Film

The electric garden of our minds

Last month, on my way back down the Euston Road after seeing the window displays at the Wellcome Trust, I had time to go to the Gagosian Gallery for Crash — Homage to J G Ballard. The experience was of overload, but I got the chance to pop back again last Thursday. Two visits certainly paid off.

… only a commercial gallery of this pulling power could manage the loans to flesh out Ballard’s text so grandiloquently; no museum could have responded so quickly, or quirkily, to the novelist’s death last year. The idea of a visual tribute to a writer is so marvellous and generous that one wishes it was as standard as a memorial service or an obituary. — Jackie Wullschlager, FT

As some reviewers have suggested, there are works on show here that seem … a little beside the point. All the same, some of these are striking:

Works with an, at-best, tangential connection to Ballard stand out, foremost being Paul McCarthy’s “Mechanical Pig”, an astonishingly life-like plastic sow cruelly wired up to machinery, twitching and heaving in a tortured coma. This freakshow attraction goes beyond sensationalism to bring us face to face with our mechanised use of livestock, and is a great example of contemporary art’s relationship with impact advertising. I was mesmerised by its laboured breaths, each one threatening to be its last. — Ballardian

I liked … the Eduardo Paolozzi:

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

Three decades before Andy Warhol immortalized the Campbell’s Soup can, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was crowding childhood scrapbooks with images of American popular culture he found in old magazines, newspapers, and comic strips. … As the novelist J. G. Ballard noted in his introduction to General Dynamic F.U.N., “Here the familiar materials of our everyday lives, the jostling iconographies of mass advertising and consumer goods, are manipulated to reveal their true identities.”  Nothing is as it seems and irony abounds.  Lady Godiva rides a motorcycle; Christ’s image is profaned as a paint-by-number; flesh turns green and lettuce grows blue.  Paolozzi reconfigured unrelated images to form a tangle of references and connections, leading viewers in as many directions as there are ideas, images, and products in our modern world. — Saratoga Today

The artist’s friend and sometime collaborator, J.G. Ballard, described General Dynamic F.U.N as a ‘unique guidebook to the electric garden of our minds’. … For Paolozzi, the modern age, exposed as ephemera, is a necessarily fragmented collision of visual stimulus and influence, and his work is a ‘health warning for an uncreative and thriftless society’. — Southbank Centre

The Warhol, Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice), 1963 (reflected: Richard Prince — Elvis, 2007):

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

The Jane and Louise Wilson DVD projections:

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

Peter Campbell, writing in the LRB (about the exhibition’s catalogue):

On the page facing Allen Jones’s Archway (a sculpture in the Heathrow Hilton, Ballard’s favourite London building), you read that ‘sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one could never fall in love, or need to.’ Even when the overlap between a work and anything Ballard wrote is accidental, or vague, there is common ground in his attention to the look of things. He saw them as a painter might. His language was precise and often technical: his vocabulary when cars are involved is that of a maintenance manual; his sex scenes look like an atlas of anatomy.

‘I’ve always wanted really to be a painter,’ he said in 1975. ‘My interest in painting has been far more catholic than my interest in fiction … I’ve said somewhere else that all my fiction consists of paintings. I think I always was a frustrated painter.’ He not only envied visual artists, he believed in their power. ‘I didn’t see exhibitions of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí as displays of painting,’ he wrote in 2003. ‘I saw them as among the most radical statements of the human imagination ever made, on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics.’ … In the catalogue Will Self writes of Ballard’s ability to see the nature of what has grown up around us: ‘Bleak man-made landscapes, technological, social and environmental developments and their psychological effects – these are aspects of the dystopian society we all live in now. Ballard may have started out as a science fiction writer, but his texts now read as social fact.’ …

Ballard’s sense of something wrong with the world our appetites and ingenuity have created makes ordinary things – suburbs, roads and high-rises – look different, as they might in the lurid glow of an approaching storm. It is a gift to art that has been appreciated.

The Independent has a nice gallery piece where Charlotte Cripps talks to some of the artists involved. Loris Gréaud:

J G Ballard was not in the future but in the ultra-present.


