Archives for May 2011

3D: “Toy Story 3” V “Avatar”

After the release of Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (see below), the recent film on the cave paintings in the south of France, a few commentators remarked on how much more realistic the paintings appeared by being shown in 3D. But the whole point of 3D is to achieve the exact opposite. It’s to make films less realistic, to make them more cinematic.

3D first surfaced in the 50s. The future had arrived in the form of television and, obviously, film was about to be rendered redundant. Hollywood desperately needed something to distinguish cinema from television, and stave of the former’s extinction. So they came up with 3D. But it looked hopeless. So, in order to make films that bit more cinematic, they started shooting them in cinemascope instead, by doubling the size of the film that they used from 35 to 70mm.

But television didn’t bury cinema. On the contrary, it fed into it and made it significantly more robust. On the one hand, there were all those films in Hollywood which, up until then, made money in the cinemas for the 5 to 6 weeks that they were screened there, before spending the rest of their lives gathering expensive dust in the Hollywood Hills. And on the other, there were all those hours of television that cost so much to fill up with fresh content. By paying Hollywood a nominal fee to screen films that they had already made on television, a beautiful synergy was born. Far from killing off Hollywood, television gave it instead a whole new revenue stream.

Then in the 70s, the New Age bogeyman was video which, obviously, was set to kill off both cinema and television. Again, they turned to 3D, and again it wasn’t ready. So this time they made film even more cinematic by drowning it in SOUND, with what would one day become digital Dolby surround sound (Oh, and they invented merchandising.). But, once again, far from killing anything off, video was, together with television, yet another revenue stream for cinema.

Today’s bogeyman is of course the internet. And, third time lucky, 3D is finally here to save the day. Except of course that all the internet is doing is feeding yet further into the ever expanding media universe. So that the same names and faces are appearing across films, ads, books, and television, to be discussed on Facebook, Twitter, radio, newspapers and magazines, before being repackaged for DVD, cable and satellite. It’s the virtuous circle that just keeps on giving.

So when you go to the cinema today, exactly the same thing happens as it did in the 50s or 70s. For the first 6 or 7 minutes, you’re dazzled by the uniquely cinematic experience you get by being deluged by 3D, or cinemascope, or digital Dolby surround sound or, ideally, all three. And then by the eighth minute, you get used to it, and one of two things will happen – and obviously, this is as true for 3D television as it is for cinema. Either, you are drawn into the brilliance of the story you are being told, and you become completely oblivious to whatever it is that you are watching it on. Or, you don’t. And you become so irritated by what you’re being asked to watch that all you notice are the pyrotechnics, as you become increasingly conscious of the filmmaker’s pathetic attempts to distract from their storytelling impotence with the would-be Viagra of special effects.

So where, and on what you watch Toy Story 3 is neither here nor there. So dazzled will you be by its peerless brilliance, that all you will see is the magisterial story it tells and the majestic way that it tells it. Effortlessly intelligent and flawlessly plotted, it combines rye humour with pitch perfect jokes, and is emotionally engaging to, at times, painful perfection. It’s not just one of the best films of the last few years it manages, together with Toy Story 1 and 2, to be both individually brilliant and the most artistically satisfying franchise in the history of film. Quite simply, a masterpiece.

Avatar on the other hand, is its exact opposite. Once you get beyond the 3D, all you’re left with is a monumentally dull, hopelessly leaden, flaccid film of sub-one dimensional characters, that manages to somehow remain screamingly unfunny for its entire duration. How do you make a three hour cartoon without one, single joke? Boring, tedious, and endlessly tiresome, you feel like you’re being hectored and lectured to by a six year old who’s just discovered the internet, but who hasn’t learnt to read properly yet. Or, to put it another way, it’s just another James Cameron film.

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“Dead Man’s Bones”

Few things are less appealing than the idea of a concept album, that’s a vanity project for a Hollywood heartthrob, and which uses a children’s choir as its musical backdrop. Like taking your seat on a flight and being welcomed aboard by your Captain Charlie Sheen, it’s pretty much the last thing you ever want to hear. Remarkably, the result is pleasingly seductive.

Made by Ryan Gosling, seen recently in the justly lauded Blue Valentine, and Zach Shields, seen recently watching it, Dead Man’s Bones was released to coincide with Halloween 2009, which is the concept bit. But it’s much more substantial than that suggests. Somehow, its disparate ingredients combine to produce a work that both engages and intrigues, as dreamy melodies are offset by ominous atmospherics. The music is undermined by the lyrics, and the melodies by the arrangements in much the same way that our moral universe is undercut by the lighting in a film noir, and obfuscation triumphs over illumination.

My Body’s A Zombie For You is both typical of the album as a whole and one of its stronger tracks. It sounds like the kind of thing Chris Isaak might have recorded if, instead of having his usual smoke before going into the recording booth, he’d decided to do a couple of lines instead, just to see what might happen. The gentle lyricism of the 50s piano riff, freely borrowed from Kitty Lester, is rudely awoken by the violence of the chorus as it’s fired at him by the school choir.

It’s this balance between the weird and off-kilter and those ethereal melodies that give the album its cohesion. There’s an intuitive understanding that melodies need contrast to give them form and substance. So that, unlike the dreary use of the Belgian girls choir by the Scala & Kolacny Brothers in their shapeless cover of Radiohead’s Creep, the school choir in the above track is used to bark out the chorus with unexpected aggression. And what could have been predictable becomes instead refreshing.

