Wednesday, February 28, 2007

today : I feel (genuinely) sorry for some famous people

What has Tom Cruise done wrong? I ask this because whenever his name is mentioned in the media is accompanied by sneering and sometimes jeering, negative personal comments, innuendo and distaste.

A few weeks ago I was watching a comedy show which had a line of stars' dressing rooms. The presenter walked along pointing to them and mentioning who was supposed to be in them. When the camera reached Tom Cruise's room it dipped low, because the star and Tom's name were very close to the floor. The presenter crouched to address the camera and gave a wink. The audience fell about in paroxysms of laughter that left them literally split at the sides. This was only the fifteen thousandth time that they had witnessed a 'joke' about Tom Cruise being smaller in real life than he appears on-screen. Why him? Has he lied about his height consistently and then been found out?

A week or so ago I watched one of those Entertainment/Celebrity shows that featured the editor of some insider gossip mag (y'know the guys who make Danny DeVitos character in LA Confidential look like Bernstein and Woodward). The guy spent five minutes detailing the fact that Cruise had been dropped by his film studio. Apparently, not only had his latest action epic underperformed at the box office, but the studio head disliked him - nay - despised him. On the same show there was footage of Tom and his wife. They were kissing each other. Now I expect people to say in a whiny teenage voice : "EEEUUUWW. GET A ROOM!", which is exactly what the voiceover said, but the presenter in the studio suggested that Tom and his wife's PDA was a little too much. She implied that it was false.

And this, I perceive, is the basis of almost every negative that is thrown at Tom. Falseness. His religion isn't just an unusual one, but it is false, his marriage is clearly a sham and even his child is apparently false.

Tom started out as a teen star, playing good-looking teenagers at the Michael J Fox end of the brat pack. Then he started to get more and more serious. He took up dramas, action movies, historical epics - everything apart from comedy. Some of this he did very well. Some he did less well. Yet somehow he managed to develop his career. I am not a particular fan of his. I neither watch or not watch films because his name is above the titles. Sometimes I think he is very good, other times he is okay. Rarely is he a bad actor.

Each time I see him he seems to be working hard. I can't say I've ever seen him be less than professional. He doesn't do lots of interviews, but in interviews he pays attention and answers the questions. He makes an effort. On the red carpet the footage shows him spending hours chatting to fans, signing autographs, phoning their grannies on cell-phones and paying them attention. In fact, he does everything a movie star should, and he does it way better than average.

So why do people hate him so? Why is all they want to talk about and talk 'around' is that he is short and gay. Do these gossip insiders and celebrity correspondents know something that we don't? Has he got closets that are bulging with deep dark secrets worse than any other Hollywood actor? The impression given is that he is totally and utterly false in every aspect and only they know about it.

For a 'gay' man he has chosen his beards quite well. I imagine Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz and Katie Holmes could pretty much have their choice of relationship options (any one of them could give me a call whenever they wanted), yet they chose to play beard to Tom. Nicole even chose to adopt kids as part of the conspiracy. Yes, two of those actresses were foreign talent who subsequently broke through into the Hollywood mainstream, and we have evidence that these things do happen, as with David Copperfield and Claudia Schiffer. But so far, in 20 years, nobody has come up with anything other than hints and allegations.

And do you know what? Even if Cruise is closeted, I don't care. Freedom of sexuality is just another branch of freedom, which includes freedom of expression, privacy and personal choice. It's his choice. If he is bearding up with these women, then it's no more hypocritical than people claiming each other were a delight to work with in junket interviews, no more fraudulent than airbrushing and no more dishonest than Hollywood itself trying to sell us bad actors as good actors and bad films as masterpieces.

If Tom is a murderer or pederast who uses his fame to protect him, then please carry on dragging him down until he is exposed and caught. If, however, he is just an easy target who is reluctant to sue, successful, professional and not even particularly interesting outside of his roles, then why not leave him alone?

