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March 07, 2009

memories of the tempest.

I always seem to end up on the same side of the stage in the Courtyard Theatre.  For productions of Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost & The Tempest in the past six months, I have been placed in the same place give or take five seats.  Figure in that these are the only times that I have sat in the stalls in this space, and one starts to think that Aisle 7 is becoming 'Tom's Aisle'.  I like it from there: you don't have a front-on view (so you get a slightly less expensive ticket) but you feel in extremely close proximity to the play.

I thought that the Baxter Theatre Centre production of The Tempest, which I saw this evening, is excellent and really rather beautiful by the by.  The wedding celebration/performance - conjured by Prospero for his newly married daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, the Prince she has met just hours previous - was a thing of wonder that combined dancing, singing and puppets of giant, dancing figures.  At first, every time a new element was brought to the party, Ferdinand, perched on a tree stump next to his new wife, looked shocked and genuinely afraid (Miranda, on the other hand, is used to her father's antics, and was delighted but not unsettled).  The production is full of moments of imaginative and inventive beauty such as this, which struck me, like Ferdinand, as pure magic.

Anthony Sher is a conflicted Prospero of ugliness and tenderness.  When he recounts to Miranda the story of how they arrived on the arid island, Sher paced in angled lines through centre-stage.  He was hunched and frequently swivelling, to embody a twisted sense of built-up aggression at his enemies, and guilt at not having told Miranda before.  He was restless, and just a little bit vulnerable. I found his caring attitude towards Miranda really quite touching.  I was also sorry to have missed the detail of Sher's delivery of the key soliloquy in which he ponders how to treat his captured enemies.  I was admiring the wonderful lighting effect, which created something like a wall of light around Sher and then immediately doubled up as a figurative prison for the Royal party.

John Kani's face has been through a lot.  He wears experience of post-colonialism and apartheid; it is an honour to come into contact with such experience.  For me, this is what made the final spotlight on him - after Prospero's final lines which act as an apology - so powerful, it brings us into contact with experience.  It is also an ambiguous note; Kani's Caliban doesn't know how to react in the moment, and how he will react is only up for speculation.

I was also touched by Miranda's innocent joy and curiosity, also beautifully played.  Some moments to mark a lovely solo outing.  The trains from Stratford to Leamington are ridiculous - I waited 80 minutes on the platform.  I read the programme cover-to-cover, but didn't have the energy to crack on with The Golden Bowl.                

January 06, 2009

BD Live.

Writing about web page http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/technology/05bluray.html?ref=business

The New York Times give something of a preview to the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts on Wednesday in Vegas.  "Nearly two million square feet of convention hall will be stocked with the latest mobile phones, portable music players, digital cameras and expensive flat-screen televisions."  I don't know much about the event, but I expect it involves a lot of dudes in suits and shades telling anyone who will listen that they represent the next big thing. 

This article focuses upon the challenges facing Blu-Ray in the market.  A central difficulty is how to tell audiences that Blu-Ray is significantly better than DVD (because, well, I'm not convinced that it is).  One of their strategies is to introduce a 'BD Live' service:

Analysts say they expect companies to announce more support for a feature called BD Live (as in Blu-ray disc live), which lets people download additional material from the Internet and interact with friends in text chats that appear on the television while playing a movie.

I often find it annoying enough when I get distracted by a real thing when watching a film.  Let alone a chat box unexpectedly intruding upon the experience.   This feeds into a model of how audiences consume films as digital media that is often propagated in discourses - as one of many 'competing elements', to borrow Aylish Wood's phrase, jostling for perceptual position.  I haven't used XBox live all that much, but in my experience it is less interesting for the social opportunities it provides and more so for how it enhances collaborative gameplay.  I want to talk to people so we can figure out how to shoot these zombies up, not so they can tell me about their day - I have friends to do that with.

It could be interesting to imagine how such a BD Live feature could be used to create collaborative, real-time film criticism - like a user-initiated director's commentary, a phenemenological commentary.  This seems to be more thought and imagination experiments though, as I imagine the appeal and utility would be novel but short-lived.

January 04, 2009

the sunday suplex 04/01/08

Some Sunday links to tide you over.  Built like my ideal newspaper.

2009 Resolutions for Film Criticism - Aaron Hillis et al - Hillis has taken over GreenCine Daily, and is employing a quality over quantity approach.  This is a podcast featuring him, and three other critics from New York.  There's nothing revelatory in it but it's interesting and entertaining (although the fact that they keep talking over each other might imply one thing that is wrong with film criticism, and all human discourse).

New New World: An Exchange, A Conversation, An Epigraph - Ryland Walker Knight & Keith Uhlich - Haven't listened to the podcast yet, but the exchanges about Malick's The New World are quite wonderful.

'August: Osage County' - Michael Billington & What To Say About August: Osage County - Mark Espiner - for context to my latest entry.

PS In A Podcast - I haven't listened to it yet, but my friends Pete Smith and Paul Savage are both funny and have a new podcast

Preview: Sengoku Seventh Battle - Jordan Breen - The sport section.  Entertaining event, and Breen as always got me psyched up.  Read this, and then find the fights on YouTube.

And, things to do this week: The University Drama Society are putting on 'Elephant's Graveyard' by U.S playwright George Brant at the Arts Centre Weds to Sat.  It's a new play that hasn't been performed in Europe before, which is unusual for the drama society but makes it all the more exciting.  

There are also some short runs of interesting films at the Arts Centre this week; I hope to be able to check out Rivals by Jacques Maillot, and Choke by Clark Gregg.

And, the last couple of days, I've seen listening to The Skints self-titled e.p, 'Come All You Madmen' by The Briggs, and 'Sketches of Spain' by Miles Davis & Gil Evans.

Have a good Sunday.

This is the way the world ends.

Hot damn, 2009 has gotten off to a good start.  I would hate to spoil the play for you, so if you're planning on seeing August: Osage County don't read further; I'm immediately interested in surprises and endings.

There were some moments in August: Osage County (by Tracy Letts and Steppenwolf theatre company), which I saw at the National Theatre last Friday, of collective audience response that rivalled any shared experience I can recall in a theatre or a cinema.  I'm more accustomed to such palpable communal responses in a comedy club, where most people laugh at the same time at the same thing and feel like they've shared something.  And there's a lot of shared laughter in August, there are some hilarious moments.  Yet the collective responses go beyond this: shared surprise when Ivy (Sally Murphy) and Little Charles (Ian Barford) embrace for the first time outside the front door; shared repulsion when Steve (Gary Cole), the youngest daughter Karen's confident fiance who wears shades indoors like a dot-com millionaire (although he's clearly a wannabe at best), slowly groping the neck and face of fourteen year old grand-daughter Jean (Molly Ranson); shared horror when it slowly becomes clear just how few secrets people are able to keep from the hawk eyes of matriach Violet (Deanna Dunagan - in the performance of a lifetime).  These responses testify to the pleasures of a communal audience experience; a lot of work can only elicit such extreme social reactions if someone's phone goes off.

It is an enormous work with more ideas and references than I or anyone could hope to immediately comprehend in full, many of which are specifically tied to place - the 'Plains', and more generally America.  To this extent it aligns itself with an excellent tradition and history.  Rose, who I saw the play with, said afterwards that the only thing she could think to compare it to, in terms of size, was Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

                                                    august osage county

One of the play's big ostensible themes is power and control.  One of the play's signature moments is at the end of Act 2 when eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton), after a monumental (at least to an outsider) family feud over dinner, screams 'I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW' - a moment that is referenced, and turned back in on itself, later by Ivy when she says 'You did say you were running things now'.  Violet appears to have acquiesed to this hostile takeover of power, yet in the endgame we see that in her head she never relinquished control.  For Violet, knowledge is power.  Particularly secret knowledge.  Time and again she makes others aware that nothing happens in her home that she doesn't know about: she prides herself on this declared omnipotence, no matter how hard people try to operate undercover.  It is however a particular brand of knowledge; perhaps it could be described as all evidence and no comprehension, or perhaps knowledge about everything else apart from one's self.  She stores and locks knowledge away (perhaps the lock-and-key of the safety deposit box is a good metaphor for this), not thinking to share it for a common good in case it loses its exclusive sheen and can be less effectively used as a weapon of power.  The idea is that those who claim to know everything are missing out on more than they care to realise.  

This made me think about Douglas Pye's keynote presentation at 'Continuity and Innovation' at Reading University last September, in which he praised Tommy Lee Jones's characters in No Country for Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for acknowledging the limits of their own knowledge (and juxtaposing it against a quotation about knowledge from Donald Rumsfeld).  Perhaps like Rumsfeld, Violet is a character who doesn't see the limits of her own knowledge - which builds her up for one large dramatic fall.

And the fall is astonishing.  In its final moments, the play switches key into a more dreamlike state.  As the lights gradually diminish Violet stumbles around the almost-empty house, almost crawling up the huge flight of stairs, and finds Native American housekeeper Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) in the attic.  Violet counts those who have left, repeating 'They're all gone', whilst Johnna sings a nursery rhyme (one of the play's distinguishing dramatic devices) 'This is the way the world ends'.  It sounds corny, but I found it beautiful.  Together, the two voices put a defining exclamation mark on an enormous piece of work.  

