Monday, July 23, 2007

Deathly Hollow?

I came across this marvellous article, entitled Harry Potter and the Death of Reading, over at the Washington Post website. Critic Ron Charles makes some very interesting points about reading and literary phenomena in general and the cult of Harry Potter in particular.

Having never read any of the Potter heptalogy (gasp!), it's hard to say one way or another, though I can well imagine that, for many people, the admittance of not liking them is met with astonishment – everybody likes them. Ron Charles puts this very well:
"How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"
Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath. And you'd better answer correctly. Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy. Besides, from anyone who hasn't sold the 325 million copies that Rowling has, such complaints smack of Bertie Bott's beans, sour-grapes flavor.

Personally I tend to be rather sceptical of the Potters and books like them (eg. The Da Vinci Code, the works of Paulo Coelho), and find myself asking whether they are popular because they are truly good, or whether they are simply 'good' because they are popular. Can they be both?

Another argument I've often heard about Harry Potter is that if these books inspire people (especially young children) to read, then they are fulfilling a very valuable pedagogical function. However, as Charles points out, this is not always the case. The new Potter book may be the only work of fiction that many people read all year. The fact that the Potters are so hyped, not released before a given day (what is that all about?) and so on, removes the spontaneity of reading, as Charles puts it, denying readers "that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves".

Perhaps I may yet read a Harry Potter book, just to say I've done so. I recently watched Borat, not because I particularly wanted to, but because I feel it is set to become one of the significant cultural reference points of the next few years and, as such, I ought to have seen it in order to have an opinion about it and be able to engage in fruitful debate about it. That being said, I'm quite content for Harry aka Daniel Radcliffe to continue taking on challenging, engaging roles such as that of Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer's Equus (see photo). I was very disappointed to have missed this show (for reasons both artistic and otherwise) due to not living in London, and even more disappointed to note that the production will be touring to Bath Theatre Royal (the theatre closest to my parents' house) while I will be visiting, but that, alas, Daniel is to be replaced by someone else... How late it was, how late.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Täydellinen euroviisu

This song, Täydellinen euroviisu ('The Perfect Eurovision Song'), was created at around the time of this year's competition, held here in Helsinki. The idea was to cram as many Eurovision clichés into one song as possible. This one certainly has the kitsch factor: it comes complete with at least three modulations!

Just to put this in some sort of context, Jari Sillanpää (the singer on this video) was voted the Finnish Tango King in 1995. For years his homosexuality was an open secret, but he only officially came out about two years ago. This video seems to be a real celebration of... something. It reminds me of the work of Pierre & Gilles. The airbrushed ice cream moment says it all!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Boring, Mendacious and Vapid: Being Victoria Beckham

It’s at moments like this that I really miss having a television. Given my history of highly discerning viewing under the premise that ‘crap is good’ (Wife Swap, Family Holiday Showdown, etc etc etc), Victoria Beckham: Coming to America sounds like a real gem.

I love the Guardian, but don’t you wish they’d tell you what they really think? Here is a link to the blog review that I read yesterday. The blistering headline says it all: “Victoria Beckham: Coming to America was utter crap. The programme and its subject – the Beckhams’ relocation to the US – were boring, mendacious and requiring the invention of a new vocabulary to describe its unreserved vapidity.”

I always seem to have an axe to grind about pointless celebrities, but this summer there has been something of a bumper crop. Paris Hilton’s joke of a prison sentence made a mockery of the concept of ‘justice for all’ (if the person caught driving under the influence, without a licence and in violation of their parole had been a young African-American man, I’m sure the sentence would have amounted to rather more than 45 days in the local nick…) – and now this!

