Archive | May, 2013

The negative impact of the news

24 May

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The news is bloody depressing, isn’t it?!  And of course, it’s everywhere.  On my morning commute, I sit wedged between crowds of grey-faced commuters, flicking through their newspapers for some reading material to occupy them for the 40 minutes or so it takes to get to London Victoria.  With the rise in free newspapers, it has become commonplace to see old Metros and Evening Standards strewn about the place, helping to make London look just that little bit greyer (as it obviously needs help in that department).  Often, I find myself perched next to someone reading The Sun or some equally mindless drivel and my morbid curiosity leads me to scan what they are reading.  Perhaps this is a testament to my masochistic tendencies as the tasteless stories and shoddy reporting inevitably serve to depress me.  Recently, however, my aversion to newspapers has gone beyond simply loathing the tabloids.  Even the broadsheets, the supposedly more ‘respected’ newspapers, have started to provoke the same reaction in me and I am very seriously thinking about limiting my exposure to the media in general. But its ubiquity is so great that even through social networking and informal conversations, we are hit by nuggets of negativity.

As a personal development aficionado, I agree with many of the books in this genre that state that the constant barrage of bad news can be significantly detrimental to one’s mental state.  From an evolutionary psychological perspective, we can attribute our penchant for news of dramatic, negative events to the fact that our brains have evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. This may be so but surely in 2013 we should have moved beyond this now?! Nowadays it seems that the more sensationalist style in which a story is reported, the more newspaper copies are sold. In our celebrity culture, it sometimes seems that society has reverted back to a more barbaric time.  It seems that the majority of readers love a good bit of gossip and there is nothing better than irrational emotive headlines to stir people up and unite them in their hatred.

I have always found the sadistic pleasure in which people read about tragedies slightly disturbing; however, this is something universal in all of us.  However, I feel that the way news is often reported serves to bring that horrible quality out in all of us, which is incredibly destructive.  Too much exposure to this type of writing distorts your view of the world and alters your perspective, often for the worse, on life in general.  Of course, I don’t mean to say that we should all be oblivious to what is happening in the world and live our lives wrapped up in cotton wool but the news is inclined to report on everything bad or sordid – whatever sells – that is going on, rather than providing a balanced view of the world.  If, as many people do, one only reads or listens to the news, rather than also exploring other avenues of literature, then I am sure the world would look like a very nasty, barren place indeed.

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Currently reading… or more accurately, finished reading…

21 May

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… ‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’, an autobiographical novella by Tao Lin, that spans two years in the life of a young writer with a cultish following.  Lin writes in a detached, minimalist style (which continues onto the cover – how apt), avoiding any overt description of feelings and emotions, providing the bare minimum in pretty much all aspects.  In some ways, his approach is rather refreshing and contrasts with the laboured characterisations and narrative so many writers seem to favour.  Lin definitely abides by the rule: show, don’t tell.  This simplistic style is fitting with the novella’s prevalent themes of depression, apathy, ennui and loneliness and on several occasions, I found myself empathising with the protagonist’s aimlessness and quest to find something more meaningful in life.

Relationships are a major theme in the novella and the reader follows the protagonist, Sam’s brief dalliances with a number of girls after we learn that he has broken up with his long-term girlfriend, Sheila.  The reader later learns that Sheila is on drugs to alleviate her depression after the break-up and undergoing treatment at a ‘mental hospital’.  All characters are referred to by their first names which depicts the transience of most of the connections we make in life.  You meet people along the way, most of whom you only get to know briefly.  You are exposed to a snippet of someone’s personality when you both happen to meet on the same path but the path vacillates and it is very unlikely you ever truly know someone.  You only remember people by first names and they soon become distant characters in your old memories.  The frequent references to making friends online and video games heightens the sense of alienation and loneliness in Sam’s world.  These types of melancholy themes are explored in the novella with a surprising lightness and subtlety which I really enjoyed.

However, this novella is definitely straddling the esoteric, obscure, ‘too-cool-for-school’ border, with its frequent contemporary references.  Sam and his online friends chat via Gmail; he works in a vegan cafe and Lin slips in references to Kafka.  While I liked the overarching themes explored in this novella, I found the meandering plot a little too directionless at times and the style of speech started to grate.  However, I have definitely never read anything like this before and it painted a comprehensive stark picture of the disaffected Generation Y in today’s world.

Why I want to write

15 May

I was moaning to a friend about my (lack of) writing progress and she suddenly stopped me and posed the simple yet incredibly revealing question: ‘Why do you want to write?’ 

I was rather taken aback and shocked that I had no immediate response on the tip of my tongue.  Surely if I really wanted to write, I would be able to express why I want to with the least provocation?  In the past, I’ve probably batted away similar enquiries with the same vague digressions on how I enjoy creative writing, how I was relatively good at it at school and how I like reading. Bland, formulaic responses.  Sure – I do enjoy reading, this is a prerequisite for most aspiring writers but this isn’t  the key factor motivating me to write.  And whether you were ‘good’ at something at school is an even worse reason.  I was pretty average at science at school but this was due to the boring classes and uninspiring teachers we had, rather than the subject matter.  In fact, I’ve probably learnt far more about science by reading books out of my own volition and actively seeking answers in the last few years, sparked by curiosity about why and how things work.