There's more I want to say about this play, and certainly much more in it than I'm aware of.  I want to write about how second-generation cinephilia is referenced and what functions it fulfills.  I want someone to tell me about the significance of Johnna, and the history that her presence in the household recalls.  I want to find out more about the T.S Eliot references that begin the play, and glide around the house.  I've read somewhere that many people find something in this play that rings uncomfortably true for them; if there was anything, it was the attitudes of Barbara and (particularly) her husband Bill (Jeff Perry), the two professional academics.

And I can't see this production again - I'll have to work from memory, and the naked playtext.  This is the closest thing to old-time cinephilia that I have experienced; I can't just grab a DVD from the shelf and re-visit or clarify this experience.  And for me that makes it exciting, but it also makes me anxious that the memory will slip away and I'll be left thinking 'What was that play about?  I remember I liked it...' before long.    

December 31, 2008

the cordelia dream

I'm often complaining (probably a little too loudly, and ignorantly) that the world is too commercialised, too plain, too blank.  This comes up in my work, in the form of anonymous multiplex cinemas that are more like airports than somewhere special where you can expect to experience something memorable.  It's no surprise then that I loved finding and being in Wilton's Music Hall, in a back alley in East London about 10 minutes walk from Tower Hill tube.  Despite the decaying and crumbling walls, the building had been decked out comfortably; there was a cosy candle-lit cafe area, which sold so much mulled wine that the whole theatre smelt like Christmas.  The playing space itself was very spacious, almost sparse, with a stage raised very high (but not high enough to come anywhere close to using all that vertical space).  It was a little like a space you expect to find at the Edinburgh Fringe (it reminded me a little of the Main space at the Roxy Art House in Edinburgh), only - y'know - comfortable. 

wiltons door

Some disorganised thoughts about the play.

The Cordelia Dream withholds two key pieces of information from its audience, one in each of its two acts (incidentally, I hate to write spoiler alert, but if you don't want to know anything about the play then stop reading).  In neither case however did the revelation make me seriously re-consider what had occurred before.  

As we enter the theatre a Man (David Hargreaves) is sat at an exquisite grand piano.  He must have spent every penny on that piano however, as he is wrapped in a cheap green sleeping bag to keep warm and his blank walls are decorated just with peeling eggboxes.  Unlike the peeling walls of Wilton's, it's safe to assume that this Man's walls were never attractive.  A much younger Woman (Michelle Gomez) enters, and the two talk like old lovers exhuming an old argument; she criticises his arrogance and picks at his sexism, whereas he acts indignant and is given to huffing and puffing around the huge inconvenience that she presents.  There is an undercurrent of violence; at one point she interrupts him, and he disproportionately screams for her to let him finish.  About half-way through the first act, it becomes clear that he is her father; the earlier discussion about the (lack of) possibility of her naming her child after him makes a little more sense.  Yet nothing major seemed to change or to shift with this revelation.


There's talk of a dream about Cordelia and Lear from King Lear - apparently it's why she came to see her father in the first place.  We can see his misogyny in his provocative interpretation of the play ("Cordelia wanted to be hung // Her death was necessary for her father's salvation.").  Is King Lear something they've discussed, and disagreed on, at length in the past?     

The two characters are both classical musicians.  She is commercially and critically successful, yet he is not.  He blames this on her; he talks incessantly of 'the field', a space (of reception? of exhibition? what does he think this is?) that she is occupying.  If only she would clear this field and stop producing music, the commercial and critical attention would be focused on him.  His genius would surely be appreciated.  The Man appeals to a very old-fashioned, and firmly masculine, ideal of the Artist; a tortured genius bursting with profound ideas that will change the world.  In this ideal, the artist's lack of success is always because of someone else (a competitor who steals from him; the stupidity of the art world who just don't 'get it').  The Man delivers scathing lines to his daughter, poison-coated insults that are surely unforgivable; Hargreaves (excellently) dips them in sugar with a jolly delivery but it serves to make them all the more brutal.  The Act ends with:

Man: Will you come to my funeral?

Woman: Will you come to mine?

Man: I'll be there.

Woman: With your speech prepared.

Man: With my speech prepared. 

In the interval, the man deterioates further; we re-enter the space to find him almost-naked, curled in a ball upon his piano, the post has been piling up for days and days.  A box of formal clothes arrives, and he conducts an imaginary orchestra whilst the Woman slips in behind him (in the first act she rang the bell, by the second act he just leaves the door open).  There's more of a sexual element to their discussion now; he has seemingly lost his mind and doesn't recognise her, assuming that she is a groupie of his.  She sneaks up behind him, wrapping her hands around his tie - is she trying to seduce him?  or suffocate him?  When he does recognise her as his 'dog-hearted' daughter he panics and hallucinates, before wetting himself.  All the cigars and champagne in London would fail to mask the fact that he is a senile old man. 


It is here that the exchanges become odder - he changes into his pyjamas, and she puts on his piss-sodden coat and tails.  He recalls the Cordelia Dream, and smothers her face in blue paint because Cordelia was also blue when Lear brought her in.  The flucuations between insanity and sober rationality in the Man's state of mind, and between fantasy and reality in the play, were a little unconvincing to me.  I'm not too familiar with King Lear, so I'm prepared to think that there may be a whole layer of meaning that I'm missing though.   

The play explains some of these odder exchanges in its second revelation: the Woman committed suicide eight days before.  She is a vision to him, perhaps a ghost.  He thinks he may be able to recall the funeral, there were definitely people looking at him.  We know that she hasn't produced any work since their last meeting - ostensibly because he demanded it of her to clear 'the field', but more likely because she (like him) wasn't able to.  Despite the field still being clear, he hasn't produced any serious work - he is obsessed with writing his opus, but lacks the commitment (or talent?  perhaps) to finish anything.  His Romantic vision of the artist seems to have failed and collapsed - perhaps it never existed in the first place.  Where does artistic creation come from?  What skills does one need to create something beautiful?     

She's come to tell him that he's about to die.  Lear and Cordelia must die at the same time - one cannot exist without the other.  As he's about to die, she gives him the gift of a beautiful piece of music.  With this final gesture the creation of beauty remains romantic and mysterious, we can just pull it out of the air with the right talent.  Or maybe the truth will reveal itself after we're dead and gone.  His death is excellently handled; he stands on a stool, and a diminishing spotlight traps his terrified face before fading to black.  It reminded me of the iris effect in old silent movies.

I liked Hargreaves' performance - I mentioned above his delivery of vicious lines as if they were jolly ribbing.  Gomez is a little too uneven - her sudden shouts are disruptive rather than disconcerting.  The direction is pretty nifty - I liked the use of space, including actors sitting on the stage legs dangling above the floor.  The post coming through the door in the interval was also a nice touch. 

See also: Michael Billington on The Cordelia Dream.

December 14, 2008

The Dark Knight: Superpowers enough to turn opinion into fact

Writing about web page http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Note-To-Awards-Givers-Ignore-The-Dark-Knight-At-Your-Own-Peril-11216.html

There are a number of startling statements and attitudes in this piece - a resurgence of the type of online discourse that surrounded The Dark Knight upon its original release this past Summer.  

Here Josh Tyler notes that, as yet, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight has not featured as heavily in award nomination and critics best-of-2008 lists as he would like.  He goes beyond this observation to suggest that, if critics refuse (and know that Tyler does view this as a point blank, ideological refusal by critics) to include the film, then they are putting their critical legitimacy and their JOBS at stake.

For print critics, a vote against The Dark Knight is a vote for your own irrelevancy. It’s a vote for the unemployment line. It’s a conscious choice to ignore a cultural phenomenon in favor of pushing some undeserved indie-film agenda over a movie which people have already seen.

I would certainly argue that it is the function, and value, of professional critics to resist cultural phenomena in favour of their own tastes (which they are paid to hold) in situations such as this (Jim Emerson makes something like that argument in this piece - although he risks swinging too hard in the opposite direction and being equally as dogmatic as Tyler).  Of course, there is an argument to be made that critics can ignore or suppress their own tastes for fear of not appearing 'high-brow' enough - and I think it is a sense of this that motivates Tyler's piece, but he takes it into some serious extremes. 

I really find quite pungent the suggestion that if someone disagrees with a majority, then that person should regardless articulate a view that falls in line with the majority.  This logic suggests that, to qualify for the right to speak or write in public, one should agree to exclusively provide the public with what they already know.

Yet this is not quite the logic in which Tyler couches his article.  He doesn't quite suggest that critics should suppress their own opinions in order to give the public what they already know.  Instead, he suggests that - before writing in public - critics should wise up and realise that they do in fact think identically to the public (and the view of the public is represented by his own opinion).  This paragraph is astonishing; he writes:

Call me and the other 99% of moviegoers who love this movie biased if you want, but this is more than just our opinion. It’s also the opinion of many of the people leaving it out of their awards. Shortly before its debut in theaters, critics were hailing it as one of the best movies ever made, a life changing experience. It is, for a fact, one of the very best reviewed movies of the year. According to RottenTomatoes it has received a higher percentage of positive reviews than literally any of the other movies nominated in the Best Picture category by the half-mad Golden Globes… and it’s done that in spite of being much more widely reviewed. It’s more than just the year’s best movie, it’s also almost unquestionably going to be the year’s most influential. Like Star Wars before it, The Dark Knight is fast becoming the new mold from which all future movies will be poured. Its impact, its influence on cinema will be felt for decades to come. 

