Remember me

The shock of learning my internet friend had died was more confusion than anything else — like, that doesn’t make any sense?

Once it sublimated into a permeating, low-level sadness, the first thing I did was go back and read our email threads. The pattern was familiar to most of the back-and-forths I’ve had with many internet friends for years: their incisive, thoughtful, witty paragraphs; my rambling, overreaching, too-long drivel. As I kept reading, though, I was surprised to see their replies did not shrink quickly to terse sentences designed to end the thread. The word count was about even on either side, and our discussion continued until we both felt we’d said enough. I didn’t hate myself at the end of it. It reminded me of a satisfying lunch date and made me think that but for lack of proximity, we might have been friends IRL.

This strange new grief is hard to describe and still slightly taboo. I didn’t know this person in real life; I’d never met them. But I was not alone among their internet friends in feeling genuine loss at the news. It feels unreasonable, out of proportion, even intrusive, considering how bereft those that knew this person would be feeling. What right do I have to mourn this person with whom I’d only shared occasional lines and images on a screen?

Privacy is a huge elephant in the room in the internet age (or at least it was, until the elephant appeared before the US Senate). It’s usually spoken about in terms of loss — as in, we are losing our privacy with every social media post. But I’d suggest the ledger is balanced somewhat. Through this person’s Twitter and Facebook, through the posts they made and the likes and interests pushed at me by the apps on their behalf, I got a haphazardly curated window into their psyche. I know what art they loved, and loved to hate. I have a rough overall picture of their politics that is extremely detailed in a few areas. I can see the quiz they favourited to complete later, which they probably never got round to. This is completely different from the way I know people I’ve looked in the eye, who are made up in my head of verbal tics and distinctive laughter and that thing they did for me that one time.

Still, I care for both sets of people, my in-person friends and my internet friends. Some friends have transitioned back and forth across these categories. The line is not clearly marked.

The broader availability of grief is therefore one of the side effects of our increasingly public existence. It’s as simple as having more people to care about, and having more people to care about other people with. The outpouring of emotion about this person has been moving in the same way as a funeral: sadness at the person lost, comradeship and community at sharing feelings and memories with a group. It’s similar, if personal in a different way, when a celebrity (e.g. David Bowie) dies. A collective howl, more physical than intellectual.

I’ve become quite cynical about my Twitter feed. That person’s trying to go viral. That person’s trolling. That person’s scoring points for a tangentially related agenda. Well, this death has jolted me right out of that. This was a real person, and I love that they were a small part of my life, and I can’t believe they’re gone.


A few years ago, I picked up a copy of After Dark by Haruki Murakami in a library book sale. Five for a dollar! I peeled the duraseal off, scrubbed away the patches of glue it left behind, and put it away for later. (See: tsundoku.)

Flash forward four years, and I finally got around to reading it last week as part of my 2017 Only Reading Books From Years Ending in Seven project (the English translation was published in 2007). The book is slight, a diversion, although – in typical Murakami style – it does hint at an opaque world of unsolvable, half-drawn mysteries.

One such mystery particularly caught my imagination, and it comes not from the mind of Murakami but from a previous reader. Library books are supposed to have many readers, after all; you can usually only guess at how many, and who they were, and what impression the book left on them. This reader, however, made three notes over the course of After Dark’s 200-odd pages. Each is in the same black ballpoint pen.

Here’s the first, from page 47:

After Dark: a strong kick, why?

There’s plenty of overwriting in After Dark. Murakami quite indulges himself by giving his omniscient, disembodied narrator full licence to describe the least consequential aspects of a scene and wax rhapsodical about these tiny moments of city life and what it all means. This technique is effective in building a small world of rich detail, but it can make for dull reading.

This previous reader, though, got hung up on Murakami’s (and translator Jay Rubin’s) decision to modify the motorcyclist’s ‘kick’ with the adjective ‘strong’. Now, I’m no line-by-line editor, but this choice seems quite reasonable to me; it draws attention to the motorcyclist’s physical presence, and to the machine’s weight. I feel like underlining their ‘Why?’ and writing the same thing alongside it.