Super-Cannes: 'actors in our own self-referential drama'

John Preston, reviewing Super-Cannes in the London Evening Standard, quoted by Stephen Moss in the Guardian:

Ballard loves to go that bit further out than anyone else, to nose around the outer limits of human behaviour and to rub up against the inconceivable. What ought to be daft becomes instead extremely disquieting. His is a world in which anything has become possible. In this twisted scheme of things, it comes to seem quite logical that the one upright citizen in Eden-Olympia [Ballard's suburban madhouse] should be a mass murderer. Morality has disappeared, so has sanity, and all that's left is a kind of institutionalised madness. Reading Ballard is like viewing the world through a completely new set of lenses.

I've quoted Ballard himself before. Here he is on tourism and travel:

Travel is the last fantasy the 20th Century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent yourself. There's nowhere to go.

On Cronenberg's A History of Violence:

The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker's case notes: "This family has a history of violence." The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist. …

On Blair:

Perhaps only damaged actors can lead modern societies down the crooked paths that they prefer.

Having come to Ballard very late, I've recently finished Super-Cannes — and it's not yet left me alone. Tim Adams' Observer review catches some its darkness and power:

… Eden-Olympia, Europe's ultra-sophisticated answer to Silicon Valley in the hills above the French Riviera. The business park is the world's first intelligent city, one horribly logical conclusion of a corporatised continent in which 'freedom was the right to paid work, while leisure was the mark of the shiftless and untalented'; dreams here come equipped with airbags, and the only sounds are the whispers of sprinklers on lawns and the effortless combustion of computer-navigated German sports saloons.

The city is home to techno-chic supernationals - Ciba-Geigy and Siemens, Mitsui and Monsanto - and to the Euro-elite of chief executives who control their strategies, a post-leisure class which derives its excitement from the imposition of systematic efficiencies. There is no need here for law or religion; Eden-Olympia polices itself; decisions are corporate not ethical, and sex is something one watches on customised adult channels.

Ballard carefully constructs this serpentless paradise in perfectly engineered sentences. His images come together with the satisfying hiss of Japanese micro-hydraulics. 'There was a vast car park concealed behind a screen of cypresses, vehicles nose to tail like a week's unsold output at a Renault plant,' he writes. 'Somewhere in the office buildings the owners of these cars were staring at their screens, designing a new cathedral or cineplex, or watching the world's spot prices. The sense of focused brain power was bracing, but subtly unsettling.' …

Ballard unravels the secrets of his post-industrial elysium with panache, leading us into a society which is both an exaggerated parable for our times and a chill piece of futurology. Along the way there are some signature themes: Ballard's books always feel as though they are shot on security cameras and spotlit by police flash photography; their violence is both sterile and graphic. The worlds he describes are frequently immunised against human emotion. And in Eden-Olympia that deficiency has become a potentially fatal threat.

Much more there. (Adams is good on Ballard's satire: 'His satire, however extreme, is always convincing because its governing ideas inhabit every detail. He sees a strain of totalitarianism running through particular dehumanised philosophies of engineering and design and management; sees the potential for dictatorship in the absence of democracy engendered by the colossal power of corporations.')

Just now, I found a long piece (essay and interview) by Jason Cowley:

The twin engines driving so much of British contemporary fiction have long been a kind of enfeebled realism-with its class and social anxieties-and nostalgia. But Ballard operated outside this loop. The drowned worlds, scorched cities and overgrown jungles of his early fiction; his focus on the media landscape of global celebrity and stylised catastrophe; his exploration of the connections between sex, eroticism and death; his fetishism of motorways, highrises and car crashes-almost alone among contemporary British writers, Ballard wrote about the 20th century in its own idiom. As a result his work is exaggerated, pumped-up, often preposterous; a prose surrealist mining a strange, blurry, psychopathological landscape. It is hard to believe in his fictional world precisely because it is so invented, so radically imagined. Like the paintings of Dali, Max Ernst and de' Chirico which he so admires, Ballard transports you into a fabulous realm, at once real and hysterically unreal.

You can read a Ballard novel without believing a word of what is written. Yet something lingers disturbingly in your imagination, something to do with his understanding of the inherent instability of the contemporary condition-as if we are all actors in our own self-referential drama, as if we are all trapped within a set of immense inverted commas.