This paragraph is of course notable for the enormous historical importance wreathed around the neck of The Dark Knight and Star Wars (in the former case, I'm sorry but it's just too early to know what influence the film will have on film history).  What strikes me hardest though, like a hard punch in the stomach, is the implication that, if you don't like The Dark Knight, then you are just wrong.  It is apparently an empirical FACT that this is the best film of the year.  I've been noticing a lot recently that, because it gives each film a solid number and claims to represent EVERYBODY WHO WATCHES FILMS IN THE WORLD EVER, Rotten Tomatoes has been fulfilling the function of backing up such appeals to fact.

Personally, I really dislike this attitude.  If we discursively present an opinion as a fact, then we can preclude other people from forming their own opinions (this is a phenomenon that I've noticed amongst students, including myself, recently), deny the possibility that our opinion of a film could change over time, and completely shut off the productivity of debate.  After all, if a debate is taking place between two people - who hold different opinions, but are both of the opinion that their opinion is a fact - then we'll never reach a compromise or synthesis of opinion.   

July 16, 2008

an alternative strategy for state–funded film production

It struck me earlier this week that, from door to door, travelling to the cinema in London takes just a little longer than travelling to Gracie Barra in Birmingham.  So right now I'm taking the BFI's 'Japanese Gems' season as an opportunity to see my first ever Kurosawa films. 

On the train yesterday, towards a screening of Rashomon (aces), I was reading an article by Luisela Alvaray from the latest Cinema Journal about the institutional structures of contemporary Latin American cinema ('National, Regional, and Global: New Waves of Latin American Cinema' Cinema Journal 47:3 Spring 2008 pp48-65).  She describes her area of research as "the interactions and exchanges that, since 1990, have enabled the development of a continuously expanding corpus of Latin American films." (49). 

This fact however struck me as unbelievably odd:

Many of the films sponsored by Brazilian EMBRAFILME and Mexican IMCINE in the 1980s manifested a qualitative, rather than a quantitative, crisis.  Along with a few critically acclaimed films, hard-core porn dominated Brazilian national production, while formulaic and mediocre comedies populated Mexican screens. (51, my emphasis)

It's possible that the author is exaggerating by using the term 'hard-core porn' but, if she is not, what type of jokers were running the state-funded EMBRAFILME in the 1980s?!?  It's ridiculous and hilarious.

In general though, Alvaray's excellent article is filled with facts and figures that I wish I had access to (or discovered myself) when I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the topic back in 2005.  It perhaps would have help me avoid some of the statements and formulations in there that, when I think back, feel extremely naive.

July 09, 2008

what is a 10–8 round in mixed martial arts?

Writing about web page http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2008/7/8/567045/more-on-the-10-8-round-and

The biggest controversy coming out of the past weekend's UFC 86 event is the inconsistency of judging.  The main event, Quinton Jackson vs Forrest Griffin, was an extremely close bout, yet Griffin won a unanimous decision by a large, unrepresentative margin (Griffin won 48-46 according to two judges, and 49-46 according to the third).  It was reported almost immediately that Jackson's camp would be appealing the decision, and various MMA commentators have since questioned the logic of judging and criticised its inconsistency. 

There are two main points of controversy:  one is to do with human error and the judges' lack of expertise, and the second is a more interesting issue about the content of MMA rules.  The first is that two judges awarded the first round to Griffin, despite the fact that, in most people's eyes (including mine), Jackson clearly won that round  (Jeff Sherwood and Greg Savage nail this issue on Monday's Savage Dog Show). 

The second issue regards the second round, which several commentators (and one judge) scored 10-8 for Griffin.  Luke Thomas has been leading the interrogation of 10-8 rounds at Bloody Elbow here and here.  In the latter post, Thomas does an excellent job of proposing some very productive questions on the issue.  In his opinion, the second round should have been scored 10-9 for Griffin (not 10-8).  He points to the first round of a recent fight between Forrest Petz and Brian Gassaway (which was scored 10-9 Gassaway, yet Thomas believes should have been 10-8 Gassaway) and asks:

What are we giving value to here? Who comes closer to finishing the fight or the duration of time spent dominating an opponent? How much does damage matter given that Petz was significantly closer to being stopped than Rampage? And why doesn't Gassway's balance of damage and positional control count as much as Forrest's [Griffin] uneven balance of less damage (the type that ends fights, not just stuns opponents) and more positional control?

To my mind, round 2 of Griffin vs Jackson is 10-8, because Griffin controls Jackson to the point that Jackson does not manage a single bit of offence during the whole 5 minutes.  At the beginning of the round, Jackson attempts two short jabs (neither of which connect) and, following Griffin's two outside leg kicks which buckle his clearly already-sore knee, a sub-par single leg takedown that is turned into a guillotine attempt and clinch by Griffin.  And that's it.  For the rest of the round, Jackson is defending strikes and the occasional submission attempt by Griffin (who successfully moves from half-guard to side control to full mount, although Jackson is more concerned with defending strikes than defending position).  

So here, I am primarily awarding value to Griffin's positional dominance - because that's Griffin's principal offensive attack in his round.  If we're talking damage, then you need to evaluate the damage in relative terms - although Jackson defends successfully enough to not be in danger of being stopped, Griffin inflicts significantly more damage in relation to the damage that Jackson inflicts (which is, as I have shown, none).   In the comments section on Luke's post, '!claw' makes the same argument and is refuted by 'Hardcharger' who states that:

Doesn’t matter how little the loser of the round scores.

There are rounds where both fighters stand up the entire round, and one guy lands some minor strikes, and the other lands nothing. That’s not a 10-8 round either.

Dominance + damage = 10-8. It’s not dominance + (lack of damage by opponent).

Yet this argument seems to overlook the fact that the opponent has not inflicted damage precisely because the round's winner has controlled them to the point of domination.  It isn't like Jackson has not inflicted damage because of laziness - he is being forced on the defensive by Forrest's positional attack.  And the fact that Jackson's defense is effective means that it is a 10-8 round, rather than anything less (although, if his defense wasn't effective, then we wouldn't even go to the judges' scorecards).  Although it doesn't look (or feel) as devastating as strikes or submissions, positional control should still be a key part of the judging criteria in MMA.  Yet each individual round is different - you need to judge, after seeing the round, what its key attributes are. 

I've only watched the Petz vs Gassaway fight once so I can't make a firm decision either way - but I can understand an argument for that first round being 10-9 (rather than 10-8) because, for 3 and a half minutes, Petz does stay standing with Gassaway.  Petz connects with some (admittedly minor) strikes and also successfully wrestles on the feet for a little while.  A key question seems to be: how far does significant damage cause one to forget the action that has preceded it in that round?  How you score this first round between Gassaway and Petz would therefore seem to me to have more of a bearing on how you'd score the first round between Griffin and Jackson (in which Jackson knocked down Griffin in the latter half).  How much does a knockdown count?  In boxing, if a fighter is knocked down then they automatically lose a point - do you consider this to be the case in MMA? 

In total though, I believe that Jackson vs Griffin was my fight of the year so far - it was a five round epic, with a story behind it, that went back and forth throughout and had the crowd engrossed.  Hell, I scored it as a 47-47 draw. 


May 14, 2008

neil gaiman on second drafts.

I haven't written recently because, over the past 10 days, I've done little else but tried to finish the first draft of this digital video chapter.  I can see the end now, and some main ideas have finally formed in my head.  I might note some of them down here when I'm done.

Here's some second-draft advice from Neil Gaiman. I think there are many similarities between fiction writing and academic writing.  And if there are not many similarities, I think that there should be more, for the sake of making academia more comprehensible:

The second draft is where the fun is. In a first draft, you get to explode. The objective (at least for me) is to get it down on paper, somehow. Battle through the laziness and the not-enough-time and the this-is-rubbish and everything else, and just get it written. Whatever it takes. The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do.

So you write it. Then you put it aside. Not for months, but perhaps for a week or so. Even a few days. Do other things. Then set aside some uninterrupted time to read, and pull it out, and pretend you have never read it before -- clear it out of your head, and sit and read it. (I'd suggest you do this on a print-out, so you can scribble on it as you go. )

When you get to the end you should have a much better idea of what it was about than you did when you started. (I knew The Graveyard Book would be about a boy who lived in a graveyard when I started it. I didn't know that it would be about how we make our families, though: that's a theme that made itself apparent while the book was being written.)

And then, on the second and subsequent drafts, you do four things. 1) You fix the things that didn't work as best you can (if you don't like the climactic Rock City scene in American Gods, trust me, the first draft was so much worse). 2) You reinforce the themes, whether they were there from the beginning or whether they grew like Topsy on the way. You take out the stuff that undercuts those themes. 3) You worry about the title. 4) At some point in the revision process you will probably need to remind yourself that you could keep polishing it infinitely, that perfection is not an attribute of humankind, and really, shouldn't you get on with the next thing now?

