Monday, 26 January 2009

The next track was "Dust of Ages" by Eels. Just as appropriate, in its own strange way...

I was in London yesterday (well, technically not "yesterday" now that it's past midnight, but you know what I mean), and I happened to stumble across the Stop the War Coalition protest against the Israeli occupation of Gaza.
You might think it's tricky to "stumble across" a major protest, but this is London, where practically anything can happen and no-one will bat an eyelid. In this case, my first hint that something was going on was the helicopter hovering over the middle of the city. The second was when I came up to Trafalgar Square and noticed quite how many police were around. It seemed that I'd turned up just as the protest reached the Square.

I always find big gatherings like this fascinating. Even if you don't support them (and there's no way I'm going to try and take sides over this one – let's just say that no war is ever a good thing, and that no matter who wins, civilians always lose), the fact that so many people feel so strongly about some issue that they're prepared to take to the streets is always reason enough to hang about for a bit and see what you can see. Especially given that I didn't look out of place (no huge Israeli flag sewn onto my coat or anything), so I could mingle largely unnoticed.

It was a pretty normal protest, really. Incoherent chanting of slogans that distil a complex multi-faceted problem into a few syllables, stony-faced police standing around looking vaguely menacing (although I have to say, I didn't see any police doing anything but a thoroughly professional job when confronted by several thousand angry and emotional people), and of course a bunch of people who were taking advantage of the fact that someone was protesting about something to push their own agenda. The Socialist Worker Party was out in force, as were the people who jump on every criticism of the BBC in order to complain about the licence fee.

In fact, the only things I found disturbing were, first, the slogan on the banner in the photo directly above ("Movement for Justice: By Any Means Necessary", which sounds disturbingly like "the ends justify the means"), and secondly, the absolutely atrocious poetic slogan I saw on a woman's sign. The sign was on lurid pink cardboard, which didn't photograph at all well, so I'll simply reproduce it here:

Mr Brown
Hope you drown
In your shame
Cause you're
OK, I get the general feeling, but in my experience the insult "lame" tends to be directed at people who are just slightly gooberish, not at war criminals. Which means that as a protest slogan, it fails on pretty much every level – it sacrifices making sense so that it rhymes, it doesn't scan at all, it peaks far too soon and it fizzles out with a playground insult. If you're reading this, woman with lurid pink sign – seriously, spend a bit more time on your protest posters.

One more thing to say before I leave the whole issue here and move on to less politically-charged topics: I had my headphones on at the time, with my music collection on shuffle. The song that came on as I was looking out over the crowds was the Hot Club of Cowtown's performance of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love"; I leave you with a snippet of the lyrics that seemed to appropriately (if unrealistically) sum up my hopes for this extremely troubled part of the world.
I can't give you anything but love, baby
That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby
Dream a while, scheme a while, you're sure to find
Happiness, and I guess, all the things you've always dreamed of...

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Sunday, 25 January 2009

PS. Please don't make Joe the Plumber your Secretary of State.

Quick follow-up to my previous post — never let it be said that I fail to give all sides equal time in a debate. Had John McCain won the election, I would have written a message for him as well. Not in the form of a song, but a message nonetheless. It would have looked something like this.

Dear President McCain,

Please, for the love of all that is good, don't die.

Yours sincerely,

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Monday, 19 January 2009

No, I will not sing it for you.

Tomorrow, the 44th President of the United States will be inaugurated in Washington, DC. Pretty much all that I know about American politics has been gleaned from episodes of The West Wing and clips of The Daily Show, so my impression of the corridors of power is probably a little off-kilter (I imagine that everyone's beautiful, devastatingly intelligent, deeply moral and absolutely hilarious). But I have managed to get a good sense of the amazing wave of popular support that has carried Barack Obama into the most powerful position in the world.

That's a good thing. After eight years in which we've seen the erosion of civil liberties, an arrogant disregard for the checks and balances that are supposed to keep the powerful accountable, a total economic meltdown and considerably higher levels of terrorist activity than there were in 2000, a bit of optimism can only be a positive influence. Some have thought that there's a danger in going too far. Already people – including Obama himself – are starting to try to scale back the "Superman" image that he's gained.

Well, screw that. Finally we have someone in power with enough support and popular enthusiasm to effect massive sweeping changes in all areas, and we're going to tell everyone that he should take things slowly and carefully, take one day at a time? If you shoot for high targets, you might miss them, but that's a much better idea than settling for the just about acceptable.

