Saturday, 30 January 2016

True Detective season two


Ok, first things first: overall, no, it's not as good as season one.

Now we've settled that, we can assess it on its own merits (and failures).

Set in California, the story follows four central characters: three cops and a gangster aspiring to be a businessman. A corrupt politician, who the gangster, Frank (Vince Vaughn), is working with to buy land that is going to sky-rocket in value due to a new travel infrastructure development, is tortured and murdered. His death is used as an excuse to send two cops from outside the area, the City of Vinci, to investigate the rumoured massive corruption in that city's police force and government; thus two cops, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), are deployed to officially work the case of the murder while unofficially being on a dirt digging mission. Ani works with the corrupt detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), who has secretly been working with Frank for years, while Paul...smoulders with intensity a lot.

Are you with me so far?

Now, you might say that 'Well, that doesn't sound too complicated.' On the face of it, no. But, the story becomes increasingly difficult to follow as we join the characters descent into tighter and deeper and darker spirals of corruption. Frankly, the plot becomes virtually Byzantine, throwing off tendrils into the self-help craze of the 80s, rumours of the goings on at Bohemian Grove, as well as investigating the sheer corrosiveness of greed and power.

Further, four main characters was simply one too many. What's more, it's obvious who should have been cut: Paul. Now, I want to say that there was nothing wrong with the character as such, although he didn't get much development and I can't actually think of much to say about him except 'conflicted closeted gay man', and there was nothing wrong with Kitsch's performance. The problem was that the character, though compelling in his own right, added very, very little to the story. Indeed, the story could have carried on without him with only minimal tweaking, freeing up screen time to elucidate the very opaque plot.

In many ways, it felt like I was watching a first draft. There was great potential, but it desperately needed some tidying up. Indeed, HBO's Director of Programming has taken the blame for rushing the writer. If it there had been more focus, more direction, and some pretty brutal editing, it would have been far better than it was.

However, that's not to say that we didn't end up with something that was quite brilliant in its own right.

Now, although the story was very difficult to follow, if you try hard enough, you can make sense of it, and although it is unnecessarily convoluted, it still had me interested enough to follow it through to the end. And the pay-off was actually quite well executed. They'd wisely killed Paul off in the penultimate episode so we could focus on the genuinely very cool characters of Ray, Ani and Frank. What's more, it goes into some really interesting areas. Although there's not much focus on these aspects of the story, it was still pleasing to see something talking about the excesses and plain weirdness of the self-actualisation, alternative mental health brigade. There's the darkness surrounding 'men of influence' and what they do behind closed doors, too. A key thread throughout is the 'exclusive' parties where politicians, police and businessmen alike gather for sybaritic shenanigans galore, going from the plain old debauched to the murderous. This is, in my opinion, an obvious allusion to the Bohemian Club, an elite men's only club which has been dodging rumours of everything from being a glorified college fraternity to practising Pagan rituals for decades.

It's definitely not weird that we do this!

The music and cinematography are as strong as anything season one produced. The image of California it creates is not one of glamour and beauty but seediness and waste. The camera lovingly pans over industrial parks, deserts, waste lands and poisoned soil, the music raising these scenes into art in their own right. The title sequence is certainly at least as good as one's.

None of the performances fell flat, and all the characters were at least interesting. When I heard about the inclusion of more female characters, I did greet this with suspicion. Not, of course, because I don't think a female lead can be as compelling or generally cool as a male lead, but because there had been criticism levelled at season one for its overtly male focus, and I feared that we'd end up with some two-dimensional female characters that added nothing: I couldn't have been more wrong. Although no one in two is anywhere near as awesome as Rust was, Ani could give him a run for his money. She's intelligent, deep, complex, insightful and just awesome. Kelly Reilly plays Frank's wife Jordan, but she's no typical mobster's kept woman. She's forthright and decisive, staying with her husband when the chips are down because she chooses to. Indeed, I really bought into both of their performances as a couple.

Speaking of which: Vince Vaughn is brilliant in this. He plays Frank with a curious mixture of strength and sensitivity, as someone who is desperately trying to escape from his past into the legitimacy of 'real' business. Easily one of the key presences in the series, a thoughtful and intriguing character handled very well. However, it is Colin Farrell who really stands out as the tortured, crumbling ruin that is Ray Velcoro, a cop who is increasingly finding himself with little to live for.