Amazingly, this juggling of the jagged and the silk extends across the whole album. So whether cruising down the highway, or lounging louchely on the couch, put your feet up and let your hair down to a soundtrack to lose your soul to.

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“Wonders of The Universe” – BBC

Of the many memorable images in Prof. Brian Cox’s regal Wonders of the Universe, the one that lingers longest is that of Andromeda, which he shows us on his laptop from the jeep he sits in near the Great Rift Valley in east Africa. Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own. Indeed it’s so near, that despite the fact that practically everything else in our expanding universe is accelerating away from each other, the force of gravity between our two galaxies is so strong, that they are set on a crash course that should see them collide in about 3 billion years. For Andromeda is just two and half million light years away. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, two and a half million years ago our earliest ancestor, Homo habilis appeared on the African plains where he fashioned the first ever stone tools. And as he evolved through Homo erectus, antecessor, neanderthalensis and eventually into sapiens, those tools become increasingly sophisticated. But with the advent of agriculture after the ending of the Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, he stopped roaming the plains and began to settle down. And when he did that, he started to look up and into the night skies, because agriculture needs a calendar, and for that you need the rhythms of the sun, the moon and the stars.

Over the thousands of years that followed we got better and better at reading the night skies, until finally, in the second decade of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler arrived at his third law of planetary motion as, at last, their mysteries were revealed. At exactly the same time, Galileo (and others) invented the telescope, giving one as a gift to Kepler, and we began the business of scientifically charting the heavens. So that by the time we get to where we are now, we can read the skies with such precision, sophistication and subtlety that we can point to Andromeda and say what it is, and how far away it is. Two and half million light years.

In other words, when the light that we see today left Andromeda, Homo habilis had just set foot in Africa. And during the time that it took that light to travel from there to here, at the fastest speed in the universe, we went through the whole of human evolution. Until eventually it reached us, its nearest neighbour, two and half million years later. That’s how vast the universe is, and that’s how much we can now say about it. And that’s why Prof. Cox was showing us that image, there, against the backdrop of Africa.

Incredibly, science is so badly taught at school that most of us leave with a profound aversion to it. And the full failings of our education system are only really exposed as we later come to realize what a magnificent vista it reveals. Which is why this series and the book that accompanies it is so important. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in a genuine education and all that that is supposed to encompass should have this series, its book, or both in their house.

You’ll probably need to watch the four episodes at least a couple of times – I certainly did – to digest all the information they contain. But be warned, the first episode bizarrely takes fully 30 minutes to get to its first bit of science. It’s then that he explains the significance of the second Law of Thermodynamics and its relation to the concept of entropy. And from that point on the series takes flight.

Entropy, the idea that time is only ever one-directional, that things only ever end up broken, they never end up whole, is something we’ve known instinctively for millennia. Indeed, it was the subject of the very first philosophical idea, by the Greek Anaximander, and lies at the very core of Judeo-Christianity. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. But it was only in the late 19th century that we came to understand it scientifically. And both the series and the book illustrate and explain this, and much else besides, pristinely. What follows is three and a half hours of gloriously compact, unabashedly intelligent yet brilliantly accessible insights into the incomparable wonders of our universe.

Every house should have a copy, as they should the previous series, the equally impressive Wonders of the Solar System.

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Jonathan Franzen and “Robinson Crusoe”

The Beatles V the Stones, Picasso V Matisse, digital V vinyl, youth is spent drawing up battle lines on either side of these divides. And one of the first choices that all first year English literature students are faced with is Defoe V Swift. This is because the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719 is traditionally seen as the first ever novel and is therefore the starting point for any course in modern literature. Unfortunately, it’s inevitably compared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which was written, at least superficially, as a response to Defoe’s exotic tale of distant shores.

However successfully you might have suppressed your initial suspicions about Robinson Crusoe – this is after all your first term, and they surely couldn’t have knowingly saddled you with something so obviously second-rate to begin your studies with? – reading Swift immediately after Defoe puts paid to any such illusions. And whilst you might have been able to dismiss Defoe’s casual racism as part of his cultural make-up, there’s no getting away from that dreadfully leaden, and painfully clumsy prose, so cruelly exposed in the light of Swift’s Olympian brilliance.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s superb piece Farther Away in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_franzen) it’s impossible not to be reminded once again of quite how dreadful a novel Robinson Crusoe is. Franzen had retreated to Robinson Crusoe island off the coast of Chile, and his emotionally charged piece charts his efforts to come to terms there with the suicide of his friend and fellow star novelist David Foster Wallace in 2008. Defoe’s novel, and his father’s fondness for it when he was a child, gives Franzen the scaffolding with which to construct his moving edifice. And the carefully crafted sentences with which he sculpts his confession produce an intimate portrait of painful confusion. Because Franzen is a real writer.

Defoe was a businessman who decided to write his first book as a means of making money now that he was approaching 60. And Robinson Crusoe is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a retired businessman to produce. It’s not the first novel, it’s the first airport novel, and is not therefore something to be studied, but consumed.

It does serve one purpose though. It is to anybody struggling to write a novel, what Lady In The Water is to anyone trying to write a screenplay. Every budding novelist should have a copy of Robinson Crusoe on their bedside table. So that in their darkest hour, paralysed by despair as thoughts of worthlessness and abject fear threaten to envelop and engulf them, they can turn to Defoe, happy in the knowledge that however awful whatever it is that they’re writing is, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as what they have to hand.

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