So, I'm just starting out on Ballard, after some initial flirtation, and from Super-Cannes so many scenes and ideas and conversations stick in the mind. One I made a note of early on was the scene in the car-park — an 'impromptu piece of garage theatre':

Two Eden-Olympia limousines were making their way down the circular ramp. The chauffeurs stopped their vehicles on the third level, slipped from their driving seats and opened the rear doors, giving their passengers a ringside view of the ugly tableau being staged in an empty parking space.

Or there's this, from much later in the book:

Eden-Olympia's great defect is that there's no need for personal morality. Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems. … Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any Messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.

Penrose's deranged vision of 'a carefully metered measure of psychopathy', the answer to the 'suburbanisation of the soul' that 'has overrun our planet like the plague', is explored by Penrose and Sinclair in chapter 29, 'The Therapy Programme'. This is Penrose:

A  controlled psychopathy is a way of resocialising people and tribalising them into mutually supportive groups. … Violence is spectacular and exciting, but sex has always been the main hunting ground of psychopathy. A perverse sexual act can liberate the visionary self in even the dullest soul. The consumer society hungers for the deviant and unexpected. What else can drive the bizarre shifts in the entertainment landscape that will keep us "buying"? Psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light our imaginations, to drive the arts, sciences and industries of the world.

Towards the end of the novel, and despite himself, Sinclair remembers 'the brutal hazings at the RAF flight school, and how they had energised us all': 'At Eden-Olympia, psychopathy was being rehabilitated, returned like a socialised criminal to everyday life'.

Ballard, interviewed in 2004:

My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould [in Millennium People], that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself. … I suspect that (as I pointed out in Super-Cannes) the human race will inevitably move like a sleepwalker towards that vast resource it has hesitated to tap - its own psychopathy. This adventure playground of the soul is waiting for us with its gates wide open, and admission is free. In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) - Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we're entering a profoundly masochistic phase - everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood ...

Elsewhere, Jason Cowley writes of the character, Paul Sinclair, through whose eyes Super-Cannes is told:

In his quest to uncover the truth … he becomes a kind of detective of the self: the more he discovers about Eden-Olympia, the more he discovers about his own potential for deviance and violence, and the more alienated he feels.

Reading Ballard is a peculiarly enriching experience. Every sentence is absolutely characteristic. His novels, at their best, resemble surrealist tableaux, representations of tortured interiority, and Super-Cannes is one of his best.

 
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Shooting ratio

A colleague today, reviewing a video made by some of our students, opened my eyes somewhat:

Even the occasional slightly jarring cut is forgivable when the ratio of footage shot to that used is only about 5:1. (The average feature film is 20:1 while Apocalypse Now was 95:1.)

Wikipedia on shooting ratio.

Wikipedia on Documentary Film — Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema:

… the shooting ratio (the amount of film shot to the finished product) is very high, often reaching 80:1.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: memory and film-making

I need to go out and buy the DVD of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I much enjoyed it when it came out and blogged about it twice, with excerpts from Steve Johnson's essay about it and quoting from the review of the film. The film's back on my screen again. Via (del.icio.us link), today I came across the detailing some of their work on the film — and it's really impressive.

Last month, on dream, memory and the film:

Seed Magazine has a video of a fascinating conversation between sleep scientist Robert Stickgold and film director Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Stickgold has reinvigorated sleep research by investigating the borderlands of consciousness with a series of novel experiments.

Favourite quote from the Stickgold/Gondry video clip: 'the reason why cuts work in movies is' (Stickgold) … 'because we dream' (Gondry)/'because we're all familiar with them' (Stickgold). 

From Mind Hacks, then, to the following: 

Gondry's new movie, The Science of Sleep, also explores the mind's outer reaches. …

Link to fantastic article on the cognitive science of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Also, from the last link:

Now there's a whole bundle of stuff and possibilities for teaching …


YouTube

Be it Frank Zappa specials, such as I am the Slime and Mike Nesmith and Frank Zappa on 'The Monkees', or Captain Beefheart — Lick my decals off, baby … or the loftier heights of The Hearts of Age (Orson Welles) and Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren), YouTube is going to become compulsive viewing. (All links via del.icio.us, the first three via Merlin Mann, the last two via Warren Ellis.)

