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.

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.

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.

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 ( 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.