So insufferably precious

So insufferably precious

Precious – the movie that had champagne socialists all gooey in 2009 – finally found its way to my DVD drive the other night.

It was disappointing.

I like realism. There are lots of bad things going on. We should examine and talk about them. They need to be seen and discussed. Film, television, literature and the arts can do that.

Precious, however, was just too precious.

Inexorably, like all American crap, it descended into an uninteresting “Great Satan” versus “Truth, Justice and the American Way” narrative.

The title character, Precious, is a 16-year-old girl in 1987 Harlem. She is kicked out of school when she is discovered to be pregnant for the second time. To her father. For the second time. She and her mother live together on social assistance. Her mother is a nasty piece of work.

Precious, after being kicked out of school, goes to an alternative school where, shock-wheeze-gasp, she finds a teacher who sees her inner beauty and strength and refuses to give up on her.

She excels at the alternative school, learns to read, has her baby and discovers she has HIV.

Precious’s life is pretty shit.

And that, in a nutshell, seems to be the metatheme of the entire film: being Precious sucks.

Yeah, well. Lots of things suck.

Tension does arrive near the film’s conclusion when Precious’s welfare officer, played by Mariah Carey, tells Precious that her domineering violent mother wants to be reunited with her.

At this meeting, the welfare officer forces the mother to discuss the rapes that the mother’s boyfriend, Precious’s father, subjected her to.

We learn that the sexual abuse started when Precious was 3 years old, and that the mother only wants Precious back for proprietal rather than emotional reasons. Precious’s mother still harbours jealousy that her man preferred his own daughter to her.

But that’s it: the whole reveal is that the evil mother character ain’t no regular evil mother character but the Evil Mother Character From Hell! The worst! She’s sick and depraved!

Precious’s life really really really sucks! Okay? Get it?

I became convinced of my argument that this film is just more good-versus-evil American crap when I considered the scenes of escapism that played out while Precious was being raped/finding out she had HIV/being beaten up by her mother.

These lush scenes involved Precious on a red carpet signing autographs, dancing on television with handsome men, etc.

In other words, Precious’s life sucks and… she wants to be famous!

Fame, the all-American cure-all.

Did I mention Precious hates crack junkies? Can’t stand them. She hates it when they buzz her buzzer for no reason. That’s how good Precious is, okay?

Even the subplot relationship between Precious and the alternative schoolteacher was flat. We learn, when Precious briefly moves in with her, that the teacher is a lesbian. Precious seems surprised, but the plot angle adds nothing. Same goes for the male nurse who helps Precious at the hospital after she gives birth to her son. They become friends. Why? Dunno. They just do.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on this movie, but my point is that the brutal realism serves no real purpose if it fails to make the viewer think. In my experience, thinking comes with nuances, such as plot tricks, textured characters and giving more questions than answers.

The characters, plot and theme of this movie were handed over on a plate, asking nothing of the audience other than to feel the requisite liberal guilt we are all supposed to feel for living in racist, class-ridden societies.

In other words, Precious is more about answers (blame bad people) then questions (why do people live like this in the world’s wealthiest country?)

I think there could be a huge improvement if the film were turned into a comedic musical.

I’m trying to figure out how to work in a bit part for Rodney Dangerfield.

Stay tuned.

I so miss them

I so miss them

I saw Carey Marx at the comedy thingy a few weeks back in Auckland.

He was funny.  He made me laugh.

“I can always tell when the woman I’m fucking is about to….die.  She usually stops struggling.”

“The sign said ‘keep off the grass’.  Someone said ‘hey!  Can’t you read the sign?’  I said, ‘yes, I can.  I’m already on the grass.  You need a sign that says ‘get off the grass’”

Those were funny.

But by and large it was a derivative review of Richard Pryor and George Carlin’s almost-best-ofs.

And man how I miss Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

They died so close together.

I miss them more than my own grandparents – and not just cause they were slightly funnier.  (Seriously my grandparents were funny).

Pryor was the king.  He stood on stage and talked, for ages, about what a bad person he was. And he talked about race.

“I shot my car, jack.  Then the vodka in me said ‘yeah you shoot motherfucker one more time.’”

“I am tired of the police coming to MY house to put MY ass in jail.  Cops don’t shoot cars.  They shoot niggARS.”

“You go down to the courthouse looking for justice, that’s what you gonna find.  Just us.”

“Cocaine make you think some crazy shit.  ‘Ok, darling.  You stand on the top of this building and I’ll run around it.  On the third pass, I want you to jump on my face.’  I have a witness!”

“You get in an argument with a white guy and he says ‘hey man fuck you’ and you say ‘no fuck you’ and then he says ‘nigger!’ and you think ‘shit, I ain’t a man no more.’  I hope they give that shit up.”

Carlin was more absurdist and grew out of the so-called counter-culture.

Carlin did the seven things you can’t say on television.  (Marx did the 10 things you can’t say in stand-up comedy).

Google Jerry Seinfeld’s obit of George Carlin.

“Look at the two men who ran this war:  Dick Cheney and Colon Powell:  someone got fucked in the ass!”

