London Film Festival: Target and Tahrir 2011

The last two films I went to see at the LFF were Target, a Russian film directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and a documentary abou the recent Egyptian revolution called Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.

They don’t have distribution for Target in the UK at least, so I don’t know how likely you are to get to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things I should warn now: SPOILERS.

Target is science fiction, from the philosophical end of that genre rather than the lasers and bug eyed monsters end. It’s set in a near future which is described in the LFF catalogue as ‘dystopian’, although I’m not sure that’s quite right: it’s quite hard to tell exactly what kind of society they live in, because the focus is quite narrowly on a group of wealthy Muscovites. There’s some sign of serious wealth inequalities, government corruption and a trashy media culture; but by those standards, Russia is probably a dystopia already. There are also hints of some kind of odd, bureaucratic, government enforced social hierarchy, but it’s never really explained in detail.

The film centres around a group of people who go out to a site way out in the Russian steppes to have a treatment which is supposed to be rejuvenating; it becomes apparent that the treatment actually stops ageing altogether, but it also makes them slightly mad: full of energy but manic and impulsive. Most of them self-destruct, including two who die and two who have to flee the consequences of their actions.

There were things to like about the film: it often looks great, for a start. One of the characters works as customs on a massive 12-lane motorway packed with heavy goods vehicles travelling between Europe and China, which looks spectacular on screen. And the landscape out on the wilds were they get the treatment looks amazing too, especially in the final shot of the film which is stitched together out of three separate shots, the first of which is, they think, the longest single tracking shot in cinema history. And there are some nice set pieces, including scenes of a trashy celebrity cooking show, manically presented by one of the main characters.

And I rather liked the fact that the film had unlikeable characters and a shortage of happy endings. Although that fact is only noteworthy because the bulk of commercial cinema is quite so incredibly conventional and limited.

But in the end 2½ hours was too long. It almost always is, really; at least at the theatre you get an interval so you can stretch your legs and relieve your bladder. Not that it was a slow film — it’s not 150 minutes of meaningful silences, thank God — there was just a lot of material. Too many subplots. And so by the end I was losing concentration and finding my stiff buttocks increasingly distracting.

Tahrir 2011 is actually three documentaries made by different people and stitched together — hence The Good, The Bad, and the Politician. The first of them, ‘The Good’, is a fairly nuts and bolts telling of what happened in Tahrir Square this spring, which combined interviews with people who took part and lots of footage filmed at the protests. It’s a fairly conventional documentary, but the events were so amazing that it is riveting to watch. Fascinating and moving.

‘The Bad’ is made up of interviews with members of the police and security services, asking for their account of what happened. Potentially that’s a fascinating subject, but it’s less successful than it could be because they obviously found it very difficult to find anyone willing to talk to them — some of the interviews are conducted in silhouette — and the interviewees are obviously very conscious of finding themselves on the wrong side of history, so they are understandably cagey and defensive.

‘The Politician’ is a portrayal of Hosni Mubarak, framed as an attempt to find out how someone who came to power as a liberal, reforming figure ended up as a dictator. It attempts to present it in a fairly tongue-in-cheek, jokey way, broken into a list of ten items with little animated inserts between them, like a Channel 4 list program. But it doesn’t really come off, and by the end I was falling asleep.

» The photo ميدان التحرير يوم الجمعه ٢٩-٧-٢٠١١ is some rights reserved by أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah.

The Monk

More from the London Film Festival. Le Moine is a film of the 1796 gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis. It’s a long time since I read the book, but I remembered that it was an overblown, melodramatic, sensational novel, so naturally I was keen to see a film version of it.

It lived up to the melodramatic tone of the book, anyway, although it didn’t really try to be shocking by modern standards; they could easily have incorporated a lot more graphic sex and violence if they wanted to, especially since they were messing around with the plot anyway.*

It reminded me of Black Swan, actually: a fundamentally silly paper-thin melodrama masquerading as an art film. It even has Vincent Cassel. It’s set in [early C17th?] Spain, and it looks beautiful, with lots of medieval buildings, arid Spanish landscapes, winding back alleys, and even some gorgeous frocks. Plus an amazing scene of a religious procession through the streets of the town. And the broody Cassel holds the film together as the monk. But no amount of intense acting and beautiful camerawork can disguise the basic ludicrousness of the plot.

