Sunday, June 25, 2006

Fleurs du mal

In South Africa, suffering from one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, people don't just want to catch evildoers. They want to make them suffer, and have come up with inventive ways of doing so . The photograph depicts a rare instance of the now vanishing Eina Ivy (translated: Ouch! Ivy). This decorative product of the booming home security industry looks like ivy, but in fact it is metallic, and conceals sharp spikes to penetrate the hand of the unwary wall scaler.

I think it has probably been banned, like the anti-hijack car flamethrower invented by a Mr Charl Fourie, which was designed to shoot gouts of fire up alongside the doors and crisp the gun-toting robbers as they loomed up at the windows.

I am not sure of the current status of Rapex, the vagina dentata device worn internally and designed (by a woman) to bite down on a rapist's knob. Forced to seek treatment, he would be instantly identifiable as a sex attacker.

The Independent Online reports: "The ... device is inserted into the vagina by a woman who feels she is at risk of rape, and if she is attacked, small burr-like teeth will attach themselves to the tip of the rapist's erect penis, inventor Sonette Ehlers explains. As he withdraws and becomes flaccid, it is only possible to remove the device by surgery, Ehlers said ahead of a launch and demonstration at Kleinmond near Cape Town."

A demonstration?

In fact, the high rate of carjacking is at least partly due to the efficacy of antitheft devices on today's vehicles: immobilisers, alarms and steering wheel locks. It's easier to just get it while it's hot: buy yourself an AK-47 for about twenty quid, station yourself near a traffic light in an isolated spot, and wait.

And the high walls favoured by suburbanites actually facilitate crime, since perpetrators are invisible to passersby once over them.

I have no burglar alarm, and my walls aren't high. I do have burglar bars on the windows and a Trellidor -- a concertina-type steel gate -- and an intercom for callers. My car has an immobiliser (electronic engine disabler). These measures are considered antediluvian. What, no motion sensors, spotlights, electronic alarms or "rape gates"? (The chilling name is given to interior concertina doors that seal off the bedroom areas from the rest of the house. As it happens, I don't need a rape gate ... I hope)

I have had two car breakins and have been mugged at knifepoint, and there is nothing I could have done about any of it. I am relying on statistical probabilities to support my feeling that I have had my share of victimhood.

Early riser

Proteas, the hardiest and best known species of our Cape floral kingdom, are now beginning to emerge in their full glory, as we pass the winter equinox. This early riser was photographed high on the mountain at Silvermine Nature Reserve, in the far south of the Cape Peninsula (and about 15 minutes drive from my house). Proteacious flowers, in their infinite variety, will soon be opening all over the Table Mountain chain.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Floating away

Despite its worthy intentions, is Memoirs of a Geisha a glorified chick flick? I ask because until my date last night indicated a preference for it, I had marked it down as one not to see. Despite the obvious brilliance of director Rob Marshall (whose Chicago was electrifying), the film is curiously flat, although mostly watchable, thanks to the moody, evocative cinematography. The action progresses through the elements -- at first drenched in rain, then building up to the fire of passion and finally resolving amid cherry blossoms in the spring air.

But I subsided into a fitful doze round about the middle; it is just too long and the voice-over of the memoirist too languid, the Desperate Housewives narrator on Valium. The movie eschews the vivid possibilities in the merciless training of the geisha, the artist of the floating world, for a protracted love story, shades of Madame Butterfly. Because of this soft-pedalling, the engineering of female submission is given a kind of cultural pass. No doubt Marshall wanted to tell the story without passing judgement, but that has created a certain detachment from its subject.

Plus points for set design (pre-war Japan) and wonderful lighting. Minus points for the most jarring element: supposedly Japanese characters -- although Chinese actors take two or three leading roles -- speaking English, ranging from almost unintelligible to that artificial-sounding Americanese dubbed on to non-English films. I suppose getting the Chinese cast members to speak Japanese might have been a bit difficult, but then again, hiring box office-friendly Zhang Ziyi and Li Gong was a commercial decision and rather gutless.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tarantino's bastards

The wave of ultra-violent British films that arguably began with Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels reaches its nadir in The Business (2005), a bloody celebration of greed, brutality, misogyny and murder, not to mention a paean to the worst excesses of Thatcher's Britain. Directed by an unpleasant, dead-eyed poseur called Nick Love, it follows the exploits of a bunch of south London gangsters on the Costa del Sol over the period 1983-1989.

The Brutalist wave, imitated in miniature by the happy-slappers on cellphone screens, owes its beginnings, of course, to the happy-slappy violence of Quentin Tarantino's films, in particular Reservoir Dogs. But Tarantino is a brilliant dialogue writer, whatever his amoral take on mayhem. There is humour and there is heart, even if only as pathos in his most repellant characters.

