22 April 2005

What’s slightly better than a lame old joke?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

It’s a painfully literal response to the set-up of a lame old joke, as first brought to you by McSweeney’s

A man and a woman are crossing the desert. They find a lamp in the sand. The man rubs the lamp and nothing happens. Afterward, he feels a bit foolish.

A man is driving down a country road at night when his car gets a flat tire. He stops by a local farmhouse and asks the owner if he can stay there for the night.
“Sure,” says the farmer. “As long as you don’t touch my three beautiful daughters.”
The man did as he was told, because frankly, he didn’t find the girls nearly so attractive as their father seemed to.

…and recently picked up and democratised by Something Awful, whose many pages include some that are funnier than Dave Eggers’s outfit’s, and may prove some dubious thing to do with the supposed wisdom of crowds:

Why did the deaf man take his parrot to work?
He was weird.

Why do Mexicans not like going out in the rain?
It’s wet.

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
The Holocaust.

What’s sad about four black people in a Cadillac going over a cliff?
They were my friends.

Have you seen Stevie Wonder’s new house?
Well, it’s really nice.

A blonde girl walks into the local dry cleaners. She places a garment on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon to pick up my dress.” she says.
“Come again?” says the clerk, cupping his ear.
“I said ‘I’LL BE BACK TOMORROW AFTERNOON TO PICK UP MY DRESS’,” says the girl, this time louder.

Well, I think they’re funny. And with our great Australian tradition of lame jokes, it’s easy to come up with local versions:

A council worker fronts up to a house in Redfern on garbage day and notices that there’s no wheelie bin outside. He asks the Aboriginal bloke standing on the front porch, “Where’s ya bin?”
“It’s right there,” the bloke says.
“Oh, I thought that was next door’s.”
“No, they’re away for the week.”

What’s the difference between an Australian and a New Zealander?
Interestingly, in the late 19th century New Zealand was invited to join the proposed federation of Australia, and attended most of the constitutional conventions before ultimately deciding not to proceed. So, to answer your question: they come from different countries.

What do you call twenty Aborigines killed in a bus crash?
Most Aboriginal traditions forbid the naming of recently deceased people. You should check with the families or local authorities for a suitable description or substitute name for each of the deceased. In some areas, “Kunmanara” or “Kumanjayi” may be used, but these are specific to certain groups or regions.

What does Brian Lara’s cock taste like?
Really, is that relevant? Why don’t we shut up and play some cricket.

20 April 2005

Religious news

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

bush.jpgWe all know that America is the Great Satan, but Norway’s leading newspaper Aftenposten now delivers the strange news that a group calling itself the All Pakistan Muslim Society has published a tract accusing the Norwegians, of all people, of being “Satan’s sons&#8221:

In addition to associating Norwegians with the devil, the book lashes out at Norwegian ethics and morality. The author, believed to be a mullah or other Muslim religious leader living in Oslo, claims that Norwegians don’t have legitimate children. “They’re conceived here and there,” claims the author.

The author calls Norwegians “barbarians” and “poisonous snakes” who have poisoned humanity. “These white men have set off a devilish spiral in the whole world… to plague people,” according to the book.

Bit harsh, isn’t it? I can only think of a few reasons why such libel should be directed at these poor Scandinavians, who culturally seem a bit gloomy—at least Ibsen and Munch do—but have a proudly untranslatable but extremely useful expression “uff da!&#8221, which means something like, but so much more than, “oops&#8221.

1. Lobsters

Norwegian scientists may recently have given world lobster consumption a boost by claiming that our crustacean friends don’t feel pain. Observant Muslims don’t eat lobster. No, wait! That’s Jews. Muslims say lobster is halal, or “fine&#8221. Scratch that.

2. Hell

There is a town called Hell near Trondheim, in Norway.

3. Isioma Daniel

Four Corners this week had a disturbing story originally from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about young Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel, who copped a local fatwa in late 2002 for writing these words in reference to the ill-fated Miss World pageant hosted by Nigeria that year (parental advisory—blasphemy):

What would Mohammed think? He would probably have chosen a wife from one of them.

As well as the fatwa, Daniel’s seemingly innocuous remarks sparked religious riots in which more than 200 people were killed, newspaper offices were burned down, and the Miss World pageant was hurriedly airlifted out. Daniel seems to have been completely shafted by her newspaper, by the supposedly-secular Nigerian government, and by all of the English-speaking countries who refused her asylum. She was finally taken in by Norway, where she now lives and writes and apparently doesn’t have a tremendous time of it:

I hate Stavanger. After coming through customs at Sola Airport, I didn’t think that I would feel such a violent, angry feeling to this town. I hate its smallness. I hate its smugness. I hate how the 16–30 year olds all dress alike. I hate how we all shop round and round in the same trendy stores. I hate how much money we waste. I hate how homogenous it is. I hate how people stare at me when I’m walking round town. I hate how ignorant their gazes are, and I hate how they make my brown skin seem inhuman.

