Pointing the foam finger at twerking and other dumbness

I had to look up the word ‘twerking’ to understand the storm over Miley Cyrus’ adventures this week.

Like most neologisms it’s mutated; in the 1930s Walter Edmonds used it to mean ‘an insignifcant male’. It was related, in that sense, to ‘twerp’.

monkey_readingToday’s meaning’s been added to the OED. I’m not sure that’s wise; pop-terms tend to be transient and one of the strengths of the OED has been its refusal to bow to pop culture. Until now. They’ve also added selfie, squee and derp, but those might last longer.

To my mind the better definition of ‘twerk’ is ‘baboon mating ritual’ – it’s a specific match, though that said, the body language is shared by a lot of primates, obviously including humans to judge by the storm that followed Cyrus’ performance. Sigh. Another blow to the idea of human exceptionalism.

Nor is Cyrus the first. Frank Zappa wrote songs lampooning the people who made such moves over forty years ago. That, along with other ‘music industry anthropology’, led to him being banned from the Royal Albert Hall in 1968. Zappa sued; the upshot was a case in which, among other things, he had to explain – in an  Old Bailey courtroom – exactly what the phrase ‘provocative squat’ meant. After first explaining to the judge what a ‘phonograph record’ was.

The problem with performances like Cyrus’ – and I include US celebrity ‘clothing malfunctions’ and other adventures, including spouting old Anglo Saxon words, is they’re blatantly unsubtle. Which isn’t smart. Though there is a degree of ‘clever’ in the cynical way these things leverage media prominence from scandal. It worked this time too. Cyrus’ fiancee, reportedly, was ‘mortified’. Her co-singer felt overshadowed. A letter from a mum to her daughter telling her not to follow in Miley’s footsteps went viral. Shock – horror – HEADLINES.

As far as I can tell the technique works better in the US, In Britain or its former Empire it’s still unacceptable but more likely to be met with moronic headlines of ‘fwoaaaar!’ and yobbish media outbursts. Or…nothing. One has merely to check out the way American guests are gobsmacked by content on Graham Norton’s chat show to get a handle on the difference. (‘You can SAY that on TV here?’)

It’s true in New Zealand too. Last week the 20-year old daughter of New Zealand’s Prime Minister published nude selfies as part of her art studies in Paris, tastefully festooned with fast food (OK, that’s an oxymoron in SO many ways). The pictures were splashed across the media and …nobody cared, except Kim Dotcom, who offered to buy prints. Political scandal? No. Media frenzy? No. Shock? No. Kiwis weren’t worried.

Ura dance under way in Rarotonga. I took this at 1/8 second exposure. Hey - everybody gets frozen postures. What about capturing the feeling of movement?

Ura dance under way in Rarotonga. I took this at 1/8 second exposure. Hey – everybody gets frozen postures. What about capturing the feeling of movement?

My take? If we step back and look at the societies and cultures – at what is going on in the sense of social anthropology – it’s illuminating. And I think we can take lessons from Polynesia. The Cook Islanders have a dance known as ura. It’s tasteful, clever, subtle and skilled. It is about young men and women having a conversation – people in love and romancing each other.  It is telling a story about much more than blatant acts of physicality. The dance is sensuous but not overt. What counts is the layered message, subtlety, and abstraction.

That, surely, is a far better demonstration of human intellect, creativity and ability than a crude emulation of baboon mating behaviour…isn’t it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 27: when badder is better

There’s been a storm this week about Sharknado – Asylum’s latest ‘so bad it’s good’ take on big-budget disaster movies. Global warming causes uber-tornadoes that send sharks plunging into the streets of Los Angeles. Chomp.

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Pictures at a Dr Grordbort exhibition, Wellington 2012; fantastic art, a brilliant riff on Golden Age B-movie sci-fi, and a wonderful satire of Britain’s Edwardian-age social militarism. Photo: Mentis Fugit

The physics of it don’t work out. But hey…

Asylum make ‘mockbusters’ like last year’s Nazis at the Centre of the Earth. It seems to have everything – an Evil Secret Antarctic Base, a Nazi UFO, zombie stormtroopers, even (spoiler alert, I suspect) Evil Robo-Hitler, Wolfenstein-style. You know the trope – ‘Nazi Super-Science. For when regular Super-Science isn’t evil enough’.

