Monday, 13 May 2013

Context is not a myth: Stewart Lee's "Carpet Remnant World", Tim Maughan's "Havana Augmented" and notions of society

I've been talking a lot recently about the values that writers impose on the stories they tell and what effect that has on the story, and I realise that part of my obsession with this idea comes not from narrative fiction but from stand-up comedy. Exploring the notion of idealised societies and how we behave in collective groups is a theme that runs through Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World, a two hour comedy routine in which Lee, in character, attempts to tackle a serious issue but serially fails to develop the idea in a coherent way because he's constantly being distracted by the day to day problems of touring and looking after a small child (no clips, you need to watch the whole thing for it to make any sense at all).

But idealised notions of society are what writers in the realm of speculative fiction are all dealing with. What makes these visions utopian or dystopian is how humans collectively behave within those societies. In Carpet Remnant World, Lee gives us a few examples taken from the news, juxtaposing the hysterical, vengeance-fuelled celebrations of some Americans on the death of Osama Bin Laden with some observations on the religious rules of islamic societies. He roves around British prime minister David Cameron's idea of the "big society", the degeneration of the postwar social fabric under Thatcher (via the framing devide of an imaginary Scooby Doo movie), the shifting nature of development and regeneration of urban spaces, the effects of social media, in particular Twitter, and then finally, the more fantastical and abstract ideas represented by the titular "Carpet Remnant World". Within a lot of this are the questions what does this society or social structure stand for, and what does our behaviour within that social space say about us and how well we uphold those supposed values?

The problem with some of these films and stories like 300 and King Arthur that I've been talking about recently is that the values are pasted on, out of context and there is an internal contradiction between the stated values (i.e. freedom) and the behaviour we're actually presented with (often despotic) when a more interesting story would be to look at what you actually have and show us a bit about why those people are willing to fight for it.

A good example of a story that grapples with this is the story Havana Augmented by British writer Tim Maughan. The story is set in a Cuba that is even more than now a socialist island in a sea of free market capitalism. Freedom is still an issue here, as it is in the two other stories that accompany it in the Paintwork collection, but the implications of that freedom are more clearly explored. The kind of freedom Maughan is interested in manifests itself in the ownership of public space, something the kids in Havana Augmented engage with with their AR robot street battle games (and which the characters of Paintwork deal with via street art -- the other story, Paparazzi, looks at the romanticisation of medieval fantasy and reminds the reader of whose backs the freedoms of the privileged few are built on). Rather than simply being a battle against the communist establishment for the kids' right to, y'know, have fun'n'that, Maughan instead looks at how commercial entities exploit kids like his heroes in ways that are damaging to the wider fabric of society. Crucially, the protagonists of Havana Augmented reach the culmination of their arc not by embracing some nebulous notion of freedom, but by thinking in tune with their environment -- not just by their local knowledge of the battlefield, but by thinking like Cubans, protecting their shared values against an invading ideology that comes wrapped in the flag of liberty but promises only a new kind of subjugation.

In a larger and less benign scale, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl pulls off a similar trick of getting int the mindset of a different culture and making decisions they make that run contrary to our own established way of thinking seem internally consistent and understandable. Having the larger canvas of a full novel to work with, he's able to draw more fully on the environmental and political world in which his characters live in order to sculpt their actions and reactions.

As I've said before, it's thrilling to be able to read something and see a person act in a completely alien way to your own way of thinking, yet at the same time have that decision completely logical. Speculative fiction is all about this kind of thing, but you see it just as much in contemporary drama that deals with cultures that you are unfamiliar with. The Wire is an excellent drama for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it presents you with characters behaving in horrendous ways but every one of them is scrupulously logical, and more often than not, David Simon & co. have a parallel example of the same logic in play in a different, perhaps more familiar arena. The viewer is never let off the hook.

Where foreign drama doesn't work, something similar is often at play. I often found myself baffled by the behaviour of characters in the Hong Kong films I used to watch as a teenager, because they were acting according to Chinese cultural conventions that had no traction in the West. Chinese audiences were clearly expected to understand this as natural, but the film gave me no context to understand it. The scriptwriter wasn't making allowances for outsiders, and looking back, this made me doubly conscious of the way American films presuppose American values without giving them context, especially given that American cultural products are made with the expectation of international consumption (something Asian works often aren't). Waving the word "freedom" in people's faces without giving them an idea of what that freedom is meant to mean is just as nonsensical as waving Japan-centric notions like honne & tatemae in someone's face and expecting them to get it immediately.

