The National Museum of Myanmar

 

 

My visit to the National Museum in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar, was a game of two halves.

 

The first half was pleasant but not particularly memorable.  Once I’d passed the entrance gate, with its attractively tiered and pagoda-like top, I found myself outside a hulking concrete building – one that in Britain would probably stand on a college campus built in the 1960s and house a clutch of lecture theatres.  The grounds around the museum building are dotted with statues and, because photography is forbidden inside, these were the only exhibits I could take pictures of.

 

In the building itself, the first exhibits are contained in an entrance hall.  The most interesting of these for me was a wooden carving, nearly a metre high, of two ‘gong strikers’: two stripped-to-the-waist guys carrying a stick between them with a large gong hanging from it.  The gong was the only component not made of wood – it was metal and no doubt was a real gong that matched the carving’s scale and had been bought in some music shop – and unfortunately it still had a little price-label stuck on its surface, which reduced the work’s impressiveness.

 

Beyond the hall is a section devoted to Myanmar’s ‘epigraphy and calligraphy’, where there are teak pillars and a huge bronze bell, although I wasn’t sure what these had to do with either epigraphy or calligraphy.

 

The chief exhibit on the ground floor, however, is the Lion Throne – used for “judicial affairs at the supreme court of the Myanansankyew Golden Palace in the Yadanabou Period (AD 19th century)”.  It was taken to India in 1902 but Lord Louis Mountbatten returned it to Myanmar in 1948.  It’s a masterwork of carving, adorned with spine-like pinnacles, lotus-flower scrollwork and many little compartments housing peacock, hare, elephant and lion figurines.  An information panel states that only “the Royal Monarch himself” was allowed to ascend the throne “because it was the symbol of judicial power during the reign of the Myanmar monarchs.”  Though the reign of those monarchs is long over, the rules obviously still apply – a sign underneath warns museum visitors that “(a)scending the Royal Lion Throne is strictly prohibited.”

 

Elsewhere, the ground floor exhibits some ‘state attire’, i.e. ceremonial robes and garments once worn by the country’s royalty.  Though charming, these look slightly fusty now.  Also on display are dolls’ house-sized models of the buildings at Mandalay Palace; and in another location a model of the State House that was designed by the Victorian architect Hoyne Fox, was completed in 1895 and thereafter accommodated Myanmar’s colonial rulers.  Actually, the State House model is splendid – it looks like the best dolls’ house ever.  However, the real thing no longer stands in Yangon, for the State House suffered earthquake damage during the 1970s and was later demolished.

 

From www.wikipedia.org

 

The first floor contains a room devoted to natural history and the ‘Myanmar Prehistoric Period’, of which my lasting impression was of some large toothy jawbones.  I preferred two attractions outside the room, two huge tree-roots that were carved and enamelled over, their surfaces patterned with leaves, petals, flowers and swirls and populated with sculpted rabbits, owls, monkeys, squirrels, birds, elephants and humanoid (possibly supernatural) figures.

 

When I reached the second floor I discovered the entrance to a section dedicated to ‘Myanmar Performing Arts’ and suddenly the museum became interesting for me.  Here I found an array of musical instruments, including indigenous drums, lutes, banjos, violins, flutes, gongs and xylophones; a harp shaped like a boat but with a big curved-back prow, from which the strings extend; and a zither fashioned to look like a crocodile, with the strings stretched across the scaly, knobbly ridge on its back.

 

This section also contains a selection of masks, many of them monkey-like and grotesque – the one purporting to represent the Hindu god Hanuman looks especially monstrous.  And there’s a gallery of puppets hanging inside a glass case that lines a whole wall.  These consist of animal puppets (elephants, tigers, horses, dragons) and human puppets (kings, princesses, clowns, hermits) and a few that worryingly combine both animal and human traits.

 

But while I was feasting my eyes on the riches offered by this part of the museum…  A power cut occurred and the lights went off.  And they stayed off for the rest of my visit.

