Well, for better or worse, here comes another six-month snapshot of this site’s performance. I seem to have managed to get on to a more regular posting schedule. To be honest, I still don’t understand how the ranking system correlates with the number of hits, nor whether the improvement in the regularity of my postings is the reason for the improvement in traffic numbers. All I can say is that, in the first six months of 2012, I’m averaging 976 hits per day with the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site now standing at around 285,050. I still have no real sense of whether this is good or bad for a review site. The only consolation is that traffic numbers do seem to have been relatively stable over the last four months.
As predicted in the last report, the Dong Yi pages have taken over nine of the top ten pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines although that’s dropping off as the final episodes are being broadcast. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 7,573 hits per page. In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:
These five pages have an average of 2,911 hits per page — less than half the number of hits for the top five Dong Yi pages. Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only two of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. This increases to seven of the top thirty, ten of the top forty, and fourteen of the top fifty. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, here’s the current top five:
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (2)
Troika by Alastair Reynolds (1)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (3)
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
Enormity by W G Marshall
In the last snapshot, the average for the top five books was 421 hits per page. This time, we’ve improved to 753 hits per page. I still find this rather depressing and I can only conclude that the number of sites offering ebook and other digital versions are swamping out the reviews. Why the same things doesn’t happen to the film and television content is one of life’s great unknowns. So there we have it. Another six months under my belt and a big thanks to all those who now follow the site. You’re part of the reason for the stabilisation of the daily number of hits.
Six months ago, I offered a second snapshot of this site’s performance by publishing the top five pages for both the visual and printed media. On this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to look back again since there does seem to have been yet another change.
For the record, the site had just over 1,500 hits in January, 9,000 hits in June, but this December is comfortably over 17,550 hits. It seems I’ve become rather more visible on the all-powerful Google rankings. What makes this somewhat fascinating is the interest in “foreign” material. I don’t consciously pick subject matter thinking this will get a lot of hits. I write about what I happen to have seen or read. My decision to write about Dong Yi, a very good Korean serial, has proved a major success with all the pages dominating the top quarter of the page counts. Indeed, there’s a chance the next top five in six months time may be all Dong Yi pages. The current top page is over 4,750 hits with the top five having 12,590 hits between them. This ignores the 36,500 hits on the Home Page which are anonymised on WordPress. The figures in brackets are the positions in the last listing.
The average page hits for the top five books has gone up from just under 200 to 421 but this remains a pale shadow of the average for the top five visual media at 2,518 hits. It says something about the way the rankings work that a review of Conan, a film based on a written work, can get three times the number of hits for Troika.
The average hits per page across the entire site is 278 which is a fairly dramatic increase from 112 hits six months ago.
So there we have it. I’m finishing the year on a high note. It will be interesting to see whether I maintain the momentum or drop back down into the doldrums. Frankly, this internet phenomenon all seems rather arbitrary and disconnected from what I do. Perhaps I should invite a publisher to send me a book for review that explains how the ranking system works and maximising performance. Not that it matters that much since I’ve not commercialised the site. I suppose setting up my own domain and trying to sell advertising would make a difference. Until then, I’ll bumble along and see what happens.
A happy and successful New Year to all who read this.
Some six months ago, I published a short piece celebrating Two Milestones. I did my best to be modest about achievements. After all, I hadn’t been trying very hard to promote the site and my postings to it had not been very consistent. But I put up the top five pages for both books and films, remarking in a neutral tone that each of the ten pages had secured more than one-hundred hits.
Six months is not a long time, but there has been a minor transformation. Having decided to share the space more equally between books and the visual arts, I have found significantly more hits for the latter. Indeed, my top page is approaching 1,500 hits with 5,458 hits spread between the top five pages.
In both lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists. For the record, Dong Yi is a marvelous historical Korean drama, the main focus of Sex Manga and Anime is the anime serial Zero no Tsukaima, and True Grit is one of only two Western entries in the top ten.
