doesn’t do all that much when he starts boning a Hitchcock blonde old enough to be his grandmother, but whatever.

**(this is a fantasy story after all)

There is Nothing For You at Huagong Station

“Please stand firm and hold the handrail.”


Slightly anxious about the forthcoming U.K. general election (mainly because the only thing most British people are good at is making stupid decisions really loudly), I hopped onto a rented bicycle and tried to out-pedal my woes. I had, as usual, no idea where I was going.

I rode out past Happy Valley subway station, following Line 7 for twenty minutes or so, through muddy puddles and past huge cement trucks that trundled towards me from the opposite direction. My journey along this part of the line was abruptly cut short. A huge blue fence blocked further access in every direction except the one I’d just travelled in. The only escape was Huagong metro station, and even that lay concealed within a stretch of blue Labyrinth.

A mysterious man in a deck chair marked the entrance. Whether he was paid to be there* or simply enjoys sitting in the rain outside fenced off subway stations remains unclear. He didn’t smile. When I made it into the bowels of the station, I found I was Huagong’s only customer (perhaps its only customer ever). You know those seventies movies where a white guy walks into some ‘ethnic’ bar and the music stops while all of the patrons turn in shock and anger. That’s pretty much what happened on this wet, grey day in the Jing.

The cleaner, an ancient Mervyn Peake character who had been dutifully polishing ticket barriers that no human would ever pass through, nearly dropped his cloth as he stared at me the entire time I was there. I expected him to start pointing, letting out an unearthly screech like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Seriously, the first and last thing I saw at Huagong was this dude’s uncomprehending bald head as he stood in exactly the same position, mouth open, damp rag hanging limply from his hand.

The only other people at the station were two security officers, one male, one female. Both wore expressions that said “wtf is this man doing in Huagong?”

With the knowledge and freedom of a man just passing through, and the optimism of one who hopes never to return, I took one last look at the station, said a silent and emotional farewell, and boarded the train for Hufangqiao.


*(Possibly by David Lynch or the ghost of Federico Fellini)