Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Carmen (Live Broadcast Opera)

Finally a chance to compare one of these to an opera I've seen live.

The cinema version was better. I do hope they're keeping these recordings for later release.

I was distinctly underwhelmed by the ENO's Carmen. I completely got this one.

This is partly a compliment to the singing, but mostly to the Metropolitan Opera's excellent staging, costumes and direction, all of which matter much more in the cinema versions. I don't think it's just a matter of budget. I saw a beautiful Rheingold once with just a big sheet, some coloured lights and a projector for scenery.

But it's also a compliment to the camerawork, which is getting more and more accomplished. It's gone from downright annoying, to not noticeable, to a positive joy over the course of the last year.

Unfortunately the sound reproduction, which you'd think would be the most important thing, is just not as good. Not only not as good as it would be live, but not as good as it would be listening to a CD on a half-decent stereo. My ear isn't good enough to say exactly what's wrong.

I've no idea why this should be the case. Surely cinema speakers should be able to do as well as a home set? Maybe they're just not optimised for the same things.

It sounds like a reproduction or amplification problem, and it may be peculiar to the Cambridge Arts Cinema.

But it also seems to vary from performance to performance. Maybe it's just very difficult to record music properly without interfering with a live production?

But anyway, I don't care. I would rather see this again than the live version I saw, sound quality or not. Even if I still lived in London and the price was the same.

Up in the Air (film)

The rarest of things, an original.

George Clooney (the character's name somehow failed to register) has constructed for himself the most hollow and hellish existence imaginable, doing the most worthless conceivable job in conditions of empty luxury.

And yet he has found a contentment too real to be call false, and a righteous path of his own choosing. He has made a religion of his own life, and preaches it to the benefit of others. He is a happy and likeable man.

He is destroyed when the fates send him an acolyte who can see some part of the truth of things. An encounter with a truly contented soul leaves him staring into the void.

Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are glorious as Anna and Natalie. Sam Elliot does a lovely cameo as the Chief Pilot.

George Clooney plays the George Clooney character with his usual faultless perfection. What will we do when he is gone? I cannot imagine any other actor who could have carried this off. In most people's hands the protagonist would have been utterly unsympathetic, and the film would have failed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nine (Film)

This tedious and embarrassing turkey is one of the worst films I have ever seen. A real crime.

I would very much like my £6 and my three hours back.

It's actually rather a brave attempt, and the moving and sympathetic film that it could have been can be glimpsed in the scenes in which Marion Cotillard, excellent in spite of the train wreck in which she finds herself, is allowed the camera to herself.

A musical when it works has a simple story which binds together a series of good songs.

The simple story is there, and there's nothing wrong with it, but no one should begin the construction of a musical without having found at least one song. And there should be at least one member of the cast who can sing.

I saw this film not two hours ago and I can't remember a single tune, although I do remember a few of the more annoying words.

One of the more disturbing features of the film is the strange decision to represent a large number of Italians, speaking, one presumes, exclusively in Italian to one another, by a cast speaking English in excruciating cod Italianate accents, throwing in occasional Italian phrases.

This decision can only have been taken in conscious contempt of the intended audience, presumably with the idea of lending "authenticity" and "colour" to the dialogue.

The actual effect is constantly to remind the viewer, or victim, of a certain sort of 1950s war film in which English actors in SS uniforms refer to each other constantly as 'mein freund', und unaccountably mispronounze half zeir vords.

Those responsible should all be shot.

It is difficult to imagine that this horrendous device could ever be dismissed as a minor blemish, but the true scale of the disaster can only be gauged by the fact that this film somehow manages to make the transcendent Penélope Cruz, playing the mistress, seem both talentless and somewhat repellent.

What I can't understand is how it managed to get such gentle treatment from its reviewers. Admittedly no-one actually came out and said that it was worth seeing, but it should have been, and wasn't, universally panned.

Perhaps there is some sort of scheme to donate the profits to a fund for the widows and orphans of film critics?

A complete waste of time. If you've already seen it, go back and unsee it as soon as possible.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Road (Film)

The thesis of this film is that, should some unexplained catastrophe cause all the plants and animals to die, leaving the surviving humans with nothing to eat but each other, then the consequences would be grim.

