Monday, 28 February 2011

No means no

What the hell happened to Enrique Iglesias? One minute he was serenading Jennifer Love Hewitt at a deserted gas station, and now suddenly he's propositioning tarts like Calum Best on a three-day bender.  No more, "I can be your hero baby", Enrique would like it to be known that "Tonight I'm fucking you".

All those women who once swooned to his romantic ballads, are now imagining themselves trying to find their other shoe and making an appointment at the STD clinic. These days. it seems you have to have an edge if you want to maintain your place in the charts.

Brian McFadden has obviously been taking notes, since he's staging his latest comeback attempt with a surprising new single that couldn't be further from the good old days with Westlife. To them, 'edgy' meant dismounting their stools before the key-change kicked in.

Aside from the production, which sounds like a weird fusion of hillbilly and techno (technobilly, anyone?), the song is striking for its dubious message. He claims it's a lovesong to his girlfriend Delta Goodrem, although it's hard to imagine the squeaky-clean popstrel being overly enamoured with the lyric "I like you just the way you are, drunk in the back seat of my car". Delta's idea of a wild night would be grilling the tofu steaks before throwing them in a stir-fry.

Delta may like the song, but plenty of other people are disturbed by the message at its heart. Brian seems to like getting his girl so drunk that he can "do some damage", suggesting that he's not averse to spiking someone's Bacardi Breezer to get his end away.

Brian's horrified that his innocent "tongue-in-cheek" song has been taken out of context, claiming "I am shocked at these ridiculous accusations about my new song. For the record I wrote the song about how I love it when Delta has a drink -- which is very rarely -- and she's dancing."

On the plus side, at least the controversy has got him back in the papers - a side-effect that I'm sure never occurred to him when he was writing it. And although he claims not to be promoting date-rape in the track, my ears are still going to need to speak to a counsellor after nearly four minutes of abuse.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Green eyed monster

Authenticity is a rare beast in the world of pop music. Sometimes, it's young pop tarts trying to maintain their virginal image whilst grinding suggestively in a way that would make Elizabeth Berkeley blush. Alternatively, it's kids who've spent a few years in the Brits academy, only to emerge with an R&B swagger straight out of South Central Camberley.

The latest graduate from the school of hard rocks is Jessie J, a one-time West End child prodigy who's now topping the charts singing about the "ka-ching ka-ching, b-bling, b-bling". Having written hits for singers like Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus, she's clearly got a decent pop pedigree, but even she finds it hard to figure out what kind of recording artist she wants to be.

With her star firmly in the ascendent, she's been comparing herself to a number of her contemporaries and finding that she's coming up short. Although she's confident in her musical ability, she's concerned that she doesn't have the cover girl image of stars like Cheryl Cole and Rihanna - "I try not to worry about my looks, but they're so beautiful it's hard to compete."

She's also got Lady Gaga in her sights, adding that the star's pret-a-porterhouse stylings have made things difficult for the artists that follow in her footsteps. She told OK! "She's literally made normal artists and music boring, which bothers me. It annoys me when people say Leona Lewis is boring. No, she's not. She's got a sick voice and being normal is cool."

Given how worried she is about her music industry competition, perhaps she should focus on a star who's going to be easier to emulate. Someone like Beth Ditto, who recently told reporters that on a recent night out, she managed to throw up and piss herself. It might not generate as much publicity as when she was rumoured to be a supporter of the Illuminati, but all it takes is a couple of bottles of Merrydown. And that's the kind of accomplishment you just can't put a price tag on.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Pull the udder one

Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the days when food was food. When you could look at a menu and know exactly where you stood. Then along came Heston Blumenthal's 'culinary alchemy' and suddenly, all bets were off.

Instead of building dishes around complimentary flavours, the new generation of uber-chefs seem to find their inspiration in incongruity. The weirder it sounds, the better it'll be. At least, in theory.

Admittedly, I have food issues that border on the obsessive compulsive. For the first twenty years of my life I couldn't even reconcile the concept of sweet and sour. Well, which is it, one or the other? And don't tell me it's both because that shit doesn't fly.

Even now, I'll scrutinise a roasting pan like Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, making sure I don't reach for a potato and find myself chewing on a parsnip by mistake. All it took was one harmless childhood incident involving a little white lie and some projectile vomiting. Now I can't even go near the carrot's suspiciously sickly cousin.

Alright, I'm probably not the best person to judge anyone else's epicurean adventures. Even so, I'm finding one London Ice Cream parlour's latest invention a little tough to stomach.

Matt O'Connor, owner of Covent Garden's 'Icecreamists', came up with the bizarre idea of an ice-cream made from human breast milk, and he's charging £14 a serving for the privilege. Which only makes it slightly more expensive than a cup of Häagen-Dazs at the movies.

Made with Madagascan vanilla pods and lemon zest, 'Baby Gaga' has been created using the milk of 15 women. One of these women was Victoria Hiley, who works with women who have breast-feeding issues. She believes that O'Connor's experiment might encourage more women to embrace natural nursing - "What could be more natural than fresh, free-range mother's milk in an ice cream? And for me it's a recession beater too -- what's the harm in using my assets for a bit of extra cash." I'm just a little unclear on the concept of 'free-range' motherhood, is there a battery-farmed alternative?

Anyone not immediately put off by the idea of fifteen women lactating into a churn full of vanilla seeds will be delighted to hear that the volunteers had been thoroughly screened for communicable diseases. Don't know about you, but my stomach's rumbling - pass the wafers and stick a raspberry on top of the scoop.

Reactions to 'Baby Gaga' have been predictably squeamish, as though the women are standing in the shop expressing directly into the customers' cones. And yet we're quite happy to consider gulping down similar products that are mechanically extracted from another species. Maybe O'Connor, and New York chef Daniel Angerer who made cheese from his wife's milk, are onto something. Perhaps breast is best after all...

Friday, 25 February 2011

Self-indulgence alert

Permit me to get all reflective for a moment or two. Two years ago today, I decided (on a whim) to resurrect my dreams of writing a blog. I'd tried once before - set up a page, gave it a name, introduced myself to the world and then... nothing.

I realised, rather depressingly, that I had nothing to say. That's the biggest problem for many would-be writers; their heads are filled with ambition, but when faced with an empty screen, struggle to find something to say.

Where do you start? What gives you the authority to share your perspective on the world with a wider audience? Who's gonna care?

The first proper post I ever wrote was a movie review of the Friday 13th remake (short version: it was shit), and then I tried my hand at writing about music. But I soon realised that there are far better film and music bloggers out there.

Undaunted, I decided to take a look at the wider world of celebrity and entertainment. Again, there are a million blogs out there covering this stuff, how could I offer something different? I figured that, rather than attempt to compete with the news aggregation sites that linked to hundreds of other news sources, I should try to editorialise the things that didn't really warrant such extensive coverage.

And that's when it clicked into place. For me at least. Every day I try to find a story that piques my interest, research the subject matter, and find a way of looking at it in a different way. Sometimes it's a chance to make a few sarcastic remarks. Other times, I find myself genuinely incensed by something offensive or desperately critical. But above all, I've learned to be bolder when it comes to speaking with my own voice.

