February 26, 2018


I took some time out from blogging and watched a couple of box set series on television.

Perfectly bilingual Germans running the UK, giving it the advantages of a European union 30 years early. I like alt-history. There was a little too much trying to be crammed into a 5-episode series. Murder, collaboration, loyalty, resistance, atomic research, House of Cards games, lust, love, betrayal, family, royalty, rivalry. And on the German side, cardboard cliche characters seen in every other British wartime series. Gripping thriller tale but ultimately quite disappointing.

What I watched instead of the rugby. "Last night I was in Spain." A true game of thrones where real heads roll. You really have to feel for the people then, afflicted by disease leading to sudden death, famine, lawlessness, poverty, and a lack of everything. And then being saddled by a class system and ruled by an intolerant religion. Nobody got a break then. Incredible acting and clever, thoughtful scripting. It's Mark Rylance's masterpiece as Cromwell, but Anton Lesser as Sir Thomas More plays him as the creepiest fundamentalist you do not want to come across. Highly recommended.

Swedish is definitely far easier to understand than Danish. With these Scandi-noir series it's hard to understand how the Scandinavians manage to be ranked the happiest people on earth. But I like Saga Noren, the Swedish protagonist, especially for her refreshing attitude to sex. (She's puzzled why an occasional shag wants to take her out for dinner since she always presumed that that was a prelude to and gambit for sex, not the other way round). Highly recommended, not just for the strong story and acting but the Swedish/Danish humour, which is very droll. The language games will appeal to your inner Aspie. And it was deep into season three before they realised you can draw curtains.

Cold, dark, windy, wet, wintry New Zealand, so what better time to watch a cold, dark, wet, windy, wintry Copenhagen doing its utmost to dispel that hygge trendiness in a superb scandi-noir Forbrydelsen series full of secrets, lies and political Machiavellianism. I just love the ribbing between the Scandinavians. Danish is pretty easy to pick up. Just mumble and they'll understand you fine. And what do I like about Denmark? The second-in-command at an army base showers with his troops in a communal bath house. When naked, the real men get sorted from the boys.

Typical Scandi-noir gruesome murder case with quirky details, such as a police academy student driving a vintage convertible Mustang - in Stockholm weather! - and a sassy gay sidekick. That was a marvellously rich and surprising story. Highly recommended.

Twin Peaks-esque Swedish mystery series, but probably a little too Catholic for Lynch fans, I think. Too much about the eternal fight between good and evil, but it has also a philosophizing police officer with a space cadet deputy, and witches and trolls (of the original Nordic kind). And pinetree woods, of course. I like a language that has the same word for 'hello' and 'bye'. Set in small town Sweden there are no traces of Ikea or H&M.

Time to take a break from Scandi-crime and move to the American dystopia of the Handmaid's Tale. The women get a rough deal, and the men aren't living in paradise either.
The politology. It's interesting to speculate how that dystopian society came about. I read the novel was written in 1986, way before the internet, cellphones and social media. It feels odd to have savvy strong female characters (before the change to the totalitarian regime) being totally unaware that a coup d'état by Christianists was in train.
The theocracy. Which religion actually rules in Gilead, and how did it get rid of its rivals? It seems a Protestant strand is dominant, not the Catholic Church. What happened to it, and how? What happened to the other sects, and other religions, and atheists? One executed prisoner wore a Star of David on his mask, so I presume Jewish people were part of the extermination, Nazi-style, alongside the gays and political resistance.
Gilead seems to have an excellent health service. How did they get there after Obamacare? Gynaecological services provided by men still?
It's mentioned that there are only two remaining states of the USA, with the capital (highly improbably, considering how Republican it is) in Alaska. I presume the other one is Hawaii. How did the Democratic east and west coasts get conquered? If Gilead covers all 48 continental states, I think this is a major flaw in the story, as the USA would have ceased to exist sooner and have split up along red/blue state lines.
The economy. Did the author seriously think the Gilead economy would not collapse when the whole female workforce was dismissed and had no access to bank services? (How do single females pay rent/mortgage/loans?) Where are the corporations and media? It is assumed they have had no power in stopping that economic suicide.
I like overthinking my dystopias. Dystopian visions are a challenge, like murder mysteries and crosswords. You want to unravel them, as a sport. All dystopian stories (like utopian and sci-fi ones) reflect the anxieties and hopes of the times they have been conceived in, be it More's anti-reformation dreams, Orwell's totalitarian nightmare in 1948, Star Trek in the hippie 1960s and beyond, and, in this case, Atwood's mid-1980s, before the Cold War ended, when digital technology still was in its infancy, and social control really needed brutal repressive force.
The gloryhole in the girls' toilet made me lol.
Aunt Lydia. She's a survivor too, just with a different strategy. She's straight out of "Mädchen in Uniform".  The overarching story is about hypocrisy: of the men, of the women, of the religion, of the ideology.

