Friday, February 28, 2014

About at about

One thing I enjoy when thinking about the English language is the unwillingness of pedants simply to say "I enjoy and apply arbitrary rules" and to insist on inventing justifications for rules that are of course arbitrary.

But Monkey, I hear you cry, are not all rules of grammar somewhat arbitrary. Well yes, possibly -- Chomskian minimal project aside. They are at least conventional. But of course they do generally obey the internal logic of the language.

So a rule we often see is that one may not write "at about 8pm" in sentences like "The car crashed into the wall at about 8pm". One must write "The car crashed into the wall about 8pm". This sentence reads awkwardly. I'm not going to go into a huge digression on why it does, but certainly English prefers adverbial phrases of time to be fronted, so "About 8pm, the car crashed into the wall" reads much more comfortably.

So the reason given for the rule is that "at" is specific and "about" is vague. When we say "at an hour" we mean "precisely at that hour". The first is simply incorrect. "At" is a preposition that indicates position exclusive of other positions. It doesn't have to be specific or accurate. Nothing about it suggests that. It's in the nature of most phrases it is used in that it seems binary: "at home" means at home and not "not at home". However, "at home" actually means at home and nowhere else; "at work" means at work and nowhere else. "At work" in particular is quite a vague sort of concept. We do not mean it to say "at my workplace". We mean it to say "at the doing of my work and not doing anything else".

So "at about 7pm" means "at about 7pm and at no other time". "At" is not specific; it is exclusive. Compare "you or some other person". This is perfectly acceptable in English.

You're not convinced, I know. So let's look at a perfectly acceptable English sentence: "I will come at sevenish." No one will argue this is ungrammatical, because it plainly is. Yet the time specified is not pinpoint, is it?

Let's try another: "he killed her at some time after 9pm". Again, the time is not pinpoint. Indeed, it's a much broader sweep of time than we generally mean by "about". It's "the entire time after 9pm until now". But we can still use "at" (although it's not obligatory, of course).

Here's the killer though. You're going to like this.

Let's say you bring a lamb to the Ekka and it's weighed. The weigh-in dude says to you "that lamb is roughly 9kg". All good, right? We use "roughly" in this instance as precisely a synonym for "about".

"That lamb weighed in at roughly 9kg." is perfectly grammatical. Wait, hell no! That's "at" with a nonpinpoint measure. That surely cannot be.

But it can. And it is. And yes, I did just begin three sentences with conjunctions. Dealwithit.jpg.

Indeed, you cannot say "*That lamb weighed in roughly 9kg".

Okay, it's at about this time that the most diehard pedant will be gnashing their (or his or her, whatever you prefer) teeth because you can't really use "roughly" in the sentence I began with, so "about" and "roughly" are not perfect substitutes. But really, they don't have to be. The pedant claims that "at" cannot be used with imprecise terms. I just showed it can. So now the pedant is left with "at" cannot be used with imprecise terms to do with time, except, erm, "sevenish" and the like. Or that whole "after 9pm" thing. And I just say bullshit, take my bow and adieu, dear friends.

Monkey at the movies

So we hear that PT Anderson is making Inherent Vice and of course I'm excited about that. Pynchon has never been filmed and if anyone is going to do it, Anderson's the man.

Of course Pynchon reads like he's unfilmable and you can imagine outcomes that will be close to unviewable. Anderson verges on close to unviewable at the best of times -- it's part of what makes him a great director. Isn't that an odd thing to say? No, because what I'm saying is he's uncomfortable, not that he tips over into unwatchable often.

I watched The Master again the other night and that has to be counted as Anderson's big failure. Truth to be told, this time I lasted I don't know, two hours?, before my attention drifted to other things. It's not a very compelling film. Anderson eschews narrative and instead lays out a luscious, directionless mess of a film.

Phoenix is brilliant, of course. He is the kind of actor that I watch films purely to see him, because he's simply wonderful in practically anything he's in. He's compelling and fascinating as Freddie Quell but he's left with so little to do because the character goes nowhere. You know him in the first five minutes and he doesn't change at all.

But the failure of the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman. I know, blah blah, he was brilliant, blah blah, but he's not brilliant in the The Master (or much else, if truth be told). The problem is he's supposed to be charismatic, but there's a reason he rarely starred in films but was a character actor. Whereas Phoenix compels you to watch him, inhabits a character and makes him real, PSH is actorly and unconvincing. I had to keep reminding myself he was supposed to be charismatic because he cannot, and did not, portray it. I'm not suggesting the role needed a huge side of ham like Day Lewis, but it needed someone who was a credible conman. PSH excelled at nuance in small, relatively flat characters. Ask him to become large, and he fell flat. Compare him with Bale in American Hustle. Bale is charisma on a stick, even though he is an ugly and laughable man. You see why people want to be conned by him.

