Eschewing Community Chest

Southampton is fairly generously served with cinemas and screens, and further options exist a short way off in Winchester (and a new cinema is apparently being constructed).  However, this apparent bounty does not extend to offering a particularly wide range of films.  Basically, each of the cinemas – even the art house ones – just offer a subset of the films showing at the main multiplex.  In the extreme case of the Picturehouse and Cineworld, doing so barely 100 yards from one another.

This contrasts with Cambridge, where the Arts Picturehouse offered a very wide range of films – though it did only make some of its more obscuring offerings available on a single occasion and at rather odd times.  I think this is down to perceived (or perhaps even actual) supply and demand: the cinema managers of Wessex do not feel their audiences are up for any particularly challenging (or even just slightly quirky) fare.  Given the number of copies of the Daily Heil one sees around, they may well be right – but it is a disappointment for the more eccentric denizens of these parts (which certainly includes me, though I’m reasonably sure I’m not entirely alone).

The only ray of light breaching these clouds of conformity are Discover Tuesdays (a terrible name in many ways, as I think few people are still surprised to find a day lurking between Monday and Wednesday) when we are allowed to see something more interesting: as long as we are willing to have an early tea and hit the cinema by 18:00 (the concept of having a late tea, some time after eight, is clearly a non-starter – unless you fancy gorging on wafer-thin chocolate-covered mints).  Annoyingly, this time slot does tend to clash with desirable concerts at Turner Sims – events which I tend to book further ahead than trips to the flicks and so I’ve missed out on several films that I might otherwise have found stimulating.

This week, my visit to Turner Sims was on Thursday to see Schubert’s last three piano sonatas.  This was worthwhile, if only for hearing the stunning way Christian Blackshaw played the second movement of D960 (for the avoidance of doubt, he played the rest very well too – but this movement really stood out).  However, it did in turn mean missing out on a gig at the Art House Cafe which also looked like a lot of fun.  Life is full of regrets – unless you are Edith Piaf or a UK wetland (oh no, sorry, that’s egrets).

As a result I did have the chance to Discover Tuesday (it was located as expected and still named after Tiw), but the film was unknown to me and I hemmed and hawed about it.  Eventually, I decided to take a chance (blow my £8) and go – if nothing else, I felt I needed to encourage the Harbour Lights in its more adventurous programming (and if I won’t, who will?).  I’m very glad I did as I really enjoyed The Best Beneath My Feet – in some ways, it is a British take on the US High School movie but being British has strayed quite some way from the source genre.

Whilst it is set in the present (I think) it has some of the feel of a period piece.  This is partly because we see very few cars and our hero’s laptop and mobile phone are not the most recent, but mostly down to the school our hero attends.  For the first time in ages, a school being shown on screen reminded me very strongly of my own experiences in the seventies and early eighties..  The classrooms and corridors were all very familiar – though the chemistry lab was a bit of a giveaway as to the more modern period: no ancient, heavy (and heavily scarred) wooden desks with built-in bunsen burners accessed by high wooden stools (I do feel that when it comes to chemistry, the youth of today are missing out).

Our hero himself is also slightly disconnected from the present, his school uniform and parka would have been (almost) entirely at home at my own school circa 1980 (a slightly different tie and the wrong badge on the blazer were the only clues that would have given him away to anything but a detailed uniform inspection).  Perhaps because of this, he reminded me very strongly of the youthful me, though I think there were also strong visual similarities.  He certainly had my terrible posture and a similar build and was even somewhat facially similar (though you should bear in mind I have not seen my teenage face in 30 years).  I had (and still have) less musical ability but on the plus side don’t think I wore such awful glasses and was (a bit) less of a loner.

Another bonus was the sight of one-time, teen heart-throb Luke Perry, who is very slightly younger than me.  I have no particular interest in him personally (and am unfamiliar with the rest of his oeuvre), but was very pleased to see that he is not wearing as well as I am.  Now, I do appreciate he was playing a very dissipated character in the film, but I like to imagine that I can tell what was make-up and what was the ravages of time.

So, all-in-all, taking a chance played off handsomely.  A fun film, an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and to feel that I am ageing relatively well (not quite a £10 win in a beauty content, but at my age you take what you can get) – and all for less than a (small) round of drinks.  Since this came only a couple of days after a similarly late and uncertain decision to see David Goo and The 150 Friends Club, I feel my spontaneous decision-making to see culture “because it’s there” is going rather well.  As a result, I’m going to try two separate events organised by Pint of Science this coming week – one related to physics the other to biology, but both (I assume) related to beer – which are taking place in nearby pubs as part of some broader UK-wide pub-based science festival (whose existence I discovered from a flyer I spotted at Turner Sims on Thursday).  If anything interesting happens (and quite possibly if it doesn’t) you will be the first to hear about it!