As to books, the top five is:
Troika by Alastair Reynolds
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow (2)
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine (1)
Feed by Mira Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
We are only averaging just under 200 hits for these five pages, but the overall average for the book pages is slowly catching up to the films, television and anime pages. There’s hope for the printed media yet. The average per page across the site is 112 hits and, before you ask, there is one page that has stubbornly refused to collect more than 1 hit in some two years.
As a postscript, the stubborn page that had only collected one hit since being published in June, 2009 collected its second hit on August 7th 2011. Perhaps it will now develop escape velocity and rise rapidly to four, or even five, hits.
When I started this site, it was really just a way of letting off steam. I spend so much of my time writing what others pay me to write, this was my busman’s holiday. But as weeks have become months, I’ve found myself spending slightly more time on this. Traffic has been increasing to the point I may actually have to take a more professional approach. Not that I’ve any plans to monetise it, but the whole enterprise might have a better feel if I begin to be a little more disciplined. Ah well, we’ll see what happens. If anyone out there would be interested in contributing reviews or opinion pieces, let me know. There’s an e-mail address on the “About” page. The site might benefit from a diversity of views or spreading the coverage to include music, games or more general topics of interest.
So we’ve a New Year approaching and I’ve just posted the 150th review. To celebrate both landmarks, I decided to post the top five posts for books and the visual media. Thanks to your support, all the pages in these lists have one-hundred or more hits. I say this without any real sense of achievement. The top review sites have pages with thousands of hits. But it’s nevertheless satisfying that, without any real effort on my part except writing and publishing the pages, I am attracting hits.
I place no particular significance on the success of these winning posts. I had originally speculated I might do better with reviews of anthologies because each page would mention multiple authors — all the better to hit me with. That there are two anthologies in my top five books is therefore a pleasing result. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next twelve months. As to the films (none of the television reviews made it into the top five), with one exception, the most popular are “foreign” language where there are not so many mainstream reviews. I’m popular by default but not proud. I take my popularity no matter why it comes. So, without more ado, here we go:
Top five books
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow
Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern
Jade Man’s Skin by Daniel Fox
Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham
Top five films
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes in the original Swedish
Bruce Lee, My Brother
Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec or Adele: Rise of the Mummy
I finally raised myself from the torpor of negativity, putting aside the mantras, “How can anything by M Night Shyamalan be any good?” and, “All the critics I routinely read and whose sensibilities are close to mine are unanimous in their condemnation of this film.” Why, you mutter darkly into your metaphorical beards, should you do something so obviously daft? Well, I’m a fan of the original Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender. And the film version has grossed about $225 million worldwide. So, could it be that the quality of the original story has saved Shyamalan from himself? Eventually, I decide I have to see for myself. I collect two experts — nine-year olds with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the original — and we enter the depths of the 3D realms with hearts beating apprehensively.
First, the good news. Confronted by the task of distilling the 20 episodes of Book 1: Water into a film of sensible length, Shyamalan has actually made some intelligent decisions. The narrative is clearly focussed so that it builds to the self-sacrifice of Princess Yue. This should produce a climax of great emotional power as a counterpoint to the Avatar’s destruction of the invading Fire Nation’s fleet. Even more importantly, the change of emphasis in Iroh’s role lays down more clear makers for future developments.
We all liked the “look” of the film and felt the realisation of the bending was well done except the general limitation on the fire benders seemed unnecessary. There’s no reason to force the majority of benders to use existing fire rather generate it internally. The elite fire benders like Iroh can make their own and so much of the rest of the series revolves around the power of the comet to enhance this internal power, that it looks a strange plotting choice. Ah well, if the other two films are made, we can make a better judgement. About halfway through, both boys took off their 3D glasses. Even though I felt the depth of field was poor, I kept mine on to the end. You can always hope for an intelligent use of technology. Shame really. . .
On the acting front, the standouts are Shaun Toub (an Iranian actor) as Iroh and Dev Patel (an Indian) as Prince Zuko. They actually feel real and have a genuine relationship that casts a giant shadow over the entirely wooden performances turned in by everyone else. I can only assume this was a directorial decision, simplifying Zuko’s coming-of-age journey by providing a more emotionally supportive Iroh from the outset. Only if you have the leisure of three seasons of half-hour episodes can you fully realise Zuko’s wrestling match with his conscience.