Velcoro is a man whose life has been on a downwards incline for years. About ten years before the events of the show, his wife was sexually assaulted, and the name of the man who was responsible given to him by Frank. This decision, this giving in (one might say), is the point of no return. His wife divorces him in disgust for killing the man supposedly responsible for her rape, and is threatening to cut off all contact between him and his son (who may not even be his anyway) due to Ray's ultimately poisonous aura. He sinks further into a substance abuse, working closer and closer with Frank in a relationship that is oddly co-dependent. It's worth watching just for him.

Overall, this is something worth seeing, but don't expect to see season one again. Pizzolatto has demonstrated his boldness and daring as a writer by shying away from emulation, and like I've said already, if he had just been given more time one feels that this would really, really stand out as a modern classic of crime drama. Sadly, that was not quite to be.

A flawed masterpiece, to be sure, but worth your time all the same.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Review: The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger

Thanks to Rowan Lock for the biographical details, and general assistance with writing.

You can get hold of the copy of The Glass Bees I read here.

Ernst Jünger was one of the true luminaries of the intellectual Right in the 20th century. A popular hero of the First World War, famous for his memoir of the conflict entitled The Storm of Steel, he became aligned with the German conservative revolutionary movement in the interbellum years, and as such advocated a radical, authoritarian, militarist nationalism. Despite this, he never made the fatal gesture Heidegger made, and was never associated with National Socialism; his relationship with Nazism began as coolly ambivalent, progressing into antipathy and finally open hostility (he was even peripherally involved with 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler). This being said, his contribution to political theory outside his initial context was, essentially, minimal. However, he was regarded as a figure of great literary stature in post-war Europe. He was a prolific novelist, and his incredibly long lifespan (over a century) gave him an enviable vantage point to comment from: he was a grown man when the German Empire collapsed, he was present during the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and lived to see the reunification of Germany (comfortably outliving the German Democratic Republic). His fans included such contradictory figures as Hitler, Goebbels, Francois Mitterand, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. As well as writing, he was also a well-educated botanist and entomologist. He was even one of the very earliest experimenters with LSD. He was a man who embodied the very paradoxes and contradictions of recent European existence.

The Glass Bees is a novel about Captain Richard, a retired cavalryman-turned-tank-inspector. He's been offered an interview for a job working for Zapparoni, a technology magnate who embodies the Zeitgeist of modernity perfectly, and is depicted almost as a synthesis of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, only infinitely cooler. Zapparoni's company makes the finest automata in the land, but these aren't the clunky mechanoids you might expect, they're rather more like the kind of tech that we have here-and-now. They are modest, ubiquitous, labour saving devices, tiny robots performing a host of domestic and industrial tasks. That isn't the limit to Zapparoni's vision though, he is also a purveyor of cinematic products, his automata bringing characters from myth and legend to all-too convincing life (in other words, animatronics). The vividness of the distractions he produces is, however, somewhat disquieting: 

Children, in particular, were held spellbound [by his films]. Zapparoni had dethroned the old stock figures of the fairy tales...Parents even complained that their children were too preoccupied with him.  

Richard is not a man of his time, arguably like Jünger himself. He harks back to the glory days of warfare and conflict that still felt human, battles fought with flesh and steel, and not simply with mechanisms and calculations. He feels a particular disgust at the kind of dismemberment produced by the technics of modern warfare, remarking that one doesn't find any stories of amputated limbs in the Iliad. That statement in particular becomes eerily prescient of the image of today's soldier wounded by an IED in one of our misadventures in the Middle East, missing an arm or a leg, but still alive: Richard mourns the loss of wars that killed you cleanly. Richard's world is one that has been chaotic and uncertain since his youth, when his country, Asturia, was plunged repeatedly into war, including civil war. He is a man whose principles were formed in a world now lost, and the one he finds himself in does not feel like an improvement.

[My father] had led a quiet life, but at the end he hadn't been too happy either. Lying sick in bed, he said to me: "My boy, I am dying at just the right moment." Saying this, he gave me a sad, worried look. He had certainly foreseen many things.

This is a deeply reactionary novel, and doesn't make for easy reading. Jünger's writing meanders, straying into lengthy digressions into his narrator's memory; his pace is languid, virtually glacial in fact. Although his prose is beautiful, even poetic, it feels incredibly indulgent and is often, frankly, dull. Very little happens as such in the novel, the bulk of it simply being Richard's recollections. And yet, what is curious is how this achingly slow piece of writing is able to convey the sheer speed with which modernity did away with the old world. The narrator, like Jünger, grew up in a world were the horse was still yet to be rendered obsolete by the automobile. 

Jünger's clear concern is that technological progress will injure humanity very, very deeply.

Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other...Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms...evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.

