Sunday, 22 March 2015

To Margot Wallström, and The importance of cultural exchange.

To Margot Wallström

"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake"
William Shakepeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene IV

The ghost of Olof Palme smiled, for once
(he is used to tears).
The Wahhabists will continue to execute
dissidents, but they will no longer use
Swedish bullets, Swedish rifles.
There is value in not
contributing to the evils of the World.

The industrialists scream, for their profit
was made from the blood of democracy.
And the liberals reaffirm their long-standing
commitment to democracy and human rights,
just as when they defended the Shah of Iran
and Pinochet.
"We have burnt bridges", they say
Good, for they lead only to dictatorship.

The importance of cultural exchange.

The industrialists and newspapermen
have spoken of the importance of Sweden
having a cultural exchange with Saudi Arabia.
(culture apparently means money and arms)
Then I propose that the Swedish newspapermen
and industrialists which have defended the arms deal
shall exchange places with the dissidents in Saudi prisons
The defenders of dictatorship in the prisons, and the dissidents
in the mansions,
That is an cultural exchange that both countries would benefit from.

Till Margot Wallström

Olof Palmes spöke log, för en gångs skull
(han är van vid tårar)
Wahhabisterna kommer att fortsätta avrätta
dissidenter, men dem kommer inte mer att
använda svenska kulor, svenska gevär
Det ligger värde i att inte bidra till Världens ondska.

Industriledarna skriker, för deras profit skapades utav
demokratins blod.
Och liberaler bekräftar deras långvariaga
stöd för demokrati och mäniskliga rättigheter,
som när de försvarade Shahen av Iran och Pinochet.
"Vi har brännt broar". säger dem.
Bra, för dem ledde bara till diktatur.

Vikten av kulturellt utbyte

Industriägarna och tidningsmännen har talat om vikten
av ett kulturellt utbyte mellan Sverige och Saudiarabien
(uppenbarligen är pengar och vapen kultur)
Då föreslår jag att vi byter ut tidningsmännen och
industriledarna som försvarat saudiavtalet mot
dissidenterna i Saudi Arabiens fängelser.
Diktaturförsvararna i fängelserna och dissidenterna
i dem rikas villor,
Det är ett kulturellt utbyte som båda länder skulle tjäna på.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Daevid Allen 1938-2015

The Australian-British musician Daevid Allen is dead (dark times, first Pratchett and now him).
He was a founding member, alongside Robert Wyatt of the band Soft Machine (named after the novel by William Burroughs) in 1966. The band was formed in Canterbury and  was a central band of the so called Canterbury scene. Soft Machine was along with Pink Floyd and The Beatles one of the first bands to take rock music seriously, as an artform, rather than dance music or entertainment. Progressive rock, in other words. They were also one of the first bands to explore psychedelia and to fuse jazz and rock. Their importance and influence can't be overestimated.

However, Allen left Soft Machine before their first album, because being an Australian citizen, British authorities did not allow him re-entry into the country after a journey to France. Instead, he formed Gong, with which he did his finest recorded work. The music was progressive/psychedelic rock. Jazz was a prominent element, as was electronic music. Gong was an important pioneer of so-called space rock.

The band had a concept or mythology behind it, revolving around the hero named Zero and the Planet Gong, which came to the fore on the classic Radio Gnome Trilogy of albums: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel's Egg (1973) and You (1974). It was a surrealist and very funny science fiction story, in the spirit of the psychedelia of the time, but also in the grand tradition of British surrealism going back to Lewis Carroll*.  As funny and whimsical as the concept was, it also expressed Allen's spiritual worldview.

Today we have lost one of the most important people in the history of rock music. Daevid Allen was a musical pioneer, who with daring and humour, explored unknown territory in rock music and expanded it's borders. Hopefully his music will inspire others to continue to do the same.

*While English culture is know for it's stoic, earthy and matter-of-fact approach, with analytic philosophy and Victorian stuffiness, there is also a surrealist tendency. There is a tradition of outwardly respectable and otherwise perfectly "Victorian" gentlemen writing works of fantasy and "whimsy". The  Examples include Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Terry Pratchett 1948 - 2015

Terry Pratchett is dead. Not that it is much of a chock. He has long been open about his struggles with Alzheimer and the disease has finally claimed his life (before he had the chance to end it himself, as he wished to). He was notoriously unafraid of dying, with Death being a major recurring and oddly sympathetic character in his books.

Pratchett was the foremost satirical writer of our age, using his fantasy creation of Discworld to comment on our society and it's follies. Targets included, but were not limited to, sexism (Equal Rites, in which the unexamined gender inequalities of traditional fantasy are finally examined), capitalism (Going Postal, with it's furious denunciation of privatization), militarism and jingoism (Jingo) and religious fundamentalism (Small Gods, which sees such fanaticism as antithetical to real religion).