Cine M&A

M&A, for those who have been spared exposure to this particular abbreviation, stands for Mergers and Acquisitions.  This is very much the civil partnership of the corporate world: a place I do have to visit de temps en temps.  In a merger the marriage is somewhat mutual, whereas for an acquisition a shotgun tends to be involved – as I understand matters.

In a typical M&A scenario, a small company which does one thing well is taken over by a larger entity which may do many things with almost any level of competence (including none at all).  The combined entity is briefly larger, but almost immediately what remains of the small company ceases doing its one thing well.  The entity then contracts and may enter slow, but terminal decline or may later be re-born.   (I believe this process may be linked to the “creative destruction” on which capitalism seems to depend – it takes out both a large company and a small successful one, opening up new ecological niches to be exploited).  My sense is that M&A activity is nearly always bad news for the employees, customers and shareholders of both companies – but does benefit a range of corporate lawyers, bankers and a few senior managers.  Since the shareholders have to agree to both M and A, such people do seem to fit my favourite definition of insanity, viz doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome, very snugly.  I would also have thought that the senior managers may well be open to accusations of failing in their fiduciary duty by permitting such activity to occur as I had thought they were supposed to protect shareholder value.  In related “news”, it may just be me and some sort of selection bias or availability error in operation (or, indeed, poor journalistic standards), but whenever a captain of industry makes any pronouncement reported by the media, they do give the very convincing impression of being complete dunderheads (and should never be allowed to speak in public).  If so, the plan to promote such folk to a position where they can do less harm may be back-firing spectacularly for the UK plc.

OK, so “M&A” covered we now move on to the “cine” in our title.  I am a fairly frequent movie-goer and usually frequent my local art house fleapit (for the avoidance of doubt, I have never knowingly encountered a flea on these excursions) and in both Cambridge and Southampton, this has been a Picturehouse cinema.  A while back, Picturehouse was bought by Cineworld, a large chain of more mainstream cinemas – as with most M&A activity, it is quite hard to see why.  Some hope of economies of scale perhaps?  Megalomania? Mind-altering drugs?

When my local Picturehouse does not show a film that I want to see, then it has generally been to Cineworld that I have taken my film-going pound (or several).  So, I have some familiarity with both chains as a customer, I have no idea what it is like as an employee  – though those at Picturehouse do generally seem to be more invested in the process than their cousins at Cineworld (or may just be better actors).  In the last week, I have been to both – which in Southampton are situated pretty close to each other – and there is quite a contrast in the customer experience.  At the Harbour Lights (the local Picturehouse), you have a fairly small lobby with comfy seating (and a balcony overlooking the marina), fairly decent food offerings but the screens are modest in size, though you do get comfy, reclining seats on quite a steep rake and carpeted floors.  At Cineworld, the lobby is much larger but with standard cinema food (which doesn’t appeal to me at all) and nowhere comfy to sit.  The screens are much bigger, but the seats less comfy on a shallow rake and the floors are clearly designed to be wipe-clean.

As a sidebar, I do wonder why standard cinema cuisine is so awful – and generally rather noisy to eat?  Is the typical cinema-goer so hidebound by tradition that they insist on popcorn, nachos covered in a rubbery substance simulating cheese (badly) and fizzy pop?  I can’t believe I am alone in finding such offerings unappealing.  So much of the UK has a vibrant food culture, why has none of this made it into the mainstream cinema?  Anyway, given their proximity, if I have to visit the Cineworld I acquire my food and drink from the Harbour Lights (and it would seem that I am not alone).  However, this option is not available everywhere and one feels that mainstream cinema is missing out on a lot of potential income from that portion of the audience still blessed with functioning tastebuds.

Sidebar over, and I am now ready to merge the two parts of the title together.  As a customer, the change of ownership of Picturehouse has been mostly hidden – except for worries about the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, following the rather baffling opinion by the Competition and Mergers Authority that its presence in the same town as a Cineworld would harm competition.  (Given they have segmented the audience very successfully, are more than a mile apart, and both have to compete with a local MyVue this seems far less of an issue than, for example, the situation in Southampton where they are little more than 100 yards apart.)  However, a few weeks ago this situation changed as one of the primary curses of any M or A struck: I refer, of course, to the attempt to marry the IT systems.  The old Picturehouse website disappeared to be be replaced by a new one – well a new stop-gap one, the new one won’t be ready for some months (not entirely clear what the thinking was here, as it’s usually not a good plan to dispose of the old version of something when the replacement is still some months away).  This new website is decidedly clunky (though more modern-looking), and on launch did not allow you to see what films were showing or book tickets – though it could have been worse, for some cinemas it did show film times: the wrong film times.  It has also affected all the internal systems, so you cannot currently buy food or drink with a credit card: which these days does feel deliciously subversive as cash transactions are so much harder for the authorities to trace.  But, the staff have most of my sympathy: I only have to deal with the new IT once a week (or so), they have to fight their way around it every day – and in the knowledge that it will be changing again.  I also very much doubt that they are receiving extra money to deal with this hassle, and one cannot really tip at the cinema (well not in the UK, the US may well be different, as I believe there is no situation where tipping is inappropriate in our former colony).