April 28, 2008

reckless moment 28th april.

Last week was mostly spent marking the rest of my students' essays - there were a couple of really quite good ones, which is always exciting.  I also read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a novel that is particularly insightful and brilliant on the subjects of how we see ourselves and the way we live our lives, and our relationships with other people. 

I didn't get to go to bjj class once last week, mostly because of how unbelievably time-consuming marking is, but I think I'm going on Friday and Saturday this week.  My partner-in-crime Rosie received a bronze medal in the women's white belt lightweight category at Gracie Invitational on Saturday though - so go say congratulations to her.

But but but, tonight I'm going to be hosting our comedy show The Reckless Moment at Robbins' Well (in Leamington).  It is the first one since the beginning of March, and so you should definitely come and say hello.  Literally, come and say hello.  One of the ace things about The Reckless Moment is that, at its best, it feels like a group of friends come to watch some comedy that they enjoy.

The headline act on the show tonight is Josh Howie - who is a comic I met years and years ago (although he won't remember) when I used to help run Lone Star club in Folkestone.  He performed in October 2004, and he struck me then as a funny and clever man.  I don't remember his jokes as being as deliberately offensive as they were when I saw him a couple more times in Edinburgh 2007 - but if anything he's even funnier for it.  But yes, he is hilarious and sharp and rude and just a little bit smug, and I'm really excited that he's agreed to perform at our show.

Also on the show are Rob Coleman (a nice man I have met a couple of times before), Alex Maple (a new-ish act who I've never seen before but who I have a gut feeling is going to be brilliant), James McPhun (a second year theatre & english student at Warwick who is one of my best friends and is always great), and Simon Dunn (another of my best friends in the world, and someone who is planning his first solo show this summer, and trying new jokes for that out).  Pete the Meat will also be appearing for the final time ever (in a meat-eating capacity, at least).  

So do come to Robbins' Well tonight if you want to, it starts at 9pm and costs £2 to get in.  I hope it'll be great.

April 16, 2008

"it takes a kind of gene we all share about being perpetually dissatisfied

I just read a pretty decent interview with Richard Linklater, conducted by Kevin John Bozelka, that was published in the latest issue of The Velvet Light Trap (it's a subscription journal - but Warwick library has a subscription for all students and staff if you're based in these parts).  As always, Linklater is enlightening about the subject of getting movies made in the contemporary era (the interview is not about the aesthetics of film, but rather about the economics of filmmaking) - his work in several different paradigms of moviemaking (sequels, adaptations, remakes etc) mean that he is well-versed in many modes of procedure.  There's also at least one quotation that will function as a wonderful epigraph for some part of my project.

Just wanted to quote him here on the subject of human nature, and the phenomenon of 'it was better in the old days'.  Linklater is very well-read, and is eloquent on these type of issues.   This plugs into something that I think about often, and gives me hope that not everybody is obsessively fixated on the negative.

You know that's the joke about Austin. I use a song in Slacker, the last song, the Ed Hall song, and the line in it was "things were so much better before you were here." Whenever you showed up in Austin, pick a year, whenever you got here, you just missed it. This club just closed and this just happened. It's all behind us. You run into someone who is a certain age and it's "it all died with the Armadillo [World Headquarters]." You run into certain people who say it all died when the Beach closed or when Liberty Lunch closed. Usually it's music venues. It takes a kind of gene we all share about being perpetually dissatisfied. But around 2000 I got to know the city government at the time because we were getting the Film Society to take over the old airport and make a studio out of a few hangars there. And I appreciated the government leadership. [Mayor] Kirk Watson was a good leader at that moment, so the ship didn't totally go in the wrong direction. There was a lot of smart urban planning and thought that went into it. It could be a lot worse, is what I'm saying, had there been no oversight. I think there was some good leadership at some crucial moments that kept us from going completely off the rails. But that's completely unappreciated. (Velvet Light Trap 61 (2008), pp. 55-56, my emphasis).

What a hero.


Ollie Johnston, who was one of the principal animators in Disney's classic era of feature pictures, died on Monday.  I read a lot about him when I was writing about American animation for my MA, so this is sad to hear.  Cartoon Brew have collected a brilliant amount of tributes and obituaries - do read some if you get the chance, as they are a glimpse into a fascinating period of filmmaking. 

I couldn't sleep last night so I watched the first six innings or so of the Marlins.  They won 4-0, with another really great performance by Scott Olsen (who has become the most reliable starting pitcher they have - the other contender to that throne, Mark Hendricksen, starts tonight).  I just found this excellent article, 'Marlins look good, but attendance doesn't' by Greg Cote - which is worth a read if you want to get interested in baseball with me.

I'm excited about UFC 83 on Saturday - my favourite Georges St. Pierre is challenging for the Welterweight Championship.  Good interviews with him here and here.

And if you haven't seen the new Bjork video yet, you really should because it's amazing. 

April 06, 2008

bjj training scrapbook: single–leg takedown, and more guard passing.

I was walking home from the Parade at about 4.30am Saturday night/Sunday morning.  I live about 25 minutes walk from here, and it was pelting with snow.  Properly pelting.  About 3 minutes from the Parade, on Warwick Street, I was already covered in snow when a Castle Taxis vehicle stopped on the other side of the road.  From his window, the driver asked if I was going towards Warwick.  When I said I was going in that direction, he told me to jump in and gave me a (free) lift home.  "Can't let you walk home in this weather, mate."  It made me overjoyed and delighted - and is one of the best things that has happened so far in 2008.  If you're looking for a cab in Leamington or Warwick do use Castle Taxis (01926 494989).  


I submitted about 9000 words on Friday afternoon, which I estimate is about half of a chapter about digital video.  The problem was that I set out to do so much that the amount I did do made any barely any headway into my research questions.

I had another BJJ class on Friday evening - I meant to write up the class sometime earlier this weekend, but I've been busy watching the wonderful Frank Turner in Coventry (WONDERFUL folk-rock songs about life, existential crises and really wishing everyone else would want to make the world better), and seeing the mighty Never Back Down (Mr Miagi-tastic). 

Chiu showed us a single leg takedown.  From the elbow-and-collar grip, you quickly pull your opponent's gi downwards and then back up - in order to force them off-balance (this, or a variant of this, is standard to all the takedowns from standing that I know so far).  When they are off-balance, you shoot in as per a double-leg takedown (i.e. down onto your right knee, which should be placed between their legs, with your left foot further forward) and lift their left leg from the ground.  You then try to stand up, and basically circle round to the right - forcing them to put all their body weight onto the one leg that they still have control of.  This seemed to work better if you also had control of their gi collar, which you can use for extra leverage to throw them off-balance.  They'll hit the mat...

We then did some more work on controlling your opponent's legs when guard passing.  This is an important detail, that will work in conjunction with the guard passes we learnt in this session.  Standing in front of your opponent, you control their legs by grabbing their gi pants at the bottom in the middle.  You need to grip this really tight - I was working with Luke on this, and he said you pretty much needed to cut off your opponent's circulation in their legs.  To try to restrict your movement, your opponent will hook his legs around your arms (and, if they can, grab your gi by the wrists).  To break any control your opponent has, you need to push inwards and down to the floor, whilst also stepping backwards yourself.  You need to force your opponent's feet to the floor, and keep them there.  If you've got this controlled, then you should be able to pass as per the previous entry.

On a less technical note, I experienced my first real 'disheartened' moment that I've read so many people write about.  I felt like a complete joke in class, like all my movements were completely artificial, terrible and embarrassing, and just like I wasn't able to put anything into practice.    It was only when I got home that I remembered Aesopian's advice, which I've posted about before:

Realize that everyone else went through the same issues and understands what you’re going through. You’re not stupid if you don’t know something yet—that’s the whole reason you’re at class.

So relax and don’t sweat it.

I have another class tomorrow, so will try and keep it in mind.


I'm pleased to say that Florida won their weekend series over Pittsburgh.  They won on Friday (the first game I got to follow live this season) and Saturday, but sucked really hard on Sunday.  Still, 2 games to 1 is enough to win the series - and now they're travelling to Washington for games tomorrow with a current season record of 3-3.

Charity shops in Leamington are wonderful - I managed to buy the entire first series of The West Wing, and the 1989 Charlie Sheen baseball film Major League, on VHS for £3.50 combined from Myton Hospice.  Sweet.  If only I could find the time and motivation to watch and read all these things!

Jay Hieron vs Mark Miller from Friday night in New Jersey.  Hieron is very impressive. 

April 02, 2008

essay writing.

I'm only about half-way through the writing I need to do today, but wanted to stop by and share some things on here.  The chapter isn't going badly (thanks for asking), so far I've written: an introductory anecdote, an explanation of 'the science of digital video', a long methodological consideration, and an orientation to films that have been filmed on digital video.  I was worried, and voiced this concern to JZ last night, that this was all ground-clearing guff. 