Is he miscast or is the role badly written? I think you can argue either way. Certainly there are films where PSH just turns up for the paycheque (Moneyball, which he hung around like a bad smell, springs to mind, and there are plenty of other bit parts he should just have turned down), but others where he does good material credit (Capote foremost in my opinion). I think the whole film was ill conceived. The problem reviewers had was that it looked great and mostly was great in so many respects, but Anderson just didn't have a story to place the characters in.

Inherent Vice is a bit thin on plot if we're honest. I mean, Pynchon's never really about the plot. He's about the ideas. So it could be shit on a plate. I don't think Phoenix will let us down as Sportello and the rest of the cast does look very juicy, but I can't help but be scared that they will be stuck with a concept and script that don't match the premise.


Actors can surprise you though. Matthew McConaughey, for years a slightly dull if attractive presence in mostly entertaining but substanceless films, a poor man's Ryan Gosling if such a thing is possible, suddenly showed an ability he has rarely been called on to exhibit in True Detective. If you haven't been watching it, you need to start. It's as good as any television series; I personally rank it as highly as The Wire and Breaking Bad. It has flaws -- as any work of art in film or television is almost bound to have -- but what lifts it above them is the seamless collaboration of deep and compelling atmosphere, wonderful writing and exemplary acting. Woody Harrelson is characteristically excellent as Marty and the supporting cast able and beautifully directed, but McConaughey is something else. He inhabits Rust Cohle, creating in him a truly great character. He seems incapable of hitting a false note and is unremittingly credible. Seriously, if TV shows could win Oscars, he would be a shoo-in for best actor, he's that good.

It cannot just be that he finally has a role that fits the talent he's mostly been hiding. The talent must be real. I hope he is now given the opportunity to show it again in films that make the most of it. He may never find the perfect fit he has in Rust again, but even if he doesn't, he has created one of the great performances in TV. I'm going to say even better than Cranston in Breaking Bad or Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire. Yes, that good.


Talking of surprises, I was sceptical of Django Unchained before I watched it, because truly Tarantino is even more overrated than Hoffman. Tarantino writes some mean dialogue and has framed it in pieces that have been entertaining if not entirely convincing, but he's also made some dogs. Inglorious Basterds was bad and Kill Bill was silly. We all know that even if we pretend they were masterpieces. Jackie Brown was dull and even Jackson hamming it up for all he was worth didn't change that.

But Django is a hugely fun romp. As spaghetti western homage, it captured the sly humour of a Leone (without wasting too much time on trying to emulate Leone's visual style) and Foxx and Waltz wink and shimmy through material that lets them have a lot of fun, which I for one was willing to indulge in. Di Caprio was a bit meh in a role that didn't suit him and Kerry Washington conveyed nothing more than astonishment that anyone would cast her in a big-budget film given that she doesn't seem to have any acting chops at all, but neither detracted too much from a gleeful couple of hours.

It reminded me a lot of the kind of smirking bullshit that I enjoyed as a kid. The Three Musketeers or even The Man Who Would Be King come to mind. Biggish films that don't pretend to be anything but fun for everyone involved, in which the actors are almost asiding to us, "No, really..."

Cinema that doesn't take itself seriously can be really good. I don't mean cynical trash like Gladiator (or practically anything Ridley Scott makes -- I mean, when the French land in Robin Hood from medieval landing craft, you realise that the joke's very much on you); I mean lighthearted stuff that aims to entertain without insulting you. I thought Django was a lovely tilt at being that kind of film.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Summer lanes

Sometimes I feel if I am just me, I can reach out and find the person who is like me, and then the world will shrink to him and me and I will be free of needing to be me because I will have the friend who will release me.

Sometimes I feel we gather dust, accrete misery, until we are hidden in shells so crusted and old we can never break out and be real.

We live in deserts, trying to build shelters from the world we know is cruel, but it is only you and I playing mean games with each other. There is no world but us if we want no other world.

But I never spoke a language you understood and you weren't listening anyway.

I never spoke a word to you, just spoke in tongues that someone else built for us, never found the song my soul sings in the quiet of night as I feel we did not waste our lives but only tasted, just for a short time, what we could find in them.

When we were kids, we spent summer days in the hedgerow in a camp that no one but us knew was a place to live. We jumped out of the dusty lane and disappeared from all of it.