And now for sidebar number 2 – on the topic of major IT implementations.  Both the news and personal experience would suggest that any major IT implementation will be a disaster – and yet, companies and governments continue to indulge in this very expensive luxury.  Why?  I (myself) take the view that once your employer starts to implement SAP, it is time to dust off your curriculum vitae and seek pastures new.  (I’m sure SAP is not unique in this respect, but for me it is very much the “poster-child”).

So, in conclusion, I can only hope that matters at Picturehouse will sort themselves out – despite the poor omens and/or odds – and that I will continue to be able to enjoy better food and comfy seating while at the movies.  Perhaps, I should also offer to take any overly stressed member of their staff out for a commiseratory (which I insist is a word, despite WordPress’s doubts) beer?  (Though, I might need to limit the geographical and temporal scope of this offer, if I am to avoid bankruptcy).

Targetted advertising

Our privacy is under threat as never before – or so we are told – either by governments spending our money to spy on us or by mega-corporations trying to flog us stuff we neither need nor want.  I think I would find this much more terrifying if either group had shown themselves to be even remotely competent in using the information they have managed to inveigle (or just plain steal) from us.

Governments seem incapable of delivering any IT system larger than a small Excel spreadsheet without the cost over-running by multiple billions and the system arriving so late that being merely obsolete is a pipe-dream.   As a result, I shall focus my attention on the mega-corporations which our governments see as a universal aunt to solve all societies ills and to which stock markets attach quite extraordinary values.

I am a member(?) of Facebook and occasionally post my thoughts upon its willing platform – mostly whilst on long train journeys (any TV execs reading: I could be the next Michael Portillo – though I may struggle to seem quite that smug).  In return for this “free” service, Facebook delivers to my incredulous eyes a series of adverts which it has chosen specially for me.  It would seem that I am in need of a high-value divorce, a bevy of single girls (in my area!) and a discrete catheter.  I don’t recall ever mentioning problems with the female sex – either an excess or a lack – or any infirmity related to my bladder.

Twitter is no better: it too offers me soi-disant “promoted tweets” as compensation for offering me the ability to infrequently post poor quality jokes.  Most of these, along with many of the offerings from Facebook, could only be of interest to a reader resident in the US – and I have made no secret of the fact that I am not a US resident to both social networks (it is one of the few pieces of “personal” information I have vouchsafed to them).

If this is really the best they can do, I must wonder at (a) the due diligence performed by those advertising using their services and (b) their current stock valuations.  I fear the leader of the empire may be in state of some undress.

I don’t see a lot of advertising on the television, as I tend to record programmes on commercial channels and then fast forward through the ads.  This both spares me the generally tedious efforts of the advertising industry and allows me to watch two hours of television in around 90 minutes – so much more time efficient!  However, when at the cinema, I am a captive audience and see most of my moving ads (as opposed to the more static bill-board) there.  Theatre and classical music remain largely ad-free (if you ignore the programme).  This seems to be missing a trick as you have actors and/or musicians available who could usefully indulge in a bit of selling while the audience hobble to their seats.

I rather miss Pearl and Dean, and do wonder if they are still together – or just another one of this country’s rising divorce statistics.  Once, in the ABC in East Grinstead in the mid 80s, I was the sole audience member for a film entitled Turk 182.  Prior to the film beginning, we had the usual Pearl and Dean ad reel – but the film had been fed into the projector the wrong way round and it ran backwards.  The famous P&D theme sounds pretty much the same in reverse – these is no hidden demonic message (in case any readers had been worrying).

Nowadays, most of my cinema time is spent at a Picturehouse and so I have made study of the ads which are felt appropriate for an art house cinema audience.    We would seem to be in the market for broadband, moderately to very expensive cars and vodka – there is always an ad for vodka (drinking and driving seems to be positively encouraged at the flicks).  We are also subjected to an ad by a firm called Prime Location which I find actively offensive and which has convinced me never to use their services: I presume it is paid for by a consortium of other estate agents to wreck their business.  The catalogue of ads seems entirely independent of the choice of film – but my own anecdotal evidence would suggest that the choice of film does affect the audience (and, indeed, the film trailers shown).

