The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler is, even by Chandler standards, highly revered. As well as being his longest Phillip Marlowe novel, it’s also the most fatalistic, the most world-wearied, the most introspective and the most cynical.

Marlowe, the archetypical post-depression era private eye (and vehicle for Humphrey Bogart’s illustrious career as the smooth-talking, womanising, gun-toting detective) is in rare form here. He is cunning and yet optimistic. He knows when to wax lyrical, and he knows when to keep his trap shut. In this day and age it may be harder to believe that women may respond to his gruff manner, constant rebuffs and infinite cynicism by unfastening their bathrobes, but believe it or not, there is an element of romance in Chandler’s writing. It’s not all fast talking and high trousers. As the web of lies and scandal spins itself around him, Marlowe becomes involved in an ever- tenuous struggle to keep his own cool, to hold on to his standards and of course to keep doing his job. It may not be glamorous work, but for Marlowe it seems that in an increasingly fractured society, the private eye beat is the only yardstick by which he can measure his own morality; by remaining honest whilst digging to the deepest recesses of the most corrupt and sordid of characters, Marlowe seeks his own redemption more than that of his misdirected clientele. He knows better than to assume that the coyer the smile, the more innocent the girl.

I guess that leads to my only real criticism of The Long Goodbye; Marlowe himself is often prone to the kind of sentimentality that is incongruous with the sordid line of business he is in. I doubt anybody charging twenty-five dollars per day would repeatedly stick his neck out to such dangerous lengths in order to adhere to some unspoken moral code. He is, at heart, too optimistic to be believable, when his worldview is so sharply cynical and fatalistic. I suppose in that sense you could argue that his optimism acts as a counterbalance and thus a plot device to propel the story – a lesser man would either get dead or give up, and then there’d be no story to tell. Marlowe, and indeed Chandler, don’t necessarily adhere to the adage that “the tragedy of life … is not that the beautiful things die young, but that they grow old and mean,” sage wisdom though it may be.

The violence in Chandler, unlike, say, Hammett, is brief, often takes place behind closed doors or just barely within earshot, and is over in a matter of a few lines. Hammett prefers the dynamic, protracted kind of action sequences, characterised by lots of sneaking around, silent pursuits, foot chases and noisy, bloody gunfights that often result in less people living than dying. On the contrary, more often than not Marlowe just happens upon violence. Indeed, the novel’s most violent moment comes very early on, and the remaining 400 pages sometimes seem like they are, to use the author’s own words, recovering from that one big hangover.

With the violence out of the way early, it allows Chandler and Marlowe room to take their time. Despite the novel’s length, there are days where he does little more than visit a bar and pick up a newspaper; there are extended sequences where he spends time following the faintest of scents in the hope of uncovering some unlikely connection that will link itself to the case. In many ways its languid mood is a reflection of the heat of the Californian summer, and of course this sultry atmosphere is as much a character in Chandler’s writing as Marlowe himself. The measured pacing and heavy atmosphere allow for a lot of reflection, a lot of dialogue and a lot of commentary. Chapters often end abruptly with sarcastic quips such as “[c]ops never say goodbye. They’re always hoping to see you again in the line-up,” but they usually come just as Marlowe has reached the end of his patience, or has had a little too much to drink. After all, what would the hard-boiled genre be without a resigned fatalism? Marlowe is a loner. The nights that he doesn’t spend alone are spent sprawled out drunk one somebody’s couch, for instance, or in resigned talks with marked men who are not long for this world. Under these circumstances it’s understandable that Marlowe would become jaded. Chandler was writing at the pinnacle of Hollywood’s decadence and depravity; before gangs and poverty infiltrated and when rich socialites legitimately ruled the roost, not corporations. There are class struggles aplenty and it’s clear that no amount of refined manners can cover up the inherent flaws in the imaginations of the upper-class. Chandler is a working class author for a working class audience who makes no secret of his disdain for extravagant tastes and lifestyles.

Of course, with The Long Goodbye, Chandler not only proves himself a master of prose but also of plotting. It may seem that all the dead ends and cold trails are all tied-up nice and neat with a little pink bow on top, until we are forced to reflect deeply on the fates of all the characters in the book’s final pages. What was long since dead and buried may just resurface; likewise the glimmers of optimism gradually flicker out. There is a deep sadness embedded within these pages, between all the sharp wit and criticism, and in many ways the title of the novel itself suggests what is to come – a protracted, heart-wrenching outward sigh that can indeed only end in one very particular way.

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phoned in

January 19, 2011

Music-wise, 2010 saw the high-bandwidth/lo-fidelity indie revolution come full-circle. Just when you thought it was safe to admit to liking a few bands that had cracked the mainstream, indie kids thought the most appropriate course of action would be to start making music so unlistenable that simply to be able to tolerate it for the length of one (90-second) song indicated either an existence on a higher astral plane of musical enlightenment, or (more likely) a rejection of the convention of music itself, in any given scene, and a subscription to nothing more than painful self-effacement in order to prove some kind of anti-establishment political stance, like hippies who chain themselves to trees and defecate in their pants, or more appropriately, that god-awful “interior semiotics” video that went viral. Their only raison d’etre would be to serve as secret handshakes for entry into the indie elite.

Last year, liking bands that had only ever played one show, under a tarpaulin strung up beside some friend of the band’s step-dad’s caravan, in front of nine fans, and had the show bootlegged off a mobile phone recording onto a series of twelve hand-labelled cassette tapes, and then broke up because they felt they had already sold out too much, so they dispersed and then congealed into six separate side-projects (two each)…liking those kinds of bands became not only cool again, but a necessary requirement for having your opinions cared about.

The highlight and culmination of my year in music was probably when I met that one-man-band Duck Tails in Tokyo, who had just come off playing some shows in Melbourne. I asked him where he played and which bands he played with, and I hadn’t heard of any them. He did compliment me on my jacket, though, which I guess is validation enough for me.

Well, the anti-bourgeois battle plan kinda backfired. Sucks to your assmar, Duck Tails. Pitchfork decreed that bands like No Age and Beach House be unleashed upon the world, and that they be loved, and the ever-reliable legion of blog trolls played along, saturating my beloved internet with wave after Wavve of shitty repetitive lo-fi three-chord noise. The irony, of course, is that it’s now cliche to be into those very bands who were only forced into existence to try to avoid getting fans in the first place.

Luckily a few sage hands showed up to save the day. Here is a brief list of some of my favourites from last year.

best albums of 2010

The Gamits – Parts (click to stream entire album)

It’s fitting that my album of the year is also the biggest surprise, best throwback album, and comeback album of the year. The Gamits have proven once and for all the validity of modern pop punk. This album is gritty, heavy, catchy, but most importantly, it’s meaningful; here is a band that was pushed into obscurity when pop-punk and emo took off on a worldwide scale, and years down the track they have reformed and released a deeply personal, punishing, haunting album that blows away everything they did in the past (which was already very good in it’s own right). It flew under the radar when it was released, and I think The Gamits would almost prefer it that way, because Parts is a huge middle-finger to what pop music has become over the last few years. Put your prejudices aside and give this album an honest go – I doubt you will be disappointed.

The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

I almost stumbled on this one, yet there’s something about The Wild Hunt that came to define the first part of 2010 for me. You will either love his voice or hate it, but there’s no denying this kind of songwriting. There is a starkness to most of the lyrics and they carry an elemental preoccupation, rife with references to weather and landscapes; everything seems very personal, but at the same time it’s hard to pin down. Of course it also helps that Kristian Mattson is also a damn fine geetar player.

Tame Impala – InnerSpeaker

I feel like a dork for including this, but these guys put together one dreamy, breezy album so free of pretension you will forget what year it is.

Robyn – Body Talk

Swedish pop with attitude, enough said.