I was a polite boy with a crooked tooth; you wouldn't remember me the next day if you spoke to me. But I had a good heart, I am sure of it.

When we were kids, we ran across the towans, the gentle wind in our faces, forgetting what the days would be, forgetting that we even would have lives other than this, to run and be.

I kissed her at the northern soul disco. I kissed her and soon we would never meet again. My hair grew curlier, my heart colder. I danced without fear. I didn't know what there was to be afraid of.

We cycled through the summer lanes of a childhood of jam sandwiches and squash. We cycled through our dreams of leaving life behind.

I do not know you any more.

It is the saddest thing I know. I wrapped myself in a ball and you ceased to be. I never asked more than for you to be with me and I never judged you.

I feel like you only know love when there is no question to be asked.

But sometimes I hear a person talking and I know love is real. I don't care that we are nothing at all. I know we are conduits for something we do not understand.

I know it is an illusion but somehow the ghosts know they are ghosts; somehow they feel they can touch each other, and reach out. And even if we cannot touch, even if we are never able to precisely be where each other is, we feel we can.

 I never spoke a word to you. If I knew the language your soul sings in when the night is quiet, I would harmonise, if I could sing it too.

But you don't know what I'm talking about. And if you did, even for a brief moment, you would not let me know. You want me to spin in a cage in the wind, rotting, a cold star whose core you fear will burn if you touch it.

Yet here it is.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

How Channel 10 sucked my balls and lived to tell the tale

Guess what? There’s an Australian couple in the ice dance. No, really. Did I tell you there’s an Australian couple in the ice dance?

Oh and and, amazing news, Chumpy’s going to win the snowboard cross! What? Me either. But he’s going to win! An Aussie! I came. Are you coming yet? Yes, he fell over last time. But he’s going to win this time! Or fall over. But mostly WIN. Let’s watch the profile they’re showing every hour. What? You think sports shows should feature actual sports? How quaint. There’s an Aussie who is GOING TO WIN. Who cares about silly things like sliding on a teatray or hockey on ice? Who cares about nonsense like skiing round flags or any sort of skating? There’s a man who is going to get on a skateboard and do something AND WIN. And get this, he’s an Australian. Yes, a citizen of our country. Isn’t it great? We are going to WIN.

Oh and did I tell you there’s an Australian couple in the ice dance?

Friday, February 14, 2014

I wasn't here (crossposted)

Ever since I discovered
that I don't exist
I have found it easier
to believe in fairy tales
such as
that there is a possibility
we can love each other

and even about that
I'm sceptical
because probably
we're just chemicals.

Ever since I discovered
that the earth is a void
I have found it easier
to believe it's worth
fighting with each other

because what would it matter
you get three score and ten
and then you are dust
everything you built
a pile of mould and rust.

You could let it go
let yourself be bathed
in the evening's soft sweet glow
watch the bats over Samford Road
give up everything
you've ever known

You could just let it flow
dissolve into particles
believing in miracles
watching your children grow.

Ever since I discovered
that I am destined to fail
I have started to want
you to build me a monumnet

and write upon it
that the world turned around
and he didn't care
it spun around twenty-five thousand times
and he wasn't there.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Vale smackhead

I suppose my problem with the handwringing about some celebrity junkie snuffing it is I just don't sign up to the smug liberal orthodoxy. I don't believe "addiction is a disease". Some inconclusive science that people with an agenda have run with. Our desire to be compassionate to people who suffer from their choices. Our understanding that yes, your environment moulds you, sometimes presents you with choices that won't work out well for you and doesn't equip you well to make. A mix of these things has led us to deny all responsibility, to create an orthodoxy of victimhood: that none of us ever chooses anything -- we are just passive victims of the world round us. Yet the same people believe in a just world: that they have earned their privilege, their comfort. That their intelligence and good fortune are personal triumphs, not also products of the world they inhabit.

I feel sorry for addicts. Sorrier for guys who turn to drugs because life is miserable and it makes it bearable to live in squalor without much hope of a good life than I am for celebrities who often just do drugs because they can. But each has made a choice. This is the road they took. The drugs didn't walk through the door and force themselves into their arms. Some choices are tough but they are still choices.

I'm not a moralist about drugs. I've done my share. I avoided smack because I know I'm the kind of person who will return to it like a dog to vomit, that no matter how painful life is, I cannot indulge in things whose consequences I do not want to risk. I'm not particularly judgemental about people who make different choices. But I don't believe rich white celebrities are victims of anything. You can walk away.

Also, I just don't care enough about these people to actually feel sad they died. Are you kidding me? It's some dude who was in films. Everyone dies and the world travels on.