 

The performing-arts room had windows along one wall and their blinds were pulled down.  As soon as the electricity stopped flowing, only a faint yellowy light managed to percolate through the blinds.  Shadows suddenly filled the room and the exhibits became sinister, the curved frames of the harps looming like serpents, the outlines of the puppets resembling corpses on a gallows.  And so began the second half of my visit to the National Museum – to borrow a title from Stephen King, The Dark Half.

 

 

Another room on the same floor was dedicated to ‘Traditional Folk Art’ and I was able to discern most of the things on display there: carvings, toys, dolls, utensils, tools.  Unfortunately, when I went to the third floor, I found it had a gallery of Burmese art where, without the lights, it was impossible to see anything after I’d walked a few yards past the doorway.  Likewise, there was a display of Buddha images on the fourth floor but it was much too dark now to make them out.

 

The fourth floor was also home to a room called the ’12 National Objectives and Nation-Building Endeavours Showroom’ – an Orwellian title that reminded me I was in a country run by a military dictatorship (though hopefully one that’s in the process of relinquishing its hold on power).  I didn’t feel like venturing inside so I don’t know if the power outage would have prevented me from seeing its contents or not.

 

And that was it.  My visit to the National Museum wasn’t a waste of time, but if I could have that afternoon again, I’d make a beeline to the Lion Throne and then run up to the performing-arts bit.  And after that I’d try to fit in as much of the upper floors as possible before the lights conked out.

 

 

The war against error

 

“We are in a war against terrorism,” French president Francois Hollande declared four days ago and three days after terrorist attacks by ISIS killed 129 people in Paris.  “Terrorism will not destroy France, because France will destroy it.” 

 

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/16/world/paris-attacks/index.html

 

To be honest, I thought Hollande’s words were more Hollywood-esque than statesman-like.  They reminded me of Liam Neeson’s catchphrase in the Taken movies:  “I will find you and I will kill you.”

 

Anyway, we’re facing a War against Terror – again.  The last time we got a War against Terror was in 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC, when President George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and the Sahara / Sahel part of Africa; and then, with the help of his good friend Tony Blair, Operation Iraqi Freedom against Saddam Hussein.  Research has shown that the number of people killed by terrorists in 2014 – just over 30,000 – was five times higher than the number killed in 2001.  So that last War against Terror worked out really well.

 

Mind you, the majority of people killed in 2014 were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria – you know, Muslims – so I don’t suppose George, or his old partner-in-prayer Tony, are particularly bothered.

 

From www.businessinsider.com

 

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/graphics-the-deadly-rise-of-terrorism-in-the-21st-century-2015-11

 

I didn’t feel like blogging about what’s been happening since those attacks in Paris and about what’s likely to happen as a result of them.  But it currently seems that every half-wit (and no-wit) with access to a keyboard is filling the twitter-sphere and Facebook-sphere and blog-o-sphere and every-other-sphere with his or her opinions on the topic.  These include Scott McDowell of Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist Party, who tweeted his support for nuking the Middle East and everyone in it, including the children, who are ‘bred’ to hate the West.  (For a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, he didn’t sound very progressive.)  Also having his say was John Rentoul, chief political correspondent for the Independent and according to Wikipedia a ‘slavish’ admirer of Tony Blair.  Barely had the gun-smoke cleared in Paris last Friday night than Rentoul used the atrocity to smear the British Labour Party’s current left-leaning (and Palestinian-sympathising) leader Jeremy Corbyn and tweeted: “Will Corbyn say France made itself a target?”

 

And let’s not forget various American gun-nuts who’ve been tweeting and posting about how the death toll in Paris would have been lower if ordinary French people were allowed to carry arms like ordinary Americans are.  I have to say that’s rich coming from citizens of the USA, a country where 129 people – the equivalent of the Paris death-toll – are killed by guns every three-and-a-bit days.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/us-gun-violence_560d9635e4b0af3706e00e20

 

So I thought I might as well contribute my tuppence-worth.  Here is some advice I’d offer Mr Hollande and other Western leaders.  If they choose not to listen to me, well, it’s their funerals – and possibly a few other people’s funerals too.