Miami Horror – Illumination

The latter half of this album isn’t nearly as engaging as the first, but Miami Horror deserve praise for taking some brave steps away from big-beat electro on their debut album. Singles ‘I Look to You,’ and ‘Holidays’ easily take their places among the best Aussie tracks of 2010.

Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People EP

Sufjan at his elaborate, intimate best; despite it’s extraordinary running time, this EP is remarkably cohesive and melodic, which is a first for him.

The National – High Violet

Like all their albums, High Violet is a slow-burner and one that takes a good while to sink in. It goes without saying, but The National are deceptively complex and reward repeated listens, and High Violet is no different.

The Walkmen – Lisbon

Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

Ellie Goulding – Lights

Chromeo – Business Casual

Editor’s note: Chromeo and Ellie Goulding both also qualify as 2010’s biggest guilty pleasures.

Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring

None More Black – Icons

best songs of 2010

Bag Raiders – Sunlight

Miami Horror – Holidays

Good Shoes – The Way My Heart Beats

Sufan Stevens – Enchanting Ghost

Tokyo Police Club – Favourite Colour

Marina & the Diamonds – Are You Satisfied?

Yeasayer – ONE

The Walkmen – Angela Surf City

Kanye West (feat. everyone) – Monster (Nicki Minaj’s verse is the defining musical moment of 2010.)

Broken Bells – The High Road

Ellie Goulding – Your Biggest Mistake

biggest disappointments

Foals – Total Life Forever (This band’s main appeal to me was the feeling like each of their songs was the result of some mathematical equation designed for maximum tautness and efficiency. It was a world where emotions were simply not allowed. They were about as cold and detached as any rock band could possibly be. With their second album they went for a roomier and more atmospheric sound which is at odds with their cool stoicism. The result? Yawn.)

Bag Raiders (It sucks that the best track on this album is still ‘Shooting Star.’ A few others come close, but most of the album doesn’t make any impression. And what is up with that one track, ‘Always?’ That one sounds like it should be the aural accompaniment  to a Salt’n’Pepa video clip or something, featuring the worst key change and the worst lyrics released by any respectable group in 2010. Truly, truly awful.)

i just don’t get it

Sleigh Bells (The only difference between this band and a bunch of autistic 6 year-olds is that Sleigh Bells have a drum machine to make sure they keep in time.)

The Drums (Is this supposed to be cute or something? This is the musical equivalent of an ankle-high Scottish terrier that just doesn’t shut the fuck up.)

Caribou (One or two atmospheric and groovy tracks doesn’t mean anybody should give a shit. Most overrated crap of the year.)

Klaxons (They were shit back in 2006 and they have somehow gotten worse without changing a god damn thing.)

ok, you got me

The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (This album is actually pretty great.)

favourite remixes of the year

Now, I’m not pretending like I’m some expert on this kind of stuff. Alls I know is, these tracks feature some of the most insane beats you are likely to encounter and they will no doubt feature prominently when I start making my “special DJ set” appearances in 2011.

Muscles – Sweaty (Shazam remix)

Miike Snow – Black and Blue (NAPT remix)

Marina and the Diamonds – I Am Not a Robot (Passion Pit remix)

Cut Copy – Lights and Music (Moulinex Remix)

most anticipated

Bayside

Iron & Wine

Cut Copy

Kimbra

Tellison

special feature: best inexplicable cover of the year

This kid took yet another GaGa abomination and not only turned it into an actual song, but a fucking emotional roller coaster that will make your hairs stand on end.

So that’s it. I’m sure I’ve missed lots. I’m always open for suggestions so do let me know about my glaring omissions. I might post a “part two” of sorts wherein I talk about films and television and the likes, but then again, I might not. Until next time!

the chicken or the egg

October 7, 2010

Recently, after seeing some films like The Road and the powerful documentary Collapse, I found my mind to be more and more concerned with the issue of sustainability.

Have you ever paused in the supermarket, taken a step back and observed all the other consumers around you, and asked youself, ‘where does all this shit come from?’ The walls are stacked high around you with processed, brightly packaged and accessible foods, which are all mostly anonymous (product names often help to obscure the ingredients of what you are eating to a point of utter irrelevance; could any of you tell me the main ingredients in a can of Coke?), appetising and yet tantalisingly affordable.

Take one example; a box of corn flakes, one of the more innocuous staples of any given supermarket. Let’s say the supermarket you are currently standing in has twelve boxes on the shelf. And in the storeroom out the back they have another forty or so. Then in the next supermarket down the road they have a similar amount. So already we are talking about a hundred or so unopened boxes serving a radius of a couple of kilometres at most. This is obviously a highly conservative guess, based on the assumption that there are only two supermarkets in your town. And that is to say nothing of all the half-empty boxes sitting on your (and your neighbours’) shelves.

If an average box is 500g, then in the supermarkets alone we have at least 50kg of dried corn sitting around. Where does all this corn come from? To create this small amount alone would require a pretty decent patch of land.

So first, the land needs to be tilled, the corn planted, and eventually harvested. This is more than likely done by machine, a machine which was manufactured in a completely different place and then transported to the farm at a huge, irreversible environmental cost. Then you must transport this corn to a processing plant (more machines), where it is dried (artificially to increase production) and rolled into flakes by, yep, even more massive machines.

Meanwhile, somewhere else, plastic bags are being made by the millions to hold these little buggers. And there is yet another huge factory dedicated to making boxes, and another dedicated to printing the bright colourful labels. Then, of course, all these components need to be taken to the same place and ‘assembled,’ that is, the corn flakes put into bags, the bags sealed, the boxes folded, the bags inserted, the bags glued shut, and finally, stacked by the tens of thousands onto a vehicle and taken to a distribution warehouse somewhere. There are dozens of massive, heavy machines involved, huge amounts of land, at least four enormous factories, and finally a huge amount of manpower involved just to make sure those crunchy little pellets end up in a correctly labelled carton.

All this for a box of corn flakes.

Then extrapolate these numbers for every single product on the shelves in any given supermarket. I ask again; where does all this shit come from? And what if it were to suddenly disappear?

I first began to ask myself these questions long before I ever saw a movie like The Road. When I started travelling, and visiting grocers and supermarkets in other countries, I was most immediately struck by the similarities more than the differences. Supermarkets are more or less uniform across the entire developed world, with similar price points (comparatively) and similar amounts of stock on their shelves relative to the area they serve.

Admittedly, the population of the ‘developed world’ is dwarfed by those living in poverty or near-poverty without luxuries like supermarkets. Yet proportionately, it is no secret that we as consumers are all taking way more than we are giving back. We all eat an obscene amount of food, and a huge majority of it comes from supermarkets.

What would happen to us if it was all gone?

If we need such huge areas of land to produce that small number of boxes of corn flakes, I dare you to even try to imagine the total amount of land on the planet that is dedicated to making sure our supermarket shelves are constantly stacked high.

If the huge amounts of farmland and other resources required to mass-produce corn flakes, Coke, instant noodles, cooking oil, beer and wine, fruit juice, Mars Bars, whatever, became overloaded and unsustainable, the spill-over effects would likely reduce the efficiency and affordability of supermarkets across entire regions. Eventually, they would cease to be viable, and they would cease to operate. And then, what would you do for food? Does anybody under the age of thirty, living in an urbanised area, know how to grow, harvest and prepare their own food? Personally, I can’t even keep a small bonsai alive for longer than six months. Imagine if we all had to start raising livestock.

These are the feelings I am overcome with when I take a moment to myself at the supermarket. Where does it all come from, and how can there be so much of it without it ever running out?

Overwhelmingly, my thoughts were not with the corn flakes, or the Coca Cola, or even the Pringles or Mars Bars. They were with the meat products. Since these are the freshest products in the supermarket, and since they represent such a huge proportion of our diets, their turnover is orders of magnitude greater than any other product on the shelves.

