Saturday, 28 March 2009

Cinema: Wendy and Lucy

Caught Wendy and Lucy at the HL today. Really good but a somewhat depressing picture of modern poverty, together with a rather heart-breaking core.

Wendy is travelling from Indiana to Alaska where she hopes to find a job and begin a new life. Accompanying Wendy is her dog Lucy, pretty much Wendy's only friend in the world. However, when passing through Oregon, Wendy's plans come unstuck when first her car breaks down, and then Lucy goes missing.

The film is a rather low-key adaptation of what appears to be a short story. It takes place in only a few locations and includes only a handful of characters, principally Wendy and Lucy. But it brilliantly conveys the precariousness of Wendy's journey, in particular the threadbare finances upon which it's running. The hardness and disinterest of the world around Wendy is offset only by the small kindnesses of a few of the people that she meets, but reinforced by run-ins with several others (including a rather unforgiving Christian). It does a lot with relatively few scenes, quickly establishing Wendy and Lucy's bond and efficiently sketching an evocative picture of a life lived at the edge.

Overall a small gem, but a rather bitter one.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A very professional revolutionary

Caught Che, Part 1 today. It was surprisingly enjoyable for a biopic. What was also surprising was the film's focus on Che Guevara's practical talents as a doctor, soldier, commanding officer and "revolutionary manager". The frequent jump-cutting to Guevara's address of the UN showed his familiar revolutionary side, but the rest of the film shows his skill at more down-to-Earth activities. I have to note that Benicio del Toro is a convincing Guevara, both in physical appearance and inhabiting the character. Anyway, very enjoyable, and a great companion piece to The Motorcycle Diaries from a few years ago.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Flight of fantasy

Back to Iain Banks territory, but dipping once more into his fiction. However, a singularly strange addition to his fictional canon this time: his 1986 novel The Bridge.

Ordinarily I'd say something about the plot at this point, just to remind me what it was all about for later. While it would be possible to go into the details of the sequence of events in The Bridge, this would would largely miss the point of the novel (at least as I interpreted it). Instead, it's probably just better to say that, vis-à-vis the cover blurb, The Bridge describes the extended fantasies of a comatose man critically injured in a car accident. The narrative is split between several broadly unconnected strands, united only (at least ostensibly) by their essentially hallucinating narrator.

The most significant strand describes the quest by an amnesiac man to discover the circumstances that led him to be confined to what appears to be an never-ending bridge that doubles as a linear city as well as a thoroughfare. This strand begins with the man describing dreams (or dreams that he invents) to the psychiatrist assigned to resolve his amnesia, but ultimately takes in a hellish journey to a distant warzone. As the novel progresses, this strand is joined by another in which the injured man gradually recounts his own biography, a narrative that returns repeatedly to the Forth Railway Bridge, a structure that informs the bridge on which the amnesiac is confined. Flitting between these strands is a further one, a bizarre fantasy involving a barbarian and his familiar. Written in a Scots vernacular (which slowly disappears as it progresses), this is an almost fantasy fiction tale which takes the barbarian on travels that rope in Greek mythology and even hints at Banks' own Culture universe.

As the foregoing implies, this is something of a unique and rather complicated novel. Banks has made an attempt to structure it by dividing it into several parts (named after geological periods; a nod to the narrator's real-world job), and also through the ordering and frequency with which narrative strands appear. But I still struggled to make an awful lot of sense from its jumping between what are quite disconcertingly different threads.

That said, while reading it I really didn't find that this actually mattered all that much. Although I was, and still am, confused by what all of the narratives stand for or symbolically mean, I found myself picked up and carried along by the fantastical nature of the novel. The central narrative of the amnesiac creates such a rich and mesmerising world, that I really wasn't bothered that I couldn't work out what it was all about. And the narrative concerning the barbarian is a real hoot. Much as with Banks' later science fiction novel, Feersum Endjinn, which employs a similar style, reading the first-person and largely phonetic description of the barbarian's trials is a great laugh. By contrast, the gradual interleaving of the more biographical narrative seems altogether too conventional. It describes a life that is almost certainly autobiographical in part, and while it's gradually tied into the other stories, by the end it still stands a little too proud of them. And I still haven't quite worked out the significance of its details for the fantasy worlds of the Bridge and the barbarian.