There's no real way that I can put this in prose, so I'm going to do something I do very rarely – I'm going to give you a song. Not performed, unfortunately, because I'm rubbish at writing music. But, because this song is (like everything else on this blog) CC-licensed, if anyone reading this wants to have a shot at a tune, go right ahead. Oh, and I wrote it just after the election, hence the complete lack of any mention of Gaza. So anyway, I now present to you...

Please, Mr Obama
A song by Phil

[Intro - slowly and in loose rhythm]
The election is over
The votes are all in
Your administration is soon to begin
These eight long years we've been
At the end of our rope
But now we are seeing a glimmer of hope
To bring about change
You've got to go a long way
And so I have got this one thing to say...

[Verses - much perkier tune, jangly rhythm]
Please, Mr Obama, don't screw it up now
The last guy did so many things you just can't allow
Shut down the secret prisons of the CIA
Make sure you ban torture - and by the way
Send Bush and Cheney off to Camp X-Raaaaaaay [hold long note]
About a week before you close it down
Oh please, Mr Obama, don't screw it up now

Please, Mr Obama, keep to your word
Carry out your promises, don't ever be deterred
Get jobs for all who want to be employed
Give free healthcare to every girl and boy
Make 'em proud back in Illinoiiiiiiiiis
For politicians this might be absurd
But please, Mr Obama, keep to your word

Please, Mr Obama, keep the peace
Do everything you can to make the violence decrease
There's war in Iraq, we're not sure 'bout Iran
Full-blown anarchy in Afghanistan
And let's not forget the DRC and Sudaaaaaaaaaaan
But we believe miracles never cease,
So please, Mr Obama, will you keep the peace

Please, Mr Obama, keep the Union strong
Don't back down when half of Congress thinks you're wrong
Lose the bad policies of yesterday,
Turn the country round 'til it's going the right way
Make the world proud of the US of AAAAAAAA
Although they won't always get along,
Please, Mr Obama, keep the Union strong

[Outro - slow once again]
You've got four years
And maybe even eight
It's not all that much but you can make it great

So much to do
So face it with a smile
And don't let Sarah Palin within twenty miiiiiles...

[Coda, perky again]
I'm so glad America decided to select
You as its brand-new President-Elect
But please, Mr Obama, don't screw it up nowwwwwwww!

Of course, the next question is, how on earth are people going to write protest songs for the next four years?

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Sunday, 18 January 2009

I will call him Squishy and he will be mine, and he will be my Squishy.

Ahem. I'm aware that rather a lot of recent posts have opened with an apology for not posting enough, and leaving a month since the last one is something of a record. So, sorry. But hey, it's the Internet, where the vast majority of people who ever read this will be doing so by reaching it through a Google search for something hopelessly vague, several months after I post it. (The number who get here by Googling something like "hypothesis on beauty" is remarkably high.)

We're well out of the Christmas season, and into what certain members of my family term "Winterval", which is essentially an excuse to have open fires every night until Easter and watch old episodes of The West Wing. Not that I'd usually be complaining about this, but as it happens this is the first year since Winterval was founded that I've been living in a completely different city, and I am therefore going to have to console myself with fake open fires and episodes of CSI.

What was I talking about? Oh, yes, Christmas. My younger sister (notable on these pages for her slightly snarky comments recently) received the Pixar box set for Christmas, which has meant that the whole family has been basking in what are pretty much the only good animated films that Disney has released for about the last 12 years. They're also some of the only ones with original stories, Disney having exhausted their stock of family-friendly fairy tales some time ago. However, just because they have new stories, that doesn't mean that they can't use Disney's oldest and best-used storytelling trope: deeply broken families and desperate tragedy.

That might seem strange. Disney films are explicitly aimed at children, after all, and they do have something of a reputation for being saccharine and schmaltzy. However, that's only ever the case towards the end of the film as the happy resolution is approaching. Looking only at the opening premise, the number of on-screen families where something is badly wrong is just astounding. Here's a relatively recent selection.

