Saturday 12th April 2014.
This week’s work: finishing off the research and writing the first draft of the latest essay, the last one for the Fin De SiÃ¨cle course. I set myself a goal of 350 words a day. That sounds fairly meagre, but it takes a much longer time to do than other types of writing. Every paragraph has to be carefully researched, with footnotes and references and bibliographies, all of which must be checked against a style guide. Then every paragraph must haveÂ its own topic sentence, backed up by quotes from primary texts (novels and stories), and then honed further through ‘engagements’ with secondary texts, as in worksÂ by scholars about the primary text in question. ‘Architecture and Gender inÂ Meg and Mog Go On Holiday’, that sort of thing.
When I started the degree, I thought ‘engaging’ with secondary texts meant drawing on a kind of arrogance. I thought it meant writing about how some professor with dozens of books to their name is wrong, and you, an unpublished undergraduate, are right. But a couple of years on I’ve found out how to respectfully disagree with an academic work, in order to define your own position on the subject. It takes a while to build up the confidence to do this, but then it starts to present itself as an option. YouÂ notice connections that seem obvious to you, which areÂ perhaps not obvious to anyone else. And then you feel useful.
This week’s example isÂ when I study Charlotte Mew’s short story about walking in London ghettos, ‘Passed’ (1894, from The Yellow Book). There’s a mention of Marylebone that has led one critic to assume it is the location for the whole story. An image in a shop window is said to ‘rival, does wax-work attempt such beauties, any similar attraction of Marylebone’s extensive show’. This is surely not meant to be a comment on Marylebone as a district, but a reference to Madame Tussaud’s. Tussaud’s was Marylebone Road’s ‘extensive show’ of waxworks in the 1890s, and is still going strong there today. None of the writing about the Mew story seems to have realised this, though admittedly it’s not a very well known story.
It’s moments like this which change my attitude from just some student regurgitating the work of others and ticking the boxes to get a good mark, to someone that can politely Make A Contribution, as one tutor’s catchphrase has it. The great thing about literature (and all art) is that there’s an infinite space for criticism as it is. Originality is just a matter of practice and perseverance, as with so many things. Eventually, after feeling intimidated by all the writing that’s ever existed, you find out there was room for you after all.
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Monday 14th April 2014.
Much celebration of Britpop in the media, marking the twentieth anniversary of Blur’s Parklife, along withÂ the first Oasis album. Kurt Cobain’s death is being reheated too.
For me, 1994 was the year I moved from Bristol to London, aided by Clare Wadd from Sarah Records who let meÂ use her car as a removals van. So as of February I’ve clocked up twenty years in the same rented bedsit. Still some way to go to beat Quentin Crisp, who managed twice that. I’ve not managed to matchÂ his complete lack of cleaning surfaces either: I’ve just wiped the surface of my fridge.
Even back then I remained amazed at anyone living in London who could afford anything bigger than a bedsitting room, at least if they were by themselves. Though with today’s prices, the idea of buying a house in London now seems to be beyond normal people, let alone the likes of me. ‘A house is a machine for living in’ wasÂ Le Corbusier’s great ideal for architecture. Now, a house is a machine for making money.
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Tuesday 15th April 2014.
To the ICA cinema for the film Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze. It won this year’sÂ Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, though it’s really a new take on quite an old sci-fi concept – a man falls in love with his computer. If you see it as a version of The Sexy Robot, there are countless examples in cinema which go back to Metropolis in the 1920s. The Sexy Robot is also a close relation of The Sexy Alien, so it’s not surprising that the mechanical mistressÂ in Her is voiced by Ms Scarlett Johansson. I last saw her in Under The Skin, arriving from outer space and helping herself to a series of unfettered Scotsmen.
In HerÂ it is her, as an advance type of operating system, who is picked up. We see her being bought from an Apple Store-type showroom in a slightly more futuristic Los Angeles, by the lonely Joaquin Phoenix. We even get a glimpse of her instruction booklet. It’s a thin piece of paper folded up too many times, like the ones that come with prescriptions. This must be intentional: Mr Phoenix is not so much looking for a new version of Windows 95 as he is a cure for a broken heart.
TheÂ Johansson character is therefore a vocal version of the Microsoft Word Paperclip, except less irritating. Curiously, she doesn’t have an animated graphic of her own. The world of the film is one where the voice is everything. Typing appears to be obsolete, and computers are controlled by speaking, via the use of wireless earpieces (which also act as microphones, somehow). Ms Johansson can ‘see’, thanks to those tiny cameras that are already inÂ computers now, and she draws pictures on Mr Phoenix’s iPhone-like screen. She also chooses her own name – Samantha – yet she never selectsÂ an image to represent herself. Not even a photo from one of those Buzzfeed quizzes, like ‘Which Kitten Are You Today’?
I suppose one reason is that Samantha is meant to be an upgrade of Siri, the popular virtual assistant for the iPhone. As I understand it, Siri has no visual avatar either, just a symbol of a microphone. So Mr Jonze prefers Ms Johansson to exist purely as a voice in the mind of the audience, to the point where a sex scene between the leads is represented by a completely black screen. It’s a version of phone sex without any phones, where their voices narrate their own imagined intimacy. This is an unusual yet cheering moment: if that form of coitusÂ really is the future, then that’s the end of unwanted pregnancy and sexual diseases right there.
The irony for me is that last week when I saw a film, also at the ICA, there was a blank screen moment which turned out to beÂ a fault with the projector. This time it happens again, but nowÂ it really is intentional.
This is both the triumph and the frustration of Her: it comments on the way things seem to be heading, but does so via a medium – cinema – that can’t adequately represent the move towards relationships that only exist in cyberspace. The trouble with limbo is that it is neither here nor there.
I wonder how the film will age. It might be as prescient as Orwell’s 1984, or it might look as dated as those 1960s films which expected us toÂ allÂ have flying cars by 1998. I was so looking forward to those flying cars.
Tags: 1994, bedsit, britpop, charlotte mew, cyberspace, essays, fin de siecle, her, ICA, quentin crisp, spike jonze