Wikipedia on The Hearts of Age:

The Hearts of Age is the first film made by Orson Welles. The film is a four-minute short, which he co-directed with William Vance in 1934. The film stars Welles' first wife, Virginia Nicholson, as well as Welles himself. He made the film while attending the Todd School for Boys, in Woodstock, Illinois, at the age of 19. The plot is a series of images loosely tied together, and is arguably influenced by surrealism. The film is rarely seen today, but many point to it as an important precursor to Welles' first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane.

Meshes of the Afternoon, to my shame, is a discovery. Better now than never. Wikipedia here. An Uruguayan site here (Spanish). (Both these links via absurdita, who uploaded the film to YouTube.) IMDb entry here.

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Open Rights Group

To London, to the inaugural meeting of the ORG, the Open Rights Group at 01Zero-One (Hopkins Street, Soho). The theme? 'Digital Rights in the UK: Your Rights, Your Issues'.

The evening was introduced by Suw Charman, Executive Director of ORG, who asked Jonathan Zittrain, Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford University (Co-Founder, Berkman Center for Internet & Society) to say some words. He was impressive and I look forward to meeting him again tomorrow morning at the OII. He spoke about how the launch of ORG was 'not a moment too soon', the future of the net being so uncertain. After Suw had spoken about ORG, Lloyd Davies (some of us had already seen more of him than we'd bargained for) took over and ran the evening, centred around a number of "conversations": eg, how we should/could engage lawyers; how we engage MPs and MEPs; how we make the ORG an organisation that does for Britain and British law what the EFF does for the US; tackling the challenge of copyright law (including working for the abolition of Crown Copyright) … The ORG has much to do to establish and define itself, but is already being heard. It has my £5 a month and I hope to hear a lot more from it as it works with like-minded organisations (such as The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure) in the area of digital rights.

The need for the ORG is in part summed up (via email) by Danny O'Brien: 'The emergence of new communications technologies has radically changed the civil rights landscape in our society. Privacy, intellectual property, and access to knowledge are just some of the areas where digital rights are being eroded by government and big business.'

As of today, the Wikipedia entry for ORG runs:

The Open Rights Group (Org) is a UK-based organisation that hopes to preserve digital rights and freedoms by serving as a hub for other cyber-rights groups campaigning on similar digital rights issues. Like the EFF, it will campaign against the entertainment industry's attempts to limit what people can do with digital media, as well as highlighting a variety of privacy related issues. It will also provide information to the media and co-ordinate grassroots campaigns.

The organisation was started by Danny O'Brien, after speaking with people at UKUUG and the BBC's Open Tech 2005 and seeing the interest in a UK-based digital rights organisation.

O'Brien first publicised the organisation, and attempted to secure funding for it, with a pledge on PledgeBank, placed on July 24, 2005, with a deadline of December 25, 2005: "I will create a standing order of 5 pounds per month to support an organisation that will campaign for digital rights in the UK but only if 1,000 other people will too." The pledge reached 1000 people on 29 November 2005.

Just as the pledge reached maturity the organisation launched at a "sell-out" meeting in London's district of Soho. The same day controversial plans to surveil British road users as part of a new road taxation scheme were featured on the front page of The Times.

Goals

  • to raise awareness in the media of digital rights abuses
  • to provide a media clearinghouse, connecting journalists with experts and activists
  • to preserve and extend traditional civil liberties in the digital world
  • to collaborate with other digital rights and related organisations
  • to nurture a community of campaigning volunteers, from grassroots activists to technical and legal experts

It was a pleasure to catch up with Thomas again and with a number of acquaintances from previous conferences and meetings (notably, Suw, Stefan Magdalinski, Paula Le Dieu, Julian Bond, David Weinberger and, most unexpectedly, Jimmy Wales), and to meet for the first time others whose work I'd heard of. Central to the evening, though very modest, was Tom Steinberg, founder of My Society — see, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou — and associated with the Young Foundation (itself associated with the Skoll Centre, Saïd Business School). He explains PledgeBank here. He is a Demos author and there's a relevant BBC piece here.

