Twenty Minutes into the Future

“Coming to you live and direct…”

Inspired by my recent virtual reality trip, I began a search for some decent science fiction and/or fantasy movies to watch; a search that almost instantly reached a nadir. I looked fruitlessly for David Cronenberg films on Chinese Netflix. I watched The Signal, a story that basically ‘borrowed’ from earlier (mostly nineties) sf movies, complete with Laurence Fishburne and plot-twist-you-saw-coming-from-at-least-as-far-back-as-1998. I then, with the deep sigh of someone who’d pretty much given up on life, watched Ghost Rider, a 120-minute phone call from the late Nicolas Cage. Yes, I’m aware that he’s not clinically dead.

Re-evaluating my life (and the life of science fiction cinema), I finally stumbled upon episodes of the 1980s cyberpunk series Max Headroom.

a few years ago, after shooting my final student film,* I turned to scriptwriting. For several intense months, I decided I’d be best suited to the kind of existence of that mad shut-in from Twin Peaks: the guy who just grows orchids and takes notes on other people’s lives and shouts at the people outside his constantly knocking door. Writing, despite the wisecracks and backbiting that I’m sure every would-be creative gets, became my full time job.

I spent my spare time watching and researching episodes of pretty much every science fiction and fantasy show I ever enjoyed as a kid, from nineties classics like Buffy and X Files to sixties oddities like Thunderbirds and The Avengers (McNee, not Marvel). I watched almost all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and far too much of eighties Doctor Who. I even sat through the inaugural episodes of Power Rangers, Reboot, Samurai Pizza Cats, and that really weird show where Ron Perlman lives in the sewer because Linda Hamilton won’t go out with him. I did, however, stay absolutely the hell away from both Space Precinct and Bill Shatner’s Tek War.

This was not idle viewing; this wasn’t even pleasurable. I took notes. I paid attention to each writing credit and I looked into each writer as much as I could, to see how they got started in scriptwriting. Some of these individual episodes stood the test of time. Others were about Japanese cats who delivered pizza.

It was a strange time.

Somehow Max Headroom passed me by. Set in a dystopian future ruled by television networks, the series is a spin-off of Channel Four’s bonkers chat show about celebrities being interviewed by a floating head (supposedly computer generated, but actually just a Canadian in a rubber mask).

I’ve seen enough TV to know that the original Channel Four pilot film is good. It’s shot by music video directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (who went on to make that awful ‘dark fairytale’ movie of Super Mario Bros**, but let’s not hold that against them). The pilot is good enough that it actually approaches brilliance in places: A smoky, neo noir vision of the very near future, a shoestring eighties Carpenter or Gilliam or maybe even Ridley Scott, brilliantly filmic (ironic for a story that revolves around a stolen and hella futuristic Betamax tape). Compared to the sort of garishly lit and costumed capering that Colin Baker was up to on the other channel at that time, this is almost modern art!

The always enjoyable American-born, Canadian-raised and British-trained Matt Frewer plays crusading journalist Edison Carter, determined to expose the secrets and lies of the oppressive networks, including a cover-up of the fact that a batch of new 3-second advertisements are so hyper-intense that they cause certain viewers to spontaneously combust! After an accident that his employers are keen to hush up, a computer whiz kid creates (for reasons that just about make sense) a computer generated version of Edison Carter’s head. This glitchy, sarcastic programme goes rogue and becomes the eponymous Max, named after the last thing that Carter saw before he lost consciousness: a barrier sign in a car park.

Edison’s British companion is played by Amanda Pays. The name may not be recognizable, but the face and hairdo may well be. She played Token British Girlfriend in a bunch of late eighties and early nineties stuff, having the great fortune of portraying Fox Mulder’s fawning, kinky, poorly-written ex crumpet in a mercifully brief X Files gig. You remember? The one who used to chortle haughtily over a strong cup of tea, say things like ‘naughty bugger’ and wistfully recall humping Duchovny atop Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave (presumably while he was turning in it). In fairness to Ms. Pays, her patchy performances are mostly down to other people’s piss poor writing.*** She would almost certainly be able to act her way out of a paper bag, assuming that the exit was clearly marked and someone had poked an Amanda Pays sized hole in it.

