Monday, February 25, 2013

Wheel of Torture Turns Interminably

Ted Talks For Dummies - Kodakotype by Pants (2013)

It's Oscars week. Excitingly, this year there is more than one Oscar scenario in the dramatic mix. As the Pants crew assembles to mix drinks and trade inexpert opinion, we're somewhat divided about whether to forensically track the known known of the stiletto-spiked red carpet or the MacGuffin of the unfolding Pistorius family saga.

No sooner is Oscar Pistorius granted bail on the grounds that a man without legs could hardly be expected to run, than we learn that brother Carl is facing manslaughter charges relating to a road accident back in 2008. We at Seat of Pants have not heard of such a marvellous coincidence since the nomination of Daniel Day-Lewis for a third Best Actor Oscar in as many public sightings. If the Pistorius family could produce a third suspicious death before the red carpet unfurls ... It was a big ask.

So, here we are again. Pants as the voice of whatever reason can be mined from an event for which the word tawdry might have been invented, The Question Why as stalwart interlocutor and Barney, after last year's ill-advised pronouncements on the values of binge drinking at the Elton John Post-Oscar Party is back chilling Chardonnay to perfection for his betters and whipping up a batch of his very excellent Eggs Vladivostok. None of us have seen any of the films this year which makes for an interesting approach. 

The glory talk has all been about Lincoln and Argo and is trapped in a torpor that makes predictable seem fresh. After the Best Picture for 2011 Oscar went to a French, silent, black-and-white film and to a British bio-pic of a stammering monarch the previous year, the white American patriot had to know the sun was back in his corner of the sky. Zero Dark Thirty was an audacious attempt by Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar, to do a Hilary Mantel and win with the same main course and fresh lettuce. Not in Hollywood. That token has already been spent.

The most interesting matter arising from Zero Dark Thirty is the argument it's provoked about the depiction of graphic torture served up without the ameliorating dressing of a disclaimer and link to a donation site. The Question Why has just stirred from his pre-Oscars/postprandial meditation to pose a signature rhetorical question. If the systematic extermination of the Jews by the Nazis had been filmed and those films widely distributed via social media, would it have been stopped or would people have simply set up discussion groups about the ethics of showing people being gassed in films?

We'd all so love to go there but our annual cringe-fest is about to begin. Our new Oscar host appears. He claims to be Seth MacFarlane. We know this name like we know the names Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the mother of all Matts - the great Groening. We know them as text attached to beloved animated sit-coms. But, has anyone ever seen these guys? Come on that's Casey Affleck with a nose job. 

Seth/Casey whatever proclaims that for the first time, the Oscars will have a theme. Really? What could it possibly be - films? 'No,' sayeth the master of ceremonies. It will be music. 'Haven't we tried that before?' The Question Why and I share a moment of biliousness as we call to mind Hugh Jackman lap-dancing his way into the stuff of permanent nightmare in 2009.

There follows a fifteen-minute sequence of unfathomably confused ghastliness involving Captain Kirk, Charlize Theron taking her first dance lesson and a ditty about titties. All charmingly sub-Butlins but hardly worth Vera Wang's toil at the Janome. Aren't all actors supposed to be able to hoof? Or, is there a too-clever-by-half double bluff going at the irony factory? Or perhaps it's that irony makes a great cloak for nasty sexist and racist jibes.

Finally, we're away. First up it's Best Supporting Actor. 'Ever noticed,' poses the Question Why, 'that actors come in waves of popularity? You have Ryan Gosling in everything one year and then it's Shia LaBeouf and Ryan Gosling again and then Bradley Cooper then Ryan Gosling again.' Hey, variety is the spice of life.

And there also seems to be a lot of crusty old men with grey beards. Christoph Waltz wins with grey hair and no beard, although he did sport a magnificent grey facial thatch in Django Unchained. Jack Nicholson has no beard but does appear to have gone blind so perhaps is not aware of the current grooming code.

Paul Rudd appears with Melissa McCarthy. She's wearing, what is that, the drapes from the theatre where Lincoln performed his last slow handclap? They attempt to reprise some classic Ben Stiller weirdness but don't pull it off. There's just no courage in Hollywood anymore. Brave wins Best Animated Film and is collected by a geezer in a kilt. He even apologises for the kilt. And that's about as plucky as it comes at this chartered accountants' convention.