Hell, maybe they’re sons of Satan after all! It was a good program, and although they naturally wheeled Salman Rushdie out yet again, they did allow him to make some interesting points about how come he always gets wheeled out whenever anybody gets fatwaed.

Interestingly, the Norwegians in turn think the Bush family are devil-worshippers. In the picture above, Jenna thinks she’s making the “Hook ’em Horns” salute in support of the University of Texas football team, the Longhorns. The president has also been snapped making the same gesture. But to Norwegians and numerous heavy metal bands, it’s the sign of the devil and apparently stirred up a good deal of speculation around the Arctic Circle. So it’s all very confusing.

Also, apparently there is a new pope.

18 April 2005

Words of wisdom

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

zappa.jpgI’ve been criticised lately for not posting anything for a while, and also for being too serious. But I’ve been a bit busy with a rewrite and other things, and seem to have less time for frivolous posts, even though I love them so. But to make partial amends I’ve decided to tell you one of my favourite jokes.

Well, it’s not really a joke. It’s from the pseudonymous Kehlog Albran’s The Profit, a delightful spoof of the real Khalil Gibran‘s fantastically popular and much-translated 1923 collection of essays The Prophet, which nowadays seems somewhat overblown and, if not bordering on self-satire, then crying out for satirical treatment:

And the weaver said, “Speak to us of Clothes.”

And he answered:

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.

And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.

Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,

For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.

See? Anyway, so here is the joke version:

A priest asked,
What is Fate, Master?

And he answered:
It is that which gives a beast of burden its reason for existence.
It is that which men in former times had to bear upon their backs.
It is that which has caused nations to build by-ways from City to City upon which carts and coaches pass, and alongside which inns have come to be built to stave off Hunger, Thirst and Weariness.
It is that which has caused great fleets of ships to ply the Seven Seas wherever the wind blows.

And that is Fate? said the priest.

Fate… I thought you said Freight, responded the Master.

That’s all right, said the priest. I wanted to know what Freight was too.

I think it’s great. The Profit was apparently published in 1973 by Price Stern Sloan of Los Angeles, which was formed in the 1960s to publish the allegedly hilarious Mad Libs series by Tonight Show writers Roger Price and Leonard Stern. Roger Price also invented (or at least coined a name for) the Droodles, those simple pictures that turn out to have inventive meanings (remember the Mexican riding a bicycle?). He drew the cover for Frank Zappa’s album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, pictured above. There’s a good chance that Kehlog Albran is really Price and/or Stern, but who knows.

PSS also published Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men and Little Miss series, and were bought by Penguin in 1993. They don’t seem to be about to reprint The Profit, which is a shame. But now I really have to get back to work.

5 April 2005

Foie pas

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

This is interesting: the New York Times reports that famed chef Charlie Trotter—whose very name has become synonymous with pig’s feet—has stopped serving foie gras, on ethical grounds. And that’s not all:

He says he stopped serving it about three years ago, after becoming unnerved at the sight of farm ducks being tube-fed into obesity. He kept quiet about it, but the conspicuous absence of foie gras from his menus led to rumors in the restaurant world, and he was outed last Tuesday in The Chicago Tribune.

Don’t be frightened, foodies, but this may be a trend – another example of how far the animal-rights cause has come in from the fringe. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year banned the production or sale of foie gras in California. (The law takes effect in 2012, to give the state’s tiny foie gras industry – basically, a guy in Sonoma named Guillermo – time to adjust.) A similar bill has been introduced in New York, the country’s only other foie gras producer.

Even if you don’t think modern farming practices are appalling, that lobsters like being boiled, or anything like that—foie gras is a bit gross. Other chefs are calling Trotter hypocritical, since he’s still getting rich off cookbooks bulging with gras. But the Times says leave him alone:

Fine cooking is fine art, and Mr. Trotter should feel free to use whatever materials he likes. He says foie gras is cruel, but he could have also called it boring – a cliché slurped by too many diners who, we suspect, would swoon just as easily over the velvety succulence of Spam or schmaltz on rye, if they were prohibitively priced and listed on the menu in French. By spurning an easy fix of fancy fat, Mr. Trotter is simply making his job a bit harder, and this man-eat-duck world a slightly kinder place. There is much to admire in that.

And much to admire in an article that finds velvety succulence in Spam, remembers the original meaning of “schmaltz”, and uses them both in the same clause. All the news that’s fit to print!

4 April 2005

This land is my land

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:12 am

heaven.jpgWarning: this post contains possible spoilers concerning the outcome of treaty negotiations between Indonesia and Australia.

I just watched on DVD and really enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s (or Jet Li’s or even Quentin Tarantino’s, depending) martial arts epic Hero. I loved its otherworldly landscapes, slightly overcooked colour schemes, gobsmacking fight sequences, and Zhang Ziyi. I totally dug the scene in the Go temple where Jet Li and Donnie Yen whomp each other inside their respective heads (where it’s still raining atmospherically), and all the connections between calligraphy and swordplay. That was cool. But of course there’s a but.

