Friday, 13 March 2009

TV: Ruffians - A History of Elizabethan Bicycle Thieves

"Ruffians" is the latest edition in BBC4's "Historic Heists" documentaries, their series of expensive monthly 2 hour specials on thievery throughout the ages. The series has so far been a huge success with viewers, particularly the last edition, February's "Bunker Bastards", which shed light about the untold story of WWI soldiers stealing each other's teeth for the purchase of elegant French hens.

“Ruffians” centres around Edward Rapscallion, a well-to-do wig-maker who has a penchant for the naughty. We hear how Edward becomes enamoured with stealing, loitering and generally being quite the pain in people's pompadours. Soon his attention turns to bicycles. Seen as new technology, bikes were of high value, often used to pay for slaves and outlandish prostitutes (the kind that readily agree to consume urine, as was the fashion). We are shown footage of Edward careening through expensive villas on a newly acquired BMX, pedalling furiously to escape police, before he discretely fences his stolen wares through the corrupt manager of an apothecary in Fleet Street.

As entertaining and revealing as Edward's escapades are, it has become apparent after careful analysis that there seems to be an element of falseness to his adventures. The main concern with more eagle-eyed critics has been a scene that shows Edward being executed for his crimes. Not an uncommon event for the era, but slightly less common is the electric chair he is treated to. The electric chair has never been used in the UK, and the program-makers have since admitted that they had to embellish this part of the story due to lack of detailed information. Unfortunately for them, this initial query has led to a floodgate of questions and insights. Firstly, careful study of Wikipedia led television critic AA Gill to discover that the BMX had only been available since the early 1970s. Soon it was found by an employee of GMTV that bicycles themselves had been invented over 200 years after the Elizabethan era had ended.

In their defence, the makers of "Ruffians" have insisted that the documentary's footage is clear proof that Elizabethans were the first cyclists. They cited their care in ensuring that all the CCTV and archive footage was of the era guaranteed veracity. This irrefutable argument has quite rightly silenced the critics, their only source of information for countering being Wikipedia, a notoriously lie-filled cyber-rag that simply cannot be trusted.

Ruffians has already been nominated for the history BAFTA at next year's award ceremony. There is no doubt it deserves this accolade.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

LIT (Fiction): Eduardo Serafini-Ortiz - 'The Experience of Sinking'

Out of print for almost three decades, this novella by the neglected Cuban Magic Realist undergoes a worthy resurrection in a new translation by Philip Angier. This edition comes as a tie-in with the forthcoming movie adaptation from Snow Leper Studios, directed by Essy Andrien.

The story centres on the Salazars, a couple that inherit the deeds to an apartment complex on the coast from a distant and mysterious relative. Upon arrival they realize that their new piece of real estate is rapidly and inexorably sinking below sea level. Juggling sand-bags and the shreds of their failing marriage they attempt to prevent the complex's further submersion, to the anger and dismay of sinister caretaker Alfredo who has plans of his own for the place, and as the story progresses the couple gradually uncover the hidden truths of Lazuli Villas and its former owner.

Initially banned by Castro's censors due to a marked similarity between the dictator and the prodigiously bearded, cigar-puffing Alfredo, Serafini-Ortiz frequently stated that the work did in fact have no political subtext, a claim he continued to uphold even after his emigration to the United States although this plea was later altered after noting an increased interest in the novella within the literary world due to the popularity of such interpretations. In Iain Cozife's 'Conversations With Eduardo Serafini-Ortiz' the author is quoted as saying the following: "Alfredo Da Bift is not Fidel Castro and he is Fidel Castro, in the same way that he is not you or I but simultaneously is and is also your neighbour that makes such fine cinnamon cakes but has quite a temper really".

Although its cinematic incarnation has met mixed reviews after preview screenings in which critics decried the subversion of the text toward an allegory of climate change ("cack handed and soul-savagingly trite" according to one source) it may be hoped that a Serafini-Ortiz revival is on its way, and not before time. Perhaps the most important of his works, 'The Experience of Sinking' is a triumph in which love, loss, and land reclamation collide to produce instances of astonishing melancholy beauty and poignancy.

Monday, 16 February 2009

FILM: Burgeoning Bludgeoning

Burgeoning Bludgeoning

UK: 18 / USA: R

Directed by Streck Goblin, whose previous film "Gout! Run!" won best picture at none of last year's award ceremonies, the tiresomely-named new Arthur Harber-Ausgang vehicle is a movie of great juxtaposition.

