Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Schrödinger's Cat in geopolitics

From yesterday's editing yawn-a-thon.....

"China has either the will or the capacity to exclude the U.S. from political influence in East Asia."

Which is it? Perhaps it would be better not to enquire.

Either... or/neither... nor - what's in a negative?

This is one of those mistakes that's just so gosh-darned FUNNY (and inadvertently true?) I could hardly bring myself to correct it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Keeping upbeat

Since we have been accused of being a little too negative here on Froogville recently, I thought I'd post a bit of 'positive thinking' music - the classic rendition of Accent-tchu-ate the Positive by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. (You can hear the song without visuals here.)

Of course, I first heard this in Dennis Potter's '80s TV series The Singing Detective - below.

Then I discover Willie Nelson also did a version (not one of his finer moments, but a curiosity). Then there's also this amusing but odd clip of a recent show by an Andrews Sisters tribute group (are they in drag??). There are better versions from Aretha Franklin (no video) and Dr John (a live performance in Aspen, Colorado, with fairly terrible sound).

But I leave you with this.....

[It had slipped my mind that the Easter weekend was coming up. Maybe I should have waited to post this until Friday...]

War on Chinglish (15)

join hands

Whenever there is an announcement of an overseas company embarking on a new collaborative project with some Chinese enterprise, you will always encounter these words. I assume it is a set phrase in Chinese that is just being translated literally. As I've complained before, if the Chinese read more authentic English, and read it more attentively, they ought to develop a better awareness of the contexts in which phrases like this are used - and thus of why it sounds so wrong here.

AA members join hands to show solidarity with each other at the end of their meetings.

Eco-protesters join hands to form a protective human chain around a threatened tree or duckpond.

Bible-lovin' American families join hands before a meal to channel the power of prayer.

Maria and the Von Trapp children join hands to go gambolling across Alpine meadows.

International businesses do not join hands.

They partner with

or cooperate with

or establish a joint venture with.

Surely this is simple enough? Only people can join hands, not institutions. And mostly only very touchy-feely people.

So, please, if you are writing legal English or business English or academic English or even plain old journalism, ditch all this happy-clappy drippy hippy tree-hugging crap about joining hands.

[This is, in fact, just one instance of a much wider problem that Chinese writers of English are usually oblivious to different registers of language, and are far too prone to wanting to use language that is inappropriately emotive, metaphorical, colourful, or colloquial.]

Monday, March 29, 2010

Another great website idea

I just added a little post over on The Barstool about my current hobby of determining the course of my life with coin tosses.

It occurs to me that this could be another of my 'Brilliant website/business ideas', that this is something I might actually be able to make some money off.

I envisage a giant coin dominating a plain, dark screen (a British gold sovereign, I fancy; or perhaps a guinea). You click to proceed, and the coin flips in an impressive animation. A randomizing function in the webpage program ensures that you will always be suitably in doubt as to whether it will end up showing heads or tails.

I think, to add to the intensity and 'realism' of the experience, you should be required - or at least have the option - to enter into a data field what your action options for each coin-toss outcome are. If you register on the site and provide an e-mail address, you can receive automated follow-ups reminding you of your 'choice', asking if you followed through on it (reminding you of the dire consequences of disobeying THE COIN), wishing you well if you did (or chiding you if you didn't).

Oh yes, I can see that becoming one of the major online fads of the new decade. Lots of money to be made from this!!

[My friend The Weeble has disparagingly pointed out in the comments below that there is already a website that does something of the sort -, established a dozen years ago by a computer geek from Trinity College, Dublin, and priding itself on being a rare provider of genuinely random numbers rather than those 'pseudo-random' ones we usually have to put up with. This is doubtless a valuable resource for anyone who craves more randomness in their life, but I don't see it as much of an obstacle or competitor to my idea here for a commercial coin-flipping website. is a terribly earnest and impressively wide-ranging site, but it's also desperately dull - no wit, no pzazz to it at all.]

Be careful what you blog about...

Or rather, be careful what name you blog under.

A number of friends of mine blog - or have blogged in the past - under their own names; and I've always thought they were completely daft to do so while living in China.

Now, alas, it would appear that my anxieties on this score have been vindicated.

One of these friends has just been put through a very torrid time by police officers at the Entry & Exit Bureau, forced to skip off down to Hong Kong to get a new visa well before the old one had expired, and even had it hinted to him that it might be prudent to move apartments (since the coppers at his local station will now have him pegged as a possible undesirable).

And it seems that this all resulted from someone 'denouncing' him for something or other he'd written online. Now, this is all deeply ridiculous, since my pal - apart from the inevitable facetious sense of humour which is inculcated in all laowai by our brainwashing education system - is not much of a "China-basher", and scarcely political at all (much less so than me, for example; and I'm not very political.... although I used to try not to be political at all until all that shit we had to put up with in Olympic year here). But evidently the complaint against him was persuasive enough - or the complainant was influential enough - that it was taken seriously by the police and an "investigation" launched.

And once they start investigating us, we're all on a very sticky wicket (remember my panic attacks in December and February?). Almost all of us have paid for our visas rather than acquiring them "legitimately". Almost none of us has ever paid any tax here (our various employers usually claim they have paid some, and make a big fuss and bother over noting down our passport details, and levy small but irritating deductions from our promised pay packets; but if you actually try to check the tax records, you invariably find that no tax has ever been paid in your name - it's just another example of the entirely routine petty embezzlement I complained of the other day).

The authorities here can easily find an excuse to throw any of us out of the country at a moment's notice. Or to make life very, very unpleasant for us with threats and inquiries. Just knowing that our grip on our homes and livelihoods here is that insecure is pretty damned unpleasant.

Hence, I will continue to blog anonymously. And I'll try to be restrained in expressing my political opinions. And I certainly won't go mixing it with rabid fenqing types on any Chinese forums!!

Not that my identity cloak is all that formidable. There are far too many of my online friends and commenters who know who I really am. And I've scattered enough autobiographical details around here over the years that it probably wouldn't be all that hard for a dedicated researcher to work out who I am. (Actually, I rather think 'they' already know, since I have been the victim of quite a bit of seemingly individually targeted telephone and Net-connection harassment in the past.)

Bon mot for the week

"Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries."

James Michener (1907-1997)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film List - When Oscar gets it WRONG

Following on from my formidably accurate predictions at the start of this month of who would win all the Oscars this year (and my expressions of disappointment that nominees I considered worthier would almost all be overlooked), I thought I'd look back over the history of the Best Picture awards. As my pal The British Cowboy griped on my earlier post on Christoph Waltz, the Academy's voters are rather notorious for neglecting real quality in favour of faddish spectacle (it's amazing Avatar didn't win, really!), and we shouldn't give their recommendations any respect at all. (You may accuse me of a British chauvinism, but I honestly believe that the BAFTA awards almost invariably do a much better job of recognising true quality... though their choices are still far from perfect.)

I might return another day to the real travesties - the outstanding films of the year that somehow didn't even get nominated. That might end up being a particularly long and passionate post! When I look back just over the past few decades and think of the stand-out films, the 'instant classics' that didn't get a nomination, well, it fairly makes me want to weep: Bladerunner, Brazil, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Reservoir Dogs, Being John Malkovich, Ghost World, Memento, Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, 21 Grams, Sin City. Oh yes, that could be a long post.

For now, I'll focus just on the nominated pictures, and consider where the Academy has committed its most egregious injustices.

