Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Reggae and Gay People

It's a real heartache to me. Sizzla is possibly my favourite of the current generation of dancehall musicians. He carries the heritage of Lee Perry, Big Youth and Dr Alimantado effortlessly and adds his own thing. The hooks are great, and he sings straight from his heart.

One problem - he's a total homophobe.

See, I never cared especially for Wagner's music so I was never really faced with the problem of how to negotiate the art/ politics problem (Wagner was a Nazi sympathizer). Sizzla is my modern day equivalent.

I think it was a 70s thing in particular - the politics of aesthetics. The general thrust seemed to be that right-wingers didn't like radical art, but lefties did. That seems to broadly be the attitude today.

Well, this never made sense to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you listen to any piece of music (without lyrics), it says nothing at all about the composer's political convictions. How they feel about welfare benefit, gun control, abortion or whatever else. Secondly, one of the pivotal movements for the avant-garde was the Futurists, who were Fascists.

So formal properties remain apolitical. We would like to think that art with questionable content will consistently be substandard, but this isn't the case. Leni Riefenstahl is a classic example. In much the same way, racist jokes are always politically objectionable but people are more likely to forgive the joke if it's actually funny. I would take this as meaning that the form of the joke is solid, even if the content is offensive. Conveniently, most people who cook up these jokes aren't that bright so the jokes usually aren't funny. But even if they are, that doesn't make it forgivable. A friend of mine said to me recently "I think you can say anything as long as it's funny". This seems to be a widely held belief, I would contend that even if it is funny, that's not a license to be hurtful to any group of people.

Back to Sizzla. There is no room for ambiguity in his lyrics. He cooked up a song called Nah Apologise, which is him declaring his refusal to apologize for writing and performing songs which incite and encourage hatred and violence towards homosexuals. This song is freely available on youtube. I looked at it, and noticed that the discussion wall generally went along the lines of people writing "kill batty boys!". Great. So my good turn for the day was flagging the video to youtube, and alerting them to the fact that it's inappropriate and incites hatred and abuse towards gay people - which is against youtube policy anyhow. What's surprising is that it's already been looked at by 355,586 people (to date) and it would appear that I'm the first person to object.

I hoped that they would take the video down, but instead they just disabled adding comments. Not ideal, but I guess it's something. Though if I was catching the brunt of his hatred (i.e. something anti semitic) I wouldn't be satisfied.

Rastas, particularly the ultra-orthodox branch to which Sizzla subscribes - called Boboshanti Rastas better sort this thing out. Jamaica has such a proud tradition, they punch above their weight culturally, but why the hatred? No-one asked them to be gay, it's a low pressure deal. Their rationale behind the hatred of gays comes from their claim is that to be gay is to go against the will of God. This comes form the book of Leviticus - the same book that states that any child who says their parents name in vain shall be put to death.

Do Boboshanti Rastas follow through on this instruction as well? Of course not. If they could first of all admit that the hatred of gays comes from a personal dislike rather than sublimating it to God's will, that'd be a start.

Dear Sizzla: you have a right to your opinion, and I have the right to call you a fool.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Empathy, Mirror Neurons and the Peanut Song

This is a home recorded version of an academic paper that I delivered last month at Salford University on screen comedy...

