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August 16, 2009


This passage by Oscar Wilde is rattling around my head for about five reasons, none of which I can properly explain without offending somebody. So I'll let it stand alone:
the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives.....
For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing. As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg. No; a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious is probably a real personality, and has much in him. He is at any rate a healthy protest. As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. -- from The Soul of Man under Socialism

August 11, 2009

The Edukators

I've lately been bingeing on German films (why yes, I have been feeling homesick, how did you guess?). Germany at present seems to be churning out a good number of decent films, although I'm not enough of a buff to say whether claims of a golden age are more than hype.

The Edukators (2004) is certainly a good film, albeit far from flawless. Roughly speaking, it's a political take on the caper film, with a love triangle thrown in for good measure. Jan, Peter and Jule are young Berliners, embroiled in anti-globalization campaigning that they know is useless. Unbeknown to Jule, Jan and Peter have a second life as a team of anticapitalist pranksters, who ransack the homes of the rich, without stealing anything, in the hope of showing them the error of their ways.

Not the most direct way of fighting the system, perhaps, but in the world of the film personality always trumps practicality. Among 'the edukators', politics with the personal. If, as they daub on a wall at one point, "every heart is a revolutionary cell", then simply wanting to "live wild and free" is enough to fight the system.

Naturally, this can't last. Surprised by the owner of a house they have broken into, they kidnap him so he cannot turn them in to the police. This is when the real education begins, as the three youngsters lie low in a mountain village with their captive, Hardenberg. This latter turns out to be not just a businessman but also a disillusioned radical, a child of the 60s for whom the "long march through the institutions" led to becoming part of the system. The film just about manages to contrast the viewpoints of its characters: yes, they're muddled and disoriented, but then so is their reality.

The director is fairly clear about his propaganda aims:

As you leave the cinema, you should have the feeling "if I, as a young person -- and youth has nothing at all to do with age -- have the feeling that something is wrong with the world -- I am not happy, I am angry, then this feeling must come out, must be translated into action. Otherwise it could make me ill"

Incidentally, I can't help giggling at the need for the faux-German title. The group in the film give themselves the far-less-sexy name of "Die Erziehungsberechtigten" (meaning something like "the guardians"), while the German title of the film was the uninspiring slogan "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei" (the years of plenty are over). Phony 'K' or no, I think the international market got a better deal.

This is the best review I've seen; Rotten Tomatoes has plenty of others, and here are some links to German reviews.

August 10, 2009

Oxford Muse

Theodore Zeldin's Intimate History of Humanity is a book I adored -- and then prompty gave away, so that I have only the faintest memory of why I adored it. Zeldin is an Oxford lecturer on French history, and his book was a wide-ranging attempt to map the history of human emotions. [perhaps it has something in common with more academic attempts to track the "mood music of history" -- but Zeldin's book, being aimed at the general reader, could draw connections and inferences in a style impossible within the academy].

Anyway, I recently looked online to see what he's been up to lately, and was delighted to see he's turned his life towards a program implicit in what he'd been writing. That is, attempting not just to bring people together, but to provide them with the tools to understand one another. He's given it institutional cover under the name of the Oxford Muse Foundation, aiming to develop "less superficial conversations between individuals, families, work colleagues and communities". It's thus placing itself at that oddly-crowded nexus between primary-school teachers, political organizers, psychiatrists, couchsurfers and business consultants. Whether it's really a good thing -- well, that depends largely on execution. The things they've done so far -- having people write descriptions of one another's lives, and providing 'menus' of conversation topics as icebreakers -- sound like decent, if hardly revolutionary, ideas. But, success or failure, I'm glad to see it happen -- certainly it's better than writing more books on French history.

August 9, 2009

Silent Shout

Best way to find music: share a bedroom, share an office. Between people playing me their favourites, and the need to drown out background noise, I've probably spent more time wearing headphones these last six weeks than in the previous six months. Mostly the easy-to-ignore genres that are perfect background music to work to (psytrance, industrial, metal, and sometimes foreign pop). Also, though, things that demand more attention and then worm their way deeper into your body, until you need to pull them back out by naming them.

First among them, Silent Shout (2006) by brother-sister electronica pair The Knife.

