Sunday, 27 January 2013

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This...

Hmmm. JJ Abrams to direct the next Star Wars film, huh?

It's been interesting to see the reactions to this news (especially since the announcement of more Star Wars films created a seismic ripple in the Nerd World). Everybody seems to be pretty positive about it, with only a couple of dissenting voices.

Let me add to that latter chorus.

I can't confess to being much of a JJ Abrams fan, though I also won't go so far as to say I'm a hater, either. But if you follow me on Twitter, you'll have seen a couple of tongue-in-cheek tweets about how they should have me direct the new Star Wars; all of that's a joke (I'm actually aiming to script), but the one serious point I made was that almost nothing he's done has really blown me away.

In terms of movies, I've seen Super 8, Star Trek and Cloverfield (Mission Impossible III is the only movie that ever put me to sleep). For TV shows, I've caught parts of season 1 of Lost, and Seasons 1-3 of Fringe. The only one of those I've loved is Fringe; his movies have been more or less enjoyable in the moment, but like cotton candy, evaporate almost instantly. As for Lost, I'm watching it on Lovefilm in a sort of desultory way, but I'm not 100% sure I'm enjoying it that much.

Star Trek is the most problematic for me (which you should understand is quite a statement, given Cloverfield; who carries around a fucking video camera when being chased down empty subway tunnels by monsters?). On the one hand, it looked beautiful; the opening sequence, where Nero's ship comes out of nowhere and starts blowing everything up is breathtaking, while, on a more cynical note, Abrams managed to put together a cast that makes Starship Troopers look like Deadwood.

On the other hand, there's no internal logic to it (oh, and spoilers, okay? It's been almost four years - if you haven't seen it yet, you've clearly got better things to do with your life, and I don't blame you). Nero goes back in time to kill Spock but overshoots and ends up too far in the past; in high dudgeon he hangs around for twenty or so years before re-emerging to destroy Vulcan. At the same time, Kirk sneaks aboard the Enterprise when it goes to investigate, and somehow finagles his way into the XO position and then captain. He gets marooned on a planet that happens to house both Spock and Scotty, each within walking distance of one another, and they happen to be the only people in the universe who can move him along in his quest.

Looking at all those complaints, it's clear my problems are actually with Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; but shouldn't the director be on the lookout for problems of internal logic and consistency?

My point is, I don't believe Abrams has the focus to pull off a good Star Wars movie. I'm heartened by the fact that Lawrence Kasdan is detailed to consult on the script, but, for better or worse, the six existing movies are the products of one man's vision, weird and borderline offensive as it frequently is. I've seen some people suggest that Abrams is the natural successor to Steven Spielberg (another director whose oeuvre I find problematic), but that seems to be based solely on Super 8, which I really didn't enjoy. I just don't know what Abrams's vision is.

That said, I'm just glad they didn't get Zack Snyder or Stephen Sommers. Or they could have gone with Conan O'Brien's suggestion, and hired Wes Anderson.

In any case, yes, I'll be in line to see Episode VII when it comes out, just like I'm going to see Star Trek into Darkness. I remain ready to be proven wrong.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

So, who wants a Coke?

I've been on something of an off-and-on health kick (off whenever I walk into In'n'Out Burger) for the past year, so I've naturally been reading up on what's good to eat or drink versus what isn't. Naturally, there's a lot of disagreement and misinformation out there, but my favorite quote is Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It's short, to the point and makes unimpeachable sense.

Unfortunately, I'm here to add to the fog of war, rather than dispel it. Specifically, I'm going to do that by saying that Coca-Cola and other sodas probably aren't the liquified death that a lot of people seem to think they are.

Now, I'm not saying this just to be contrary; it's simply that diet is one of those areas of life where people are content to turn off their brains and let themselves be led by food companies. I'm not just referring to diet soda, which some research suggest might be pretty bad for you, but also to the various juices and smoothies and other junk we pour down our throats because we think it's healthy.

As I say, there's a lot of research on how diet soda might be bad for you. Some excitable news sources have run with the "diet soda causes weight gain" meme, which I was prepared to propagate until I started googling for research on the subject. But the relationship between diet soda consumption and weight gain seems to be pretty complicated, with research suggesting that it tricks the body into craving more calories, so that you end up overeating after all. And if you google the phrase "diet soda addiction", be prepared for an onslaught of links.

So the whole business of diet soda being shitty for you is pretty well-known (although I always cringe whenever I see a parent giving their kid a can of Diet Coke). What I find fascinating is that juice drinks are probably not awesome things to be guzzling either.