It's not impossible though. All cultures understand freedom, although they might have different notions of what it means, and the contrast between one's true feelings and the face you wear in public is far from unique to Japan. Cultural notions are often slippery, but there are usually ways into them if contextualised sensitively.

This idea of sensitivity is one that Stewart Lee returns to at the end of Carpet Remnant World. Given that he has spent the whole of his two hour show deliberately sabotaging his own attempts to discuss the concepts of idealised societies, he indirectly (and probably unintentionally -- Lee would perhaps shy away from such a trite observation) makes the point that all societies are imperfect, and his failure to discuss it in a coherent way is simply an echo of that. Against a utopian cityscape composed of rolled carpets of varying sizes, he delivers the line: "a ragbag of seemingly disparate and unrelated items, people, concepts, things, can, if stitched together in the correct order with an degree of sensitivity, give the impression of being a satisfying whole." And in a way, what Lee has done with his comedy show is the same as what a good speculative fiction writer would do. He's taken no concept for granted, he's broken down every idea into its constituent parts and left you with no room for lazy assumptions, and at the same time, by showing us the "Carpet Remnant World" in which his character lives, he's made sure that this arrogant, neurotic comedian living in fear of his own death (or worse, irrelevance) now not only makes sense to us but commands our sympathy.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

King Arthur, 300, and freedom

Last night I watched two terrible films that were both interesting in a similar way. Zack Snyder's adaptation of popular reactionary bigot Frank Miller's comic book 300 was an objectively horrible film, but managed to turn out the better of the two by virtue of its sheer stylised, exaggerated grotesqueness and audacity. The trees made of dead bodies, the utterly ridiculous depiction of Persian emperor Xerxes as a towering, growly voiced, extravagantly pierced monster, the way the Spartan soldiers insist on doing all their fighting in their pants, the better to show off their immaculately sculpted pecs, all these aspects place the film in a realm beyond any need for even the illusion of reality. The claustrophobic chromakey backdrops and humourless, pretentious, childish dialogue are no better for being in such a context, but at least they have a context. They fit into some sort of overarching framework of poor artistic decisions and are piece with the flawed whole.

What's interesting about 300 is the way the conflict is constantly pitched as one between freedom and tyranny, with King Leonidas and the Spartans depicted as defenders of liberty and Xerxes and the Persians as dusky invaders. However, loudly and frequently as the Spartans may claim freedom as their goal, the image of freedom Frank Miller creates looks suspiciously like fascism. The Spartans are a military people, with the structure of the army the only social unit depicted as pure. The political machinations of democracy or something like it (Sparta was an oligarchy, strictly speaking) in the form of Dominic "Detective McNulty" West's Theron, a character absent from Miller's original comic, is shown as irreparably corrupt, in a way that only the swift justice of the blade can cleanse. In many ways, the Sparta of 300 is very similar to the militaristic world of Starship Troopers, with citizenship conferred as a reward for military service and women taking a more active role in society. However, where a master satirist like Paul Verhoeven was able to turn Robert Heinlein's moral world on its head, a screen stylist like Zack Snyder can only polish Miller's essentially fascist tale into a shinier, more crystalline form of its own fascism.

This is where Frank Miller probably deserves to be given a bit of leeway, because while he's clearly a reactionary bigot, he's not an outright nazi. He's aware of the contradiction between the fascism inherent in Spartan society and the notion (advanced by Diodorus) that they were defending freedom, and like any good writer, he finds that contradiction interesting. Unfortunately, while Frank Miller is an excellent artist, he isn't a good writer. He's a little boy whose love of bold moral generalisations and heroic posturing overwhelms his ability to explore moral ambiguities, and the movie production only simplifies it further.

The 2004 film King Arthur comes from the stable of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a man whose cinematic oeuvre has never knowingly overcomplicated an idea where slam-the-audience-in-the-face-with-an-iron simplicity is an available option, and like 300, it's a horrible film with something strangely out of place to say about freedom.