After thinking about it more today, it actually makes a fair amount of headway into the chapter and case study.  I'm so used to the way I used to write as an undergraduate (and Masters student, I think): 'introductory paragraph, discuss something someone else has written about this film, extended textual analysis to disprove aforementioned someone else, conclusion'.  If I haven't started writing up analysis of a primary text, then I still feel like I haven't even started the chapter.  On the contrary, I guess that 6000 words worth of 'ground-clearing guff' must actually be quite important to scholarship - otherwise there wouldn't be 6000 words worth of things to be said.  If the reader has no idea about the types of films that have been filmed on digital video, then the 'orientating map' is necessary and actually is primary (and preliminary) work and analysis.  I would take this as a sign that my work and writing is maturing - but instead I'm going to think of it as something that I'm doing wrong.


I'm casually reading 'Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia', an edited collection by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, at the moment.  I'll study it more intensely as my work returns more generally to the topic of cinephilia, but right now I'm just reading passages every now and then (the form of the book actually lends itself to this).  I came across a couple of paragraphs by Martin, and thought that maybe they rhyme with my past 'on cinema for the sake of it' entry.

Because what is democratic in this video culture is precisely the capacity (or at least the potential) to suspend normative judgement about cinema - reminding me of one of my all-time favourite critical mottoes, the attitude attributed by Louis Seguin to Ado Kyrou of seeking 'surprise rather than satisfaction' and preferring 'discovery to certainty'. (7)


There is a recourse to the high moral ground - and to a certain lamentable purism - in a lot of film criticism today, even some of the most advanced.  We read or hear far too often that there are only half a dozed directors working today who fulfil - or might one day fulfil, if we're all lucky - the potential, the promise of this dazzling medium...As heretical as it sounds, even within this very cabal, I like the sentiment of Deleuze's casual prefatory remark in Cinema I: The Movement-Image: 'The cinema is always as perfect as it can be'.  Meaning that its potentiality, its virtuality is, in some way, right here now - if we know where to look for it, how to maximise it, why it matters, and how to make it dance, for us and in us, like Rouch's privileged, shamanic figure of the dancing Socrates. (7-8)

I'm not sure I would interpret the Deleuze quotation in exactly the same way (and I don't understand what he means by 'virtuality' here), but I don't know the Deleuze text so it is just an aphorism to me.  I like it though, and I didn't think I'd ever say that about a Deleuze quotation. 


Some other things:

I had a nice time at my friend James' birthday party yesterday, although because of work and an impending cold I wasn't on particularly amazing form.

tom and becky 1st april This photo of Becky and I from the party does make me laugh however.

I was pointed towards The Big Think today, which looks like an interesting project.  Like YouTube with intellectual (and slightly elitist) leanings.  I haven't had time to look through it yet, but the one video I did watch was interesting and clear.

The Marlins beat the Mets 5-4 in extra innings last night although Vanden Hurk was pulled in the 4th inning (he'd already made 76 pitches!!!) which isn't particularly promising.

My friend Mike wrote a couple of nice entries yesterday: 'The Pre-Socratics were totally awesome.' (“This world neither any god nor man made, but it always was and is and will be, an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” - Heraclitus) and 'Roving sample robot' ("And I love the idea of a simple thing like this, the sole purpose of which is to rove about and find sounds and make rhythms, and treat it like its the most important thing in the world.")  Tell him I sent you.

I've made a couple of bets on UFC Fight Night this evening: Din Thomas (-183) over Josh Neer, Frank Edgar (-207) over Gray Maynard, and Kurt Pellegrino (+132) over Nate Diaz.  I always seem to bet for Din Thomas, and against Nate Diaz.  I really like the Lauzon vs Florian main event as well, it's two guys who seem awesome.  There's a fantastic article about Kenny Florian at Sherdog: 'Highbrow brutality' by Joe Hall.  

On the note of UFC, if anyone is geeky enough to get it, this post at Fightlinker is mean but hilarious: 'The most awesome thing EVER

Go look at the new releases by Fantagraphics and buy something!  If I do enough work today, I'm going to treat myself to the new softcover edition of 'Safe Area Gorazde' by Joe Sacco and 'Ganges #2' by Kevin Huizenga.  Only if I do enough work though, yeah?

On that note, I need to get back to work.  I'm on my fifth cup of coffee... 

March 31, 2008

guard–passing drills.

Will the conference report ever appear?  Don't hold your breath, I got lazy last week and have lots of writing on my digital video chapter to do this week.  I'm trying to get a lot of sleep tonight, but I just wanted to quickly note today's class so I don't forget.

At BJJ class today, Chiu taught us a basic guard passing drill that is designed to practice the appropriate movements.  I haven't been taught this elementary pass before, so I was also learning the pass itself. 

Standing before your opponent, you should take control of both their legs by tightly gripping their gi somewhere around or beneath the knee.  If you push their legs towards them (moving your hips forward for additional pressure), then should push back and you can step around them.  Move your outside leg first, and effectively glue that to the side of their knee.  Then move your inside leg even further forward - taking your entire body outside of their legs.  Whilst you are doing this, DON'T let go of your grip on your opponent's legs (otherwise they will simply turn with you, and your body won't be free of their legs).  Pull the leg that you hold with your outside arm with you, and push the other leg in the opposite direction - crossing their legs if necessary.  That's the basic drill - just perfecting that movement.

If you opponent tries to resist by straightening out a leg, to block you from moving around them you can perform a 'sliding' pass.  Push the straightened leg down whilst, on the opposite side, slide your arm through the inside of their knee towards the floor (you need to be close with this, to restrict their movement in the bent leg with your forearm).  Your legs should be stretched outside behind you, creating a tripod-like stance.  Aim your head towards their chest or stomach.  From there you should be able to quite easily pass their guard.

We also did a knee-on-stomach drill.   Start with your right knee in your opponent's stomach, with your left leg out in front of you.  Control their hip with your right hand, and control their head or shoulder with your left hand.  For the drill, smoothly replace your right knee with your left knee on their stomach (they shouldn't not have a knee in their stomach at any point).  Control their head or shoulder with your right hand, and their hip with your left hand. 

Just wanted to note all this down before I forgot.  I even had to quickly borrow Rosie in the process of writing to remember the knee-on-stomach drill.


And here are some links you may or may not find interesting:

'Is this the big one?' by Jeff Faux (I recently discovered The Nation website, and think that it is quite brilliant).

'Crumbs from the SLIFR notebook' by Dennis Cozzalio - I really, really enjoyed this post by Dennis who I think is the one of the best film writers on the Internet.

And, because it's the start of the baseball season today, check out Fish Chunks - which will be my guide to Florida Marlins news this year, although as I write they've already conceded a depressing 6 runs in the 4th inning.

March 24, 2008

introduction to conference report.

As I had anticipated, the New Developments in Stardom conference at King’s College was a stimulating and enjoyable day – both in intellectual and social terms. I got to see a fair amount of old friends who have worked in the same department with me in Warwick at one time or another (Jon Driskell, Louis Bayman, Tom Brown, James Bennett & Richard Dyer), as well as spend a lovely day with my current department peers Laura, Jim and Sarah (I had written ‘colleagues’ instead of peers, but that sounds professional and horrible; then I changed it to ‘friends’ but that would imply that Jon, Louis et al reneged upon our friendship when they left the department – which is just a lie!).

The highlights of the conference itself were Su Holmes’ brilliant keynote address which, first thing in the morning, persuasively argued for the crucial need for scholars in celebrity studies to account for history, and Sarah Thomas’ fascinating paper about her research in Peter Lorre’s radio work. In her introduction to the conference, Ginette Vincendeau emphasised that this was the first major event organised by graduate students within the expanding Film Studies department at King’s, and the proceedings fortunately felt like a success. I think that I’m going to write three entries about the day (one about Holmes’ keynote, one about the ‘Contemporary Film Stardom’ panel, and one about the afternoon sessions I attended), which will appear gradually as this week progresses.

I have also been reading a fair amount about this week's WEC event, and will try to write a little about at least the main card (in addition to my lengthy preview of the main event) before the event on Wednesday evening.   A few recent articles have appeared since I posted that: 'WEC Champ Marshall is calm before the storm'(MMA Weekly),  'Marine Stann seeks mixed martial arts title' (New York Post), and 'Stann stands for more than himself' (Newsday).  The difference in the media outlets that are covering the two fighters should be pretty evident.

March 22, 2008

New Developments in Stardom conference.

Writing about web page http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/film/conference.html

I'm away in London this weekend, attending the New Developments in Stardom conference at King's College London.  It has been organised by a trio of graduate students, including Jon Driskell who spent a year with us at Warwick (we both did the same Issues of Representation MA module with Richard Dyer back then!).  I'm looking forward to spending time in an extra-cirricular academic environment, and seeing some friends who I haven't hung out with for a little while.  I tend to find functions such as this, places where academic film studies will be discussed, quite exciting and it inspires me to get going on my own work.

The programme for this conference is commendable for its diversity across the scope of media studies.  The panels are ordered by disciplines (TV stardom, film stardom, non-cinematic stardom and, more generally, 'celebrity), and it appears that the keynote speakers, Su Holmes and David L. Andrews, will be talking broadly in areas of TV and film studies respectively.  Of course, these intra-discipline divisions are not exclusive or solid.  I anticipate attending the panel about cinematic stardom (because most of my work is in areas of cinema), and non-cinematic stardom (because my friend Sarah is giving a paper!).  Andrews' keynote, entitled 'The New Hollywood?: Sport, Stardom and the Celebrity Economy', looks particularly intriguing to me, if only because I have been unusually interested in sport recently.  Hopefully I'll take decent notes, and be able to write some here about the conference.