More significantly, their environmental cost is greater than any other product you can find in the supermarket. And, not insignificantly, the greatest disparity is with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that the Japanese don’t eat much fresh produce. The country is barely bigger than Victoria yet they have nearly 130 million people squeezed in. Most of the places without people are utterly inhabitable. So, where are they gonna grow their apples and oranges? The prices of fresh fruit and vegetables are extortionate, and I frequently get angry that I can’t justify the cost of up to $2 or $3 dollars for an apple or orange.

 

The Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. This does NOT exist in Japan.

 

This is a major reason why my diet, since being in Japan, has gone from ‘not ideal’ to flat-out ‘unhealthy’ over the course of the last two years. I have been irresponsible and more or less lazy in what I eat, whether I am preparing it myself or ordering at a restaurant. But even as a meat eater, I’m constantly shocked and confused at the ubiquity of meat over here. Fast foot outlets routinely advertise portions that come with ‘double the normal amount of meat,’ and it’s not uncommon to encounter items on a menu with not just one, not two, but three or four different kinds of meat on the one plate. This obviously doesn’t sound healthy, and to me, it doesn’t even sound appetising. I don’t think my concerns about eating meat are entirely new, but like so many others, I chose not to think too carefully about them. Everything runs more smoothly that way; grocery shopping and social occasions are just two of the more obvious examples. As some of my friends over here have demonstrated, a diet without meat in Japan is possible, but it’s not exactly easy.

While I had heard bits and pieces of the environmental impact of factory farming, reading Eating Animals helped me to reconcile my suspicions about the ridiculous amount of resources it costs to put cheap meat on your supermarket shelves. Moreover, though, it helped me to align these suspicions about the environment with the very real issue of animal suffering, and see them as equal parts of one huge problem. As a humble consumer, thinking about that stuff is icky and awkward, and more than a little abstracted. How could your juicy fillet of meat have ever had eyes, ears, an imagination, relationships?

Of course, no book of this nature could be completely free of sentimentality. After all, the whole thing is kind of a personal journey for Jonathan Safran Foer, undertaken for the deeply personal reasons of deciding for himself what to feed his son. And any discussion of animal welfare or animal rights is routinely criticised (and often flatly dismissed) for its sentimentality, so I will not be the special exception and pretend that my interest in this subject is wholly environmental or economical. Reading the various accounts of animal abuse at factory farms in Eating Animals – and then discovering their alarming regularity – is confronting, and impossible to ignore.

Safran Foer’s writing is not as quirky or as humorous as in his other (fiction) works, and frankly, it need not be. The material doesn’t call for it. But it is economical, and lets the facts speak for themselves. I did not feel like I was being preached to, and indeed a large part of the book is dedicated to some of the few remaining ‘honourable’ farmers, who still slaughter animals but do it with a measure of dignity that is rapidly disappearing from the Western world. It’s easy to read, insofar as the language is easy to understand. Yet this will probably live on beyond his first two novels as the book that both made the greatest cultural impact and cemented Foer’s reputation as an important modern writer. It’s part memoir, part personal oath, part love story and part scathing expose.

There will come a time where the kinds of farms we rely upon to keep our supermarkets brimming are no longer viable. Simply pausing and observing the shoppers in your local supermarket and all the unnecessary consumption going on around you will convince you of this. If you have ever stopped to consider where all your food comes from, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I don’t think I can continue to eat the meat served up in restaurants and supermarkets knowing the environmental toll it has taken and the suffering that it represents. And this is to say nothing, really, of the unhealthy lifestyle I have found myself sliding into since coming to Japan, where awareness of environmental issues and respect for different cultures and lifestyle choices is so low (how many times have you heard of someone in Japan asking for a vegetarian meal, only to be served up something with bacon or fish in it?).

I don’t want to make empty promises, and I’ve also tried not to get caught up rhetoric, both when I was reading the book and as I was writing this blog. But I can’t, in good conscience, keep living the way I have been living. At the very least, I need to be more responsible with what I eat. I’ve always prided myself on getting things done, even the ugly things, the hard things, the things that need doing. I guess this is another one of those times, maybe the first I’ve come across since moving over here, and it’s going to be one of the hard things, but this is something that I’ve suspected for a while and something that I feel I need to sincerely try.

So long.

sugar high

January 24, 2010

Oh yeah. One of those moods again. Time for the best and worst of 2009! I wasn’t nearly as tuned-in this year as I have been, owing mainly to my geographical and cultural displacement, but make no mistake, everything on this list is worthy of your attention. On with the show!

best albums

Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another

Bertie Blackman – Secrets and Lies

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix (Predictable, but come on.)

Propagandhi – Supporting Caste

Built to Spill – There is no Enemy

Mariachi el Bronx

A Wilhelm Scream EP


best singles

Bag Raiders – Shooting Star (This one actually first surfaced in 2008 but was hands-down the breakout incredible single of the year. Pure euphoric pop bliss. Watch out for Bag Raiders running away with the crown of Aussie electro/pop in 2010 when their album drops.)

80kidz – Frankie

Bertie Blackman – Byrds of Prey

Perfume – Kiss and Music
(Warning: cute Japanese girls.)

Phoenix – 1901


Passion Pit – Little Secrets


Paramore – Ignorance


Polar Bear Club – Living Saints


Propagandhi – Supporting Caste
(Arguably the hardest-rockin’, smackest-talkin’ track of the year.)

A Wilhelm Scream – Bulletproof Tiger
(On second thoughts, this one is the hardest rockin’.)

Mariachi el Bronx – Litigation


Future of the Left – Arming Eritrea


The Maccabees  – Kiss and Resolve


best albums not released in 2009

The Matches – Decomposer (What an album. Bursting with wit and creativity, unlike anything else in the genre and still sounding totally fresh.)

Bodyjar – How it Works

Frank Sinatra and Count Basie – Live at The Sands (Peerless.)

The Fire Theft – S/T

I am the Avalanche – S/T


best discoveries

Bertie Blackman

Perfume (Pitch-perfect electro-charged J-pop.)

The Benevento/Russo Duo

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings


biggest disappointments

Paramore – Brand New Eyes (The best one-two opening punch of the year besides Phoenix quickly degenerates into boring, predictable soft rock a la Green Day. Snore.)

meWithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright (Supremely accomplished, sophisticated album, but after Brother/Sister, I was hoping for a punishing, challenging listen, which this definitely isn’t.)

Blakroc – S/T (Lazy rhymes and half-arsed beats from the Black Keys. Shame.)

Maxïmo Park – Quicken the Heart (A lazy album from a band that needed to step up to be counted.)

The Maccabees – Kiss and Resolve (Despite a few highlights, here’s another case of a band on the brink that played it way too safe this time around.)

The Decemberists – Her Majesty (wtf?)


i just don’t get it

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (I would rather listen to Jet than this disharmonic pretentious mess. Fuck this band.)

Ladyhawke – S/T (I’m all for Kiwis making it on the world stage, but since when did ‘lame ironic nu-disco’ become a synonym for ‘indie royalty?’)

The Wire (After hearing people go nuts about this show in the same way as The Sopranos, I thought I’d better check it out. Maybe I’m just not in tune enough with lower-class American suburbanality, heroin dealing or wharfies union struggles, but this has left me pretty cold.)


bands that should have quit in 2009

Animal Collective (Spare us. Please.)

Muse (How many albums of Matt Bellamy soothsaying in falsetto do we need?)

Rise Against (Just oh so over.)

Green Day (If I want American politics I’ll watch the Colbert Report. You’re a pop-punk band – talk to me when you feel like writing another song about masturbation.)


bands that shouldn’t have quit in 2009

Bodyjar


most anticipated

Tellison

Bag Raiders

Kimbra


best gigs

Parkway Drive @ Freeway Jam, Koriyama

80Kidz @ Fujirock

Fall Out Boy @ Fujirock (Even Pete Wentz’ idiotic babble didn’t detract from the energy of this show. Cheesy band, great set.)