As is well-known, 7ft tall Harber-Ausgang has built his career on playing craggy hulking characters with unexplainably foreign accents clashing brutally against great odds, usually in the name of America, the American army, American cigarettes, or any other US institution of national importance. For instance, Harber-Ausgang's most recent epic, 2006's "Here Comes My Massive Tank", pitted a typically bile-mannered US sergeant character against the fictional country of Niger.

"Burgeoning Bludgeoning" tries to temper a similar character to the more dowdy setting of suburban New Hampshire, where Harber-Ausgang's character, Milo Boomkraft, is a Navy Seal on 6 months suspension, idly frustrated at his lack of occupation. Boomkraft's boredom casually leads him to suspect one of his neighbours of stealing his daily newspaper from his lawn every morning. From such innocent beginnings, the film soon spirals into Boomkraft initiating a campaign of unfettered violence upon the majority of his hapless neighbours, each suspected of some minor trespass, such as failing to pick up their pet dog's faeces or yawning openly in the street. His gleeful killing spree is initially both heart-warming and educational, but these positives are duly overcast by a crucial problem inherent to this actor’s films.

What frustrates most about Harber-Ausgang's output of late is not his dry unconvincing delivery, his abnormally flared nostrils, nor his unconscious acting tic of slowly scratching his groin area every time he converses with a female character. No, the problem lies in the contractual obligation to insert his most famous line from "The Thatcher", the film that made him a household name, into every subsequent script he is invested in.

The phrase "I'm a sack" had a poignant significance in his best role, used at a point when his title character realised allegorically his position in the ruthless roofing business. We even forgave the phrase's use in "Empire of the Japanese" where Harber-Ausgang played a Japanese businessman who had to explain to his wife that he had just been fired. But in "Burgeoning Bludgeoning", the use is one sack too far.

Camouflaged under a pile of rags whilst hiding in a shed, Boomkraft whines "I'm a sack" in an effort to deter his investigating neighbour a few feet away. I sat in bewilderment as the neighbour uttered happily "I guess you must be" before returning to his household, sated that his investigation was unnecessary. The realism of the film had been hard-hitting and convincing in the previous two hours, but after this scene, the remaining hour and a half seemed hollow and full of babbling. I tore my popcorn box in half and made a cardboard bird out of sheer boredom.

So, in summation, if you enjoy watching the first half of a film, but lack the attention span to see it through or are slightly narcoleptic, Streck Goblin's new film may have been made just for you. Admittedly, Harber-Ausgang's notoriously confused fan base, or "Ausgangites", will ensure this film is a box-office success anyway, but whether it deserves it is anyone's guess.

LIT (Non-Fiction): Peter Konstantinov - 'London Days, Moscow Nights'

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and a thawing of relations between East and West, the Spy Memoir has become a popular genre. Peter Konstantinov's book enters this particular corner of the marketplace under an appropriately deceptive guise - at first glance it seems a straightforward tale of espionage but it is in fact something rather stranger.

Peter Konstantinov left Vladivostok for Great Britain at a young age during the 1950s, fleeing Stalin's regime. At that point he was Pyotr Konstantinov but the family name was altered to Constantine in an effort to integrate better into the notoriously xenophobic British society of the time. Although arriving in the country with limited means they thrived in post-war Norwich and eventually young Peter Constantine was offered a place to study Philosophy at Oxford University.

It was there that representatives of MI5 approached the student. They knew of his origins and decided that if he could infiltrate Soviet intelligence services he might make a fitting double agent. Peter Constantine leapt at the chance and within a short time "Pyotr Konstantinov" found himself in Moscow as a British mole in the KGB.

Here is where the story becomes interesting: the KGB, not knowing of his prior commitments, were impressed on numerous assignments by their new agent's mastery of the English language and knowledge of British culture and decided that Konstantinov might become an excellent asset within the British intelligence services. "Peter Constantine" was sent to London soon after.

It appears that at this point the now confused and conflicted spy's personality underwent a drastic tearing in twain: at times he was Pyotr Konstantinov, KGB inside man in London and at others he was Peter Constantine, British agent undercover in Russia. He fulfilled both posts to his superiors' admiration, passing information back and forth and pursuing intricate operation of espionage and counter-espionage that at times resulted in stalemate, second-guessing and thwarting his own manoeuvres to the frustration of both sides. Both agencies came to the conclusion that there must be a leak in their midst and ordered Constantine/Konstantinov to deal with it. Part two of the book ends with Konstantinov in Russia planning a hit and assembling his team, after which they travel to London and storm Constantine's apartment in Baker Street to find he is nowhere to be seen. Realisation dawns and an almost farcical scene ensues with the young spy rushing about the place like a rumbled politician, hiding several framed photographs depicting the target and slamming a door in a surprised neighbour's face so that she might not inadvertently blow his cover. Afterwards in Moscow there is a similar incident in which Constantine riggs Konstantinov's car with a bomb that the latter later discovers ashen-faced and with the utterance "We must be dealing with a real professional here. Damn that Constantine".