As his friend and collaborator Neil Gaiman noted, Pratchett beneath his generous humour, was a writer driven by rage. He was writing, as A.S Byatt noted, "about us", not about anything fantastic.
While Pratchett could as every human being make mistakes (as someone who has a disability, his enthusiasm for euthanasia, while understandable with his situation, left me somewhat cold.) and his satire could at times be unduly hectoring, it was a rage that was driven by compassion for the suffering and put to use with such humour that  his voice will be missed. Farewell, Terry. You may leave this life, but your books will remain with us.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


Snowpiercer is a science fiction action film by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho based on a french comic book written by Jacques Lob and after Lob's death Benjamin Legrand, and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette.

A failed attempt to combat global warming by injecting a coolant into the atmosphere backfires catastrophically and instead creates a new ice age, which kills most of life on Earth. The only remaining human survivors live on a train built and run by the industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris) that circles the world. The train is a brutal class society in which the third class passengers live in utter poverty in the back of the train while the first class live in luxury in the front. The film chronicles a revolution of the train's underclass, "the tail-enders" against the prevailing order, which is led by Curtis (Chris Evans). He plans to lead the revolt all the way through the train to reach and take over the engine. To help him, he enlists the security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-Ho) who has constructed the doors of the train, but due to a drug addiction fallen out of favour with Wilford.

As you might tell, this is a highly political film. In it's uncompromising and brilliant criticism of capitalism, it's perhaps the most daring and intelligent film to reach the general public in decades.  Bong Joon-Ho is a former student activist (the link contains spoilers by the way) currently affiliated with the socialist New Progressive Party in South Korea. His depiction of a class society of the train is unflinching and brutal, but well supported by history. Worse things have happened. Writer Jacques Lob's allegory of the train for capitalism, is utterly brilliant just as an idea, and the execution by the director is superb.

The science of the train (and the film in general) makes as much sense as Godzilla, but objecting to such a powerful allegory on the grounds of scientific or even logical sense is like objecting to H. G. Wells time machine on the same grounds. It would be missing the point, which isn't to create a plausible gadget, like the science fiction of Jules Verne or Robert L. Forward but to create an allegory which speaks to us on an emotional and artistic level.

And while Joon-Ho is definitely on the side of the revolutionaries, he also makes the clear the necessity for a revolution to not further the logic of the system it seeks to replace, but to break it. Otherwise, he argues, the revolution will be corrupted.

Another important theme of the film is sacrifice. Joon-Ho makes a distinction between people who perform self sacrifice and those (like the capitalist overclass that owns and runs the train) who force others to sacrifice for them. And when Joon-Ho says sacrifice, he means it: the recurring symbol of such sacrifice is people losing one of their arms.

The storytelling is riveting, just when you think things can't get any worse, the film throws another gut-wrenching twist at you, all the way up to the cathartic ending. The action is incredibly suspenseful.  While the film is very dark, dirty and filled with brutal violence, it's never really realistic, and there is an element of absurd and satirical humour. A tense fight can be put on hold for an impromptu New Years celebration.  At one point, actress Allison Pill takes over the film to deliver an absolutely hilarious performance as a teacher, in a utterly scathing, but funny satire on education.

 This tone is also set by the beautiful cinematography. While much of the film is set in a small, cramped and dirty environment, there are several memorable and beautiful images. When a upper-class woman visits the tail section, the class distinction is highlighted by her vivid yellow dress. When a gunfight breaks a window, the camera takes time away from the action to focus on a single snowflake floating past a character's face. The ending is veritable orgy of strong images.

The acting is brilliant, and there are no weak links, with Chris Evans and Song Kang-Ho giving very strong lead performances. Go Ah-Sung is very convincing in the surprisingly crucial role as the latter's daughter.  John Hurt is his wonderful self. Ed Harris gives a convincing performance as the film's villian. Tilda Swinton, so into her role that she's totally unrecognisable, gives a funny and mesmerising performance as the grotesque and loathsome villain Minister Mason, who reminds one of Margaret Thatcher.

This is overall one of the best and most intelligent science fiction films made in the past decade. While it probably has already left the theatres (Sweden often receives non-mainstream films like this a little late), you should definitely see it at the earliest possible opportunity.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (analysis/review)

In 1970 Los Angeles, private detective and hippe Larry "Doc" Sportello gets a visit from an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta. She is currently seeing a billionaire land developer, Mickey Wolfmann. Problem is, he is married to another woman, who is also having an affair. The wife and her boyfriend have cooked up a nasty scheme to kidnap Wolfmann and get a hold of all his money. Shasta asks Doc for help, but before long both she and Wolfmann have disappeared. To quote the author himself "by then it gets kinda peculiar" The novel dives into Pynchonian absurdity, though one is also reminded of Chandler's byzantine plots. I will stop here, but for any prospective readers I must warn that this review in it's analysis somewhat reveals the ending of the book.