Frankly, advertising seems only to be targetted at me in the sense that any projectile cast into the air at less than 11.2 km/s is being targetted at “the ground”.  Both will encounter their target, but not due to any virtue imparted by their method of delivery.  There is an old saying that those that can do, and those that can’t teach.  I have heard this extended to administration if teaching is too tricky – one can only imagine that marketing is all-too-often a very long way down this chain of possible careers.

Film club

Not the most popular flavour of Jacob’s once popular chocolate-coated biscuit, but neither mint nor orange would serve my titular needs.

As mentioned in my last post, whilst in Cambridge at the end of September I took in some of the annual Film Festival.  This was great fun, as ever, and allowed my to renew my acquaintance with the Arts Picturehouse, but offered two particular cinematic delights.

Firstly, I saw Othello transmitted live from the National Theatre – the first time I’d been to see the theatre at the cinema.  This was surprisingly effective and does allow you to get extraordinarily close to the action (and the actors!) and I shall definitely use the cinema to catch plays again (it is even cheaper than the original and would normally involve a rather shorter journey).  The performance of Othello itself was staggering powerful and more than worthy of the five start reviews it had garnered.

My second highlight was a British romantic comedy with the rather improbable title of Dead Cat.  This was enormous fun, not the clichéd nonsense that is so often passed off as romantic comedy, and made for a tiny fraction of the budget.  Since I saw it, it has even won prizes (so, it wasn’t just me that liked it).  Sadly, lacking a major studio the film has no distribution deal and so can only be caught at film festivals – today Cambridge, tomorrow Oaxaca.  It can’t find funding from the BFI as it is not appearing at festivals considered “major” enough and can’t appear there due to the lack of funding.  Given the tosh that weekly fills our multiplexes, I can’t help but feel something is very wrong in the way we fund movies.

My local cinema now, the Harbour Lights, is also part of the Picturehouse group, but is somewhat smaller than its Cambridge counterpart.  It does, however, offer the advantage of reclining seats and a balcony with views across the marina which has been a very pleasant place to partake of a little pre-movie cake (though may become less desirable as winter closes in).

At the Harbour Lights, I have enjoyed a rather fine run of films in recent months with my top tip being What Maisie Knew.  My most recent visit was to see Le Weekend which I was amused to see had been given a 15 certificate.  Given its subject matter I cannot imagine it would be of any possible interest to the under 15s, despite the lure of its fruity language and use of soft drugs.  No, the people who should be kept away are the over-50s who might acquire some highly inappropriate ideas if exposed to the movie’s content.  Perhaps the BBFC could use my input for future classification?

All too often when I do go to the cinema, avoiding the over-hyped blockbuster, the place seems far from full – though this may be as a tendency to visit when normal people are at work.  Nonetheless, I worry that my attendance is not going to keep art house cinema going (despite my economically significant consumption of incidental cake and ice cream).  So, can I exhort the readers of GofaDM to give films whose blocks are far from busted a try – there’s a surprising amount of decent stuff out there, and art house cinema doesn’t even have to be depressing (though it certainly can be, if that is your desire).

More eggs, fewer baskets

Yesterday, I went to the cinema.  Nothing that unusual there, though I did have to visit one of Cambridge’s two multiplex offerings as my chosen film, the well-reviewed Looper, was not available at the Arts Picturehouse.  Still, a little occasional slumming is good for the soul I’m sure – though I was slightly alarmed to find that Cineworld boasts bouncers and bag searches.

It was not an entirely successful visit.  Just before the film was due to start, there was a very brief (<5 seconds) of power outage.  In days of yore, this would have been a minor inconvenience – the projector would have ground to a halt and then re-started when the power came back.  However, we have now gone digital – so the power cut crashed the whole cinema.  After about 30 minutes, I presume that someone had managed to re-boot the cinema and our film started – power failure spared us the ad reels and trailers, so not all bad!  I have no idea what happened to films already running, but I doubt there was positive outcome.

We were then treated to some 40 minutes of the film, before it was stopped and we were all evacuated for our own safety.  Apparently, the emergency lighting was broken: all of it!  Not really an issue in this modern world, as I should imagine almost everyone in the cinema was carrying their own torch in the form of a brightly glowing mobile phone.  I suspect we were actually evacuated to avoid issues with the cinema’s insurance policy or license: still, always best to blame anything that might be unpopular on health, safety, or failing that Europe (as these are three concepts assumed to be universally reviled.  As someone who has occasionally read a little history, I suspect our mill working ancestors of the 19th century would be amazed how little respect we grant to our hard-won health and safety).