This question has made me re-evaluate my motivations and purpose and at just the right time, too.  I believe that if you really want to write, it should not be a chore.  Of course, writing requires some form of discipline, especially if you wish to make some sort of living from it but ultimately, the therapeutic enjoyment it gives you should outweigh any of the negatives. Writing can be a lonely pastime so if you are going to put yourself through the hours of solitude it requires, a burning desire should be what motivates you, otherwise it all seems to be a waste of your valuable energy which could be employed elsewhere in a more social activity.

So, reflecting on all this, I have concluded that it is about time I change the way I view writing.  Recently, it has been something that I have viewed with trepidation and dread.  I have hesitated to write anything for fear it will be awful.  They key is to write through this ‘block’.  The likelihood is the first time I write things, it will be bad.  But I need to lay something down before I can even attempt to make things better.  There is no room for perfectionist tendencies when you are working on your first draft.  The red pen should come out afterwards.

The real reason, after much introspection, why I write is because I want – no, need –to articulate my thoughts in some tangible form to help me make sense of myself and the world in which I live.  In some ways, this is horribly egoistic but I believe this is a key motivating factor for most writers- writing helps to confirm my existence and carve out some sort of uniqueness in my experiences in a world of seven billion people. I love the escapism writing provides; I find thoroughly immersing yourself in writing has a therapeutic effect, where you lose yourself in a world which has no limits or judgement.  That is why I want to write.

Beastly Hall: A Place Where Artists and Creatures Collide

13 May

This weekend, I tootled down to Bexley Heritage Trust to see the contemporary art exhibition, ‘Beastly Hall’.  It is described as a step ‘into the fantastical mind of contemporary artists, exploring and revealing a more subversive contemplative and sometimes humorous idea of ‘beasts.’   It is a collection that includes: paintings, sculptures, taxidermy, ceramics, sound, bone and bronze and specially created site-specific installations.   This surreal and fantastical exhibition was a visual feast and sparked the imagination with its oddness and often grotesque portrayal of creatures.  The different works that were featured were diverse and wide-ranging, from the well-known Damien Hirst to the lesser known contemporary artists, which made for an incredibly interesting experience.

A personal favourite of mine was Nina Saunder’s ‘Fox with Issues’, which uses taxidermy to comically bizarre effect, with a fox seemingly venting his mental problems to a psychiatrist nowhere to be seen.  This work conjured up questions as to what it means to be human and have issues – mental health is something that is exclusively associated with people so what kind of issues does this fox have, exactly?

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Another favourite was HyungKoo Lee’s ‘Ridicularis’ which is a painstakingly accurate and realistic representation of the well-renowned cartoon character, Goofy.  This is a theme of Lee’s who imagines the skeletal forms of cartoon characters as objects in a museum, complete with Latin names. In person, there is something awe-inspiring about the work as Lee manages to successfully elevate the cartoon characters’ status from popular culture to natural history with amazing dexterity.

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A spectacular exhibition that ignites one’s imagination and explores the subjective idea of the ‘beast’ in weird and wonderful ways…

One of my favourite films…

8 May

…is ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’.  Written by Charlie Kaufman, it stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in what I think are their best performances so far.  Before watching this, most people associated Carrey with his exaggerated slapstick comedy and perhaps were slightly reticent about his broader acting skills (although ‘The Truman Show’ demonstrated his innate potential); however, I was blown away by his subtle and utterly convincing performance as Joel Barish, a sensitive and introverted character who is heartbroken after his girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski breaks up with him and has memories of their relationship erased.  I should probably state here that the film falls into the genre of ‘romantic dramedy science fiction’.  Admittedly this is an incredibly niche area but please do not be put people off if you are not usually keen on sci-fi as the film seamlessly and convincingly transports you into this alternative universe where erasing memories is possible.

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It is directed by the amazing Michel Gondry, who has worked on music videos for ‘The Chemical Brothers’ and ‘Cibo Matto’, so already I had high expectations.  The film explores the nature of memories – their transience and randomness which is highlighted by the non-chronological sequence in which the viewer observes Joel’s recollections.  The title is from the poem, ‘Eloisa to Aberlard’, by Alexander Pope:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

And who hasn’t, at one point or another, felt that ‘forgetting’ would improve things?

Upon finding out that Clementine has erased all memories of Joel, he immediately plans to do the same; however, in the middle of this process, he finds himself trying to cling desperately onto the memories of their relationship.  Whether good or painful, they are dear to him and he finds out too late that he does not want to lose memories of what time they spent together.  I am sure this is something that we can all relate to; the wish to blot out the past and move on afresh.  However, what this film so beautifully demonstrates, sadness and happiness are part of being real and human.  To erase this is to erase your experiences which make you the person you are.