The Business is the kind of film Tarantino might make after a prefrontal lobotomy. Its only stab at humour is a scene where the likely lads test bulletproof jackets by shooting at each other. And it is a film without a heart; indeed, it is heartless in the worst sense of the word.

The plot is the old standby, new kid Frankie (Danny Dyer) taken under the wing of a thug called Charlie "the Playboy" (Tamer Hassan), becomes as depraved as the rest; and is finally triumphant, punching out a dead mobster's wife he's been having an affair with and driving off in her car with the hood's money. On the voice-over he boasts: "I got it all, the money, the girl and I rode off into the sunset too."

Women in this movie are either harpies or bitch whores. The most graphic violence in the film is inflicted on a woman who objects to the duo ripping off her guy's coke consignment. Charlie "the Playboy", whom we are expected to indulge as a wide boy with a heart, punches her into a bloody pulp and finally smashes her face in with his boot.

The only really scary character is the psychopathic Sammy, played by Geoff Bell, who I understood to be a former armed robber. Danny Dyer's Frankie is a one-note performance. That goes for his irritating voice-over narration too. Wearing a kind of sour moue, he is never convincing as a thug or a lover (well, there is only one actual and rather perfunctory sex scene, fully clothed). As the director explains, these are "the boys". Yes, the kind of boys, bright with avarice and aggression, who moved into the financial markets in Thatcher's boom time.

Not for nothing does Love conduct an interview beneath a portrait of the Blessed Margaret with a Union Jack hairdo. He tells us that his main concern was to ensure the designer goods and bling were accurate for the period. Nick loves the Eighties. And he says he has a very good memory of the things, like Filo and Adidas sportswear, that characterised the "greed is good" era. The film's look is that of a Cinzano commercial, lovingly lit, sun-burnished, with glittering azure pools, glowing tans, dazzling whites and splashes of primary colours.

The producer declares in the "Making of" documentary that this movie is going to help bring the Eighties back. There isn't any doubt about where this lot stand on that.

Love reveals in an interview with Film Focus that his intended audience is 18- and 19-year-old youths. He dismisses any notion that he is encouraging the kind of pointless yob violence that is distressing Brits right now. But in a very real sense he is validating a culture of random cruelty, kicks for kicks. I have an uneasy feeling that it probably elicited a lot of mindless laughs in the cinema. And it won plaudits from several critics, including one in the Observer, which is very discomfiting. I shan't be subjecting myself to Love's previous offering, The Football Factory (2004).

The Business is not the business. It is a very nasty piece of work.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sick notes

It's almost worth my current debilitated state to be able to have a sickie on a Monday. In short, I was woken by the painful twanging of every muscle in my lower torso and legs, weak as water and with stomach cramps. Good enough for me. Too sick for work, not for blogging.

Shortly I shall journey to my doctor's magnificently dilapidated Victorian mansion beside the sea. My doctor is an unusual representative of the medical profession: conducts his surgery (mostly impoverished fishermen and other deprived people) with a fag between his lips, and often just gives medicine away from his cabinet of samples. He's a well known poet and a commentator on architecture in his real life, not to mention a dab hand at the violin. His home is a museum of art treasures and antiques, and his sustenance is spent on horn gramophones and 78 shellacs of operatic music. He is a qualified psychiatrist of the Jungian bent, and gives his services at a rundown state hospital. There aren't many doctors like this left.

There is no NHS here, and my experience of Britain's (although I think it a Good Thing) was somewhat mixed. When my regular GP retired, his practice fell into the hands of a band of female doctors with some kind of agenda. They weren't keen on treating members of the male persuasion, seemingly regarding us as an unwanted inheritance. When my double pneumonia was dismissed as flu until it was too late (I ended up with pleurisy), I began to sense this agenda might just be injurious to my health. I found a new GP who was thoughtful and caring, but was unfortunately misdiagnosed as having a hiatus hernia when in fact I was suffering from angina. My heart attack took place, rather satisfyingly, at my desk, making my employers feel rather guilty. After a spell in hospital I was pronounced OK, but as it turned out, I wasn't. Found myself on an emergency ward bed with a panicking consultant at my side (she'd sent me away).

The triple bypass at Barts treated me to the NHS at its best. A crack surgeon who did a first-class zipper, sympathetic nurses, tremendous op aftercare, including a physiotherapist. The last consultant I saw before setting out on my own, armed with a fitness programme, was a Russian. "David," he pronounced, "your arteries are in better than new situation." And they're still letting me run up hills without a murmur of complaint, 15 years later.