I confess I'm not so familiar with most of the films in the first decade of the awards (though I'm inclined to think that they were mostly getting it about right in those early days; although favouring Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You over Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion in 1938 is highly questionable... but I suppose a foreign-language film is never really 'in competition' and it was an extremely rare honour for Renoir even to get a nomination), so I'll start with the so-called annus mirabilis.....

Oscar-nominated 'Best Pictures' that really should have won

Lush Civil War melodrama Gone With The Wind - probably the most hyped film of all time - won, and of course it's a classic, but.... oh my god, the other nominees included Stagecoach, Of Mice And Men, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and the delicious Garbo comedy Ninotchka - any of which might have won in any other year. However, I think the top prize clearly ought to have gone to The Wizard Of Oz. Gone With The Wind is overblown, overlong, politically uncomfortable, and sustained more by star power than good acting; these days we watch it more as an historical curiosity than as great entertainment. The Wizard Of Oz - every bit as ground-breaking in its production design, special effects, pioneering use of colour - has proved to be the more enduring classic, a film that is genuinely 'timeless'.

There was another exceptionally strong field this year, and I find it really hard to understand how ho-hum melodrama Rebecca could have come out on top of the heap. The Grapes Of Wrath, Kitty Foyle, Our Town, and The Philadelphia Story all surely had stronger claims; but I would have given the award to Chaplin's magnificent satire The Great Dictator.

How Green Was My Valley won. Nice film - but it's not Citizen Kane. What is? Were Academy voters intimidated by Hearst, or do they just feel uncomfortable in the presence of genius?

The hugely popular feel-good propaganda film Mrs Miniver won. Many would say Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons should have, although I've never rated it that highly (at least not in the butchered version the studio put out). I'd be tempted to plump for the wonderful Powell & Pressburger adventure 49th Parallel, but I do feel a bit uncomfortable with the stridency of the anti-German propaganda in it (yes, I know, there was a war on), so..... well, I say the Cagney classic Yankee Doodle Dandy should have won.

Well, then there was a short run of the Academy actually making good choices again, until....

It's a little hard to see now how David Lean's masterful adaptation of Great Expectations (a near-perfect Dickens film) could lose out to Elia Kazan's worthy-but-dull study of American anti-semitism in Gentleman's Agreement.

The Academy voters were trying to show that they appreciated 'high art' by giving the award to Olivier's Hamlet, at the expense of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and The Snake Pit. I love Sierra Madre to bits, I think it's probably the best adventure film ever made (well, maybe a close second to Clouzot's Wages Of Fear), but... in this year I would have given the award to Powell & Pressburger's gorgeously realised fable The Red Shoes, my absolute favourite of their many remarkable films.

All About Eve is an excellent melodrama, but it's not quite in the same class as Billy Wilder's wonderfully dark Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevarde - which has embedded itself in the popular consciousness like few other films, giving us, amongst so much else, the dead narrator device and the chilling catchphrase "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille."

Military soap opera From Here To Eternity won. Maybe the voters - like me - just couldn't make up their minds between Roman Holiday and Shane and opted for a 'compromise candidate' instead? OK, if you really force me, I'm going to say Shane. But if you ask me again next week, I may have changed my mind.

Then another run of decent enough choices (though often from a rather limited selection: in 1956, for example, Around The World In Eighty Days was a somewhat baffling winner, but its only competition came from similarly lush but vapid fare like The King And I and The Ten Commandments).

It was still the age of musicals. How else could West Side Story have beaten Robert Rossen's superb pool-sharking drama The Hustler??

I find Tony Richardson's Tom Jones a slightly baffling choice; it has its charms but also its irritations. I rather think the Academy voters were again trying to show off by honouring an offbeat historical film from England (in a year when perhaps the competition wasn't so strong, either). I would have been inclined to favour the touching Sidney Poitier drama Lilies Of The Field.

Ah yes, we're still in the heyday of the big budget musical. Well, I love My Fair Lady, of course, but it's not Dr Strangelove, is it? Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear annihilation is just about my favourite film, period.

Oh my god, the age of musicals!! The insidious charms of Rogers & Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music somehow beat out a strong field: Dr Zhivago (not my favourite David Lean - Omar Sharif isn't able to carry the movie - but it is a magnificent spectacle), A Thousand Clowns, and Ship Of Fools. Me, I would have given it to John Schlesinger's Darling, Julie Christie's best role, showing the darker side of 'Swinging London'.

A Man For All Seasons is a very fine film, but Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is probably even better, and I think the early Michael Caine classic Alfie is better yet

In The Heat Of The Night is an atmospheric little thriller, but is it really better than Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, or The Graduate? No. Is it better than Doctor Dolittle? Probably. My vote would have gone to The Graduate.

Oliver! - yet another bloody musical!! Oh, I like Oliver! (although I could live without the exclamation mark), but I think The Lion In Winter or Romeo and Juliet might have been more deserving winners that year.

A lesser annus mirabilis (although '72 might have been even stronger, with Cabaret and Deliverance understandably losing out to The Godfather; and in '74 The Godfather: Part II beat The Conversation, Chinatown, and Lenny [and The Towering Inferno!]): the winner was William Friedkin's great police thriller The French Connection, but also in contention were the superior musical Fiddler On The Roof, the grand historical spectacle of Nicholas and Alexandra, and the experimental weirdness of A Clockwork Orange. It's difficult to choose from such a diverse selection, but I would have gone for Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show.

The Sting?! Really?? Who now remembers this undistinguished period heist comedy for anything other than its restoring Scott Joplin's ragtime piano music to popularity? You can't help thinking that Academy voters were belatedly seeking to acknowledge the magic of the Newman-Redford partnership from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which had narrowly but deservedly lost out to Midnight Cowboy in the Best Picture category four years before. Again it was a strong and varied field, with mature rom-com A Touch Of Class, scariest-film-ever-made The Exorcist, and Ingmar Bergman's wonderful Cries and Whispers in contention. The early '70s were quite a golden age for the cinema. However, I think I would - narrowly - have given the award this year to George Lucas's charming study of small-town teenagers in the Mid-West at the beginning of the 1960s, American Graffiti.

Another tremendous year, with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest prevailing over Jaws, Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, and Barry Lyndon. I find it very, very hard to choose between those last two, but I think Dog Day Afternoon edges it - probably the best hostage-taking film, and probably the best of Pacino's many great performances.

OK, this was the annus mirabilis to end them all: Taxi Driver, Network, All The President's Men and the great Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory. An impossible choice - enter the 'compromise candidate', Rocky. Now, I like Rocky. Seldom has a movie series more glaringly illustrated the law of diminishing returns, but the first Rocky was actually pretty damned good (and the second, come to that). However, it did not deserve to win in that sort of company. I suppose Taxi Driver has to take the prize here.

Yes, that was the end of the anni mirabiles for a while. There's no arguing with Annie Hall's win in 1977, but it didn't have much competition.

I never got what the big deal with The Deer Hunter was. Maybe I should watch it again, to give it another chance. First time round, I found it beautifully photographed but much, much too long, and preposterously plotted. Coming Home was a much better Vietnam drama, also nominated in this year. However, the winner should surely have been Alan Parker's stunning (Oliver Stone scripted) prison drama, Midnight Express. [Nowadays, I fear, a film like that wouldn't even get nominated.]

Kramer vs Kramer won - a touching, well-made family drama with some great performances. However, it is just not in the same class as the rest of the field that year: Norma Rae, All That Jazz, and even Peter Yates's modest little coming-of-age comedy about an American teen's obsession with Italian bicycle racers, Breaking Away, would all have been much worthier winners. But Apocalypse Now also came out this year, so it should have been a 'no contest'. What happened? That's up there with the spurning of Citizen Kane as one of the most humongous, indefensible errors in Oscar history.

