Driffield’s Bookcase (an Epilogue to The Anatomy of Melancholy)

“Never confuse where you are with where you are going.”

-Emir Manheim


In the past, when I’ve felt blue/down/angry, people’s always-helpful-and-never-knowingly-unappreciated advice has often extended to phrases like “try not to think about it” or “hmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here”, or even “I’d keep those sort of opinions to yourself if I were you!”

More often than not, the people who actually cheer me up are people I’ve never met, sometimes people who’ve been dead for years: poets, writers, philosophers, artists.

My recent quest to detox from most of the human race through other people’s multimedia art proved fruitful. The world may still be the planetary equivalent of a reasonably amusing hobo who approaches you and mumbles some crazy shit that makes you chuckle, only to pull out a rusty hunting knife and go straight for the gonads, but maybe it’s always been that way.

A long time ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates found himself standing in the sunny garden of his friend Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’. Something like the following scene unfolded:

FADE IN.

EXT. THRACIAN SUBURBS, 3RD CENTURY BCE – DAY

Hippocrates (tall, bearded, father-of-modern-medicine type) stands in a sunny Greek garden. His face suddenly turns sour as he sniffs the air suspiciously.

HIPPOCRATES (with distaste)
Hmm. Smells like entrails around here!

Following the intestinal scent, Hippocrates finds his friend sitting beneath a huge tree. Democritus (fat, pre-Socratic, father-of-atomic theory looking), has an open book in his nude lap and a big dopey Joker grin on his face. Strewn about him on the ground are the corpses of at least a dozen household animals.

HIPPOCRATES
Wtf, Democritus! Why do you sit naked under a shady bower, surrounded by the carcasses of many and several beasts? Do you hold these creatures in contempt or something, fam?

DEMOCRITUS
Nah, bro. I is doing science, innit. This book upon my knee is my own work. I am writing on madness and anatomy and that. I have anatomized these animals, all of which are dear to me, in order that my writings and researches may lead other men to avoid sitting upon the throne of atra bilis, known in English as melancholy.

HIPPOCRATES
I know what atra bilis is mate, for I am Greek also. But what is to be done about the smell, broheim?

FADE TO WHITE.

Flash forward a couple of epochs. Two score centuries, give or take.

1631. An English scholar by the name of Robert Burton, writing under the questionable (and possibly not-so-serious) pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ incorporates his own version of Hippocrates’s anecdote into what would become his only published work, a dense medical text on melancholy. Burton was an obsessive re-writer of his own work, and no less than five revisions of the book were published in his lifetime alone.

The text is described in the beginning (by a possibly unreliable source) as “A book once the favourite of the learned and the witty”, “the delight of the learned, the solace of the indolent, and the refuge of the uninformed”, which sounds like something quite a lot of people here in the 21st century should be reading.

Samuel Johnson supposedly once said that Burton’s work “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”*

By all accounts, Burton was quite the pleasant chap. A voracious reader. A devoted student of the world with a dark sense of humour. “Very merry, facete, and juvenile”, “the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense.”

Anyone who has the word ‘learned’ attached to him that many times must be worth a read, surely?

FADE TO WHITE.

Let’s crash through another few centuries:

EXT. WEST PENDER STREET, VANCOUVER, CANADA – DAY

Benjamin (scrucify, clumsy, introverted but undeniably sexually attractive kind of guy) walks through the rain clutching an umbrella. He is at a point exactly equidistant from a secondhand bookshop and a little café run by a woman from Shanghai who makes excellent eggs Benedict.

BENJAMIN (inner monologue)
I swear, after going book shopping in Vancouver, that I will never complain about the price of paperbacks in Beijing ever again! Perhaps I’ll go to the library and see if they have anything by Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair.

CUT TO:

I walk in to pick up a hold in the Vancouver Public Library.** The book is London: City of Disappearances, a sprawling multi-author fusion of fact and fiction about England’s swinging capital.