Now personally I enjoyed Black Swan, although I know a lot of people hated it, and I enjoyed The Monk. But I think in both cases you need to go in with appropriate expectations: I think a few people went into Black Swan expecting a serious psychological thriller and were irritated to find themselves watching an expensively made horror movie. Whereas I went in expecting it to be a piece of high camp, because I had seen the trailer, and I enjoyed it for what it was. And I enjoyed The Monk on the same terms.

* something I didn’t realise while watching the film — I don’t remember the book well enough for that — but while checking the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia. I don’t think it’s the kind of book that invites reverential treatment, though.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Grayson Perry has curated an exhibition at the British Museum that combines his own work — ceramics, textiles, ironwork — with objects from the museum collection. Which must have been *the most fun ever*. I mean seriously, I’ve spent hours browsing the BM’s collection online, looking for things to post to Tumblr, but how much more fun to actually wander around the stores, talking to the experts, poking around in drawers and cabinets, and actually handle everything, with an open-ended brief to find anything which is beautiful, or interesting, or funny.

In fact, if it had just been stuff from the collection with some commentary from Perry, that would be enough to make a very interesting exhibition, because he always writes well and interestingly about art and he clearly has an excellent eye.

But the inclusion of his own work does work well. His work always combines a seriousness with humour and absurdity, and its presence affects the way you look at the other objects. Human beings often are absurd, after all, and museums aren’t always the best places to bring that out. For that matter, museums don’t always do seriousness very well. I mean, they’re good at dry, academic seriousness, but they don’t necessarily create the environment for human seriousness.

And in turn it gives you some insight into how he sees his own art to see the things he’s chosen to show alongside his work, and the themes he arranged the exhibition around: pilgrimage, magic, sexuality, maps and so on. And since I haven’t said so explicitly yet: Perry’s work is interesting and attractive in its own right.

So, yeah, a playful, entertaining exhibition full of striking, interesting and beautiful things. Go and see it.

» The image is of a painted wooden figure of a dancing Bes holding a tambourine, standing on a lotus. It’s Egyptian, from about 1800BC. It is from the BM, but it wasn’t in the exhibition.

On The Ice, London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is going on at the moment, and I went to see the first of the four films I’ve booked, which was On The Ice, set in Barrow, an Alaskan town which is the most northerly in the US. It focuses on a pair of Inuit teenagers, and in some ways it’s your classic conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity setup. The film equivalent of a lot of the books I’ve been reading for the Read The World challenge. So they’re living in a world of drugs and hip hop, but also seal hunting and whaling.

The plot revolves around a drunken fight which gets out of hand, and the unfolding consequences. And generally I thought it was very effective. There was a moment in the middle when I thought it was in danger of losing its way, but it pulled itself together and finished strongly.

There’s a particular appeal to these kind of films, made on a microscopic budget with no real prospect of making any money. Not that I have anything against commercial cinema; on the contrary, I tend to think that when an art form ceases to have a real popular following, it dies as an art and becomes a heritage activity, like calligraphy, or hand-weaving, or jazz. Nothing wrong with those things, but their golden ages are behind us.

But still, it seems like there’s a kind of clarity of purpose when a film isn’t even trying to be commercial. It can just focus very straightforwardly on the characters and the story. And while the lack of budget presumably brings its own set of compromises, at least it helps keep the director from being distracted by all the bells and whistles.

Anyway, it’s a good movie, worth checking out if you get the chance.

Tumblr roundup, Oct 12th

I spent some time in the Smithsonian collections this week, browsing a load of photos from Benin and Nigeria, mostly from about 1970. They all turned out to have been taken by Eliot Elifoson on various journalistic assignments in Africa. This is women dancing at the royal palace in Abomey:

Other Elifoson: appliqué workers in Abomey — the dance of the women warriors — John Adetoyese Laoye I, Timi of Ede — cutting down a tree — a football match between Dahomey (i.e. Benin) and Nigeria.

Captain Scott’s biographer makes a plausible case that we should remember the Antarctic explorer not as a heroic failure, but as someone whose reckless incompetence resulted int he entirely avoidable deaths of five people.