From a hysterical dystopian breakdown in the US, now on to the good old days, when capitalists were confident and communists were too. Deutschland 83, a German twinky James Bond without the gadgets but with a terrific nostalgic early 80s soundtrack. And I never knew East German girls were that easy, skinny-dipping with their boyfriends' best friends! Absolutely enjoyable rollicking ride. I remember the Reagan-era deployment of Persching missiles in Belgium too, with all the attendant protests. Also the East German atmosphere was spot on. When travelling there in 1982, the border crossing was exactly like that - the angry-looking border officers welcome, the rifling through your backpack for forbidden literature, the enforced money exchange, the crumbling houses (very picturesque though, compared to the West German garishness). Another tale of deception and hypocrisy: everybody knew the DDR was fantasyland, everybody watched West German TV, and danced to the same pop tunes. The AIDS sub-story was poignant and a great reminder how terrifying it was.

Time to brush up my Norwegian with Aber | Bergen. Thankfully they got the joke about Bergen and the rain out of the way in the first 15 minutes.

Attempt at Scottish scandi-noir, complete with inventive murder motivations, but with over-bearing DCI in hock with trendy criminal psychologists, goes on and on a bit. A serial killer obsessed with body parts, bumping off gay and bi-polar characters, and you know he's had a lousy childhood and daddy issues. Gorgeous scenery, of course, but really not in the must-have-seen-this-before-you-die category. Hot trivia bit: the PC whom the camera often lingers over a little too often and too long is playing Prince Harry in a Windsor-Markle love epic.

Back to Sweden/Sapmi, another gruesome serial killer series where the sun never sets. Written by the guys who brought us The Bridge, it has its customary cruelly inventive grisly murder scenes, police officers with issues, iron ore miners in underpants, cultural and political clashes between Swedes, French, and Sami. And best of all, five different languages spoken. The skies of Kiruna are magic. It never gets dark in the whole series, except when going down the mine. Recommended.

Binge-watching is the current pastime, of course, so I chose a Belgian crime series set in Ghent, the city where I am from but don't have a huge link with since I had left it at age 5.'Code 37' is a fairly formulaic cop series featuring a vice squad headed by a female with a troubled past and her team of 'hardened' (but verging on gormless) males - so far so familiar. Cop show standard gruesomeness and humour ("Therrre's been a murrrrderrrr") are here replaced by rather gratuitous and superficial portrayal of the 'sex crimes' without much psychologising or illumination of motive, impact or consequences.But I learned a few things: who knew exhibitionism and voyeurism are a criminal offences (even when consensual)? Some marvellous guest roles - the skinny whore john speaking with a proper Ghentian accent had me in stitches - including my old friend Frank Vercruyssen playing a porn director.

What an opportunity to watch a TV series with international appeal in the Estonian language. "Madame K" is set in an upmarket Tallinn brothel on the eve of Estonia being smashed between a very hard rock (Nazi Germany) and a very hard place (Stalin's Russia).
The series could be set on a single theatrical stage but the themes, politics and personal dilemmas are vast. Being in a small country about to be occupied, razed and dismembered, your choices and options to survive are vanishing before your eyes: either be deported to the Soviet gulags or enlisted into the Wehrmacht, with fleeing to either brave Finland or neutral Sweden, both across treacherous waters, not really on offer - and recently fallen France, Britain fighting for its own survival, and an America not really interested in another European war, are well out of the picture.
All a very fascinating backdrop to this charming, leisurely-paced series where they don't hold back philosophizing about love in a brothel and geo-politics (with both intertwining when entertaining American spies and Russian soldiers alike). And it's done on a shoestring budget, with their cash spent on charming period heirlooms, appliances, cars and costumes - who knew Estonians ate waffles so often for breakfast?