One of the book’s ‘characters’ is the enigmatic bookseller Driffield, who spends his time sipping jet black coffees, loafing about in salmon pink jumpers and gathering research for his self-published guides to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain; he tries to make money by renting himself out to writers as a character in their fictional stories. On one of Driff’s many bookcases sits a 17th Century medical textbook, which is where I first become aware of Robert Burton’s 2000 page tome The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is; With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. I clearly file it away somewhere in my brain in case the world becomes so depressing that I’ll want to steal any part of the catchy title for a blog project.

Ironically, for a book that he wrote mostly to relieve his own melancholy, the textbook apparently increased Burton’s malady to such a degree that he never recovered.

A similar fate may well have befallen the by-now-at-least-semi-fictional Driffield. Nobody is even sure of his current whereabouts, although rumours of his death may have been started by the mysterious book dealer himself.

FADE TO WHITE.

Onwards, further into the future:

INT. ANLILU SUBWAY STATION, BEIJING, CHINA – DAY

I hop onto Line 15 one chilly December evening, chatting to an interesting fella who was with the circus for ten years, and is now – after a decade of juggling and death defying stunts – ready to run away to Medical School. He’s now clowning around as a drama teacher, waiting for his scholarship to come through, studying Chinese medicine in his spare time. This guy is already a veritable fount of knowledge after pretty much teaching himself anatomy and physiology. I’m telling him about the time I myself wanted to run away from the circus of my life and join BBC medical dramas. As he talks about nerve endings and skin cells, and I talk about that red-headed surgeon from Holby City, something in the back of my mind reminds me that I still haven’t read any Robert Burton.

CUT TO:

Several months later. After visiting a couple of art galleries, having distilled the story of my day into a 3000 word mess on art and Batman, I forget to put a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into my rucksack. Dashing towards the subway as usual, I can’t bear the thought of a commute without a piece of literature, so I open my iBooks app and load up the Project Gutenberg version of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

By the time I have reached my destination, I’ve read nearly 50 pages. A few days later, as I write this, I have read nearly 200.

I’m only on chapter 2.

FADE OUT.


*Although he also stated that it was “perhaps, overloaded with quotation”, which I can now confirm is very much the fucking case! And so much Latin. Remember that anecdote about Walt Disney rejecting Aldous Huxley’s screenplay for Alice in Wonderland because he only understood every fourth word? Here uncle Walt would be clueless.

**In Canadian libraries, a book reservation is called a ‘hold’, presumably because the word ‘reservation’ was already in use for the awful stuff that the early settlers were doing to native Americans.

It May Be Easter Outside, But in My Heart it’s Spring

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“God bless those pagans.” – Homer Simpson


Smarter people than I have questioned the relevance of eating chocolate eggs to celebrate the fact that, as Douglas Adams puts it, “one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change”. Rumours abound that the eggs represent the tomb that the almighty was buried in for four days and that breaking them open represents him kicking down the door with his punctured feet.

Truth is, of course, that Easter (like all good Christian festivals) was just nicked from the pagans. Jakob Grimm (of those Grimms), once pointed out that the German word ‘ostar‘ (or, roughly, “moving towards the sun”) has a similar meaning to the Norse word ‘austr‘ and the Anglo-Saxon ‘eastor‘. The mother-goddess Ēostre was named after the Saxon word for springtime. Other gods and godesses from heathen societies, such as Ishtar (Assyrian goddess of fertility), Osiris (a.k.a. Ausar, Egyptian god of death and resurrection), and Ostara (Norse goddess of exactly the same thing as Ēostre) not only had suspiciously similar-sounding names but were also worshiped during springtime festivals. Sometimes Ēostre is written as ‘Eastre‘, so if you were a big fat genius you could almost crack this fiendishly difficult anagram and put together a theory about the ‘true’ meaning of Easter.

Somehow, this complex mess of cult and occult worship has lead to me hopping around a Chinese classroom like a bunny so that I can pay my rent.

Call me crazy, but is it almost as if all these Easter-inspiring gods were doing the same thing? Is it almost as if invading religions just bulldoze over the stuff that’s already there in the hope that eventually everyone will just forget where it came from?* Is it almost as if you don’t have to be the son of god to understand that ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ is cyclical and that being afraid to die makes no more sense than being afraid of never having been born in the first place?