As a (much) younger man, I used to repair the emergency lighting (and the automatic door closer mechanisms) at the block of flats where I was then resident.  These did fail, but did so as individuals – each one had its own backup power supply (or battery as we used to call them) and bulb.  To lose the entire building would have taken dozens of individual failures – and so, an evacuation was never needed.  I suspect the cinema has a single (if mis-named) uninterrupted power supply (UPS) for the whole building which must have been tripped by the power failure.  Centralisation may look like a great idea, but it does lead to a single point of failure.  Apparently, an engineer was called (though my friends who are engineers, would probably prefer me to refer to her as a technician) and the cinema was likely to remain closed for the rest of the day.  Sometimes more primitive technology which lacks a single mode of failure and can be fixed by an unskilled idiot (like the younger me) beats its over-centralised modern counterparts into a cocked hat.  Sadly, this tendency exists rather more widely than the world of the muliplex cinema – so that a single error can now inconvenience millions.  As a society we do seem to be keeping ever more of our eggs in ever fewer baskets and then trying to cut the costs of basket maintenance: I think there may be a lot of metaphorical omelette to be eaten in the future.

I now have to decide whether I want to see the film again, sitting through a first 40 minutes which will now lack any novelty.  I suspect not: the first chunk did not inspire me to continue, though the film was perhaps starting to become interesting.  However, the film is about time travel and it is a terrible mistake in such films to give the audience time to think as then all the inconsistencies and paradoxes become all too obvious.  The biggest error occurs very early on, and has nothing to do with temporal engineering.  Our “hero” is learning French from a futuristic version of an écouter et répèter style MP3 file but makes a pronunciation error which could only have arisen if he was working from a written source.  Very sloppy work!  I think I shall imagine my own ending and use my compensatory voucher to see something new…

Screen Test

Yesterday evening saw the end of the thirty second Cambridge Film Festival, an event which took rather longer than its name might suggest (in fact, it ran over some 13 days rather than half-a-minute).  2011 had represented my previous personal best at the festival (yes, I am trying to make blog capital out of the recent Olympics) with a total of three films viewed.  However, the arts need our support (now more than ever) and so I felt it was important that I make more of an effort this year.

Despite being away for three-and-a-half days of the festival (in Norfolk and Milan, since you ask), in the last nine days I have managed to see nine films.  My personal best is well and truly smashed (personally, I think it may have a wee bit of a drink problem) and, in fact, this represents the most concentrated cinema going of my life to-date.  The nine films were from seven countries in six languages (subtitles were provided for those not in English, my unaided language skills would have been inadequate otherwise) – and for five of the countries this was my first taste of their cinematic output.  All had something to enjoy though the Estonian take on The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky was very heavy going.  Admittedly, Mr D is not known as much of a funster – I did read Crime and Punishment a few years back and laughs were very thin on the ground – but the production was seriously opaque (so much so that on my return I had to Google the plot to try and work out what was going on: they did seem to have skimped somewhat on the original plot, cast and locations).  Still, if experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, then it was certainly an experience.  (BTW: What do you get if you want experience?).

For one film, there was even a Q&A afterwards with the film’s producer and one of the leads (acting, rather than electrical).  Sadly, the only question I could think of (but wisely didn’t ask) was how (or perhaps why) a character had planted lavendula stoechas and angustifolia in full bloom out in his garden in Brighton in February: I’m no Monty Don, but this is surely asking for trouble.   Still, I try not to allow small errors of detail spoil my fun – though could also observe that it is quite a hike from Brighton to find a sandy beach to ride your motorcycle along!

In addition to the films, my support has stretched to putting away a really quite impressive number of pots of artisan ice cream and slices of cake.  No-one said that supporting the arts was easy!  Last night, as a bonus, I also nabbed another celebrity for my Heat magazine strand: Simon Shaffer – Professor of the History of the Philosophy of Science and sometime TV science documentary presenter – who was, as is becoming typical of these encounters, somewhat shorter than expected.

Seeing so many films has been great fun and I’m wondering if should see visit the ciname more often without first having agonised over a range of reviews. Spontaneous, moi?  Today I find I’m missing all my friends from the silver screen and the friendly staff of the Arts Picturehouse plying me with sweet delights (though otherwise the foul weather has curbed my desire to go outside).  Perhaps its time to return to the theatre: it should have returned from its summer recess by now – but it has been nice taking my arts locally these last few days.