Well, that’s the end of the good news. First a thought about the casting. Noah Ringer as the Avatar, Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka are Americans rescuing the world from the threatening foreigners led by Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao and the Maori Cliff Curtis as Fire Lord Ozai. Hollywood has this tedious insistence on white supremacy over the foreign devils. I have noticed some defensiveness from Shyamalan on this issue. If the second in the series is to be made, he has a chance to recover the situation with the casting of the pivotal Toph. If we avoid the mandatory American, we may feel Shyamalan has slightly redeemed himself.
But there remain two major problems that wreck the entire experience. The first is the essentially declamatory acting style of the American trio. There’s absolutely no investment of emotion in their performances. They are sincere and honest, but all attempts at acting are avoided. I cannot understand this decision. Not to inhabit the characters, but merely to state their lines credibly, is extraordinary to watch. It immediately places an insurmountable barrier between the actors and the audience. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the complete lack of emotion in the relationship between Sokka and Princess Yue. Which brings me to the second problem.
There’s absolutely no set-up for the key events in the film. It starts and, before you can draw breath, Katara and Sokka have dug up the Avatar and lost him to Prince Zuko. It must rank as being one of the most perfunctory of opening five minutes in any major action film made during the last twenty years. But the worst of this comes when we finally get to the North Pole. I cannot recall seeing the opportunity for a magnificent ending so butchered by the script and acting performances. What should be a touching relationship between Sokka and Yue, complicated as a love triangle in the animated version, is completely thrown away. Worse, because we are not given any chance to see Yue as a rounded character, her decision to replace the Spirit of the Moon is merely sad instead of an example of heroic self-sacrifice to save her people. Finally, there’s the extraordinary decision to have the Fire Nation navy frightened away by the Avatar’s demonstration of water power. In the original, the Avatar kills everyone in the fleet. This emasculation of the Avatar is beyond redemption. The Avatar is the power to bring balance to the world and, in each incarnation, does whatever is expedient to arrive at a just outcome. This unfortunate end to the invasion of the North Pole is one of the psychological factors making the Avatar’s journey to find peace within himself so powerful. In this, the Avatar matches Prince Zuko as they both seek redemption for the “sins” of their earlier incarnations/fathers. This was not too dark for an essentially children’s and YA audience in the animated version. It should not be too dark in this film. No self-respecting Fire Nation fleet would simply have retreated in this cowardly way. Their fear of the Fire Lord would have kept them fighting to the bitter end. More importantly for the future plot, it’s because the fleet is destroyed that the Fire Nation invests in air power when rebuilding its military capabilities.
So, as a curiosity piece, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how not to make a motion picture of a fine animated series, this is unbeatable. As a final thought, my nine-year olds emerged full of ire, quoting chapter and verse of all the “good stuff” missing from this version. Even they could see this was but a pale imitation of a brilliant original.
And for those who missed the news, this epic has gone on to win five Razzies as the worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay, worst supporting actor and worst use of 3D. It seems we are unanimous.
Neutrality is a most curious convention in International Law. When all about you are fighting, one country stands aloof and refuses to support any of the “sides”. The curiousness lies not so much in the wish to avoid fighting — the risk of casualties both in the armed forces and the civilian population would deter all rational governments from involvement — but in the willingness of the actual combatants to respect the assertion of neutrality and not allow the theatre of war to stray over the relevant borders. So Sweden managed to remain relatively uninvolved in WWII. There was significant trade, significant volumes of money moved through the banking system, some Swedes fought in the German army. Some even worked as guards in Treblinka. The degree of collaboration is one of those unexplored pieces of history. More modern Swedish governments prefer to remember heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian jews by issuing them with Swedish passports, carefully reconstructing history in the schools and media generally to divert attention from the inconvenient truth.