Mike Konczal runs the numbers on the We Are The 99% Tumblr to find out what the posters are mainly talking about, and reaches some (gloomy) conclusions about what it implies.

Devil’s Flower Mantis — a truly remarkable looking crustacean, Galathea pilosa — something that looks like a cross between a gorilla and a donkey, but is actually a chalicothere — a super-cute stoat video — a camouflaged lizard.

Soviet cotton-picker fabric design — a segmented tree — collage by Juan Gatti.

The Annunciation, Gerard David, 1506 — Young Woman with Ibis, Edgar Degas — Bowery, Paul Himmel — Night: Izcuchaca aqueduct, Arequipa, Peru. Carlos Vargas and Miguel Vargas, 1922.

Belated France follow-up, French civic geekery edition

I know I’ve been back for a while now, but there was one thing I’ve been meaning to blog about. The place we were staying was only a village, really, but in the best French manner it had a town square with a handsome town hall, in front of which was an obelisk-shaped monument that looked like it might be a memorial to the dead of the Great War, or just an ornamental drinking fountain.

But when I wandered over to look at a face carved into the top of the obelisk, it turned out to be Galileo. Which seemed a bit odd. Surely the great man had no connection to this little village in Languedoc? And on the other side was a portrait of Isaac Newton. But it gets better:

Yup, as a nearby sign explained, this is a monument in honour of the metric system, erected by the mayor of St-Victor La-Coste in 1888 for the centenary of the French Revolution.

Admittedly, given that the French revolution was, among other things, a brutal, blood-drenched clash of social classes competing for the chance to wield power, it might be seen as whitewashing to memorialise it as a rationalist Enlightenment project typified by a sensible reform of the system of measurements. But the French are hardly alone in being selective about the bits of their history they choose to celebrate.

And you know what, the metric system is a pretty great idea. Hurrah for the C19th French provincial bourgeoisie and their civic pride in the ideals of the Enlightenment.

On the other three sides of the obelisk, there are a list of the mayor and local council members who erected it, and some further details about the town. But my favourite bit is this:

I love that boast: ‘The metre adopted in France in 1795; the rest of Europe in 1872’. I’m just surprised they resisted the temptation to add a line saying ‘England: still in the dark ages’.

Originally there were also a thermometer and a barometer attached to the monument, but they have sadly gone.

Incidentally, I just love the typography.

The numerals and the Q are particularly pleasing, but the whole effect is very good; it’s a pretty standard Roman-style inscription but it has a bit of character. Perhaps it’s just the extra personality that comes with being hand carved by a real craftsman; we are surrounded by too much bland computer-generated signage these days. I miss hand-painted shop signs.

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Steve Jobs and William Morris

In my post about Steve Jobs I quoted William Morris’s famous dictum ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

I just wanted to say: yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting a socialist and anti-industrialist in praise of a great capitalist, a titan of industry who sold products by the hundreds of millions, each one assembled by low-paid workers in vast, sterile, soulless factories in China.

But then Morris’s vision of handmade, artisan production was quixotic even when applied to things like furniture and books; he couldn’t uninvent the industrial revolution. It certainly wouldn’t work for smartphones.

And to leave the politics to one side for a moment; aesthetically the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the way that mass production cheapened and coarsened material culture. It was a reaction to all those second-rate industrially produced imitations of traditional craftsmanship. Well, Apple’s best products have also fought against the shoddy and second-rate; but instead of rejecting mass production, Jobs wanted to do it right.

I suppose Morris would argue that was little consolation to those workers in their factory in China.

» The wallpaper is Morris’s ‘Fruit’ pattern. I picked it because it includes some apples.

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Steve Jobs RIP

On the desk in front of me are a computer and an external hard drive for backup. The computer is a 24″ aluminium iMac from 2007, and the hard drive is a Western Digital My Book Pro from about the same time.

The iMac is 4 years old, so the novelty value has long worn off, but I still get a degree of satisfaction from looking at it: it’s an obviously high quality object, well-made and well-proportioned. The design, with the whole computer and screen suspended from an angled metal foot, might be precarious if it was done badly; but in fact it is solid as a rock, and the angle of the screen adjusts easily but stays where you put it. The Apple logo on the front is the same glossy black as the screen surround and contrasts with the soft, non-glossy brushed aluminium of the body.