An hour passes in a glaze of taffeta and Botox. Life of Pi wins for Best Cinematography. The prize is collected by Gandalf the Grey. Confusing. Surely this was all more fun when there were tables and bottles of bubbly and more obstacles to trip over than just bony knees. There's a school of thought that says this whole school speech-night format is to give the impression that movie people do not live lavishly but sit earnestly and humbly waiting crammed into velour theatre seats to take their well-deserved turns as firsts among equals. I say it's enough to make one pine for Rob Lowe's Snow White jape from 1989.
 
One rogue from an uncountable team of suits collecting the Visual Effects trophy for Life of Pi gets cut to the accompanying crescendo of the Jaws theme after rabbiting on about a friend being in financial difficulties. That friend will thank him, I'm sure, for spreading the story of his personal woes to one seventh of the world's population including every single individual who was ever likely to consider engaging him in a business transaction in the future. Still, it lifts our flagging spirits for a few minutes.

That is until the next musical interlude. This time it's  'Fifty Years of Bond' in music, punctuated by pictures of lots of things blowing up. Shirley Bassey demonstrates just why we haven't heard anything from her in the past forty years. I don't know what she's been doing but daily vocal workouts don't seem to have been a factor. It's diabolical but she gets a standing ovation. Bless Hollywood and Oscars night. It's the only time and place left on earth where great age and even greater incompetence are celebrated.

Another hour of awards for films that don't matter to anyone except the people who make them and the families and friends who finance them. Liam Neeson enters to the music of Shindler's List. Shows you how much he's been doing lately. There are many pictures of and jokes about Ben Affleck. That is definitely Casey up there. Boring strapless stick-insect sheaths in muted colours. Yawn. Jennifer Garner proving that the world is much smaller and a good deal duller than it looks. No wait, she has a bustle. Oh joy, now we can spend a few minutes speculating on who she may have hit in the face with it exiting her seat. Seriously, where is Sarah Jessica Parker these days? She could always be relied upon to look shocking.

It's at least an hour and a half after Seth/Casey cracked an appallingly offensive Kardashian joke and, finally, we get a shot of a scowling Kardashian. Better late and all that, and rather comforting to know that there is a tipping point to shamelessness in everyone. 

Oh no, ten more intolerable minutes of musical tributes. Jennifer Hudson sounds dreadful. Did no one think to bring the box of Fisherman's Friend? And now the cast of Les Misérables performs. No quantity of Fisherman's Friends could coax a melodic note out of Russell Crowe but he does have a very impressive grey beard.

Mark Wahlberg appears with 'Ted'. This is the lowlight and a cue for some heady anti-Semitism. It was the only territory ripe for causing offence left unexploited. Can't be having that. A toy is an even better cloak for bigotry than irony. And what is that backdrop? Recycled Wheel of Fortune meets Q-Tip sales campaign?  Les Misérables wins for Sound Mixing. So, Russell's singing wasn't a deal breaker then. Sound editing is a tie. A what? Out of five films, you couldn't pick one? The second, for Skyfall is gathered up by a pair of Gandalfs. It is nice to see men looking a bit scruffy after all that precision grooming. Where the fuck is Mickey Rourke?

Christopher Plummer, with his wonderfully plummy voice, displays a dazzling ability to complete a comprehensible sentence. In the Supporting Actress category is Australia's Jacki Weaver. She is very good at playing the bad-seed Mom but Anne Hathaway gets it - she deserves it for dedicated method dieting and she can sing.

Academy President, the alarmingly monikered Hawk Koch, appears to announce a new Museum of Motion Pictures, apparently blissfully unaware that he is standing in one. Embalming fluid plays havoc with the memory, apparently. Jennifer Lawrence appears wearing a sugar mountain. 

Adele is in an all-that-glitters tussle with her background. She starts out okay but then looks and sounds like something very important has just dropped out of her ear. I'm beginning to wonder if I've done Shirley Bassey and Jennifer Hudson a disservice. There may be something seriously amiss with this sound system. That doesn't explain Russell Crowe though. Nicole Kidman ably demonstrates that there is such a thing as far too much Botox.

Barbra Streisand comes out humming The Way We Were in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, who left the building this year past. After a few mawkish words she bursts into full voice, reminding of us why we haven't seen her with a microphone in her hand for a few decades. Even accounting for the near surety that there is something wrong with the sound system or a worldwide shortage or Fisherman's Friend, it is an appalling showing.

