Dramedy

A political drama-comedy premiered last week. The lead was a lurching AI bot.

Despite the claimed sophistication AI uses language in simple semantic protocols. This became evident when the two protagonists, Boris and Theresa, swapped lines and swiped at each other even though neither was in the same room.

Nevertheless, the walking-on spectacle was seen as a triumph by some, akin to the entrance of the Queen of Sheba.  To many others it was ludicrous. Opinions are always divided with comedy; humor is personal and subjective.

I feel especially annoyed having heard that Swedish song twice last week. It is frequently played in shops and markets, and, no doubt in multi-story garages; its shimmering banality is perfect gebrauchsmusik while buying onions and carrots, or galvanizing the waverers over Brexit policy.

It compared with a series of political satires-sitcoms, and if it seemed like a Spinal Tap moment, it was. We should be grateful a miniature Stonehenge wasn’t lowered to the stage while July from Holst’s Planets played. One of them, Theresa most probably, might have danced around it, as Boris keeled over.

The song and staggering act is reflection of the influence of reality TV and political satires. Audience familiarity made it conceivable to present a politician attempting to sashay to a forty-something year old song as a self-deprecating gag. It implies the smug inside jokes TV presenters have with their viewers.  The staleness of the conceit was ideal for an older audience.

The overall impression is that politics has emulated Hollywood: imagination and creativity is unnecessary, it simply takes proven creative “solutions”, in this case sitcoms such as Veep, and presents them in familiar tropes which are likely to work in particular situations.

The astounding thing is that the stunt was seen as authentic, in fact as a return to vigorous authority. But just as high concept movies play well across diverse demographics, the effects disguise the emptiness.

It’s said that the public are disengaged from politics, but why would they be otherwise when they are given bad sitcoms, using 40 year old sketches and props. With shows like Veep, good writing and casting is essential to maintain a high standard. In the show business of politics no such quality control looks possible.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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Refrain

A single aperitif before lunch and one before dinner is a phrase spoken by F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hemingway’s Hawks Do Not Share.  It is a refrain, a self-promise, uttered by Fitzgerald as he tries to conform his drinking to a socially acceptable degree.

Hemingway helps Fitzgerald with compassion and understanding, but in between the lines and over time, the refrain seems forsaken. There is the air of ancient tragedy to Fitzgerald, of a flaw in the man which determines his fate.

Hemingway observes his friend with benevolence tempered by distance.  He knows Fitzgerald’s alcohol abuse is a barrier. Despite Hemingway’s own prodigious drinking the extreme egoism of addiction reduces all others to mere servants, which is what Hemingway became in one journey with Fitzgerald.

Nearly a century later there is evidence that alcohol consumption is falling. While livers are safer, this era has other curses, perhaps more discreet and insidious.

Narcissism is one that is reported to be increasing. At first, the behavior may seem whimsical: such as believing that they exercise a direct effect in the world (manifesting), when coincidence would be a rational explanation; or, believing the always great predictions in fortune tellers’ forecasts. Occasionally it is funny, such as denying facts.

Testimonies by people who have seen their partner, their boss, or a friend, acting in a pattern which overtly, or implicitly, suggests the ego has gobbled its host are disturbing. The less charming instances more manipulative, arrogant and even cruel.

For the megalomaniac, evidence, logic, are only for prosaic minds. Their exotic elixirs, regimes and rituals refine a special sense of self, one that is anointed. The megalomaniac’s meta-narrative is that there is a special goal, a talent, a unique understanding and ability which makes all conventional appraisal worthless.

A drinker can only reach that state of magnificence with alcohol.  The brain has a role although it’s unlikely to be equivalent with a megalomaniac’s experience of self-adoration.

It’s acknowledged that the self-esteem movement was an important turning point. Hyper- individualism, personal development, social media and celebrity culture, (celebrity culture is an oxymoron) have combined to cultivate this psychological malaise.

A single aperitif before lunch and one before dinner gave Fitzgerald the hope of normality. It was, as Hemingway records the phrase, a delusion and ultimately unsuccessful. As he tended to Fitzgerald, Hemingway knew that a gulf existed between them and genuine friendship was impossible. Those who know narcissists understand a similar gulf.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Ersatz

Neither triggers nor alerts appear in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. The notion of such things, like the definitions in the dictionary, are contemporaneous. The entry for Wagner says, ‘sneer at his name and joke about the future of music’. Mention Wagner’s name now and the Shoah would be the received notion.