Free-floating thoughts on MJ


Yes, I'm still smarting over his death. So there's a series of thoughts I wanted to get out of my system:
  • Medication: The ‘Dr. Feelgood’ characters have been in Hollywood as long as there has been a Hollywood. These are people who can give prescription painkillers to wealthy showbiz-types and they keeps killing our stars. MJ is the latest in a list accompanied by Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, Elvis, Judy Garland, Howard Hughes, Keith Moon, Nick Drake and (one of my fave avant-garde filmmakers) Maya Deren. The list goes on
  • Nothing learned: Some deaths lead to something positive - Jade Goodie’s legacy is that the number of women taking smear tests shot up, but no lesson will be learned from MJ’s death. The media won't stop exploiting their stars, and no medication addict will kick their habit
  • Revisionary: I never even liked the song Billy Jean that much. On Thriller, Human Nature sits there quietly making it a great album without you noticing. On the album Bad, Speed Demon does it for me every time. Plus more attention should be paid to the post-Quincy Jones era. Remember the Time is a deceptively good song, and Butterflies could have been a hit if Sony had promoted it properly
  • Liar: MJ explicitly stated that he impregnated Debbie Rowe. However, he’s black and his children aren't mixed-race. They are his foster children. (Yes it’s obvious, but no-one ever seemed to point that out). If anything tells me that he was willing to delude himself, it's that
  • Expose: MJ clearly already had plastic surgery by Thriller, and no-one objected. So is it the plastic surgery that bothers us, or the fact it’s bad plastic surgery? (bad meaning ‘bad’). My suspicion is that he developed an addiction to surgery, and would fixate on different parts of his face at a time rather than pay attention to the complete thing. I notice his plastic surgeon has remained anonymous this whole time. Can’t he/ she be exposed?
  • Arseholoe: If Gavin Arvizo admitted that he made up the story about being molested, isn’t he legally accountable? Is that called ‘contempt of court’?
  • Baby-sitter: No – I wouldn’t have let MJ look after my children. But neither would I let Prince, Boyzone or the Cheeky Girls look after my children either
  • Tough break: He had to sell his home in order to clear his name and the court decided on both occasions that he hadn’t molested anyone. Still the public didn't trust him. He probably settled out of court the second time because they didn't want the case to be prolonged. He was caught between a rock and a hard place
  • Journalism sucks: MJ exposed most journalists’ inability to hold two opinions about a person at the same time. He’s either the greatest guy ever or the worst
  • Trauma: It’s damaging to be attacked excessively, but it can be equally damaging to be praised excessively. MJ had both
  • Suspect: The video to Man in the Mirror intercuts MJ with Martin Luther King, Ghandi, John F Kennedy and Mother Teresa while he induces a religious fervour in a stadium full of people (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgtWIx2zLtk). During the Jarvis Cocker incident, he was pretending to be Jesus. In the video to They Don’t Care About Us, he plays a Che Guevara-type folk hero. In all these examples, one could argue that he’s being used as a symbol of hope, but it’s all rather suspect
  • Good guy: On the other hand, he’s apparently the second biggest celebrity-contributor to charity after Oprah Winfrey. That's a piece of information that never really slipped into public consciousness
  • Skin: I’m willing to believe that he had vitiglio, but why didn’t he use his money to make his skin brown again? At any rate, I don’t think he wanted to be caucasian. I think he wanted to be white, as in, *pale*. That's not the same as being 'a white guy'
  • Sha-Mo: This is MJ’s own version of “Tra-la-la” or “Shoo-be-do”. I think it’s great that he came up with his own musical turn of phrase
  • Moonwalk: MJ didn't invent the Moonwalk. To my knowledge, he never claimed to. There have been recorded instances of the Moonwalk performed as early as the 1930s by Cab Calloway, and later in the 50s by Marcel Marceau. Later still in the 70s, street dancers were doing the move. MJ just popularized it
  • Cruel: Who asked his bereaved 10 year-old daughter to speak in front of a stadium of about 250,000 people? (Or 1 Billion if you count worldwide figures)
  • Fun: You never hear about anything fun that Richard Branson or Bill Gates did with their money. MJ became a Billionaire and bought a fairground and a monkey. Cool
  • Tragic/ Hero: Will he be remembered as a pop hero or a tragic figure? Elvis showed us that there is space for both conceptions in our collective memory
  • Memento: My favourite video clip of MJ became available a little while after he died. It’s the only footage I’ve seen where he’s not consciously aware of being looked at. See him in the second half of this clip, he’s just watching and thinking, and we’re given some insight into his internal thought processes as he sits and contemplates. Quite precious, to my mind:

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Men & Women

I have this idea I'm trying to work through. As a man, I have a theory that if I can observe women in the correct way when they discuss men, I'll gain a new insight into what men are like. I'm so busy being one, I can't quite tell what we are like as a species.

What I figure is that there is a disparity between the way we imagine ourselves and the way in which the opposite sex imagines us.

Case in point, a woman as imagined by men:


and a woman as imagined by women:


Here we have boys as imagined by girls:


and men as imagined by men (at least a certain type of man):


None of these are necessarily errors in a perception, it's just that both genders bring out a different truth on the same subject.

What we really need is a third gender. A neutral, androgynous sex that can observe impartially without a background set of assumptions, expectations or biases.

Any volunteers?

Friday, 3 July 2009

My Danish Adventure

I'll start by saying that Copenhagen was a big deal to me - I kinda saw it as being my second Bar Mitzvah. Some sort of passage into adulthood. This was a big conference and if it turned out that I was indeed an impostor playing the part of an academic, this would be the place where I would get rumbled...