 

One. Air-strikes alone won’t beat anyone

 

As journalist Iain Macwhirter has pointed out, declaring war on a country that doesn’t actually exist – ISIS might style themselves as ‘Islamic State’ but they’re more an evil miasma that wafts in and out of existence in various warzones and failed or failing states – isn’t very logical.  Neither is vowing to kill combatants who already see themselves as martyrs and death as their raison d’être.  But it looks like war is what we’re going to get.  Already, the French Air Force has blasted the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, and probably soon David Cameron will be asking parliament for permission to let British fighter planes join in.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/france-air-strikes-in-syria-33-isis-militants-killed-in-raqqa-in-three-days-as-russia-adds-to-a6739106.html 

 

In many ways, air-strikes – unaccompanied by troop action on the ground – are great.  They spare the combatants on the air-striking side the traumas of war: bullets chewing into your body, bombs burning off your skin, other people’s blood and entrails and flesh-fragments making a mess of your fatigues and body-armour.  They also spare the politicians on the air-striking side the dilemma of having to declare war in the knowledge that, a week or two later, slain ground-troops will start to return home in body-bags.

 

No, air-strikes only involve targeting some anonymous-looking buildings or vehicles on a screen and pressing a button inside an aircraft cockpit or, better still, inside drone-control headquarters thousands of miles away.  Mind you, they’re less great for the people on the receiving end of the high-powered explosives released by that button – although because they’re ISIS terrorists, they deserve to be blown up.  Well, apart from the ones who are actually innocent civilians.  You know, innocent men, women and children who are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Innocent people whose indiscriminate slaughter will soon have thousands of impressionable and enraged youths queueing at the doors of the nearest ISIS recruitment office.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deh_Bala_wedding_party_airstrike

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wech_Baghtu_wedding_party_airstrike

 

I’ll bet ISIS love air-strikes too.  Which makes them win-win all round.

 

Indeed, the only people who don’t care for air-strikes (besides those blown-apart innocent civilians) are military experts and historians who’ll tell you that such strikes, unsupported by troops on the ground, don’t win wars.  In military terms, they’re a crap option.

 

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/1999/04/can_air_power_alone_win_a_war.html

 

Two.  This time, try having a game-plan for afterwards

 

I’m sure that in the mid-noughties, as post-invasion Iraq got increasingly bloodier, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and co. tried to comfort themselves with the old adage: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”  Although as those broken-eggshells translated into lots and lots and lots of dead people, it became clear that the American masterminds behind the invasion didn’t actually know how to make an omelette.  In fact, they didn’t seem to have a clue what an omelette was.  There’d been no research done, no blueprints drawn up, absolutely no thought given to how Iraq, after the invasion had been staged and Saddam toppled, would be managed.

 

This reinforces an observation made by Robert Skidelsky during a feature in the Guardian a few days ago: “The US deploys overwhelming firepower, either directly or by arming opposition groups, shatters local government structures, and then pulls out, leaving the country in shambles.”

 

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/17/is-western-civilisation-in-terminal-decline

 

So this time guys, please, if you have to wage war, at least devote a modicum of thought to what to do with the place afterwards.  Surely now is the time to get everyone with a stake in the future of Iraq and Syria – including the Russians, Turks and Iranians – around the table in heavy-duty negotiations about how best to run post-ISIS Iraq / Syria and how best to stop ISIS taking root there again.

 

Incidentally, Vladimir Putin might not want to hear this but, post-ISIS, the weasel-faced Bashar al-Assad can’t remain in charge of Syria.  The man has way too much blood on his hands.  As the following graphic shows, he’s responsible for many more civilian deaths than ISIS is (although I strongly suspect the number of deaths attributed to ISIS here is under-estimated).  It would be a mockery to eradicate ISIS without crowbarring him out of office too – for he and his ‘fragrant’ wife Asma al-Assad are two Syrians who deserve to be refugees.  Maybe Putin could accommodate them in Moscow.  He could stick them in the kennel with Buffy, his pet Bulgarian shepherd, or something.

 

From the Syria Campaign

 

Three.  And if you beat them – where will the survivors go?

 

You’d think people would be giving this serious thought after what happened in Mali in 2012-2013.  The collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya caused an influx of armaments and fighters (who’d been in Gaddafi’s employ before the revolution) into the north of Mali, which in turn caused the local Tuaregs to stage a rebellion, which in turn again caused the place to fall into the hands of fanatics like Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda-in-the-Islamic-Maghreb.  Squeeze a giant pimple and the pus is sure to spurt out somewhere.