To be continued.....

Friday, March 26, 2010

The week at work

I was contacted late last week about the possibility of doing some oral English assessments. The work might have been starting over last weekend - barely 36 hours away. Luckily, the organiser decided not to schedule me for the weekend - though not until after much dithering and chopping and changing of plans. And he did suffer a moment of panic when one of his foreign examiners cried off from the programme on Saturday evening, and tried ringing me - repeatedly - at around 6am on Sunday. I suppose I missed out on the possibility of one or two extra sessions as a result of having turned my phone off overnight. On the other hand, if it had been on and I'd answered it, my likely torrent of abuse down the line would probably have cost me all the work, so I suppose I should count myself lucky.

I did have to do a session on Monday morning, which required a ridiculously early start (from which I have still not entirely recovered). It was never explained to me why we needed to start examining at 8am, and to be on site by 7.30am, and keep working through till 5.30 or 6pm, but..... have a two-and-a-half hour lunch break. That's just 'Chinese culture', I suppose - they love their food! Me, I'd rather start later, finish earlier, make do with half an hour for a sandwich.

Although I arrived on site with nearly half an hour in hand, I ended up being a few minutes late making it to my exam room because..... well, my liaison contact at the test centre wasn't answering his phone, then proved to be unable to speak much English, and then, having agreed to meet me outside and escort me in (this was a bank headquarters, so I couldn't get past security on my own), repeatedly failed to do so. When we finally managed to locate each other, he proceeded to take me to the wrong test room because he thought I was someone else; and when he found out who I was, he didn't think I should be there at all, because he was still working from the last-but-one version of the oft-reworked schedule. A vexing start to the day.

Today went much the same. I at least managed to blag my way past the guards on my own this time by telling them I was "on the list". I discovered I wasn't in fact "on the list", because they too had been given an inaccurate version of the exam schedule. So, I had to write myself on to it; but they didn't seem to mind (so much for bank security!). I should at least be grateful I'd talked the organiser out of sending me to a test centre in Fengtai, which would probably have required me to get up at 4.30 in the morning instead of 6 (it scarcely even qualifies as a 'suburb' of Beijing, since there's about 15 miles of open countryside between it and the city proper).

At my new one-morning-a-week university job, I was presented with a contract this week. It was entirely in Chinese, because they "couldn't afford" a translation. However, I recognised the payment details - which seemed to specify a rate of 240 rmb per hour, rather than the 260 we'd been promised. And I rather think that was 240 before tax (rather than after), and for hours of actual teaching (rather than hours on site, including the mid-morning break). So, it might have meant that we were going to be working for about 550 rmb per session rather than 780. Even if it had been 720 rather than 780, that apparently trivial reduction soon adds up to something significant: it would have been 200-300 rmb each month, and that still buys you a pretty decent night out in this town. Our teaching assistant um-ed and er-ed and muttered something about going away to check with his boss and maybe letting us know if there had been a mistake next week. My American colleague and I took a similar robust stance on the issue: "Let us know today - because if you're trying to pay us less than you promised us, we won't be coming back next week." By mid-morning break, the poor assistant had come back with his tail between his legs and a redrafted contract (still in Chinese, but at least the figures look right now; I need to get a friend to check it over for me); but his boss, the guy who hired us, was cravenly avoiding any contact with us by telephone or SMS. Ah, that old Chinese 'loss of face' thing again - endlessly irritating to us foreigners. And the chiselling, money-grubbing thing again as well; I am 95% convinced that the guy who hired us was trying to skim off some of our pay for himself, and was surprised that we resisted the attempt so trenchantly.

And then yesterday I was offered some editing work. Well, I was asked to quote my rate. I gave them a range, based on my assessment of the degree of difficulty; it was a reasonable quote, and I was very nice in promising to give them my best price, to consider an additional discount if it was a big job. I don't know why they wasted my time asking for a per word/per page quote when they already had a maximum flat fee in mind that they felt they could afford to pay. And that amount was a paltry 1,200 rmb. For an entire goddamn book!

However, I asked to see a sample. And what do you know? It's not really a full book, just a very extended academic paper. And it's written by a native English speaker, rather than being a turgid swamp of Chinglish like I was expecting. And it appears to have been already proof-read quite well, so I'll have little or nothing to do to it (though I'll still have to read over 30,000 words, which, even without needing to make any corrections, will probably take me 5 or 6 hours; so, not really worth the bother). Anyway, money has been tight recently; and it's a new educational publishing contact that might prove useful for other things, so..... I agreed to do it for 1,200 rmb.

Then they told me they'd "made a mistake" and they could only pay 1,000 rmb for this job. I told them I was very unhappy about this strange oversight/inconsistency on their part. They told me they could make it 1,100! I joshed that if they could make it 1,100, they could probably make it 1,200 - like they'd originally promised me. I rather suspect this is just another case of someone creaming off a little of the budget for themselves. I can't really begrudge them their pilfering, as people in jobs like these are miserably poorly paid. I just wish they weren't so bloody inept and obvious about it.

Ah, China...

Haiku for the week

Greed, stupidity;
Destroying homes and history;
Stupidity, greed.

Yes, I'm still incensed about the proposed desecration of Beijing's lovely Drum Tower neighbourhood to create what sounds as if it's going to be merely a colossal (and colossally tacky) subterranean souvenir store.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Rumours of a proposed redevelopment scheme for the Gulou area of Beijing have been troubling my sleep for the past few months.

Now, I learn to my dismay that they are considerably more than rumours. It seems the plans are at quite an advanced stage, and over the past couple of months have been prominently touted in the leading state-run newspapers - which is in effect an 'official announcement' that the project is going ahead. I don't think there have been any eviction notices served yet, but the grapevine is now suggesting they might start coming within the next month or two - in this country, people don't get very much notice to move out of their homes. Indeed, I wonder if the work may not have begun already. There's been a HUGE hole in the ground a quarter of a mile to the east of the Towers - preparations for who-knows-what - for more than a year now. The entire block at the north-east end of Jiugulou Street was cleared last autumn; and in the last few days, a row of houses down the north-west side of that street (right at the end of the road I live on!) has also been demolished.

The plan involves building a new museum and a network of shopping arcades in the immediate vicinity of the historic Drum and Bell Towers (just a few minutes' walk from where I live, and easily the most attractive quarter of Beijing), a gaudy 12.5-hectare commercial complex to be naffly named the 'Beijing Time Cultural City' ("Cultural"?! Oh, the irony!). Apparently, most of this is going to be underground (it's said to be just one part of a grander project to create a staggering 8 sq km of subterranean malls in the capital by 2030), but its construction will presumably necessitate the bulldozing of most of what is currently above ground in the area. At the very least, it will massively compromise the amenity of the neighbourhood for a good two or three years while the building work is in progress (the widening of the adjacent Jiugulou Street a few years ago took well over a year, and that was a relatively trivial undertaking compared to this). The historic towers themselves will be preserved, but much of the traditional single-storey hutong housing surrounding them will almost certainly be swept away, and the character of the neighbourhood will be transformed beyond recognition. The most beautiful, the most charming part of Beijing, the centre of my life all the years I've been here, my main reason for staying.... may soon be destroyed. I am sick to my boots. If this goes ahead, I think I'll have to quit the country.