As such, I was a tad jittery for the first couple of days. Actually, I started getting jittery about 5 days before flying out there. My good pal Dominic enjoyed the brunt of my nerves by having to listen to me fixate on minor things. Breaking point came when I was complaining to him about how unfair it is for a band like Metallica who will never be recognized as one of the greatest bands ever because there is a glass ceiling for heavy metal groups. Dom eventually replied "listen Paul, just chill out". Probably the right thing to say.

At any rate, I didn't get to see too much of Copenhagen itself because the conference was quite intensive. But I did see a whole variety of people whose books I had read. And if you're a film theory dude, these people are like celebrities to you.

Case in point, this is me with David Bordwell:


Bordwell is something of a patriarch to the cognitive film movement, and besides that he's a giant within film theory. Besides that still, he lives up to his reputation as being a tremendously kind and likable guy. I only got the chance to speak to him a couple of times, but he went out of his way to make me and other PhD students (who might otherwise feel intimidated) feel welcome and needed at the conference. It wasn't intentional, but I think this picture gets across how much I look up to the guy and like him as a person.

At any rate, if Bordwell is the patriarch figure of the conference then Joseph Anderson is my favorite uncle:


Joseph wrote a book called "The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Film Theory", which kick-started my PhD (so as you can guess, I was excited to meet him). I eventually got the chance to speak to him and tell him so, which meant a lot to me. He was very kind with his time and interested in my ideas on film, and was happy to offer a response to questions I had about his book. (Which as basically, how does one factor the avant-garde into an ecological understanding of cinema. But I'll not go into what that actually means for now)

At any rate, the conference itself was fabulous. I was surrounded by other film obsessives who were having thoughts about cinema that had never been thought before - thrilling to see if you're into this stuff. I saw a paper on how spectators visually track the screen and how we miss most of what's going on. I saw a paper on what it means to develop a taste. Murray (my supervisor) spoke on how the sciences can contribute to our understanding of art.

Then there was me. I talked about cinema and a condition called Synaesthesia.

I'll not go into the details of my paper now because I might put some sort of version of it on my blog at some point, but I'll just say that my paper felt like it was warmly received. Bordwell and his wife Kristin Thompson came along, as did two people who I quoted in my presentation (Carl Plantinga and Kathrin Fahrlenbrach) and a guy called Torben Grodal, whom I had read. I'm kinda name dropping here, but it's more for my sake rather than yours (Unlike most people who will read this, I know who they are, and I'm putting it in my blog so I remember!).

Thankfully, I didn't get a wobbly voice and I pretty much held it together during the presentation and Q&A. It appears I'm not an impostor. Phew.

After this, I had a bit of time to snoop around the city. This is Dom and Ted trying to figure out where we were. Note how instead of getting involved, I just decided to take a picture of them...


The next day I also climbed a Church spire in Copenhagen. It's probably famous, but I don't remember what it's called:


Here we are at the top:


As for the city itself, it was very clean. The locals seemed ecologically conscious, there were a lot of bikes around and no litter. There was also a hippy commune place I went to with a few pals (no photos allowed for some reason).

Danes (?) seemed to go for a fairly meat-based diet, and there is a culture of crisps and chocolate comparable to that of the UK. It's also pretty costly out there. But on the plus side, they had an exhibition of weird sign-posts in the city center:




Anyway, then came a major surprise at the conference. Lars von Trier came to do a Q&A after the screening of his new movie, Antichrist. Here's a blurry picture I took of him with my phone camera:


This was a thrill for me because I love his work. I asked him a question about his use of hypnosis in the film. As a guy, he seemed cool though not someone who naturally felt at ease speaking in public about his work. As we went along, he seemed to feel more comfortable in his own skin. If you want to know more about what he said, ask me :)

I took this picture in my Hotel. The shower was better than the signpost would have you believe:


A few more snaps from the final night, when we had a big meal. This is me with another Professor, his name is Ed Tan. He is of Chinese and Indonesian origins but grew up in Holland. I liked him very much.


This is a guy called Chris who also spoke at the conference. I must look him up on Facebook. Though he'll kill me if he sees I've uploaded this picture:


Finally, a drunk lady who was at the conference. Not sure who she is.


At any rate, the whole thing was just a dream. I got a real sense of being in a culture of academics. Lots of schmoozing, and a supportive environment. By the end I was completely pooped, but what fun.

I'll mention a point made by Dominic. The cognitive movement within film theory is somewhat maginalized. It's been an uphill struggle to get recognition, and this is a very strange thing. As we imagine ourselves (and I think it's a reasonable assumption), we appeal to common sense, straightforward language and facts. And this is seen as the alternative to the dominant paradigm. That's kinda creepy.

At any rate, next year it'll be in Virginia! Whoop....