Started watching Amsterdam Undercover but had to stop mid-way episode 1 when our undercover German cop arranged a meeting with his mole at the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt's Night Watch. He was the only viewer. This kind of dissing Rembrandt (and the Dutch, for the whole cast speaks German, not a word of the native tongue is heard in Wunderschön Amsterdam) cannot be allowed.
And on a wider point: whole cop series drama tropes would be wiped out if the drugs trade was legal.

Dutch-Belgian cop series so you know the language will be vaguely cross-border Brabantian. A bit noir-ish (maybe call it 'polderdark'), even Shakespearean, slow but often a terrific ride through travellers' blood-is-not-always-thicker-than-water families, drugs manufacturing and trade, Jewish blackmail and political corruption.
Pity Teun Luijkx never took off his shirt properly in this too-short series but there were some laugh-out-loud moments in very dark humour corners involving morgues, uncircumcised corpses, and diamonds (don't ask).

Up north again, this time to monochrome, gloomy, overcast Oslo, where drug-smuggling low life meets corrupt police and the exploitation of the Norwegian version of the Resource Management Act, and where everybody is cynical and devoid of any trust. It has the obligatory digs at the Swedes, but who knew Norwegian men, even after scoring a hot date, always slept with their underpants on?

South this weekend, to Rome, Anzio and Ostia, with a refreshing if terribly sad tale that is not focusing on Italian crime tropes like the Mafia and corrupt policemen - although there are some references to them - but on forces that tear a society apart more effectively than those. I'm not giving away anything more because that would be spoiling the plot, just mentioning that using the victim as a Greek chorus to the whole plot is a wonderful dramatic device.
The series is gorgeously filmed, seamlessly jumping between cinematic scopes, drone vistas, hand-held camera close-ups and grainy flashback footage that actually looks 10 years old. And with Rome as you not often see as a backdrop providing grittiness and community.
It is a feature in many a series I've watched so far that urban icons, such as trams or trains, function as an identity for where you are supposed to be immersed in as a viewer, be it Copenhagen, Oslo, Ghent, or Rome, despite none of the characters ever taking public transport. Cars, roads, and motorways are simply too ubiquitous and nondescript to provide any socio-geographical information.

May 24, 2017

L'inconnu du lac / Stranger by the Lake

A film that should make people, who think there is such a thing as the 'gay community', think again. Stranger by the Lake is more a docu-drama than a fiction film, for its setting, feel, action, and atmosphere are ultra-realistic.
One hundred per cent filmed outdoors, with a cast which needed no wardrobe, it had the air of a nature documentary in which David Attenborough stumbles across a pair of gay men getting it on in the bushes, but instead of suavely narrating off-screen, being firmly told by the subjects of his voyeurism to go jerk off elsewhere, like the on-looking wanker was.
The story line is thrillingly Hitchcockian, complete with a shocking murder scene filmed in one take and from a far distance, but without a happy ending or release. But the real story is one of complete callousness and solipsism of all men involved, who have no regard or respect for the murder victim and blithely carry on as nothing had happened. As the main character said: "Life goes on."
Eros and thanatos, sex and death, are closely linked in this film, and not just from the amount of unsafe sex that went on. Having a psychopathic killer who thinks nothing of getting rid of a clinging 'boyfriend' by casually drowning him is one thing, but one that thinks he can get away with multiple murders without any consequences due to the inability and unwillingness of the 'community' present at the lakeside to intervene or co-operate to solve the crimes, is an indictment.
No names are known or mentioned until halfway through the movie, a familiar occurrence when you frequent gay cruising places or venues. I always thought how easy it would be for a murder to be committed at such sites without anyone, even witnesses, knowing anyone's name or business.
The policeman in the film, incidentally the only person fully clothed, had the unenviable task of piecing it all together, and, even more importantly, he is also the Greek chorus commenting on the aspects of cruising culture that many gay men willfully ignore. Being held a mirror to your own culture can be shockingly revealing.
Highly recommended viewing, watch it here: part 1 part 2

February 19, 2017

Alternative Ulster

In 1981, I went to Belfast on holiday. It was a dark November weekend and before boarding the ferry in Stranraer, I was questioned by non-uniform security personnel as to what my motives were to visit there out-of-season, only a month after the hunger strike in the Maze Prison was called off (Bobby Sands had died 6 months earlier). Not an auspicious time to go sightseeing, but I persevered. The atmosphere in the city was as depressing as the season. Checkpoints everywhere and body searches every time you wanted to enter the city centre. The highlight was the local anarchist club in a non-sectarian part of the city, where young people fed up with divisions could enjoy a stress-free night out away from the troubles. I remember feeling relieved to be in a welcoming place of kindness. This Guardian article brought back some great memories.