 

Even if ISIS are defeated, it’ll be impossible to kill / immobilise / capture all its members.  That means a lot of them will be on the run and popping up, destructively, hither and thither.  What if, say, a good number of the 3000 Tunisians believed to be fighting for ISIS in the Middle East returned to their home nation and then became a threat to the only properly-functioning democracy in the Arab world?  That hardly bears thinking about – so it needs to be thought about, now.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-34845977

 

Four.  Stop sucking up to the country that exports fundamentalism and finances extremism

 

Centuries from now – that’s if human beings still exist centuries from now – historians will find it mind-boggling that 21st century Western governments made such a song-and-dance about fighting Islamic terrorism whilst, simultaneously, performing diplomatic and economic fellatio on the country that’s spawned, exported and financed it all.  Saudi Arabia bears the same relationship to ISIS, Al-Qaeda et al that Mordor – the Land of Shadow, the Black Land, the Nameless Land – bears to the Orc armies in the Lord of the Rings books.

 

From the Independent

 

http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/where-isis-supporters-tweet-from-mapped–lJVRG3x4dg

 

Not only has Saudi Arabia used its petro-billions to spread the intolerant creed of Wahhabism – if you’re a fundamentalist who wants to set up a hard-line madrasa and radicalise young Muslims anywhere in the world, you only have to go knocking on the kingdom’s door to get your project generously financed – but it’s poured its cash into terrorists’ coffers too.  A secret memo signed by Hilary Clinton, which surfaced because of Wikileaks, identified the country as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terror groups worldwide.”

 

And on top of everything else, it’s a total horror story as far as human rights go.  Some 2000 people have been executed – beheaded – there over the last thirty years.  Meanwhile, as the founder of the Lonely Planet series Tony Wheeler has noted in his book Badlands, any country that treated an ethnic / racial group as hideously as Saudi Arabia treats its womenfolk would be subjected to an international outcry and to political, economic and cultural sanctions.

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2014/11/wahhabism-isis-how-saudi-arabia-exported-main-source-global-terrorism

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/31/combat-terror-end-support-saudi-arabia-dictatorships-fundamentalism

 

But when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the UK seems to have a blind spot the size of a shadow cast by an eclipse.  No doubt that blindness is facilitated by the easy flow of oil heading one way and the easy flow of British-made armaments heading the other.  And no wonder the ridiculous Conservative MP Anna Soubry came out with spluttering gibberish on the BBC’s Question Time programme the other night when she was asked to explain why beheadings by ISIS were bad and beheadings by Saudi Arabia were, you know, alright.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AA-tNdu09BM

 

Five.  Oh, and the best way to beat terrorists is…

 

Not to react to them.  To just keep calm and carry on.  Doing otherwise, curtailing your activities and those of people around you, cowering within a hastily-erected cage of security measures, bans, restrictions and curbs on individual freedoms is to gift the terrorists with what they want.

 

For that reason, I’m surprised that Boris Johnson – Mayor of London and the buffoonish comic-relief mascot of the Conservative Party – recently wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph arguing that the Paris attacks justified giving the security services even more surveillance powers than they have already, for example, the power to access anyone’s lifelong browsing history on the Internet.  That’s right, Boris.  To fight Neanderthal terrorists, we should abandon the liberties that make us better than those Neanderthal terrorists.

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11997488/Paris-terror-attacks-This-was-a-911-moment-for-our-sister-city-this-was-an-act-of-war.html

 

No, I’m in agreement with Charlie Hedbo, the French satirical magazine that, you may remember, suffered terrorist problems of its own a while ago.  Its cover this week shows a man determinedly enjoying himself regardless of the terrorist bullet-holes he’s sustained.  “Ils ont les armes,” declares the cover.  “On les emmerde.  On a le champagne.”

 

From the Washington Post

 

“They have the guns.  Fuck ’em.  We have the champagne!”  Quite right too.

