Thursday, September 22, 2011

...and around we go again!

Because I have a friend who works for Cosmic Corner, I get their publicity stuff through my feed on Facebook. Mostly it's promotion for gigs in Wellington, as they seem to have a lot of instore performances from musicians. Recently, however, I got a promo for their newest range of "legal highs", all once again designed to skirt around the law change that's just gone through banning synthetic cannabinoids (Kronic, et al.)

Resisting the urge to say "I told you so" (too many times) I'd like to have a look through this posting, as I think it exemplifies some of the things that concern me about the state of drug legislation as it stands. 

NB: I'll use this default font for my comments, anything in Arial is from the original posting. To make it yet clearer, I've turned their words green as well - voila. I've also cut the posting down to the elements I wanted to comment on. I'll use ellipses to point out where I've done that.

These plants are legal in New Zealand and have a history of use in herbal and entheogenic preparations and are independently tested to ensure that no controlled cannabinoids are present.
This just re-emphasises my point that until we have a coherent framework for the legality of recreational psychoactive drugs, we're going to see retailers and lawmakers continue this slightly ludicrous dance: new product skirts the law, gains general public attention via moral panic, and is banned. Rinse, repeat.

That said, if Cosmic have adopted a more rigorous testing regime for their products generally, we'll be much less likely to see people being dosed with things they didn't expect - which is a small step forward.


Made from Sinicuichi and extracts of natural herbs with a history of use in herbal and entheogenic preparations, Monster Mash is a smoking solid. Smoke on its own or mix with tobacco or herbs and then incinerate.
Again, this just ticks boxes on the "not breaking the law - just!" chart. It also references the old "herbal" tag, which seems to be attached to these kinds of products as a guarantor of safety. You know Deadly Nightshade is a herb, right?

That aside, the "herbal" tag is often another way of saying "like pot, but legal". If this is the case (as in, it's tickling the same receptors in your brain) it once again begs the question why this stuff should be legal and regular old cannabis should not. This is the sort of problem that the Law Commission's recommendations fix - by ranking drugs according to their relative harmfulness, you find that things with similar effects would fall into the same categories.

It’s a solid, so it packs a big hit that lets you get loose, leaving you lucid and looking for a good time.
The subtle, mellow aroma makes this a great smoker when out on the town. Unlike certain alternatives, people won’t ask about that ‘funky smell’. The aroma is subtle ...
The thing that strikes me about this is the promotion of this substance as suitable for clandestine use. Generally speaking, people only use a substance in a clandestine way if a) it's illegal or b) their use of that substance is problematic, and they're trying to conceal it. It is of course possible for both of these to be true. The thing that concerns me is that when a given substance is used in a clandestine way, it makes it harder to distinguish whether a person's use of that substance is problematic or not. Clandestine behaviour also invites suspicion, which (I strongly suspect) will tend to make the subject of the suspicion behave more sneakily. This is not a particularly healthy dance to be doing either.

I think this is probably a result of the continuing "grey market" status of these products. Because they're only legal on sufferance (by comparison with more established recreational drugs like alcohol) there's still this tendency to want to conceal what's going on. While Cosmic appear a lot more open that Stargate International were over the Kronic problem, there does seem to be a similar attitude here. I think the only way to fix this is for products like this to have a clear legal status: unambiguously illegal or equally unambiguously permissible. As I've stated in previous posts, I'm not sure how that can happen under the current muddled framework.

Take care not to over indulge. Set and setting are key.
Use your brain and learn from the experience.
I just thought I'd try to end on a heartening note here. With the exception of products with illegal additives, the  reason these novel psychoactives end up sending people to the emergency room is that people take far too much, in unwise combinations with other drugs (particularly alcohol). I suspect that experience-culture has a part to play here as well. No responsible drinker would recommend that someone down a bottle of vodka in one, and I suspect that other drugs will have their own attendant experience-cultures which hold knowledge about what's wise and what's acceptable. Novel drugs obviously don't have a culture like this, and it's a refreshing sign of accepting some responsibility for their products that Cosmic appear to be attempting to institute one.

Whether they've done enough, of course, remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Darkest Days...

I was struck, during the media wind-up for September 11th this year, by repeated references to the Twin Towers attack as "America's Darkest Day".