Although at times difficult to follow the book is undoubtedly a gripping exposé of the machinations of the intelligence community but it is at its most powerful as a depiction of a man utterly divided to the core.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

MUSIC: The Bans - 'Take Courage, Marmaduke!'

The third album by the rising Leeds Indie lads begins on an upbeat note with the title track, an ode to the canine star of 'the funny papers' entreating him never to lose hope whatever the odds. "You make Andy Capp look like a dickhead", singer Ed Hanberry softly croons during the chorus, "and Hagar The Horrible has nothing on you. Who would've thought a dog could be so human?" They show us again that it is not for nothing that comparisons are made with Boston supergroup 'My Face Is A Dartboard, You Know?' and 70s legends 'The Reverend Steve Extravaganza'.

The band firmly hits their stride with later songs such as 'My Cavewoman' and 'See You Next Tuesday', raucous danceable pop-rock akin to songs on their previous LPs 'Citizen You' and 'Retro Pretensions'. Fans of The Bans will find they're venturing into familar terrain for much of the record, in particular, 'Tight Jeans' with its yelped chorus "Tight jeans, rush of blood to the head, tight jeans and I think I'm passing out". The track is sure to appeal to anyone that has ever been to art-school and owned a pair of winklepickers.

It is the collaborations with other artists however that set the album apart, for instance the Electro-tinged cover of Eurythmics' "Who's That Girl?" featuring Grime kids Actual P and Fire Man from Stratford's Dumber Crew. The results are energetic, frenetic, and sure to set student union dancefloors alight this summer. Another track of note is 'You Are All My Tomorrows, At The Moment' featuring Rebecca, a new Soul singer who follows in the hot trend of sounding a bit like Amy Winehouse and only having one name.

All in all, established followers of The Bans will find 'Take Courage, Marmaduke!' a comfortable, familiar, safe place in which to sway slowly from side to side and occasionally brush their lank fringes from their eyes. Others will find it an excellent introduction to the group and their sound.

LIT (Fiction): Cooper Harringate - 'Shoot Off My Ears With Your So-Called Raygun'

The forth and final novel in Harringate's 'Dubious Red Auspices' quadrilogy focuses upon man's ability to controvert any and all evidence before his eyes if he finds the conclusion it leads to horrifying enough.

In the novel, protagonist Arsenio Hock steadfastly ignores the incipient invasion of his hometown by a headless and ursine alien force. At first the marauding interlopers are puzzled and amazed by his stubborn insistence that they "must be pulling his leg" and that "special effects these days really are somethin', I tell ya!" but later become thoroughly exasperated by Hock's cheerfully brickheaded blindsightedness. This culminates in a memorable scene at a local hardware store where, presented with a sample of the terrors and marvels of the boundless universe, he simply tells them, "That's all well and good but my fence won't paint itself."

Eventually, taking Hock's behaviour as a testament to the irrepressible, indefatigable and stupid nature of the human race and, blanching at the thought of having to go through this process of explanation again and again with similar results, they board their "craft that resembled flying party-rings" and leave.

Harringate's style is known and criticised for its long-windedness, with sentences sometimes running for entire pages or chapters and the appearance of commas welcomed like oases in a syllable Sahara. The author has often remarked in interviews that this was his intention, both to tire the reader into a kind of delirious fevertrance in which his words can overpower and permeate their brains "like fire-ants on a jam sandwich" and also to beat some kind of self-imposed target. It appears however that in this novel he takes such criticism, ordinarily met with murderous indignation, into account. Chapter four for instance, "The Eggs Benedict Of Fate", is comprised almost wholly of short outbursts apropos-of-nothing such as "HMM." and "INDEED!" where it is unclear whether it is Hock's musings that we are reading or those of the writer, his unchecked internal monologue fusing with the narrative in a kind of unintentional metafictional device. The final words of the chapter, "WHERE ARE MY GLASSES? DAMN YOU BARBERA." would seem to support the latter hypothesis.

Flaws and idiosyncrasies aside, 'Shoot Off My Ears With Your So-Called Raygun' remains an intriguing work and a fine addition to the canon of an author frequently described by his contemporaries as "owlish and malevolent" and "that guy, you know, with the hair". Harringate's legion of devotees will find much to like in his latest creation.