Occasionally, my political perspective or personal moral code creeps in. And the toughest thing is learning to disassociate myself from the fact that not everyone will agree with me. As I've grown in confidence, I feel the writing has improved. But people might not agree with that assertion either. Fuck 'em.

I never thought I'd make it two years - I tend to lack tenacity when it comes to committing to a project, like Katie Price and marriage. And yet here I am, 676 posts later. And I have you to thank for it.

If you've ever taken the time to click on a link and visit this page, stopped to read something on here, added a comment or forwarded a link to a friend, I'd like to say "thank you". Given the tiny audience this blog reaches, I'm sure lots of people wonder why I make the effort. But when you give your time over to a writing project, it means the world if even one person bothers to read it.

Of course, I can dream of the day when p0pvulture counts its readers in the tens of thousands, but in the meantime, I'm grateful for everyone who's ever shown a passing interest in the site.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Gay for pay

If you can't get enough of vacuous, vain and self-indulgent media whores playing up to the camera, there's some good news. Gay TV channel LOGO is currently recruiting cast-members for season 2 of its hit show The A-List New York.

In case you missed it, The A-List followed the misadventures of a group of photogenic but "vapid and materialistic" gay men in the Big Apple. Tackling such hard-hitting social issues as finding a model agent, commenting on a friend's packet, and how to brief a party planner for a Gay pride bash, the show managed to prove once and for all that true equality means being just as objectionable as your heterosexual counterparts.

The show was clearly modelled on the runaway success of the 'Real Housewives' franchise, which poked cameras through the stylish drapes of women in Orange County, New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Beverly Hills and Miami. Think of it like the CSI brand, but with more augmented breasts and fewer scenes of forensic investigation. It'll be interesting to see whether The A-List follows a similar model, recruiting camera-hungry homos in a variety of towns across the US. Personally, I can't wait for The A-List: Tuskegee.

Like other shows in the burgeoning fly-on-the-interior-designed-wall documentary genre, the word 'reality' is subjective at best, since the characters, scenarios and hair-dos are about as believable as Will.I.Am's live vocals. Interestingly, plans for expanding the cast of the second season of The A-List illustrate just how contrived these shows are.

Rather than scouting venues and locations for interesting characters around whom the show could be woven, the new approach reads more like a conventional casting, with characters (and their motivations) already clearly mapped out. If you're a "hot young single guy who navigates the NY gay social scene with ease and might be considered a troublemaker by some people..." you might want to fill out an application.

Even better - if you're an on-the-shelf fag hag, who missed out on your chance to score a wealthy husband by never venturing outside of the West Village, there could be a role for you too. The producers are also on the lookout for a "DIVA! You're a young, fun, stylish, successful woman. That's right...we said WOMAN - as in female. Kimora, Beyonce, Mariah? could definitely give them a run for their money." That's right... they said MONEY.
Critics have long argued that the phenomenal success of this new breed of reality TV has sounded the death knell for traditional creative skillsets in the industry. They're concerned that shows like 'Real Housewives', 'Jersey Shore' and 'The A-List' have replaced talented writers, story editors and actors, with low-cost camera fodder. 

But as the shows' performers become stars in their own right, their cost-per-episode increases exponentially. Likewise, the fact that producers are clearly mapping out story-arcs and planning new characters, it's clear that creativity isn't dead after all. The dialogue might not be Brechtian, and the plots less sophisticated than a lazy episode of Saved By The Bell, but at least there's light at the end of the tunnel. 

Suddenly, this cheap and cheerful genre becomes something of a false economy. And that means that we might yet see a resurgence of quality drama on our screens. 

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

From stomach churner to page turner

I know you shouldn't believe everything you read on Twitter, especially where stars are concerned. In an era when being talked about is concerned to be viable career development, famous faces will say pretty much anything in order to maintain their celebrity real-estate.

So we should make sure the salt-pot has more than a pinch-worth left in it, before pre-ordering Heidi Pratt's imminent novel on Amazon. She's been Tweeting about her new professional aspirations, having presumably missed out on the chance to secure work as a resuscitation dummy.

Inspired by the Twilight series, Heidi asked her followers "Thinking about writing a supernatural romance novel. Would you read?" The wording of the question is interesting, since she neglects to ask specifically whether anyone would consider reading something with her name on the spine. She could have gone one further and changed "would" to "can".

Clearly someone thought Heidi's idea was a good one (there's a first time for everything, I guess) because she received enough encouragement to commit to the project. Well, as much as a statement like "The support of... my wonderful fans has convinced me to write my 1st supernatural romance novel. Title coming soon!" can be considered a professional commitment.

To be fair to Heidi, maybe she's perfectly qualified to create a fictional romance, as her marriage to Spencer proved only too well. And if she holds up Stephenie Meyer as the standard to which she aspires, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that she may actually be able to churn something out.

Thankfully, before the world had a chance to lament the end of civilisation as we know it, American Pie star Jason Biggs had joined in the discussion, entering into a virtual brainstorm with the clueless 'pop singer + actress + television star'. As the two began to bat ideas back and forth, it seemed that there was some hope on the horizon, and that this was just an elaborate joke.

Nonetheless, let's not forget that even Snooki can now count 'New York Times bestselling author' amongst her considerable list of accomplishments. And to paraphrase the famous saying, "those who forget the past are condemned to pick up a copy in paperback". I'm sure Jennifer Aniston can't wait.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Don't hold it against her

Well, Britney's third or fourth (I've lost count) comeback is now in full swing, and the new album is just five short weeks away. Although it seems like just yesterday that a sultry schoolgirl was inflaming the lust of pedophiles and misogynists, it's actually 12 years since the former Mousketeer implanted herself in the public consciousness.

A lot has changed since then, not least in the pop landscape, where Britney was once seen as the pretender to Madonna's fiercely defended throne. But that was all pre-Gaga, and now there's a new bitch on the block for Britney to fight off.

Initially, it looked as though reclaiming her title was going to be as easy as taking chicken nuggets from a baby (her own baby, in fact). New single 'Hold It Against Me' netted an astonishing 411, 000 downloads in its first week, making it the fastest selling digital single for a female artist. However, she didn't count on a certain Lady, whose own comeback single managed to score one million sales in the same amount of time.

But all was not lost, since Britney had another ace up her sleeveless halter-top: the video. Even as the Bellamy Brothers were preparing to launch a pointless lawsuit, claiming ownership of the world's lamest pick-up line, Britney was getting ready to share an eagerly awaited new film clip that would show her back on top.

Having endured more relentless teasing than a gay kid in Catholic school, we were finally presented with the finished article. And it all seemed a bit, well, meh.

On the plus side, Britney's looking good again, although she's squeezed into a busty top that seems to defy all known laws of physics (particularly concerning gravity and displacement theory. She stomps around the stage in a pair of unforgiving microshorts, and shows off a kind of wedding dress that most gypsy brides would consider a bit 'showy'.

There's a lot going on in the video - dancers in underwear, walls of monitors, paint splashed all over the place, an incongruous reference to the opening scenes of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Britney kicking her own ass, and even a flaming meteor. But none of it really hangs together - there's no coherent theme or narrative, except maybe the dark side of fame. Perhaps Britney knew that it was going to debut before an episode of Jersey Shore, and didn't want to tax the viewers with anything too cerebral.