Now, I'm pretty sure that if you asked someone what the "darkest days" of Germany were, they'd start talking about Nazis - similarly if you tried the same trick re: Cambodia you'd get a mention of the Khmer Rouge. You wouldn't in either case, expect the response to be an account of the harms done to those countries by forces outside them.

By this logic, it would seem more appropriate candidates for "America's Darkest Day" might be the 6th and 9th of August, 1945. On these two days, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The immediate death toll for the Twin Towers attacks was about 4.2% of the instantaneous loss of life which happened in Hiroshima - between 70 and 80 thousand people killed immediately, and the same amount again injured.

You can make the point that this was an act of war, but I'd argue that the September 11th attackers certainly viewed themselves as soldiers. I'd also point out that, while the Twin Towers were indisputably civilian targets, any attack where 30% of a city's population is instantly wiped out is automatically going to count as "terrorising the civilian population".

If you think that raising 70 year old history is unfair, I'd concede you probably have a point. That said, the US as recently as the 1980s and 90s was willing to bankroll people who were definitely terrorists, so long as they terrorised people the government of the day disapproved of, or conducted their terrorism in the service of a useful regime.

These are all points you've heard before - usually raised by people who want to claim that America somehow "deserved" the September 11th attacks. As I said in my post on Osama bin Laden, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that anyone ever deserves death. I also think that it's unhelpful to get too caught up in the idea of global terrorist networks as somehow being a consequence of America's foreign policies and cultural attitudes.

A more useful point to make (and one that might be more conducive to reflective moments in the corridors of power if it became a meme) is that death and terror are commonplace for many people in the world today. This is not a good thing.

Until September 11 2001, that was something that happened "somewhere else" for most Americans - even when it happened next door in Mexico and Central America. This was actually a fairly unique position at the time, even amongst First World countries. The UK had Ireland to worry about, and European countries had a variety of homegrown radicals. I don't think there's any particular virtue in being periodically carbombed, but I suspect that it's much harder to maintain a solipsistic view of your own country and its politics under such circumstances.

The Twin Towers attacks were not exceptional in their savagery, their death toll or their targeting of innocents. They were unique because they represented an attack on the previously-invulnerable USA. September 11th 2001 was not America's Darkest Day, it was The Day America Joined the Rest of the World.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"My Sister's Keeper" or "How Not To Adapt A Novel For Film" or "Why 'Based on A True Story' Will Make Me Hate Your Film"

Let me say this straight off: My Sister's Keeper is not a good movie, and my saying that is probably going to piss some people off. It's going to piss them off because My Sister's Keeper is the sort of movie that's supposed to be immune to criticism.

It's about a family's struggle to deal with one of their daughters dying of cancer, and the conflict that ensues when her younger sister (who was conceived artificially as a "donor child") refuses to undergo any more surgery to save her sister's life, and sues her parents for "medical emancipation". This stuff is so worthy it might as well be "based on a true story" (it's not). But here's the harsh truth guys: it's entirely possible to have the most worthy story in the world, and still make a shitty movie out of it. It feels like the team got hung up on how worthy their film was, and this blinded them to its faults.

This is why I don't watch movies that say "based on a true story" on the box if I can get away with it - if the fact that the movie is based on true events is their only selling point, that doesn't say very much worthwhile about it.

In case you're wondering why I keep talking about "based on a true story" when this movie isn't (it's based on a novel by Jodi Picoult, if you're wondering) it's because "based on a true story" and "about a kid with cancer" fit into the same mental category for me. Both of these things strike me as an attempt to claim legitimacy or emotional "weight" for a movie upfront, before we've watched it and determined it's actual merits. This goes for books as well as movies, by the way. I've read (or attempted to read) a couple of things my wife put my way, because the stories were so astounding, and the events they were based on were true. In the majority of these cases, the events have indeed been shocking and/or amazing, but the writing has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a fork.

In fact, if you want a stunning example of this phenomenon at work, check out the furore around James Frey and his books A Million Little Pieces  and My Friend Leonard. These are books which reviewers agree are average at best (and trying far too hard to be "edgy" in the case of Little Pieces at least) by a comprehensively underwhelming author. However, they're both bestsellers. Why? Because James Frey initially claimed that the events in these books were true and autobiographical. When it turned out he'd made most of them up, there was a massive public outcry. People weren't willing to put up with his crap if it wasn't true, and reviews of his actually-honestly-fiction book Bright Shiny Morning bear this out.