40 Nights in the Wilderness

Well OK, it was only seven nights and it was in Norfolk, so no-one could take me to a high place to tempt me with dominion over all the kingdoms of the world, however, in terms of the world of 21st century communication it was very much a wilderness.

I was staying in a place without wifi, but in this age of 3G (soon to be 4G) communications hadn’t expected that to be an issue.  I possess a modern smartphone which usually allows me to remain in touch, and even blog, when away from the wifi – but not, it transpires, in Norfolk.    Whilst O2 makes up a substantial portion of the atmosphere (though less than in the past), its rays struggle to penetrate the county of Norfolk.  For much of the week, even a weak 2G signal was hard to come by – service seemed even worse than in Wales which, at least, has the excuse of its challenging topography.  I found only three places with a 3G signal: Wymondham station, Norwich city centre and, weirdly, Barton Turf staithes (which was the most remote location I visited – but obviously a priority for O2).

I know that Norfolk and its inhabitants are the butt of many a joke, with the locals allegedly being shocked by the electric light and the wheel – but in the case of modern communications this would seem to be no joke.  Norfolk must lie beyond the hegemony of the iPhone (which is now so ubiquitous that even I have one, which goes to show how far from “cool” Apple has sunk.  Then again, these days it does rather seem to have given up innovation to spend more time with its lawyers) as many of its features are unusable over most of the county.

Still, the isolation was a learning experience for yours truly.  Whilst I am not of the generation that has a panic attack if unable to check their mobile for more than 5 minutes, I found that do like to check on my electronic “life” every couple of days.  I also found that I missed the iPlayer: the radio was once again rendered all too missable.  It would seem that whilst I like to visit the countryside, I’m a city boy at heart (yes, I know that technically I live in the countryside – but I’m only a short, flatish bike ride from a university city and Cambridgeshire seems to be at least 1G ahead of its northern neighbour).  This can, perhaps, be demonstrated by my activities since my return.  With the Cambridge Film Festival in full swing (like the pendulum of a recently wound clock or a busy playground), over the least couple of days I’ve managed to take in films from Québec, Catalonia and Greece – a geographical span of art house cinema which I suspect only a city can furnish.  All the films had their appeal, though my favourite was Starbuck from French-speaking Canada – well, I say French-speaking, but the film did remind me of what terrible French they speak in Québec (which proved quite useful when I visited a few years back, as I also speak terrible French and so managed to communicate rather successfully).  However, before this degenerates into pseuds corner and I mention my plans to take in some Estonian cinema tomorrow, I should allow this post to fade to black.


This morning, to paraphrase Shelley, I did emerge from sleep unusually filmy-eyed – I wonder if this is some some sort of autonomic response to the rain, perhaps my body was attempting to improve its waterproofing? – so I thought it an excellent opportunity to talk of my recent cinematic experiences.

2012 seems to have been a rather good year cinematically – or at least I’ve been more often than usual and have not only enjoyed the fare on offer but even learned a few things.  Given this blog’s commitment to the Reithian principles of broadcasting (or at least the education and information ones, entertainment seems to have rather fallen by the wayside) and mining my drab, wretched life for all it’s worth, I thought I should share these insights with the world.

Headhunters allowed me to expand my Scandinavian language skills to cover Norwegian (to add to my Swedish and Danish).  It also showed that the sun does shine in those northerly climes (though, have no fear rain-lovers: that is in evidence as well) and that the locals do know how to smile – neither of which I learned from any of Wallander, The Killing or The Bridge.  The film is very entertaining (barely depressing at all – then again, I must admit I have had rather a lot of fun with Swedes at least twice before, so this wasn’t entirely surprising) – though I would not recommended watching it while eating.  It also rather add to the temptation to move to Norway: when the lights go out in the UK (probably some time around 2020) and the economy has been totally wrecked by clueless governments (perhaps rather sooner), I have high hopes for Norway having both a reliable power supply and a functioning economy!

Given my love of juxtaposition, I saw Headhunters in a double-bill (of my own devising, rather than one suggested by the Arts Picturehouse) with Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.  This is a very different take on a campus comedy and is an unalloyed joy – I am reminded that I need to check out that auteur’s very modest back-catalogue (unlike me, he has gone for quality rather than quantity).

My favourite film so far this year, in a very strong field, was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.  I’ve seen and enjoyed (in varying degrees) most of his oeuvre, but this marks the apogee (for me).  The soundtrack to this film comprises rather more work by Benjamin Britten than is currently traditional, which only adds to the appeal.  The only downside was that the movie’s young hero make me realise just how limited my practical survival skills are: at the very least, given the slightly damp turn taken by the weather of late, I really ought to know how to handle some sort of boat (even if only a kayak).  I did have some wind surfing lessons a few years back, and whilst I was fairly good in a straight line I did struggle with the practicalities of turning and found it was very hard work on my ankles (as this blog has previously established, I seem to be the possessor of rather weak ankles): so I’m not sure how much use this will be to me in extremis.