Opposition to the proposal is gathering. The Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a Chinese non-profit group, is at the forefront of these resistance efforts (check out their page on the Gulou redevelopment), and is holding a meeting this Saturday afternoon from 2.30 to 5.30 - in a restaurant called Contempio, on the Zhangwang Hutong just off Jiugulou Dajie. The meeting will be chaired by He Shuzhong, the CHP Chairman, and will include contributions from Bian Lanchun, a professor of architectural history at Tsinghua University, and Wang Jun, a reporter with the Xinhua newswire service. Dominic Johnson-Hill, the British founder of the Plastered t-shirt emporium, one of the most conspicuous successes on the nearby Nanluoguxiang shopping street, is also slated to speak, but his Mandarin is pretty good, so the meeting is likely to be conducted entirely in Chinese.

[I wish them well with that, but I am dubious about the usefulness of this meeting. I pass on the details for anyone who may be interested; and I think it's important to spread awareness of these proposals, and to promote the campaign to overturn them. However, I rather fear that: a) the meeting may well get banned or broken up by the police (tolerance of public protest is low at the best of times here in China; particularly right in the heart of the capital; and there are too many people - people high up in the Communist Party - who will have a financial interest in a scheme like this; wherever there's a budget in the billions of renminbi, you can bet that a hefty proportion of that is going to go in kickbacks); b) the chosen venue is in any case far too small for the number of people it is likely to attract; c) there is a danger that it will attract more foreigners than local Chinese, and that, I feel, would be counter-productive - it must be the local residents, not us prissy interfering laowai, who challenge and defeat this madness.]

I'm inclined to think that the most powerful tactic might be to try to get the Towers listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (I was rather surprised to discover that they aren't already). The Chinese government is usually dismissive of any "outside pressure", but an organization and an accolade as prestigious as this would surely provide considerable leverage; it might be enough just to let it be known that the buildings are under consideration for inclusion on the World Heritage list, but that the process is likely to be compromised by major construction work being allowed anywhere nearby. Alas, I doubt that such a move could progress quickly enough; if national and city authorities are determined to go ahead with this, the wrecking-ball could start swinging in a matter of a few months. And I would guess that, in practice, consideration for World Heritage status can't proceed without the approval of the national government.

Update 27/3/10: Well, it seems today's 'action meeting' has been cancelled - at barely a day's notice. I think the authorities got wind of it and advised the organisers and/or venue owner that the activity would be deemed 'unharmonious'.

No big surprise there (sometimes I wish my prognostications weren't so uncannily accurate). As I outlined above, I fear the event would have attracted a majority of laowai, and that would probably have done more harm than good.

Update 9/11/10:  We learned a couple of months ago (check out, for example, Peter Foster's article in The Telegraph) that the horrendous 'Beijing Time Cultural City' project had been shelved - although I fear there will a worse come in its place one day.  Local government officials are making ominous noises about "looking at other proposals".  Also, incorrigible cynic that I am, I have my suspicions that the whole thing might have been nothing but a ruse in the first place.  For six months or more, the CHP and other conservation groups and local and foreign media were almost exclusively focused on this particular - quite possibly non-existent - threat to Beijing's heritage.... while all around the Gulou area other huge construction projects have begun forging ahead unopposed.  It's an intriguing hypothesis; but I really don't think our city government officials are that smart.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is it come?

The Spring, that is.

Our weather has been so enigmatic, so unpredictable over the past week or two that the forecasting website I mostly use, Weather Underground, seems to have been constantly revising and re-revising its five-day outlook.... and still getting it wrong.

Intermittent suggestions that the daytime temperatures would get above 60⁰ F seem to have been not quite realised, because of heavy overcasts. Likewise, predictions that the overnight temperatures would not quite drop below freezing have been frustrated: I think there has still been at least mild frost in the wee small hours almost every night. That's the crucial factor, I think. The trees don't need daytime highs much above 50⁰ F to start budding, but they do like three or four consecutive days of no overnight frost before they feel confident enough to start putting forth.

But today.... today seemed like it might just possibly be the first real harbinger of the Spring. It probably wasn't quite as warm as the gorgeous mild spell we had at the end of February, but somehow it just had that 'feel' - there was that certain intimation that temperatures were going to continue to rise from here on, and that there would be no going back. If things continue in this vein for a few more days, we'll see blossoms at the weekend.

It is quite uncanny: the weather in Beijing is wildly changeable in many ways, but the transition of the seasons seems to run like clockwork. The arrival of Spring, in particular, seems to have a metronomic regularity. It's happened on the last weekend of March every year I've been here. Well, once or twice, it might have been slightly premature, gearing up during the preceding week. And once, I think, it was a little half-hearted over the weekend, and didn't really arrive in full force until a day or two later. But the breaking out of the blossoms has never been more than a week or so before the end of the month; and it's never been deferred to April. Every year without fail, it comes at the end of March.

It's the nicest time of year in Beijing. Pity it lasts less than a fortnight!

I HEART Line 4

I've just started a new job that requires me to take the Line 4 subway, the most recently opened of Beijing's new subway routes. This line renders what would in the past have been a vexingly long and inconvenient journey (crowded bus ride bookended by long walks or crawlingly-slow rush-hour taxi) into a surprisingly pleasant 40-minute commute.

Unlike most of the capital's other subway lines, this one isn't (yet....) hideously overcrowded. (Almost-as-new Line 5 is already becoming almost unusable, even outside of the rush hour; while the venerable Line 1 is unusable these days, I find.)

Unlike the other new lines, the interchanges are mostly quite straightforward. (Well, Line 2 to Line 4 at Xizhimen is a doddle; going the other way is a bit of a hike - why can't they put both interchange stairways in the middle of the platform rather than requiring you to walk all around the houses, to climb up above the [higher!] Line 2 platform and then come back down to it?? Even so, it's a dream compared to some of the ridiculous Line 5 interchanges: the one at Chongwenmen takes nearly 10 minutes! As, of course, does the interchange from Line 2 to Line 13 at Xizhimen or Dongzhimen, which just aren't connected systems at all: the stations are adjacent but completely separate, and it takes 5-10 minutes to change between them.)

Unlike the other new lines, the trains are actually quite clean and comfortable and sensibly designed: large open areas inside all the doors, rather than just on occasional carriages designated "for wheelchairs"; handrails down the centre of all the carriages, but not across the doors (the ones on Line 5 are a bastard, right at eyebrow height for me: I'm always smacking my forehead on them as I get hustled on to the trains by the crowds behind).

Unlike most of the other lines - old or new - the stations (well, at least the ones I've used so far) are clean and airy, well laid-out and reasonably well signposted. (Again, Line 5 is a nightmare of cretinous design: most of the stations in the centre of the city are hidden away inside malls, difficult to find, difficult to get out of; the walk from platform to street level at Zhangzizhonglu, for example [at least it's not in a mall], takes a good 4 or 5 minutes [not helped by the ridiculously slippery floor tiles!!].)

Unlike most of the other lines (especially Line 13 and Line 1), the trains seem to run reliably on time, and at a good frequency throughout the day. (The 8-minute wait for trains on Line 13 outside of the rush hour can be a right pain-in-the-arse. Even the 3 or 4-minute wait on Line 1 can be a pain when its trains are such comparatively low capacity [they're still running some that aren't even the full length of the platforms??] and the other five lines now feeding into it are all running at a slightly higher frequency.)