In passing, one of the points I enjoyed in the biographical narrative was its description of growing up in Scotland. Without getting too precious about it, I found that this occasionally paralleled my own experience. The novel paints a recognisable portrait of small-town life in the 60s and 70s, a life that's supplanted when the narrator becomes the first member of his family to go to university. While this is a life-expanding experience, the narrator finds that his broadened horizons also open something of a gulf with his family. The novel doesn't make this as overblown as I just have, but I recognised some of the same things in my own past.

Anyway, a pretty singular book from Banks. With the exception of the first-person vernacular, it shares very little with any of his other books, fiction or science fiction. I don't think that it's as successful at melding the different strands as it could be, and the transitions and revelations that link them seem quite forced and obvious at times. But it was still a very enjoyable read just for the imagination that Banks has put into it. It's interesting that he's never gone back to anything quite like it - for all their baroque space opera and contemporary themes, his later books are actually rather conventional compared to this. But definitely worth a look for fans of Banks I reckon.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

(Yet more) Schmap success

This time for Barcelona ...
Similar to before, not exactly one of our best photographs. If one can't be bothered waiting for it to appear, the photograph appears here. It's an exterior shot of the Barcelona Pavilion designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Unlike other photographers featured by Schmap, we visited it on a cloudy grey day ...

Monday, 16 March 2009

Pole Star

Successfully got a nice star trails photograph of the Pole Star and surrounds this evening ...

Pole Star

This time I set the gap between frames to its minimum (1 second), and used longer times for individual frames (2 minutes). I seemed to get a number of planes crossing the sky, and the Pole Star wasn't quite as stationary as I'd hoped, but overall not too bad.

Gardening at high speed

If only I really could do the gardening at this speed ...

Pushkin favours a more leisurely approach to the garden ...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

A: I watch the Watchmen

So, was it any good? Did it live up to the fevered anticipation? In a word, yes.

While not without flaws (see below), it's easily one of the most faithful (in letter and in spirit) adaptations I've seen on the screen. Even though it's a fairly long film, I still expected a large amount of trimming and simplification, but I was surprised at how much of the detail and texture from the graphic novel has survived to the screen. Yes, the ending has been changed, but only really in letter, and not in spirit. And, to be honest, I find the film's ending actually better than the original; it's less comic-book-crazy and quite simply makes more sense.

But where does it go wrong? There are a couple of places where I think that the film goes slightly off the rails. Some of the film's issues are actually faults in the graphic novel itself, but there are other problems that the film itself has created. Firstly, although I wouldn't like to be the one wielding the editor's scissors, it probably is about 20 minutes too long. Which brings me to my second criticism. The only flab I could readily identify was around some of the violence and the "love" scene that takes place in Archie. The former violent sequences are completely unnecessary, and almost drag the film back to its comic book origins too much (they also paint the costumed heroes as almost superhuman, which diminishes the point that they're not). The latter is unnecessarily graphic (what a prude I am!) and, again, completely unnecessary. We don't need a blow-by-blow account; cinema can be subtle. I'd also be a little critical of the level of gore in the film. While the graphic novel is not without such touches, some of the scenes are really not necessary. Again, one of cinema's strengths is that it's subtle enough for things to be darkly hinted at. Finally, I have to say that it was surely not beyond the ken of the film-makers to get in a Richard Nixon impersonator that actually looked like Nixon rather than one of the mask-wearing bank robbers from Point Break. Couldn't they have asked Frank Langella? I understand that he recently finished a little film called Frost/Nixon.

But where does it go right? It opens with a brilliant montage that efficiently fills in quite a bit of the Watchmen mythos, all set to Bob Dylan's (appropriately chosen) The Times They Are a-Changin'. This is the first of several set-piece sequences that make good use of classic music tracks, and it gets the film off to a great start. The film's art design is scrupulously faithful to the graphic novel, with the only changes being, basically, improvements. The film also retains a surprising amount of dialogue or commentary from the graphic novel; obviously not all of it, but the film-makers have been very careful here. And though some of the performances have attracted criticism, particularly Malin Åkerman, I just don't see this. I thought she was perfectly acceptable, and actually made the most of what's a rather underwritten role in the original novel.

