Archives for April 2013

Bill Bailey Celebrates the Other Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace.

TX-card-crop-pro1-1.5+(1)I was qui­et­ly dread­ing Bil­ly Bailey’s Jun­gle Hero, his pro­gramme on the for­got­ten co-dis­cov­er­er of Evo­lu­tion by Nat­ur­al Selec­tion, Alfred Rus­sel Wallace.

Few things are as tired or as tedious as watch­ing yet anoth­er so say com­ic being hilar­i­ous­ly mis­matched with an incon­gru­ous top­ic, and sent off in search of an exot­ic loca­tion to use as a point­less backdrop.

Hap­pi­ly, this was very much the excep­tion to that rule. Which was prin­ci­pal­ly down to Bailey’s unmis­tak­able and gen­uine enthu­si­asm for his sub­ject, and their joint area of interest.

Alfred Rus­sel Wal­lace was an ama­teur sci­en­tist in the clas­si­cal­ly Vic­to­ri­an mould. He spent his life try­ing to make sense of the ani­mal king­dom and our place in it. And he fund­ed his quest by trav­el­ling to the far­thest cor­ners of the globe, col­lect­ing exot­ic spec­i­mens that he was able to send back home and sell in London.

located-in-southeast-asia-in-the-malay-archipelago-indonesia-indonesia+1152_12987332687-tpfil02aw-18651These twin pur­suits, of knowl­edge, and of col­lect­ing insects – and dis­cov­er­ing new ones —  are clear­ly shared by Bai­ley. And there real­ly was only way for him to tell us about Wal­lace and his dis­cov­er­ies. Which was to take us with him on the jour­ney that the lat­ter made in the 1850s.

Bai­ley and his fel­low film mak­ers got every­thing just about right in this pro­gramme. The expla­na­tions of how Rus­sel arrived at the idea of nat­ur­al selec­tion, and of why it was that it hap­pened there, in the Malay Arch­i­pel­ago were clear and sim­ple with­out ever being over sim­pli­fied. And they were inter­spersed with just about the right amount of local colour and per­son­al anecdote.

There was a polit­i­cal slant to the pro­gramme too. Wal­lace is the for­got­ten fig­ure in the sto­ry of evo­lu­tion by nat­ur­al selec­tion. We only ever remem­ber the first per­son to dis­cov­er any­thing, and soci­ety and the sci­en­tif­ic estab­lish­ment chose to cel­e­brate the well-bred Dar­win and not the low­ly Wal­lace, despite the fact that their papers were pre­sent­ed together.

Indeed, Dar­win was only moved to pub­lish at all because of what Wal­lace had sent him. When to his hor­ror, he dis­cov­ered that his life’s work was in dan­ger of being eclipsed by this ama­teur enthu­si­ast on the oth­er side of the world.

BillBaileyAll of which is true. But Dar­win had been work­ing on his the­o­ries for near­ly 20 years before Wal­lace had his eure­ka moment. But he under­stood how explo­sive an idea nat­ur­al selec­tion would prove to be, and he want­ed to gath­er as much evi­dence as he could before pub­lish­ing anything.

And there were oth­er rea­sons why the sci­en­tif­ic world for­got Wal­lace. Like his pros­e­lytis­ing of Spir­i­tu­al­ism, and his cred­u­lous cham­pi­oning of séances, both of which he insist­ed on see­ing in a “sci­en­tif­ic” light.

Nonethe­less, he deserves to be more ful­ly cel­e­brat­ed, and Bai­ley is demon­stra­bly the per­fect man for the job. The con­clud­ing episode is on this week­end on BBC2.

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Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” Unfairly Overlooked.

cosmopolis.limosceneLast year’s David Cro­nen­berg film, Cos­mopo­lis, seems to have passed most peo­ple by. Which is a shame, because it’s got an awful lot going for it.

Don DeLil­lo’s 2003 nov­el, on which it is based, cer­tain­ly seems in ret­ro­spect to have been remark­ably pre­scient. It fol­lows an obscene­ly rich and impos­si­bly young trad­er, played by Twi­light heart-throb Robert Pat­tin­son, who spends a day in his limo as the finan­cial world around him implodes and his for­tune evap­o­rates into thin air.

All the time, and all around him, hordes of anti-cap­i­tal­ist Occu­py-type ne’er-do-wells stalk the streets. But far from pan­ic, or even react to any of this, Pat­tin­son drifts aim­less­ly from hour to hour in a state of exis­ten­tial ennui.