And unlike most of the other lines, Line 4 goes through a bunch of places that people might actually want to go to. Unlike the arrow-straight north-south Line 5, Line 4 snakes westward a couple of times to take in some more useful destinations: thus it covers the new Beijing South Railway Station, the Xidan shopping district, Ping'an (just west of Beihai Park), the Beijing Zoo, the National Library, the IT zone (and bookstore mecca) around Zhongguancun, Renmin University, Peking University (not too far from the D-22 and 13 Club rock music bars), and the Old Summer Palace. Line 5 is good for commuters into the CBD between Dongsi and Dongdan, and has a stop at the Temple of Heaven, but that's about it. Line 10 (hastily completed before the Olympics to link the luxury hotels on the east side of town to the sports venues on the north side) might be moderately useful if it weren't so isolated from the rest of the network; it seems tantalisingly close to me, but I need to go five or six stops and make TWO changes (one of them rather irksomely long and poorly signed) in order to get on it - it's almost quicker for me to walk all the way to the nearest station. Line 1 ferries commuters in from the distant eastern and western suburbs, but is f***-all use for anything else, and now operating way beyond capacity.

Line 4, though..... my god, Line 4 is actually a pleasant travelling experience. And really useful.

This is probably only because some people haven't realised it's there yet. I'm sure that, before much longer, it will start becoming quite as oppressively overcrowded as the rest of the network. Yep, alas, its passenger traffic will probably double the next time there's a hike in fuel prices or parking fees.

Enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bon mot for the week

"No man who has managed to keep out of an office can be called a failure in life."

Richard Aldington (1892-1962)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Accentuate the positive (A survey)

A friend was complaining to me the other day that Froogville has been very negative lately.

This bothered me slightly. Sometimes I lose perspective about these things a little, lurch too far and for too long toward the 'dark side'. I am classically bi-polar, always either exuberantly happy or self-indulgently depressed, with not much in the middle. And I have been at the wrong end of the spectrum rather a lot in recent months: work has been slow, the weather has been shite, I've had health problems and all kinds of vexation with my computer, and the firework excess of Chinese New Year bores, appals, and frightens me. It wouldn't therefore be surprising if a 'negative' tone had been predominating in my posting during this period.

However, after a quick review of the blog's recent content, I feel quite able to defend myself against the charge. 'Negativity' and its converse are, after all, matters of the individual's perception. It's easy to misinterpret or exaggerate the significance of those elements which seem most conspicuous to you, or even to project your own anxieties and prejudices on to them.

And my friend was being very selective in her criticism: she would insist on excluding.... all the jokes, frivolities, anecdotes, cartoons, nostalgic reminiscences, bons mots, favourite poems; all the posts about music or art or sport or cinema or fantasy girlfriends; all the recommendations of other blogs. Er, yes, if you exclude everything positive, then I suppose the blog might seem quite negative.

But even my most negative posts are almost always well seasoned with humour, I think. I'm usually trying to find some offbeat consolation even in the most trying of circumstances. I'm always trying to make some useful observation, to draw some uplifting lesson from my tribulations. If you see these posts as purely 'negative' just because they are superficially about bad things, then I'd suggest that you're not looking deep enough. Even in my darkest moments, I am groping back towards the light.

In my assessment, only about half of my hundred or so posts this year have had anything negative in them at all (anything - and I'd say nearly half of those are on balance considerably more positive than negative). Only about six or seven have been really negative; and even those, I hope, mostly had some redeeming humour buried in them.

I don't think 1 wrily ranty post in every 15 or so amounts to an "overwhelmingly negative blog".

It's the way you're looking at things, my dear, not the way it's written.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Using your imagination

I mentioned in last week's 'Fantasy Girlfriend' post on the wonderful Tilda Swinton that her most recent film appearance has been as the mysterious 'Blonde' above in Jim Jarmusch's determinedly enigmatic The Limits Of Control. It's a film that's difficult to love: the pace is just too darned leisurely (there were a number of times when I became tempted to fast-forward through a sequence), and it outstays its welcome rather at nearly two hours' running time (if Jarmusch could have trimmed 30 or even 15 minutes off that, it would have been a much more accessible experience - but accessibility seems to be not the point here; quite the reverse).

Nevertheless, the film's repetitive structure (and luscious cinematography by Chris Doyle) becomes oddly mesmerising, and there are a number of quirky moments that linger potently in the memory. And, since most of this seems to be on YouTube already, I thought I'd post an example or two, to supplement the café rendezvous I included in the piece about Tilda.

Here's the introduction to the climactic scene in which the nameless protagonist, a taciturn African hitman played by Isaach De Bankolé, finally confronts his victim, a sinister businessman played by the marvellous Bill Murray. The 'joke' here is that this scene follows on from an extended reconnaissance sequence in which the hitman has established that Murray's headquarters is essentially impregnable, a walled compound miles from anywhere in the middle of the desert, swarming with armed guards. As with the jailbreak in Down By Law, Jarmusch cheekily casts aside the conventions of the genre by declining to show how these formidable defences are breached and cutting straight to the next scene - the process of breaking in (or breaking out) is simply assumed. How did that happen?
"I used my imagination."

And, if that has whetted your appetite for more - here's the official trailer for the film. It looks as though you can watch the whole thing on YouTube - if you've got a decent connection speed and a lot of patience.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Recently, on The Barstool...

Another little roundup of 'highlights' you might have missed from my other blog this past three weeks....

Well, I celebrated 'Johnny Cash Day' - the great man's birthday, February 26th - with this post advertising the exhortation to honour Johnny's memory by wearing black for the day (includes the video for his great cover of Trent Reznor's Hurt).

Then I got a long-in-gestation diatribe off my chest - a rant against the inanities of Facebook, Twitter, and especially FourSquare. (Did anyone get the Frankie Howerd reference?)

I made a doomed attempt to get interactive with a survey to find Beijing's most popular cocktail bar (the poll-widget website I was trying to use was dismally slow; you can still try the poll on their website - there have been a handful of votes).

And then, just the other day, as part of my St Patrick's Day celebrations, I produced a lengthy post on the fabulous bar-room singalong, Those Were The Days ("..., my friend. We thought they'd never end."), including the classic version by pretty 60s songstress Mary Hopkin and a number of others as well.

All well worth a look, if I do say so myself.

A new playbook for Chinese diplomats

I learned via Stuart earlier this week that the Chinese government has been getting its knickers in a knot over 'the Tibet issue' again - despatching a team of diplomats from the San Francisco Consulate to Portland, Oregon last Monday to lodge a formal objection to that city's decision to host a 'Tibet Awareness Day' on March 10th.

The Chinese Consulate's petulant protest made the tired old claim that any discussion of the Tibet issue is giving succour to China's enemies, fomenting 'splittism', "interfering in the internal affairs of China". No, it's not: discussion is just discussion. Trying to demand the suppression of such discussion, however, is interfering in the internal affairs of the United States. And Americans are just as passionate, just as sensitive about their rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association as most Chinese are about their ownership of Tibet. Couching a protest in these terms was inept, tactless, unnecessarily confrontational, dumb. And they didn't just demand that the city cancel the event; oh, no - in the name of 'balance', they also called for the city to issue a new proclamation endorsing the Chinese government's position on Tibet. That was definitely a request too far - just silly.

All that resulted from this little escapade was that three Chinese consular officials (and their burly minder) were filmed and photographed looking deeply uncomfortable as they had to walk past Tibetan demonstrators outside Portland City Hall, thereby garnering much wider and less favourable media attention for the Chinese government's response to the 'provocation'. And they made a humble local government official (Randy Leonard, the City Commissioner who organised the Awareness Day) in one of America's smaller cities look toweringly statesmanlike in comparison to them. Not exactly a great coup for Chinese diplomacy!

