Archives for March 2011

“Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky

Why does everybody always make such a big deal about story? Who says that every film has to be so say “dramatic”? Just because a bunch of Greeks decreed it, thousands of years ago. And yes, that is thousands of years ago!

I mean for heaven’s sake! When they were devising their laws for drama, what they had in mind was a bunch of guys in togas running around half-built theatres on a hill in the middle of nowhere! How is that going to be relevant today, when we expect to see things is glorious 3D and in fabulous 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound? We’ve moved on a bit since then you know!

And what’s the big deal about drama anyway? I don’t actual enjoy being perched forever on the edge of my seat, wondering what’s going to happen next. Who needs that kind of stress? Sometimes it’s nice to be able to sit back and actually enjoy a film, without necessarily being so transfixed by what’s happening up there that you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

Which is what makes Black Swan so marvellously refreshing. There’s no drama in it whatsoever, because brilliantly, they decided to dispense with story entirely. And I for one say Bravo! Instead, what they give you is a succession of mindlessly beautiful pictures that bare absolutely no relationship to one another at all, not being bound by the traditional glue that is narrative drive.

So instead of having to worry your pretty little head about what may or may not happen to any of the characters up there on the screen, you’re free to lie back and relax. And before you know it, your mind will have wondered off and your thoughts will be miles away. It was the best two hours I’ve spent at the cinema in years. Thank you!

 

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“Bible’s Buried Secrets” – BBC

Archaeology is a surprisingly modern practice. The word was first used by Thucydides in the 5th century B.C. where he warned future historians against underestimating the importance of Sparta if all they did was to look at the evidence that Sparta left behind. It wasn’t until 1738 though that we first began to study ancient remains, when the digs at Herculaneum and then at nearby Pompeii were begun. But it was only with the advances made in the 20th century that Archaeology began to be practiced in a consistently scientific manner.

The only way to ever discover anything is by using the scientific method. You look at an event or phenomenon and suggest an explanation for all those sorts of things. Then you devise experiments to test your ideas, which you modify subsequent to the results that you get, when at last you can produce a theory. This is then examined and tested by your peers, who evaluate the tests you used and your interpretation of the results, until hopefully a consensus is reached as to the validity of your ideas.

So, in archaeology, you gather what evidence you can find, bits of pottery, rock, seeds, pollen, bones, and, if you are very lucky, texts, and you test them to see what information you can extract. For anything up to about 40-50,000 years old for instance, radio carbon dating can give you a very good idea as to what time frame you are looking at, and the more recent it is, the more accurate the reading. Alternatively, you might look at the use of grammar in a text to compare it with already established literary norms from other texts, to see whether what you have belongs to this or to that tradition.

Eventually you publish your conclusions, which are then careful pored over by your peers. What you cannot do, ever, is to begin with your conclusions, and then go about searching for evidence that supports them. This though is precisely how “archaeology” was conducted in the Middle East during the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The starting point from where they all began was, the bible is an historical document. Any evidence that was then unearthed that didn’t support that was, at best ignored, at worst destroyed. In any other part of the world, this sort of behaviour would have been deemed beneath contempt, and wouldn’t have lasted a week. But such were (and of course are) the sensitivities around the nascent Israel, that these incredibly un-scientific practices were left unchallenged for an entire generation.

Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s superb first episode in the BBC’s the Bible’s Buried Secrets charts this misuse of pseudo-science, and examines the copious quantities of actual archaeological evidence that the region has produced. The bible isn’t a factual document, and anybody who tries to read it as such is doing it a massive disservice. You’re meant to learn from its stories, morally. Its permanence and depth derive from its moral truth, not from its historical accuracy.

It’s a concise and confident introduction to terrain already covered by William Schniederwind (http://www.amazon.com/How-Bible-Became-Book-Textualization/dp/0521829461), and Thomas L. Thompson (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/sep/02/historybooks.nicholaslezard). The former is the easier read, the latter the more relentlessly scholarly.

 

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Cathy Davey + Two Door Cinema Club

With predictable unpredictability, this year’s Choice Music Prize went to Two Door Cinema Club. Their Tourist History is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a trio a respectable teenagers. One of them has even insisted on growing a beard. That’s how young they are.

Basically, they’re Hot Chip lite. Which is fine, but it does mean that they are ominously radio friendly. Hopefully I’m wrong, and they will still be around in five years’ time. But a certain part of their anatomy needs to drop if they’re to inject any spunk into those tunes they so effortlessly produce. There needs to be a bit more indie in their tronica and a lot less pop if they’re to avoid ending up as this year’s D:Ream.