Many reviews describe this as a 'cold' album. To me, it's not so much cold as alien. The key is in the vocals, Karin Dreijer Andersson's voice twisted, blended and echoed into a chorus of androgynous, even inhuman sounds. This is the the Midwich Cuckoos, telepathically linked and talking (almost) with one tongue. Most literally in From off to on, as menacing children:

When we come home, we want it quiet and calm
We want you to sing us a song
When we come home, we pull the curtains down
Making sure that the TV is on

But the same voices are present We share our mother's health, this time as refugees from Eden (We came down from the north, blue hands and a torch). And in The Captain they emerge as grizzled sailors:

We are out of wind
We have pock-marked chin
We have lots of water
We turn the other cheek and we win

This is what makes the album -- the aura of sinister closeness of the hive-mind. Its echoes remain even in a love-song like Marble House, as side-effects of Karin singing a duet with herself.

Not that this is a concept album; in fact, I suspect I'm reading in ideas that barely crossed the minds of Karin and Olof. Each song here is a piece by itself, with no explicit connections between them. The steadily-deepening nightmare soundscape of the title track contrasts sleepy, almost despairing vocals with an insistent background of synth arpeggios. After the end of that richness, it's a surpise to be brought back down to the simple, panpipe-like opening of Neverland.

Most tracks on Silent Shout start something like this, taking an almost-familiar sound -- a dripping tap on Like a Pen, clicking marbles for Marble House, or on We share our mothers health what sounds very much like the Clangers -- and quickly losing it under many more layers. The effect is most striking on Marble House, where the clicking is speeded up into some kind of crackling.

Lyrics are fairly unimportant for the first half of the album, the heavily-manipulated vocals contributing to the sound rather than telling a story. Towards the end, though, we have some more lyrically-driven pieces. In Forest Families we hear a double-edged reflection on a back-to-nature childhood. It also contains a subtler form of the feminist anger which in One Hit is brought to the fore ("It's manhood's bliss / One hit one kiss"), and powerfully combined with a worksong-like call-and-response.

Finally, Still Light brings the album to a gloomy close. The singer, talking to her doctor, is facing the aftermath of -- well, we don't quite know what. A drug binge? A suicide attempt? Specificity would perhaps have detracted from the emotional landscape, which is one of bleakness, combined at the very end with faint hope and the need to continue:Now where is everybody? Is it still light outside?"

Other reviews of Silent Shout:

  • Stylus (Fergal O'Reilly)
  • Adequacy.net (Joe Davenport)
  • Pitchfork

The Knife: Silent Shout

August 8, 2009

Suzy is a niqabi

One of the big political to-and-fros in France this summer is whether the government should ban wearing the burqa. It's a calculating political move by Sarkozy, whose general M.O. has always been to stir up fear and hatred of some already-marginalized social group. Since only 367 Frenchwomen wear the burqa or niqab (love that official precision), this is definitely about principles and politics rather than practicalities.

Needless to say, I'm against banning any kind of clothing. I more-or-less agree with Sam -- or for that matter with Obama, with his "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal". Not out of any particular respect for religions, but because any organization that tells people what to wear leaves me in blood-boiling rage about petty cruelty and closed-mindedness. In my ideal world, Sarkozy's plan would spark a revolt from punks, goths, nudists, transvestites, and every other group that takes continual flak for how they dress. The streets would turn black as subculture kids take to covering their faces in solidarity.

That won't happen. Partly because France doesn't really do subcultures -- a fact which, like this attempt to police clothing, is somewhere connected to the national acceptance of centralised, state-supervised homogeneity. But also because Sarkozy has chosen a victim everybody is willing to join in kicking. Theres the secularism angle, fruit of a longstanding and widespread wariness of Church meddling in politics. There's the feminism angle, with Sarkozy saying that "it isn't a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement", as if the meaning is obvious and universal. Or there are groups like Ni Putes Ni Soumises, putting the same line much more credibly. But below those expressible feelings, there's also a strong undercurrent of fear and hatred of different cultures. As Michelle Goldberg writes:

it's hard for Europeans to talk about [immigration] without seeming racist or xenophobic. The one place where Europeans do feel confident about defending the superiority of their own culture is in sexual matters. Feminism and sexual liberation become tools of nationalism.