Anthropology fail

1 July 2010

Marie Brennan, the author of Doppelganger, Warrior and Witch and the Onyx Court series (and a trained anthropologist), is not very impressed with the representation of her discipline on Bones:

How is she atrocious? Let me count the ways, starting with her lack of people skills. Fieldwork is a fundamental part of cultural anthropology, and the primary component of fieldwork is talking to people. Building a rapport with them. Being a student of what they have to say (rather than lecturing them on what you think), and trying to learn to see things as they do (rather than explaining how their ways of seeing don’t make sense). You have to have patience, and respect for alternate points of view, and a knack for making friends.

None of which sounds like Temperance Brennan.


24 June 2010

This tennis match. This eleven-hour, more-than-a-hundred-game, longer-than-a-Test-match tennis match, that managed to obsess the entire British public apart from me.

Actually, because of work, and football, and those things, I didn’t see a minute of it. By the time I thought I might, Isner had broken Mahut’s serve at last. They’d gone off court with trophies for breaking every endurance record going, before any impresario could suggest they play on into a new kind of dance marathon for the next Depression.

(Isner and Mahut: I’d never seen a photograph of either man before the morning papers on day three. Their surnames make them disappointing in the flesh; they sound like duelling warrior hulks from Steven Erikson fantasies, the pair of them. Though Isner does stand at six feet nine inches tall.)

David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest imagined nearly every surreal thing that could go wrong among the professional tennis players of the near future. Mind-altering drugs. A corporate takeover of the US state whereby each calendar year is sponsored by a brand of groceries. The violence of a separatist insurgency waged from Quebec. The author of a Guardian sports liveblog, Xan Brooks, pictured the evening of the second Isner/Mahut day as a scene of zombie horror:

7.20pm: And so this match goes on and on, on and on. Somewhere along the way, the players have mislaid their names. The man who was once Mahut is now a string-bag of offal. The man who was Isner is a parched piece of cow-hide. The surviving members of the audience don’t seem to care who wins. They just cheer and applaud whoever looks likely to make a breakthrough and bring this nightmare to a close. Invariably they are disappointed.

The offal looks fresher, possesses a piercing backhand and still throws itself about the court on occasion. But the cow-hide can serve and has the advantage of going ahead by one game and forcing the offal to catch-up. This the offal is only too happy to do. It hits a backhand down the line and then follows that up with an ace, and the score now stands at 45 games apiece.

Zombies mashed up with Wimbledon seem to work better than zombies mashed up with Pride and Prejudice. We might regret saying that, of course.


14 June 2010

After the first World Cup weekend, you probably know what one is. The questions have moved on to ‘Is FIFA going to ban them before the World Cup final?’ and ‘How many baby girls are going to be named after it during the next month?’

I’m disconcerted by the honking noise. I’m resisting signing up to all the Facebook groups instructing the president of FIFA where to stick his vuvuzela. I’m afraid I’m probably not watching quite as much live football as I might have done.

Nearly a thousand Guardian readers have already commented on the paper’s latest vuvuzela article. Reading the first few, I wonder whether part of the problem is: vuvuzelas disrupt the genre conventions of what Europeans expect to get out of a football match.

Crowd noise in European football culture ebbs and flows. The chants swell when the attackers approach goal or one person on the pitch offends fifty thousand people’s suddenly-agreed morality. Some teams have their bands – a brass band known to accompany Sheffield Wednesday to every knock-out match; the Dutch equivalent which got stuck on Aida for all of 1998 – but not to the level of this wall of sound. Just going by sound recorded from the crowd, you could timeline the excitements of the match with a fair degree of accuracy. I can read a novel during a boring game, look up whenever the crowd signal I ought to be excited and never miss a beat.

With vuvuzelas blaring start to finish, nothing accompanies a change of pace. It’s like a murder novel with the bodies missing.

Yet: if a team from another and less equal continent came to a tournament in chanting Europe and complained the crowd noise distracted viewers at home, would they be indulged? No? Then we need to shut up about the vuvuzelas.

Besides, how many other stories like the striking, underpaid stadium stewards have we missed because we’re all het up about the plastic horns?