Maybe there’s a reason that the author of Death is Not the End recently won the Nobel Prize.

As the sublime writer Joseph Campbell** told us, “Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fullfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.” That’s the sort of religious experience I could get behind.

The great character actor Harry Dean Stanton said that part of the reason he has worked with David Lynch more than any other director is because they have a similar outlook on so many things. “Except meditation,” he added. When asked if he believed in mediation at all, Stanton said “of course, but this is meditation. Everything is a meditation.” I’m with Harry Dean on this one. If you can’t take a moment to see the universe in the pavement cracks then you need to slow the fuck down. One of my rituals that I have when commuting (apart from trying to read a decent book with some dude’s rucksack wedged in my ribcage) is to sip a cup of takeaway coffee, quiet my thoughts and see what little ripples turn up in the pond.

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An American chap who studied anthropology once showed me an interesting phenomenon. He asked me which way time moved. I thought about it for a second and then drew a straight line in the air. Delighted, he then called my girlfriend over and asked her the same question. She drew a circle in the air. We repeated this experiment with other Westerners and other Chinese people, and exactly the same thing happened each time.

Scientific studies on the influence of ‘culture’ have shown similar results. In one experiment, children were shown a photograph of a tiger in the jungle. Researchers found not only that Eastern and Western people think differently, but that their eye movements indicate that they even focus on different aspects of the same picture: Westerners focusing on the tiger (or ‘content’), East Asians on the jungle (or ‘context’). Interestingly, researchers found that ‘bicultural’ people, raised in two different social systems, can be primed to respond in different ways, indicating that this sort of thinking and behavior is flexible.

My girlfriend says that one reason she doesn’t like a lot of American films (apart from the bleeding obvious) is that they often focus too much on a single character (mostly because Hollywood is great at misunderstanding Joseph Campbell!) In contrast, the four ‘great novels’ of Chinese literature are all named after places.***

Is the difference between ‘a tiger’ and ‘a tiger in the jungle’ so abstract that there’s no right or wrong way of describing it, or should we indeed be nailing people to things because they think time moves differently or because their silly god has a slightly different name and a hat that looks like a massive clitoris?

Yes I am looking at you, Osiris.

I don’t have the answer, but I know that a wise dead guy once told us we should look for the truth, and that the truth shall set us free.


*Perhaps there is even truth in the old superstition that gods and wizards and other Tolkienesque characters simply evaporate if no one is left to believe in them.

**(who once dropkicked a nun in the face by admitting that he believed Jesus was the son of god, but ‘only if we all are’)

***Journey to the West, The Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber, The Three Kingdoms. As opposed to, say, Batman, The Graduate, The Hobbit (etc.)

Chungking Express

 

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“Junk boats and English boys
Crashing out in super marts”
– The Gorillaz


As the landing gear came down, the theme tune to Enter The Dragon was in my head. The flight was turbulent, the meal was rubbery and – at the very point when I was expecting to descend – the pilot swung out across the ocean and begged the question “so are we off to Thailand then?” before he eventually did everyone the courtesy of actually landing the plane.

The bags arrived 40 minutes after the plane did, but I still made the very last metro all the way to the hotel (which is not the place to stay if you ever want to swing a cat).

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But, hey. Who am I to complain?

The Cantonese translates as ‘Fragrant Harbour’. The Mandarin, slightly more prosaically, as ‘Smells Good Bay’. To us Westerners, it’s Hong Kong. Beijing was never somewhere I dreamed of visiting (much less living), but this always was (second only to New York on the list of places that I only believe in because I have actually seen them). Like that other fairytale city, HK is my kind of place.

Tacky, scruffy, eccentric, formerly British. If the Kong were a person, it would probably be me. There are shades of the Imperial past here, but it also feels like the model for Beijing in the future: somehow multicultural/globalized/capitalist and yet still Chinese as fuck. Maybe the sun never set on the Empire after all. Indian food, African music, American toilets, British manners; they’re all here. You can’t cross the street without being offered a watch, a three piece suit or hashish. People even queue here. A Beijinger in a queue is like a hen with testicles.