Two episodes in, the series (actually British, although it was shot specifically for an overseas audience) is about half as good as the film. Gone is the swearing, gore, Pythonesque humour, male nudity and pretty much all subtlety, presumably because American audiences don’t care for that sort of thing. There are nicer leather jackets and haircuts for the now-American cast, some poorly choreographed action sequences, a handful of racist and sexist jokes, and some intriguing near-future mullets. It’s watchable enough, but not quite the grounbreaking stuff I was hoping for.

Like a lot of sci-fi, this series is not only very slightly ahead of its time, it’s totally of its time: This is early MTV stuff. Shit couldn’t be more eighties if Cories Haim and Feldman turned up with a brick phone snorting a line of New Coke.

But, speaking as a dude sitting in a hazy neon metropolis at a time that a big American head is tweeting absolute gibberish, it’s kind of hard not to laugh.

*Tired of expending all of my energy trying to explain to teenage emos that no, picking up the wire that they’d left dangling in shot was not that difficult and yes, it actually did, cinematically, make quite a difference.

**A film that my Facebook friends will crucify me for taking a massive piss on, probably because they haven’t seen it since 1992. Seriously, I have shit out better mushroom kingdoms after a night of Yunnan hotpot!

***Has that X Files guy even been to England?

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Three): “The Joker’s Warpaint”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” – Robert Burton

This is the third and final part of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries.

For part one click here:

For part two click here:


“Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut

In the first of Tim Burton’s now-dated versions of the caped crusader myth, which I recently re-watched for the first time since childhood, the psychotic Joker is portrayed as an ambitious but petty thug with an aptitude for chemistry and art. After falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging looking like Sylvester Stallone’s mum, Joker terrorizes the people of Gotham with some poorly-lit MTV infomercials for tainted fashion products that turn people into ‘works of art’.

Like most people, I much prefer Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning ‘agent of chaos’ version of Joker, the mad dog chasing cars who “doesn’t even know what he’d do if he caught one”, an anarchist torturer with unevenly applied greasepaint slapped on his unwashed, pallid, mentally-ill face.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers (Zizek springs instantly to mind) have stated that they actually identify more with villains like the Joker and Bane than with the Dark Knight himself, feeling that where Batman represents the capitalist status quo the villains usually offer a socialist or anarchist worldview, albeit one brought about by the ‘regime change’ of terrorist action.

However, what the sort of IRL, mentally divergent cunts who put on fright wigs and shoot people because they’re ‘inspired’ by movies like Batman or Old Boy or Taxi Driver, seem to forget is that these characters are fictional. They only exist to drive a narrative forward and to butt heads with other characters.*

They are also bell ends.

Even so, a terrorist villain as frustrated artist was an interesting angle for Tim Burton and his screenwriting team to choose. It wouldn’t be the first time some absolute helmet took their artistic ambitions and pissed them away into more Machiavellian pursuits: In the mid-20th century there was an Austrian fella who, after being absolutely ridiculed in the art world, turned to politics. He finally took Europe by storm in 1939 with a little piece of his called World War Two. Here in the 2010s, even Dubya turned out to be a frustrated painter all along.

What is an artist anyway? It’s just someone who can see something that others can’t, and then articulates that vision through a chosen medium in a way that is, hopefully, understandable to at least a handful of people.

My day spent searching for multimedia gems in China’s capital led me from the virtual reality floor of the 798 Art Factory to the very real third floor of a building in Blue Harbour shopping precinct.

The Yang Art Museum is known locally by the slightly odd but decidedly delicious acronym YAM.** I knew, when I found a xeroxed copy of Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (in French, alas), that I had come to the right place.

I was here to see the exhibition ‘Rebel Cities’, an effort by multiple artists, many of whom were engaging in “research and activism at specific – often socially and geographically marginalized – places in Beijing.”

No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I don’t really like photographing art that much anyway. The map is, of course, not the territory: Seeing a photo of the Sistine Chapel is not the same as standing under its ceiling, any more than watching a virtual herd of elephants is the same as shitting your pants in a Jumanji-level stampede. I did scribble some notes (most likely indecipherable to anyone else) a habit that I actually picked up from the coffee shop companion and gallery-owner-to-be mentioned in the previous entry: “Your writing about it can be the photograph.”


Mostly I just wandered around looking. After a morning of interactive virtual reality it was nice to passively watch the work of painters, filmmakers and typographers from the city; to soak up some of the hard work of creative Beijingers who are as inspired by their own urban space as I am.