It's hard to credit that it's ten years since Chicago won Best Picture, or for matter, that it won  anything at all. And then Richard Gere hobbles out carrying a spacey-looking Renee Zellweger and it becomes clear where those years have landed. Richard Gere has apparently brought the wrong glasses so passes the open envelope to Renee Zellweger. She didn't bring her glasses, which may explain why she had to be zimmer-framed into place. 'There may be another explanation,' suggests the Question Why, passing the Chardonnay bottle. Queen Latifah clearly wears contact lenses so someone was able to announce a winner. 

Nearly three hours that none of us are getting back have elapsed and none of the major awards has come around. Quentin Tarantino wins for Best Original Screenplay. He looks refreshingly louche with his tie all undone and his hair rakishly mussed. Oh, bless, and he's rambling and self-congratulating. There is a ripple in the space-time continuum. Evolution no longer feels like a process in reverse gear. 

That is, until Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas arrive. Fonda is unmissable in cadmium yellow and can almost certainly be seen from space. Must be a legacy of The China Syndrome. Ang Lee wins Best Director for Life of Pi, completing the grand celebration of the colour yellow.

Jean Dujardin now has a grey beard. What do they put on the invite - black tie/grey face? Favourite Jennifer Lawrence is up against Emmanuelle Riva whose 86th birthday coincides with the ceremony and who hasn't been at all well and nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis who seems in fine health but is black and her name starts with a 'Q' which the Question Why assures me is a good omen. But Jennifer Lawrence wins it. As if to kick merde in the face of a poor old lady facing another long plane journey, they're playing My Cherie Amour. It's nice to see that sugar mountain dress again though. And ... she falls. So worth it.

Meryl Streep either has an itchy bottom or a dodgy hem. Joaquin Phoenix is very good at playing a drunk and he has a promising beard. But Streep makes no pretence at suspense. Without even opening the envelope she gushes, 'Daniel Day-Lewis.' So much for drum rolls. He makes the best joke of the day. He was set to play Margaret Thatcher and Meryl was Spielberg's first choice for Lincoln. How difficult can it be? Now Seth/Casey, what you need is method. You have to think yourself into funny. The day is saved. But he's shaved off that impressive Lincoln beard.

Jack Nicholson ambles out. There is only the big one left and a last, and frankly overdue, surprise, well, two actually. Michelle Obama beams in from The White House to make the big announcement. She's surrounded by service men and women in formal dress uniforms, either that or the White House staff have a compulsory Duke of Edinburgh awards programme. At least they haven't done anything really silly this year like make the people who haven't won anything for a while act out the plots of each of the nominated films with shadow puppets. 

And it's Argo. Only half a surprise. That is definitely Casey Affleck up there. There's nothing like a sore winner now is there? Ben Affleck rants about how he couldn't get work for, like, years. Now who could credit that given his creative choices? One only needs to draw to mind his memorable turn as the blind superhero in Daredevil, (which recalls Al Pacino at his best in Scent of a Woman), to conclude the snubbing could have been nothing but naked envy. Remember that old saying, 'be careful who you fuck over on your way up? If you're someone who slammed the door in the Affleck mush after Gigli and/or Jersey Girl and/or Pearl Harbor, and/or... (sorry but that list of misfires is formidable), you might want to think about retraining. I hear they're looking for fly-in-fly-out miners in far north-west Australia. Hey, if it's good enough for Josh Lucas - and word has it that a Pistorius or two might be headed that way soon...

Friday, February 08, 2013

On coming down in the last shower

Room (Detail) 2009 by Pants

A few days ago a curious thing happened. There was a knock on the door here at Seat of Pants. I opened it to a chirpy young woman from the Victorian Government. She wanted to talk to me about a 'water-saving incentive'. She would test the showers in my bathrooms and, if they failed her 'bucket test', I would be entitled to have my old shower-heads replaced with new water-saving ones for free. As an enthusiastic environmentalist, I readily agreed to the procedure.

Water-saver woman conducted the 'bucket test' by holding a well-worn plastic bucket under my running showers for 15 seconds. To fail the 'bucket test' a shower must gush more than nine litres of water per minute. Naturally, both of my showers failed because each of them produced, with great enthusiasm, the requisite amount of water required for an abundantly enjoyable ablution. There are two things you should know about the Seat of Pants showers. Firstly, they are old. Secondly, they are the best showers I've ever experienced anywhere in the world. They are six-star showers in one-star bathrooms. I get in my little en-suite shower in the morning and it's heaven in a geyser. Put like that, you will think that what I did in allowing them to be messed with was madness. And you would be right, but it's complicated.