Inherent Vice is a homage both to the 60s counter-culture and the literary tradition of the private detective. This might seem to be quite disparate subjects, but as Pynchon writes, the private detective is a subversive figure, "always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are followin' wrong leads and gettin' in the way".  This isn't a radical re-interpretation of the private detective genre as one might think. . The creator of the genre as we know it, Dashiell Hammett was a communist and while Raymond Chandler didn't share Hammett's beliefs, he didn't believe in capitalism either.

By returning to the 60s, Pynchon naturally revisits themes from Vineland. The counterculture, that Pynchon was a part of, is given a loving, but very humorous portrayal that is one of the book's main strengths. Doc himself is a hippie and substitutes the traditional whisky flask of the PI with a joint.

The motto of the book is from the May 1968 events in France: "Beneath the paving-stone - the beach!", beneath the artificial world of capitalism lies the freedom of nature, to narrow down such a beautiful metaphor. Doc lives on Gordita beach, an obvious substitute of the real Manhattan Beach on which Pynchon lived in the 60s, writing Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon makes the obvious connection between the hippies and California's surfer culture, with the hilarious idea of psychedelic surf rock or "surfadelic" returning from Vineland. In that light, it is interesting that, due to it's accessibility, this book has been called Pynchon's "Beach-read".

But despite all the hippie nostalgia, throughout the novel are forebodings of what is to come, how the Counter-culture will wane in influence and America will become the dystopia depicted in Vineland. The Nixon government is in the wake of the Manson murders coming down hard on the hippies. Nixon himself appears on television in a kind of vision to set the agenda: "There are always the whiners and complainers who'll say, this is fascism.  Well, fellow Americans, if it's Fascism for Freedom? I . . . can . . . dig it!" The Internet appears, in embryonal form as ARPANET, and Pynchon ever the paranoiac foreshadows it's future use as a tool of mass surveillance.

But Doc also sees how the counter-culture becomes increasingly subverted by commercializing forces. Just as in Vineland, the hippie movement wasn't so much crushed with physical force as insidiously corrupted by commercial culture.  In a powerful passage, Doc drives by a record store and sees people listening to rock music on headphones in listening booths: "Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side."

By becoming a commodity, something you can sell or buy, rock music and other aspects of the counter-culture ceased to be revolutionary. Just as in Vineland, tv is criticised as a form of brainwashing and control, and Pynchon contrasts the subversive private detective in the form of Doc, with television police shows, that try to  "get the viewer population so cop-happy  they're beggin' to be run in".

The celebration of the 60s slowly becomes an elegy as Doc realizes "how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all" and be taken over "The faithless money-driven world" or "The ancient forces of greed and fear".

Against these forces stand Doc, embodying Chandler's ideal of the private detective as a man who walks the mean streets, "who is not himself mean". Doing his detective not so much to earn money, but to help others, he is an altruistic force in a selfish world. His hero is actor John Garfield, who often portrayed a PI in the film noirs of the 40s, but who lost his career nobly refusing to sell out his friends in the Mccarthyist witch-trials of the 50s.

The major theme of the novel is redemption, and the question is if it's possible or not. For Pynchon, the world is fallen and corrupt, with the hippie movement a noble, but failed attempt at redemption.    It is eventually revealed that the land developer, Wolfmann was kidnapped after coming to the realisation, very much influenced by the spirit of the age, that his life of capitalist greed is wrong and attempting redemption.  The title of the novel comes from a phrase within insurance referring to basic faults in the nature of things, that it's impossible to insure against. For example, it is the nature of eggs to be broken, it's their Inherent Vice. And the major question within the novel is whether there exists an inherent vice within human beings that drives them towards corruption or makes redemption impossible.

Pynchon doesn't come to an answer. Wolfmann is released and is back to his old ways, apparently  brainwashed, with Doc unable to help him. One of Doc's hippie friends dream of a spiritual revolution and tell him of the sunken continent of Lemuria, which may rise to the surface again. But Doc world-wearily wonders if that happened right outside LA anybody there would actually notice it, believing as they do only "what was on the tube or in the morning papers”, truth being  “a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember”.

There is however still hope for redemption. Doc comes across a broken family, in which the father, Coy Harlingen, is separated from his wife and daughter by his involvement due to a heroin addiction with the mysterious organization The Golden Fang (another example of Pyncon juxtaposing absurdity with realistic human problems.), but Doc manages in the end to rescue the father and return him home. And in the final scene, drivers on the freeway form a kind of temporary commune and guide each other through thick LA smog (a symbol if anything for what Pynchon believes in) and one can but hope for "For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead."

Inherent Vice is yet another excellent novel from Pynchon. The jokes are funny, and the book is often very moving in a subtle way, as you slowly realise how much Doc really cares for other people. The story of Coy Harlingen is especially moving, and well worth any price of admission. As you may realize from my plentiful quotes, Pynchon is still an absolutely wonderful stylist.

While it is not as deep as other Pynchon novels, it is deep enough to be meaningful, and what it lacks in gravitas, it gains in accessibility, which may make this a good novel to start out with if you're planning to get into Pynchon. As you might have guessed, I have read this, in order to be prepared for the film adaptation. Look out in the future for my comments on it