Thursday, June 23, 2011

Museum Pieces #6

From London's Science Museum, an assortment of items arranged to set off warm and fuzzy feeling of nostalgia amongst us 40-somethings. Note the slim, door-wedge-styled Sinclair ZX80 between the Apple II and the Windows 3.1 manual. I had the replacement model myself, the ZX81, in black. In fact I still have it here in Guatemala in a box up in my study!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Museum Pieces #5

One of the treasures of the British Museum I make a point of revisiting each time I'm in there, these twelfth century walrus ivory chess pieces known as the Lewis Chessmen (though the most characterful figures are perhaps the two queens) were probably made in Trondheim, Norway and were discovered on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. The BM has 67 of the 78 pieces; the rest can be seen at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kids and computers

"Science is a tool for problem-solving - the best that humans possess. But it has this peculiarity, that when it is most successful it creates new problems, some of which are insoluble." (John Gray)

V's niece has a surprising fluency about the PC interface. Yet the notion that each generation is inevitably more au fait with information technology is a myth that could do with some challenging.

For example, V herself would have little trouble using the DOS prompt to deal with a tricky corrupted file that repeatedly crashes Windows Explorer once clicked on. Her niece meanwhile, for all her dextrous expertise, probably has little comparable understanding of the underlying hardware and software architecture of a laptop. For her, it's really just an oversize Blackberry that won't fit in her back pocket.*

I'm sure she knows how to use the simple Google search box to look up Justin Bieber, but if she didn't, I could show her in a matter of minutes. What I'd find a lot harder to pass on are the sort of sophisticated search techniques that became the basis of my living in the mid-1990s. This is because they are grounded in reasoning skills acquired across my formal education, many of which have little basis in either computers or technology in general (Medieval History for example!)

Here's another example that got us thinking. We have a young acquaintance in our colonia of apparently above-average intelligence and sensitivity, better-educated and certainly comfortable with computers. When V offered to help him improve his English conversation skills, we soon discovered that he didn't really know how to use a dictionary. Now you might think that this, rather like mental arithmetic, is exactly the sort of low-tech talent that kids today can dispense with, because there are electronic tools out there that make such tasks so much easier than they were in our day.

But dictionaries are systematised information, the very basis of the computational revolution that went mainstream in the latter part of the last century. And it's not just that our friend struggled, as so many Chapines do, with his ortografia: not knowing or caring for example if the translation of 'deep' is Hondo or Ondo. He didn't seem to have accurate mental map of how the letters of the alphabet are ordered, and once he got to the right letter for the word he was seeking, he started slowly reading every word in the sequence until he eventually found it.

It therefore surely goes without saying that the ability to mentally parse an index at speed without a computer is very much a preliminary life skill that one has to acquire before one has any hope of getting the most out of all that binary data stored on computers around the globe.

Most of the really important computer skills are not really computer skills at all. Hence, giving every teen in Guatemala a free laptop is unlikely to transform the nation into an IT powerhouse overnight...though it might drastically increase the number of irrelevant Facebook taggings.

The people who get the most out of these technologies are ultimately those who are using them as an extension — an enhancement even — of their own information processing capabilities. Yet the flipside of this 'solution' is perhaps a whole new set of problems, when one considers that the very same tools may actually be hindering a whole subset of children in education today from acquiring these capabilities in the first place.

*I'm reminded of my photographer cousin's gripes that somewhere between XP and 7, the dominant visual metaphor for Windows became that of a kiddies' playground.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Known rather more ominously as Der Plan in Germany, George Nolfi's directorial debut never quite shakes off its likeabilty, ultimately rooted in that of principals Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, though the more one pauses to consider its philosophical scaffolding, the more one starts to feel like Phillip K. Dick would have done on learning that one of his paranoid metaphysical mysteries had been forcibly paired up with a cookie-cut romantic comedy formula. (Who knows though, he might have appreciated the irony of coating It's a Wonderful Life in a fascist veneer!)

Every appearance of Harry Mitchell, David Norris's fedora'd expositing angel / case officer left me reeling as if from a blow to the lower gut, but one of the underlying themes — perhaps even more central than the inevitably bodged one of free will — that of the incompatibility between love and ambition, was worth more than a moment's pondering.