When I owned a top-floor flat in the East End of London, someone 'from the government' came around and offered to put a draught excluder on my front door and some extra insulation in my loft - free of charge. I allowed it and my gas bill turned into small change, so I'm all too ready to believe that someone from the government can save me money. Last year a guy turned up on my doorstep touting free energy-saving light bulbs. Unfortunately, he was sleazy and not liveried in reassuring government markings. And he began his pitch with, 'this is not a scam but ...' I sent him packing. I found out later that it was genuine and I could have had twenty new bulbs fitted for free. As some of my lights are so high I need to hire an acrobat to change them, this would have been a very good deal. So, I was still smarting from missing out on that one. And yes, I was suckered into wanting something because it was free without really thinking it through.

Brace yourselves, I'm about to say a sexist thing. A woman is more likely to believe another woman making claims relating to household economics. I will happily admit that I would have been wary of a man presenting himself in the same situation. It's not that I'm afraid of men or the idea of them being in the house. I'm fine dealing with male contractors, of which there are currently many at Seat of Pants, but they're people I've hired myself and I know where they live. The water-saving device installation teams come from 300kms away, something I didn't find out until later. As it turns out, wariness would have been warranted.

Water-saver woman assured me that my wondrous, reviving morning gush would be unaltered despite the fact that only half the usual water would be rushing out to meet me. Yes, I should have paused here and done the maths, but I didn't. She'd already made the switch in the guest shower downstairs and, although I don't use it myself, I judged that the flow from the new shower-head was adequate. Still, as we made our way upstairs to my precious lair, a niggle began which I suppressed. Instead of asking her to explain the exhilarating new technology that would enable half the flow of water to maintain an equal exuberance, I took her at her word. She was a busy mother. She used one herself. I would save money.

Now, here's another point that should have given me pause. I wrote a post about the first water bill I received here at Seat of Pants back in 2009.  The total bill was for $176.00. My actual water usage was $6.00. The bulk of the money most people pay towards their water bill is for maintaining our inefficient infrastructure. My water usage has gone up a wee bit since that first bill. Ever more people come to stay and food production via the veg patch increases year on year but my actual usage isn't ever more than about $25 per quarter but the standing charge, which I can't control, continues to rise. There was almost no chance of my saving money by installing new shower-heads in two bathrooms, one of which has infrequent use.

The new shower-head went in and, predictably, it was crap. To call it a trickle would be flattery. My morning heavenly awakening turned into 'should I just stand at the sink and splash myself instead of going to all the bother of climbing out of my pyjamas for something marginally less interesting?' When it was probably already too late, I was forced to do the thinking I should have done in the first place.

The first thing I did was call up the installation company. I froze when I saw that its head office is in another state. In Australia, it's quite hard to get satisfaction across borders if something goes wrong in a transaction. My fears were surplus to requirements. The phone was answered immediately and my complaint was dealt with as if it were an entirely routine matter. I began to understand that it is. It was at that moment, and some of you will be thinking 'not before time', that I took to the internet and discovered that far from the marvellous new technology I'd imagined that makes a dribble seem like a torrent, the revolutionary new 'water-saving' shower-head simply contains a washer with a very narrow opening which stops the water from coming through. Since I have a water pump which is set to deliver water at the pace necessary to have a lovely shower, it seems comically absurd to have something installed that will halt its progress centimetres from its objective - i.e. my head.

I found instructions for removing the washer but I'd not had my showdown so I was determined to go through with getting the installation company to rectify the problem. The man at head office could not have been nicer. Water-saver woman returned clutching my old en-suite bathroom shower-head. It was unusual and easily recognisable. However, when she tried to re-install it, it was clear that it had been damaged after being thrown into a heap with the rest of the discards. I was able to maintain my cool as I knew there was an easy solution. I could remove the washer myself but not before I'd dispensed a really hard time to someone.

Water-saver woman had taken the precaution of bringing along a male colleague for backup. The three of us had a conversation which began with them presuming to tell me how I might save the planet by having a miserable morning shower. I have been interested in water conservation since I was eight and had one of those influential teachers who instigated a project in primary school which I have never forgotten. I was ready for them. What follows is the gist of my contribution.