Later, on page 79:

After Dark: a big kick

Now the kick is ‘big’, and that’s caught the reader’s eye. There’s no annotation in the margin this time. I can appreciate that ‘big’ is not as descriptive as ‘strong’, but is its inferiority as an adjective the reason for its underlining? Perhaps the reader thought ‘strong’ was too much, where ‘big’ is just right. Perhaps the reader is a motorcyclist and takes issue with Murakami’s representation of ignition. We can only speculate, because the reader isn’t giving us any more.

Finally, on page 172:

After Dark by Haruki Murakami, with accumulated saliva on the floor

Now there’s an image worth underlining, an image with real feeling. (!)

(See also: Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library, a great piece in The Awl by Maria Bustillos. Now there’s a person who could write a good annotation.)

A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.


So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.


The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.


I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

A 5000-word spam comment

Here is a 5000-word spam comment I just received for a post on this blog, copied and pasted in entirety — a reflection of its likely origins in being copied and pasted from other sources, which may have also have been spam comments copied and pasted from elsewhere. That’s a lot of copying and pasting. The spam hall of mirrors.

The line breaks are theirs, not mine.


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A new Brand of democracy, the unfocused revolution

In the last month or so, British comedian and writer Russell Brand has called for a revolution against a political establishment that, in his view, serves the wants of corporations and those who wield political power while casting aside the needs of a majority of the general public. Brand has been speaking and writing passionately and eloquently around this topic for some time, particularly in The Guardian, and he’s gained plenty of notice on social media for it, but his interview with the famously hard-hitting political journalist Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight brought him into a new realm of Facebook and Twitter shares:

If you don’t see yourself as part of the powerful establishment in Westminster-based society – and very few do – then it’s easy to climb aboard Brand’s revolutionary bandwagon. We live in a world in which legislation is passed with a purported mandate from a slim majority of the population, whether or not they all understood what they were voting for; if you are part of the 40-something percent that didn’t vote for the mob in power, your opinion is discarded. Then there are cases such as the GCSB Bill in New Zealand, which allows the government to spy on its own citizens, and which was not part of any political agenda at the 2011 election but is now law by governmental decree, whether the electorate wants it or not. A lot of the political process appears to me, looking in from the outside, to be tied up with balancing the desires of powerful lobby groups that often represent large corporations. Meantime, poor folks in UK council estates or state housing in South Auckland struggle from paycheck to paycheck without anything approaching an equal voice in the democracy.

Brand followed up his rant on Paxman with an editorial in The New Statesman titled ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’. As far as I can tell, Brand’s revolution starts in the mind but veers off disconcertingly into whatever you care to make of it:

“To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.”

Notice that he condones the London rioters – who destroyed hundreds of small businesses and made life hell for the people living in the streets they pillaged – on account of their spontaneity, then pleads vaguely for a lack of judgment or harm. The rest of the editorial is similarly rambling, unfocused, and inconsistent; certainly eloquent, brilliant in places, but amounting to what? Is Brand’s voice that of the disenfranchised, venting a scream of raw frustration? It can’t be: in the same piece, Brand relates a story about attending a Reclaim the Streets march while working for MTV and getting called out by someone clearly lower on the ladder of wealth and entitlement than he was. How can he speak for the disenfranchised when he is such a prominent citizen? And he is even helping?

Robert Webb, best known for his collaborations with David Mitchell on Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look and a contemporary of Brand in British comedy, responded in The New Statesman with a rebuttal to Brand’s apparent cry from the heart. Webb reminded Brand that effective democracy demands engagement, with particular condemnation of Brand’s call to abstain from voting:

“I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.”