I woke myself up this morning with a strong glass of coffee and a quick scan of Facebook and Twitter (which have become novelties these days). I breakfasted, like the middle class wanker I aspire to be, at a Starbucks overlooking my first port of call: Chungking Mansions, star of arguably the greatest of HK movies.* The ‘mansion’ is a horseshoe-shaped hellhole of pawn shops, guest houses, eateries and other rip-off merchants. I loved it!

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I then did what I always do, set off on a walk with absolutely no plan whatsoever. I wandered some of the other arcades and visited the Garden of Stars, where I discovered I have the dainty hands of Brigitte Lin.

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I took a single poorly framed photograph of the Peninsula hotel, headquarters of the invading Japanese army in 1941.

I strolled along the seafront of West Kowloon, watching women do yoga on the beach and men fishing in the harbour (my eyes lingered on the yoga a little more than the fishing, let’s be honest). Then along Temple street, home of cheap DVDs and blatant prostitution.

All this before lunchtime. I had lamb tikka masala and then sampled something that I hope will reach Beijing sooner rather than later: buy-one-get-one-free Japanese lager.

A long weekend is not enough time to get to know this place, but the first impression is that it mixes most of the things I like about China and Britain and has filtered out a lot of the stuff that I don’t. It’s cleaner than Beijing. More cosmopolitan. More comfortable.

But, at this point, I wouldnt go so far as to say that it’s more interesting.


*If you have never seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, I urge you to do yourself a favour.

Bombed into the Stone Age (a.k.a. ‘Another Apocalypse Now Reference’)

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“In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Centre. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club


In a weird little subterranean corridor of Beijing, tucked between a subway station and a shopping mall, is the Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum. It’s the sort of place that an estate agent would describe as ‘cosy’ or ‘intimate,’* but interesting and professional enough to justify the ¥10 entry fee.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist. This ambition lasted until a living, breathing archaeologist came to visit our school and told us that she spent 80% of her time studying. Fuck that noise, I thought.

A friend of mine actually studied archaeology at university, and told me that the first thing her sleep-inducing professor had said to everyone was “if you think this course will turn you into Indiana Jones, there’s the door!” Had I been there, I would have instantly leapt through it, returning at the last possible second to grab my fedora.

I may not have the patience to be an archaeologist or paleontologist or even one of those rogue Egyptologists who turns up on the History Channel talking about pineal glands and alien helicopters, but I’ve always had a passing interest in human history. How and where we live (and have lived) is something that fascinates the hell out of me.

I even sat through the film version of Assassin’s Creed recently just to watch Fassbender get medieval on everybody’s ass. Alas, half the film was in Spanish, and what little of the language I’ve picked up from Breed 77 albums stretched about as far as sangre, fuego, and listening to the gf’s whispered translation of the Chinese subtitles:
“He is to be, how you say, washed in the…”
“Fire! Purified by fuego!”
“Maybe.”

When I returned to England from Canada as a kid, I started studying British history at school for the first time. With a rich tapestry that included Viking invasion, Roman occupation, the battle of Agincourt, the battle of Rourkes Drift, and probably a few events that didn’t involve violence and bloodshed, I was so disappointed to end up learning about what is literally the most boring historical period imaginable: the 17th and 18th century agricultural revolution. I’m barely exaggerating when I say I’d rather go water boarding in Guantanamo Bay with my balls wired to electrodes than hear about selective breeding, four course crop rotation or Jethro Tull and that fucking seed drill of his.**

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China is something of a Mecca not only for those who want cheap trainers, but for archaeologists and paleontologists too. When the New Oriental Plaza mall was being constructed in 1996, the workers hit historical pay dirt by discovering nearly 2,000 bone fragments and primitive tools. The resultant underground museum has done a sterling job of preserving the find and telling the story of early humankind, including some stunning CGI visuals that put you right in the heart of the Stone Age.

I would argue, and have argued, that there are two historical events where the human race really (and I mean really, seriously, heinously) fucked up. If you are thinking it’s Brexit and Trump then sit down, son, you have not been paying attention.