Polysics @ Fujirock (The only band I’ve ever seen to successfully get a festival-sized crowd pogo-ing in perfect timing. Wacky, wacky shit, with the best recorder solo in pop music.)


best movies

Up

Okuribito

The Road

District 9

Fantastic Mr. Fox (An animated film with a difference. It took Wes Anderson to do it, but finally, something that can go toe-to-toe with Pixar’s efforts.)


worst movies

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Where the Wild Things Are (I never read this as a kid, but how could anybody really get into this film? A bunch of oversized sad-sacks complaining about each other for 90 minutes.)

The Hangover (Come on, everyone. This was just so silly. And as if we needed another movie about loud Americans partying in Las Vegas.)

Sherlock Holmes (I really wanted to like this, but even despite RDJnr’s enthusiastic turn, this is nothing more than an uninspired exercise in dumb action sequences, ignoring every opportunity to turn into a thoughtful and worthwhile new franchise.)


best movies of 2009 that i haven’t seen yet

Inglorious Basterds

(500) Days of Summer

A Serious Man

Moon

Bad Lieutenant


best television shows

Breaking Bad (More times than I can count, this show made me sit up in a state of pure shock and admiration. Great writing, great dramatic timing, and the acting revelation of the year in Brian Cranston.)

Bored to Death (Finally, an American comedy that doesn’t try way too hard.)

Honourable mention: John Safran’s Race Relations (I’m not sure this classifies as a ‘good’ show, but it left me as enthralled as anything else I saw in 2009.  John Safran embarrasses, dishonours and mutilates himself (literally), all just to prove a point to himself. At turns hilarious and repulsive, I’m proud that the Australian censorship board still lets him do whatever the hell he pleases and get away with it.)


worst television shows

30 Rock (Yawn.)

Community/Parks and Recreation (Flaccid, cliched attempts to cash in on the success of The Office.)

Fringe (Halfway through the first episode, when an FBI agent allows an incarcerated mad scientist to submerge her in water and attach diodes to her head in an attempt to sync up her dreams with her catatonic lover in virtual reality – and the plan works – well, that is when I knew this show was not for me. Oh yeah, and the mad scientist said she would have to do it naked, but turns out she was wearing a black sports bra. Worst thing I have seen in ages.)


best books read in 2009

Truman Capote – In Cold Blood

Saul Bellow – The Adventure of Augie March

Stephen Pinker – The Language Instinct

George Orwell – 1984 (again)


best video games

Mario Galaxy (Wii)

New Super Mario Bros. (Wii)

Machinarium (PC) (A wordless old-school adventure with a whole lot of heart.)

GTA Chinatown Wars (DS) (Does so many things right and proves that the DS is still the handheld platform with the most versatility and potential.)


best lifestyle choice made in 2009

Shaving in the shower. Never before have I known such effortless smoothness.

Well, I guess that’s it. Until next time!

holding hands

December 22, 2009

The only things keeping me grounded at the moment are Nintendo games, Raymond Chandler and Saul Bellow. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. My tastes could be decidedly less wholesome, and no doubt they would be were I still in Melbourne, or hanging out in Tokyo with the boys. As for The Adventures of Augie March, I have rarely been so impressed by the density and scope of any work of art, and that it could be the product of a singular mind, calling upon nothing more but narrative skill and delicate observation of the intricacies of human existence just make it all the more inspiring.

It just feels so complete, as Bellow can address everything from nihilism to professional relationships to class struggles through the prism of middle American life in the 20th century with such clarity, and identifies hidden motivations, weaknesses, and agendas in every character it introduces, from lowly union foremen, the the numerous women who come and go, to the matriarchal Grandma, to Augie’s various mentors, and so on.

Not to mention that the plot and pacing are nothing short of immaculate; characters’ true intentions are only ever slightly hinted at so as not to prematurely spoil any eventual climax or create unnecessarily gratuitous tension where there need not be any. Nevertheless, through the strength of Bellow’s descriptions alone we feel like we know the characters well already, so that their actions never come as a complete surprise, either. Everyone is flawed, undoubtedly even more so than Augie himself in all his restlessness. And that’s the thing; it’s so human, it doesn’t romanticise except where absolutely necessary, life is unfair and it doesn’t shy away from this fact. Augie’s biggest struggle is between his desire to preserve his own integrity and the weight of his aspirations.

The thing felt like it lost steam over the last 100 pages or so; since Augie spends the entire first half of the book talking about Grandma Lausch and Einhorn, it seems slightly rushed when he joins the army, goes on three tours of duty, marries, and resolves with his estranged older brother within the space of a couple of chapters.

Anyway, after months of toil, I finally finished it a week ago, and I’m worried that whatever I get stuck into next will either be too lightweight or comparably far too existential and depressing. Options include Tender is the Night, Cat’s Cradle, The Trial, and Speak, Memory, something I’ve been threatening to read for years. I guess this is what happens when I try to prepare reading lists months in advance – my moods and expectations change, and then I feel like a petulant kid being forced into doing some kind of boring homework when I have to start a new book without an entire bookshop at my disposal.

I’m gonna go ahead and call this movie ‘death affirming.’ It’s almost perfectly acted and despite a fairly predictable ending, still works really well. The characters are well balanced, suitably eccentric when they need to be and yet always compelled by real and honest motivations, rooted firmly in compassion for their families and their fellow man.

Personally, I had no idea these kinds of professions were so scorned in Japan, and really, you would think that someone with such responsibility would at least be quietly respected, but apparently not. The movie’s greatest success is how it frames the deceased body as a vessel for transgression, as much for the living as for the dead. It really ends up being quite reverential, and some of the embalming (is that the right word?) scenes are painfully, wonderfully emotional, without any dialogue being necessary.

I wasn’t ever really sure where the cello-playing aspect was supposed to fit in, other than as a showcase for the lead actor’s obvious cello-shredding skills. But that’s OK, as it lent a nice subtle soundtrack to the proceedings.

All in all, a pretty good movie.

Haneke is a director who really matters. This guy makes films that are not only deeply disturbing, but very relevant. Think you know what a scary movie is? Go watch Hidden and get back to me.

Anyway, his new one The White Ribbon is quite a departure from his other films. For a start, it’s much broader in scope, is set eighty years ago and is shot in black and white. I guess many of the themes are familiar: guilt and shame, violence and repression; but given it’s historical context I think this film is even more salient than his other works, even if perhaps it’s not as purely entertaining or thrilling. Haneke has insisted that we’re not supposed to see the movie as simply a foreboding prelude to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and World War 2, but as a snapshot of ignorance, intolerance and terrorism in all it’s forms.

The acting is top-shelf, production values are through the roof, and to be fair there are some truly gripping scenes, but overall I just wasn’t as engaged for the whole duration, like I was with Hidden. This is serious, formal film making, and I fear it’s just too cool, too self-aware, too detached to ever really penetrate. Nevertheless, definitely not for the weak of heart or short of patience.

Also, it became clear to me as I watched The White Ribbon that the only German phrase I have remembered from my high school days is keine ahnung. That figures.

OK, enough of the heavy stuff. Raymond Chandler has been keeping me entertained and rescuing me from the depths of being-foreign-and-alone-at-Christmastime-related despair through the strength of his biting dialogue alone. Here are a few choice cuts from the first fifty or so pages of Farewell, My Lovely:

“His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap.”

“Suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully.”

“She was as cute as a washtub.”

“It was Malloy all right, taken in strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.”

“Dames lie about anything – just for practise.”

And, arguably my favourite so far:

“She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she has washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.”

Man, people just aren’t as eloquent (or as charming, apparently) as they were seventy years ago. I seriously believe that our tendency towards email, in all its benevolent, automated glory, is hampering not only our literacy, but the very stuff of our interpersonal relationships. In the past, a scorned lover would compose page upon tear-stained page of hateful yet poetic hand-written prose in order to purge him or herself of heartache. Nowadays, retribution is as easy as uploading a photo to Facebook. Yikes! The sad thing is, even the retorts are borderline unintelligible.