But the most disappointing element of the video is the jarring product placement that seems to encroach on every scene, enhancing the sense of disjointedness. It's almost as though our attention span has been reduced to such microscopic levels that we need an ad break every eight seconds, because a four-minute promo would be just too much content to take in.

We see Britney spritz her Radiance perfume, brush on her Make Up Forever eye-shadow (does Britney do her own make-up on video shoots now?) and surf Plenty-Of-Fish, as well as suffering countless crash zooms into the Sony logo on her fancy new touchscreen laptop. It's all a bit wearying, and a far cry from the glimpse of wit we saw in the Womanizer video, which featured a close-up of a diary entry on her Nokia touchscreen that read 'Product Placement Meeting'.

Pop music is supposed to be commercial, and Britney certainly knows how to sell herself. But when the primary motive seems to be selling other people's stuff, the songs themselves become a secondary consideration. Suddenly, 'Me Against The Music' takes on a disappointing new meaning.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Making a mess of things

Have you ever Googled yourself? It's a weird experience, seeing how many times your name pops up on an internet search. When it comes to cyberspace, you have little or no control over the way you're represented or perceived.

This is something that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum learned the hard way, after one too many negative comments about homosexuality. In an interview with the Associated Press back in 2003, Santorum was asked whether gays simply needed to show a little more restraint when it came to indulging their base urges.

His response: "Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality."

Weirdly, not everyone was happy seeing homosexuality equated with bestiality and pedophilia. So activist and agony uncle Dan Savage had a brainwave. He wanted to show Santorum the power of negative associations, and called on his readers to submit suggestions for something that Senator Rick could (unwittingly) lend his memorable name to. The winning neologism was "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." Yum.

Never one to renege on a promise, Savage built a website heralding the new term, and called on his followers to Googlebomb it. Within months, the 'Spreading Santorum' website was the number one result for anyone who Googled the crazy creationist's name.

Those who argue that the online world is transient and ever changing, probably didn't count on the 'stickiness' of Santorum (ugh...). Seven years later, and Rick is still smarting over his digital defiling, telling "The Internet allows for this type of vulgarity to circulate. It’s unfortunate that we have someone who obviously has some issues. But he has an opportunity to speak.”

With Santorum's name being mooted as a potential candidate for President in 2012, its alternative associations are proving to be more than a little problematic. However, political advisor David Urban believes that, “If you’re Rick Santorum and you’re making an argument that there’s certain people that wish you ill, there’s exhibit No. 1. You say: ‘You want to see my battle scars? Google my name. You don’t think I’ve been in the trenches for years? I’ve got the scars to prove it.’”

That's the standard right wing Christian approach - say something discriminatory or offensive, wait for retaliation, and then paint yourself as the victim. And I'm not sure about the wisdom of inviting a bunch of easily-offended potential voters to Google 'Santorum', if you want their backing for a Presidential run.

He may want to decry what he sees as "political incivility", but every time his problem gets mentioned, it gets a little worse. CNN tried to cover this story, but without explaining the 'sexual neologism' in question - no doubt driving thousands of curious viewers to hit the search engines. It's a little like a policeman shouting 'Nothing to see here' through a bullhorn, in front of an enormous pile-up. If you tell someone not to look at something, there's only one thing they're going to do.

The best thing Santorum can do, in this situation, is learn the value of dignified silence. And that's something we'd all be thankful for.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

See me after class

Whereas some TV chefs are happy to use their onscreen time to promote cryogenics or practice their bullying techniques, Jamie Oliver is on a mission to make us a more caring, sharing society. And sell a few hundred thousand recipe books in the process.

Having already shamed the UK's dinner ladies into throwing out the Spam fritters and getting to grips with hummus and crudities, he's now attempting to overhaul the entire educational system. His latest series, Jamie's Dream School, sees the fat-tongued pan-rattler attempting to inspire a bunch of young drop-outs by sending them to a school filled with celebrity teachers.

Not everyone's impressed with Jamie's lofty ambitions to show Michael Gove how to implement educational innovation. Conservative critics are outraged at the fact that one edition of the new shows "features two teenage boys being asked to produce sperm samples". Maybe they thought he was trying out a more economical recipe for Crème anglaise?

Actually, the exercise was part of a lesson by Professor Robert Winston, fertility expert and owner of the finest moustache outside of an Asterix cartoon. Attempting to engage the troubled teens in a science lesson, Winston asked the boys to generate a sperm sample to be studied under a microscope, alongside samples from horses and pigs.

To be fair, the boys weren't expected to rustle up a batch during the lesson, which suggests that Jamie's school is more civilised than most state-run comprehensives. Defending his progressive lesson plan, Winston commented: "Every scientist, if he is good at his job will have experimented on his own body at some point... Instantly kids of both sexes were very excited." Not least the ones with special dispensation to visit the bathroom with a petri dish.

As the controversy over the programme erupted, a Channel 4 source pointed out that "viewers would not see the samples being collected". As though such clarification was actually necessary. Furthermore, "Written consent was given by the parents of the boys providing samples. All of the students were happy with the lesson and found it enlightening." Well, it certainly beats trying to knock one out in a geography lesson without the desk shaking.

Censorship tub-thumpers Mediawatch UK are already on the warpath about the show, which is yet to air. Spokesman David Turtle claims, "from our point of view it’s condoning a form of behaviour in a classroom situation. If you’re going to have a proper discussion about reproduction and sexuality you don’t do it like this." Turtle would prefer that the kids be given forty lashes and told they're going to burn in hell if they touch themselves.

The perpetually outraged ex-politician Ann Widdecombe has also been approached for her utterly predictable response, adding "I think it’s hugely distasteful. I am amazed Channel 4 are letting it go out. It is horrible. It’s yet another step towards the road that there is no limit to what you can put on television these days." Having witnessed her being dragged around a dancefloor in a variety of unbecoming ballgowns, I second her opinion that there's a limit to the indignities which should be visited upon unsuspecting viewers.

Hopefully, Jamie's new show will re-engage a disillusioned generation in the power of inspirational learning. If nothing else, there's always the homework to look forward to.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

More equal than others

According to, the word 'gay' can be taken to mean "having or showing a merry, lively mood". So I'm starting to wonder whether we appropriated the wrong adjective to describe the homosexual experience, since it seems that gays are never happy.

It doesn't seem to matter how much time someone devotes to advocating for gay rights, there are always voices within the community that pipe up to criticise or condemn. The recent fall-out over Born This Way's explicit commercialisation of gay identity shows that we're never completely satisfied. But I guess that Curmudgeon Pride doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

The latest exercise in gifthorse orthodontistry comes courtesy of Facebook's decision to add a new range of relationship status options to users' profiles. Recognising that we're a generation that simply has to share every detail of our private lives in a public forum, the new functionality adds 'civil union' and 'domestic partnership' to the existing list.

Relationships have always been a thorny issue for Facebook users - nothing has quite the same sting as seeing your one-time beloved's status updated to read " single", or when the object of your unrequited affection is suddenly recategorised as " in a relationship".