 

A message from Paris

 

From www.tumblir.com

 

This slogan inside the gorgeous Shakespeare and Co Bookstore on Paris’s Rue de la Bûcherie is one people should bear in mind as they begin to recover their wits and react to the terror attacks that decimated the French capital last night.

 

Supposedly, while the security services closed the city down for fear of further attacks, the bookstore became a refuge and twenty-or-so people found themselves holed up inside it for the night: http://www.adweek.com/galleycat/shakespeare-co-acts-is-safe-haven-in-paris-tonight/112568.

 

Shakespeare and Co is, of course, the sort of stronghold of intelligence, learning, culture, science, philosophy and creativity that ISIS, were they ever in control, would shut down immediately.  I’m sure they’d drag its many thousands of books out into the street, build them into a pyre, drench them in gasoline and set them alight – probably adorning the top of the burning pyre with that banner and its message of liberal neighbourliness and decency.  Then they’d blow the venerable old shop building itself to bits.

 

Which makes it all the more important for the world to stay sane and civil and respond to last night’s events as rational human beings, not as arseholes.  Leave being arseholes to ISIS.

 

Farewell, Ernst Fuchs

 

This week saw the passing of Austrian painter, sculptor, architect and designer Ernst Fuchs.  Born to Jewish and Catholic parents 85 years ago – though baptised a Catholic out of fear at what was brewing in Austria and neighbouring Germany at the time — Fuchs was a co-founder of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism.  His work always seemed to me to straddle the divide between certain acclaimed artists of yore – like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Gustav Klimt – and younger ones like H.R. Giger and Mati Klarwein who’d established themselves in the 1960s and whose work seemed as much at home in movie design and on album covers as it did on canvas.

 

The 1960s, of course, were a decade when interest exploded in the psychedelic and esoteric and any artist worth his or her salt with a hankering for the weird, fabulist and baroque had a good chance of finding an audience.  No doubt the 1960s saw Fuchs win more than a few admirers, for he liked to paint pictures that combined religious, mythological and erotic motifs whilst decking them out in eye-catching colour schemes.

 

Here are a couple of my favourites among Fuchs’s paintings.

 

Firstly, there’s Metamorphosis of Lucretia, which has a skinned, unicorn-thing crouching at the feet of a statuesque beauty whilst wielding a horn that’s second in size only to the Freudian metaphor weighing on the painting like a boulder.  But who’s the sinister, Clive Barker-style fellow in the red robe and red Panama hat lurking on the left?  (From http://www.wikiart.org/en/ernst-fuchs/the-sorrowful-rosary#supersized-artistPaintings-275438.)

 

   

Another one I like very much is Leda and the Swan – or Leda und der Schwan as the German-speaking Fuchs would have called it.  Fuchs puts a bold, brazen quality into his take on the Greek myth that’s inspired everyone from Rubens to W.B. Yeats.  Its curves and swirls call to mind the populist artist Roger Dean and the picture feels like it belongs on the cover of an album by some 1970s prog-rock or heavy metal band.  (From http://www.ernstfuchs-gallery.com/a4e.html.)

 

 

Meanwhile, here’s The Sorrowful Rosary – which sees Fuchs delving into the Catholic side of his heritage for inspiration, though the morbid religiosity of the picture is balanced by its colourfulness and fantasticality.  (From http://www.wikiart.org/en/ernst-fuchs/the-sorrowful-rosary#supersized-artistPaintings-275511.)

 

 

And finally, there’s this depiction of the two-faced Roman god Janus, which I’ve taken from http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2006/05/27/the-art-of-ernst-fuchs/.  Unlike most pictures of Janus, there’s no simple juxtaposition of the faces here, one looking forwards and the other backwards.  Rather, they form a twisted, ruptured semi-configuration so that one gazes out balefully from the side of the other – which in my opinion makes this the spookiest thing of all to have come from the imagination of the late Ernst Fuchs.

 

 

In-flight movies

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I’ve done a lot of flying recently, mostly with Qatar Airways.  And when I’m on a long-haul flight with an airline that’s sufficiently in-the-money to have a big entertainment system embedded in the seat-back a few inches from my nose, there’s only one thing I can do.  I can only dig into that system’s movie-selection and find a few big-budget summer blockbusters – movies I’d never proactively go and seek out at a cinema, but which are sufficiently easy on the brain for me to watch when I’m knackered and strapped into a cramped airplane seat for seven or eight hours.