Extreme silliness. Of course, movies so bad they’re good have been around a while. Frank Zappa wrote songs about them (‘Cheepnis‘). Troma released some masterful parodies decades ago (remember Toxic Avenger?) And there’s the grand-daddy of them all – Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. Saw it. Laughed. As intended.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The best are deliberately bad, and inevitable deadpan delivery is part of not taking themselves seriously. Deadpan is smart humour. The makers know it. We know it. And we all have a great time.

The best I’ve seen was Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, which was utterly brilliant.

Can writers learn from this? Already have. Take Harry Harrison’s Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers – a deadpan pastiche of totally bad space opera. Though that genre was self-mocking enough; E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith was lambasted for tripe, but actually knew precisely what he was doing – and by the end of it was sending himself up. Quite consciously.

Don’t get me started on how good the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings is. A comic novel in its own right, even if it wasn’t sending up You Know What.

What it tells us is that ‘deliberately funny bad’ sells. But only if it’s good. It demands more skill than serious ‘good’ writing  – getting that deadpan irony right is difficult. Like the movie makers, the writer has to be able to do ‘bad’ without appearing ‘incompetent’ – to wink at the reader and get them to laugh with them – not at them. The tongue has to be planted firmly in the cheek.

Harking back to the movies for a moment – the master at this sort of thing remains Vincent Price (1911-1993). A very fine dramatic actor, but also a great comedian. Check out Champagne for Caesar (1950). Very funny. He got the balance spot on.

Your thoughts? And have you seen Sharknado yet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

A lament to moronic entertainment magazines

Most weeks, when we’re out grocery shopping, my wife and I amuse ourselves in the checkout queue by reading the covers of certain magazines and lampooning the headlines.

It’s fun. And a lot like shooting fish in a barrel.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".

“Hmmn…how do I get people to read this stuff? Oh, I know. “Monastery’s Shock Gruel Kitchen Scandal”.

These magazines are ostensibly about real people – all of whom we are supposed to recognise by first name. And these magazines reveal chaotic lives filled with all the shallow melodrama and emotional roller-coaster of a poorly written soap opera.

Famous women lurch from  marriage ultimatum to separation drama to diet crises to baby bodies to bikini bodies and back to baby bodies again on a weekly cycle. They obsess with babies, wedding plans, divorce plans and diets. They have secrets known only to us – when we read the story of that ‘secret’ in the magazine.

The men these erratic and unstable celebrities associate with are impulsive and shallow, showering their women with ultimatums, having affairs, betrayals, and fighting battles with the bottle. Then reconciling. All of it on whispered account from ‘close-placed’ sources, all played out to the same hectic weekly schedule.

I might be forgiven for supposing that the famous have the emotional maturity of an eight year old and suffer from borderline personality disorder.

Of course they’re not. This is what sells. It’s managed at editorial level. Editors need a new scandal every week. And the pressure any editor comes under with any periodical is intense – I know; I wrote a fortnightly newspaper column in the 1990s and for a few years edited a fortnightly periodical.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.

Not 1930s Hollywood at all. This is a photo I took. Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.

Lest we mistake these things for anything but product, they’re also copy-edited for style – typically, the right adverbs. People don’t eat meals, they have to eat ‘nourishing meals’. Ordinary events become ‘shocking developments’ or ‘surprise announcements’. We are told, every time, what the verb means.  It’s not subtle.

What’s more, as a society we’ve been conditioned into this vicariousness.  Back in the 1920s studio heads began deliberately selling their stars’ private lives –  manufacturing an image of movie star life for plebians to gawp at, as a marketing tool for the films. And it was, deliberately, manufactured. Today’s is so much a part of the industry we don’t give it a second thought; and it’s spread to all celebrities.