One of the more illuminating lines in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor is that everyone has secrets, even countries. Given that the plot surrounds a family whose wealth was undoubtedly enhanced through collaboration with the Nazis, we are immediately pitched into a classic murder mystery from the Golden Age with the political ideology of Aryanism to the fore. Only a limited number of people could have “done it” because, at the relevant time, all the key players were trapped on an island by a serious traffic accident. But there are two elements that lift this from a mundane Agatha Christie plot into a work for modern sensibilities. The first is that it plays with the nature of history and the power of the modern eye to interpret and reinterpret the signs from the past. In this, it’s clearly following in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its deconstructionist and semiotic undertones. The ability to manipulate images and to excavate the past for even the most trivial of pieces of paper are the keys to all understanding. The second decision of note is to take an unflinching look at misogyny. I cannot remember a film in recent years that exposes all the prejudices and abuses that lie mostly hidden under the surface of most modern societies. Perhaps from a poor understanding of Scandinavia, I had always thought Sweden was a relatively civilised country. Sadly, if this film is in any way representative of reality, it seems just as venal and corrupt as the rest of the world when it comes to the treatment of women.
In this, the pivotal character is the eponymous girl, played with outstanding suppressed violence, by Noomi Rapace. It’s an intensely demanding role and, in the wrong hands, it would have completely changed the character of the film, probably condemning it to the direct-to-video route to oblivion. As it is, her performance is one of the most memorable I can recall in the last decade. She has been abused at every point during her life, yet she manages to retain integrity and a brutal kind of honesty. In the end, she gives as good as she gets. Playing her foil is Michael Nyqvist as a journalist paid to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of a girl some forty years ago. Nyqvist is passive and understated but, because of his honesty and empathy, he is able to bridge the gap with Rapace’s character. Apart they are interesting. Together they become an unstoppable force for truth. Unlike Sweden itself which played a game of neutrality during WWI, this film takes no prisoners when it comes to confronting the abuse of women in Swedish society.
Almost without exception, every character is beautifully played from the obsessed industrialist who pays the journalist to find the murderer, to Peter Andersson’s extraordinarily corrupt Guardian responsible managing the dragon girl’s money while she is out of mental hospital on licence, to Björn Granath as the determined local police officer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with the current stars of Swedish film and television, but the entire cast of “unknowns” emerge as fresh and talented. One further cast member must be mentioned. The scenery of the island and key locations are stunningly beautiful, if somewhat bleak, a factor that plays against the emerging horror of the investigation and surrounding events.
I am disturbed by stories that the film is to be reshot for American audiences. Apparently, Daniel Craig is lined up to play the journalist. Frankly, I think this is a supreme insult to the director and cast of the Swedish original produced by Yellow Bird. I cannot conceive of any sanitised script with a cast of stars coming remotely close to being as good. Having James Bond in the remake is ludicrous casting against type and can only be explained by Hollywood’s lack of faith in the quality of the story. You can just imagine the producers in a smoke-filled room, “We need a star to carry this movie — unknowns would condemn our remake to the arthouse circuit.” In truth, the only reasons for this offensive decision are the extreme parochialism of America that, for the most part, is hostile to any culture other than what it claims as its own. And the inability of the audience to read the subtitles. Let’s face it, the desperation of US distributors cannot be better illustrated than by the rerecording of the voice tracks for Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animations. There has been no worse butchery in recent years than cutting out the sensitive vocal performances of the Japanese casts in favour of Hollywood stars. I shall be watching the other two Swedish films in this Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I will not be queuing to watch the Hollywood remakes.
For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)
The world continues to throw up the occasional marketing campaign to stimulate curiosity. I enjoyed the recent Batman films so going to see Christopher Nolan’s stand-alone science-fictional effort, Inception (2010), seemed a good idea. Every now and again, it does me good to run with the herd, to remember what it’s like to jump off a cliff with all the other lemmings.
So there I am, comfortably installed in the cinema — amazingly only the one trailer for Harry Potter, no ads. Thank God for longer films! Shame about the Potter. And so, in the best of the racetrack jargon, we’re off and running.