 

The first thing I watched was the Marvel Comics superhero adaptation Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was released six months ago.

 

Being old, I can remember a time when the Avengers really were comic-book characters and the prospects of them ever appearing in a movie seemed remote.  But my experiences reading the Avengers comic as a kid in the 1970s were frustrating, because the newsagents closest to where I lived in Northern Ireland didn’t stock anything by Marvel.  I had to wait till my family made one of their occasional visits to the nearest town, Enniskillen, where I could buy such comics at Veitch’s newspaper shop.  The infrequency with which I read the Avengers meant that each time I did so, disconcertingly, the team of superheroes featured in the comic had changed their line-up. There were always newcomers who’d seemingly popped up out of nowhere, while previous members I’d become used to had disappeared.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

However, the team’s core was fairly solid: Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  All three appear in Age of Ultron, respectively played by Chris Evans, Chris Helmsdale and Robert Downey Jr.  Also in the movie are the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  And we get War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) too.  And halfway through the movie, in struts Samuel L. Jackson playing the one-eyed Nick Fury, director of the espionage, law-enforcement and counter-terrorism organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Phew.  That’s a lot of Marvel characters in one movie.  I found it hard to keep up with them all.  I was particularly puzzled by the presence of the brother-and-sister superheroes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, because I remember them from a different comic, the X-Men – in which they worked for the bad guy, Magneto.  (Indeed, Quicksilver also appeared in the last X-Men movie, Days of Future Past.  There, however, he was an easy-going dude played by Evan Peters, whereas in Age of Ultron Taylor-Johnson portrays him as an altogether more intense and serious character.)

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

Incidentally, I was pleased to see Iron Man take centre-stage in this film.  I always felt sorry for him in the comics because frankly, compared to the more dramatically attired Captain America and Thor, he seemed like a dork in a boring tin suit.  But played by Robert Downey Jr, he’s more interesting and glamorous.  Mind you, the fact that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a billionaire playboy who’s built his business empire on selling weapons – he’s basically Donald Trump without the crap wig but with a dossier of dodgy arms deals with the Saudis – has made him the subject of some disapproval, including in this recent article in the New Statesman:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/04/politics-iron-man-how-marvel-sold-arms-dealing-billionaire-liberal-america.

 

Actually, Iron Man’s moral ambiguity is what gives him depth – depth that’s lacking in some of the other characters.  And it’s Stark’s overconfident meddling with forces he doesn’t understand that creates and unleashes the movie’s big baddie, Ultron, a global computer system powered by a gemstone from Loki’s sceptre – you need to have watched the previous Avengers movie to know what I’m talking about – that becomes sentient and later incarnates itself in a robot body.

 

Among the other characters I remember from the 1970s is the Vision, the ghostly green-skinned synthesised android who was one of my favourite Avengers.   I’m glad that he’s played here by an actor as good as Paul Bettany.  I also recall Nick Fury, whom I thought was a dullard in his comic-book days.  He seemed a slab-headed, gung-ho, ex-marine type who really belonged in a war comic like Sergeant Rock.  But casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role hasn’t only given Fury a change of skin-colour – personality-wise he’s more appealing now.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

By the way, Fury has been played in the past by a white actor, in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  In that, he was played by, ahem, David Hasselhoff.

 

With multiple characters, multiple sub-plots, multiple incidents and multiple back-story references, I should have liked Age of Ultron more than I did.  After all, this was how the superheroes’ stories were told in the comics.  And over the years, comic fans have complained about how these superheroes have been treated by filmmakers, with the complex comics storylines – developed over scores and finally hundreds of issues – simplified and pared to the bone to suit the demands of a stand-alone film, with a linear narrative, little room for back-story and a running time of two or so hours.

 

Age of Ultron should have been a happy reminder to me of how the comics were, but I found it too distractingly busy.  It even made me nostalgic for the best superhero movies of old – Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s underrated take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel – where the superhero and supervillains were confined to two or three characters and the stories were reasonably self-contained.  Yes, I love the old comic-book approach to story-telling, but I don’t think it works in the medium of film.