The lesson here is: "If your book (or film) sucks, claim it was based on a true story - it'll sell anyway." And if you're not up to pretending it's based on true events, make it about child cancer - that's a close second.
But back to My Sister's Keeper. Having established that this is (generally speaking) the sort of film that puts me off, it wasn't actually doomed from the get-go. I'd decided to see this movie voluntarily after all, and I'd made that decision on the basis of the trailer, which made it look like a clever, talky, heart-warming-yet-real "family in crisis mode" movie like The Kids Are All Right. It's not.

What it is, is a lesson in how not to translate a book to film. When I watched Let The Right One In and Let Me In, I was struck by how little the story had been harmed by the excision of the various subplots and mid-to-minor characters who didn't make it into the movie, or got elided with others. My Sister's Keeper is the exact opposite phenomenon.

I have to come clean at this point, and let you know that I haven't actually read the book - I've read the Wikipedia article, which supports my impressions of the film, but I can't actually tell you whether or not the book sucks. What I can tell you is that in the process of adapting this book for the screen, a lot has been cut out and paradoxically, far too much has been left in.

At the beginning of the film, each of the characters gets their own section, where they introduce their view of the situation. This is not a great framing device, as it relies on us constantly being told things that the movie could just show us, but it works. Then, it's abandoned without any particular ceremony about halfway through the film. It feels like someone lifted the device whole-cloth from the novel without adapting it to the screen at all, and then just kind of forgot why it was there in the first place. A later section is told in flashbacks as the dying girl flicks through the scrap-book she's made, and each page calls up memories for her. Again this works as a framing device, and there's no reason that the whole movie couldn't have centered around this conceit instead of the clunky in-character intros at the beginning. And once again, it's dropped after a few scenes for no particular reason.

A novel could get away with this stuff, to a certain extent. Novels can sprawl, because you read them at your own pace, and because they can be broken up into chapters, sections, "books" (or whatever else the author wants to call them) to mark changes in setting, style, focus or whatever. Films, because they run through in a linear fashion and have a limited running time, need some kind of unifying structure or else they just feel sloppy.

Then there's the issue of the characters. The film tries to get across the way in which the eldest daughter's illness has affected the whole family. However, this isn't really shown to us, and is only explained quite late in the piece. Instead what we get are vignettes of the characters which are supposed to be illustrative, but are so brief and lacking in context that they just appear to be brief glimpses into a different movie about different people.

This destruction of context also changes the characters motivations. Or rather, it completely destroys them. Cameron Diaz, as the overprotective mother is nigh-unwatchable. She is so shrill and single-note that it becomes increasingly difficult as the movie progresses, not to yell at the screen every time she's on it. Of course, if she was the villain of the piece, this would be fine. But she's not. She's supposed to be a sympathetic portrait of a woman whose extreme circumstances have severely damaged her sense of perspective. And I don't think this is even Diaz's fault - even the briefest scan of the Wikipedia article for the novel reveals details that would make her behaviour throughout the film far more justifiable, and the brief bits of internal monologue we got from her at the start hint at her explaining herself fairly reasonably in the novel.

Other characters suffer from the same problem, most notably the troubled elder brother whose "inner turmoil" is demonstrated by a scene in which he tries to get on a bus for some reason, then fails and goes home and finds that no-one missed him. I suppose this is supposed to be him "slipping through the cracks" but it just seems like they felt they had to give him a scene to himself because he doesn't do much for the rest of the film.

Finally, we get to Kate. Kate's tragedy is that she's dying of cancer. However, in order for this to actually be a tragedy, we'd have to know and like Kate. At the very least least she would need to be fun to watch. Now, it's indicated, and said by other characters that Kate is a very warm and funny character - but this is demonstrated by only one scene in the whole film. Most of the time she is simply a big sign with the words "Child Cancer" written on it. Again, the stuff that would really have fleshed her out is mostly ignored.

The real tragedy of My Sister's Keeper is that it seems like it could have worked. All that really needed to happen, was for the adaptation to streamline the novel down to one or maybe two plots (perhaps the court case and the scrapbook?) and completely ignore the rest. Do away with inconvenient characters entirely.

Instead, we got Dreamcatcher syndrome - a whole stack of ideas which individually could have made great movies, all clumsily kludged together into a barely-watchable mess.