About fifteen minutes into the film, I register a discussion about perceptions in a dream. Cobb, our hero, asks his architect how they arrived at this particular place in Paris. She cannot remember. There’s a discontinuity. I am immediately triggered into comparing the medium of film with dreaming. Because of the time limitations, directors cut between one scene and the next, leaving it to the viewers to fill in the blanks. We are well trained, always being prepared to infer the missing events. So dreams are also discontinuous as the subconscious flits from one set of narrative elements to another. I begin to wonder whether any of what we are watching is intended to be “real” or is it all to be a dream. I am further reinforced in this speculation as the idea of multiple levels in dreaming is introduced and discussed. Then the game is completely exposed when Cobb is trying to escape in Mombassa and runs down an ever-narrowing passageway.
Perhaps I am too old to be watching young film-makers try to say something new.
In this instance, I can identify two good things about the end-product. Even though it’s not terribly original, I like the logic of the plot. Having decided which of the possible stories he’s going to tell, Nolan is very disciplined, carefully setting out his ground rules, and then watching them play out to the end. Overall, I think it goes on for about twenty minutes too long. There’s just too much repetitive shooting and explosions, particularly in the third level where the snow looks pretty even though the action is tedious.
The second good thing is the quality of the cinematography and design. Some of the dreamscapes are impressive although, again, the zero gravity sequence goes on too long.
But there’s a real problem. I think the best way to explain it is to remind myself of the number of exciting games I have watched. When you spectate, particularly as a player yourself, you are immediately drawn into the ebb and flow of the action. Although there’s always satisfaction in watching any game played really well, nothing beats the raw emotion of empathising with the winner and commiserating with the loser. Any good work of fiction, whether on the page, on stage or the screen must encourage us to suspend disbelief. It may not be real, but the director hopes we will empathise with the key players.
The mark of a great film is the way in which it captures and holds our interest. We must want the key protagonist to win, or not to lose too badly. The difficulty with Inception is that it’s like watching over someone’s shoulder while he or she plays a video game. I can stand this for a few minutes but, with little turning on the outcome, I’m rarely involved. It’s different if I’m the one playing. Then, regardless whether my level of performance is good or bad, it’s my effort and, as a competitive soul, I dislike losing to some stupid machine. But all I was doing this afternoon was watching Nolan play a first-person shooter game. It had great visuals and Zimmer’s music was the usual atmospheric pomp, but I was not involved. These were not real people. At best, they were projections of the subconscious mind. In a sense, it did not matter which actors happened to be on the screen at any one time. They were merely going through the motions necessitated by the plot. On three occasions, individuals were asked to make a leap of faith. I could not do it. I wish it were otherwise, but Inception (2010) is a film you admire for its technical virtuosity but forget because it had no heart.
As always, I can pick winners for this won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form at the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention.
<p style="font:16px Times New Roman;color:#001100;margin:0;"
I have just seen the new billion-dollar epic by James Cameron. Avatar (2009) has now joined Titanic. They are officially the two biggest grossing films of all time (ignoring inflation). It seems Cameron has a magic touch when it comes to extracting money from paying audiences. A number of adjectives float through the mind, but the most appropriate is probably “magical” (as a reference to its visual qualities and not the additional cost of seeing it in 3D). I remember vividly going to a demonstration of 3D as one of the acts in a musical hall in Newcastle in 1952. In between the comics and singers, we all reverently joined Dr. Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht and balanced these somewhat incongruous cardboard spectacles on our noses. This invited us into a world of novelty, ducking and weaving as various objects were (seen to be) thrown at us from the stage. Rather like travelling down to London for the Festival of Britain, we had a sense that, despite all the bomb devastation surrounding us as a continuing reminder of the War, the future was going to be a miraculous place. Except there was constant disappointment in the offing. Living in a sleepy little town on the North East coast of England, we had a local cinema that showed a steady diet of horror and sci-fi films, some of which were filmed in 3D. But, because the technology to show them was never installed, the best we could do was to guess how much more frightening Vincent Price could be. In fact, I have no recollection of seeing anything in 3D until venturing back into the cinema to see Avatar. It seems the miracle of the future takes its own time about appearing.
I can only marvel at the extent of the progress made in fifty years. The experience of finally seeing depth of field on, and as an extension to, the screen was modestly remarkable. Some of the trompe l’oeil effects were subtle and crept up on you as a watcher involved in the narrative, pausing every now and again to note that the perspective was being enhanced through the fourth wall. If only the narrative itself could have matched the imagination of the visual effects.