But seriously. As recently as ten years ago, flirting with a girl involved carefully synchronised ‘chance’ meetings, a delicate dance of hints dropped here and there at measured intervals, and a whole lot of good timing and luck. These days, it’s as easy as dropping a text message: ‘hey. i wna ride u like a black mercedes.’ Charming, no?

Yes, my eloquence is slowly dying, and with it, my patience and tact. I only have myself to blame for this, and I feel the only proper remedy would be self-imposed exile from the internet, and more time spent with the likes of Chandler, Bellow, Nabokov and those countless others who express so much with so (comparatively) little.

I bought a snazzy little netbook computer! It’s an Eee PC 1005HA.

Inluded with the iPhone to give a proper sense of scale.

In fact, I’m using it right now. The rad silver colour is not available outside Japan, so TAKE THAT, WESTERN CONSUMER MARKET! What’s more, the construction feels way more solid than my pricey elite Dell machine. It’s running Windows 7, effortlessly installed off a 4GB SDHC card, and does everything I need, like typing, and wasting my life on stupid websites. Also, with the strengthening of the Aussie dollar, this stuff has become ludicrously cheap. Like $350 kind of cheap. Party!

On a more personal note. I’ve resolved to spend the winter break seriously improving my Japanese. The last couple of months (and in particular, the last month itself) have seen my conversation skills increase significantly, and although I still have more than my fair share of furrowed-brow, panicky ‘wtf was that word again!?’ moments, at least I can keep a conversation more or less going now. I mean, that is, as long as the person I’m talking to doesn’t get bored and give up. To them, it must be like talking to a toddler with learning disabilities.

I did learn something interesting lately though; according to one of my supervisors who studied linguistics at university, dyslexia is far less prevalent in Japan (and presumably also in China and Korea) than in the Western world. This must be something to do with both the form of their characters and their grammatical constructions. After all, it’s hard for most English speakers to imagine a first language where each ‘letter’ corresponds to an entire syllable; where words can be pronounced phonetically without any danger of misplacing stress or timing, and where an entire universe of meaning can be contained within one simple symbol, such as 空, or 人. The Japanese and Chinese don’t learn to spell, so much as they learn to paint pictures of the world through language. Likewise, reading isn’t a constant deconstruction of bunches of letters, or educated guessing at the appropriate phoneme; everything is there as it’s written, except in the case of an unfamiliar kanji character, where, upon encountering these new characters, a Japanese person will simply ask their neighbour,  どういう読むの? or この漢字の読み方は何ですか? (“How the fsk do you read this?”).

Furthermore, owing to the grammatical hierarchy of the language, the relevant reading for any given kanji is immediately apparent to any native speaker of Japanese; there is no guess work necessary. It’s pretty remarkable.

According to The Language Instinct, Japanese (and to an extent, Korean) are something like language orphans which have evolved separately, leaving behind little grammatical resemblance to other East Asian languages. This isn’t so hard for me to believe, because as I’ve said before, Japanese more or less resembles the exact grammatical inverse of something like English, and I’m sure this has a considerable impact on the structure of society over here, especially when compared with our own.

The main point I wanted to make when I started this huge theoretical rant, however, was that I’m at a point where Japanese people no longer feel comfortable gossiping about me in my presence, because they fear I might just be able to understand them. Pretty satisfying in one sense, although I was kinda enjoying being able to eavesdrop as I pleased.

Well, on that note, it looks like I’m gonna be all too alone for Christmas, and unless I get my act together and ask for paid leave, I’ll be sat at my office all day without any other kindred spirit (ie. lost soul) in sight to share the holiday with. I’m not a religious person, but I guess I am a pretty sentimental one, and despite all my misgivings about Christmas and the sham that it is, I do feel an unwelcome sense of isolation as the year draws to an end. It’s not that I’m depressed. There’ll be plenty of time for that come 2010. But I just kinda wish I had stayed in contact with more of you this year. So I’m sorry. I guess that’s it.

Stay tuned for my best and worst of 2009, along with the usual solemn reflections and empty promises, in the next edition!

So long.

it’s a jungle out there

October 16, 2009

This blog is rapidly turning into a place where I can air my identity crises. The crucial difference between this blog and real life, though, is that around here I can’t be interrupted. In their past lives, my blogs were forums for confidence issues and (barely) veiled jabs at various girls who had gon’ up and don’ me wrong, but I guess these days my problems are more existential in nature, and are probably, in the long run, better off for it.

My desk is a hideous mess of Australiana (dig that rad kookaburra), lollies I use to bribe minors, Japanese textbooks that I have skimmed, not read, and a variety of teaching materials that, surprisingly, have been getting a pretty solid workout of late. While it is true that at times I may have been something of a lazy ALT, that trend has definitely been reversed as I’ve been able to identify the more bothersome areas of my job and work on improving those, rather than the aimless stressing of eras past. I’m steadily realising that bored, unmotivated students aren’t the problem; it’s disorganised co-workers. I am repeatedly inundated by inconsiderate and illogical requests for help with classes that aren’t mine, translations of things of a singularly personal nature, and so on. I believe the thought process resembles something like this: Darren is an ALT, and ALTs aren’t busy or just don’t work very hard. だから、Darren mustn’t be busy. It’s beautifully Socratic.

Anyway, in light of these revelations, job satisfaction is at an unusual high, as I have adopted an even more nihilistic approach to my job: I chat with students whenever I feel like it, and about whatever I please. I play DS with them and snap unflattering photos of them. I ask them about their boyfriends and girlfriends and point out cute girls in magazines. So when it comes to classes, most of them are comfortable enough with me by now to play along with whatever I come up with. However, I think the main thing that has improved my working life is that, as the months have rolled by of late, I have become increasingly willing to strike up a conversation in punctuated Japanese, and the kids have started to realise that I am actually a living organism of equal or greater intellectual capability, one who has thoughts and feelings of his own and the gift of self-expression. Who would have thought – a foreigner!

I’m definitely beyond repair. When I start visiting – and enjoying – websites such as this (a cute girl appears in the day!) there seems to be little chance of redemption. To make things even worse, this link was sent to me by a female Japanese friend of mine. There’s just something irresistible about homely girls posing for coy photos and bashfully describing their personal traits.

The longer I spend observing other cultures, the more convinced I become that the world we inhabit is governed primarily by sex and money. The sex industry in Japan is omnipresent and, as a young woman, there is no better way to make easy money than to become a hostess or waitress in a fancy bar. Middle-aged men pay through the nose to merely be in the company of these creatures, and while prostitution itself is outwardly frowned upon, its no secret that money can buy everything, the porn industry is rampant, and the vast majority of establishments fronting as pleasant, classy lady bars are little more than extortionately-priced brothels. On a more personal level, it seems that wherever I go in the world, the thing that impresses the majority of girls with the most boring regularity is a boy with money and the willingness to flaunt it, both on himself and on his girl. The extravagance that passes for class and style in Japan can be truly sickening, especially when a dude in parachute pants can be considered cool just because they cost hundreds of dollars. Oh, and on that note: fuck you, Ed Hardy. I hate you and everything you create.

I always misspell the word ‘opinion’ and it comes out looking something like ‘onion.’ Perhaps there’s something in that.

Dudes. I’ve been all over this new Paramore single for a week now. How is it better than anything they have done in the past? Let me count the ways: Hayley’s voice isn’t as pitch-perfectly auto-tuned as the last album, and, moreover, she sounds way more pissed off on this track. Whilst ‘Misery Business’ was definitely a catchy (dare I say good?) song, it always seemed a little trite and forced to me. On this one, she simply spits out the lyrics in a much more natural meter, and the whole song is better off for it. Next, this song plays with time signatures and syncopation in a way that would make even the most capable metal bands envious. Its structure consists of multiple layered elements and constantly blurs the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge distinction. The arpeggios in the pre-chorus and breakdown are simply insane. Paramore’s drummer is awesome and is clearly the most impressive thing about the band besides Hayley’s voice. Listen carefully next time!