March 21, 2008

Preview of Marshall vs Stann WEC 33.

One of the interesting things about fight sports, such as mixed martial arts or boxing, is that, because the athletes compete relatively infrequently (3 times a year, as opposed to every week for other sports teams) each bout has some kind of story attached.  Why does a fight matter?  Where have these guys come from, and what can they achieve by winning?  Obviously I'm not at all connected to the industry, and so am unable to secure interviews or the like - my commentary is therefore less about the fighter's personal stories, than about their public and professional profiles.  I've written up a story about the main event of next Wednesday's WEC event, a second-tier organisation that I'm always interested in.     

WEC: MARSHALL vs STANN 26th March 2008

World Extreme Cagefighting has almost become synonymous with the lighter weight classes in the U.S., because it is the most prominent American organisation to feature featherweight and bantamweight divisions.  Its main stars - Urijah Faber, Jens Pulver, Miguel Torres et al - are fighting in these lower divisions.  Since the WEC is also owned by Zuffa (the company that run the UFC), the logic goes that they send any and all major talent in the higher divisons (WEC has weight classes up to light-heavyweight) to their flagship promotion.  Yet, on the next WEC card, we've got an interesting main event fight between two second-tier light-heavyweights - both of whom have made almost their entire MMA careers in the WEC.  We've also got a fight between two personalities so opposed on paper that you probably couldn't write a better pro-wrestling angle. 

Legend has it that the then-untrained WEC Light Heavyweight champion Doug 'The Rhino' Marshall (7-2) was at a WEC show in 2003 with his father, who felt that he was being too cocky and effectively told him to put up or shut up - inspiring Marshall to join a BJJ school the following Monday.  He's now primarily labelled as a Muay Thai fighter  You could understand if somebody, on seeing Marshall for the first time (particularly in his first few fights at heavyweight) thought that he had foregone the training and just climbed into the cage that night.  The guy just looks like a brawler - an image that not even the WEC commentators can get over, as every time he attempts a submission in a fight (which shouldn't be surprising, considering his submission wrestling roots) they act like something completely unprecedented is happening.  Before anyone has even seen Marshall fight, this image leads commentators to describe him as things like the 'anti poster-boy'

Yet, unless we're all in denial about this sport, Doug Marshall really should be a poster boy for the WEC.  He has, as a fighter, developed exclusively in this single promotion, and this long-standing has earned him the title of one of the most popular homegrown fighters.  After his father's (boozy, probably) challenge, Marshall rapidly moved to pro-MMA in the very same year, and blitzed through the rookie competition offered to him on WEC undercards in the heavyweight division (back when WEC had one of those): Anthony Fuller (Oct 2003, 0-0), Lavar Johnson (Jan 2004, 0-0), Anthony Arria (May 2004, 1-0) and Carlos Garcia (Oct 2004, 4-4).  Although the records of these fighters aren't too impressive (which is understandable as Marshall was only a newbie himself then), you have to stop and gawp at the fact that not one of these fights entered the second round.  Four fights in to this career, Marshall was 4-0, , and was now regularly headlining WEC fight cards.  

And then he fought James Irvin - already a UFC veteran with a 7-1 professional record, and the WEC Heavyweight Championship - in the main event at WEC 15, a nationally televised event on 19th May 2005.  This was, by a large distance, the biggest test yet for the hugely popular 4-0 Marshall; he had barely fought anyone with a winning record, let alone a UFC vet at the top of the WEC heavyweight division.  Watch the fight (warning it's NOT pretty)- it takes place in Lemore, California, and both fighters are Californian-based (Marshall from Visalia, Irvin from Sacramento).  Yet the crowd not only like Marshall more - they like him so much that they actively boo fellow home-grown (and champion!) Irvin.  In the fight though, Marshall looked outclassed - Irvin's slick stand-up and Muay Thai clinch made Marshall look like a drunk dude who had simply picked the wrong fight on the wrong evening.  He had poor to non-existent stand-up defense, and was rocked several times by Irvin.  The fight was a little more even on the ground (for the 90 seconds or so in the first round it was down there), and Marshall gives some good elbow shots and body blows inside Irvin's guard, and also manages a nice armbar escape (almost taking Irvin's back in the process).  The fight lasts until 30 seconds or so in the second round, when Irvin lands a flush knee from the clinch and drops Marshall out cold.  Following this Marshall took some time out, but made an ill-advised, nightmare comeback attempt at 195lbs in March 2006 (he weighted 234lbs for the Irvin fight) against WEC and Pancrase veteran Tim McKenzie (8-3) (the fight is here).  He was clocked by an inadvertant kick to the groin after 30 seconds (so bad that it leaves the announcers spectulating that the fight will be over), and is loses in just 3 and a half minutes.

Popularity is a good thing though.  Popularity can earn you a title shot, even if your record over your last two fights is 0-2.  So it's fortunate that Marshall was so darn popular - because I can see little other reason why he would've been granted a shot at the WEC Light Heavyweight champion (and veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 1) Lodune Sincaid (9-3) in August 2006 (fight is here).  This being said, Marshall completely dominated the then-champion Sincaid - early in the second round, he hits a four-shot combo (including a body strike) that puts Sincaid down and ends the fight.  And from then on, it's been for Marshall like it was when he first began in the sport - his opponents simply can't get him out of the first round.  He KO'ed Justin McElfresh (5-1) in just over 2 minutes in May 2007, and submitted a roided up Ariel Gandulla (4-0) with an armbar in less than a minute in December 2007. 

Of course, the event commentators once again feigned surprise that he executed a submission hold.  That's the stereotype of Marshall - the huge dude who just knows how to hit hard, and little else.  And that is the fighter that was exposed by James Irvin back in May 2005.  But the Marshall who has fought Sincaid, McElfresh and Gandulla has displayed better rounded stand-up - his footwork looks pretty good, he throws combinations to keep his opponent guessing (and keep them fearing those hooks, he's got power in both hands) and - despite what people may think - he is no slouch on the ground either.  It's not surprising to read that Marshall started training Muay Thai and conditioning with Mike Popp before the Sincaid fight - a man who he has publicly credited with playing a large part in his recent success.  When you read Marshall say things like he regrets some of his tattoos (he has apparently covered over the more explicit ones on his back), and watch his last three fights in the cage, it really makes you think that he's kept the best parts of being a brawler, but now mixed them up with tactics, training and skill.  Which makes me think that much of the negative rhetoric surrounding Marshall is frankly unfair.  

Challenger Brian 'All-American' Stann (5-0), on the other hand, just screams 'POSTER BOY', in the sense that most MMA commentators mean when they deploy the phrase.  He is a genuine veteran of the U.S army, having served multiple tours in Iraq and been awarded the Silver Star for 'extraordinary heroism' in combat.  He has an incredibly square jaw, respectable buzzcut and, in all his interviews, he respectfully foregrounds the importance and bravery of his fellow Marines (in a post-fight interview with Sherdog he stated that, "I'm sure a lot of it [his popularity] is because I'm a Marine and I have no issue with that.  Anything that attracts attention to my Marines and the Marine Corp in a positive light, I'm all about.")  This gives writers all manner of substance to create hero narratives - the 'getting to know you' pieces that make people want to see the guy fight.  This has become such a feature of Stann's persona in MMA that a 'don't talk about his war background' backlash has already begun.  Regardless of your position on this issue, you can't really deny that Stann projects an image inverted to Marshall's - he looks like Action Man compared to Marshall's Doctor X.

His job as an army captain was instrumental in the formation of his MMA career though, as Stann's first introduction to martial arts was on a military training course in 2004.  He didn't quite have the same quickfire entrance in professional MMA as Marshall, as it was 2 years before he made his pro-debut - in January 2006, at an Oregon Sportfight show against future IFL fighter Aaron Stark (0-1).  The WEC (perhaps sensing that they could be onto a marketing winner) quickly snapped Stann up to a contract - and his first fight in the promotion was five months later in June 2006, against Miguel Cosio (0-1).  Stann took just 16 seconds to drop Cosio - landing several flush straight punches. 

Before you can accuse any promotion of mothering him, Stann's next fight was against legit challenger Steve Cantwell (3-0).  In the battle of undefeated newcomers, Stann won in just 41 seconds - dropping Cantwell with a right hand, and finishing him off with a couple of shots to the ground.  The media began to take notice - Stann was written about in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Tapout Magazine, and was profiled on MTV News - all of which took stock of, and emphasised, his military background.  There aren't many other guys with a 3-0 record who can boast such visibility - but Stann fits into a bigger picture, a characteristic that is required to make these new mixed martial artists immediately interesting to casual observers.  He has been (and still is) involved in a major international conflict, something that grabs more headlines than sport, so by extension he makes sport look more important.