One of them was the Industrial Revolution, which I will inevitably bitch about in a future entry that I’ll loosely link to life in Beijing. Long before that, though… way way back in the early chapters of pre-history, there was this faulty O ring that blew our species up on the launchpad something like 12, 500 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution (or the original agricultural revolution; the more interesting one) was when most humans shifted from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence to a more sedentary, agricultural-based society.

If you ever watch anthropology documentaries about some middle class, military brat type in chinos who goes to stay with headhunters or other tribal peoples for a week, they usually spend a lot of time sitting around a campfire eating meat and laughing with the locals. Telling jokes and stories is an important part of your day when you haven’t got much to do (trust me on this). The morning is for hunting, the afternoon is for eating, the evening for telling campfire stories, and the night for worrying about your children being snatched by a leopard.

The Neolithic Revolution fucked all this up for most people. Staying in one place meant a denser population*** as well as a surplus of food, but the menu shrank considerably. A side effect of putting a stake in the ground and penning yourself in with your plants and pets and livestock is that your available sources of food instantly narrow. If you become a sheep farmer then your staple food is lamb or mutton, if you become a turnip farmer, then your staple food is turnips. The combination of restricted food and sudden backbreaking labour led to a downturn in nutrition. Archaeological evidence indicates that people’s teeth very quickly began rotting and their growth became stunted (it supposedly took until the 20th century for the human race to return to a pre-Neolithic Revolution average height. That’s a long time spent as shortarses!) Another side effect was absolutely rampant disease. Poor nutrition leads to a poor immune system, and poor sanitation leads to an awful lot of people rooting around in each other’s effluent.

It wasn’t all bad. This period gave rise to some pretty cool things like architecture, mathematics and, I imagine, that cliché about not shitting where you eat. But it also gave rise to human hierarchy and, therefore, wealth inequality for probably the first time.

Whenever I get homesick for England (which is less often than last time, especially because I’ve been back there since) it is for a chat about pumpkins with a pipe-smoking Bilbo Baggins or a bawdry chat down the pub with Friar Tuck. It is, in other words for a place and time that doesn’t actually exist (and, if it ever did, would almost certainly have smelled of rancid feces).

The perception that I’m some kind of cantankerous armchair anarchist who thinks the wheels of industry should screech to a halt while I start pulling back my bowstring and taking aim is understandable, but the distant past or the post-industrial future are not where I actually want to spend my time. Living in the past is for people who listen to Jethro Tull. The present is exactly where I belong. And there is nothing wrong with staying in one place (even if it does make one’s feet itchy) a long as it’s the right place for you.


*(or what those who aren’t selling anything and don’t have a thesaurus would call ‘very small’)

**(To this very day, whenever I see anyone wearing a Jethro Tull t-shirt I want to leap forward and punch them in the flabby jowls, and not just because they have a shite taste in music).

***(kids of different ages can be raised at the same time when you don’t have to carry them around hunting, right?)

The Hitchhikers Guide to Reality

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“Curiouser and curiouser”


I was sitting in a café here in ‘the Stan’, chatting to my arty friend about the circumstances that have led us to Brexit, the Trump presidency and other instances of weird and stupid shit that doesn’t seem to be making the world a better place.

It’s nice, having recently written about games and people’s distraction with them, to see world events like the women’s marches and other instances of people standing up and being counted, as if they suddenly are more interested in the world around them than the ones they’ve been building in Second Life or The Sims.

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Before leaving China I was, with some trepidation, having a chat about the country’s lack of protests (the very famous exception from the late 80s not exactly being a popular topic of conversation there). One young Chinese woman was telling me about her visit to Spain where she was talking to an activist who asked her to spread the word in her home country. “Of course,” she said, only to be handed a pile of anti-Chinese-government flyers which she immediately chucked in the bin.