This movie was rad. The first half of District 9, in particular, takes the now-familiar mockumentary style into pretty interesting and challenging territory, offering a charicature of bureaucracy that is comical, satirical and confrontingly honest. Its themes are superficially obvious, and its a kind of wonder that it has taken so long for sci-fi films to come up with this idea. But the allegory extends further that just ‘how should governments deal with illegal immigrants,’ into far more personal territory: how do we overcome language barriers with foreigners? Is there any way to deal with the issue whilst retaining personal sensitivities? Indeed, can there even be a non-violent resolution to these kinds of problems? It nods towards the pervasive racism issues with a handful of ingenious quips, the kinds of slips-of-tongue usually reserved for mid-level politicians that are likely to see their superiors caught up in some heated PR backpedalling:

“I mean, you can’t say they don’t look like that, that’s what they look like, right? They look like prawns.”

It is amazingly well-acted, particularly by Sharlto Copley, who carries the second half of the film single-handedly and prevents it from ultimately becoming little more than a gruesome FPS-inspired alien blastfest, although even Copley can’t save it from crashing and bashing its way to a somewhat underwhelming end. District 9 combines some of the cinematic elements of Independence Day, Children of Men, The Host and…well, Starship Troopers, but its South African orientation gives it a pretty unique feel overall. Definitely see this movie!

Well, there was going to be more, but now there isn’t. ‘Til next time!

paris syndrome

August 17, 2009

I don’t know what to do! It’s 3pm, I’ll be heading home reasonably soon, but literally nothing awaits me there besides a living room that requires vacuuming. That’s right, I’m so lonely in this tiny little country town attached to my job that I would rather stay at school than go home. At least my workplace has the tell-tale signs of human life in it. I’ve already been for a run today. Last week, I upped my distance from around 6km to around 12km, out of sheer boredom. I was halfway through when I thought to myself, ‘I have nothing to do after I stop.’ So I just kept going.

The last handful of weekends have consisted of some truly devastating nights out, whether measured in terms of financial strain, magnitude of hangovers or accumulated emotional baggage. The cure? Repeating the whole procedure the following weekend (or, ocassionally, during the week). But we won’t get into that now.

For the sake of a yardstick you may use to measure my boredom, I’ve read every book I have with me except one. One of the things I’m most looking forwards to when I visit Melbourne in September is to replace these books with others from my library back home. However my impending trip back hasn’t stopped me from abusing Japanese Amazon and buying copies of books that I already own. Like this one:

Not for some time have I been so captivated by a book. Since living overseas, I have tried to broaden my literary horizons by sampling some of the most well-respected works that those countries and cultures have to offer, from ultra-modern stuff to classics from bygone eras, etc. Along the way I have subjected myself to some real crap, but also to some true diamonds in the rough. Rarely has anything compelled me to (gasp!) blog about it.

I have been reluctant to even open In Cold Blood, simply because I want to savour the whole experience as long as possible and I am scared of taking too big a bite out of it. This might seem like a strange thing to say about a book that is basically a true story, especially one of which everyone knows the ending. But it’s the writing, the pacing…the narrative switches between the reckless road story of two outlaws to a grotesque painting of a once-peaceful town that has been frozen stiff by tragedy and fear. Capote deftly weaves the two together until their numerous inevitable convergences, which, when they finally happen, he treats with simplicity, economy and cool-headedness – the closest he ever gets to plain journalism. There is no fanfare, no cheap page-turning tactics at play here.

The rest of the time, it is so lifelike, so tender, so human that you can often forget that you’re dealing with two murderers. You want to know Perry’s backstory, you want to empathise with him, you want to see him…well, succeed. If there was one failing of the novel, I guess that would be it. But Capote was never trying to pass judgment or condemn anybody; he was only guilty of trying to manipulate his readers, to paint a picture and to bring his characters to life, which every writer invariably strives to do, and in this sense he succeeds completely.

I’m enjoying this so much, especially since the last couple of books I have read have either gone way over my head or just been flat-out not very good.

This one made its Australian debut at the Melbourne Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. I took notice because one day at work the girl who sits opposite me asked if I knew the book she was reading – The Sky Crawlers. I asked her what it was about and got a typically vague Japanese type of answer; I think she said something about ‘romance’ (but let’s be honest – everything in Japan can be classified as roomansu or dorama, usually a combination of the two). She said it was sugoi kanashii, and naturally I was skeptical. But when I saw that it was selected at the film fest, and did a bit of follow-up research, it seemed pretty cool, and it is. The CG animation used for the dogfights is simply astounding, as kinetic as any war film but with just the right amount of artifice and artistry. Anyone who knows me well knows that when it comes to anime, I value art design and mood more than the story itself, and this one is no different.

The one that has really grabbed my attention, though, and subsequently the frontrunner for being the first film I see in general release in Japanese cinemas, is the upcoming Studio 4°C work, First-Squad. International anime collaborations really interest me, and Studio 4°C has a pretty good track record. Monster was, of course, set in Germany, and its strongest attribute in my mind was its representation of Germany in the 1980s. The atmosphere of political suppression and its cultural side-effects permeated every episode/issue. So, long story short, I’m really keen to see First-Squad when it comes out.

This post has succeeded in wasting my time, and yours. Til next time!

the paper chase

January 20, 2009

This is madness! Two blog posts in one night?! Note: like last year, this stuff didn’t necessarily come out in 2008, but let’s just pretend.

favourite albums of 2008:

mewithoutYou – Brother, Sister
Twin Vickers – Demo

These two recordings were so far beyond anything else I heard in 2008 that I feel the need to break up the list in order to point out this fact. The rest can be considered more or less equal.

Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
Muscles  – Guns Babes Lemonade
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife/Picaresque
Smoking Popes – Stay Down
Bayside – Shudder
The Benevento/Russo Duo – Play Pause Stop
Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
The Black Keys – Magic Potion
The Maccabees – Colour It In
Annuals – Such Fun
Judy and Mary – The Great Escape
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
Crystal Castles – S/T
Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Foals – Antidotes
The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
New Order – Substance
Ratatat – Classics
Justice – †
Kanye West – Graduation
Louis Jordan – Greatest Hits
Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
Oh Mercy – Priviliged Woes
The Bronx – III
The Presets – Apocalypso

favourite songs by bands/off albums i may or may not necessarily give a shit about:

Twin Vickers – The Way To Walk Out Of Here
mewithoutYou – O Porcupine/The Dryness and the Rain/Wolf Am I!
Oh Mercy – Can’t Fight It
The Greasers – Shelley
The Bronx – Past Lives
Annuals – The Tape
Cut Copy – Feel The Love
Death Cab For Cutie – I Will Possess Your Heart/Cath…
Common – Be (still probably my favourite hiphop track)
Kanye West – Robocop
Bayside – The Ghost of St. Valentine
MGMT – Time To Pretend (I liked this when everyone was still obsessed with ‘Kids’)
Muscles – Jerk
Hot Chip – Ready For The Floor
Driving Music – Demo (all five tracks)

bands that should have quit in 2008:

Fall Out Boy
Jimmy Eat World
Saves The Day (hurts me to mention these last two)
Bloc Party
Kaiser Chiefs
Coldplay (still)
Metallica (still)
The Getaway Plan

bands that shouldn’t have quit in 2008:

Blueline Medic…

best new bands/new to me:

The Paints
Kimbra
The Benevento/Russo Duo

biggest disappointments:

Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreaks
Common – Universal Mind Control
Lagwagon – I Think My Older Brother Used To Listen To Lagwagon

best gigs:

The Paints @ Noise Bar
mewithoutYou @ Soundwave Festival
Saosin @ Soundwave Festival
The Matches @ Soundwave Festival
Ratatat @ The Espy
Kimbra @ The Toff
Twin Vickers @ The Old Bar
Justice @ Ganban Night ’08
Lagwagon @ Club Quattro Tokyo

i just don’t get it:

MGMT
Deerhunter
The Gaslight Anthem
Vampire Weekend

biggest surprises:

Local artists outshine just about everything else regardless of genre
After shockingly saccharine Plans album, Death Cab release scary good song with ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’
I develop a nasty affinity for nasty electro (although I can pinpoint this to one very particular night)…
Sum 41 most popular pop-punk band in Japan (not really surprising actually)
Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, mental

best movies:

Let The Right One In
Wall-E
The Dark Knight
The Killing
Tekkonkinkreet
Burn After Reading (Coen-lite but still hilarious)
Battle Royale
Hidden
5 Centimetres per Second
Tokyo Story
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (why are there so many thrillers on this list?)

worst movies:

I didn’t watch anywhere near as many movies this year so thankfully I didn’t see many bad ones. Let me think…

Babylon A.D. (stumbled across this on the plane to Cambodia, I couldn’t look away it was so appalling)
The Orphanage (not bad by any means but just a bit of a disappointment)
Ghost In The Shell (so overrated)
Pineapple Express (had its moments but ehhh)
My Blueberry Nights (ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh)

best television shows:

The Colbert Report
Monster
Death Note

worst television shows:

The Office (quit while you’re ahead!)
Heroes
Lost

best games:

The World Ends With You (DS)
Space Invaders Extreme (DS)
Kirby Canvas Curse (DS)
Jump! Ultimate Stars (DS)
Geometry Wars (DS/PC/360)/Grid Wars (PC)
Everyday Shooter (PC)
N+ (DS)

best books read in 2008:

The Grapes of Wrath
The Name of the Rose (it took me like four months, it must be good…I think…)
Red Dust
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

best book read in 2008 that i didn’t really care for:

Slaughterhouse-Five

most anticipated/fingers crossed/predictions for 2009:

New Decemberists album redefines indie rock, tops both Pitchfork’s best albums chart and the New York Times book review
Fabled second Postal Service album finally drops
Kimbra becomes the next Björk sans the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof act
Blueline Medic reunite and finally get the recognition they deserve
Hacking the Wii becomes even cheaper and easier
Nonetheless, Nintendo continue their march towards total world domination
Barack Obama launches rocket full of conservatives into the sun
Kevin Rudd’s internet filter blocks every website except tubgirl
Electric cars
People start talking about how many Yen gold can buy, not the other way around

That’s a whole year’s worth of pop culture right there! Sadly I can’t even remember half of the stuff I read and watched in 2008. The first half was spent in a warbly daze and the second half swimming in neon and smokey karaoke bars. Consider my lesson learned.

よろしく。

There are always a few peripheral characters in the Pixar films that I fall utterly in love with. In the case of Wall-E, it’s the adorable clean-up drone M-O (they always boast clever names, too), whose facial expressions come entirely in the form of LED eyes yet manage to capture all the curiosity of an intelligent animal who is coming to terms with human ingenuity.

Which leads me, of course, to Wall-E. This is a beautiful, breathtaking film in every sense of the word. From the scene it paints of the inevitable convergence of the current human condition (both from an environmental perspect and a social one), to the promulgation of corporation to an extra-terrestrial scale, to our dependence upon automatic processes and loss of love for learning, to the effects of infinite loneliness and longing, Wall-E as a film transcends and redefines animation itself. There, I said it. It has aesthetic value that is surely equal to any film as well as philosophical implications that are relevant to us – today – on countless levels…and it conveys most (if not all) of this without dialogue. Think about it. Everything Wall-E achieves, he does so without words, without a soul, without religion. All he has is his curiousity and his faultless, incorruptible innocence.

The depth of field animation, and in particular, the depiction of weightlessness in space is just beautiful. There is no other word for it. Wall-E and Eve’s dance in space is surely the most beautiful and touching sequence in Pixar’s history. Oh, and just quietly…things are still looking up.

I guess this means I’m gonna have to start thinking about my best and worst of 2008. It will be a bit of a tough call, as I’ve been uncharacteristically occupied, at least over the last few months, and have partied more vigorously, more regularly, this year than I ever have before. The result? I must be getting old. I have that familiar feeling that time is flying by. I feel the year(s) whisking by at unfathomable speed with utter disregard for patience or etiquette. This year, more than any other, I have caught myself in moments of contemplation and admiration at the infinite serenity that the world offers by virtue of its simple existence. There are patterns and balance and beauty to be found everywhere if you’re only willing to take a few minutes out of your day to sit back and think about things

Stop worrying about your job. Stop worrying about your boyfriend. Stop worrying about your deadlines. Stop worrying about money. Take a look around. A speckled bird, humbly inspired, ran across the road, when it could have flown.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Christmas back in Australia, and how I’m kinda really gonna miss it. The weather is always nice (re: not freezing), and it’s always accompanied by a pretty pervasive good mood, plenty of eating and drinking, and of course, the promise of cricket, parties and more amazing weather. Some of my fondest memories of the past few summers have been Boxing Days, Australia Days, New Years’ Eves, that sort of thing. Apparently New Year’s Eve isn’t such a big deal over here, at least not in the same sense. From what I can ascertain, it involves docile trips to shrines and such and reverence for the first sunrise of the new year. It’s a far cry from the utter immorality of New Year’s Eve back in Australia. Back there, you’re lucky if there is a shirt in sight, or a non-alcoholic beverage. My Aussie friends and I have already started plotting a rampage on January 26th. Rain, hail, snow or tsunami, it will definitely involve shorts, thongs, outdoor barbecues and (more than likely) Vegemite and Tim Tams (since they are the only uniquely Aussie foods you can buy over here).

Oh, did you guys hear? A black guy is gonna be President of the United States. There’s something to mull over the old noggin’. I can’t possibly add anything to further elucidate the significance of this. It’s so strange being in a country like Japan, where national pride runs so deep but general knowledge about politics is so limited. Seriously, beyond local council elections, the average Japanese person has no idea about the political situation in their own country, let alone internationally. It’s because their elections are structured differently from the ones we are used to, and because the Emperor and his family still carry such symbolic importance, that the image of solidarity and stability is unfaltering, even during times of severe economic panic. Of course, the fact that the media is so saturated with ‘major’ issues like two Russian-born sumo wrestlers getting caught smoking weed doesn’t do much to raise awareness of ‘lesser’ problems like war. This was front-page news for at least three weeks back in September and August. Why? Because sumo is the national sport, and anything resembling a blot on the integrity of the symbol that is Japanese nationalism is nothing less than the worst thing that could happen in this country.

Take a look at the flag, for further evidence:

It’s, uh, bold. To say the least. Even more so than when I was back in Australia, I have been depending on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for my news, at least when it comes to America. I’m not quite so keen to read thousand-word articles on The Australian or The Age websites, though, on account of I’m already starting to see the waking world in bleary-eyed, pixelated format, and I don’t want to exacerbate the problem. But you know what’s great about high-speed internet? All forms of media are available on-demand. Give me convenience or give me death. Just don’t spoil the party, Mr. Rudd.

On a related note, I find the routinely inflammatory comments that appear on news websites absolutely fascinating. At the time of writing, the most recent comment on that article I linked to above reads as follows:

“I didn’t vote for the twit, I hope the people who did are satisfied we have a now have a monkey running our economy and our internet.”