Doesn't poor old Adrian have a case agent?

Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This wonderful chap was making the most of a community Xmas party in San Sebastián de la Gomera that we sort of crashed a few years ago.

Just love the way he manages to integrate a repeat order for another chela into his dance moves...

I guess that in both temperament and to some extent accent, the people of La Gomera are closer to the tropical Hispanic model than Iberians proper.

This clip has always been a favourite souvenir of mine from that trip and I recently rediscovered it on an old 2003 Mac external drive that I managed to fire up again. As this was one journey we made without a digital camera, the Mini DV camcorder tapes I'm currently processing through Final Cut are a real treasure.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hanna (2011)

It is said that Christopher Nolan's formula for success is in making two of the three key elements in any screenplay — plot and narrative — intelligently complex, while leaving the viewer a straightforward path through the maze via the third — character — which he invariably leaves simple, at least in terms of motivations. 

One can get a sense of just how mediocre a project Hanna was at conception by mentally stripping away its striking-looking cast, its self-indulgent direction, its intrusive score by the Chemical Brothers, its icky coating of fairy tale resonance etc. until one is left with the core trichotomy of plot, narrative and character, all of which are embarrassingly sub-standard. 

Saoirse Ronan became attached to the production first and called in her old mate Joe Wright from Atonement. Sure he could make something of this underdeveloped material? Well no, because the completed movie has the inevitable reek of directorial over-compensation. The cast are no help. Bana and Blanchett act as if told to cut back on the charisma and Ronan appears to be the result of a secret government programme to genetically engineer unsympathetic lead characters. 

It doesn't help that the three of them have an essentially pitiless approach to all the other incidental cast members. The action opens in Finland where Eric and Hanna have been lying low since she was a baby. Eric has filled her mind with facts about the outside world and taught her how to terminate with extreme prejudice, armed and unarmed. The screenwriters then serve up the dumbest of macguffins in the form of a switch and a flashing red light, the result of which is that Hanna ends up in a secret US government facility in Morocco (yes!). 

Blanchett plays Marissa, a kind of wicked witch come step-mother, but also a government spook with suggested double-agent tendencies. Once the red light flashes, Marissa will stop at nothing to kill her, Eric tells Hanna, though the rest of the plot hardly bears this out and Marissa only knows of Hanna's existence because the latter gets herself deliberately captured. Cue unlikely escape with Hanna making her way up into Spain by stowing away with an English family in a camper van, who would appear to be a rather limp attempt at satire. 

On the road Hanna befriends Sophie, played by Jesscia Barden reprising her role as the gobby teen from Tamara Drewe, though to less amusing effect. Meanwhile Hanna is being trailed by a gang of German skins led by Isaacs (Tom Hollander with a blond hairdo and banana-yellow 80s tracksuit), a sub-villain who is little more than a visual effect and whose lackadaisical attempts to take Hanna captive generate the first in a series of tension-free chase scenes. 

An indication of just how hard Wright is working to generate interest from this material is the gratuitous campside extempore Flamenco scene he inserts at this point. It's set within a completely mishandled sequence in which Hanna and Sophie set off with some lads from the Andaluz which, in more capable hands, might have provided an opportunity for character development via engaging dialogue. 

The action then jumps rather incoherently from southern Spain to Berlin, a German capital that is really only there to tick the post-Bourne thriller box, but which oddly fails to tick its own inner boxes. Where are the sex shops, the graffiti-strewn stairwells and the techno clubs and other clichés that Unknown so lovingly renewed? 

Hanna's sole USP as a character we might care about is that her isolation in the forests of the arctic circle has left her strangely unacquainted with the modern world, but the writers have only been bothered to explore her attitude to the unaccustomed sensory experience of music and Joe Wright's own contribution is a ludicrously over-egged scene involving electricity. Saoirse Ronan might have done better to leave this one in the hands of a more self-consciously commercial director...of the sort who might even have eked a franchise out of this unpromising premise. GRADE: C+

Divine chaos

"When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty and hope there is in a divine chaos - not chaos in the sense of order or confusion, but simply the absence of order - than there is in a universe made by pattern...Logically, that which has a design or a purpose has a limit. The very idea of a design or purpose has grown repulsive to me on account of its littleness. I do not venture, for a moment, even to attempt to supply a reason to take the place of the exploded plan...I look at the sunshine, and feel that there is no contracted order: there is divine chaos, and, in it, limitless hope and possibilities."