“Anorexia.  Another all American disease.  Rich cunt don’t want to eat?  Fuck her.  What do I give a fuck.  ‘I don’t wanna eat!’  Fine.  Go fuck yourself”.

“Rape can be funny.  Imagine if Mickey Mouse was raping Donald Duck.”  (Marx did a bit on rape).

Marx also sounded a bit too much like Lenny Bruce.

Bruce was Jewish.  So is Marx.

Bruce was famous for de-contextualising the word “nigger”.

Pryor stopped saying “nigger” after he went to Africa.

Shannen Doherty eyes

Nigger was the number one on Marx’s list of 10 things you can’t say in stand up.

Bruce made the point — a point I agree with — that nigger is a word.  Say it lots of times fast.  It sounds weird and loses meaning.

Then again, I’m an anti-semiotist.

Marx made the same point about the word cunt:  cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt.

All art is derivative.  Nothing is being done for the first time.  I don’t profess to be an iconoclast comic.

However, the stakes seem low these days.

Must have an irony deficiency

In an old Looney Tunes cartoon, Daffy Duck, playing a sheriff, holds a gun to a crim’s face who proceeds to bite the gun in half.

“Must not have had his iron today,” Daffy says.

He pronounced iron EYE-run.

That always made me laugh.

So I would like to talk briefly about our country’s irony deficiency.

I fear it may be getting critical or pathological.

In his book “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, Christopher Hitchens says something about irony.

Had I more time and not lended the book to my sister-in-law I would reproduce exactly what he said.

Suffice to say that Mr Hitchens — and I with him — believes that irony is important.

Irony simply means to say one thing whilst actually meaning something else.

(Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the main character does not.  At least I think it does. You, perhaps, know better.)

In my experience, irony doesn’t wash in New Zealand.

In this country, one says what one means and one means what one says.

When I first moved here, people would often ask what I was doing in New Zealand.

“Easy,” I would say, “I’m actually on a rodeo scholarship.”

“No, no, no, mate.  Not much rodeo around here,” many would reply.

Well, no.  There isn’t.  I was joking and I thought I was doing so in an obvious manner.  More fool me.

So why is irony important?

Irony is often funny.  I thought my rodeo joke was funny.  It shows a critical mind.

Irony also shows confidence, just like the use of humour.  To use irony is to say, “Lo, I am confident and I will take a risk.  And if you don’t get it is you, not I, who are the thicky, Blackadder.”

Finally, irony makes sure things can’t be taken too seriously.  This is imperative.  Nothing we do is really that important.  We’re alive for about a nanosecond on the great cosmic spectrum and eventually absolutely nobody will ever remember a single thing we did let alone that we were ever alive.

We are born astride the grave blah blah blah.

So why don’t we have time for irony in New Zealand?  Why do we have no political satire of value?  Why don’t we like to laugh?

In my next post, I will discuss these questions through a review of what was, without doubt, the worst production in theatrical history.

I speak, of course, of “Le Sud”.

We don’t really know

Last Sunday at around 6pm I was sitting in a fish and chip shop in Tairua waiting for my order.

It was humid and everyone in the place was wilting.  A few flies buzzed around.  The late day sun was pouring in through the front window making me sweat.

A group of people entered the shop.

The first guy I saw was wearing a yellow T-shirt with white gym socks pulled up just under his board shorts.  Then there was a guy in the baseball cap and wrap around sunglasses.  He was standing next to the balding guy with huge eyebrows.

Each of them was standing with a woman, all of them pretty in a safe, kind of American sitcom way.

Who are these people, I thought?

Eavesdropping is not a gentleman’s pastime, but they were sitting close to me on the bench against the wall of the fish and chippie.

They started talking about how old they were.

Yellow T-Shirt admitted to being 30.  Hat Guy admitted he was 29, but said he wouldn’t tell them his wife’s age unless she let him.  She let him:  25.  Eyebrows was 26.  The other two women were around the same age.

Then they got on to where and when they got married.

Seriously, who are these people?

Hat Guy said, “Yeah, I’m only 29 and I’ve got a lot of things I want to do before I die.”

“Oh babe,” said his wife, “you’ll also have lots of time to do all those things in heaven!”

Suddenly I became a beast in a nature documentary.

My back stiffened.  My ears ached as they involuntarily pointed toward the conversation.  My pulse quickened.

“I know, but I just can’t get over the idea of heaven being kind of boring,” Hat Guy said.

He took off his wrap-arounds, gave them a polish.

“I mean what are we supposed to do up there?  The problem is that we don’t really know.”

Silence ensued, but Yellow T-Shirt guy saw his opening.

“I’m just going to mountain-bike all day, I reckon.  But like, if I fall off my mountain bike in heaven, like really bad, would I still break my leg?”

The tension left as the group broke into smiles and a few mumbled “no way” or “not in heaven, mate”.

By this point, I was getting anxious that my order might be ready just as things were getting interesting.

Then Huge Eyebrows’ wife said, “I think heaven will be really choice.”