Made for cable

18 May 2010

A weekend afternoon, waiting for a colleague to call who isn’t going to, and therefore not exactly not at work, watching a made-for-cable movie on a foreign channel that has subtitled it into Hungarian. The internet is out so I can’t find out what I’m looking at even if I wanted to.

I’m sure I’m not reacting the way that the creators intended. That’s the same actress who was in Dollhouse, isn’t it? Going by the protagonists’ fashion sense and the range of tasks possible and not possible to carry out online, can I date the making of the film to within a year? And why is an editor at a New York publishing house, setting out to track down an unknown romance novelist, using my mother’s thirty-year-old sugar jars?


16 May 2010

Leaving aside the questions of:

Did anybody need to remake The Poseidon Adventure in the first place?

If every generation has its big sinking boat movie, when did my generation stop being the newest one? (Anyone my age who went to multiple showings of Titanic: you know who you are.)

When will I learn not even to start watching films where everything happens in the dark?

…did they really have to keep the close-up shot that showed the liner had been registered in Southampton? We try to keep up a sense of civic pride, y’know, in a world of mass unemployment and de-industrialisation. It might go a little way towards helping if once, just once, our city appeared on screen in a context that didn’t have to do with hundreds of people drowning in the sea.

Big screen

5 April 2010

The indubitable sign in BBC children’s television dramas when I was growing up that the characters had stepped into the future: a public space or station concourse looking just as you’d remember it, except for the huge flat screen broadcasting some horrifying, worldbuilding, ticker-taping news.

The fast-food kiosks would have their sharpened 1980s logos, not their postmodern rounded cheery ones. The trains would all be run by British Rail. The extras would be incongruously dressed in eighties fashions – or not so incongruously, as it turned out, except that we could hardly have expected the producers to predict that, for a few brief months in springtime 2010, every art student from a university in southern England would want to be Grace Jones.

But there would always be a screen. The time machine had spat our protagonists out just as the Queen died. It was a parallel universe where there was no Queen. Sometimes, for a change, we hadn’t won the Second World War, which meant the trains wouldn’t belong to British Rail after all and their insignia would suddenly seem ominously hooked. Or the screens would be reporting some implausible catastrophe which, to our anxious parents, symbolised nuclear war.

I think they must have come from Blade Runner. We were too young to see it, but it was in our consciousness (I remember an absorbing playground fantasy about an evil corporation called Tyrell), so it must have been in the adult set designers’ all the more.

Then the screens came from somewhere. At first they only occupied the largest public squares for football tournaments or the most popular Proms, anywhere where the audience wouldn’t be complete without people in Union Jack hats waving flags. The screens said Come on England! Come on Tim!

And then they stayed. Every London rail terminal ended up with one, and even certain terminals’ shopping centres. I have to walk under one every time I use Waterloo, Euston or Victoria. The conglomerate that sponsors them is tentacular, Tyrellian enough in itself, and the headlines are as dreadful in their implications (or their banality) as they ought to be if I’d just stepped out of my eighties-issue time machine. I simply fail to notice because I see them every day.

I’m living in the future, which makes one childhood ambition it was ridiculously easy to fulfil. But, when I walk up through the ticket gates, I’m still frightened of what I’m going to see on the big screen. I’m still frightened of the day I’ll crane my neck along with everybody else and look up to the screen to see the Queen has died, or the ice-caps this, or the volcano that. Behind me will be two small self-assured children holding hands, the girl’s hair strangely wavy, the boy’s hair strangely long, the pair both dressed in non-ironic sportswear or their duffel coats.

Now that you can get back from the cinema without having to walk up an icy steep pavementless ring road, I went to see Avatar after all.

Yes, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez are criminally under-used in a script that fails to pass the Bechdel test; yes, a good third of the film is taken up by scenes which seem to have been devised purely to answer the question ‘Daddy [and I’m afraid in our house it usually was Daddy], who wins in the fight between a dinosaur and a mecha?’; yes, there’s an occasional resemblance to that Russian ice dance act that outraged Australian Aboriginal leaders this week.

Mostly, I want to know whether they really expect us to buy the extended DVD just to find out what happened to Jake’s first forgotten-about dragon…