Richard Jeffries

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Immortalisation Commission (Part One)

A history in three parts, John Gray's latest book relates how sophisticated humanity has attempted to think its way around the prospect of personal oblivion in the century and a half following Darwin's removal of the glass ceiling, which had been thought to separate mankind from the rest of the beasts.

In the first part, Cross-Correspondences, Gray looks at the Spiritualist movement in Britain, which was the most immediate of his 'rebellions against death'. Unlike the now more familiar response — that if science comes into conflict with personal conviction, there must be something fundamentally wrong with science, darnit — these late Victorian men and women turned to science itself to protect themselves from the most up-to-date conclusions it had to offer.

One of the leading figures in the movement was Henry Sidgwick, who professed that if death really was the end, then the world was truly chaotic and therefore not especially friendly to human values — or rather the specific elite Victorian values which invited him to repress the impulses that conflicted with his sense of duty.

Why would these people care more than we seem to about the existential pain of living in a world where the human mind is a localised after-effect of trajectory of matter? Gray doesn't state this directly, but it does seem to be the case that the likes of Sidgwick and Frederick Myers is that theirs was not a simplistic piety which Darwinism had confounded, instead it was the age-old conflict between morality and self-interest which had seemingly been reinvigorated by On the Origins of Species.

The chaos most feared by Myers was the threat of 'insistent desire', for Myers like Sidgwick and others was a Victorian gentleman of the sexually ambiguous sort. The self Sidgwick wanted to take with him into eternity was clearly an idealised version of himself; in other words the self he had failed to be in life.

Gray goes on to suggest that these intellectuals fitted into a milieu which sought to extend the naturalistic outlook into an invisible world in order to purge itself of its defects as a whole. One of the more bizarre secondary anecdotes in this section of the book is the tale of August Henry Coombe Tennant, conceived in the Biblical sense as part of a planned out-of-wedlock tryst between a medium and one of the leading lights of the Spiritualist clique, and in the cereberal sense as part of a whacko scheme to create a made-to-order messiah who would save humanity from chaos. This attempt to manipulate the afterlife using techniques that called themselves scientific, went by the name of spiritual eugenics.

One of the ironies of Myers's research into the survival of the human personality after death was his realisation that the personalities we exhibit on this side of the grave are far from fixed. Everyday identities are in fact rather fluid impersonations spun off by our primary psychological reality, the 'subliminal self'. And, as Gray notes, if each of us is "no more than a bundle of sensations, egoism may be no more rational than universal benevolence." Myers did however believe that his subliminal self might have access to knowledge beyond the reach of our more chimerical personas.

The notion of the subliminal mind may also help us understand the automatic writings which the Spiritualists practiced as long as their movement persisted. They endlessly poured over these scripts, authored they believed by lost friends and lovers (some of them secret), although it was their own hands holding the pen. The texts reflected a shared high cultural lexicon and were encoded in an outlook which no longer exists, and to some extent never existed, because the human relationships revealed are those of Victorian England "not as it was, but as it imagined itself to be."

This consciously (or subliminally) fictive elite lifestyle, was one where death was understood not as the final calamity at the end of a long struggle against poverty, disease and insecurity, but rather as "a move from one wing of a great country house to another, a shift in which nothing was lost."

Thursday, June 02, 2011

You could call this naïve...

Take a few moments to savour these hilariously blinkered, paternalistic remarks made by Carole Mallory on The Wrap this week on the topic of Arnie's love-child with Guatemalan home-help Patricia Baena.

"Baena is from Guatemala. Some years ago I lived in Guatemala while shooting a film in Antigua, its major city. The people were the most charming, compliant people I have ever met and largely Indians. You could call them naïve. Baena would have been in awe of her master and could have seen succumbing to his wishes as part of her duty. Clearly he was attracted to her enormous breasts and Guatamalan naiveté, seeing a live-in opportunity to turn her into his sex slave, satisfying his need to dominate women. A Guatemalan woman by nature would have respect for those in charge of the household, both Maria and Arnold.