A crumbling semi-shithole of a space it may be. A space that I spent my morning escaping from as tenaciously as the beaten down protagonist from Brazil. A space that the clown prince of crime would have no hesitation in razing to the ground while laughing hysterically. but a space that, for now at least, I call home.

*Conflict, as anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature knows, is drama.

**They even have an enticing loyalty card called the Super Yam.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Two): “Three Hundred and Sixty”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

– Robert Burton

This is part two of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries. For the previous post, click here:


The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow” – Kurt Vonnegut

The Raindance Film Festival is, like basketball and Doctor Who, one of many cool things to have been created by a Canadian. Raindance (something you can now be arrested for in Ireland, probably) was the brainchild of Elliot Grove, Ontario’s most remarkably tech savvy Anabaptist.

During my first trip to the Jing, one of my colleagues had studied Fine Arts in the U.K. Just like every millennial who chose this course of action, she was unemployable in her home country and was traveling on a shoestring, slowly stoking her dream of becoming a gallery curator.

This young lady was interested in my coffee shop meditations, and she suggested documenting each coffee I drank with a photograph or a notebook entry, describing the coffee and the universe that I saw inside of it. While this is not necessarily a bad idea for an art project, the fact is I couldn’t be bothered. I’m almost always drinking coffee because I’m knackered and lazy, and rarely if ever because I want to create art-wank.

I was thinking about none of these things when I walked into a shabby old factory in 798 Art Zone for the Raindance China VR Film Festival.

I grew up in the nineties, the cyberpunk age of The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor, ExistenZ* and of course The Matrix. Virtual Reality is, for me at least, a childhood dream come true.


Living in China is like living in Futurama: Just as you’re marveling at the Star Trek-level technology, the futuristic door malfunctions and smacks you in the back of the head. It was no surprise, therefore, that the first opening credit to the Introduction to Virtual Reality film was ‘No Internet Connection’.

But then it began, I was sucked into a 360 degree world of awesome, albeit one where I did not speak the language and was therefore unable to translate the phrase “It’s a little fuzzy, mate!” Even this was soon forgotten when I was floating in a junk boat, sitting in a Mongolian yurt and doing other seemingly exotic things that, ironically, I could have been doing in real life if I’d left the factory and gone to the fucking train station instead.

But then: Bam! A herd of elephants. A spinning planet whooshing overhead. A freaking dinosaur sniffing at my crotch. I was genuinely thrilled. This is, as I suspected, much of what I love about films, games, art, storytelling and real life rolled into one slightly odd-looking thing that fits on your face. This was a cavernous universe that filled a couple of square meters. I was only slightly disturbed by the threat of conjunctivitis and the thought that “if my brain thinks I’ve seen elephants in the wild, will that make seeing real elephants in the wild less impressive?”

To say that I watched five short films for ¥80 (roughly a tenner in old money) is not entirely accurate. Suffice it to say that I experienced five pieces of interactive art, using sound cues to look in vaguely the right direction, standing in just the right place to avoid the blue bars that indicated the end of my new little world. Halfway through one story, narrated by nineties somebody Ethan Hawke, I glanced at my feet and realized I’d been a bunny rabbit the whole time. This is weird, wonderful, Alice in Wonderland stuff. The most unbelievable thing about it was that I couldn’t convince the gf, someone who keeps the cellular data people in business 22 hours a day, to come along with me.


I used to laugh at the slogan of a coffee shop around the corner of the very gallery I was standing in: a slogan that stated “the future is NOW!”** But, on behalf of my nerdy ten-year-old self, who wondered how far-fetched the ‘holodeck’ actually was, I think that those Latte-making bastards might be onto something.

I have to admit, I’m slightly unsettled by the idea of some creature in the post-human future strapping on their equivalent of a headset and saying “Ah, so that’s what an elephant was” or “Ah, so that’s what the 1930s was like” or “Ah, so that’s what Post-Trump Nuclear Neo-Primitivism is!”

But, speaking as someone who spent his morning gleefully prancing around The Art Warehouse chasing creatures from Persian mythology, “the future is now”…

*Made at a time when video games as art and game designers as celebrities were still the stuff of science fiction!