Webb went on to strongly criticise Brand’s call for revolution, reminding him of the death and destruction wrought by revolution in the past. Indeed, for a recent example, Brand need only look back as far as those ‘spontaneous’ London riots. Webb’s practical response was to rejoin the Labour Party and helping the UK’s main opposition party fight a Conservative government he believes “scapegoats and punishes unlucky people”; to actively engage with politics in an effort to further legitimise it by adding his voice as a paid-up member; to literally buy into democracy. In response to Webb’s response, Brand invited Webb to check his privilege: “If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They’re not coming for you if you’re from Oxbridge. That’s my open letter to Robert.”

It was about this time that Russell Brand offered up, for me at least, the final straw:

Russell Brand | V for Vendetta | Protest | Smartphone

When it spills from the pages of The New Statesman and The Guardian into the town square, Brand’s revolution looks the same as every other impractical anti-establishment protest of the last few years: a V for Vendetta mask and a smartphone, both manufactured on production lines in East Asia by workers paid a pittance. Brand was presumably tweeting to his ~7.3m Twitter followers about the power and collective energy of the occasion, rather than scrolling idly through BuzzFeed listicles, but it hardly looks inspiring after all the promise of his language.

I posted the above photo on Facebook with the sarcastic and cynical caption ‘This is what revolution looks like’, which many seemed to take in earnest. It led to a debate with a friend, who wrote the following:

Brand’s response to Webb is better than Webb’s response to Brand. It’s about disillusionment with a system that repeatedly fails a group of people and repeatedly serves another, with some minor variation for those in a privileged position (such as Webb).

To which I replied:

I think Webb’s view is considerably more coherent and practical than Brand’s. The Westminster system of democracy, which seems to inevitably lead to two parties exchanging power, seems far from ideal but I can’t think of anything better; certainly not revolution, whether through violence or apathy. Brand may articulate the views of the disenfranchised eloquently and compellingly, but as this photo shows, his cries (so far at least) don’t add up to anything more than V masks and smartphones for all.

After some more back-and-forth, my friend later came back with this, with which I agree:

I think Brand’s disillusionment with the results of the current system is pretty much spot-on, but beyond that it’s hard to see what kind of system would produce better results while still being morally acceptable. It’s a dilemma. Disillusionment is easier than the search for a solution, but it doesn’t change the fact that disillusionment may well be justified. Some form of democracy obviously remains the ideal, but presumably Brand wishes rednecks didn’t vote (we’ve all been there). My dissatisfaction comes from how certain groups have power to distort the system (i.e. media influences voters, corporates have access to lobby politicians well beyond the influence of poorer people etc.), and I think it’s entirely reasonable to pursue reform in that direction. Just a thought.

For that reform to be pursued, Webb’s Labour partisanship still seems more effective and meaningful to me than Brand’s outright dismissal of the establishment. Brand’s great trick is to paint all politicians with the same grubby brush: a self-obsessed, money-hungry, cronyish lot with zero interest in the lives of those who struggle. This is true in some cases, but it is not the whole truth; many politicians enter public life with the express goal of making a positive difference and helping people to have their voices heard, and they work hard for decades to pursue those goals. And just so you know, I went to an expensive private school as well. Does this mean that like Paxman and Webb before me, Brand can cast my opinion aside in a single line?

Genuine democratic change, which remains the best option available to us, demands an electorate that is well-read and politically engaged enough to understand what is wrong, vigilant enough to call out those who do wrong, and optimistic enough to see a future that is more right. Then you have to keep reading, and stay politically engaged, and stay vigilant, and stay optimistic – in as much of your life as possible and for as long as possible – to promote what you consider a better society.

You also have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that not everyone will agree with you. Here’s what another friend said in the same Facebook thread about Brand:

But he has at least started a debate. And a smartphone gives him an audience. Can’t just stand in the town square and ring a bell anymore. And you can’t send pictures via Milo tins and a piece of string. I’m sure when they develop a vegan, biodegradable, solar powered, decaf phone made under good working conditions, he’ll be into it. Or not. Maybe he doesn’t give a shit about a bit of hypocrisy to get his point across.