The disturbing part, for me, is what this really tells us about our society. Is western culture that shallow, that easily entertained? I doubt it. But I wonder. There is a dissonance. Individually we’re smart – and yet, en masse, things slip. As individuals, we are cynical about these magazines – and yet, they sell. It’s the old story of individual vs mass. Part of the human condition? Of course.

I have readers of this blog from Australia to South Africa, UK, the Netherlands, the US and Canada – I know it’s going to be pretty much the same over there.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The de-evolution of the drum machine

Alan Myers died today, aged 58. A talented guy and a sad loss to the music business.

It was Myers who was responsible for the robotic drum sounds on all the early Devo albums. That’s right – their classic sound wasn’t done by drum machine. His playing was cleverer than that. Giving the lie to the usual conceit of the day that drummers were a dying breed.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Part of my Micromoog’s main panel. A Moog Model 2080, S/N 2177 – made in Moog’s Williamsville N.Y. factory. Has anybody reading this been to that town?

Got me thinking. On the surface, drum machines looked compelling in the early 1980s. Synth-pop bands sprouted with Ensoniq Mirage samplers, Yamaha DX-7’s , the occasional Roland (Jupiter or Juno), 64-note sequencers and the inevitable Linn Drum Machine. Scritti Politti, Tears for Fears, Kajagoogoo, Thompson Twins – and the rest. Some of their drum machines even had names. Echo, used by Echo and the Bunnymen. Or Doktor Avalanche, which drummed for the Sisters of Mercy.

Luckier bands had access to the Fairlight CMI – a Sydney-built computer-synth that did everything, as long as you liked 8-bit samples. That’s where Frankie Goes to Hollywood got their sound from (if you know their songs, THAT orchestra hit is No. 5, and it’s sampled from Stravinski’s Firebird Suite).

Against this avalanche of eighties ‘high tech’, it seemed real drummers were as obsolete as analog speedometers, clocks and watches. Dinosaurs. Make way for the New Future – digital displays, automatic drummers. It was inevitable. Get with the programme!

Of course, you only had to listen to somebody like Terry Bozzio to realise just how rubbish the notion was. Check out his ‘Hands with a Hammer’, or what he does with Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’. And then there’s Simon Phillips – who can play dissonant rhythms with each hand.

The real problem is that drum machines were framed around the notion that drumming was just a kind of elevated click-track – a punctuation beneath the music. Whereas in reality, drums are a musical instrument of their own, just like any other, and they have to be treated as such. Drum machines couldn’t improvise, they couldn’t humanise – not properly – and they soon faded. Today – have drummers died off, inevitably out-evolved? Not a bit of it. They are as essential as they always were – true musicians who do so much to make modern music what it is.

But then, some of us knew that back in the 1980s. We only had to listen to Myers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

What’s your hottest Google Gotcha?

The other day, as far as I can tell from the analytics, someone tried to Google translate one of my blog pages from English to English.

MJWright2011Cool. Uh…I think. Ever had your blog found by something odd? Happens to me so often I swear I’m being Google-bombed. Here are the top strings people typed to land on my blog this week:

“writing tips from jk rowling” [actually, on my blog, you get writing tips from ME, bwahahaha!]

“”debbie harwood” chills” [Coincidentally, Debbie’s a singer from my home town. She  was in “When The Cat’s Away” …and I was at high school with her brother.]

“how did tokien influence the world” [I think you mean J R R Tolkien. And lots, but not as much as I am going to…mwaahaha! …Oh wait, I already did the Evil Laugh joke…]

“ma hot bok.com” [say what?]

“down studie books on the treay of waitangi day 2013″ [you get an F in my spelling class]

“discomfit, public domain” [am I being google-bombed?]

“hotbook mj” [OK, I AM being google-bombed]

What’s your weirdest “Google gotcha”?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Remember Gandalf? He’s baaack….

Stars of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have re-convened here in Wellington NZ for final pick-up shooting.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

I’m undecided whether I’ll see the rest of the trilogy. I saw the first – and wasn’t impressed.

My gripes? The cast couldn’t be faulted. Wonderful, wonderful performers. But The Hobbit (novel) was a tightly constructed hero journey. Jackson’s first-part movie wasn’t. It rambled. It brought sub-plots and details that Tolkien never wrote.