I very much enjoyed talking to David Isenberg: there's a webcast available of his OII seminar (given yesterday), 'Who will run the internet?'. More about this soon.


A History of Violence

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen)

What a fine and powerful film. Instead of 'everything is permitted', Cronenberg gives us 'everything is visible and apparent' (Shaviro — see below).

Many in the audience I saw it with late last night left disappointed: if they were expecting a straightforward Western/thriller for the 21st century, then, yes, they'd every right to feel their hopes had been dashed, but Cronenberg takes our genre expectations, and much more besides, and plays upon these to create something far-reaching. In his review (Guardian), J G Ballard wrote how, 'The characters in Cronenberg's films behave as if they are inhabiting their minds and bodies for the first time at the moment we observe them, fumbling with the controls like drivers in a strange vehicle'. And Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader said:

There's hardly a shot, setting, character, line of dialogue, or piece of action in A History of Violence that can't be seen as some sort of cliché. Its fantasies about how American small towns are paradise and big cities are hell are genre standbys that Cronenberg milks at every turn. But none of this plays like cliché; Cronenberg is such an uncommon master of tone that we're in a state of denial about our familiarity with the material -- a kind of willed innocence that resembles Tom Stall's own disavowals.

Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris)

We're made to stand back, to stand outside the roles into which we, and the films we watch, slip so effortlessly and to read everything that happens as strange and disturbing. Even the ending, so tantalisingly conventional in its expectations, remains with us as more than merely unsettling. Steven Shaviro:

As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. … the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.

Shaviro is particularly good in analysing the two sex scenes and, like him, I found them nearly equally unsettling (a word you can't easily avoid using again and again about this film) — and yet they are, nominally, so different:

The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) & Edie Stall (Maria Bello)

Ontological alienation, indeed! So much to be said, but here's Shaviro again (such a good posting) — first on the role of Tom's son, Jack, and then on the Moebius strip quality of the movie:

Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) — left

… this movie really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence [in response to bullying — above] in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity.

The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ’superficial’; and they blend into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).

Ballard's review is a must, too: eg,

The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker's case notes: "This family has a history of violence." The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist. …

What is so interesting about the film is the speed with which the wife accepts that her husband, for all his courage, is part of the criminals' violent world, in spirit, if not in actual fact. A dark pit has opened in the floor of the living room, and she can see the appetite for cruelty and murder that underpins the foundations of her domestic life. Her husband's loving embraces hide brutal reflexes honed by aeons of archaic violence. This is a nightmare replay of The Desperate Hours, where escaping convicts seize a middle-class family in their sedate suburban home - but with the difference that the family must accept that their previous picture of their docile lives was a complete illusion. Now they know the truth and realise who they really are. Their family has a history of violence.

There's a flat-footed review in the Observer and a semi-compromised one in the Guardian. k-punk has a characteristically stimulating piece.


Culture catch-up

The last few days:

  • To the Oxford Playhouse to see the ETT in Hamlet. It left me unmoved — a decent, clean and clear production with Ed Stoppard in the lead. A BBC page says of the ETT and this production: 'ETT is renowned for the clarity and style of its work … This new production of Hamlet will stay true to the company’s ethos of producing raw, direct and passionate theatre'. I agree with the clarity bit, but no, there was little that was 'raw' or 'passionate'. I couldn't find any review of the production last week (when I went), but Michael Billington panned it on Friday in The Guardian:

the English Touring Theatre offer us a middle-of-the-road, Jacobean-costumed version that has nothing fresh to say about the play. I have no problem with the period setting; it is the failure to investigate either the human relationships or the political context that troubles me.this is set-text Shakespeare shrouded in decent dullness. When you recall that ETT began 12 years ago with Alan Cumming's capriciously eccentric Hamlet you feel that the company has dwindled into respectability.

There was an interview with Ed Stoppard in The Independent (conducted prior to the production).