Again there's an appalling script, which serves to undermine the efforts of most of the cast -- Clive Owen as Arthur is particularly hamstrung by the quality of the lines he's expected to deliver, although Stellan Skarsgard as the psychotic, racist leader of the Saxon invaders steals the film. The infantile script does serve one function though, which is that also like 300, it underlines the simplistic message of freedom that the film wants to push. In fact, even more so than 300, it underlines the message, scratches it out in bold and highlights it in fluorescent marker pen. Arthur's men are fighting for their own freedom from their indenture to the Roman army, and as the film progresses, Arthur comes to see his fight as one for the freedom of all Britons from both the departing Roman occupiers and the invading Saxon hordes.

Another similarity with 300 is the depiction of Kiera Knightley's Guinevere, like Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo, as a strong, active woman, willing to fight for her land. In Hollywood nowadays, women can't be damsels in distress, and the Celts and Picts seem to have had their fair share of warrior queens from which her role could be mined. In fact, the historical accuracy of the story is one point where King Arthur gives a fair shake. The setting of the story around Hadrian's Wall may not have been accurate -- the location of the Battle of Badon Hill is unknown and has been identified with anywhere from Scotland to Bath -- but the general situation described by the film, featuring conflict between Romano-Celts, Picts and Saxons is more or less as it happened, and if any Arthur figure ever really did exist, it's in this world that he probably would have lived.

Also, here, as in 300, the notion of freedom is delivered directly through the dialogue, as if speaking directly to the audience, without context, and without any notion of what this freedom actually entails. Arthur is a soldier of an occupying military power, and his devotion to the teachings of Pelagius aside, the Roman Empire was hardly an upstanding model of freedom (a point, to be fair, that the film tries to make further down the line, but it's nevertheless hard to imagine how Arthur could be surprised by this revelation). The Saxons are defeated and Arthur, a military commander, is simply declared king of the Britons, so what is this freedom that is being spoken of? Freedom to be ruled by one king rather than another? What King Arthur is really about is nationalism, another relatively modern idea that the filmmakers have decided to pin on the Arthur legend.

In both films, there's something terribly jarring about hearing the language of Western notions of freedom in the mouths of people who would likely have seen those notions in very different terms, if they had understood them at all. The way that both films are so direct in how they articulate these ideas of freedom and liberty is also interesting. The contemporary Western concept of liberty is delivered as something so natural to these people that no possible disagreement is even considered except from the mouths of tyrants. It seems like a neurotic response from Hollywood to the shaken certainties post-9/11 of America's role as a beacon of liberty, or maybe the malaise goes back even further, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the loss of the tyrannical "evil empire" of the Soviet Union for America to define itself against. In either case, it's hard to see a Hollywood film of the 1950s delivering such a stern lecture on freedom to its viewers. Epics like Spartacus, Ben Hur and El Cid (I nearly added the explicitly propagandist 1944 Henry V to this list, although it benefitted from having a scriptwriter of rather higher calibre) all dealt with similar conflicts, but didn't feel the same need to shout their message into the audience's faces. For all its historical inaccuracies, Hollywood used to know how to have fun.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Abenomics and the nuclear debate

When the nuclear power plant in Fukushima started to go into meltdown after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, something strange started to happen to people. Men and women who had never before in their life thought about nuclear power except in the wooliest of terms (and I count myself among them) suddenly became experts, scouring the news media, Wikipedia, and whatever they could find on Google for information, and words like microsievert, bequerel and caesium 137 entered the daily vocabulary of millions of people looking for something to explain the crisis, reassure them, or simply justify their reaction.

It didn't really help though, and rather than illuminating the discourse, these words, facts, and often non-facts, became weapons in a dispute between people whose positions as proponents or opponents of nuclear power were already fixed. Here in Japan, it took on a more personal dimension, as a person's fear or faith became an identifying mark, a litmus test providing a window into a person's moral character, science as a set of dueling swords to be wielded in support of the most emotional, unscientific motivations.