Anyway, it gets two thumbs up from me, though I am a fan of the graphic novel, but not an obsessive that seeks a level of perfection that cinema can't deliver (and which ignores problems with the source material). I can well see it being a rather confusing affair for some viewers, but that's true of many films at the best of times. And while I'm sure I'll think of other things that are wrong with it as I mull it over later, overall, and with certain caveats (including that I don't think it's the best film ever, etc., etc.), I think that the film-makers did it proud.

In passing, although C thought it was too long, it was generally well-received. To my relief!

Star trails

Tried a different sort of experiment last night with the automatic timer. Rather than build up a time-lapse series of images for a movie, this time I took a series of long exposures for a star trails photograph ...


There's a longer description of how I did up up at Flickr. It worked out pretty well I think. I need to kill the gap I introduced, and it might be better to try a portion of the sky where I can get circular trails. Straight trails with no foreground objects look a little bit like a failed Matlab plot.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

NOCS open day

I was a helper at today's NOCS open day for the public. We open our doors each year during/around Science Week to give whoever's interested a glimpse of the sort of work we do in Southampton. It's mostly families with young children who come along, but we do get quite a range, including quite a number of interested senior citizens.

Although us modellers can sometimes struggle to communicate our rather esoteric, simulated work, we were greatly assisted by the rental of this rather brilliant prop ...

It allows us to project animated model output onto a 2 m diameter sphere. The movie shown here is a rather boring one that I created of anthro CO2 invasion of the ocean, but some of the others that we had were pretty spectacular. Particularly some of the ones showing high resolution ocean physics - they look so good you can almost believe they're real (says a modeller). The globe acted as a pretty great ambassador for modelling, and certainly drew in a lot of visitors - even if some of them were more impressed by the "padding movies" of dolphins than those of our research.

Probably down to me not knowing when to shut-up, I had a number of long chats with various people about what we had on display, the science of climate change and careers in research. One chap, who I initially pegged as a climate "skeptic", wound up discussing socio-economics and the Club of Rome (of all things!) with me.

I had a really very encouraging chat with a woman who, while not a "skeptic", drew from what she'd heard in the media about climate change in the past to question how important the upcoming changes will be. It's a fair point, since most climate science TV programmes fail to mention that what's really significant about the anthropocene is not the changes that are happening per se, but rather the speed at which they're happening. The Earth has had much higher atmospheric CO2 in the past, and has had a much warmer climate, but generally the changes that have occurred have taken place relatively slowly. Anyway, by the end of a very long and rambling chat (taking in climate change vs. mountain-dwelling rodents, sediments, the PETM, her daughter's high school subject choices and science careers), she seemed convinced that I'd told her something new, and that she'd revised her slightly skeptical views. Of course, she could just have been being polite.

Anyway, the day was a lot of fun. As scientists we often pooh-pooh public understanding of science as a new buzzword, but my experience is that the public are genuinely interested and get a lot out of it, and that it's really a very satisfying way to spend a day. That and we got a free lunch.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Even operas need sequels

In these days of increasingly high-numbered sequels to books, films and videogames, it's tempting to think that the temptation to revisit familiar characters is a singularly modern malaise to afflict the arts (videogames having a long and noble tradition, of course). However, there are lots of historical precedents, and last night we went to see one of them at the Mayflower Theatre.

Way back in the late 18th century, playwright Pierre Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy (OK, so the numbers didn't get too high in those days) of plays featuring the wily and comic character of Figaro (plus his sometime employer, Lord Almaviva, and Almaviva's wife, Rosine), the most famous of which are the The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. As they were satires on the establishment, the plays were initially censored, then uproariously successful and then, in fairly short order, they were converted into operas.

Courtesy of C, I saw The Barber of Seville by composer Rossini (1816; actually a "remake", an earlier version having been done in 1782) a number of years ago. That was a brilliant, knock-about production by the Welsh National Opera, and my introduction to opera-as-farce. That was a really vivacious performance which, opera-novice that I am, made me think of a Shakespeare comedy set to music. But with laughs. Anyway, last night we took in the sequel, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart (1786; so, actually, something of a "prequel" to Rossini).