The nov­el came out in 2003. And although DeLil­lo had actu­al­ly already writ­ten the bulk of it before Sep­tem­ber 11th and the dot com crash of 2001, it cer­tain­ly feels like it’s a reac­tion to the impend­ing sense of doom and Armaged­don that came in the after­math. Giv­en what hap­pened to the finan­cial world in the decade that fol­lowed, it all looks remark­ably rel­e­vant and feels sur­pris­ing­ly fresh.

CrashAll of this of course is clas­sic Cro­nen­berg ter­rain. Since calm­ing down from his ear­li­er blood and gore fix­a­tions, Cro­nen­berg has devel­oped into one of the most con­sis­tent­ly inter­est­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing film mak­ers work­ing today.

Films like eXis­tenZ (1999), Spi­der (2002) and even the appar­ent­ly con­ven­tion­al Freud and Jung biopic A Dan­ger­ous Method (2011) all explore ques­tions of our place in the world, and exam­ine notions of appear­ance ver­sus reality.

But it’s the superb and crim­i­nal­ly over­looked Crash (1996) that Cos­mopo­lis most close­ly mir­rors. It falls mid­way between that and Brett Eas­t­on Ellis’ Amer­i­can Psy­cho, as our hero descends on a Sty­gian jour­ney into urban alien­ation and exis­ten­tial angst. Where every­thing is sur­face, and life has lost all meaning.

robert-pattinson-as-eric-packer-in-cosmopolis_sarah_gadenPat­tin­son is impres­sive now that he’s been giv­en some­thing grown-up to do. And his Amer­i­can accent is con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than to ought to be, if the attempts of any of this com­pa­tri­ots are any­thing to go by. Apart of course from  Hugh Laurie’s, which is obvi­ous­ly a deli­cious­ly wicked joke at the expense of all of his Amer­i­can viewers.

The sup­port­ing cast of Paul Gia­mat­ti, Juli­et Binoche and the porce­lain Sarah Gadon as his even more dif­fi­dent wife are all flaw­less. And all look pal­pa­bly relieved to find them­selves in some­thing made for peo­ple of a dou­ble dig­it age and with a triple dig­it IQ.

You can see the trail­er for it here.

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Revealing Warhol Documentary on Sky Arts.

4172660325_d98f2b485f_zThere’s a very inter­est­ing the­sis at the heart of Ric Burns’ Andy Warhol: A Doc­u­men­tary Film, cur­rent­ly being shown on Sky Arts.

The gen­er­al con­sen­sus has always been that Warhol’s out­put can be divid­ed straight down the mid­dle, by Valerie Solanas’ attempt on his life in 1968.

There was all of that fre­net­ic yet incred­i­bly focused ener­gy that he put into an extra­or­di­nary vari­ety of work before. And then there was a long and pro­tract­ed decline as the shock of com­ing so near to los­ing his life shat­tered his con­fi­dence and sent him for­ev­er into a pre­ma­ture shell.

By the ear­ly 60s, the shy, asex­u­al worka­holic had estab­lished him­self as one of the most suc­cess­ful art direc­tors in east coast adver­tis­ing. When he then launched him­self as a full time artist his suc­cess was mete­oric. And between 1962–8 he was one of the key peo­ple respon­si­ble for trans­form­ing New York into the cen­tre of the world.

velvet_underground_a_pFirst came Pop art. The seeds of which, the film con­vinc­ing­ly argues, had been sown in him by the sight of the stained glass win­dows at his local church. His pious moth­er had tak­en her sick­ly child there every week­end and he’d gaze up at them for hours on end.

That was fol­lowed by the now famous and gen­uine­ly icon­ic silk-screen por­traits. The Marylins, Elvis­es and the Jack­ie Os. But there were also the avant garde films, the hap­pen­ings and the music. All of which cul­mi­nat­ed with the Vel­vet Under­ground and the four sem­i­nal albums they produced.

It seemed like the entire artis­tic uni­verse was cen­tred around Warhol’s whirl­wind and increas­ing­ly infa­mous Fac­to­ry on East 47th Street.

But, the film points out, Warhol had acquired his nick­name Drel­la for a rea­son. A com­bi­na­tion of Cin­derel­la and Drac­u­la, it clev­er­ly sug­gest­ed an ingénue who sits inno­cent­ly watch­ing. But one that’s secret­ly and silent­ly suck­ing all the blood from all who come into con­tact with him.