The next time something like this happens, might I suggest China's Foreign Ministry tries one of these approaches instead:

1) Ignore it.
Really. Public events focusing on Tibet or the Dalai Lama only become 'important' when China chooses to make a big deal out of them. A one-day 'awareness' event in Portland, Oregon would have merited ZERO international media coverage but for China's throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram overreaction to it.

2) Endure the 'insult' with quiet dignity.
If pressed for comment, or if you feel you must register some public reaction, express your discomfort or disapproval in as muted a way as possible. Let people see your pain, but don't bang on about it.

3) Welcome it.
Yes, really. A bit of a bold, left-field kind of response, I know; groundbreaking for China. OK, Randy Leonard is evidently unsympathetic to Chinese rule in Tibet and the Portland event was going to be dominated by Tibetan emigrés hostile to China, but.... it's styled a 'Tibet Awareness' day. 'Awareness' is good. An event like this could provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to put its counter-case, that most Tibetans are content with Chinese rule and that the quality of life there has been hugely improved in recent years by massive infrastructure investments. (Further tip: try to concentrate on true - or at least plausible - ripostes to specific allegations of oppression; ditch the fatuous "historically always a part of China" justification for the occupation.) Or, if that is too difficult to carry off (and I fear Chinese government officials just aren't mentally nimble enough to engage with Tibetan dissidents in debate and not be humiliated; no, maybe it would be better just to provide a few propaganda films for screening), well.... you could always distract people's attention from all the 'bad China' talk by running a huge tourism promotion alongside - your average Oregonian is going to think "Hey, this place is beautiful; it doesn't look like a concentration camp at all. And things can't be that bad if the Chinese are encouraging us to come visit. They've got nothing to hide." A simple but hugely effective strategy.

Any of these tactics would be a vast improvement on whingeing like a spoilt four-year-old. How about it, chaps? Time for a change of tack?

Haiku for the week

A pipa next door,
A piano down below:
Music all around.

When I first moved into this apartment block a few months back, I was quite charmed by the fact that it was a musicians' danwei and that I was surrounded by music all the time. However, since I've been stuck indoors with a wretched cold for most of the last two weeks, it has started to get a little grating. I grow weary of the Chopin Bicentennial!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Little victories

I learned a couple of days ago that the artists who protested on Chang'an Dajie at the start of the month about their forced eviction from their studios (an 'art colony' that the Chaoyang District government of Beijing had encouraged them to establish less than a year ago) have now been promised some financial compensation.

Whether this compensation will be all that substantial remains to be seen (some of the artists had supposedly sunk most of their life savings into fitting out studio-homes they hoped would last them at least a decade or two), but it's a pretty remarkable concession by the powers-that-be. Similar cases in the last few years of artists' communities being broken up by predatory developers have enjoyed no such 'happy ending'. And ordinary folks are getting forced out of their homes in their thousands all the time all across China, with little or no warning and not much in the way of compensation. As I mentioned in that earlier post, one must suppose that the involvement of Ai WeiWei - China's premier modern artist, enjoying a very high profile both within China and internationally; hence just about untouchable - in this incident has been the decisive factor in obtaining this moderately favourable resolution. (The possibility of retributive police harassment against the other - non-famous - artist protesters continues to be a bit of a worry, though.)

[Double happiness for my old mate Wu Yuren, one of the artists affected, who's got a retrospective show on at the White Box gallery in Dashanzi at the moment (it opened last Saturday). I'm hoping to go and check that out sometime this weekend.]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's THAT day again...

[I've just put up a bumper post on Barstool Blues about the ultimate in drunken singalongs, Those Were The Days - including Mary Hopkin's famous hit version from the late 60s, a huge live performance from the wonderfully daffy Leningrad Cowboys (backed by a massive Russian Red Army musical ensemble), and also a nice solo performance from the great Irish singer Liam Clancy - who was one of the people the song was written about. It's not an Irish song, to be sure, but it's absolutely the right kind of song for today's revelries. Enjoy.]

Why am I not surprised?

I started teaching a new class yesterday - boot-strap English for a bunch of local government officials.

One of the questions they asked me in our initial 'getting to know you' session was what did I think of Avatar? Ahem, I had to rein myself in a bit.

Apparently, they had all seen it. And almost all of them had enjoyed it deliriously.

There is often a disturbing lack of sophistication in Chinese aesthetic values, I find; especially in their consumption of 'Western' culture.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, apart from the fact there is no picture, of course. Darn - one of those occasions when I so wish I'd had my camera with me.

Anyway.... use your imaginations, if you will.

I'm on my way to the neighbourhood supermarket to do my weekly shop. A car coming towards me down the bike lane suddenly does a 90-degree turn, driving up on to the sidewalk right in front of me and parking perpendicularly across it, completely blocking passage for pedestrians like me, and with its front bumper virtually resting on the steps of a building.

Now, what exactly do I find so unexpected or outrageous about this?

Cars using the bicycle lane? Alas, no. Cars fairly routinely drive down and park in the bicycle lanes; there doesn't seem to be any kind of enforcement of traffic laws relating to this. Cars parking on the sidewalk? Again, no: distressingly common. Once again, there's seldom any enforcement; and where there is, the 'wardens' invariably start levying ad hoc fees for 'violations' (rather than actual fines, or threats of court action) and pocket the money for themselves, so creating illicit paid parking schemes. And parking on the sidewalk does seem to be especially common on this stretch of road; although most people at least take the care to park diagonally, so they're not leaving half of the bike lane blocked off with the arse-end of their car like this guy was. The driver's brutish lack of concern for anyone but himself? Alas, no: yet again, it seems to be absolutely standard-issue in this country. I mean, if you're going to completely block a sidewalk by parking across it, why wouldn't you also cut up - and nearly run down - a pedestrian who would have been past you in another couple of seconds? Visiting such petty aggravations on their fellow citizens seems to be one of the highest joys in life for most Chinese.

No, the thing I found most gobsmacking about this little incident was that the building whose entrance steps our oafish driver was half blocking was.... a branch of the Rural Commercial Bank of China.

Really - in what other country in the world would someone think it is OK to park their car in the entrance to a bank??

I would have liked to see SWAT teams appear out of nowhere and pistol-whip the little bastard to a pulp. Alas, that revenge fantasy went unfulfilled. I tried making meaningful eye contact with a security guard just inside the door of the bank, mugging "Are you really going to let him park there?"..... but he just shrugged and grinned. He wasn't really equipped to dole out the arse-whooping I was hoping for, anyway. Like most Beijing 'security guards', he was no more than about 17 years old, and was armed only with an electric cattle-prod which probably hadn't had a battery recharge in months.

There is, as yet, very little armed bank robbery in China. But I'm starting to think that a niche exists....

Bon mot for the week

"Fatigue makes cowards of us all."

George S. Patton (1885-1945)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Tilda Swinton

After half a lifetime's adulation, I finally met Ms Swinton - very briefly, in passing - a couple of times last March when she was in Beijing, with her friend the film critic Mark Cousins; they were here to host their 'homemade' Scottish Cinema Of Dreams festival. That should really debar her from inclusion in the ranks of the 'Fantasy Girlfriends'; it seems indecent to harbour amorous aspirations towards people that one actually knows (however very, very slightly). But.... rules are made to be broken. She was, in fact, one of the very first women I contemplated including in this series (before that 'disqualifying' personal encounter), but somehow I didn't get around to it. The time at last has come. I was reminded of Tilda again this week partly because the Bookworm International Literary Festival has just rolled around again (I saw her and Mark Cousins speak at this event last year, advertising their Scottish cinema festival), and partly because I watched the new Jim Jarmusch film, The Limits Of Control, last weekend - in which she makes a very striking cameo appearance (almost unrecognisable at first, in a platinum blonde wig, cowboy getup and sunglasses - below).