 

Age of Ultron would probably have been more palatable as a TV series, where its twists and turns could have been spun out over a number of episodes.  The irony is that the movie was masterminded by Joss Whedon, whose best-known work is a TV series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from 1997 to 2003.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I thought I’d enjoy another Marvel adaptation, one of the sci-fi / space-opera comic Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released last year.  This was because it got many good reviews that praised its irreverent tone and described it as unpretentious fun.  Also, science fiction fans saw fit to give it this year’s Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation (long form).

 

It’s about a group of buccaneering, spacefaring misfits who get caught up in a feud between two intergalactic factions, the Nova Empire and the Kree.  The group consists of a human (Chris Pratt) whom aliens abducted from Earth in the 1980s, when he was eight years old; a hard-assed extra-terrestrial lady with a green skin played by Zoe Saldana, who’s best known for her performance as an extra-terrestrial and blue-skinned lady in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009); a hulking warrior whose body is a circuit-board-like mass of scar patterns (David Bautista); a genetically engineered, talking space raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and a walking alien tree called Groot, who only communicates with the words “I am Groot” (voiced by Vin Diesel).

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t much enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy because I didn’t think the film was as smart, funny or cool as it thought it was.  A particular annoyance was Rocket, the talking space raccoon, who’s meant to be its main source of humour but whose incessant, cynical wisecracking just bugged me.  After a few minutes in his company, I was longing for a giant spaceship to run over the top of him and reduce him to a smear of interstellar roadkill.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios 

 

The film has a smug knowingness that’s embodied in the fact that it has Vin Diesel playing a tree.  Yes, that’s Vin Diesel, who’s often mocked for his wooden acting style, playing a mass of wood.  Get it?  Come to think of it, the joke would have been funnier if they’d hired Roger Moore.

 

I found the film’s soundtrack problematic too.  It features a host of songs that were supposedly on a cassette tape in Pratt’s Walkman when he was abducted and now constitute his only link with Earth.  The issue is that Pratt was supposedly abducted in the late 1980s and all these songs – which get played out over the movie’s swashbuckling space action – come from the 1970s or late 1960s: I’m not in Love by 10cc, Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum, Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede (which also saw movie-soundtrack duty in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs), etc.  You’d expect something from the late 1980s to be on that cassette tape, although it’d probably be a shit song like Faith by George Michael or Wishing Well by Terence Trent D’Arby.

 

A properly cool late-1980s kid, of course, would have had the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Killing Joke, the Cramps, the Pixies, the Sisters of Mercy and the Stone Roses on his or her Walkman.  Wow – imagine that lot being played out over scenes of epic space battles!

 

One compensation is the supporting cast.  Keep your eyes and ears open during Guardians of the Galaxy and you’ll spot Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Peter Serafinowicz and Christopher Fairbank, who once upon a time played Moxey, the Scouse plasterer in the much-loved British TV comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.  And playing a shaven-headed, blue-skinned villainess is the Scottish actress Karen Gillan, who occupies a fond place in my heart for essaying the no-nonsense Amy Pond in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

Matt Smith, the actor who played the Doctor to Gillan’s Amy Pond, turned up in another blockbuster I watched during my Qatar Airways flights: this summer’s Terminator Genisys, the fifth in the franchise of sci-fi movies that began with James Cameron’s The Terminator back in 1984.  I can imagine Smith’s excitement at being offered a role in a big-budget Hollywood movie turning to disappointment when he saw its final cut and realised he was barely in it.  Mind you, he should be relieved that he’s barely onscreen because the finished film isn’t very good.

 

It begins with a reworking of events at the start of the 1984 Terminator.  John Connor (Jason Clarke), human resistance leader in a dystopian future where the machines have taken over and nearly extirpated mankind, discovers that the machines have sent a terminator – i.e. a hulking but human-like killer robot – back in time to the early 1980s to execute his mother, prevent him from being born and prevent the human resistance from ever existing too.  So he sends his friend Kyle Reece (Jai Courtney) back in time to the 1980s to stop the terminator and save his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke).