I’m a pretty dopey movie-watcher: I usually suspend disbelief before I’ve sat down, and never guess whodunit or see the twist coming, and always miss undertones and nods to other movies—unless they’re completely obvious, like with this movie and Rashômon, which I mention not to look clever but only to avoid looking like a complete moron—but the politics of Hero unsettled even me, a bit. You’ll remember that more or less everybody’s hell-bent on killing the Qin king for various atrocities until Broken Sword decides it’s better to let him live, because of two words. Broken Sword even persuades the nameless assassin (in the English version he’s actually named Nameless, somewhat post-modernly) to give up his brilliant and very effective and by that stage failsafe and in-the-bag attempt on the king’s life and sacrifice himself for these two words. They are clearly very important words, and we’re expected to believe in them, or at least understand why everybody in the movie believes in them.

The two words are tian xià, illustrated above, which the subtitles helpfully translate as “our land&#8221. The idea is that the war between the various nearby kingdoms are doing untold damage and that only the king of Qin can unite them into a single manageable nation. This sounds a bit questionable to our modern ears, particularly knowing the way China feels about Taiwan, Tibet and so on. But it turns out to be a very ancient Chinese principle—predating China, in fact—and more accurately translates as “all under heaven&#8221: the idea that everyone in the (known or relevant) world should be subject to one law and governed by one leader. This version doesn’t sound any less questionable, if you ask me.

The movie takes place towards the end of the Warring States Period, after the Qin kingdom had subjugated the Zhou (where all the assassins come from) but before it had seen to the rest of the great powers and unified China in 221 BC. The king is real: he is Qin Shi Huang, who as the movie says became the First Emperor of China and started work on the Great Wall. History doesn’t attest to any assassin named Nameless (duh) but the staggering Records of the Grand Historian tell the story of an assassination attempt by one Jing Ke, which contains some similarities. Jing Ke persuades a Qin general to give him his head so he can get close enough to whack the king; he has a red-hot go but the king jumps back, Jing Ke misses and the guards take care of the rest. This legend is told (with its own modifications) in 1999’s The Emperor and the Assassin. In one of the DVD’s special features, Zhang Yimou says that he consulted all of the existing sources but nothing really satisfied him, so he decided to write his own story.

Look, it’s very likely that the unification of China in 221 BC did save a lot of bloodshed, compared to letting the endless war between the states just trundle on; and that it gave the country a well-needed leg-up and allowed it thereafter to innovate and invent fireworks and spaghetti and all. Europe is now generally realising the benefits of some kind of coordination between nation-states, and all of us loony one-worlders would like to see everyone working together in harmony and at least some laws applying everywhere. But that’s not really what tian xià is about—it’s about empire. And the world’s going the opposite way nowadays, and disintegrating along various lines: look what happened to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It’s hard not to see the resumption of Hong Kong and Macau as going against the current, to say nothing of the ongoing difficulties with Taiwan (and even less about this thing with Tibet).

And so it’s also hard not to see the tian xià angle in Hero as at least a little bit political. Which would be fine—all movies are political, and we can’t object to them just because they go against the prevailing politics—if it weren’t for the tight control the Chinese government exerts over the arts. Even if this is Zhang Yimou’s own personal view, the thought that this is the film the government wants him to make, and that nobody’s allowed to make the opposite film, the other argument—that’s what’s troubling about it.

It doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—look at Battleship Potemkin—or that Zhang Yimou’s a bad guy. But it’s weird—some of his earlier films were banned, or mangled by censors, and he himself was banned from filmmaking for a period after To Live; subsequent films like Not One Less and The Road Home were criticised internationally as propaganda and—sure enough—shown by the Chinese government in its pledge drives. If Hero is propaganda, that’s only secondary; perhaps Zhang is just trying to make good movies in the circumstances. Alan Stone has a good discussion in the Boston Review, which is perhaps too thoughtful to be quotable.

We all have our euphemisms for empire, anyway. The security treaty we’re negotiating with Indonesia will include some sort of wording requiring us to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity&#8221, which in case anyone was in any doubt Alexander Downer explains like this:

And Indonesians will be reinforced in their confidence in Australia knowing that Australia supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity and by that I mean we do not support secessionist movements in Indonesia.

Of course we ruined the last treaty by going to help in East Timor, but that won’t happen in Aceh or West Papua or any other place under heaven. Since it’s not a defence pact we probably won’t be called in to actually suppress any secessionist movements, but still. I hope acclaimed Indonesian directors are busily working on sumptuous epics to convince everybody that the Acehnese and West Papuans are better off as they are. Hell, I’m still waiting for Leichhardt Council’s film about the ill-fated Balmain secession, but Paddy McGuinness seems to have rolled over on that one, at least for now.

The other thing about Hero is that although it boasts a beautiful score by Dun Tan with haunting violin work by famed fiddler Itzhak Perlman, it completely ignores the dramatic possibilities of both David Bowie’s Heroes and Enrique Iglesias’s Hero. You wouldn’t catch a Western director passing up opportunities like those.