So many great things about this post, not the least of which is the level of political engagement with the real issues at hand here. But it’s indicative of the vast majority of what constitutes ‘commentary’ on the internet. I believe most people’s internet practices have evolved so as to completely filter out all user comments, except in the case of community message boards, but the phenomenon of semi-anonymous propaganda is incredible. The ability to conceal one’s real agenda and distill one’s real motivations into a handful of characters is something that we are seeing for the first time in human history, and the manifestations are countless. What is it that compels people to comment on articles like this in the first place? Who do they think is actually reading them? Do they not realise the abstraction that occurs when you substitute your real name and address for an internet handle? It goes without saying that the vast majority of these comments would not be made in a real-life scenario, eg. in general conversation, or even during a political discussion amongst peers over dinner.

I feel like going back to university just to investigate things like this. In fact, I feel like going back to university full stop. Seeing how my students’ eyes widen when I explain that ‘percent’ comes from the Latin words ‘per’ and ‘cent,’ and that ‘per’ roughly equates to the Japanese possessive particle の(no), and that ‘cent’ means ‘hundred,’ is a great feeling. In these rare cases, I truly feel like I’m helping them learn, and that what I have to offer them is actually valuable and rewarding. I want to regain that feeling for myself.

It’s lunch time. I had better sign off and go make my presence felt.

Take care, friends.

Now that there’s less than a week remaining before I’m unceremoniously shipped out of Australia, air freight-style, the time is right for a blog post. I’ve been avoiding the fact that I haven’t been as dilligent or as timely as promised when it comes to updating this thing, and I guess that’s because I knew I would eventually have to write this very post and I wouldn’t know what to say. Well, here it is.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks getting ready. For those of you who have moved overseas before, you will know that ‘getting ready’ in this context more or less translates to ‘spending heaps and heaps of money.’ Having never been a white-collar employee before now, I had to rush out and buy business attire, including a suit, which prompted more than one American Psycho-style moment of self-evaluation. Since discovering how difficult it really is to find stylish business clothes that I feel comfortable in (I’m trying to keep all pastel colours to a minimum here, which, if you take a look at the graduate job/overpriced race meeting crowd, is a lot harder than it should be), I find myself sneering at every ill-fitting jacket, poorly tied-up tie and tasteless shirt I encounter. Presumably, these people spend their entire waking lives being buttoned-down yes-men; I thought by now most of them would have realised how to dress themselves. Guess not. Anyway, it’s something that I haven’t paid any attention to until now.

I’m still in the process of trying to sell my car. Nobody wants it I guess. Come on people, it’s not like I’ve smashed it up that bad. At least, any damage is emotional, not physical. One thing I’m not going to miss in Japan is driving. To be fair, Melbourne’s traffic is becoming exponentially worse with every passing month, but to be in a place where public transport is as popular and ubiquitous as energy drinks or flannel shirts or Apple products is gonna be great. I’ll be stationed an hour and a half from Tokyo by shinkansen (aka death-defying anti-gravity train). But there are some things about Melbourne I’ll be missing.

A huge range of everything, thanks to our ever-increasing migrant communities, is one of them. Amazing bands and live music events are another, despite their extortionate prices. Cultural landmarks such as the Astor theatre, Flinders Street Station, the botanic gardens, Southbank, the MCG are as distinctive and as well-loved as any in other countries, and our innate sense of style far outclasses anything I’ve encountered in any other city (especially Sydney).

Of course, there are other things besides traffic that I won’t be missing. Like six dollars for a Metcard, fickle weather, being a native speaker and as such being subjected to the drivel that saturates newspapers, magazines, television and radio, disgraceful trendy nightspots and their accompanying clientele (although these aren’t endemic to Melbourne), the complete lack of a decent film/television industry, consistent apathy towards important political issues and, on the other hand, uninformed outspoken finger-pointing regarding uncontrollable ones (e.g. fuel prices), and so on.

Japan, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from too many of these complaints. They have properly fast internet, perfect etiquette and rituals of generosity and politeness (us Westerners would do well to take note), local cuisine that is more about subtlety than sheer quantity and a zany fashion sense. It also boasts being one of the most consistently romanticised countries on earth (at least, from a Western point of view) and, finally and most importantly, a healthy whaling industry.

While there is something to be said for being organised, I have learned over the last couple of years that to try to control too many of the billions of variables that make up your day-to-day life only guarantees two things: firstly, that you will end up feeling frustrated, and also that you will inevitably miss most of the finer details that make the ordinary into something worth noticing, remembering. I know that my preconceptions about Japan will mostly likely turn out to be well off the mark and I will someday come back to Melbourne with a completely different perspective on the country, its people and its culture, and I’m going into it without too many expectations. The only ones I do have are ones that I want and need to control, for my own good – greater independence, more creative output, that kind of thing. I’ve been completely exhausted for the last couple of weeks and to be honest it will be great just to arrive in Japan so I can finally sit back and just let things run their course.

The time I haven’t spent in a delirious state of hyperanimation has been used to get hideously drunk, sleep in late and play bucketloads of video games. For those of you in any doubt, we’re talking hardcore Nintendo DS gaming here. I’ve picked out a few choice game trailers for the unconvinced.

Nanostray 2. One of the hardest games I have played. Still stuck on level two.

The World Ends With You. Ultra-modern RPG and proof that the DS is the only platform you can find games with real style. Great soundtrack, too.

Jump! Ultimate Stars. Possibly the best handheld fighting game ever, featuring loads of playable anime and manga characters and seriously cool art style.

Sonic Rush. Light-speed Sonic goodness.

Space Invaders Extreme. A fantastic remake of a game that was in desperate need of a shot of adrenaline. As an aside, I more or less need to own this bag. It’s $80 at the only store I’ve seen it in, which is a flat-out joke for a PVC bag. Anyway.

Metal Slug 7. Insane shooter, not as hair-pullingly frustrating as Nanostray either which is a plus. To finish the whole game only takes about half an hour on easy mode but that’s not a problem.

So there you have it, and that is saying nothing of the huge catalogue of great adventure games on DS. It has been said before; I should probably be earning a commission for the promotional work I do on behalf of Nintendo, but I’m just happy to have a portable gaming console this powerfully awesome.

I was gonna do something of a review of The Dark Knight but it’s getting late. Let’s just say, forget the superhero genre. Forget any genre; this is as good a movie as you are likely to see this year. Strong characters across the board, fantastically bleak art direction (and countless expensive Armani suits) and clear-as-mud ethical and moral riddles are in danger of seeming superfluous to the incredible performance by Heath Ledger. Two hundred people collectively gasped after he delivered his first few lines as The Joker. I doubt any other infamous posthumous performance will be looked upon with such reverance; if anyone can think of one, I’m all ears. Let’s be perfectly honest; we have seen the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor awarded for much less. Don’t fail me now, Academy. Everything about this film is first-class and frankly embarrasses all other movie franchises of the last few years. And as I already mentioned, its themes are anything but preachy or obvious. Haunting, stylish, brilliant!

I guess that means the only other film I can’t wait to see this year is Wall-E. Hey Pixar, whatever happened to global release dates? Thanks a million. Now I’ll have to wait until December to see this in Japan. If I don’t download it first. Seriously; you would think a studio with their money and influence would realise that a synchronised global release date for their films would be one of the most obvious and effective ways to prevent piracy – if indeed movie piracy is as much of a big deal as you pretend it is. When studios are paying $250 million to make movies as horrendous as Spiderman 3, I have trouble believing it.

Either way, the movie looks unbelievable. Only Pixar have the balls to make a kids’ movie where the entire opening act is silent, and the plot of the movie opens the door for treating some seriously overdue ethical issues, for example our impending irreversible loneliness and a sense of responsibility for each other and for the environment. Ratatouille was great but didn’t feature any new plot devices or themes that weren’t already commonplace in animated films. I know this time I won’t be let down.

This has gone on long enough; for the rest of this week I’ll be running last-minute errands and tieing up loose ends; hopefully there’s time for a trip to the Art Deco exhibition as well. If all goes according to schedule I’ll also be leaving a parting gift for you, the Internet, and you can be sure I’ll be posting it up here as soon as I can. Until then, stay safe.