We live in a country that wastes about half of the food it produces and a big portion of that is meat. Food production, especially meat, uses vast quantitities of water. We live in a country that makes little coherent effort to collect and reprocess water when it arrives in bulk. Most rainwater goes to waste. We live in a country that allows the coal-seam gas industry to threaten both the quality and quantity of our groundwater. But these problems require big thinking and we are living in a time of small thinking. Hence, the incentive that trapped even the likes of me, who really should have known better.

I told them that in this shire, over 90 per cent of our domestic waste-water gets recycled for environmental or industrial use. They didn't know that. They come from another part of the state so why should they? I questioned the cost of replacing a device that works perfectly well just to (potentially) save a couple of bucketfuls of water a day, that would be usefully recycled anyway. We covered only the very basic points. All I aimed for was to give these decent people a reason to question the rhetoric they'd been taught.

But, if you factor in the cost of manufacturing and shipping those shower-heads from China (and the water involved), the cost of disposing of the discarded shower-heads (and the water involved), the cost of transporting teams of installers around the state and putting them up, (in seaside accommodation in high summer in our case - and the water involved), you begin to wonder if anyone has done a cost/benefit analysis at the macro level. Does the quanta of bucket'o'water benefit amount to a hill'o'beans in environmental currency?

I'd like to think that the installers listened to my arguments and will ponder what I said. I don't expect my views to make a difference to how they'll act. They've got a job to do and they're doing it well and, I'm guessing, many people are happy with flow inhibitors on their showers. If you have a big family with young children who've never known what it is to have an energising morning shower which will also clear their hair of gooey product effectively, then it just might work.

You will recall my $176.00 water bill of which $6.00 was for actual water. I was not about to forgo my brilliantly invigorating morning wet ritual for a tokenistic sham, and I think water-saver woman got that, because she did something astounding which changed the game completely. When it was clear that my old shower-head was not going to go back from whence it came, she told me that she could remove the flow inhibitor from the new one. The irony will not be lost, I'm sure. She did it effortlessly and showed me in case I wanted to remove the one in the guest bathroom.

I gleaned from this encounter that enough people complain for there to be a process for dealing with we the difficult. That process empowers people working on a government initiative to disable a device that they are paid to install for environmental benefit. That has to raise questions. I don't blame water-saver woman. She and her company wanted to solve my problem and I very much appreciate that. They had found my old shower-head but I had seen the pile into which it had been hurled as junk and was not at all surprised that it was not capable of performing the tasks at which it had previously excelled. However, I also deduced that the company gets paid a bounty for the old shower-heads it produces and mine was needed.

I'm thrilled with my new free shower-head, which is now exactly the same as my old one only newer. Be assured I will continue to save water just as diligently as I've always done. My 4.5* water/energy-efficient washing machine and dishwasher will continue to run only twice weekly, off-peak. I will continue to refuse any and all meat products and eat fish once a week because I live in a fishing town and I know that what I buy is fresh and will support our co-operatively run fishing industry. I will maintain my lifelong pledge to never waste food - ever. Inedible peelings go into compost, which ends up on my own garden and I will always save and regrow seeds. I will contine to grow as much food as I can and the water that goes into its production will never be wasted because every single morsel will be eaten by someone.

Now, let's please address the idiocy and naivety of tokenistic government schemes that focus on the behaviour of individuals. Some Pants family members who live in Queensland were gifted water-proof egg timers to put in their shower stalls. At the time I found it difficult to see how such a thing related to the adult world, but there it was, rolling out acrosss the vastness and vacuity that is Queensland. I may well be a renegade in an otherwise compliant population but it was easy enough for me to find the instructions for removing the flow inhibitor on a 'water-saving' shower-head. Not even the staunchest of advocates can believe that these silly little gimmicks could amount to anything more than a drop in the metaphorical bucket of environmental stewardship.

So, why isn't everyone screaming? The millions that are being spent on these pointless shower-head replacements and countless other fiddles in the face of the Roman inferno that is climate change surely should be going into thinking about water conservation on a national and even global scale. But, in this country, we haven't even reached a point where we can understand that rivers don't stop at state boundaries, so thinking global is going to be a real stretch.

 Maybe we collude with these schemes because we want to participate in something, anything that will contribute to climate-change mitigation. Even I was drawn into it, perhaps for the lack of any other opportunity to be involved in the so-called 'big conversations' that we're always meaning to have about the 'issues that concern us all'. One day, perhaps, we'll have those but I don't want to spend the meantime fending off hawkers with good intentions.