I believe that the point is sufficiently convincingly made that there should be no need for further films on this subject.

The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

Dealing as it does with many of the ethical issues of undergraduate life, I can think of no better field guide for a young person embarking on the study of the classics.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Avatar (Film)

I've never been more wrong. It's a triumph.

As the immortal Mash taught us, Avatar is truly the greatest ever film about blue pretend cat people. And likely to stay that way for some time.

The 3D effects are absolutely gobsmacking.

It's like being at a theatre in-the-round. The flat screen of the cinema is replaced by a stage. Red Indian types do indeed fire arrows straight at camera. And it's utterly glorious.

You can tell how good a video reproduction technology is by wondering whether you could mistake the screen for a mirror. This is a big step closer to that ideal.

Saying that, it doesn't quite work. There's a slight weirdness about very close objects, which I think is down to a mismatch between focus and parallax. Presumably this effect will become less noticeable as the technology and technique improve, and as we learn to watch 3D films.

Because we will. Traditional film will soon look as weird as black and white. 2D will become a special effect.

The CGI is also absolutely extraordinary. It's slightly cartoonish, and I imagine that it will soon date, but I can't tell what was acted by real people, what was done with models, and what was done entirely in silico. It's all extraordinarily lush and beautiful. You could not have done this ten years ago.

The really stunning thing is just what sort of fantasy this sort of technology is going to allow us in the future. It will soon become cheap and make its way into television and computer games. And at that point, it will just be waiting for its Milton.

Bloody hell. Can we film Paradise Lost now?

As for the actual story, well, it's a simple melodrama, but then so are a lot of good films, including Star Wars. Granted the Na(ti)vi are a little too good to be true, but their earth-huggery is explained perfectly adequately by the literal interconnection of their world.

Apart from making an apology for the American genocides, Cameron manages to get in a couple of nasty digs at the occupation of Iraq, and one or two other politically correct references, but it's done cleverly, doesn't jar, adds to the film, and frankly needs saying. One of the things I've always liked about America is the fact that it can sometimes look itself squarely in the face. Which England can't, and which Europe has no desire to do.

As science fiction, it's plausible. The two implausible assumptions are the idea of humans physically travelling to other stars, and the avatar technology itself.

But you're always allowed the first assumption for free in SF, and making a second and running with it to see what will happen is almost the definition of hard SF.

All the rest of it doesn't seem at all unreasonable if 'unobtainium' is a sort of organic superconducting brain-stuff. Which explains why it can't just be synthesized on Earth.

In fact the only bit of the film that I found did jar my willing suspension of disbelief was when the hero talks about 'taking it to the next level'. But actually that's probably exactly the sort of language that a space-marine would use to describe the defining moment of his life. It sounds weird to me, but that doesn't mean it's out of character.

On the whole, I think Avatar actually does bear comparison with Star Wars. I don't think it's as good. It doesn't have Star Wars' wholesale brilliant thieving from Kurosawa or the Ring. It doesn't have John Williams' wonderful score.

But it's a good effort in the same bracket. And much more of a science fiction story than Star Wars was.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Avatar's Cover

Does anyone else feel a certain grim compulsion to go and see this obvious turkey?

Advance reports suggest a leaden politically correct allegory, so tedious and unimaginative that it is unlikely to hold the interest even of Guardian readers.

Add to that that we've heard all this nonsense about 3D revolutions before. I remember from childhood various dreadful films watched wearing red and green glasses, which were just like ordinary films except that occasionally a gratuitous Red Indian would fire an arrow directly at the audience.

I always used to like to take my glasses off at that moment, in order to watch the red and green arrows speeding away from each other on the screen.

It was the same with the sharks.

There's also the horrible sense of hype. Bloody George Lucas. Bloody Star Wars episode I. Bloody CGI. Bloody Special Effects bloody Blockblusters. Grrr.

So why am I going to end up seeing it anyway?

Well, I quite liked Titanic. That was a Special Effects Movie where the special effects were worth seeing just for themselves. And it had a naked Kate Winslet in it.