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Nevertheless, Flaubert’s most famous novel now seems to have a trigger warning attached to it. This came about due to some brouhaha over Emma’s ability to be a competent mother and homemaker. It was based on a single objection and it’s unclear if it is permanently affixed.

An alert in a news broadcast to tell a viewer that they will be looking at corpses, or some other sight which is likely to cause disgust and anxiety, is a reasonable and useful caution.  In other circumstances, specifically for artistic works, it is less certain.

Whether to apply warnings, or not, makes many people fret. The left and right wings of politics utter atavistic reflexes about them; pondering their positions for guidance is not instructive.

Distinguishing alerts by type reflects the fact that artistic creations are products of the imagination. Fiction, like music, only exists in the sense of cohesive meaning, in the brains of the viewers and readers. By contrast, a news event is a fact in the world with real consequences. Blurring fact and fiction produces fallacies and blunts analysis.

The effect of such triggers leads to ersatz reading; diminishing critical insight. This is true both in the German definition of ersatz as a replacement and its usage in English as fake.  This phenomenon is common, as for instance in the evaluation of films on the basis of their social construction and representation.

Through German English acquired the word, philistinism. It was a Russian, Nabokov, who gave one of the best descriptions of it as much more than ignorant materialism. Nabokov’s discrete analysis of philistinism invokes Flaubert and his censure of conventional thought.

As with the Dictionary, Flaubert reflected his contempt for such thinking in his last characters, Bouvard and Pecuchet, who cannot comprehend the books they have read because they can only understand the literal and mundane. Likewise, disapproval of Emma Bovary for her inability to fulfill a duty is banal; an expression of philistinism.

If Flaubert’s dictionary was updated to reflect contemporary views of comparable ilk, it is certain that trigger warnings would be an entry, with the commonplace statement to illustrate how they ought to be uttered. In such a case an alert would be added to the dictionary itself.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Stock

It was inevitable. When every angle on the world cup has been done, an article about the football widower is going to get a run with fifteen minutes before time, that is, if there are no penalties. Sure enough, one of the English Sundays had a widower world cup story.

A week before I was having an email dialog with a writer about stories and TV. He gives a nuanced interpretation of the Master Chef franchise across three continents, their national differences, the characterizations deployed, the clothes, food differences and the language used in various parts of the Anglo sphere. Roland Barthes meets Gordon Ramsey

In one of our threads I offered up a pastiche of a world cup widower story.

How I hate being a World Cup widower

Every four years I dread the World Cup because my wife, Hayley, (Her name has been changed) turns into a single interest very moody football bore. She is a loving mother of our three children: Jacinta, Kelly and Stanley. After two girls she wanted a boy to play for England and she named him after the great English footballer, Stanley Matthews.  Naturally, she supports England and anyone who can beat Germany; she still hasn’t reached the acceptance phase over the 1990 penalty shootout…

As it turned out, it was close to the real article.  My writer correspondent suggested: I thought you were going to say Hayley, the footy player, had named the daughters Pelé and Ronaldo.

Those are good names if she lived in Belo Horizonte, not Birmingham.

I suppose when two writers are interested in a TV reality show and tabloid journalism it’s about narratives.

There’s an axiom that goes around that there are only seven stories, a demonstrably false notion, but one that is perpetuated, and from which a set of formal principles are advanced as though storytelling is physics. Regrettably it’s soaked up as a guide on what should be, or even, can be.

In the media those seven stories, with their rehearsed variations, are the meat n’ potatoes of story form. Eventually the form will get refreshed for the current major story.   In one of our emails we discussed why this is so fixed.

We learn these stories as children and internalize the form and as it produces a reward it is quite satisfactory. More of that form is desirable but also very easy to convey other material on the architecture of the form. Football tournaments and cooking contests – same thing really – are the ideal coat hanger.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Liberty

It was the jolt that a balmy languorous bank holiday weekend needed. Jonathan Meades excoriated against jargon and cant. His views were quite familiar, his invective distinct, the satire sharp and aimed at a wide array of targets, and delivered with the kind of unambiguous clarity heard more often in the football terraces.