Now I must hobble off to Doctor Phil (yes, really).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The education of the idle

In my continuing attempts to avoid tackling the knotty second draft of my screenplay, I have resorted to watching the television. Usually I limit my viewing to Lost, Desperate Housewives and the odd bit of sport (currently the tennis), but this past few days my evenings have been spent sunk in the recliner, remote to hand, flicking through 50 channels of shite, mainly. I have learnt a few things that are of absolutely no practical use and now intend to share them.

1. Most interesting discovery: the very funny boys' own series called Mythbusters, in which an odd couple of very entertaining American techies puncture various urban myths by subjecting them to rigorous -- and occasionally explosive -- scientific testing. Thus I found out that when your lift plunges out of control, jumping in the air as it hits the concrete will not prevent your being mushed. This was established by finding a disused lift and shaft, resuscitating same and constructing a giant pogo stick on which a dummy was placed. The lift's brakes and other safety features were disabled and it was duly sent plunging to the basement. If the theory panned out, "Buster" the dummy would bounce upward at the moment of impact and "survive". He bounced -- at 15omph ... result, total dismemberment. It was a splendid smash-up though.

2. Manhattan real estate agents have offices done out like the court of the Sun King, where young women preen and bitch and swoon over guys, but never show any properties to anyone -- at least not in the first two episodes of the ditzcom Hot Properties, which is to Sex and the City as an estate agent is to Mother Theresa. This truly dreadful assemblage of unlikely setups , improbable characters and heavily recycled one-liners is produced by the creators of Roseanne, which seems even more improbable. There may be a good series to be made about ritzy Manhattan real estate agents, but this isn't it. It is an act of supreme optimism and wanton cruelty by our main pay channel to buy this turkey and inflict it on us until it expires from a surfeit of nail polish.

3 In the pointless movie Final Cut, Robin Williams's progressive minimalism, honed by his grimly reductive roles in Photo Shop and Insomnia, finally succeeds in erasing the biggest personality on the big screen. Robbo plays a "cutter" -- someone who takes the place of the undertaker in some very dark future where people's memories are recorded bya chip in their brains and edited (cut) together for a final movie after they go belly up. There's some kind of message wafting around about experiencing the real world instead of the TV one, but it never gets anywhere. Williams gets shot dead for being a hack, basically. Avoid.

4. The mysterious and rather sinister Hanso Foundation, which apparently built and staffed the bunkers on the Lost island for the "experiment" has a website. By all means pay a visit and expect nothing but circular non-explanations and some very annoying music. Oh, and an orangutan.

5. For this year's French Open, the ravishing Maria Sharapova (we are not worthy!) settled on a fetching ensemble of pink Stevie Nicks-type dress and canary yellow hotpants. Perhaps her design consultant has been watching the Oscars. Mind you, that girl could wear anything and get away with it as far as I am concerned. Tragic that she was knocked out by the very butch and snarly Dinara Safina, sis of the equally butch and snarly Marat Safin. Oh well, come on Vaidisova!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Time and the city

Long Street is my favourite street in Cape Town. It runs the length of the central city from the old Turkish Baths near the foot of the mountain to the intersection with the modern highway system that leads out of the city to the Atlantic Coast. Walking in Long Street is time travelling. Its old Victorian buildings, lovingly preserved and featuring yards and yards of ironwork "broekie lace" (pantie lace) decoration on their upper verandahs rub up against some of the city's trendiest discos clubs and cafes, which come and go with changes of fashion; sit cheek by jowl with tiny Edwardian bookshops, antique sellers, junk emporiums and a new crop of backpacker establishments. It's a busy street, narrow and therefore one way only, taking the traveller to the junction of Kloof, the street of high-class restaurants that climbs the lower slope of the mountain; and the route to De Waal Drive above the city and thence to the motorways south. But by night it becomes a de facto pedestrian mall as clubbers, pubbers and other visitors stream to its neon pleasure palaces. At right, the tiny, perfect city mosque finds itself in the shadow of late twentieth-century concrete parking garages. This is the shape of things to come for Long Street. Up to now the little shop owners have clung to their emporiums of the arcane as rents have risen. But now as they finally close their doors, the excavators and demolishers are building a new, chrome, glass and concrete Long Street. This is to serve not only the tourists but the many well-heeled Capetonians who are returning to live in the heart of the city, as the magnificent edifices that once housed great finance and insurance institutions become plush apartments and loft spaces. Their former owners are leaving for the fashionable, crime-free Waterfront, or the Highveld skyscraper suburb of Sandton that bears down on old Johannesburg's flank. Much of this development is being undertaken by filthy rich Irish builders, bent on reviving what they call "the Old Town". The renaissance of the abandoned corporate fortresses is to be welcomed, but the old town I know and love will live on in the crannies of this prosperous "lifestyle" precinct.