Trouble at home? Then change your profile to "It's complicated" and just wait for the apologetic emails to flood your inbox. I reckon it's only a matter of time before the list extends again to include " looking for a way out", " cheating with a colleague" and " only staying together until the kids are older". 

Taken at Facebook value, this new enhancement should be seen as a step forward, since it recognises the existence of committed, legally sanctioned relationships that fall outside of the realms of 'traditional' marriage. However, to some commentators, this simply highlights the 'second class status' of civil unions and domestic partnership arrangements. With the battle over definitions of marriage still raging, this simply confirms how many people feel about the prevailing lack of equality. 

For the record, I think it's a step in the right direction, even though I'm not sure how 'civil union' translates into an adjective. No-one grows up dreaming of the day they become 'civilly unionised'.

A few years back, I had to endure a painful conversation with a call-centre customer services advisor for a car insurance company. I was trying to get my partner added to the insurance policy, and although the computer programme in question allowed the operator to list me as 'living with partner', the subsequent tabs offered no option to change the gender to male. In retrospect, maybe the computer system just had trouble believing that a gay man would be seen dead behind the wheel of a Ford Focus.

As a result, the operator got very upset at the injustice of it all, regaling me with the heart-rending tale of her best friend and the problems she'd encountered when coming out. I just wanted a new quote on my policy, not the life-story of a lesbian in the North East.

Despite the changes, many happily partnered gay men and women will refuse to use the new status options, preferring to list themselves as 'married'. It's their way of making a statement about the importance of the word marriage in the fight for equality. What really matters though, is the fact that at least we now have a choice. Because isn't that what really matters, where freedom's concerned?  

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Let's get serious

Whether you love him or loathe him (trust me, there's no middle ground) Justin Bieber is currently the world's most famous teenager, leaving one-time golden girl Miley Cyrus to sit back and wait for the inevitable Celebrity Rehab booking.

His songs may have all the depth of single-ply toilet paper, but he seems to have captured the zeitgeist for a generation of twitterific tweens. And the outpouring of vengeful fury over his recent Grammy snub in the 'best new artist' category, shows just how seriously his fans take his R&B-lite output.

So they'll be keen to snap up the new issue of Rolling Stone, which features an exclusive interview with 'super boy', and addresses a number of hot topics that don't usually come up in chats with celebrities who still have milk teeth. Ever wondered what Justin thinks of abortion or socialised healthcare? Your prayers are about to be answered.

For the record, the Canadian is not a fan of private medical insurance, commenting: "My bodyguard’s baby was premature, and now he has to pay for it. In Canada, if your baby’s premature, he stays in the hospital as long as he needs to, and then you go home." Hardly surprising that he's aware of the issues, given that it's not so long ago that he was released from the maternity ward.

However, Justin's wholesome Christian upbringing means that he's much less supportive of a woman's right to choose, arguing "I really don’t believe in abortion, It’s like killing a baby?” And let's be honest, no-one would advocate killing off their target audience.

OK, I'm being facetious. Most sixteen year olds would struggle to form any kind of political ideology, so the kid gets points for being even loosely aware of the global political landscape, even if it amounts to little more than “But whatever they have in Korea, that’s bad.”

Call it the Lady Gaga Effect. She's shown that you can be a commercially savvy purveyor of disposable pop music, and still be politically active. What other explanation is there for the fact that self-awareness vacuums Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian recently took to twitter to proclaim their support for the oppressed people of Egypt?

Commentators were quick to express surprise that Kim and Lindsay had any awareness of Egypt, beyond listening to The Bangles greatest hits. After all, it's doubtful that Mubarak’s downfall was covered extensively in People magazine. What next - Paris Hilton leading a campaign against female circumcision in Northeast Africa?

It's easy to criticise these woefully underinformed celebrities for expressing their wafer-thin political perspectives. But there's a risk that we end up sounding like Laura Ingraham, the venomous right wing commentator who wrote a book called 'Shut Up And Sing' following the Dixie Chicks' criticism of George W Bush. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and by sharing it, they might even inspire their fans to read something other than Perez Hilton.

The more disturbing issue here though, is the criticism that Bieber's comments have already received - suggesting that he should wait until he's a little more worldly-wise before wading into a debate about nationalised healthcare.

Problem is, he didn't. He didn't volunteer the information, or bring up the subject during an off-the-record conversation. He was asked outright for his opinion by a Rolling Stone journalist. Even more unpleasant is the way his comments have been taken out of context.

Weirdly, the Huffington Post, usually a reliably balanced news source, leads its coverage of Biebergate with the headline: Justin Bieber On Health Care: U.S. System 'Evil'. In fact, Justin's "evil" comment seems to be in direct response to the interviewer attempting to draw out the teenager's opinion on the most divisive social issues in America today. He was probably expecting a few more questions about working with Usher and getting his homework done on time.

Maybe Bieber is too young to be expressing his opinions, and should wait until he's experienced a little more of the wider world. But interviewers also have a responsibility to remember that fact, before asking politically-loaded questions to which there are no right or wrong answers - just different points of view. 

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Here is the news

In the ongoing battle for ratings, news programmes have dramatically shifted the emphasis they place on the role of the newsreader. The days of the stern, well-spoken authoritarian are long gone; now we have to endure countless mixed-sex pairings who engage in frothy lightweight banter in between hard-hotting stories about Iraqi insuregents or waterborne diseases in the Playboy grotto.

The challenge for producers, is to find a pair of presenters with enough chemistry to keep the conversation going whenever the satellite link plays up, without it degenerating into mindless chit-chat. Sometimes, however, even that's not enough, as ITV's recent Daybreak fiasco proved. Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley might have been able to comfortably spark off each other on The One Show, but transplanted to a morning news show, they all the warm-hearted effervescence of Kramer vs Kramer.

It must be tough, trying to portray an effortless camaraderie in a series of tenuous segues and three-second wrap-ups. Viewers need to be left with the impression that, off-camera, you're forever popping in to borrow cups of sugar, or offering to pick up each other's kids from daycare.

But there's a fine line to tread. A bit of playful flirtation is fine, but we don't want to picture them sneaking off to the green room at the Christmas Party to make a different kind of live link-up.

The rules are pretty simple. 1) Laugh at each other's jokes, even when they're about as funny as a Shrek marathon. 2) Don't glaze over when your co-host is speaking. 3) Don't fight over who says what on the autocue. Finally (and this is REALLY important), 4) Leave their genitals out of the conversation.

Someone obviously forgot to give frosty newsreader Belinda Heggen the 101 of on-air etiquette, since the Adelaide-based presenter is now all over the internet thanks to her live putdown of co-host Mark Aiston. Following a brief OB about cricketer Andrew Strauss showing off his mini trophy, Aiston handed over to Belinda, saying "I just can't understand how something so small can be so impressive." 

Quick as a flash, the cold-hearted minx shot back with "Well Mark, you would know all about that." If her insinuation is true, the old news cliche of "This, just in..." must fill Aiston with shame, every time he hears it.

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy - in the time it takes for Belinda to turn and face camera 2, you can almost hear Aiston's appendage shrivelling up inside his pubis. And she means it - no wink, no conciliatory smile, just a point-blank killshot and on with the show.