  • I finally got around to watching the film of The Madness of George III, The Madness of King George. I always feel with Bennett that there are much greater dramatic depths to be plumbed than he permits himself to look into. I saw the original stage production and prefer that greatly for its tightness, focus and energy — the central performance of Nigel Hawthorne being allowed to occupy its proper place.
  • Robert Crawford came to read at school on Wednesday evening and stayed the night. It was a good reading to which some of those present responded warmly. Robert opened with 'Chaps', of which the Literary Encyclopedia says:

In the militaristic-toned poem “Chaps”, Crawford uses repetition and language reminiscent of the stiff-upper-lip Englishman to convey a sense of how maleness has historically been perceived as both macho and a necessary element in the constitution of the British imperialistic project:

With his Bible, his Burns, his brose and his baps,
Colonel John Buchan is one of the chaps,
With his mother, his mowser, his mauser, his maps,
Winston S. Churchill is one of the chaps.

Even the rhyme scheme and parallelism in this poem seems to play into the requirements of an essentialized British Empire. The regimentation of language is one of the dangerous consequences of imperialism and one that denies voices from breaking through and interacting with others. The refrain that Crawford employs has a similar effect: “Chaps chaps chaps chaps/ Chaps chaps chaps chaps”.

The marching regularity is emphasized but so too is the gender. A “chap” is not just any old male, it is a male who has been shaped by a past that requires that he behave in a particular way and communicate his gender in a fashion that must reflect the superiority and power of the state.

A concern with language, communication and identity marks much of Robert's work.

Later that evening, we joined up with Jamie McKendrick for supper. Conversation naturally focused on poets and poetry, but Jamie and Robert are both interested in the visual arts. Jamie spoke of his admiration for Plath's drawing of Ted Hughes, recently sold by Bonhams.

Copyright © 2002-2005 Bonhams 1793 Ltd

  • Friday saw some of us go to catch Seth Lakeman on tour (St Mary's Church, Marlborough). I'm not in to English folk music much, but Seth Lakeman came to prominence earlier this year when he was nominated for the Mercury Prize and we felt we should go and hear him. (He also hit the headlines last year when he launched his new album at Dartmoor Prison.) He is a fine musician, the solo pieces he played being exceptionally powerful. As a trio they worked very well together, with marked mutual understanding, and his drummer proved a great hit with our party — photos. If he's to gain more fame and following, his music will inevitably have to shift somewhat. Acoustic now, he is already being described on the web as 'folk-rock' and on his own website as 'indie-folk'. One to watch.

Film and Memory

Cars, Guns And Telephones is a website set up by my friend, Jonny Lowndes. It was my pleasure to know and teach Jonny at Marlborough College (where, in another life, I was Head of English), and I watch with admiration and pleasure as he takes his deep interest in film ever further. Jonny describes Cars, Guns And Telephones as 'an online film journal … and the point is to stimulate discussion of the way films are made, but not necessarily in an academic way. … Essays already written are about: how hats influence 70s cinema; the practical and aesthetic purposes of dirt in space films; and why DVDs make it okay to feel alienated. You can contribute your own original material if you want (screenplays, treatments, even completed films); and there is a library of scripts that you can look at. Some of them rule, some suck, and I want you to tell me which are which. There's also a game you can play, called Pantheon, where we rate films on their use of cars, guns and telephones, and pit them against each other. The point being that saying one film is better than another is bullshannon anyway, so we might as well choose a totally bogus system.'

And now, via Jonny, comes news of another friend and ex MC student (and my former tutee), Ed Cooke.  Ed is a memory Grand Master and came 11th in the 2004 World Memory Championships. He is the co-founder, with Lukas Amsuess, of Oxford Mind Academy — which offers courses in memory training. Ed was recently in New York, for the eighth annual US Memory Championship, where he and Amsuess competed unofficially.

They thought the competition would be a good spring training for this summer's world championships in London, which both hope to win. They had also always wanted to see New York. (They visited the Empire State Building, where Amsuess successfully memorized an entire deck of cards on the 53-second elevator ride to the observation deck.) Though every competitor has his own unique method of memorization for each event, all mnemonic techniques are essentially based on the concept of elaborative encoding, which holds that the more meaningful something is, the easier it is to remember. The brain isn't built to remember abstract symbols like numbers and playing cards, but if one can translate those symbols into vivid visual images, even the dullest series of binary digits can be made as memorable as your own address. The key is to develop a system that allows quick encoding and easy recall. … For example, when Cooke sees a three of clubs, a nine of hearts, and a nine of spades, he immediately conjures up an image of Brazilian lingerie model Adriana Lima in a Biggles biplane shooting at his old public-school headmaster in a suit of armor. The more vivid the image, the more likely it is not to be forgotten.