If one thing’s for sure, we’re all hypocrites in some way or another. I’m no exception. Neither is Robert Webb, and neither is Russell Brand. And my friend is right: Brand has started a debate that has helped clarify some of my ideas about democracy, and mobilised me to engage more in effecting social and political change. I’ll just be moving in a different direction, away from the messiah.

The Marmite Matrix

This story is completely true and happened to me just now. No, really.

So I was walking briskly back home from indoor soccer. We lost, but it got the Marmite shortage crisis off my mind for a couple of hours.

The walk was enlivened by:

  • noise-cancelling headphones and an MP3 player;
  • my mind meandering around that amazing moment in The Matrix where Neo finally ‘sees’ the code inside ‘the world that has been pulled over our eyes’.

I rounded the last corner with Rihanna wailing in my ears. “We found love in a hopeless place,” over and over. The suburbs of Wellington are not all hopeless — especially not this one, with its promise of a massive Countdown supermarket in the near future — but the lyrics fit the mood of a particularly blustery night.

And then I noticed a strange object in the gutter.

Marmite in the gutter | Surprise Marmite

The obnoxious red and yellow markings were unmistakeable. MARMITE.

Marmite Found | Unbelievable Marmite

I paused to pick it up, shaking my head. It was empty, save for a few black streaks inside the jar. I looked up and down the street; there was no-one to be seen.

What could it mean?

Dazed, I wondered if New Zealand had descended into civil war. The Chosen Ones, the ones who had managed to attain Marmite before stocks were depleted, had consumed it all and were hurling the empty jars at the Vegemite-loving and/or Marmiteless hordes. Their Marmite-fuelled throwing arms would turn the empty jars into deadly weapons. (The horror.)

And then suddenly, gloriously, my two fantastical trains of thought – Neo sees the Matrix vs Marmite Anarchy – dovetailed down a single terrifying path.

I was the Chosen One.

The empty Marmite jar was a message from some Sanitarium Morpheus, sent to yeast-extract me out of my cotton-wool world and into my destiny as a saviour: the One who would lead the people of New Zealand back to a land of limitless Marmite.Marmite-related confusion | What could it mean?

And then I went home, made a peanut butter sandwich, opened up my laptop and blogged about the whole thing.

‘Drive’: Machine Versus Horse

IMDb / Ebert
Rating: Recommended
Alternate JW Title: ‘Hero Story

The opening sequence of ‘Drive’ had me thinking all my expectations about the film were correct. The Chromatics’ ‘Tick Of The Clock’ kicked things off, setting the tone with its confident, sinister, minimalist rhythm, with a telephone conversation laying out the terms of the agreement and a splendid pan across a barren room out onto the street lights below. A helicopter shot showed Los Angeles at night from above, sources of yellow light illuminating the city like controlled balls of flame, establishing LA as a character like Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’ did. The initial getaway job played out like a scene from ‘Driver’, a ten-year-old PlayStation game: all rough atmosphere, near collisions and police radio sounds. The whole film was going to follow in the same vein: a dimly lit, pulsating thrill ride through city streets and bad deals.

What I hadn’t picked was that ‘Drive’, and the nameless hero played by Ryan Gosling, would instead be cut from the same poncho cloth as the great Westerns. Throughout this opening sequence, and for much of the film, he is as silent and imposing as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; he even chews on a toothpick with the same brooding intensity. In the film’s bare-bones plot (which is little more than an accessory on which to hang a combination of allegories, images and music), Gosling’s driver appears from nowhere, changes everybody’s lives forever and then rides off into the sunset. There are good guys and bad guys, in that the bad guys must do bad and the good guys must try to do good.

Refn’s camera is almost fetishistic in its appraisal of Gosling. He is allowed to leave his chiselled features virtually motionless in many scenes, simply present and immaculate for our appreciation. He’s shot from low angles when driving or doing violence, the skills he has honed well enough to be his vocation, and from high angles when sharing scenes with Carey Mulligan, the woman who steals his heart. In place of a poncho, he has a distinctive jacket that he continues wearing even when it is covered with blood. These stylistic choices establish the driver as a hero, which is the chief purpose of the film (which, again, reminds me of Westerns more than any other genre).