Also, I'm the same age as my father was when Star Wars came out.

Having seen the original cinematic trailers I can quite understand why he was so reluctant to go. They almost completely fail to communicate what was good about it. I imagine that Dad felt much the same way about it as I do about Avatar.

And Star Wars is my favourite film of all time.

I eventually got taken to see it as part of a friend's 7th birthday celebrations (thanks Mr and Mrs Satterthwaite!), much to my father's relief, but then when I came home and raved about it he took me (and Mum and little Sis, then three years old) to see it again.

And I can't imagine he liked it as much as I did, but we went to see the two sequels too, so he must have liked it a bit.

So anyway, I'm going to go and see it. I love films and this could be an important film. If it is, I'm certainly not going to understand why by seeing it on TV.

But I don't think I've ever before gone to the cinema in the positive expectation of being bored.

Commercial Angels

I would not normally be seen dead in the Grand Arcade, our local shopping mall, packed almost exclusively as it is with commercial outlets selling things likely only to be of interest to young ladies, such as the products of Apple Computer, did it not contain the Central Library.

On entering for the first time in some time, I was struck by the gigantic flying female figures suspended from the roof. They have huge feathery wings and serene expressions and are concentrating on great red banners suspended from even higher up, the lower ends of which they are holding.

Despite the slightly unfortunate flashing lights in their wings, they are rather beautiful and spiritual creatures.

I stood and contemplated them for some time.

Either someone has taken the trouble to design and make these enormous figures specifically to decorate a smallish provincial shopping mall for Christmas, in which case well done, you! They are beautiful.

Or there is an operation somewhere manufacturing these enormous seraphic figures in quantity, and selling them and shipping them who knows where?

A surreal thought.

The Queen of Spades (film)

Agreeable old black and white film, just re-released, about a man who is not rich enough. Based on a short story by Pushkin. Russians, aristocrats, gambling dens, adulterous countesses etc etc.

It was only about half way through that I realised that it was an old film, which shows you how good the production values were for 1948. I thought it was being deliberately retro and would break out in colour any minute.

My father and I disagreed about whether the film contains supernatural events, or is just a story about a man going mental. Mind you you can have the same argument about Macbeth.

Anyway it's great. Go see while it's still on release.

The depressing state of the humanities

This article about the job prospects (in academia and elsewhere) of humanities PhDs is one of the most depressing things I've ever read.


One of the most awful things about it is the fact that it has a certain ring of truth about it. A clear argument citing plausible motivations for all parties.

It is unworthy to feel a slight shock at hearing a humanities graduate thinking in this way.

I only really know scientists these days, but I'm constantly surprised by how hard they're prepared to work in order to earn starvation-level wages on temporary contracts. They are also constantly forced to relocate, which must have a terrible effect on their personal relationships and happiness.

The real tragedy, of course, is how much time they have to spend scrounging up the next temporary contract. Time that they should be spending, while they're young and keen, adding new crumbs to the mighty molehill of knowledge.

And a candidate for the second real tragedy, of course, is the way that, in the six months of the one-year contract that they can actually use for science, they are forced to avoid any sort of speculative thinking in favour of doing safe research that can be predicted to have publishable outcomes.

I'm not sure about that last point. It may be that having one's nose pressed firmly against the grindstone might actually be the best way to have the 'I just invented a new theory of the chemical bond' moments in the shower.

But it seems that the position of the humanities post-docs is even worse.

I would laugh, since I rather despise the humanities on the basis of a crude stereotype formed at college that I like to think of as 'Gender Issues in Meaninglessness: a Constructive Hermeneutics of the Shakespearean Strawberry'.

But we're talking about real people here: The nice girls who'd somehow managed to convince themselves, not only that the study of literature was a subject, but that it was a subject that mattered, and that they had something interesting to say.

They maybe need disabusing of these notions, but surely it would be possible to do it gently rather than exploiting and undermining them over years until there's nothing left.

If they're going to spend years starving in garrets before committing suicide wouldn't it be better if they spent the time writing poems or stories? Or maybe some book reviews or something else useful or fun?