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Another reason I love the film is because of the character of Clementine.  She’s not your typical female character; she can be inconsiderate, selfish but more importantly, she’s a lot more real than the average Hollywood starlet.  One of my biggest gripes in films is the stereotypical portrayal of the ‘quirky’ female lead (thanks, Zooey Deschanel).  No, you are not quirky or a little bit ‘wacky’ simply because you have a fringe, wear babydoll dresses with coloured tights and retro glasses.  Nor are you quirky because you spout ‘random’ inane statements that people find odd but also quite cute.  Give me an outright mental female character any day, complete with mental patient gown and straggly hair – there’s just something so formulaic about this twee shite that seems so ubiquitous at the moment.  Clementine is probably one of the best portrayals of real, insecure and flawed female lead in film history. On the outset, she appears extroverted with her colourful hair and her eccentric taste in clothes.  She is fickle, cheery and noisy but there is nothing pretentious about her.  I think it is something to do with her acknowledgement and acceptance of her flaws and imperfections (‘I’m just a f**ked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own piece of mind’) that is particularly appealing.  Her fiery personality is in stark contrast with Joel’s and that is what makes him (and most of the viewers, I’d imagine) love her.

Currently reading…

7 May

Nancy Mitford’s ‘A Talent to Annoy’ – Essays, Journalism & Reviews 1929 – 1971

a talent to annoy coverPerhaps I’ve become far more impatient recently but reading essays, rather than novels, seems far more appealing.  Maybe it’s some sort of nostalgic longing for old school days although to be fair, the essays then were far more boring.  And it’s safe to say that Mitford’s essays are definitely not boring.

I came across this collection of essays and various writings purely by chance as I was browsing a bookshop this bank holiday weekend.  I had heard of Nancy Mitford but wasn’t entirely sure who she was before.  It turns out she was a novelist and biographer and one of the Bright Young People on the London social scene in the interwar period.  Basically, she was a bohemian socialite in 1920s London – you know, all Flappers, experimentation, drink and drugs – and she belonged to an elite set which included the magnificent Evelyn Waugh.  She would often write for esteemed high-society publications such as Vogue and The Lady and her articles were often satirical pieces on society life, such as a woman’s ‘role’ at a shooting party.

I have only just started reading this collection of Mitford’s essays and other writings but I am already hooked.  Perhaps it is because in some part, I long to have lived in the roaring twenties but apart from that, I genuinely enjoy Mitford’s acerbic wit which shines through in her writing.  Some of her observations on society have literally made me laugh out loud (which always scares people on public transport) and I am captivated by her intelligence and independence.

It’s also interesting to see how the term socialite has adapted and evolved over the years.   Of course, Mitford was predominantly a writer and she should be regarded first and foremost as such… but it’s clear that they definitely don’t make socialites like they used to!

Falling for film noir

2 May

I am by no means a film buff but I do appreciate a good film.  Gone are the days when I would go to the cinema to watch any old rubbish (Hot Tub Time Machine, anyone?!), just for the ‘experience.’  Time is too precious to watch bad films (or read tedious books, for that matter) so I usually go and watch a film because the synopsis has drawn me in or I think the director is particularly talented.

At the end of last year, a friend and I found ourselves in a lovely independent cinema in Edinburgh, watching the 1957 film noir classic, ‘Sweet Smell of Success.’  We chose this out of all the other  films that were screening as there is something universally comforting about watching a black and white film on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  The film definitely did not disappoint.

I had watched some film noir before and liked the stylistic cinematography and the melancholic and cynical themes that the genre frequently explores.  The sharp dialogue sometimes takes a little time for you to properly adjust to but once I did, I found myself thoroughly immersed in the quick-talking, fast-paced world.  On perhaps a more superficial note, the sharp and glamorous outfits add an exciting dimension to the production and I found myself lusting after Susan Hunsecker’s fur coat the entire way through.

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‘Sweet Smell of Success’ had me hooked from the start with its exploration of corruption, intimidation, manipulation and dysfunctional sibling relationships.  The plot, in simple terms, revolves around Tony Curtis’ character who is a smarmy press agent and will do anything to curry big-shot columnist Hunsecker’s favour (played by Burt Lancaster).  While Curtis’ character is corrupt and in many ways unlikeable, Hunsecker is the ultimate villain, whose overprotective and obsessive behaviour towards his sister manifests in trying to destroy her relationship with her boyfriend (Steve Dallas).  Curtis is so desperate to get his clients in Hunsecker’s column that he becomes embroiled in a plot to shame and oust Steve Dallas, which ultimately leads to his own downfall.

Tony Curtis is brilliant as a charismatic cunning press agent. Apparently, though, fans of Curtis did not like his departure from the ‘nice guy’ character he had played so many times before – not unusual, of course; change is always met with resistance – which meant that his performance was initially not well received at the preview screening of the film.  Burt Lancaster’s performance as the bullying and intimidating columnist, Hunsecker, was also brilliant – Hunsecker was both convincing and terrifying.

Thankfully, though,  ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ gained in popularity and acclaim over the years as people were able to appreciate it for the stylish and ingenuous insight into the power held by the Manhattan press.