If Ten News wants to keep its ratings up, it should probably encourage the ongoing animosity between these two - it's got to be more entertaining than regular cricket updates. I imagine it wouldn't be too long before Aiston transmogrifies into Ron Burgundy, and tells Heggen to go back to her home on Whore Island.

            (Link)     View more               Chuck Poynter Sound Clips         and        Tits Mcghee 1 Sound Clips

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Love means never having to say it with a card

With the exception of chocolatiers, restauranteurs, and greetings card sellers, does anyone actually enjoy Valentine's Day? People in committed relationships bitch about being told when they can show their affection for their significant other, and singles find themselves resenting the smug self-satisfaction of their partnered friends. For a day that's supposed to be all about spreading love and happiness, I see an awful lot of bitterness.

Ironically, given that it's considered to be the ultimate 'Hallmark' holiday, it's the Valentine's cards themselves that seem to cause the greatest amount of discontent. Take a look around your local card shop and you'll see a nauseating pink vortex, designed to showcase affectionate statements written with all the sincerity of Russell and Katy's red carpet show of solidarity.

Successful relationships are based on understanding, empathy and tolerance, not passionate declarations like "I wish you were dead so that I could fling myself onto your funeral pyre." This is real life, not a perfume ad, and it's just a shame that card designers don't seem to have the slightest grasp on how regular people interact with their loved ones. 

Even well-intentioned companies, like San Diego-based 'A Little To The Left' seem to miss the point. Founded by "Sandi Timberlake, the proud mother of a gay son", ALTTL is a socially conscious greeting card company that "offers tasteful and elegant greeting cards for the friends and family of the gay community."

The cards are certainly tasteful, although many designs seem to have sprung from the mind of a hardcore foot-fetishist. This is because Sandi wanted to create a range that was "so lovely, so simple, and so subtle that you pick them up because they are beautiful and notice later that it is a card with two women on the front or two men." In fact, it's only the occasional hair on a couple of the toes that gives anything anyway.

I can't criticise Sandi for wanting to do something positive for her family and friends, but the cards depict a kind of neutered gay life that suggests wearing matching socks is a sign of intimacy. One card tries to be cheeky, saying "It's Valentine's Day... want to spend the day with me?" alongside a picture of discarded clothes and an unmade bed. But it's unclear as to whether the sender wants to fuck or catch up on their laundry. Many hands make light work, after all.  

There's also something slightly creepy about the fact that none of the people depicted on the cards ever show their faces - as though the models were fearful of being identified. Which makes the whole endeavour seem more than a little contradictory; cards that celebrate invisible visibility. 

Maybe the moral of the story is that human emotion is too complex, too varied and too real to be summed up in a greeting card. If you love someone, it takes more than a line of verse and an image from a stock image library to express it. The good news, is that you've got all year to do it. 

Monday, 14 February 2011

The good, the bad and the misguided

I couldn't let today pass without making mention of the fact that this is blog post number 666. Anyone who studied their Bible thoroughly, or enjoyed the sight of a toddler attempting to finish off Lee Remick and an innocent goldfish, knows the significance of that particular number.

That set me off thinking about good and evil. More specifically, when someone sets out with the best intentions, only to sabotage their own prospects with a few bad decisions. Although some people like to see the world in black and white terms, in reality, there's a fine line between good and bad. And it's an easy line to cross if you're not careful. This is something that Groupon founder Andrew Mason knows all about.

Last week, during the Superbowl, the 111 million-strong audience was left dumbfounded, offended and disturbed by an astonishing lapse in taste and judgement. But once the Black Eyed Peas' half-time performance was over, viewers found themselves incensed all over again by Groupon's ill-advised new ad campaign.

The series of ads showed high-profile celebrities (well, Timothy Hutton and Liz Hurley were high-profile once upon a time) empathising with major international humanitarian crises, only to then suggest that consumers take advantage of major discounts on regionally-relevant businesses - Tibetan food, Brazilian waxes etc.

It probably didn't help matters that the messages were delivered in an utterly dead-pan manner, giving no indication that there was any kind of sly humour at work. Despite the mistaken belief that Americans don't 'do' irony, the joke itself was buried too deeply under a layer of insensitive opportunism for anyone to notice.

The real irony, however, is the fact that Groupon actively supports many of the organisations it appears to be mocking. As Mason attempted to explain on a blog, following the fall-out over the ads: "Groupon’s roots are in social activism... and we continue to use Groupon to support local causes with our G-Team initiative. In our two short years as a business, we’ve already raised millions of dollars for national charities like Donors Choose and Kiva."

Although Groupon have now pulled the offending campaign from the airwaves, it's interesting to note that the organisations being spoofed in the ads endorsed the messages. John Hocevar, a biologist with Greenpeace and founder of Students for a Free Tibet, voiced his support: "Greenpeace is happily participating in the campaign. The truth is that the 'Save the Money' campaign and the commercial are really helping us save the whales."

The problem with satire is that there's always a danger you'll strike too close to the bone. The more accurate your aim, the more likely it is that people will miss the point you're trying to make. This is the reason why The Onion still gets recycled by genuine news sources that can't tell the difference.

As Mason pointed out in his apologetic blog, "When we think about commercials that offend us, we think of those that glorify antisocial behavior – like the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women." And that's why the campaign was such a mistake - he forgot the first rule of advertising: know your audience.

Those beer-swilling, giant-foam-finger-wearing TV viewers are not likely to stop and question the satiric intent of your messaging. Come to think of it, they probably won't give a shit about discounted whale-watching trips either.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Rubber sold

As anyone who works in the creative industry will tell you, inspiration can often strike when you least expect it. There's a reason why many advertising professionals sleep with a moleskine notebook on their bedside table - it enables them to instantly capture the outputs of their fevered dream-state, and it looks pretty cool.

Great ideas can't be hurried along, instead they tend to sneak up on you, like reality TV stars trying to gain access to the VIP area in a club. Take Beau Thompson, for instance, who found himself turning from architect to prophylactic entrepreneur courtesy of a late night trip to the end of his driveway.

Like many people before him, Thompson had always struggled with the process of applying a condom in the heat of the moment. Presumably, he missed the all-important sex-ed class where his fellow students were shown how to protect a banana from catching gonorrhoea. As a side note, placing a condom over your bananas can also prevent them from leaking ethylene and spoiling the other fruit in your bowl.

Poor Beau often found himself all fingers and thumbs when it came to safely sheathing his other pointy extremities. And after one particularly "rough night" decided that he needed to take matters into his own hands. It's a figure of speech, OK?

His Newtonion apple-drop epiphany came as he was taking out the trash: “I opened the Hefty Cinch Sak, grabbed the handles, and pulled them. In a day, I had figured out the best way to roll into a condom.” Now, users of the Sensis brand can simply take hold of the patented QuikStrip pull-tabs, and in a flash they'll be ready for their close-up.

The box even boasts that the condoms are "So easy to apply, you could do it blindfolded". Which must give kidnap victims no small amount of comfort.

The condoms have been commercially available for 12 months now, but Thompson is confident that they'll break through in 2011. Although not literally, since that would defeat the purpose.

The main obstacle to mass market penetration (oh, grow up), seems to be the less than erotic 'garbage' association. It probably doesn't help that desperate men have been known, on occasion, to appropriate trash bags for intimate moments when more conventional contraceptives have proved elusive.