Next came my first contact with the work of Ken Loach – which has always seemed a little to gritty and worthy in the past.  The Angel’s Share was great fun (the serious message snuck in under my radar, camouflaged by the laughs) – and I’m a sucker for a Scottish accent.  It did contain an important lesson for us all: the Dyson Airblade may be all well and good for drying your hands – but is basically useless in the face of a nosebleed, where the old fashioned paper towel can offer so much more assistance.  It reminds me of the Phillips screwdriver which although a splendid tool for screwing (if you’ll pardon my rather fruity language) is of little use for anything else, the older “normal” screwdriver is so much more flexible: it can turn a screw, open a tin of paint and do a whole lot more besides.

My most recent visit was to see The Amazing Spider-Man, which is, in many ways, very good.  Andrew Garfield, as the eponymous hero, is particularly good: so much so, that for me at least, the movie goes downhill when he is covered in lycra and surrounded (or indeed, replaced) by CGI.  Rather a contrast to Captain America which I also saw recently, (via Lovefilm) and which is frankly laughable – it pointlessly breaks so many of the laws of physics that I lost count and I fear used up rather too much of its CGI budget making Chris Evans look weedy in Act I.  I am coming to the view that the best superhero style screen outings are those that choose to keep a lid on the number of the laws of nature they breach and where the hero limits use of their “powers” to a minimum.  It also helps if, having hired a decent actor, we are allowed to see them and if CGI is kept to a minimum – I think we’ve all seen enough explosions, large things falling over and crashes now, let’s save some budget for plot and character development.

I suspect this may be one of the reasons I liked Being Human, it only has very limited budget and has to hire decent, though largely unknown actors, and rely on them and good writing rather than massive set pieces and CGI.  They do use CGI, though so far as I can tell limited to making actors’ eyes turn black and very occasionally seeing a vampire turn to dust (though for budgetary reasons this mostly happens off-screen).  I was particularly impressed by the end of the world being shown using only dialogue on a dockside, with a few broken objects scattered around and a few simple background sound effects.  It strikes me that radio has rather more to teach TV and film than is sometimes realised in the rush to steal its hits for the screen.  It seems that negative freedom (See! No, reading of philosophy is ever entirely wasted: I barely had to shoe-horn Isiah Berlin in at all) has benefits in a whole range of spheres of human endeavour.  I’m surprised in these days of austerity that the precepts of Dogme 95 are not being applied a little more widely on screen; like my vegetarianism, one doesn’t have to be dogmatic (see: Scandinavian languages aren’t that hard) about it, just only discard it when there is a good reason.  Maybe my destiny lies behind the camera, rather than in front of it?  Well, have to see how my BBC3 debut goes (if at all)…

National anthem

My new life as a theatre goer is proceeding apace – of which perhaps more in a later post (if the idea ever manages to jump across the band-gap from draft to post) – but I do seem to have fallen in love with the National Theatre.  I’m even starting to develop a fondness for its neo-brutalist exterior architecture – but that may only be a consequence of association or familiarity.

Anyway, once past the concrete exterior the interior is a joy.  Both the Olivier and the Lyttleton (named for some relation of Humph’s I believe) are excellent places to watch a play: comfy seats with plenty of legroom which all have an excellent view of the stage.  I’ll be able to comment on the Cottesloe on the basis of first-hand (and leg) experience in June.

Each time I have been, there has been free, live music on offer to entertain those that arrive early – and there always seems to be a free seat in the extensive foyer space to sit down and take the weight off my ageing limbs (why do my limbs always feel older in London than in South Cambs?).  They always seem to have an exhibition of interesting photographs as well – so stimulation for both the eyes and ears while waiting for the main show to start.

Regular readers will be unsurprised that my first ever visit to the National, in the dying days of 2011, was not to see the followers of Thespis but to eat.  The complex has a decent restaurant and the tapas-style cafe is rather nice too – with views out across the Thames.  Even more importantly, as I have subsequently learned, it has quite the finest interval offerings of any performance space I have yet attended.  Wonderful interval cakes and blackberry frozen yoghurt – and with their efficient service, you can manage to fit the consumption of both into the break in the dramatic action (well, you may struggle but I can do it comfortably).