"She would probably be in awe of Maria Shriver, seeing such respect as her duty. She might well have been torn and conflicted about where her true allegiance belonged. The fact that Arnold's advances —which could have been deemed rape — turned into an affair is understandable, given the power structure of the household. Arnold was her master. Many argue that this is like Thomas Jefferson having an affair with his slave. While Jefferson had six children with one of his slaves, let's rejoice that Arnold was caught after having only one child. Schwarzenegger is no Thomas Jefferson, an otherwise good politician who fathered illegitimate children with a woman who worked in his household."

This knee-jerk respect for the sophisticated foreign master doesn't exactly square with all those reports from the front-line of class conflict that we used to get from Don Marco, does it? Though he did seem to have a thing about breasts. Still, he always gave the impression that he was the mouse and the maids were the mishes.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Los Ojos de Julia (2010)

This Catalan chiller which, like 2008's superior El Orfanato, stars Belen Rueda, likewise benefits from Guillermo del Toro using his name as a powerful Spanish cine brand on the poster.

Rueda plays twin sisters Julia and Sara. Both suffer from a progressive deterioration of their eyesight. Julia has 80% of her vision left at the start, but is prone to stress-related attacks which will tend to lop off further fractions.

Meanwhile Sara is already blind during the opening sequence in which we witness what the cops interpret as her suicide by hanging — but then they didn't see that foot kick the stool out from under her.

Julia suspects foul play and is determined to investigate. Husband Iván however appears to want a quiet life, partly because of Julia's known tendency to suffer seizures, and partly because he has copped off with Sara at some point in the past.

Guillem Morales starts off well enough, delivering a highly suspenseful first hour, which successfully suggests much of the mood of supernatural horror, without ever leading us to doubt that Julia's adversary is a man of flesh and blood, albeit one with an uncanny — and plot relevant, though mostly only poetically — ability not to be seen by people he walks right by.

The director might overuse the 'look who's behind you' scare a bit too readily, but there are some implementations of the visually-impaired horror trope I hadn't seen before: such as Julia's eavesdropping on the bitchy conversation of a group of blind women (played almost as undead!) at a social club for the sightless. There's also a creepy neighbour who functions a bit like Christopher Lee in The Resident, i.e. as a rather too obvious red herring.

During this opening sixty minutes Iván is kind of in the way, because he has to keep leaving Julia on her own in order for her to wander into darkened spaces where her failing vision is going to add to her (and our) growing sense of vulnerability. So — spoiler alert — Iván is removed from the scene permanently around the mid-point, yet instead of ramping up the tension, this is really the point at which the movie goes a bit awry.

Morales and co-writer Paulo have to an extent under-exploited their material early on, but have nevertheless managed to keep the tension up nicely enough. With Iván gone, they really let go and we had the sense that too many new or at least suspended narrative ideas were being crammed into the final third. For example, it's as if they suddenly decided to stop showing us the faces of everyone we're supposed to start being suspicious of, such as Julia's ophthalmologist.

And this is a pity, because they really needed to focus on their villain and his own visibility issues in order for the conclusion to be meaningful as well as more than a collection of twists and set-piece frights.

Grade: B+-

Public Enemies (1)

I spotted this enticing little volume in Oaxaca in its Spanish translation back in January and decided to hold out for a Kindle/English version. It's been worth the wait...

These two giants/pigmies of the French cultural vanguard/rearguard (delete appropriate to taste) waste no time in establishing their lack of mutual admiration*, except perhaps in as much as they congratulate each other on having dealt rather admirably with not being all that admirable in the first place.

I've just passed the section where Houellebecq speaks movingly of his fear of succumbing to misanthropic apathy, "that bleating sterile sulkiness that makes one hole up in a corner constantly muttering 'arseholes the lot of them' and, quite literally do nothing else." This might not be the "greatest danger" for me, but I recognise the threat nonetheless.

* Addressing Bernard-Henri, Michel waggishly observes that "you dishonour even the white shirts you always wear."