Her features are slightly odd, rather too extreme to be classically pretty: the skin too pale, the eyes too green, the cheekbones too angular. But she is unquestionably very beautiful; and there's a uniqueness about her beauty, a quality that calls to mind some of the iconic Hollywood leading ladies of the 1930s - an elegance, a hauteur, a luminescence that you just don't see any more. She is formidably intelligent, too: it shines through in all her film performances, and in her interviews. When you meet her in person, that intelligence is palpable; it's very, very rare that anyone really impresses me - much less dazzles me - with the sharpness of their brain, but Tilda does. And she has extraordinary charisma as well, quite colossal; I don't think I've ever seen someone who dominates a room so effortlessly. Yet, she doesn't seem to have too many starry affectations: she's unassuming, down-to-earth, approachable - just scarily bright. I believe it's her personality - the wit, the verve, the intellect - that beguiles me more than her striking looks.

Moreover, she is, like me, a passionate lover of the cinema (this is far from invariably the case with actors). In her presentation at The Bookworm last year she read this exquisite essay on the evocative power of film (inspired by her 8-year-old son's question: "What were dreams like before we had cinema?"). Apparently there's a film of her reading this, but I haven't been able to locate it online (they were supposed to have been showing this at The Worm, but the DVD had gone astray, so she had to read it live). You can also read/download Mark Cousins' response (a letter of encouragement to his eight-and-a-half-year-old self, reflecting on his own lifelong love of film) here

And there's another excellent piece by Tilda here (from The Guardian, way back in 2002), remembering the wonderfully eccentric director Derek Jarman, with whom she had worked in a number of her early films. I would have loved to include one of my favourite Tilda moments, as the lovably bossy Lady Ottoline Morrell (another likely candidate for a 'Fantasy Girlfriend' one day) in Jarman's Wittgenstein, reproving the self-indulgently angst-ridden German philosopher, as he once more lapses into suicidal self-doubt, with the words: "Nonsense! Full English breakfast - that's what you need. That'll sort you out." Unfortunately I couldn't find that bit on YouTube.

I think I first saw Tilda Swinton (nearly 20 years ago!) in Sally Potter's mesmerizing adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, where her beauty and intelligence were so bewitching that not even the character's androgyny could deter me from plunging into infatuation - so here's a brief clip of that.

And then here's her entertaining walk-on in The Limits Of Control, where she talks of her enthusiasm for films, saying: “I like movies that are like dreams. The ones where you’re not sure if you saw them or dreamed them.” Indeed.

[I'm afraid I didn't love this latest Jarmusch. Christopher Doyle's cinematography and the Spanish locations are gorgeous, and there are a series of engaging cameos like this one - John Hurt, Gabriel Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray. Ultimately, however, it's just too self-indulgent, too determinedly opaque, too repetitive and too long. I find I did sort of enjoy it - or at least appreciate it - for its very oddness; but it's not the kind of film that you could or would recommend to anyone else.]

Friday, March 12, 2010

When is an artist not an artist?

When they're self-proclaimed.

JES was prompted by my mention of Hugh MacLeod at the start of the week to honour the man with a post of his own (apparently JES had discovered him quite some time ago, but had lapsed from being a regular follower for a while). This has provoked a lively discussion about the nature of art and being an artist (JES may perhaps not have very many more readers than me, but they're all writers, and so they comment!). I tried to offer my two penn'orth last night, but the comment went astray somehow (I'm sure it will be salvaged shortly; poor old JES has been having some gremlin troubles this week on the blog), so I thought I'd recycle it below. Mr MacLeod, you see - in this interview that I linked to earlier - disdains the use of the term 'artist', while not being above sometimes describing his output as 'art', an apparent contradiction or incongruity that troubled JES and a number of his commenters.

I don't think there's anything necessarily incompatible or disingenuous about disowning the term 'artist', but wanting to think of your output as 'art'.

There's something altogether more precious - and more obtrusive, more wheedling - about the use of the term 'artist'. I think it is possible to describe your work as 'art' without necessarily implying/demanding that the rest of the world must see it that way; but people who label themselves as 'artists' are usually trying to convince others - and maybe themselves - that everything they produce must therefore be acknowledged as art.

That seems to me to be getting the whole thing backwards. If enough people, now and in the future, accept your self-definition of your work as 'art', then it can be generally recognised as such and you earn the title of 'artist' - it is an accolade that should only really be conferred by broad consensus over time, not your own self-assertion here and now.

I don't think any of the artists I've ever met or read about who really impressed me typically referred to themselves as 'artists' - because they realised it sounded poncey, conceited, perhaps even overcompensating for some insecurity about their work. They almost always just say "I paint", "I make photographs", "I do installations", "I write".

Further to that original comment, I might add that I can see why it seems to be becoming more common for people to declare themselves to be 'artists' these days. It's probably partly because they don't work primarily in any single medium, and so these other labels aren't so convenient for them. But I fear it's also largely because being an 'artist' is becoming more and more of a lifestyle choice rather than a matter of creative output: people who choose to call themselves 'artists' are primarily defined by the fact that they spend most of their time hanging out with other 'artists' and talking about 'art', rather than by what they produce.

Works of 'art', I feel, should be humbly submitted to the world, to see if anyone else will accept and appreciate them as valid art - not launched amid a narcissistic fanfare of "I'm an artist! Look what I've done now!"

Soi-disant 'artists', I'm sorry to say, are mostly a bunch of tossers. And I fear it is this trend - that 'artists' are starting to define 'art' as being 'whatever artists do' (often with the arrogant and exclusionary further corollary that only 'artists' can understand or appreciate 'art') - more than any shortcomings of the artworks themselves that is leaving modern art increasingly marginalised, disrespected, ignored by ordinary people.

Haiku for the week

All sense of self gone;
Only the headache remains,
And the rattling lungs.

One week in, and no sign of improvement. This might well be the nastiest cold I've had since childhood (though heaven knows I've had a few stinkers here in China).

When I was very young, this was practically a way of life for me. I was officially 'sickly'; X-rays showed mysterious 'shadows' around the edges of my lungs, which eventually led to a diagnosis of asthma (I was never convinced of that; I just thought my lungs didn't work that well, and I got out-of-breath and wheezy rather too easily - but I knew kids who had serious not-being-able-to-breathe asthma attacks out of the blue, and my problems weren't nearly that bad); even TB was suspected at one point. Twice or thrice a year I had a little run-in with death: bronchitis, pneumonia, pleurisy. I had a whole drawer full of cough linctus and anti-histamine pills and antibiotics and Ventolin inhalers. Doctors found me a curious case, never did have much of a theory as to why I was so goddamned ill all the time.

I got better pretty much overnight when my Dad finally stopped smoking.

The last few years in Beijing my lungs have started packing up on me again. I wonder why that would be.

Now I have that feeling once again. I cannnot explain, you would not understand...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Getting interactive (or not)

I've just attempted to put up an online poll on brother-blog Barstool Blues, soliciting opinons as to which is the best of Beijing's cocktail bars.

Alas, it looks like being (at least, at present) a dismal disaster: I don't know if it's a problem with the poll-widget website or just with my Net connection or my proxy, but.... well, for me it's either not loading the quiz at all, or it's doing so with such SLOWNESS that nobody's going to have the patience to wait for it.