I would ask the same about Britney, or 'poor Britney' as she is now known. What has she really done wrong? She's yet another rich young star who for reasons of early success, apparently missed out on growing up. So she starts behaving oddly, rebelling against expectations and possibly suffering depression. I read that she has been taking drugs, partying and drinking. Just like the millions of other young women throughout the world who go out on a Friday night. Perhaps, like the millions of other people suffering depression, she's been self medicating with the drugs, alcohol and unexpected behaviour.

During her time as a popstar Britney has made one or two excellent pop records, put on some decent shows and, like Tom, worked hard and professionally. Has she killed anyone? Has anyone caught her banging her babies' head on the kitchen counter? Does she deserve photographers following her around ALL the time? I don't think so. Perhaps some clue lies in the fact that, whilst the public seems to be offering her some sympathy, the celebrity pundits appear delighted by her troubles. I know that many of them are talented and successful in their own right, and don't mean it to appear so, but sometimes it comes across as a little like jealousy.

Friday, February 23, 2007

today : I re-read some books

John Irving is not feted as a novelist as much as Roth, Updike, deLillo, Heller or Pynchon, or any of the other 'giants' of American literature for several reasons. Firstly, he didn't burst onto the scene. His first novel - The Watermethod Man - was pretty rubbish. Well, not rubbish, but just not brilliant. Secondly, he also is not from WASP or Jewish stock, which counts if you are to become part of the literary establishment. He is a rustic New Englander rather than a Metropolitan New Englander. Thirdly, he is popular and on top of that he is seen (even by himself) as a craftsman. Solid, reliable, even arguably predictable. An artisan rather than an artist. Perhaps this is because he sems to have failed to take any of his cues from Modernism, instead preferring sweeping, nineteenth century-ish chunky stories about characters, places and events. Just a look at his prefferred settings reveals an old-fashionedness: woodyards, stoneyards, schools, an old hotel, Vienna, lakesides, apple orchards, orphanages, the baseball field, small rustic towns, woods and swimming holes.

Butf these qualities are why his novels are so entertaining and re-readable. The four novels that saw him soar onto and stay on the bestseller lists: The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules are the very definition of thumping reads, whereas The Crying of Lot 49, for example, isn't really. As a craftsman, Irving chisels his world carefully, sticking to landscapes made from realism and nostalgia. As a craftsman, he hews each of his characters with a defined personality and a recognisable story arc that is satisfying believable. His characters change in such a way as we can easily follow the logic of their changes and go along with it. He also almost never peoples his novels with unsympathetic characters. Even the baddies (of which there are actually few) have enough dimensions that we can understand their badness.

In some ways, Irving avoids themes. Yes, there is some early seventies feminism in The World According to Garp, religious faith in Owen Meany, incest, racism and abortion in Cider House. But his novels are not critical commentaries, or allegorical treatises. They exist outside of modern American politics. By that I mean that peculiar brand of febrile political 'thought' and debate that powers swathes of the American Academe, and informs 'literature' as defined by the Eastern intelligentsia and power elites. He is no Gore Vidal; his conservative and liberal tendencies are spelled with small c and small l.

In fact, I'm not going to use the word novels from now on when talking about Irving. He actual writes stories. These stories, even when they do display complexity are based on very basic old-as-the-hills topics. Love, tragedy, redemption, and fate.

Irving writes in a straightforward way, which is where he gets his reputation as a craftsman. I could not quote you a sentence of his and delight in the construction and the poesy therein. In fact I could not quite you a sentence of his at all. This is because all the words in his stories are there to serve the story and not make a show of what a master of words he is; even though he is.

I can only think of one stylistic point worth commenting on in all of his stories. And that is his choice to have Owen Meany speak in capitals. It is a deviously plain and rather obvious trick, to manipulate the reader into creating a different voice when reading Owen's speech. Yet it is a piece of terrific literary engineering. A simple device that does its job perfectly.