I think it's telling that the Mayo Clinic page I linked to above lists a number of healthier alternatives, but leaves out fruit drinks. I've been reading food labels for the last couple of years, because I find it helpful to know how many calories I'm taking in whenever I eat; in the course of this reading, I've discovered that fruit juice tends to have loads more sugar than regular soda. Specifically, Coke here in the UK has about 42 Calories per 100mL, which is admittedly a lot; by contrast, store-bought lemonade or orange juice typically has about 55 Calories per 100mL, or about 25% more. In fact, most nutritional sources that I've read say that only the first 100mL of fruit juice you consume actually counts toward your 5-a-day, and the rest is empty calories.

And yet, my friends look at me like I'm crazy when I say I stick to no more than one glass of juice in a given day (if that). The perception seems to be that because it's fruit-based, it can't possibly be bad for you; but sugar occurs naturally, of course, and it's mostly present in sweet things like fruits.

Now, to clarify, I'm not saying we should drink more soda. In addition to obesity, it's linked with increased incidence of things like kidney stones and osteoporosis (both diet and regular versions of soda). I'm just suggesting that more people should actively keep an eye on what they're putting into their bodies.

And maybe Mr Pollan should add a corollary to that "mostly plants" rule listed above: Mostly green plants.

Monday, 14 January 2013

How To Sell Out

Just a short one this week, because I'm jetlagged, but I thought it was high time I kicked off the bloggery for this year.

I just got home from three weeks back home in California, spending Christmas with the family and spending New Year's Eve with friends. It was mostly good - that is, the same as always - apart from my grandmother suffering some health scares (pretty serious stuff, to be honest, but it always is when you're 95, as she is).

The thing about this year's Christmas get-together that was a little different from the usual was the presence of my sister's boyfriend (a friend of mine also came to visit just before New Year's Eve, but that's by the bye). My sis's boyfriend is a composer of avant garde music, and he's not shy about sharing his opinions about stuff, particularly in the creative arts. Perhaps not surprisingly, the word "sell-out" was thrown around a couple of times.

This is a term I've been thinking about a bit recently; not in connection with myself, of course, as nobody's throwing giant piles of cash at me to prostitute my art for. But it occurred to me that maybe I already have sold out, even before I started.

Not in a bad way, I hasten to add. I'm not crafting things cynically designed to appeal to the greatest number of readers as possible, I just write what I think would be cool; it happens that this probably falls more on the commercial end of the scale. Again, no big surprise, as my chosen subjects are science fiction and fantasy; while there are examples of SF authors working with more difficult material, there's probably not that much in the way of avant garde SF literature. The most avant garde SF authors I can think of are Samuel Delany, Philip K Dick and JG Ballard, but it's not like their works are on the same level of (say it, Francis) weirdness as Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.

It's also not to say that I don't like the avant garde - I particularly like it in music, though I've rarely encountered it in film and have no desire to explore it in fiction. But I sometimes feel like avant garde music is more concerned with talking to a small group - those in the know - than in illuminating something that everyone can relate to.

Both approaches are more appropriate in certain situations than in others; both approaches are also obnoxious in certain situations. Art that's nakedly aimed at the consumer's wallet is just as annoying as art that wants to say nothing more than, "No, you just don't get it, because you're too [whatever]." On the other hand, there are times when it's fun to get your head around something a little more difficult, just as it's sometimes fun to zone out watching Terminator 2 or an early Adam Sandler movie (come on, you know you loved Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore).

I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

I guess this comes back to an earlier post, where I looked at Neil Gaiman's advice on the Nerdist Podcast to read outside your chosen genre. Here, however, I'm expanding his advice (which I nitpicked over possibly a little unfairly, as I discovered listening to it again last night) to the rest of your life. I think in our culture we have an image of modern art or contemporary music that's informed heavily by parodies (think the Simpsons or South Park); what I'd like to see more of is people stretching their boundaries by going and listening to the originals. Pieces like Terry Riley's In C or Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians are pretty listenable (I'd even put Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mikrophonie in this list, but that's me), and I think the average person might appreciate them if he or she heard them in a store or wherever (although I accept they might not be so enthused to hear Mikrophonie at the Gap).

This goes both ways, of course - those who only consume "high" art as it's practiced today should listen to some pop or hip hop or rock, and should be able to do so without embarrassment. Good music is good music, no matter the genre; this holds true for movies, books, paintings, whatever. Let's just allow ourselves to like the things that move us somehow, without worrying about how it's perceived.