In the café I discussed the seemingly mad but somehow believable conspiracy theory that the Large Hadron Collider has tripped us into some hellish alternative Alice in Wonderland dimension that was foretold in an episode of the Simpsons!* We talked about quantum field theory, non-violent resistance and six more impossible things before breakfast, chatting so much ‘pub physics’ that we probably looked like a Monty Python sketch.

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As Winston Churchill says, “Men ** occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” To me, the thought of a young Chinese person fearfully tossing the truth in the bin is sad, but understandable given the cultural context. But the thought of a young American person doing the same, at a time when facts have become meaningless in the face of half-witted debate, where American journalists are arrested and detained just for doing their job, is nothing short of a tragedy.

I could personally give some credence to the theory that we’ve shifted into some bonkers new dimension; that our reality is just another virtual reality; even that our universe is housed in the equivalent of some kind of really powerful PlayStation. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat our games very seriously indeed.


*I haven’t seen the episode in question but it sounds like that show, like 70s Doctor Who, got really good at predicting weird crap.

**[and women, natch]

China in Your (Giant Metal) Hand

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Michael Bay movie Transformers: Age of Extinction. If you haven’t watched it yet… don’t bother.

“Why is the huge space magnet picking up every metal thing in Hong Kong, except the one car that it’s actually tracking?”


I’ve always been a bit of a film nerd. I don’t watch as many films as I used to, because I find most of them formulaic, predictable and thoroughly underwhelming. Plus I usually annoy people by saying, ten minutes in “well that guy’s on the way to pick up his kids, who think he’s a loser, from his ex-wife” or “she kidnapped herself,” or “she’s an ex-Nazi war criminal who can’t read, isn’t she?”

This evening, I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction. It hasn’t renewed my faith in movies.

I’m puzzled that Edward D. Wood Jnr. holds the legendary distinction of ‘worst film director ever’, mainly because there’s a film director called Michael Bay. His filmography includes such notable arse as Armageddon, The Rock and the Transformers movies. I have nothing personally against Michael Bay. It’s just that once I was watching a double bill of Bad Boys and Bad Boys II and the electricity cut out about ten minutes from the end of the sequel and I realized, swearing in the dark and wondering if I had a torch, that it wasn’t actually humanly possible for me to give less of a shit how a movie ended.

I still don’t know or care. Maybe something explodes for some reason.

When one critic asked Michael Bay the question on everyone’s lips (basically, and I’m paraphrasing here, “why are your films so shit”) Michael Bay pointed out (and I’m paraphrasing again) that he actually made them for fifteen-year-old boys and that it wasn’t actually a crime. In my opinion, making propaganda movies about Pearl Harbour in the wake of 9/11 xenophobia and aiming it at fifteen-year-olds should be a crime, but maybe that’s just me?

From what I know of film history, Michael Bay started (like the much better filmmaker David Fincher) as an intern for George Lucas. I know I’m in a minority, but I don’t consider George Lucas a particularly great filmmaker, either. At the risk of giving people a little too much credit, Lucas and his mate Steven Speilberg (along with some other filmmakers of the late seventies) essentially created the ‘blockbuster’ era of filmmaking. To me, it’s synonymous with the dumbing down of mainstream Hollywood movies, ushering in decades of big-budget films that are good, but only ‘McDonalds’ good; The reason you crave them is because they’re salty and sugary and addictive, with the same amount of nourishment and nutritional value as a trestle table.

To me, the trouble is that most of these films are for fifteen-year-old boys, but they’re being watched and taken seriously by grown ups. If you’ve ever read the brilliant novel Jaws by Peter Benchley and compared it to the film version, the movie is undeniably great. But it contains none of the subtleties of the novel, and all of the ‘grown-up’ stuff such as Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife and Quint’s foul mouthed tirades are completely excised. A similar fate befell First Blood, which unleashed the Reaganite all-American serial killer John Rambo upon the world.

Spielberg once said that he felt he had to make Schindler’s List as an apology for turning the Nazis into comic book villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark (coincidentally, the first film that Michael Bay interned on). Stanley Kubrick, who gave up on his own epic Holocaust project The Aryan Papers after Spielberg began his, once bemoaned that the problem with Shindler’s List was that it’s about ‘success’, when the Holocaust was, in reality, all about failure.