The drag queens, pimp, push­ers and assort­ed wannabes that Warhol was open­ly encour­ag­ing to gath­er there and hang out might have been fan­tas­tic fod­der for his art, music and film. But he was demon­stra­bly using them. And there were few of any of them pro­duc­ing any­thing of worth. The Vel­vets were the excep­tion not the rule.

Promis­ing so many lost souls the earth was always going to cost him, even­tu­al­ly. And when Soli­nas shot him for not car­ry­ing her with him up into the heav­ens, there was a sense of inevitabil­i­ty rather than sur­prise about it.

ufzetxepkmvbbig.jpg.pngRic Burns is the younger broth­er of Ken, and the pair made the sem­i­nal The Civ­il War in 1990, which was fol­lowed up by Jazz in 2001. They’ve carved out a rep­u­ta­tion for aus­tere if slight­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, old school doc­u­men­taries. And there’s noth­ing wrong with that. As this fine 4 hour plus film demonstrates.

And although it does sail dan­ger­ous­ly close to hagiog­ra­phy, as the NY Times sug­gests in its superb piece here, Andy Warhol: A Doc­u­men­tary Film nonethe­less makes a very con­vinc­ing case for its claim that he was the most impor­tant artist in the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Keep your eye out for it.

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BBC2’s Superb Programme “The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum”.

herculaneum-panoramaSur­pris­ing­ly, the first time that any­one ever prac­ticed archae­ol­o­gy was in 1738. It was then, on Octo­ber 22nd to be pre­cise, that Rocque Alcu­bierre sat down to care­ful­ly write down a descrip­tion of all the things they were dig­ging up at the recent­ly dis­cov­ered Roman town of Her­cu­la­neum, just out­side of Naples.

Soon after that, a sec­ond town cap­tured in time was unearthed at near­by Pom­peii. And the sci­ence of archae­ol­o­gy was born, as Rocque and his fel­low work­ers began to ask them­selves the sorts of ques­tions that archae­ol­o­gy poses.

Should they put what they found back where they found it? Or should they take it away to be stored some­where else, where it could be looked after more safe­ly? And if so, where?

cyclades-mapThe word archae­ol­o­gy had first been coined by the Greek his­to­ri­an Thucy­dides in the 5th cen­tu­ry B.C., when he described what had acci­den­tal­ly been dug up on the island of Delos.

Delos had always been sacred to the Greeks. The group of island that it is part of, the Cyclades, gets its name from the fact that it is around Delos that the larg­er islands of Nax­os, Paros and Mykonos are cir­cled.

So the Greeks had always assumed that they’d always lived there. But when they dug up arte­facts that had clear­ly come from near­by Turkey, Thucy­dides cor­rect­ly argued that there must have been oth­ers who had lived there before the Greeks.

But it was only after Her­cu­la­neum and Pom­peii were dis­cov­ered some two thou­sand years lat­er that we began to prac­tice, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly, archae­ol­o­gy itself. They’d been caked in vol­canic ash after Mount Vesu­vius had erupt­ed in 79 A.D. And they’ve giv­en us an extra­or­di­nary win­dow into life in first cen­tu­ry Ancient Rome.

Our guide for this pro­gramme was Andrew Wal­lace-Hadrill, Direc­tor of the Her­cu­la­neum Con­ser­va­tion Project in Rome. And what he gave us over the course of the hour were a series of fas­ci­nat­ing insights that were as calm­ly infor­ma­tive as they were qui­et­ly moving.

He walked us through the dif­fer­ences between Her­cu­la­neum and the more famous Pom­peii, explain­ing the dif­fer­ent dis­cov­er­ies that we’ve been able to make there, and how it was that they were revealed.

CIMG2004-1Painstak­ing analy­sis of human waste, bones and skele­tons, togeth­er with an array of arte­facts has pro­duced an arrest­ing set of images frozen in time. Women and chil­dren hud­dling in shel­ter, as the men­folk stood des­per­ate­ly out in the open on the beach. A young boy cling­ing on to his pet dog. A two-year-old girl with her sil­ver ear­rings, being clung to by her mother.

Wal­lace-Hadrill was the per­fect guide on a fas­ci­nat­ing tour. And what a pleas­ant sur­prise to see a pro­gramme on Rome where the focus of atten­tion was on the Clas­si­cal world and not on the pre­sen­ter. Eru­di­tion and a cer­tain sense of mod­esty are not, it seems, a thing of the past.

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