Just about every possible cliché and then some have been cobbled together as the plot of this pretentious rubbish. This is every Edenic stereotype ecosystem and culture you could hope to find in a single place with an all-powerful Gaia prepared to be the deus ex machina on demand if too many of the local life forms are losing out to the military muscle of Earth’s forces. So many sources have been mined for ideas from Poul Anderson to Lloyd Biggle to Ursula K. Le Guin with the latter’s The Word for World Is Forest probably the closest match. This planet is a source of Unobtanium — every film has to have a McGuffin and there’s no reason why it should have anything other than an ironic name — and Earth’s rapacious industrial-military complex is not going to let some tree-hugging bunch of indigenous primitives stand in its way of obtaining all they want and need.
So we are suddenly pitched into the worst of the Apocalypse Now style of film where military pragmatism in the means of superior fire power becomes a symptom of insanity and immorality with death nothing more than unfortunate collateral damage in the pursuit of the end. If the plotting had stopped here, we could have relived all the best and worst of the films dealing with the use of force against a technologically inferior enemy. This encompasses everything from the Roman army’s ability to trample over the barbarian hordes through to the current asymmetrical conflict in Afghanistan where drones ignore geographical borders in the pursuit of terrorists on the ground — in this, we can note that those who fly these drones treat them like avatars and, in the spirit of shoot ‘em up video games, eradicate life through their monitor screens. But Cameron was not content with a “war is bad” film. He wanted the moral high ground to be commanded by a human “hero”. This theme always has to be handled with some care as, in this instance, the human is a turncoat. As an Army Ranger, discharged because of injury, he would be expected to side with the military on his return. Except he is seduced by the tree-huggers.
Ah, yes, we have the primitives shown how to fight back by a renegade human. The world of Pandora has to become as violent and ruthless as the human invaders — “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” goes the idiom and, when it comes to throwing away the lives of the locals, our hero is as caring as General Sir Douglas Haig at the Battle of the Somme. All his recruits from hither and thither across the face of the planet come to fight like Red Indians on their steeds and in the spirit of the Dragonriders of Pern. Only our hero prevails because, naturally, he gets to fly the biggest predator — size really does matter when it comes to taking on helicopter gunships. But there is an even less welcome note about the film. Unless my tired old eyes deceive me, there are only Caucasians and Hispanics in the human army. So it takes a white guy to show these primitive blue creatures how to defend themselves. With the destruction of their tree home, they would all have retreated into the forest like whipped dogs, but they are rallied by our hero. For the word “racism”, I offer the tentative definition that it assumes some racial groups may be superior to others. The humans clearly believe they are superior to the indigenous blue folk. They offer them the benefits of education and, when this gift fails to persuade them of humanity’s good intentions, they immediately fall back on the gun. Yet, by the time our white guy has finished, the tall blue folk are holding guns with the same potential killing intent as the whipped white folk as they escort the survivors off the planet. In this case, Uncle Tom is a tall blue alien who is submissive to a white leader and thereby becomes as white as him.
So this is a film that will appeal to all those people who manage to be simultaneously members of the NRA and Green Peace. For the rest of you, switch off your mind. The more you think about the film, the more painful it gets. Despite this, it does remain a quite remarkable piece of cinema. No matter how awful its politics, it is unsurpassed as a set of moving images. It is genuinely worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find with the 3D spectacles balanced on your noses. Hopefully, better writers will exploit the technology in future productions — just think how awful the The Jazz Singer (1927) is but “talkies” became the norm.
I am provoked into writing this by a rerun of Patch Adams on TV. The name had registered as something I’d seen, but I’d forgotten how embarrassingly awful it is, displaying mawkish sentimentality on a sickening level. And I got to thinking: how is it that such films get to be made and, having been made, get to be endlessly recycled on our television screens? You would think that something so ghastly would subside into oblivion, too embarrassed by itself ever to reappear. Except there seems to be an audience for it and other films of its ilk, sadly not only as a secret pleasure on DVD. Patch Adams was nominated for a Golden Globe and had the not inconsiderable box office takings of US$202m in 1998.