May 03, 2016

Groundhog Day

Written for my other blog, Fullerswatch.

The golden weather after 18 months of improvements in services on the Waiheke ferry has come to an abrupt end when Explore Ferries decided to pull the plug on its sailings from 8 May. It cited lack of patronage which would not enable them to get through the Winter.
But this simple reason masks a multitude of systemic failures in the Auckland ferry scene, and if they are not remedied we will unlikely see any competing service ever again. This might suit Fullers' shareholders and cashflow very much, but it is an unsatisfactory state of affairs for passengers who can now only look forward to the resumption of the old service attitudes and upped fares. The public transport regulator, AT, is happy to look the other way because it cannot afford to offend Fullers, lest they would need to fund a ferry service themselves and that is the last thing they want to happen.

This blatant favoritism of AT for the incumbent was obvious from the start:
- Explore was forced to dock at Pier 3 - while Pier 2 and Pier 4 were upgraded in no time (for the exclusive use of Fullers).
- At all times AT inspectors were present at Pier 3 to see whether Explore staff made any mistakes. Any passenger reaction and complaints about the conditions Explore had to work under was immediately used as a stick to beat Explore with.
- The ticket booth was miles away from Pier 3 and at Matiatia better hidden than the toilets.
- The exempt service let Fullers double its sailings at short notice and even when they could not meet their own timetable, nothing was or could be done to hold them accountable.
- The extension of the supergold card loot was delayed for over a year, and when Explore offered passage for free in the meantime, nothing was done to make payment retroactive, i.e. make Fullers hand over part of the cash as they did not transport all pensioners as claimed between Auckland and Waiheke.
- Preventing Explore from running a bus service on Waiheke, or even specifying in the Waiheke Bus contract all buses on Waiheke should meet all services, resulting in a useless service to and from Explore sailings (Fullers causing chaos for its own bus services after introducing a half hour service was left unexamined or cared about).

It is now up to politicians at all levels to remedy this market failure and tackle this private monopoly head on with some urgency. The Local Board needs to lobby all players involved to ensure a satisfying outcome for islanders and visitors alike. City Councillors need to seriously look at the dysfunction, incompetence and obvious favouritism at Auckland Transport. National politicians need to abolish the 'exempt status' of Fullers and bring it under the umbrella of the PTOM system, so services can be regulated, in case it remains a monopoly, or tendered for, in case there are other companies interested in providing the service.

August 24, 2015

No sex, but plenty of violence

Mad Max - Fury Road review:
It was strange that in the midst of an environmental disaster and resource wars everybody drives these gas guzzling vehicles. Oil was obviously not in short supply. I suppose the pyrotechnics would have been limited if everybody was on push bikes. Also, there were no non-whites in the cast, as far as I could see under the dusty and pasty faces. Was there any reason for this, apart from appealing to adolescent white males who are into heavy metal culture? And there was no sex, no nudity, no kissing. Just violence. The would-be censors might have to revise the "sex & violence" meme. Plenty of body fluids though - blood, spit, breast milk - but strangely enough, no semen. There was a caesarian birth but the actual scene was not shown - I guess some things were a step too far for its target audience! (The umbilical cord twirling doctor was the obviously token gay character in the film).

October 21, 2013

Sex in the news

Another juicy Australian 'sex scandal' involving their armed forces:

"21-year-old Daniel McDonald, has been linked to another sex scandal. He is expected to face disciplinary measures as the founding member of The Love of my Life, an AFDA football group that made new members perform sexual acts on one another as part of a hazing ritual."

But why that should not be a scandal, let alone an offence, is made clear:

"[...] while McDonald was a founding member of the group, no criminal offence had been committed by the participating males."

The earlier case refers to him showing off to his mates in a heterosexual Skype show:

"Daniel McDonald, now 21, and Dylan Deblaquiere, 20, faced the ACT Supreme Court on Monday for a sentencing hearing over the 2011 sex scandal at Canberra's Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA).
McDonald had sex with a fellow female military recruit in March 2011 and broadcast it live on Skype to Deblaquiere's room where other male cadets watched.
In August, both were found guilty of using a carriage service in an offensive manner and McDonald was also found guilty of committing an act of indecency."