**(and not, slightly more accurately, “really, really soon”)

The Escapist


We’ve had a bad run of movies here in the Jing recently. After steak and Assassin’s Creed tickets for my birthday last month, I made the mistake of introducing the gf to the off-hand remark ‘I owe you one’. This led to two hours of watching a dog that absolutely refuses to die teaching Dennis Quaid how to love again, dubbed into Mandarin. I shit you not. The only question more important than “who the fuck makes this kind of movie” was “why am I watching this and does my life really have to last this long?”

Soon afterwards, we journeyed to an underground cinema* to watch the Disney retread of Beauty & The Beast. I thought I’d hate it. Sometime before the ballroom scene, I felt something tugging at my insides and saying You were absolutely right. This is dogshit. Just how much face can you possibly lose by fucking off for a coffee?

If you like strong fairytale plots, fearless female protagonists and gripping fantasy worlds, Beauty & the Beast is not the film for you. If you want to see a bunch of British character actors phone it in while two posh twats fall in love for absolutely no goddamned reason, in a movie that you already fucking saw twenty years ago, then be my guest.

My question this week is simple: what on the blue earth happened to modern cinema? The only other film on offer was a remake of King Kong. Wasn’t the remake with Jeff Bridges bad enough? Or the ‘reboot’ with Jack Black? Do we really, and let’s all think seriously for a moment, need yet another movie about a really, really big monkey?

Even the trailers showed Vin Diesel and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in a car chase against a cartoon submarine. Somebody helpfully pointed out that this is the eighth time such a car chase has happened! Are you telling me, with a straight face, there are eight films about exploding cars and not one audience member has thought to say “shall we just fuck off and watch something else now?” In the same universe that brought us black holes, unified field theory and the Fibonacci sequence, people are willing to work a five day week just to save up enough cash to spend on this absolute wank? Is reality that unbearable these days?

Back in Vancouver, the hostel where I worked (and, briefly, lived) had a ‘Netflix room’ where backpackers could sit in the dark and watch movies and TV instead of exploring the mountains and beaches of Hollywood North. Naturally, some people took liberties in this room. The long-suffering night staff should have kept their own blog, rife with tales of coked-up Aussies, puking Asians and on one memorable occasion, a firm knock on the door to ask a young woman to stop delivering fellatio in full view of the cctv camera (“We’re both consenting adults!” She protested. “Yes love,” said the night manager “but Im not!”).

One break time in the Netflix room, I was sitting with a German colleague as some absolutely awful piece of crap played out on the screen in front of us: two women who looked like the cover of Horse & Hound magazine sitting in a park talking about weddings.

“What,” said my German buddy, “the fuck is this?”
“I have no idea,” I assured him, “but I’d bet money that it’s Sex and the City.”

We sat through a couple of painful scenes before my German friend summed up the entire experience: “This is literally just ugly American women and pretty American buildings.” He was right. It was a cinematographer’s worst nightmare. It was Colonel Gadaffi’s elective surgery advisor’s worst nightmare.

The following day at break time, I joined the same guy in the same room. He was watching a show called Trailer Park Boys. It struck me as weird, because Sex and the City (as the dog and pony show indeed turned out to be) is essentially just ”rich people porn”, a chance to watch people whose disposable income is way higher than yours doing whatever they do**. Trailer Park Boys, with its equally ugly (spiritually as well as physically) characters is the opposite: “poverty porn”.

I’ve never sat through a full episode of either series. They might be brilliant for all I know, although I’m happy to die knowing that I was never brave enough to find out. I can’t imagine that either of them are saying anything, anymore than 80s shite like The A Team or Quincy, M.E. were saying anything (other than “look, just sit down and shut up for three-quarters-of-an-hour will ya?”)***

I understand the need for a little escapism. It’s true that buying a new toaster or watching a Shia LeBoeuf movie will provide temporary anesthesia against crippling ennui. But I can’t bring myself to believe that life is simply a series of televised or theatrically released events that are meant to distract you from the fact that you’re slowly hurtling towards death in a fallible meat suit. I’m not that cynical.

No, honestly. I’m not!

* I don’t mean ‘underground’ in a hip, punk rock kind of way. It was literally under a shopping mall.

** Mostly just shopping and getting married apparently. The British tabloids were rife with stories of young women who were hideously in debt trying to buy all of the clothes and products that featured in the programme.