Of course, this poll is nought but a cunning plan to try to ascertain whether I have any readers any more over there. The evidence of the comments is not promising: they've almost completely dried up over the past six months. However, many people who can never be bothered to comment might just click on a quick quiz..... if the bloody thing would download promptly for them.

I wonder if this is going to get any response or not.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Difficult decisions

This from my new 'hero', Hugh MacLeod - check out his wonderful Gaping Void website, and this great interview with him on Lateral Action.

Bon mot for the week

"Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you."

William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

If I were an AMPAS voter

I've been on a bit of a binge of DVD buying and DVD watching over the past few weeks, and have now seen nearly all of this year's Oscar-nominated films.

With the awards ceremony about to take place tonight (well, tomorrow morning here in Beijing - I wonder if I'll be able to watch it online?), there is, as always, a gathering sense of dread that the event will be marred by unjust omissions and some lame choices of winners by the American Academy's voters.

Here's who I think should win:

Best Original Screenplay
This clearly ought to go to Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, and there is quite a history of using this category as a consolation prize for the sort of film that is too unusual or 'challenging' to get recognition as Best Picture; but if the Academy is really down on Quentin (and I suspect they are), they might just possibly give it to the Coen brothers instead, to try to prove that they are open to the quirky and the experimental (just not when Quentin's doing it). If they give it to Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker (and I'm betting that they will), that will be a travesty: the script is the least impressive element of a very, very overrated film.

Best Adapted Screenplay
For my money, it ought to be An Education; but I suspect it may go to Precious instead, because that has more harrowing and 'worthy' subject matter and - for American voters - a more familiar setting. I suppose I'd be happy enough to see it go to any of the other three nominees too - In The Loop, District 9, Up In The Air; it's a very strong category this year.

Best Supporting Actress
Well, I'd give it to Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart; but I suspect Mo'nique's more showy turn as the abusive mother in Precious may steal it. I haven't yet seen Penelope Cruz in Nine, but I expect that she is, as usual, stunning in it (though it may count against her that she won in this category just last year). I hear there's a lot of buzz around Vera Farmiga for Up In The Air: that wouldn't be a bad choice, either; although she may suffer from the 'split vote' phenomenon, since Anna Kendrick is nominated for the same film. [I thought Rosamund Pike's glamorous bimbo in An Education deserved a nomination; a very subtle, very funny performance.]

Best Supporting Actor
An exceptionally strong field this year, probably more so than any of the other acting categories (and they're all pretty strong this time around), but, if there's any justice, the award should go to Christoph Waltz for his superb performance as the Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds (although I contend that he should have been nominated for, and won the Best Actor category). Sentimental oafs that the Oscar voters are, though, there must be a danger that they'll give it instead to Christopher Plummer for The Last Station as a kind of 'lifetime achievement award'. [If Waltz had been properly recognised as an actor in a leading role, it would have left room in this category for Alfred Molina, whose performance as the blustering father in An Education certainly deserved at least a nomination.]

Best Actress
The Last Station is another of those I haven't seen yet, but Helen Mirren is overdue for an award and her performances are almost always deserving of one. However, Carey Mulligan is also quite brilliant in An Education. There seems to be an awful lot of buzz about Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side: OK, I haven't seen that one, but.... it's hard to imagine. It sounds suspiciously like another case of the Oscar voters getting inappropriately sentimental, wanting to reward someone for a long career of "America's sweetheart" roles rather than this film in particular (presumably Ms Bullock is being forced to graduate into more dramatic fare at last by the rise of Jennifer Aniston in the rom-com arena). Now, I like Sandra Bullock well enough, but I don't believe she has great range as an actress; and even if she proves me wrong on that in this role, I'm prepared to bet that the performance still isn't in the same class as Helen Mirren's or Carey Mulligan's. [I've now watched The Blind Side, and Sandra Bullock is pretty good in it. It's a meaty, well-written part, but a lot of it depends on the strong accent (which, to me, doesn't seem completely consistent, and doesn't sound like anyone I know from Tennessee); and I can't help thinking that people are just impressed to see her taking on a serious dramatic role for a change.]

Best Actor
This will almost certainly go to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, because a) he's long overdue for an Oscar (after inexplicably failing time and again even to get nominated for his great performances in films like The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tucker - The Man And His Dream, The Fisher King or The Big Lebowski), and b) roles as Country & Western singers always seem to win Oscars. So, it might be a case of the Academy making the right choice for the wrong reasons: Jeff would probably have won for this, even if he were terrible in it (he isn't, of course). Jeremy Renner is buoyed up by the tsunami of enthusiasm for The Hurt Locker, but I can't quite see him winning it: he gives a decent enough performance, but there's not a great deal of range in it; he doesn't have to do much except look quietly determined throughout, and much of the time he's doing that inside a bomb-proof helmet, so you can't really see him anyway. However, you have to figure that the mere concept of Morgan Freedman as Nelson Mandela (in Invictus) will get Academy voters' juices flowing. I have a sneaking fear that poor old Jeff might end up a bridesmaid again. [The conspicuous, shameful omission here was Sharlto Copley in District 9: a truly remarkable performance, streets better than Renner's, Firth's or Clooney's. Apparently, American audiences struggled with his South African accent!]

Best Director
This should go to Quentin Tarantino - who, even if you don't like him, you have to admit is doing things with more wit and flair and style, more of a personal vision than anyone else out there. However, it seems almost certain that Kathryn Bigelow will take the award for The Hurt Locker. Yes, it's high time a woman was honoured in this category. And yes, she's very good. But not for this film. And not over Tarantino.

Best Picture
This, of course, is going to go to The Hurt Locker (or Avatar). Almost any of the other nominated films (except Avatar) would be more deserving. Inglourious Basterds would be a bold, surprising choice - but the Academy is seldom bold, and almost never surprising in a good way: if they didn't give an Oscar to Pulp Fiction, they're not going to give one to Basterds (even the title works against it: no swearing for Middle America, please!). My vote would go to Lone Scherfig's An Education - a 'small' film, but beautifully executed and perfectly played: it has the vibrancy and charm of Roman Holiday, but with darker, more serious themes. It's very, very rare that I reach the end of a film and a) can't think of a single thing about it that could be improved; b) feel that I could watch it again tomorrow. Some time ago, I suggested that a ten-year delay in deciding on Best Picture awards would offer a more telling perspective and result in better choices. I think people will still be watching An Education in ten years' time, eagerly looking forward to it every time it comes around on TV. Cinema nerds will be enjoying Inglourious Basterds for years to come. Before long, I predict, The Hurt Locker (and, please god, Avatar) will be pretty much forgotten.

I haven't seen all of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature, but it seems overwhelmingly likely (since it also got a Best Picture nomination) that Up will win. My preference would have been for Fantastic Mr Fox or Coraline.

I could stand to see The Hurt Locker take the Best Cinematography Award for Barry Ackroyd, although I'd rather it went to Robert Richardson for Inglourious Basterds or Christian Berger for The White Ribbon.

I really, really hope that District 9 beats out Avatar for Best Visual Effects, though that is perhaps unlikely - Oscar voters will rally behind the hometown boy. To my mind, the aliens in District 9 are far more convincingly realised than those in Avatar (and the vaunted 'performance capture' technique used to animate the Na'vi's faces - well, it might have been done better than before, but it's not new).

Frankly, I hope Avatar leaves without a single award. It is a triumph of budget over intelligence, and a very bad marker for the future direction of the industry. A preposterous story, dismally badly written, and bombastically executed - "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". It fully deserves the kind of comprehensive spurning meted out to The Color Purple.