What is curious here is that before the Second World War, Jünger advocated Germany's complete embracing of the technological age as the only way it could find victory in the next war. He felt that it was Germany's traditional, aristocratic hierarchy that prevented it from being able to properly mobilise itself in the total way the more levelled, egalitarian societies of the democracies were capable of doing (he discusses this in his work Total Mobilisation), and only by accepting the levelling effects of technological modernity could Germany once again find itself triumphant. Perhaps by the time of writing The Glass Bees Jünger had simply become disenchanted with the fury of warfare.

Elsewhere Richard, and maybe Jünger through him, speaks of the loss of the simple 'joy' of labour, of working the earth, of harvesting crops, of the well-deserved rest at the end of the long day, and how this has been traded in for labour that is certainly easier, and leisure time that is longer, but doesn't carry the same weight of satisfaction. The fear that we have lost much and gained little except damnation in return is the central theme of this book.

Zapparoni himself, in fact, has utilised his vast wealth and power to create a private world at first seemingly devoid of the artefacts that have made his name. He has a residence located within the grounds of his plant (which Bruce Sterling, in his introduction, remarks is not dissimilar to the campus feeling of Silicon Valley) in the form of a converted abbey. Richard explores its private library, finding books on Rosicrucianism and other occult sciences, and is later sent down the path to a cottage that comes close to the very Platonic Form of idyllic country residences. What is curious here is that this retreat from modernity has only been made possible by Zapparoni's very success at the practices and theories that Richard feels have destroyed the simple authenticity of the old world. How might this be read? Perhaps Jünger is suggesting that the only way back into the world that has been lost is to pass through the modern one, presuming we are capable of surviving it, and to use its mechanisms and ingenuity to recreate a new version of the old.

There's a feeling of resignation in this novel. Jünger isn't really calling on us to take up arms against the machines. His constant allusions to astrology suggest that he feels that there was something inevitable to what we now find ourselves in. It is our bad luck to find ourselves in the midst of it, but a way out might be found if we can weather the storm of the new. This being said, Richard repeatedly describes his attitude as 'defeatist'. Perhaps the more subtle suggestion Jünger is making here is that things only became inevitable when we decided we can't stop them.

I'm left feeling torn by this book. I share Jünger's concerns about the insidious nature of these devices we're now surrounded by, and yet the past he (or Richard) is seemingly appealing to is one that is forever out of reach, and if we were to find ourselves in it, it wouldn't be what we wanted. Consider the above statement about how now modern war doesn't kill one cleanly, that we now have the mutilated, dismembered wounded: we can equally well read this as 'Human technical ingenuity is now such that it can protect us, admittedly only limitedly, from the extremities of human malice.'

The question posed by modernity is one that has not yet had a satisfactory answer. Indeed, the question itself has yet to be fully formulated. Jünger's contribution to understanding the condition that we find ourselves in is an important one. If nothing else, he can remind us how incredibly recent all of this still is. Up until only very recently, there were people alive who'd fought in the war of Kings, Kaisers and Tsars, witnessed the rise of all the great and terrible varieties of attempted Utopia the last century produced, saw a human being walk upon the surface of the Moon (an image which disturbed Heidegger no end), and died in the age of Facebook.

It really is anyone's guess where this will all lead.

2016 Reading List Progress

List 1:

1. The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger
2. Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam by Peter Lamborn Wilson
3. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. United States of Paranoia by Jesse Walker
5. Axiomatic by Greg Egan 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

An Experiment in Self-Discipline

I suppose this is something of a new year's resolution. Usually, I jump between different books depending on my mood. Inevitably, this leads to me staring many more books than I ever actually finish. I don't think there's anything wrong with not finishing a book in and of itself: life's too short to spend it reading uninteresting books. However, abandoning a book simply out of laziness is no excuse. As such, I'm going to try something.

I'm going to set myself short reading lists this year. Each list will consist of five books, alternating between fiction and nonfiction. After the final book on a list has been completed, and new one is drawn up. This might be designed to build on something I found especially interesting in my last list, or it may take me in a whole new direction. I'm also going to try and review what I've read, if I feel up to the task (I never wrote a review of Houellebecq's novel Submission simply because I didn't think I could do it credit).

I will post the lists on here. I'm also open to suggestions about what to include, though I am trying to get through the private library I've accumulated over the years, so if I don't already have a copy of the suggestion, I'll have to think carefully about its inclusion. I will also write a general assessment after finishing the last book on each list. I reserve the right to abandon a book in favour of another one if it proves especially tedious.

List 1:
1. The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger
2. Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam by Peter Lamborn Wilson
3. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. United States of Paranoia by Jesse Walker
5. Axiomatic by Greg Egan