So I’ve got nothing personally against these filmmakers, other than their often irresponsible filmmaking (I previously used Saving Private Ryan as an example of American whitewashing of history*). Neither have I got anything personally against Transformers. I grew up on the cartoon show as a kid (Beast Wars anyone? Anyone?), and rediscovered it on DVD a few years back. I even applied for a job writing transmedia content for the franchise,** a job I no doubt would have enjoyed. Looking back, I find the original programme a little too violent for my sensibilities and, no matter how naive and un-cynical you are, it can’t be seen as much more than an advert for Hasbro’s line of action figures. Did anyone else wonder why so many characters ended up dying, only to have shiny new characters appear out of nowhere with the wisecracking guest vocals of Eric Idle?

I have several beefs with the Age of Extinction movie, which I know you are all very concerned about, so read on:

Firstly, like most of Michael Bay’s films, there’s a lot of product placement (not just for action figures, but for other more subtle things that fifteen-year-old boys might want their parents to buy them). For those unfamiliar with the questionable practice of ‘product placement’, it’s the filmmaking equivalent of giving lucifer a big hand job, where advertisers offer money or revenue streams to film studios in return for James Bond using a Remington razor or Captain Kirk ordering a Budweiser. For example, I found it unlikely, as well as morally reprehensible, that the clones in Michael Bay’s The Island,*** who live in a near-future underground colony cut off from human civilization, play the XBox.

Secondly, in case you were wondering what the hell this blog post has to do with China, the film commits another cardinal sin that always makes my shit-list. It’s a worrying trend in Hollywood movies of late.

The Chinese government only licenses ten or eleven foreign movies to be screened yearly, which is why there is no Chinese word for ‘Michael Cerra’. Every single one of these movies has to adhere to strict censorship laws and none of them are allowed to portray China in anything other than a flattering light. A lot of films try to adhere to these rules just to be in with a chance of reaching the Chinese market (which is why patient zero in World War Z, a Chinese person in the novel, became a Taiwanese person in the Brad Pitt movie).

About a third of Age of Extinction is set in Beijing and Hong Kong. Lukfook jewelry and Ice Dew spring water (owned by Coca Cola) both get screen time amid the carnage of giant robots kicking the crap out of other giant robots with assistance from the Chinese Air Force. It’s also made explicitly clear that one of the reasons that Stanley Tucci’s balding fatass is constantly fawning over Li BingBing’s character is that she trained with the Chinese police before studying for her MA (which, in Michael Bay Land, counts as character development). It even earns her the affectionately patronizing nickname ‘princess’.

Ah, which brings us to our next point…

There are three female characters in the movie. One is Chinese (Tick!) One is a nineteen-year-old blonde who has two handsome men arguing over who has the right to ‘protect’ her. The third, Sophia Miles, has about ten minutes of screen time and, I assume, only turned up because she wanted a trip to China.

Also, for a film that’s constantly on about patriotism and how great the U.S. Of A is, Bay doesn’t seem to spot the irony behind an intergalactic menace, a highly-trained black ops guy and Kelsey Grammer’s government douchebag all being brought down in Hong Kong by a stubbly young Irish bloke, Chinese jet pilots, and a bunch of giant alien robots (one of which, as if Hollywood is hedging its Asian bets, wears a Samurai hat, speaks in haikus and sounds suspiciously like character actor Ken Watanabe).

Finally, can we talk about the casting of Mark Wahlberg as an inventor and roboticist? Yes, you heard correctly: that’s Marky Mark, late of the Funky Bunch (a man once interviewed wearing a wrist splint because he fell over playing the Nintendo Wii), portraying a bespectacled creator of automaton. Call me crazy, but I personally found him slightly more appropriately cast in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, playing a meathead bodybuilder who’s audacious kidnapping plan was brought down by the fact that he had the IQ of a cheese sandwich.

Michael Bay’s next film, 13 Hours, about an American security team defending a diplomatic compound in Benghazi from Islamic extremists, will be released in July 2016.