And with the recently elected Liberal Democratic Party's economic policy, we're seeing a similar, if less widespread thing. Like the nuclear crisis, the post-2008 global economic crisis has started to make experts of all sorts of people for similar reasons, as they seek explanation or just to bolster their emotional prejudices. It may not be as dramatic as a nuclear meltdown, but terms like quantitative easing, expansionary austerity, and liquidity trap, with which few people pre-crisis would have had more than a passing familiarity, became far more commonplace.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sweeping changes to the nation's economic policy, encapsulated in the ugly and misleading compound term "Abenomics" have acted as a lightning rod for comment in a similar way to the nuclear crisis. An article from Reuters on April 29th collected a number of criticisms, ranging from the wise-sounding but ultimately meaningless statement that "there are no simple solutions or shortcuts" to the utterly bizarre remarks by former finance minister Kaoru Yosano that, "Since ancient Greece and Rome, most policies that excited people ended in failure. The fact that people are pleased and in a festive mood seems to prove this policy won't work."

One of the catchiest soundbites to come out of the article was Yuuki Sakurai of Fukoku Capital Management's claim that Bank of Japan policy was like "shooting a sparrow with a cannon." It's a nice image, and again it sounds wise, although comparing an economic slump now more than twenty years long with a sparrow might seem to some to rather underestimate the scale of the actions required to deal with Japan's economic woes. In a way though, as with the nuclear power argument, its the debate over Abenomics that is what's really trying to hit a sparrow with a cannon.

There are apparently some claiming that it's the magic bullet to solve all Japan's economic problems (I have yet to see any evidence that this is anything other than a straw man used by critics, although it's probably fair to say that within the LDP, there will be party shills willing to parrot this line) and there are certainly many who seem implacably opposed to Abenomics in its entirety, and its within these arguments that the scalpel rather than the cannon needs to be employed.

First, what does Abenomics promise? Well, primarily, it seems to be a plan by the bank of Japan to target higher inflation rates and expand the monetary base, combined with promises of greater public investment. In theory, and economists like Martin Wolf at The Financial Times and Paul Krugman at The New York Times have been calling for policies like these for a long time, this combination of higher inflation and greater public investment, if sustained credibly, should be able to stimulate demand put the economy back on a growth track without resulting in catastrophic hyperinflation or Greece-style debt disaster. There's nothing intrinsically new in it, since the policies basically conform to the Keynsian IS-LM economic model that has been a pretty accurate predictor of economic events since the crisis (and this is why I say "Abenomics" is a misnomer), but it's certainly a big step by a major economy in the current climate.

So what doesn't it promise? Well, for a start, inflation targeting can only work if investors trust the Bank of Japan to continue its expansionary monetary policy until growth is well underway, something previous BOJ chairmen have consistently failed to do. Despite current chairman Kuroda's insistence that he will do what takes, it might fail if people simply don't believe him. Also, the policy has nothing to say about how the fiscal stimulus will be targeted. It's widely suspected that Abe's government will use it like a bribe to bolster their position in key electoral areas, and to put money in the pockets of their friends. In macroeconomic terms, this shouldn't matter to the overall economy, but individually, region by region, worker by worker, this is important. Also, there are issues like the increase in sales tax, which may stimulate consumption in the short run, but which is a regressive tax that will hurt the poor more than the well-off. And then there's the vague sounding promises of "structural reform," which is so often a buzzword for relaxing environmental regulations and limiting employment rights, especially in view of the recent praise Abe has heaped on Margaret Thatcher.

Abenomics also has nothing to say on the biggest problem facing Japan's economy, namely the growing shortage of Japanese. Without a sudden boost to the birthrate (not going to happen) or a more relaxed attitude to immigration, the Japanese economy is on a long term relative downward trend. More can be done to maximise the participation of women in the workplace, something that all parties claim to support, but concrete action on which is rarely forthcoming, but in the end, immigration is the elephant in the room.

Just as the nuclear debate turned into a binary for or against slanging match, leading to important discussions of the extent and enforcement of safety regulations, the unhealthy way energy companies, government and media are intertwined, and Japan's commitment to the longer term fight against global warming being lost, discussion of Abenomics is so often depressingly black and white, obscuring the real issues surrounding its execution and longer term economic policy.