Film (Year)Setup
The Little Mermaid (1989)Ariel's mother doesn't appear throughout the movie. That said, maybe mermaids reproduce like fish and Ariel is one of five million offspring of King Triton. Who knows?
Beauty and the Beast (1991)Belle's mother is not only absent, she's never even mentioned. And although the Beast clearly has rather more pressing problems than just having no family, he apparently has no living parents either.
Aladdin (1992)Aladdin is an orphan, and Princess Jasmine has – you guessed it – no mother either.
The Lion King (1994)Mufasa and Sarabi may be a happy pair of lions at the beginning of the movie, but it's not long before Mufasa is being trampled to death in an unusually shocking scene. I don't recall corpses of major characters being shown in any other Disney film, even if Mufasa's looks rather less buffalo-trampled than you might expect.
Pocahontas (1995)Oh, this is getting ridiculous. Guess who's dead as this movie opens? Yep, Pocahontas's mother.
Toy Story (1995)Now we're into Pixar territory, with the world's first CGI feature film. And things have changed enormously. Yes, this time it's Andy's father who is conspicuous by his absence.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. So with that context, let's have a closer look at the extremely impressive 2003 Pixar effort, Finding Nemo. Nemo, our little clown fish hero, is not only without a mother (who, predictably, dies horribly in the film's opening scene), he's also disabled. Oh, and he lives inside an anemone to protect him from the thousands of fish who want to eat him. Life's hard for him from the word go. Marlin, his father, has some deep-seated emotional issues that manifest in extreme over-protectiveness. And then we have Dory.

Dory is definitely my favourite character in this film. She gets some of the best lines, including the whole "you can speak WHALE?" scene (Ellen DeGeneres voices her superbly, by the way) and the way the script deals with the character's short-term memory loss is hilarious without laughing at the medical condition itself. Well, not too much, anyway.

Dory's hilarity, though, distracts from the fact that her situation is terribly sad. We get that the first time we meet her, with the line "No, it's true, I forget things almost instantly. It runs in my family. least, I think it does. Umm..hmm. Where are they?" In a way, that's worse than the way the above-mentioned characters have lost one or more members of their family. If they had simply died, Dory could find a way to cope with that (even if, like Marlin, it's a very bad way). However, she knows they're somewhere out there in the ocean, but has no idea where. Her memory loss cuts her off in a very fundamental way from everyone around her. (More on that in a later post.)

It's towards the end of the film that we get the worst part. It's the low point for the main characters anyway: Marlin has just seen what he thinks is Nemo's dead body and is slowly heading home, defeated. Dory can't bear to see him go, and pleads with him not to leave her:
"Please don't go away. Please? No one's ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave... if you leave... I just, I remember things better with you. I do, look. P. Sherman, forty-two... forty-two... I remember it, I do. It's there, I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And-and I look at you, and I... and I'm home. Please... I don't want that to go away. I don't want to forget."
For my money, that's pretty close to the saddest thing any character says in any Disney film. Dory has finally found a way of tenuously re-connecting herself to a world that she has effectively lost (the mention of "home", connected with the earlier revelation that Dory has no idea where her home actually is, serves as a particularly effective twist of the knife), and now that's disappearing, literally in front of her eyes. And Marlin – possibly understandably at this point – does absolutely nothing to help.

One of the reasons why Disney movies have passed into film legend – and particularly why pretty much all the Pixars have – is that they end well. Unlike Steve Spielberg, who clearly has some horrible mental illness that causes him to add between ten and thirty completely unnecessary minutes to the end of every film he directs, Disney directors know that they have to wrap up all the loose ends in a happy and fulfilling way, ideally taking us back to the situation we saw at the start to show how it's changed, and then just stop. So in Beauty and the Beast, the final shot is in the same stained-glass style that we saw in the prologue, The Lion King ends with Rafiki holding up Simba's daughter on Pride Rock in the same way that he held Simba in the opening scene, and Finding Nemo closes with Marlin chivvying Nemo off to school, in a neat role reversal from a similar scene near the beginning.

I think that's why Disney gets away with putting so much tragedy into their films. Kids watching them may be scared at the appropriate points (I knew someone who, at the age of 18, was still unable to watch Mufasa's death in The Lion King without crying), but they know that when they reach the end, the villain will have received his suitably violent and frequently deliciously ironic comeuppance, the comic relief will be heading off into the sunset to do something wacky and/or zany, and the guy will get the girl. It's a simple formula, but one that works, and that nearly guarantees a good story.

Oh, and most importantly, they all live happily ever after.

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