 

The twist is that Reece arrives in a different version of the past.  This is because someone, mysteriously, has sent another terminator – a reprogrammed, nice terminator, similar to the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the second and third Terminator movies in 1991 and 2003 and also played by Schwarzenegger here – to the 1970s to protect Sarah Connor as a girl.  And this has changed the timeline since then.  Therefore, you get incidents similar to ones in the first two Terminator movies happening again, but differently – mainly because nice-Arnold-from-the-1970s and a now-weaponised Sarah Connor keep turning up to kick the asses of various bad-guys-from-the-future.  These bad-guys-from-the-future include the creepy, cat-like, shape-shifting T-1000, who in Terminator II was played by Robert Patrick but is played here by the Korean actor Lee Byun-hun.

 

Meanwhile, Sarah and Arnold have somehow managed to build a time machine similar to the one used by the machines.  With this, Sarah and Reece travel forward in time to 2017, by which time the takeover by the machines hasn’t yet happened – it’s been delayed, apparently – but it will happen soon unless the sneakily-becoming-sentient machines are stopped.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry.  By this point it’d stopped making sense to me too.  And thereafter the film flails around with an increasing number of chases, explosions and bursts of illogical plot exposition.  There’s one plot-twist that would have been chilling if it hadn’t, unfortunately, been given away in the movie’s promotional trailers.

 

Just as the plot gets lost in a mess of time-travelling inconsistencies, so the audience’s appreciation of Terminator Genisys gets stuck in its own self-defeating loop.  To understand what’s going on, you need to have seen Cameron’s original two movies.  But if you’ve seen those, you’ll probably be annoyed to watch their best ideas and scenes pilfered by this brasher and shallower re-tread.

 

Any entertainment value in the film comes from a couple of the performances: namely, the great character actor J.K. Simmons in a supporting role and the now-pushing-seventy Schwarzenegger as yours truly.  To explain Arnold’s decrepitude – I use the word ‘decrepitude’ in a relative sense: it’s not like I’d fancy my chances in a fight with him or anything – we learn that the synthetic flesh coating the terminators’ robotic skeletons grows old, just as real flesh does on real humans.  Thus, by 2017, Arnold (who hasn’t travelled forward in time with Sarah and Reece, but has just hung around since 1984 waiting for them to show up) is looking quite pensionable.  The filmmakers have even given him a catchphrase to reflect his aging: “Old, not obsolete.”

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

This is nowhere near as memorable as “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby”, but it does sound poignant when he utters it in 2017, while we see his hand trembling uncontrollably and we realise the circuitry inside it soon will be obsolete.

 

Sadly, a modified version of that catchphrase sums up Terminator Genisys itself.  Old and obsolete.

 

A spooky old Yangon house

 

 

Still on a Halloween theme…

 

The big, crumbling and seemingly empty house in these pictures, which I took during my stay in Yangon, stood at the side of a road a little way after the compound of Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda and a little way before the southern entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda.

 

Sealed off from the road by a line of high, spear-like railings, abandoned, and with nobody to maintain it, the house had gradually deteriorated beneath the relentless Myanmar sun and rain.  Its walls had become blistered and blighted, its panels of corrugated-iron eaten by red rust, and much of its grounds swallowed up by vegetation.

 

 

It reminded me a little of the short story The Shunned House, written in 1924 (though not published until 1937) by H.P. Lovecraft.  The titular house in this story stood ‘leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous’ and, according to the narrator, “(w)hat I had heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers…  It was plainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungus growth in the cellar, the general sickish smell, the draughts of the hallway, or the quality of the well or pump water.” 

 

But I doubt if this spooky old house in Yangon had quite the same nightmarish features as the house in Lovecraft’s story – like, for example, its fungi, which were “detestable parodies of toadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen in any other situation.  They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightly phosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witch-fires burning behind the broken panes of the foetor-spreading windows.”

 

Looking at these pictures now, I realise what gives the house its creepy demeanour.  It’s seeing its decaying façade through a veil of foliage – especially those big, barbed fronds, which make it look like it’s guarded by rows of sinister tendrils and teeth.