In terms of plot, it picks up some years after the events of The Barber of Seville, focusing this time on Figaro's imminent marriage to Susanna, Rosine's maid. The crux of the play is that although Lord Almaviva has renounced his title's claim to the (purported) historical feudal tradition of droit de seigneur (the right to sleep with a bride on the night of her marriage), he'd like to make an exception for Susanna, much to the obvious opposition of both Figaro and Rosine. Much of the narrative takes the form of the plots that Figaro, Rosine and Susanna hatch to either distract Almaviva, or publicly expose his (hoped for) infidelity. There are, of course, a number of misunderstandings and strange subplots along the way that complicate these plans. But plot isn't really what's important at an opera (just as well in this case).

As a musical spectacle, TMoF was a lot of fun in parts. There are a number of rousing setpieces in the opera, although unlike TBoS I thought this one sagged a bit between these numbers. This surprised me a bit, since I tend to view Mozart as a bit more exciting as a composer, certainly for his orchestral work. I did think this might be because he didn't major in opera, but a quick check of WP suggests that he was far more than a dabbler. One advantage that Rossini's TBoS had over this opera was that it was written several decades later, so perhaps Rossini was able to learn a bit from Mozart's sagging. Or perhaps I'm just a musical ignoramous who can't recognise musical genius even when it's dangled right in front of me?

Continuing to be somewhat rude about TMoF, it's also a good 30 minutes too long - the third act finishes on the wedding, but there's a whole fourth act after that which could either be dispensed with (musically it's not all that exciting) or somehow distilled down to a coda to the wedding. Three hours and twenty minutes (plus interval) is pretty long for any seated event, and when things are sagging it can feel even longer. I can't, for instance, recall seeing a film of this length in a long time - cinema is frequently judged as overlong whenever it breaches the two hour barrier, let alone three hours.

In passing, although also performed by the Welsh National Opera, this production was immediately distinguished from the former by its use of late 19th/early 20th century (I think) costumes and settings. Given that the play centres itself around a (purported) Medieval aristocratic privilege, this seems a little incongruous.

Anyway, it was a great night out, but I was a little disappointed given that it was: (a) Mozart, and I expected a little better from him; and (b) coming after a great TBoS performance by the same company. Still, judged from the perspective of an infrequent opera-goer, it did the business. Perhaps just twenty minutes or so too much business.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Crime and the City

After a bit of a break, back into the crime genre with Richard Price's 2008 novel Lush Life.

Set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Lush Life begins with a night out on the town that finishes with a shooting. Ike Marcus, a bartender with more ambitious career plans, is shot dead leaving Eric Cash, a cafe manager and fellow reveller, the most immediate witness. Cash's story is that they were accosted by two black teenagers, one of whom shot Ike when he refused to be cowed by them. However, some other witnesses claim not to have seen the purported assailants, and the police officers running the case, Matty Clark and his partner Yolanda, quickly turn Cash from key witness into chief suspect. But, after breaking Cash down in questioning, the officers realise, too late, that his story holds water, and that the real perpetrators are fading away as the crime scene goes cold. As well as chasing these ghosts, they have to deal with a now-uncooperative Cash, and Marcus' dysfunctional family as it comes to terms with his death.

Characterisation and texture is where this novel succeeds best. Unlike most other crime novels, the plot is really relatively slender. Its denouement is less the result of patient police work than a chance encounter with one of the perpetrators, a prediction that is actually made by Clark to Marcus' family early into the investigation. Instead of police procedural, the novel tracks the consequences of the murder and delves into the backgrounds of the characters that frame it. It also vividly recreates the mean streets of Manhattan, bringing it to life through a series of events and incidental characters.

If I were to fault the novel at all, it'd just be that it's perhaps a bit too long for the slender tale at its core. The aforementioned character and texture carry the novel a long way, but I was beginning to lose patience with it by about three quarters the way through. And since the plot is so slender, I began thinking that I'd perhaps missed some key passage earlier on that would make sense of it all instead of focusing on the scenery.

I should perhaps have spotted the clue in the title: lush life indeed.

In passing, it was quite a strange experience reading this novel at the same time as working my way through GTA IV (of which, more once I'm done). Though the latter tends to the pulp end of the crime genre (which, to be fair, is still an achievement for its artform), it does such a good job of recreating New York, I almost expected to come across the street shrine that's erected for Marcus at some point.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Where I've been

"Go West" seems to be the prevailing order ...

visited 15 states (6.66%)
Create your own visited map of The World

A similar motif for the US ...

visited 14 states (28%)
Create your own visited map of The United States