And while it doesn’t surprise me that Posh Spice or her move to the US [Apologies, by the way, to you all. We have to put up with Madonna, so I suppose now we’re even…] isn’t exactly the most interesting subject for an hour-long documentary, the following extracts do sound like choice and excruciating – therefore, riveting – viewing:
I’m sure that some of her more incredibly moronic moments were intended to be send-ups of her celebrity status – if only because if she really did think the people at the driver licensing centre were asking for her autograph instead of a signature on official documentation or that they would retouch the licence photograph, this would surely require her instant diagnosis as a dangerous sociopath – but there was a disturbing absence on her part of any sign, be it by look, smile, or intonation, that this was in fact the case. And the fact that she could simply sit looking vaguely appalled at the heavily-surgeried 60-something woman at the Beverley Hills socialite lunch who modelled herself on the Little Mermaid and gave herself over to ululating like a dolphin within minutes of the canapés being served suggests Beckham is largely divorced from natural human responses.

Most interesting here, and with the phenomenon of Celebrity as a whole, is that these people are convinced that we, the public, actually care about what they get up to. How much they care about us, however, is another matter entirely. As Lucy Mangan puts it, Posh’s demeanour “betrayed the fact that this was someone for whom other people have long ceased to exist in any meaningful way.”

Perhaps, deep down, we all love to hate celebrities. Part of the ‘enjoyment’ of watching such programmes is the voyeuristic pleasure one takes in observing the lives of people who give the impression of having it all, yet who often lead very lonely, tragic lives and / or are deeply disturbed (Michael Jackson is perhaps the best example; the Bashir interview was painful to watch). In a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years, the mass media feeds our hunger for scandal and intrigue (“Britney splits from Kevin!” / “Britney checks into rehab!” / “Britney shaves her head!”). Though I really don’t care what Britney gets up to, I find it hard to imagine a culture in which such trivial events were not general knowledge. More to the point, even if one wanted to, it’s impossible to avoid these headlines – how do I know all these things?!

I often think that, if only the papers would excommunicate these people, they would soon get bored and go away. However, the desire to sell newspapers apparently goes above all other scruples. In Finland, recent examples include the Prime Minister’s ex-girlfriend Susan Kuronen, who has sold her ‘story’ to almost anyone who will listen, and when interest started to dwindle posed in a series of ‘saucy’ underwear pictures in Hymy, one of the sleaziest magazines in the country, with the headline "Matti [the PM] was a boring lover!" Former ski-jumper Matti Nykänen is another prime example. Winning a few gold medals in the 1980s apparently means not only that the entire country is interested in (constant) stories of his drunken antics, but that many tacitly accept the widely publicised fact that he routinely and systematically beats his wife. But if you’re a Celebrity, isn’t everything forgiven?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Last Temptations

Hello all!

I've been rather incommunicado this week. The reason for this is that I've been away in the deepest Finnish countryside, far from the nearest WiFi signal. Being away from the internet has its benefits, as when I can't read my email, address work issues, read blogs etc etc, there's no point in fretting about doing so. The minute I arrived in a slightly larger town, the first thing I did was, of course, look for a pub with a free internet connection... Admitting you have a problem is the first step :-)

Not that it's been a particularly relaxing week, mind. I've been on an island called Aholansaari (the adopted home of the 19th century lay preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen and centre of the Finnish revivalist movement) rehearsing every day with the chamber orchestra, Aholansaari Sinfonietta. Our concert this evening, at the annual Finnish revivalist festival (which, though I'm not a member of the church, is a fascinating branch of Christianity, and warrants a blog entry all of its own), doesn't start until 10pm, so I have the whole afternoon to relax and catch up on everything that's been happening in the blogosphere.

Our concert programme is very interesting. We start with the overture to Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov), followed by a selectioon of arias and interludes from Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen's opera Viimeiset kiusaukset ('The Last Temptations'), which recounts the final days of the life of the afore-mentioned Paavo Ruotsalainen. The music is marvellous, as is our soloist, Esa Ruuttunen. We finish the concert with Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony, 'The Reformation'. Hopefully my fingers will still be up to the tempi of the final movement by ten this evening...