I recall someone in a science fiction novel saying with a perfectly straight face that entropy is the tendency of any system to devolve to its lowest level. While Patch Adams is not quite of Razzie standard, I think it deserves honorary status. For me, it’s yet one more symptom proving the Hollywood system is in full devolution mode. Why, then, are such films made? Obviously, the studios and the producers who bankroll them must have faith their products will show a profit. In this case, Williams was a star with drawing power and the script contained the right number of clichés. Remarkably, with a production budget of US$90, their faith was rewarded with a profit. Free market capitalism is a wonderful thing. It assumes that, with all transactions voluntary, customers decide what survives to make money. If a supplier routinely offers a bad product, customers will react as Pavlovian dogs and take their business elsewhere. This will drive out the bad suppliers and favour those that offer good products. There were enough people to make a market for Patch Adams, but not all products are so fortunate. Not all customers are the same.
The point of an average or the more infamous lowest common denominator is that they are distillations from a potentially wide range of values. Famously, when dissolving their business partnership, Robert Owen said to W. Allen, “All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.” So, from one person’s perspective, everyone else is different or strange. Life is something we do on our own. We accumulate experiences that shape our opinions and sensibilities. Some of these experiences may be shared but, when added together, the whole tends to be unique. How unique? The degree of strangeness between people may only by marginal in the main, but it can produce radically different responses to the same stimuli. What I like need not be what you like or we might like the same thing but for completely different reasons. You might find something serious and uplifting, the same might make me laugh, or vice versa.
Why, you might ask, was I watching Patch Adams. Boredom threatened. I had a few minutes on my own. I did not want to start a new book. There was no choice. . . Most of the time, there is no choice. You either go to the cinema to see whatever dross Hollywood has produced, or you stay at home. You switch on the TV and channel-flip until you find something vaguely watchable. In the arts, there is no guarantee that any work will be any good. The latest album, the latest book, the latest film. . . All you can do is hope. A momentum builds up. The most recent offerings from this band, this author or this director have been good. I will try the next. This may not be very rational but, once formed, habits are difficult to break. This inertia is what the marketers rely on. I should wait for the reviews before buying, except whose reviews do you trust when so many websites are involved in marketing? Reviews on major sites like Amazon are gamed.
When it comes to cultural products, there’s a group of people who appoint themselves style leaders. Think fashion and the marketers have programmed the names of the current top designers to pop into our minds. The same applies to most niches. A combination of messages aims to persuade us that this product is the best, better than all the rest. So the mass media manipulates coverage of the “facts” and shapes opinion, telling us that, to belong to the in-crowd, we must all like such-and-such or all do this special thing. No-one questions whether belonging to the in-crowd has any real value. It’s apparently a given that there’s safety in numbers — it’s better to be one of us and not one of them. Yet, curiously, the limited interest in Patch Adams lies in showing one herd’s mentality as cruel and uncaring, while only an eccentric clown can know what is best for all.
People are not the same yet the status of authority figures and the power of peer pressure are forged into a force that drives consensus. So millions are convinced that Robin Williams is entertaining. Similarly, J K Rowling is the greatest children’s author of all time and Dan Brown is the best writer of mystery stories since whoever put pen to parchment and produced the Dead Sea Scrolls with the intention of stirring up religious controversy. I suppose all this makes me a culture snob, born to sneer both at films mired in bathos and at books by authors who cannot write reasonably original content in coherent English. Fortunately, there are some films made for the small audience that thinks. Some authors do rise above the routine. But those capitalists who make the commissioning and contractual decisions prefer content that aims at the lowest common denominator. That gives the work crossover appeal and the chance for mass market success. With all the money flowing from the mass market, there can be subsidies for works that will only sell more modestly. So what all this comes down to is that I’m a parasite, pathetically grateful to the masses that like Patch Adams, J K Rowling, Dan Brown and all the other milk cows of the arts world. Without all you, the industry would never make enough money to be able to subsidise publishing the stuff I like to see, hear and read.