Huge Eyebrows shot his wife a glance, put his hand on her arm and cleared his throat.

The group looked at him.

“The thing about heaven,” said Huge Eyebrows, “is that it could be that we take on an entirely different existence.  Our understanding of matter could totally change.  It could all just be, like, spiritual.”

There was a group nod.

“Yeah, but we do get new bodies in heaven,” said Yellow T-Shirt, perhaps smarting from his broken-bone question.

“Yeah, that’s true — we do get new bodies,” said Huge Eyebrows.

The group looked at the ground.

“Well, heaven does have eleven stages,” Hat Guy said, “so like maybe we pass back and forth between the different ones.  Sometimes it’s spiritual.  Sometimes its physical.  I mean, the truth is that we won’t really know until we all get there.”

More nods and mumbles of approval followed.

“Order number 69?” the girl said from behind the till.

Before getting up, I looked down at my lap and realised I had left my iPhone on.

Cognitive dissonance consumed me.

I’d been reading Candide.

Title image is “Bunny Heaven” by AngryMikko.

A person, albeit a man, states his case.

The recently published “New Zealand Law Style Guide”* states at paragraph 1.1.1(a):

Avoid gender-specific language unless it is necessary. In particular, avoid terms such as “man”, “men” or “mankind” to refer to people in general. Do not use “he” or “his” to describe people who may be male or female or male pronouns to describe grounds that may be made up of both men and women.

Gender-specific language” are weasel words like “non-judgmental” or “work-place change consultant“. Were I to follow this prompt literally I would have to say, “My mum made up its mind,” or “Helen Clark gave me Helen Clark’s phone number“. Even “mum” and “Helen Clark” are gender-specific. I would have to change it to “Humanoid former Prime Minister” and “parent“.

I agree with the idea that chestnuts such as “To boldly go where no man has gone before” and “Since the dawn of time, man has been trying to copulate with ice cream” should be axed. (Star Trek: TNG, despite keeping the split infinitive, changed the voice over to “no one” from “no man“.)

Pronouns — which are, according to Calvin and Hobbes, nouns that have lost their amateur status — are another matter.

Take two examples:

  1. The alligator called his broker; and
  2. The insurgent asked that a beard be delivered to him

In the first example, the possessive pronoun “him” replaces “the alligator” in the subordinate clause. In the second, “the insurgent” becomes an object of a preposition and becomes the definite pronoun “him“. The argument against “gender-specific language” is, I think, that it creates an image in the mind of the reader.

The alligator is therefore a male. So is the insurgent — or judge, doctor, ventriloquist or taxidermist. I do not find that convincing because it fails to understand English and how it functions. “Alligator” and “insurgent” are nouns. In the sentences above, they function as subjects. They are subjects without gender. Traditionally, the pronouns that replace them are male. This does not create a mythical male alligator or insurgent. They are just words with semantic function.

It’s just a rule.

Ok, it’s an arbitrary rule, I admit.

But language is arbitrary. One never learns a language in trying to learn its rules. I think that when I adhere to a rule I’m showing respect toward something. In this case, that something is English. It is arbitrary that I wear pants in restaurants and that I hold doors for people. No big deal if I go half naked to a restaurant. Most people can open their own doors.

But, of course, I do wear pants and I hold doors. I do it because I am showing respect for dining and certain norms of social interaction.

What of other languages? Why is a table in French feminine? Why is the wall masculine? Better yet, why is the word “la victime” feminine but the word “le problème” masculine? Those examples are loaded gender-specifications. Why is language like this? It just is! Perhaps the Proto-Indo-Europeans held a summit. Perhaps it was part of the truce between cro-magnons and neanderthals.

Maybe it’s just arbitrary.

What I find bad about this non-gender trend is that sentences such as “The alligator called their broker” is illogical. The alligator is singular. Why is it taking a plural pronoun? That’s like saying “He go to the store” or “We has an egg salad sandwich“.

The maths are faulty.

Our mythical male alligator and insurgent are causing our language to go weird.

And when the going gets weird, the weird turn pronoun.

Governor General Michaëlle Jean

Canada’s Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, gave this address on January 13th 2010 in response to the Haitian earthquake.

Jean was born in Haiti and lived there until the age of 10, when forced to flee to Canada as a refugee.

Canadian press outlets are saying that 1,400 Canadians are presumed dead in Haiti.

Haitians comprise the biggest immigrant population in Quebec.

In Creole, Jean says, “Ayisyen Ayisènn. Pran couraj. Pa lagé.” which translates as, “Haitians, take courage, don’t give up.”

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Canada’s Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, gave this address on January 13th 2010 in response to the earthquake.

Jean was born in Haiti and lived there until the age of 10 when forced to flee to Canada as a refugee.

Canadian press outlets are saying that 1,400 Canadians are presumed dead in Haiti.

Haitians comprise the biggest immigrant population in Quebec.

In Creole, Jean says “Ayisyen Ayisènn. Pran couraj. Pa lagé” which translates as “Haitians, take courage, don’t give up.