Fortunately, before the eyes of both the hardcore MMA world and those casual observers interested in an actual All-American legend become concrete, Stann has looked to be more than just hype and an easily told story - that much just earnt him a slot on the televised broadcast.  His next victim was Craig Zellner (4-1), who again was overwhelmed on the feet by Stann.  That fight lasted until 4:57 of the first - the longest anyone had fought with Stann so far (or since).  This earnt Stann a slot on the next WEC telecast (essentially setting him up as a challenger) - where he fought Jeremiah Billington (10-1, although the quality of his downed opponents was regularly thought to be suspect).  Again, Stann's striking power was the difference in this fight - he destroyed Billington on the feet, and when Billington tried to compensate by wrestling Stann to the ground, Stann retained a dominant position and was able to ground and pound a victory in just 3:07 of the first round.

And so, with Marshall vs Stann in March 2008, we have a fight much similar to Irvin vs Marshall in May 2005.  A hugely popular, undefeated newcomer (Marshall's record then was 4-0, Stann's now is 5-0) challenges for a WEC title held by a champion who will likely be villified by comparison.  For Doug 'The Rhino' Marshall, he will find himself in the opposite position to that he held in 2005 - his popularity hasn't dissipated as such, but he just doesn't fit with the zeitgeist as well as Stann (who does so phenomenally).  It's a time where fans are trying to legitimise MMA into popular sports culture - and most people see fighters like the 'All-American' Stann, rather than the shaven-headed, heavily tattooed Marshall, as the most effective vehicles for this goal.  If Stann does manage to beat Marshall, his position as 'future star' will be solidified, and his fight record will pick up its first 'name' victim.  If Marshall gets past Stann, then the 'haters' (as Marshall likes to refer to his critics) will just have to put up with the fact that The Rhino is a much-improved, devastating striker who is a little more versatile than he is given credit for.  One or two more defences like this one, and there will be nowhere for Marshall to go other than a shot at the upper echelons of the division in the UFC.  It's not a top-tier main event, but it does have interesting ramifications for the futures of both athletes.

Seeing as both guys are primarily strikers nowadays, and when they win they tend to win quickly - you can expect to see a fast-paced stand-up exchange that will see one guy on the mat before the end of the first round.  Stann's quick-fire strikes are more technical than Marshall's huge looping punches but, as we've seen, Marshall has developed the ability in his last few fights to mix it up with combinations and body shots.  It's ironic that Marshall will probably have the most successful ride in this fight if he takes Stann down, and manages to control his position - but that's not likely to happen, not with two fighters eager to impress a crowd who want to see the viscerality of a stand-up brawl.  We don't know how Stann's chin will hold up against a striker who hits as hard as Marshall - we know from the Irvin fight that Marshall can take a fair amount of direct attacks.  The only certain thing is that: at no point should you leave the television for any period of time (no matter how quiet the action seems to be), because a finish could come so quickly that you WILL end up watching the finish on an instant replay.        

March 19, 2008

at a thousand miles an hour…

Writing about web page http://jasonmichelitch.blogspot.com/2008/03/comics-review-young-liars-1.html

I've totally enjoyed both Stray Bullets, and Daredevil vs Punisher, both comic series written by David Lapham.  Therefore I was already predisposed to like 'At A Thousand Miles An Hour', the first story in Young Liars, his new series.  Yet, within the first two pages, the book self-consciously creates a hipster, happy-go-lucky character for itself, and matches that with one or two neat storytelling tricks.  After these it was almost impossible for me not to enjoy this book.

Let's begin: before we know anything about the comic's world or characters, it recommends two songs (a classic David Bowie song, and a lesser-known track by the more-contemporary Battles) displayed in white type on a pink, cassette tape-shaped background.  We're already plugged into the ultra-cool world of alternative music and mixtape trading, where recommendations from people you like and trust are more valuable than anything.  I like Lapham, I sort of trust him, and I went straight to itunes (rock'n'roll, yeah?).  This is already a little unusual, and pretty frickin' ace.  But it gets better...

By way of scene setting, the first panel is in a busy Manhattan nightclub - full of smoke, neon lights and a dancer in a cage.  There is a band set up in the background, and - into the microphone - the singer says 'Okay...let's get this shit started', matched with a BWAHHHHH guitar chord from his band.  I'm always fascinated with the way that bands begin gigs - you can do a stadium rock/Spinal Tap style 'Helloooo [insert city here]', or perhaps a very casual, humble 'Hello, we are [band name] from [town name]' that I remember a lot from the days of punk rock shows at the Garage.  On this scale, 'Okay, let's get this shit started' is cool-as-hell - it sounds casual (this isn't a gig, it is 'shit'!) but it is likely practiced to death.  Yet it isn't just the band saying 'let's get this shit started', it's the book and the series as a whole - it is a fabulous way to start a series.  But it gets better...

In the same panel, to the right of the band although a little further in the foreground, a woman is snorting cocaine on the bar (amusingly, right in front of the surprised-looking barman).  This action is emphasised by a 'snifffff' speech bubble.  The bottom third of this page (which has just two panels) is a completely different location, and shows a guy in extreme close-up being punched in the nose - blood sprays in all directions, and he can just shout "GUNGH!".  We've therefore got a first page of lots of non-verbal sounds - imagine all these sounds in quick sequence - "Okay, let's get this shit started", 'Sniffff', 'GUNGH!', and then the story starts proper on the next page.  Think of these sounds like the snare drum at the beginning of 'Like A Rolling Stone' by Dylan - one beat by one instrument, and then we're into the body of the song.  Here, we've got sounds of drugs and violence - and then we're into the body of the comic.  I love it.

But then this posturing is matched by a neat narrational trick on the second page, the kind of thing that I would use to disagree with Jason Michelitch (in the linked review - which does excellently make several valid criticisms of the book) when he describes the storytelling as mostly 'bland'.   The second page contains three horizontal panels - the middle of which is a little thicker than the others.  This middle panel most prominently shows an early-twenty-something girl with purple hair, wearing a Clash t-shirt; she's just thrown a punch, and an older moustached guy now has blood flying vertically out of his mouth(!) and is in the process of hitting the pavement.  It's the guy and the attack we saw in close-up on the previous page.  She's laughing, he's struggling to yell because he's having trouble breathing - that was one hell of a strike.  There is a crowd of white-collar looking people in the background, mostly looking on with caricatured horror.  In the same panel, there are yellow boxes containing text, the voice of our narrator.  It says:

I came to the city for two reasons.  To play guitar and find some excitement.  The guitar's long gone, but the excitement...?  ...Man, the hits just keep on coming.

I assumed that this tough-as-nails purple-haired was our narrator.  The narrator hasn't introduced themselves - the girl is foregrounded, there isn't anybody else in this panel that could be addressing us.  Hell, she writes that the hits just keep on coming - as she's hitting somebody!   But this assumption is subverted in the below panel - which focuses on the crowd in the background, and now illuminates the presence of a young looking guy, wearing a Violent Femmes t-shirt - the only unshocked face in the panel of distress.  In this panel, the narrator introduces himself - 'My name is Danny Noonan...' - the book had, albeit temporarily, tricked us into thinking that someone else was talking to us.  What else can't we trust?  Michelitch suggests that there is a moment where what the narration tells us, and what the image shows us, are different - and, by this, I think he means the book's revelation about Donnie (something that I had missed, or not fully comprehended, on the first time around!).

The book does fall victim somewhat to 'pilot episode' syndrome - crowbarring in different characters and their backstories in order to tell us everything we need to know for the series to begin.  It certainly looks difficult to begin a series.  There are all sorts of directions in which this could go though - the relationship between Danny and Sadie is most interesting to me (the moment when he declares his love for her, only for her to run off into the moshpit is pretty affecting), but there is also the potential for stories about drug abuse, gang warfare and, er, hidden treasure! As long as the series doesn't try to do too much too quickly, I think it'll be quite brilliant. 

But then again, I am a sucker for cool-ness.

March 17, 2008

i'm trying to properly understand technological determinism and film cultures.

I'm just entering a 'writing phase' at the moment - the end of term gives me that opportunity.  This is a period of time when I plan to write a large amount of words in a short period of time, hopefully enabling myself to give my supervisor a substantial piece of work that we can discuss at length.  These are periods when things begin to come together, on paper rather than abstract and disconnected thoughts and conversations.  I'm working on a planned chapter about the introduction of digital video to cinema production, and the different connotations that it accrued along the way.

One facet of this particular project is the investigation of different film cultures, how a technology travels through different cultures of cinema (in the case of digital video, it is very broadly 'dogme to modern auteurs to hollywood').  This compels me to read some work about film cultures (on which Barbara Klinger's 'Beyond the Multiplex' is the best book I've read so far).  This weekend I've spent some time reading Janet Harbord's 'Film Cultures'.  