Still, if he needs a marketing hook, he could do worse than a strapline that reads: "Stick your junk in a different kind of garbage bag." Like the product itself, it's not pretty, but it does the job.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Gaga Reflex

It's been billed as the most eagerly awaited song of the decade, with the kind of pre-release buzz that makes Jesus' second coming seem about as exciting as the New Kids On The Block reunion tour. And today, Lady Gaga's new single 'Born This Way' was finally unveiled to the world.

She's been talking it up as the song that will define her career, causing millions of little monsters to frot themselves into a coma at the prospect of Gaga at her creative peak. When she first performed an acapella snippet of the song at the VMAs in September last year, the internet was soon awash with remixes and interpretations based around the 15-second sample.

Since then, excitement has been steadily building, as the world keenly anticipated a song with the power to solve world hunger, end intolerance and maybe even inspire a half-decent movie for Jennifer Aniston to star in. Although, to be fair, great music can only do so much.

The lyrics were released a couple of weeks ago, in the process triggering a big debate about Gaga's unfortunate choice of racial terminology - ironic for a song designed to be an anthem for tolerance and acceptance. Earlier this week, Justin Beiber and James Blunt even teamed up (apologies for any nightmares that coupling might inspire) on the Ellen Show, to interpret the lyrics and speculate about how the finished record might sound.

OK, so it was mostly an extended gag, and not a particularly funny one. But it's interesting to note that, even as the media might mock Gaga's supernatural ability for self-publicity, they're happy to play along because it helps them to generate interesting content.

But what about the song itself? Well, now that it's out there for us all to hear, we can all reflect on the true meaning of hyperbole. The world hasn't changed, although it does have one more kick-ass, played-in-every-club-until-year-end dance record to enjoy.

Critics are already complaining that it sounds like early nineties Madonna, namely Express Yourself and Vogue. Melodically, there's also a dash of TLC's Waterfalls in the verses, and fans of Swedish pop music might even hear elements of Pandora's 'Nature Of Love' somewhere in there. As for the lyrics, it's worth remembering that a song by the same name was recorded by Carl Bean back in 1975 - coincidentally, the year when p0pvulture was 'born this way'.

Ultimately, none of this matters. Pop is a genre which lends itself to constant recycling and reinvention - Madonna's 25-year reign as the Queen of Pop can be attributed to the act that she has regenerated herself enough times to give Doctor Who a headache.

Her fans are going to love it, and the haters won't. But those in the middle might well find themselves drawn in by the insistent beats, Gaga's strongest vocals to date, and a chorus that takes up residence in your brain like a particularly truculent squatter.

Oh, and credit where credit's due - it takes a special kind of artist to base her comeback around an empowerment anthem that makes an explicit plea for tolerance around sexuality and gender identity. Chronologically, Gaga's song may arrive after other musicians have already attempted to address issues of teen bullying and the gay suicide epidemic. However, despite their edgy attitudes and novelty profanity, tracks like P!nk's Fuckin' Perfect and Ke$ha's We R Who We R manage to dodge the details, as a way of placating the music fans who'd prefer not to dwell on the subject matter. Gaga has never been one to mince her words, just her dress.

Disappointingly, not everyone in the gay community is happy with Gaga's newest opus. The original Party Monster James St James wrote a scathing critique of the song's lyrics, challenging Ms Germanotta for having the arrogance to proclaim her own song a 'gay anthem'. He claims "A gay anthem, whether it's "I Will Survive" or "The Man That Got Away" or "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," BECOMES a gay anthem because we find ourselves empathizing with the singer's passion or pain or exuberance... Gaga here isn't allowing us the choice of deciding whether or not this song will be a gay anthem (like "Bad Romance"), she's TELLING US that it is."

But that's a sure sign of how much things have changed. Rather than picking through the wreckage for crumbs of acknowledgment or inclusion, we have to face up to the sad fact that songs are now being written for, and about, us. Perhaps, in the pursuit of mainstream acceptance, we need to come to terms with the gradual surrender of our outsider status - to paraphrase The Incredibles, equality means accepting that we get to be as ordinary as everybody else.

It's highly likely that Gaga doesn't really give too much of a shit about what anyone says about the song. The fact that we're even talking about it means that, for her, it's another job well done. Although, if this is any indication of what's to come on her next album, it's safe to say she's on the right track, baby.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Does what it says on the fin

Although it's spent the best part of the last fifteen years being repeatedly voted as audiences' favourite film, The Shawshank Redemption was considered a flop when it was first released. Despite several Oscar nominations, the film's period setting, and the fact that it was a non-horror Stephen King adaptation, left most movie-goers pretty non-plussed about the prospect of a two-hour prison drama.

However, one of the most commonly-cited reasons for its theatrical underperformance was its title. If you're standing outside the box office, trying to decide which movie to spend your money on, is the phrase 'Shawshank Redemption' really going to motivate you to take a punt on a ticket? As an aside, consider how much worse it might have fared if the novella's original title, 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption', had been retained.

The issue of naming a film is a thorny one - how to build intrigue and interest, whilst making it clear to prospective audiences what they can expect. Recently, films like 'Snakes On A Plane' and 'Hot Tub Time Machine' have taken the opposite tack, ensuring that no-one would wander into a screening without knowing exactly what they're getting.

Now, it would be easy to blame this current trend for Ronseal-style naming conventions on the exponential dumbing down of entertainment. But actually, with movies now increasingly dependent on that all-important opening weekend, it's vital that they make a splash from day one.

Giving people an explicit idea of what a film is about, seems like a sure-fire way of guaranteeing bums-on-seats. But it also means that studios have an obligation to keep the promises they're making in their promotional campaigns.

So it's interesting to see that David Ellis, director of Snakes On A Plane, is taking a similar approach to naming his new movie as with his earlier ophidian epic. Originally developed as Shark Night 3D (hardly in the same oblique league as 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'), the film has been tentatively renamed 'Untitled 3D Shark Thriller'. At least no-one's in any danger of rocking up at Screen 3 expecting an insight into the criminal underclass in Brazil's favelas.

Ellis told "I hated the original title... so at our weekly production meetings, I made everyone on the crew come up with names — CHUMS, FINS, TERROR ON THE LAKE — but they all seemed kind of cheesy. And so until I hear a better name, I like what we’ve got right now: UNTITLED 3D SHARK THRILLER The title says everything you need to know: 'We’ve got sharks.' 'It’s in 3D.' and, 'It’s a thriller.'" Suffice it to say, this justification may well prove to be the only logical decision in the entire enterprise.

An unnamed studio executive was also canvassed for his opinion and concurred with Ellis. Interestingly, this source (presumably remaining anonymous to protect his designated studio parking space) speculates that the only other option available to producers is the "highbrow" approach, which he describes as "From the people who brought you AVATAR, comes…". That's the kind of sophisticated thinking that makes Andrei Tarkovsky look like the director of Big Momma's House.