However, it would seem that food can act as a gateway drug to the theatre – a fact, other arts institutions might like to consider (assuming that I am typical of the potential theatre going public, which might be a challenging assumption to justify in the face of even mild cross-examination).  In 2012, I have been to four NT productions (so far) – 3 at the NT, and one at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London’s glittering west end (may not contain actual glitter).  This has taught me that if you do visit the West End, you may enjoy more classical and roccoco architecture but they do charge you extra for the privilege (or possibly, the maintenance) and the aircon is nothing like as effective.

So far my theatre has been rather skewed towards comedy – albeit classics from yesterday and today: The Comedy of Errors (by one W Shakespeare), She Stoops to Conquer (by Oliver Goldsmith – and nothing to do with the fruit of the horse chestnut) and One Man Two Guvnors (originally by Goldoni, but really the work of Richard Bean as I’m fairly sure Signor Goldoni never visited Brighton in the 1960s), all of which have been a joy and actually funny (not something you can take for granted) – but this is not to last.  To support my OU coursework (well, that’s the excuse I’m using), I will be seeing Antigone by Sophocles in June and my limited classical education suggests that if Sophocles was once famed for his light-hearted comedies then posterity has not preserved them for me to enjoy (but you never know what Tony Robinson may dig up – it can’t all be arrow heads and pottery sherds).  A BBC4 documentary I saw earlier in the week also suggested that Timon of Athens may not have an entirely happy ending – though might be quite topical.

However, last night I saw a new play entitled Travelling Light penned (or, more likely, word processed) by Nicholas Wright.  As with some of my recent cinematic viewing, this covered the early days of movies – but for my money (and it was my money, no-one is yet paying me to visit either the cinema or the theatre, more’s the pity) it was worth ten of the much lauded film, The Artist.  The play was lovely, warm, funny, moving at times and leads you to care about the protagonists.  Better yet, I couldn’t predict the ending (and most of the plot after the first reel (scene?).  In fact, I found myself caring rather too much about the “hero”, and spent much of last night fretting about Motl – a rather pointless (and tiring) exercise as he is a fictional character and even if real would now be more than 130 years old (so unlikely to gain any benefit from my concern).

Mr Collins does suggest that an anthem should be sung, and I do realise that this paean to the NT has been written in prose.  However, readers should not view this as a barrier when the phrase to “sing the ‘phone book” has made it into the language: a feat apparently performed by Celine Dion back in 2002 (and to greater critical acclaim than her work on the Titanic).  I feel this post makes for much more promising material for the sopranos and tenors among you than any of BT’s printed output, so feel free to let rip!

Saturday noon at the movies

So nearly a hit for the Drifters – then again, perhaps they weren’t fitting in their movie-going around a trip to the central library and a singing lesson (certainly the lyrics make no mention).

Anyway, a little before noon last Saturday, I settled down in my seat at the Arts Picturehouse to see “The Artist”: a black and white, silent movie.  Actually, it wasn’t entirely silent – there was sound at the very end and during a brief dream sequence (the credits also mentioned a number of people responsible for colour – now, that’s the sort of job I’m looking for!).  To avoid the audience becoming distracted by pins dropping (and other extraneous sounds), an orchestral score filled most of the rest of the film (and not one of John Cage’s more famous works which many might have considered appropriate).  Oddly, when the traditional sound did come back it took me quite a while to notice: which shows how quickly one (or at least this one) becomes habituated to the lack of foley.  Presumably, back in the heyday of the silent movies, the musical accompaniment would have been provided by live musicians.  Could this explain why modern movies (and, for that matter, television programmes) are awash with music?  Can it be traced back to the early days of silent film and a chap (or chapess) banging away on a piano? (I assume most cinemas didn’t run to a full orchestra).  Early audiences were conditioned to music joined to the moving image  – and now we’re all stuck with it.

Before the film started, we were able to enjoy the usual reel of general adverts and trailers for forthcoming movies.  One of these seemed to have Leonardo di Caprio playing a vacuum cleaner, Henry (I think), whilst “acting” with a capital “A” (the scenery was definitely going to be getting a good chewing) and looking decidedly middle-aged.  It does seem curiously popular to ask the young and/or beautiful to play the old and/or ugly, and they are often given great credit for doing so.  I can’t think of any occasion where the reverse has been tried – which seems rather unfair on those of us of some antiquity and declining visual loveliness.

One of the companies behind this dust-busting treat was called “Imagine Entertainment”, which struck me is rather a poor choice of name – or perhaps refreshingly honest?  I don’t know about you, but I can imagine entertainment pretty much anywhere: on the bus or in the shower etc.   When I arrive at the cinema and pay for a ticket, I am rather hoping that I will see (and, in most cases, hear) entertainment being delivered.