There was an observation and an argument that I read last night that interested me - partially because it was the most difficult part of the first chapter, and so I spent much longer handling these ideas than others.  Here, Harbord is investigating the earliest formations of film cultures (defined, broadly, as 'sites where the value of film is produced' [2]) and their relationships to existing socio-cultural formations.  One of her main arguments here is that film cultures are always fluid, constantly susceptible to being altered or reconceptualised.  To illustrate this, she describes how Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer wrote about cinema in the 1930s, and suggests that it shifted away from existing conceptions.  To sketch out the context into which these discourses enter:

The reintegration of life and art in film, however, was to occur in the mainstream if it did at all, a film culture of psychological realism and narrative drama soliciting audience identification.  The formally 'radical' aspects of the cinema of excess, the Melies tradition of magic and trickery, was to take root in the avant-garde tradition of art and aesthetic experimentation, splitting once again a culture of mimesis from a culture of formal play.  It is a split that, I would argue, lives on in what becomes a reconfigured relation of avant-garde and mass culture in specific film cultures. (28)

Her point about Benjamin and Kracauer is that they, as Modernists, both wrote about cinema in a way that attempted to collapse any distinction between art and life - I think (and I'm perfectly prepared to accept that I've misread it) this means that they had in common a belief that, as an art, cinema was not 'outside' of life, and that the two could mutually affect one another.  Harbord references Benjamin as writing that "vision here is not an optical mechanism akin to the camera, but a bodily response, an 'intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment'" (31, Benjamin quote between apostrophes).  The 'bodily response' of the cinema spectator occurs in reality, creating a link between art and life.  In comparison, Kracauer is quoted as saying 'What they [spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen' (quoted on 31).  On writing out that Kracauer quotation, it feels less like collapsing any distinction between art and life rather than enforcing a distinction (the experience of watching a film like losing your identity in the dark?  sounds like escape from life to me...), but Harbord continues:

What we find in their work is a return of 'art' (or here mass culture) to life, a mixing of these Kantian divisions within practices of cinematic, mass culture: memory and screen image, street-life and cinematic narrative overlap, and converge at the point of the spectator....The potential for film to endlessly replay events, to present images and scenes from different moments and contexts in juxtaposition, butting up against one another, offered both writers an allegorical way of reversing the inevitability of history. (31)

The impetus for these writers to engage with history, its inevitability and society is said to be the rise of Nazism, the historical setting for this critical work.  Harbord goes on later to make the point in a different way when she writes, "From Benjamin through to Charney and Friedberg [two contemporary scholars], the cinematic form is itself endowed with the ability to transform audience perception to various political ends." (32)  These writers describe cinema in a way that, through the concrete figure of the spectator, conjoins it to life - this is, I believe, in contrast to the classic Kantian description of the aesthetic observer as maintaining a critical distance from the work, somehow 'outside' of life and within the aesthetic experience.

The most interesting part for me is when Harbord states her problem with this line of thinking about cinema.  She writes:

Yet, the difficulty of these theses which propose a shifted structure of perception attributable to cinema is a latent technological determinism.  The political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass; for Benjamin this is manifest in the shock of the viewing experience.  Yet, as Gunning and Huyssen argue, the shock effects of early cinema live on in both the avant-garde and mainstream cinema with no guaranteed return (special effects, for example, can claim no inherent radicalism).  For my purposes, this attribution of the political to the cinematic apparatus relocates politics within a generalized effect of technology. (32-33)

Technological determinism is a concept that I encounter frequently, and I'm trying to determine a precise, working meaning for it (hello, blog entry!).  Why are these conceptions of cinema technologically deterministic?  In Harbord's terms here, it is because the political potential is attributed to all cinema and all audiences, just by virtue of being cinema and cinema audiences ('the political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass').  Benjamin, Kracauer et al here create a 'generalized effect of technology' - whereas what Harbord implies is that we need to understand the different things that filmmakers can do with this technology, and the different types of audience that value the results.  These are the film cultures, I believe.  I've just finished work as a teaching assistant on a module about Italian neo-realism - and I do see films such as Roma citta aperta or Bicycle Thieves as having political potential, but it is to do with the way they use the cinema technology (rather than because they are cinema in the first place).

Harbord therefore utters the dreaded phrase technological determinism to criticise a methodology that theorises cinema, as a technology with specific common effects on spectators, in a particular way and therefore reads all uses of that technology along the same lines.  One aim of my investigation of digital video therefore should be to avoid characterising the aesthetic attributes of the production technology (i.e. digital video is used to make films that are somehow closer to reality) and then assuming that that applies to all uses of the technology.  As I mentioned at the beginning, digital video has travelled through different film cultures and so has potentially been used different in (and within) each. 

I need to look at some different works in which people describe something as technologically deterministic.  Because I would cry if someone called me that..         

That was a bit longer than I originally intended.  Oh well, I feel like I understand it a little better.  Do comment if I've made an error, or you can help me understand some of this stuff!

There is a report at Shooting Down Pictures from a conference that took place at NYU last weekend, about Film Criticism, featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin.  They've got some good things to say.  

The 'sweep from half guard' demonstration about half-way down here illustrates what I was describing on Saturday.  Rosie and I drilled it to death yesterday, and we worked on the same technique again this evening in class and I think I've got it down a lot better.  I was shooting the wrong arm through the legs, and not keeping my head low enough (both reasons why my back kept taken in sparring).  Chiu has taught us three different ways to sweep your opponent once you have their foot and leg trapped - I think I've done them all pretty successfully.


March 15, 2008

technique from half–guard.

First off - this article is quite brilliant: 'Nuggets of advice' by Aesopian (a writer about bjj who is quite prominent on the Internet).  A few of my favourite bits:

As a beginner, especially before you realize how understanding and supportive your school is, it’s easy to suffer from “feeling stupid”. So much is unfamiliar and unknown to you, and you’re being constantly required to do things before you know what to do...Realize that everyone else went through the same issues and understands what you’re going through. You’re not stupid if you don’t know something yet—that’s the whole reason you’re at class.

An optimistic outlook will aide you greatly as you learn and improve at BJJ.  Let’s say you get caught in sparring with a move you didn’t expect at all. You could react to this a few ways.  You could beat yourself up for getting caught, start muscling the guy so he won’t get you again and get a “revenge tap” out of him.  Or, as I’d suggest, you could admire his success and ask him to show you what he did so you can learn it too.  Your mindset, negative or positive, can affect how quickly and smoothly you improve, as well as set the vibe at your gym.

I had a really exciting lesson in BJJ last Saturday, which inspired me to buy a membership and actually commit to attending two classes a week.  Additionally, the Saturday mornings have been killing me so I've changed to evening classes - this week I've been to the 'basic' classes on Monday and Friday (rather than the Foundation ones I've been doing for the past few weeks), which are taught by Chiu, a brown belt (therefore, behind Braulio and Victor, he is the third most senior instructor at the club).  It marks a step-up in the difficulty of the class (the 15-20 minute warm-up in the Monday class was so tough that it made me feel like I was going to throw up), but there are a lot of familiar faces from my previous group who have been a lot friendlier and chattier since I've been around more this week - rather than just be that smiling weirdo who turns up every now and then.

Yesterday, we were taught a basic technique you can execute from the half-guard position in order to restrict your opponent's movement - with a view towards sweeping them and achieving a more dominating position. 

Okay, half-guard: you are on the bottom, resting on your side and hip (rather than flat on your back, which would be a weaker position to be in).  In the half-guard position you have trapped one of your opponent's legs, by having one leg between their knees/legs and your other around the outside of their legs.  If you cross your feet you've got one of their legs trapped, yeah?.   For the purposes of this description, you've got their right leg trapped.  To make sure that your opponent cannot put all their weight straight down on you (which is going to seriously restrict your movement), you need to have your inside leg bent and pushed into their midsection.  Your leg acts like a shield here.  So that's the position.

For this work optimally, you need to find a suitable moment in the exchange.  Ideally, your opponent would just be mounting an effort to pass your half-guard (i.e. recover their leg and get into a stronger position) so they can be caught slightly off-balance.  You need to extend your outside leg at the knee for balance, and then shoot one arm through their legs and the other arm around the right of their hips - basically you're looking to catch the foot of the leg that you don't have trapped.  When you've caught the foot, you need to secure it with one hand against their back - you are rendering that foot immobile.  (One detail: when I was using this in sparring later, when shooting for the foot, twice my opponent managed to turn the situation to his advantage and secure my back (and, eventually, a chokehold).  I think, to avoid this, when shooting you need to keep your head quite close to your opponent's body - or keep your half-guard tighter to restrict their movement.)

I'm a little less sure of the next step, and am going to try to practice it with Rosie this weekend to get a better grasp.  You need to cross your legs over, so that their right leg is being hooked solely with your left leg.  Therefore you'll be controlling their right leg with your left leg, and their left foot with your right hand.  From this position, you can drive forwards - take them off balance and hopefully secure the side position.  Chiu was very insistent that you needed to work out several ways to do this, because your opponent was likely to try counter-moves which would require something else.  

I think I've got the super-basics down though... 

I've written this whilst listening to 'A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation' by The Wombats, which is quite great.  They sound like energetic kids making a punky and fun racket with witty lyrics - perhaps like the Arctic Monkeys without the attitude.

I have bought 'Young Liars #1' from eBay, which is a new comic series by David Lapham.  I really like Lapham's stuff - the Stray Bullets book I have is brilliant, and his Daredevil vs Punisher was also more fantastic than most Marvel books.  Douglas Wolk describes it as 'awful' here (but says that he could be convinced yet), but on the same website Graeme MacMillan calls it 'kind of awesome' .  My enthusaism about Lapham's stuff is more than enough to encourage me to buy it and make up my own mind.

I'm looking forward to watching Marquez vs Pacquiao 2 tonight.  There's a really good preview write-up here