It seemed to veer between epic serious – on a scale well above the novel – and Jackson-style visual slapstick, which didn’t bear much resemblance to Tolkien’s quietly intellectual jokes.

I am a huge Tolkien fan. And a huge Jackson fan. Movies don’t have to follow books – but they do have to work as a movie.

This time? Meh.

Have you seen The Hobbit – what are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

A small eternity watching ‘The Hobbit': a personal view

On the weekend my wife and I went to see The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, Jackson is one of my favourite directors, and we live where it was made – there has been a buzz around Wellington for years. Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings – all three parts – was stunning. It was stunning as a story, stunning for Jackson’s deft handling of an epic canvas. Stunning for its effects.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal – a marvellous example of the model-maker’s art.

So we had plenty of build-up for this one. And in many ways it did not disappoint. The actors were superb. The effects were brilliant. The set dressing was astonishing. The attention to detail was incredible. I wasn’t worried that the movie bore only passing resemblance to the book, either. Movies are different media – they require different handling, especially this time. Jackson has taken Tolkien’s low-key story of a quest for treasure – explicitly, Bilbo’s hero journey – and turned it into a nine hour epic. That meant it had to be significantly deepened.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

There was just one small problem.  Nothing happened other than a relentless bang-bang-bang succession of chases and (literally) pit-falls.  The movie was about half over when my wife whispered in my ear. ‘Are we there yet?’ We weren’t. Eventually the end credits rolled. ‘Well,’ my wife said. ‘That was awful.’  I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s three hours of our lives we won’t get back.’

What happened? To me, the main problem was that it hadn’t been deepened enough – or properly structured. The existing Hobbit plot was stretched, thinly, across a three-hour movie-scape in which other material seemed to intrude, sometimes for no obvious reason. It opened with a loving, nostalgic reprise of The Fellowship of The Ring, which didn’t seem to do anything for the plot other than add fan-fic style ‘completeness’. It took over an hour for the story to actually get going, and then, as my wife put it, the thing felt at times like a succession of out-takes from The Fellowship of the Ring, slung into a bucket. I got the impression, at times, that I had been watching The Hobbit re-written as rather mediocre fan fiction.

That diorama from another angle.

That diorama from another angle.

Structure is everything with fiction – novels and movies alike. In the specific, to me the main over-arching plot, leading to the ‘big boss’ battle at the very end – was Azog’s quest for revenge. This was a new element, not envisaged by Tolkien. Unfortunately, Azog kept turning up to intensify danger or push chases along, without real build-up or tension – more melodrama than drama. But in any case, the whole thing needed a more epic plot to match the scale of movie, the scale of effects, and the scale of the settings; and Tolkien’s legendarium has many gigantic elements that could have been brought in – from the origin of dragons as corrupted Maiar and servants of Morgoth, to the full back-story of Sauron deceiving the elves into forging rings.

The other problem was tone. It came across to me as an awkward juxtaposition between Jackson-style slapstick – not much related to Tolkien’s gentle brand of intellectual humour – and deep, dark seriousness, which the plot elements didn’t quite match.

To me the strength of the 1937 Hobbit novel was tightness and the fact that the magic and wonder of Bilbo’s world unfolded for us as it did for Bilbo. Along the way we watched Bilbo grow as a person.  All was presented with Tolkien’s gentle humour and pitched for its reading audience, initially his children. Tolkien’s characters were also discomfited by ordinary problems, such as rain and storms, which we can all identify with. It led them into adventure with trolls and goblins. The ordinary became the extraordinary – but one we could share because we had been led gently into it. I got none of that feel with the movie.

I am a huge fan of Tolkien. I am a huge fan of my fellow Wellingtonian, Sir Peter Jackson. But this movie didn’t do it for me.  The Gollum riddle game, which was truly masterful, went some way towards redeeming the whole. But not far enough.

What did this movie do for you?

In post-scriptum, we found succour on YouTube:


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Write It Now, Part 2; more on kindness; and picture inspirations from earthquake-hit Christchurch.