***Admittedly, in the latter case, also “Christ, get it together Quincy! I solved this 40 minutes ago!”

Lanterns and Pi

“It was a good film. A little, you know ‘uplifting’, which usually pisses me off, but enjoyable.” -A friend

It was Lantern Festival on Saturday, marking the official end of the Chinese New Year. The gf wanted to celebrate by cooking dinner and watching a movie. It wasn’t something I felt qualified to argue with, so we watched Life of Pi and ate tofu with pork.

I haven’t yet read the Pi novel so I can’t say how it translates to the screen, but I found the film version* to be a very enjoyable story, rich in subtext and metaphor, including some neat alchemical stuff on an island full of meerkats.

Like many stories about stories, I felt Life of Pi offered a roadmap and a caveat about storytelling, travelling and just living life in general. The religious overtones rankled with me, as usual, but the theme of trying to tame the vicious tiger of fear whilst adrift in the lifeboat of isolated disappointment is one that will stay close to my heart.


So the fireworks are over for another year, and I got to celebrate with a beautiful Chinese woman and a good piece of cinematic storytelling. I still haven’t been to the gym, but I did get gf to write “I want a haircut” in Chinese.** The result was my first ‘street’ haircut, at the hands of a little old lady with a tarpaulin, under a smoky sky,  in front of a handful of bewildered locals who were smiling, laughing, and saying “bi-yu-ti-fu!”

*directed by celebrated ‘Chinese’ director Ang Lee (from Taiwan).

**Traditionally, haircuts are a bad idea at Spring Festival because it means that your uncle will have bad luck. One of many Chinese superstitions that I can’t quite get my freshly-shorn head around.

Finishing Touches


“And… cut!”

Yesterday marked the end of my trip to the land of apples and Borat. My friend and I eventually won our Napoleonic battle with the elements to gather enough footage for the video project. The Soviet era lenses that we’ve been using have given the footage a very cinematic look, and I can’t wait to see the finished short.

It’s true that some days we only got outside for a grand total of thirty-five minutes, tops, before the very real threat of frozen johnsons drove us back inside for copious amounts of hot tea, but we eventually wrapped after a sub-zero legend trip towards the river, plus a couple of pick-up shots the following morning (shortly before the power went down in the apartment complex, which meant packing my bags and showering in dwindling daylight before writing this at the airport and posting it from my apartment in the Jing).

The troubles of the world have been weighing a little heavy recently, although I again see hope in the fact that the likes of George Orwell and Hannah Arendt have begun climbing the bestseller list, as if people have realized that switching off the X Factor and educating themselves instead is possibly the best defense against the forthcoming zombie apocalypse.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Republic of Kazakhstan, but it’s been grest to notch up a second Asian country to my travels and to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen for over a year. I hope to return one day. Possibly during the summer next time!

Have an Ice Day



My friend here in the Stan makes music and film projects that blur the boundaries between art, political satire and just plain weird-ery. He’s kind of what Diogenes of Sinope would probably be doing if he moved out of his vase and into the 21st Century.


If I were to describe Astana in two words it would be ‘pretty cold’. If I were to describe it in four, it would be ‘pretty, but pretty cold’. My friend and I, for whatever reason people do strange things, walked across nearly half the city the other day, including journeying across two sections of the frozen river Ishim.

We’ve started shooting a video project, partly inspired by The Revenant.*

This city is sports crazy. The Astana Pro team, formerly led by zero times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, has a massive velodrome here. Just a stone’s throw away are football stadiums, speed skating tracks and hockey arenas.

It’s no surprise then, that the desolate, snowy tundra of our video project is actually made up of carefully framed cross-country ski tracks, amusement parks and ice fishing hot spots. Our mini epic has been dogged by the usual production woes: changes in light, changes in weather, changes in body temperature.

Yesterday we put work ethic aside, mainly due to misty weather, and went ice skating with ‘the fam’ instead. The indoor arena included a rink  where children and the chronically ill-balanced could lean on Zimmer frames. For a semi-Canuck I’m a poor skater but  I managed to stay upright the entire time, which I was quietly proud of.

Today we returned to the great outdoors with three layers of clothing to shoot some more of the video. The edited footage so far is very encouraging. Maybe even a cynic like Diogenes would be secretly impressed. Probably not, though.

* (which I’ve never seen, despite it being made on my former turf)