They memorize numbers much the same way. Cooke converts every two-digit number from 00 to 99 into a familiar object or person, so that every six digits form a sentence. When he sees 342102, Cooke imagines Frank Sinatra crooning the Britney Spears' song " … Baby One More Time" to an obelisk. When he's doing well, this translation is happening instantaneously. At his best, he can store about 300 digits, or 50 sentences, in his head in five minutes. To keep all this information in order, memorizers have to link their images together in a chain. Some, like Cooke and Amsuess, use what's called the "journey method." They place their images at predetermined points along a route that they know well. Cooke's route begins at his favorite Oxford pub and ends at a nearby hotel. When it comes time to recall, he simply takes a mental stroll through his old college town and is able see each of the images in the place where he put it. According to Harvard memory researcher Daniel Schacter, this method of using visual imagery as a mnemonic device was first employed by a Greek poet named Simonides in 477 BC. Simonides was the sole survivor of a roof collapse that killed all the guests at a large banquet he was attending. He was able to reconstruct the guest list by visualizing who was sitting at each seat around the table. What Simonides had discovered was that people have an astoundingly good recollection of location. In his book Searching for Memory, Schacter explains that this same technique was later used by Roman generals to learn the names of thousands of soldiers in their command and by medieval scholastics to memorize long religious tomes. During the 15th and 16th centuries, European mystics created elaborate "memory theaters" consisting of hundreds of fanciful locations in which mystical facts could be deposited. Slate

Slate concludes: 'Though Amsuess and Cooke's scores weren't officially tabulated, it was clear that Cooke would have destroyed the American competition. In the random words event, he managed 150 words in five minutes, 50 more than the best American score. In the speed numbers event, he memorized almost twice as many digits as the next best American competitor.'

And their time in New York was all being filmed by … Jonny. Stay tuned!


The Merchant of Venice

In the LRB, Frank Kermode responds to Michael Radford's film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Pacino as Shylock:

This movie version of the play will just about do. It has most of the virtues and most of the faults endemic to such ventures, but it exposes the latter less grossly than some. As Shylock Pacino succeeds as any good, experienced actor should, and Jeremy Irons is appallingly sad as Antonio, just as he promises to be in the opening line of the play. He cannot understand why he is so sad but the film all too insistently offers a complete explanation. Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio shows us why the Christians in this play are, on the whole, such an unlikeable lot. Lynn Collins as Portia looks as good as she ought to, and redeems some tiresome moments in the early scenes by being startlingly good and grave in the trial scene. Since the piece is set in Venice there is a lot of photography, and some of the results are indeed beautiful. The movie runs for 131 minutes and feels longer, partly no doubt because quite often nothing strictly relevant is actually happening – and certainly not because it includes boring quantities of Shakespeare’s text. …

Shylock is despised and hated but even when most intransigent not credible as a monster, and to give Pacino his due, he plays him as a human being, increasingly vicious as his wrongs accumulate, totally lacking the sentiment of mercy, but always true to his culture and its eloquent exponent. On the other side we notice that no one, not even Jessica, thinks that he has been unfairly treated. Like a great many other Jews of the period he is forced to convert, but this is treated as a punishment, not an occasion for rejoicing, despite the prevalent belief that the Jews must be converted before there could be a second coming. This gentile callousness is as hard to condone as the inherited monstrosities of their anti-semitic mythology.

Prejudice is powerful on both sides, but the Christians are shown to have God on their side when Antonio’s venture succeeds and the ships, mysteriously saved, come in loaded, while Shylock, for seeking an illegal form of interest, is ruined. Yet he is the greater performer, his part so well written that even the cinema cannot seriously reduce or explain it. What neither the cinema nor the stage explains is why the play is so shadowed by unease and unhappiness, even though all seems to go right: the villain is punished and the dissolute boy gets the rich girl and they all meet again at Belmont – such a blissful place, especially in the movie – only to celebrate their happiness by discussing infidelity and experiencing, like the play itself, a nameless sadness under the inaudible harmonies of the stars.