This is what makes the central element of an extremely effective soundtrack – indeed, the film would not be nearly as interesting without it – so interesting. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ plays twice during the film, once during the sweet ‘getting to know you’ scenes between Gosling, Mulligan and Mulligan’s son, and then again at the film’s conclusion. The lyrics, over an unforgettable synth motif, repeat over and over:

A real human being
And a real hero

Gosling is certainly a clear hero, a classic Good Guy of few words driven to do the right thing to the right people and the wrong thing to the wrong people. Virtually the moment he sets eyes on Mulligan, one gets a sense he will protect her to the death – which he does, to all intents and purposes. Though a getaway driver, aiding criminals on a regular basis, his rule of only giving them five minutes of his time gives him a moral footing above that of his employers; he simply drives, until confronted with circumstances that force him to either flee or kill the ones who wish to kill him and the other Good Guys first. Being a hero, he faces his responsibility. He kills.

But Gosling’s driver is not a real human being. He’s a character in a film, as starkly as any character I can remember in recent memory. It’s because he is such an obvious, perfectly troubled, archetypal hero that he is not a real human being. A trick of a film called ‘Drive’ is that it leaves you wanting to believe its central character’s purpose was to drive, that cars gave him meaning and purpose, but they are merely a tool he uses on his heroic path. As are a hammer, the heel of his boot and a very sharp knife. The most human moments he has are those shared with Mulligan and her son, but these exist only to deepen his mythical status as a hero.

Indeed, Mulligan is the only truly human figure in the film. The mobsters, chiefly those played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are also archetypal Bad Guys or antagonists; they serve their own evil ends, gaining from others’ misfortune and eliminating anyone who gets in their way. Mulligan’s son, too, is unrealistic, a child with little purpose of his own other than to be offered a father figure in Gosling. Mulligan, however, lives and breathes every second of her performance as if it were true. She flirts awkwardly with Gosling and feels shame when he finds she’s kind of been leading him on. Her face demonstrates all the emotion of a young, conflicted woman.

One scene makes the contrast between the two characters and their respective world absolutely clear. As Gosling apologises for his involvement in an act that has changed Mulligan’s life, she slaps him – and immediately shrinks, looking down at the ground, scarcely able to contain her anger but dreadfully ashamed to have expressed it with violence. A stranger intrudes, and after Mulligan and Gosling reconnect with a time-stopping kiss – a bridge between their two worlds – Gosling brutally murders the stranger in front of her. She recoils in horror. As far as I can remember, they do not see each other again; Mulligan’s path leads to a continued life in the real world, while Gosling’s leads to heroic duty and death.

But he doesn’t die – at least, not that we get to see. Like Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, or – even more so – like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, he ensures the heroine’s survival and then disappears. His function is almost machine-like, reminiscent also of the T-1000 in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’. (You get the point. Film hero. Not human being.)

I guess this makes Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ a strange kind of character study – not of a believable person, but of a film archetype most notable in Westerns. It certainly isn’t the all-driving, slow-moving actioner I was expecting – and it is much better for it. It’s growing in my estimations with each passing hour since I left the cinema, when I usually tend to revise down my opinion after getting past the initial adrenaline rush of seeing a film on the big screen.

Two things to note before you go in:

1) With a film so caught up in genre concerns as this, the suspension of disbelief is essential, as is a willingness to forget whatever importance you place on plotting. The plot of ‘Drive’ is a framework for the exploration of genre ideas; in fact, there’s enough in there that I wouldn’t be surprised if other viewers read the film along different genre lines than I did.

2) The few scenes of violence in this film are completely visceral and brutal, mostly carried out with analogue implements to make it that much more tactile. You will likely flinch. Just remember: it’s only a movie.