It hasn’t received a license to be screened in China.


*(see previous blog: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/a-crock-of-shit-now/)

**(see previous blog: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/origin-story/)

***(an easy contender for the accolade of ‘shittest film ever’)

The Hero With a Thousand Problems

“Life is, like, 93 per cent luck and 12 per cent judgement. The other 3 or 4 per cent is just shitty maths.”


Most people who know me* know that if there’s one thing that floats my boat it’s narrative storytelling. I have long been interested in screenwriting theories and playwriting manuals and anything that seeks to distill stories into their alchemical constituents in a crucible of… unfinished metaphor. I recently got ridiculously excited when a kung fu master showed me a book he had written about martial arts moves that revolved around the agricultural cycle (“agricultural cycle?” I beamed. “Man, do you know how mythic that is?”)

I’ve attended seminars by filmmaking gurus who claimed to have 22-steps to a successful story, or 3-week formulas in which to script an Oscar-winning masterpiece. I’ve read shite-knows how many pages of that grumpy old American bastard who seems to think he’s changed the landscape of screenwriting with a single application of his own magical piss, despite the noticeable handicap of never actually having written a screenplay. (Yes, you know who you are. And, yes, you are not reading my blog and are off counting money somewhere. Congrats!)

Swindlers, all! Busy guffawing their way to the bank and twirling their mustache while I was still sitting with my feet up in a filthy garret scratching my ear with a pencil, struggling to finish so much as an alchemical metaphor.

Paramhansa Yogananda said in the opening line of his Autobiography of a Yogi that “the characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for… [the] disciple-guru relationship”. That characteristic has definitely spread to China, and many in the west have also begun the search (fruitful or otherwise) for some kind of ‘guru’, usually being pedaled easy answers by an American guy in sneakers who offers some free snake oil before pulling down trou and applying butter for the financial equivalent of Last Tango in Paris.

A true ‘guru’, though, is someone who’s willing to share knowledge with you for everyone’s favourite price: Sweet Fanny Adams. A valued mentor who will sit with you over a cup of tea that he’s paid for, a favourite author who will dispense advice after a reading in Waterstones, even a mathematician who will tell you that an in-depth knowledge of Game Theory will not actually help you become a better writer (or find a girlfriend). A fake ‘McGuru’ is anyone, especially someone in sneakers, who’s selling something. Even that old kung fu guy wanted 100 kuai for the book, which looked like he’d illustrated it with a paintbrush sticking out of his arse.

Uh, maybe next time, shī fu!

I love ‘graphic novels’ (which is a pretentious term for ‘comic book’ that pretentious people who like comic books came up with in order to avoid the fact they were reading comic books). One of my favorites is Logicomix, which is about the seemingly-snore-inducing but surprisingly exciting quest to discover the foundation of mathematics. I know as much about maths as I do about agricultural kung fu, but Logicomix explains this mind-bending concept extremely well to the average dumbass layman.

For those unfamiliar with the quest for the ‘foundation of mathematics’**, it was basically a bunch of uber-nerdy mathematicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig ‘laugh a minute’ Wittgenstein who were all trying to break maths down to its building blocks, or foundations. People were writing papers and books on this for years until a young upstart called Kurt Gödel came along with his classic page-turner On Formally Undecidable Propositions of “Principia Mathematica” and Related Systems, which proposed something called the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’. At the risk of simplifying all of this horribly, he was basically saying that some things are just unprovable, or that the reason nobody could find the foundations of mathematics was because there aren’t any. This comic book revelation, an event which ended the careers of several mathematicians, became a turning point in my own quest to find some magic storytelling formula, and a great motivator to simply sit down and get some writing done.

There is no magic formula. Life doesn’t unfold like the plot of a screenplay or novel or multilayered epic graphic novel. That’s how maths works. That’s how narrative storytelling works. And it’s how life works, too.


*(and I’m aware that ‘people who know me’ make up a significant proportion of readers of this blog. Just slightly under 101% at my last estimate.)

**(and I’m aware that it may indeed be the same amount of people as in the previous note, unless you’ve read the comic too!)