It was good stuff and gave anyone who cares about the subject, or either writes in a natural language, a sense of indignation, and even, supercilious pride.

When it was finished, however, a question nagged: haven’t we tried this before? These diatribes against the lame, weasel, abstract, fallacious, ugly use of words is a purgative but it hasn’t solved much. Sod all (thanks Jonathan), if truth be admitted.

The virus is wider and multi-platformed. If it was a public service campaign to end littering but the volume of cans and food packaging in the streets, was as bad as it ever was, the organization would accept failure and fold.

Look around and it seems futile.  A retired school teacher in Georgia who recently took a moment to correct a letter from the White House – from the desk of the president – provides texture to the degraded state of simple communication. Thomas Jefferson’s White House would never have sent such a letter.

A journalist told me of the occasion when she had asked a senior executive at the opening their company’s new, larger, office whether they were consolidating their position in the region. He replied very briskly, that no, on the contrary, they were growing. In that pause she realized he thought consolidation was a euphemism for decline, restructuring staff, downsizing the corporate footprint. It occurred to her then, that the word shed of its business suit, has an awkward definition.

Typically complaints about speech are thrown at idioms, dialect, patois, which may come from a group and particular activity. The usage might be on the margin, and because it breaches common standards it causes offense. It may invert common use to act in defiance. Like most slang it changes and fades, occasionally staying around long enough for the next generation to mock.

The irony here is that professional jargon and cant comes with academic qualifications and lots of status.

The main reason why it won’t reform, let alone die, even under Meades’s (and others) devastating satire, is that it is initiated in the academy. After graduation it has a career with power and an above average income, and perhaps, even a post graduate degree.

Instead of hoping that media commentators and earnest campaigns could possibly eradicate this type of speech, we ought to restore the virtue of common usage. If Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could proclaim a nation in language anyone can understand, that freedom should be equally possible for everyone else afterwards.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

Authenticity

Jean de Florette, the ex-tax inspector turned farmer, declares to the peasant carnation entrepreneur, Ugolin, “Je ne m’intéresse plus qu’à ce qui est vrai, sincère, pur, large, en un seul mot, l’AUTHENTIQUE, et je suis venu ici pour cultiver l’AUTHENTIQUE”

The irony in Jean’s speech is lost on Ugolin, but not his wily uncle, César, who understands that the neophyte farmer is a dreamer. The rural authentic is in each callous and the dirt under Ugolin’s fingernails. He doesn’t know it because it’s his daily life and it is not acknowledged in his society.

The value of the authentic is potent: true and real. It can be the element that makes something successful, taken from daily life, not invented by some writer, and therefore credible, and somehow truer. However reality is not all it’s cracked up to be. Consumed in drama and novels, it needs tweaking, focus, shading, re-balancing, and other modifications in order to work as a text.

Time also needs adjusting. Anachronisms, such as hair length and contemporary idiom, may be accidental, but intentional anachronisms remove barriers of custom, place and period which are too obscure to explain, or, as in theater and opera, a director has reinterpreted. An intentional revisionist anachronism changes the original play or opera, in some instances quite distinctly from what the author could have imagined.

Last year the Opera Bastille produced La Bohème in space. A space station above Earth with a dream of living in a Paris garret. Space is chilly but it doesn’t snow. A London production of Julius Caesar had a grunge band as if it was Seattle in 1990. The text was cut, the shorter length condensed action and made it an entirely different work, not the original source but merely based on. It was not a representation of ancient Rome, not that the play is either historically accurate or authentic, but the relationships had been changed fundamentally to something like a contemporary dictatorship in which grunge still rocks.

Despite the large changes, audiences eventually liked Puccini among the asteroids. The Nirvana pulsating Julius Caesar seemed to please its audience too.

Revision of the original, and with it the loss of authenticity upsets some, as if it cannot cohere any longer. That is partially true but the idea that the essence of the finished work is immutable in order to be authentic is not.  While Jean de Florette’s objective is honorable in its righteousness, it is unattainable. As it should be. Change, intervention, meddling, redefining, however bad and awkward, is necessary. But please, just no Shakespeare, or Wagner on ice skates.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.