The best album of those nominated was comfortably Cathy Davey’s The Nameless. It’s only her third album, but there’s a sense of substance to it that only time can give you. Extraordinarily confident melodically, you nevertheless have the occasional suspicion that any moment now, it’s about to slip into tweeness, which isn’t helped by the knowledge that she’s currently seeing Neil Hannon (if you know of a more gratingly fey album than The Duckworth Lewis Method, kindly keep it to yourself.)

Happily though, it glides instead into the terrain originally fashioned by Jacques Brel and Scott Walker and currently occupied by Pink Martini, and what might have been merely a collection of brilliant songs is given a timeless sense of permanence. The Touch especially evokes the seedy decadence of an Amsterdam brothel in the 1970s, where Serge Gainsbourg is being serviced by a nymphette who looks like she might be at school with his daughter.

Made by and for grown-ups, and unlike any of the other nominees, The Nameless will still be listened to in at least five years’ time. And ultimately, it’s time not prizes that we’re judged by.

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MGMT – “Congratulations”

MGMT exploded onto the scene in 2008 with the fireworks that was Oracular Spectacular. And the two lead singles, Time To Pretend and Kids kept licensing lawyers busy for months. Their difficult second album Congratulations arrived in April 2010, and tellingly, the first thing they did was to announce that there wouldn’t be any singles released from it. Anyone hoping for more of the same was clearly in for a disappointment.

The truth of the matter is though, that those famous singles weren’t actually terribly representative of the album as a whole. So Congratulations, despite the dearth of obvious singles, carries on where Oracular left off. MGMT are what Boland and Bowie might have sounded like if they’d taken what they were doing in the first half of the seventies, and developed it further into the second half.

Like most of the best music coming out of north America at the moment, it’s steeped in the sounds and feel of the UK in the late seventies and early eighties. And, as with a lot of these bands, you have the distinct feeling that if you were only able to pick up on half of the musical references slyly alluded to here, you might very well enjoy the album almost a much as the people making it.

What lifts this album from the merely clever to the thoroughly infectious are the duo’s impeccable gift for melody. It’s almost as if they can’t help themselves. Try as they might to knuckle down and produce something serious, those damn tunes keep bursting forth. Hence the confusion that exists on where they stand on the indie/pop axis.

Whatever about their immediacy, these songs have a satisfying sense of having been consciously constructed. Someone’s Missing takes a minute and three quarters to build up at 33 rpm, before its melody finally bursts forth at a joyous 45. And then, as quickly as it began, it’s over. Brian Wilson’s legacy lives on. Similarly, the monumental feel to Flash Delirium gives it an expansive sense of permanence. While Lady Gaga’s Nightamare nods respectfully at The Smiths’ Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me, without ever treading on its toes. And don’t be put off by Siberian Breaks’ 12 minutes. It’s really just a medley of three of four songs sewn together, and all the better for it.

In short, if you missed it first time around and you’re looking for some sonic adrenalin, enjoy.

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“Corp + Anam” – TG4

Corp + Anam is the new “gritty” crime “drama” in Irish, from TG4. Well, it is certainly a crime. Like RTE’s recent Love/Hate its commendably slick high production values are pleasingly easy on the eye. And, similarly, its complete inability to understand the fundamentals of story means that it fails to generate anything that might be mistaken for drama.

Awkwardly, like a much younger sibling staring up at his older, much cooler brother, Corp + Anam insists on standing side by side with The Wire. Very well.

Orson Welles said of Jimmy Cagney, that he never gave a realistic performance in his life. But he was always true. I don’t know how members of the Baltimore police department actually speak to one another, but I believed in every word of the The Wire. The writers had so completely immersed themselves in the world of their characters, that every scene rang magnificently true. And because of that, you had a huge emotional investment in all of the characters.

In stark contrast, the journalist in Corp + Anam inhabits a world that is unrecognizable because it rings so horribly false. Nobody, especially in rural Ireland, would use a funeral in the way the he does. And when his Editor/boss, a pantomime Mrs Doyle, follows him into the (shock horror) Gents, she might just as well have hooked up her skirt over her head and urinated into the sink.

The News room depicted here was sub one-dimensional. It was an insult to cardboard cut-outs. How can you set a drama in a News room, when you patently have no idea what goes on in one? And then there was the central event around which the drama of the first episode revolved; a car crash. I’m sorry, but a car crash is not drama. It’s an accident.

I mention all of which, just in case there are any of you who feared that you might have missed something worth seeing. And, given the benign reviews it got on the likes of RTE’s The View and in the Sunday Times, who could blame you?

Well don’t worry. You didn’t.

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