In praising Irving as a rereadable writer I am, of course, revealing my own taste. Previously, when I wrote about Clive James, it was his affection and enthusiasm for his subjects that shines through his writing. Irving has a similar quality. If any of his stories does have a theme, it is the theme of growing up. People finding out how they fit into the real world. It's a pretty unexperimental and uncynical seam to mine, and not the preserve of 'clever' people, who know everything anyway.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

today : I go car shopping

i've been thinking about buying a new car. luckily i am in a position to get one and it's interesting looking around to see what's on offer. i'm not a car nerd. if i had millions i would probably buy a ridiculously fast and expensive collection, and i would enjoy them. but i don't buy car magazines or even know anything about cars to any depth. I know a bit, but it doesn't interest me. in fact, even though i enjoy watching top gear on the tv i find the obsession with driving promoted and reflected by that show faintly pathetic. there are, as i see it, two types of drivers : those who see a road network as their own personal race-track and those who see a road network as a way of getting places. again, don't get me wrong, fast driving is thrilling, but not as thrilling as staying alive and not having the deaths of others on my conscience.

none of this is really my point. my point is that i get bored easily when faced with brochures and technical detail. i am also bored by car salesmen. some of them are excellent, but a couple, when i have stated my disinterest in detailed technical description, have treated me like they treat women and patronised me. one guy, when he pointed out features on a very nice car, explained what each feature did as part of the naming and pointing process. this went as far as saying : cruise control: by pressing these buttons you can make your car go at any speed and (drum roll) you don't have to touch the pedals. the best one was: the sun visors, which apparently you can slide down to stop the sun getting in your eyes when you're driving...

so anyway, i was looking at my options. when selling cars in britain, the car companies seem to have this idea that we are roughly 20 years behind the rest of the world technologically. it is only recently that they have started offering aircon as a standard option and then only in mid-price and higher price ranges. They are also obsessed with the tiniest dividing lines between grades of model. the gxsi l model has electric front windows but manual rear windows and a tilting sun roof, the gsxi LS model has the same but a sliding sun roof and a cup holder, the gsxi ls plus has electric windows front and back, a sliding sunroof, a cup holder AND brushed aluminium door bezels. It is also 7 grand more than the gsxi L. well worth it, I'm sure you'll agree, especially for those 8 square centimetres of brushed aluminium that look like high-school-project ash trays

So, as part of considering one model of car, there I was with a brochure containing one of those tables that lists all the standard and optional equipment on different models. it turned out that on the list was a car that comes complete with a radio cassette player. Just a reminder if you've lost track of time: it's 2007. This was basic model, but even the basic models cost thousands of pounds. For an extra 7 percent of the cost of the car you can upgrade to an AM/FM Radio CD player with RDS! Fantastic!

I use audio equipment as an example, but here in Britain you can still struggle to find a car with ABS or electric windows as standard. And the car industry in their unnecessarily thick and glossy brochures still list these features as if they are part of some tomorrows world techno future. As if I can't go to B&Q and buy an air conditioner for my house for a quarter of the price of having air conditioning fitted in my car, as if anything other than grey vinyl as an interior material is so exotic that it is almost beyond the realms of imagination, as if a switch that opens the boot of locks all the doors or

Quite frankly it's bizarre. This kind of attitude redefines the word disingenuous. It is almost as crazy as that of record companies.

Looking at the higher end and newer models I found that hardly any of them has mobile phone connectivity. One model had integral bluetooth and infra red so you can use your phone via the audio system. yet this car offers no charging or cradling options for an actual phone. One of the main brand new models that is apparently packed with innovations offers a CD player that (wait for it) can play those new fangled MP3 CDs. The salesman told me that he didn't understand it, but apparently you can get more songs on a disc, or something. When I asked about iPod (other MP3 players are available, by the way) connectivity his head exploded. A wifi/usb connection - for designers and marketers who think that a radio cassette is more appealing than an empty space in the dash this is tantamount to making a car with a flux capacitor as a standard option.