The other benefit of this new trend, is that film critics can save themselves the time and effort involved in watching a movie before reviewing it. I imagine a number of them are already sharpening their quills in advance of Untitled 3D Shark Thriller's impending debut. As for me, I'm off to take in a double bill of my favourite nineties blockbusters - I was thinking Killer Future Robot 2: This Time He's A Good Guy, paired with Bisexual Icepick Murderess. 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Thanks for sharing

Once upon a time, the Brits were a reserved bunch. We thought talking about our emotions was indulgent and vulgar. Grief was something to be indulged in privately, behind a mountain of hastily-made sandwiches. And the closest thing to a PDA between father and son would be a bone-crushingly firm handshake.

Now look at us. Been in therapy? Tell your friends all about it over lunch. Having a nervous breakdown? Time for a facebook status update. What next - posting self-portraits of ourselves doing the morning-after walk of shame on Flickr?

Our world-renowned stiff upper lip has been replaced with a loose tongue, and there's no such thing as TMI. We're all celebrities in our own little microcosms, and we know that our fans need regular updates.

Last week, Mel Wilson made the news, thanks to a constant stream of Tweets as she documented her entire 25-hour labour. Because there's nothing more fun than reading regular updates about a complete stranger's dilated cervix.

Apparently, Mel's husband Dylan is also a prolific tweeter, “though he did wait until after the baby was born to send out messages.” That may be the case, but I have a sneaking suspicion that, rather than pacing the waiting room and handing out cigars, he was busy seeding his wife's microblog via Reddit.

Don't get me wrong. I'm fully aware of the irony - a blogger slating someone else for writing about their every move, as though anyone should be interested. It's pot calling the kettle "hack".

But I wonder how often people stop to consider the suitability or relevance of the information they disseminate online. Given the fast-moving nature of modern communications, it's easy to fire off messages and naively assume they'll be gone in a nanosecond.

Maybe that's what Sarah Baskerville thought when she complained to the PCC about the Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday reprinting her tweets, in articles relating to her role within the Department of Transport. She argued that the use of her tweets "constituted an invasion of privacy", since her messages were only meant to be seen by her 700 followers.

The press regulator disagreed, quite rightly arguing that Twitter is a publicly accessible forum, and that users have little or no control over what gets retweeted.

At the same time, there are genuine concerns about the fact that some newsgathering organisations are willing to overlook privacy laws in pursuit of a story. But claims like this only serve to undermine the more worthwhile cases. Ultimately, you can't reasonably complain that big brother is watching, if you insist on getting undressed without drawing the blinds.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Forgive me iPhone, for I have sinned

Well, I guess it was only a matter of time. We live in world of convergence, where the overlap of trends and ideas has become a matter of eventuality, rather than possibility. 

So I don't even find the energy to be surprised that the Catholic Church has approved the development and launch of a new iPhone app "to invite Catholics to engage in their faith through digital technology."

For a few years now, the Church has been struggling to find its place in our modern, GPS-enabled, augmented version of reality. At the same time, developers seeking their fortune have found the world of apps to provide a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration. As a result, these two unconnected trends have been racing towards each other, like theoretical trains in a high school maths problem. 

At the point of impact, in amongst the smoke and twisted metal, we find ourselves faced with the prospect of an app called Confession (available for £1.19/$1.99). Penitent sinners, who find themselves too time-poor to sit in a cupboard and spill their guts to a priest, can now input their wrongdoings into a handy piece of software.

The BBC's coverage of the story points out that this newest wrinkle in the gradual modernisation of Catholicism follows on from the Pope's recent approval of social media. Last month, in his World Communications Address, Benedict XVI told young believers that the new technology provided a useful forum for people to share information with each other: "I invite young people above all to make good use of their presence in the digital world... It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact."

Despite this warning, Confession's virtualisation of the penitence process suggests that Priests are being increasingly removed from many people's day-to-day religious behaviour. It's much easier to click your way through a bunch of tabs that help you to examine your conscience, rather than articulate your darker moments out loud. 

More importantly, it also highlights the misgivings that many people have about the concept of Confession itself - that people can act with impunity, as long as they're willing to atone for their wrongdoing later. I'm not sure exactly what God told Moses on Mount Sinai, but I'm willing to speculate that his briefing made no mention of developing an algorithm that enables people to "keep track of their sins".

It'll also be interesting to see how much trust people are willing to place in the concept of ecclesiastical privilege. Given the frequency of security breaches and hacked accounts, it's hard to imagine the world's Catholics being willing to sign up to an online archive of all their moral shortcomings. Suddenly, the whole Wikileaks controversy is starting to look like a Jonah's storm in a teacup.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Better left unsaid

As children, we're taught the playground rhyme about sticks and stones, to help us deal with the ever-present threat of bullying. But anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of unkind words, knows that they can actually leave much deeper scars than a good kicking.

The recent furore caused by Richard Keys and Andy Gray's comments has opened up in interesting debate about the power of words. To be honest, no-one was particularly surprised that professional football is filled with boorish assholes, who think the only role a woman should play inside a stadium is frying off the hotdog sausages. But the reverberations currently being felt throughout the media world are more concerned with freedom of speech, and the invisible line that separates what's acceptable from what's not.

Those defending Keys and Gray argue that people say sexist, racist and homophobic things all the time, and that the two football pundits have been used as sacrificial lambs on the altar of political correctness. Jeremy Clarkson, the corduroy-clad presenter of Top Gear, has been particularly vocal about his fears of the 'thought police' threatening to clamp down on free speech.

Last month, at the National Television Awards, he spoke about about the risks of TV personalities being punished for thinking out loud. He claims that "We've arrived at a stage where you actually can be busted for heresy by thought, which is a terrifying place to live. While we try very hard on Top Gear not to be sexist, if a man wants to think that, that's fine. You should be allowed to think what you think."

The problem is, in aggressively pursuing their own freedom to think, he and his conservative cohorts are going out of their way to establish their right to be offensive. They even managed to trigger an international incident by making a series of racist claims about Mexican automotive workers, calling them "'lazy, feckless and flatulent".

But it's OK, because they're just saying what everyone else is thinking. So what's the harm? As Steve Coogan pointed out, they're not standing up for free speech and daring to vocalise what the majority is thinking. They're ignorant school-yard bullies who egg each other on to say something shocking and cruel.

With comedians regularly coming under fire for their 'offensive' material, isn't it a little hypocritical for someone like Coogan to condemn others for making jokes at someone else's expense? Not necessarily, as he makes quite clear in his article for The Observer, good comedy is about taking a pop at pomposity, rather than picking on the weak.

Political correctness is often name-checked as a one-size-fits-all bogeyman; a terrifying liberal mindset designed to squash freedom of speech in order to spare the feelings of hyper-sensitive minorities. In fact, the version of political correctness often touted by bigots like Jeremy Clarkson, doesn't really exist. It's an invented construct used as a handy justification whenever we feel the need to say something indefensible - using "I'm refreshingly politically incorrect" as a badge of honour.

There's also a flipside to all this, as we saw on ITV's 'Dancing on Ice' last night. The show itself is the usual parade of desperate z-grade celebrities, striving for 15 minutes of pop-cultural relevance by dressing in sequined outfits and pair of ice-skates. But this year, there's one notable difference.