The hard drive is designed in broadly the same style: it’s a plain metal box formed out of rounded rectangles, with a simple glowing blue ring on the front. But the metal doesn’t have the same quality of finish as the computer: it’s greyer and slightly shinier, and it’s held together by an ugly plastic rim that immediately makes the whole thing look cheap. And it’s flimsier, and it’s been manufactured via a cheaper process; I think the iMac was machined out of a block of aluminium, whereas the hard drive looks like it was made by bending sheets of metal into shape. And the logo etched onto the side is a bit ugly. And the grille on the top is cut with an odd pattern of square holes and slots which is presumably intended to be attractive but just looks like design for the sake of design. And having managed to find, download and install the right driver to make the button on the front work, it now communicates with me via an arbitrary and completely unintuitive system of flashing lights: if the light is going round in a circle, that means one thing; flashing means something else; a steady light means something different again. If I ever need to know what they mean, I look it up in the manual, then immediately forget again.

Don’t get me wrong, the Western Digital drive is entirely good enough for my purposes and I would cheerfully recommend it to a friend. And despite my nitpicking, it’s not a hideous object, it’s a normal-looking bit of consumer electronics. I’ve seen much worse. But when Apple made the iMac, they didn’t settle for ‘good enough’, ‘not hideous’ and ‘normal looking’. They made something excellent.

I know Steve Jobs didn’t personally design my iMac. The credit for that has to go to Jony Ive and his team. But Jony Ive was already at Apple before Jobs came back, and the company wasn’t winning any design awards. And I bet there are talented designers working at Samsung and Nokia and Sony and even Microsoft. But what Jobs did was create the environment where design is able to survive. He made sure that the good work of designers was not always being undermined by the pressure to ship products quicker, to make them cheaper, to include badly-executed features so you can list them on the box. I bet there are amazing, beautiful prototypes sitting in labs at HP and Sony and Samsung; but at Steve Jobs’s Apple they were still beautiful when they reached the customer.

William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Under Jobs, Apple made products that were more beautiful — something that seemed to irritate a lot of technology people, who apparently regard the quest for beauty as suspicious and potentially subversive. But they also made products that were more useful, because Jobs understood that it doesn’t matter how many things a device can do; it only becomes more useful if you actually use it, and you only use it if it’s easy enough to use.

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Tumblr round-up, October 5th

As ever, this is just a selection of stuff I’ve posted since last time.

Here’s an enamel portrait pendant from the late C18th Iran (via the Met), a big version of which is my current iPhone lockscreen wallpaper. I probably ought to do a post about iPhone wallpapers some time.

Also from the Met, some Egyptian stuff: a scarab, a perfume bottle in the shape of two trussed ducks, a hippopotamus figurine. And from the Caribbean, a Taino deity figure.

Some links:

— An eye-opening article about shamateurism and exploitation in US college sports. Eye-opening for this non-American, anyway.

— An interesting and slightly depressing description of what it’s like to write for the Daily Mail.

— Luke Harding’s account of what it’s like as a foreign reporter being harassed by the Russian security services.

— Some fascinating anecdotal evidence of arctic ravens cooperatively hunting for large prey.

— Amazing fossils that preserve the iridescent colours of ancient beetles.

Reminiscences, and some brilliant old photos, from Max Lea MBE, a football referee in the East End of London.

Wildlife photos: an amazing spider; an amazing moth; a butterfly; a great bird photo; another one. The eye of a waterflea, which is just one of the remarkable entries from Nikon’s annual photomicrography competition.

Something I learned about from i heart photograph: nature printing (1, 2). Which is a technique predating photography that used the imprint of the physical plant to make the printing blocks. LIke this, from The Nature-Printed British Seaweeds, published 1860:

Some art: flowers by Odilon Redon — a Blue Morpho by Martin Johnson Heade — View of the Village by Jean-Frédéric Bazille — a scene from the Mahabharata — Three Ellipses for Three Locks by Felice Varini — Surprised Ducks by Félix Bracquemond.

Miscellanea: Tourmaline with Lepidolite and Cleavelandite — exploding crayons — a time-lapse film from the front of the space station — a whale balloon — Russian tentacles — an Albanian coat — a voodoo ceremony.