In amongst the celebrity offspring, soap opera stars and Vanilla Ice, there's Lance Corporal Johnson Gideon Beharry VC. Johnson was awarded the Victoria Cross following service in Iraq, where he sustained severe head injuries whilst saving members of his unit from two separate ambushes.

Whilst no-one can criticise Johnson's bravery, commitment or determination, the fact remains that he's not a dancer, a performer, or even a celebrity. And the less said about his skating, the better. Like Heather Mills, who gamely turned up every week last year, despite only having one leg, Johnson's performances may well serve to inspire other people with injuries or disabilities to think "I can do that". No argument here.

However, last night's show descended into a rather embarrassing catfight, as judge Jason Gardiner critiqued Johnson's mediocre performance. Head Coach Karen Barber leapt to the military man's defence, accusing Jason of being rude and offensive. According to Karen, Johnson has to try harder, due to the head injuries he sustained in battle, and struggles with the choreography; she felt he deserved higher marks than the judges were willing to give him.

Although she was quick to label Gardiner's comments as offensive, Karen perhaps missed the point about when it's appropriate to say something. Despite her empathetic tears and staunch advocacy of Beharry, she revealed that, in her mind at least, Johnson deserves a free pass because of his struggles. The moment concessions are made, or scores manipulated due to an overabundance of sympathy, equality skates shakily out the door.

The truth is sometimes hard to hear. We might not always like it, but we owe it to ourselves to listen. As long as the comments are based on understanding and equality, rather than condescension or ignorance, we have nothing to worry about. Then again, perhaps it's not so surprising that Karen lost her temper at Jason, after all, she is just a woman...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

No sore pointe

It's been ages since I went to the cinema. In fact, it feels like the last time I sat and watched a film with an audience, we were marveling at how the sound and picture had been magically synchronized. 

OK, I'm exaggerating. But only because my viewing habits have changed so fundamentally in the last few years. I've written before about how American TV shows are now showcasing the very best writing, acting and direction. By contrast, Hollywood's written-by-committee, developed-by-focus-group big screen output, now seems about as memorable as the analogy I would have referenced here, if I could recall what I was going to say. 

So I'm delighted to report that, today, I sat in a theatre and spent 110 minutes being reminded of why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. If you haven't yet seen Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's fifth film, I'd like to share my perspective on why you should (spoiler warning).

Films about any art form are always a tricky business. For a start, the director has to decide how much foreknowledge his audience will bring to the table. Do they want education or exclusivity? Aronofsky pitches his film just right, asssuming that his audience understands the obsessive pursuit of perfection, even if they don't know a plié from a pas de deux.

We're constantly reminded of how much Natalie Portman suffers from her art, with enough close-ups of her battered toes to fill a whole episode of 'Embarrassing Bodies' for foot fetishists. And her tortured relationship with her passive aggressive mother (played by Barbara Hershey, whose face appears to be slowly imploding, like a collapsing star) shows just how much both women have sacrificed in the pursuit of perfection. 

The story itself is a simple one. In fact, early on, the plot of Swan Lake is recapped for us by Edvard Munch's Scream, as played by Vincent Cassel. We're told that it's the story of one woman's ideological conflict, as represented by two swans. In the end, evil wins, but goodness is ultimately liberated. 
Right from the start, the film's conclusion has been clearly signposted, and yet it's the mastery of how the story unfolds that really grabs your attention. The introduction of Mila Kunis initially feels too obvious, as though we're being treated to an X-chromosome version of Fight Club. How long until the shocking revelation that Natalie Portman invented an alter-ego to explore the dark side of her own id?

But the film is above such predictable beats. Kunis manages to come across as grounded and three-dimensional, rather than the raccoon-eyed imaginary troublemaker we expect her to be. This helps Black Swan neatly sidestep the obvious comparisons to All About Eve (nothing to be ashamed of) or Showgirls (God forbid). 

When Kunis finally tempts Natalie Portman to close the door on her controlling mother and kick up her calloused heels, we feel like raising a toast in celebration. There are only so many demure, doe-eyed gestures we can sit through, before demanding that our protagonist throw down a drugged drink and fuck a stranger in a dirty bathroom. And Portman doesn't disappoint, finally fulfilling the potential we saw when she was 12 years old, begging a Frenchman to show her how to assassinate people. 

And then there's the camera-work. Hand-held, kinetic and almost intrusive, the cinematography never lets our fragile star out of sight. We bob on her shoulder as she approaches the ballet studio, and we're right there as she practices her spins in a room full of unforgiving mirrors. 

Other films about dancing have always relied on long-shots, allowing the director to switch his star with a genuine hoofer. Portman needs no such deceit, as we watch her musculature slowly adapt to the rigours of the role. And we're invited to gasp in horror at her exposed ribs, as much as we're encouraged to celebrate her subtle mastery of avian expressiveness.  

For a film about the beauty of perfection, and the perfection of beauty, there's plenty of ugliness on display. Whether it's Winona Ryder's graceless 'retirement', Nina's descent into New York's seedy nightlife, or more shots of nail removal than David Cronenberg's remake of 'The Fly', this is a film that wants you to be uncomfortable. 

And yet the denouement rewards you for enduring the struggle. There's no shocking twist or astounding revelation. Just the sense that the story's end couldn't have come any other way. Having had the plot outlined so early on, there's a crushing inevitability to it. But then, this is a film that revels in the trials of the journey, rather than a celebration of the destination. 

Throughout the film, Nina is encouraged to surrender to the dark side of her own personality. Let herself go. If you have any reservations about ballet or high art, I suggest you follow the advice she was given. It's a film that's hard to watch, but even harder to forget. 

Friday, 4 February 2011

Wand direction

Harry Potter hasn't had an easy life. By day he lived the life of a suburban Cinderella, and his nights were spent huddled in a cupboard under the stairs. Thankfully, the admissions staff at Hogwarts managed to spare us seven turgid volumes of 'A child-wizard called It', and invited him to attend a school more suited to his precocious magical leanings.

And that's where his problems really started. Werewolves, Dementors, two-faced teachers and giant serpents made his school days even more perilous, as he gradually came to terms with his doom-filled destiny. But even Voldemort and his troop of Death Eaters are no match for his newest enemy - the Catholic Church.

Leaping into action (approximately a decade too late), the Catholic Truth Society has published a new self-help guide called 'Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers'. They're concerned by the growing popularity of Wicca and paganism, brought about by Hollywood's renewed interest in all things magical.

The booklet "offers parents advice on what to do if one of their children takes an interest in witchcraft" and even gives tips on evangelising witches in the local pub. Which should at least be more entertaining than another round of karaoke or a dominos tournament.

Author Elizabeth Dodd, a former Wiccan who converted to Catholicism, reckons that the majority of 'witches' are young women looking for some kind of spiritual experience. And she thinks that this makes them ripe for conversion.

It seems that, in Dodd's eyes at least, the world is only big enough for one book about a child born to fulfil his destiny, death and resurrection, conjuring tricks and the eternal battle between good and evil. And J.K. Rowling didn't write it.

The Catholic church is struggling to maintain its relevance in contemporary society, and I'm not convinced that a conversion campaign is going to help matters. Ultimately, this is just the religious equivalent of McDonalds publishing a pamphlet alerting fast-food junkies to the dangers of Burger King. And it's just as full of Whoppers.