30 December 2009

A multitude of reflections

I was walking along Piccadilly the other day on the way back to the Tube at Green Park when I noticed the recently installed artwork by Anish Kapoor in the courtyard of the splendid Royal Academy of Arts.  Entitled Tall Tree and the Eye, the 76 shiny spheres show off a multitude of reflections of the lovely courtyard of Burlington House, the home of the RA since 1867.  According to Kapoor,

This work is, in a way, a kind of eye which is reflecting images endlessly […] There is nothing heavy or imposing about it, but there is something quite improbable. You cannot tell how it has been put up and that is part of its mystery and dignity.

Viewing this 15 metre-high sculpture should definitely be on your agenda if you’re passing through the area.

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26 December 2009

Modern art

A few days before Christmas I decided to go to the Tate Modern to kill some time. Modern art's generally not my bag, but I do like the big installations they put in the massive former turbine hall (8 storeys high and maybe 200 metres long for those who've not seen it). At the moment they've got an installation called How It Is by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka. And I loved it.

An entire end of the turbine hall is almost completely filled by a mammoth - and I mean gargantuan - metal box. It looks like a shipping container raised on stilts, but a shipping container that's 30 metres long and about 10 metres wide and high. You have to walk the length of the hall to get to the end, where you see that it's actually hollow; a ramp leads you up into the box itself.

And it's completely pitch black inside. You can't see anything at all - just an endless nothingness. But everyone else is coming out again and they don't looked maimed or traumatised, so you press on into the blackness. Presumably there's nothing inside that will actually trip you up or bump into you - I mean, think of the lawsuits. (Although I heard a rumour that an elderly gentleman did bump into something and break his nose on the first day it opened).

As I shuffled forward in the darkness, avoiding the sounds of other people on their way back to the light, I began to notice a dim glow. Up ahead it looked like someone was holding a torch in the darkness. In this massive (3900 cubic metres!) black space, which must have cost a fortune to build and install, a museum attendant in dark clothes is pointing the torch at something on the floor.

I edged closer, wondering what it could be...

It's a yellow hazard cone:

'Beware slippery floor''

Next to it, someone has been sick - a wet, messy splat.

And do you know why this is the coolest thing ever...?

Because I have absolutely no idea if that was part of the exhibit or if someone had just taken ill in the dark and thrown up there.

And I don't want to know either. It's perfect just the way it is.

21 December 2009

The Aviatrix

When I visited the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC in 2007 I was particularly pleased to see Amelia Earhart’s bright red Lockheed Vega amongst the many other historic aircraft on display.  The Irish farmer who saw it rolling up to his farmhouse must’ve got quite a shock!  In addition to the trans-Atlantic flight mentioned above, in August 1932 Earhart also used the Vega to make the first non-stop solo flight by a woman across the United States. 

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Hilary Swank’s new movie Amelia, released in October, tells the story of the pioneering female aviator and her determined quest to break into and excel in the then new, exciting and entirely male-dominated realm of flight.  Earhart, a role model to generations of young women both in the field of aviation and in the broader sense of female empowerment through success in traditionally male professions, attained lasting fame not only because of her exciting achievements.  She is also still remembered in the 21st century because of the lingering resonance of her mysterious disappearance and death whilst flying across the Pacific in 1937, thwarting what would have been a career-capping triumph.

AESwank presumably lent her showbiz heft to get the project underway; she has an executive producer credit and US$40 million films with female leads but no major doses of sex and/or violence tend not to get made in Hollywood these days.  Swank’s Hollywood aura still retains the glimmer of her Oscar-winning performances in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), and recent modest successes in trifling fare like Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You (both 2007) may well indicate to studio backers that there’s still both box-office and award-winning potential in her acting ability.  Amelia was more expensive to make than either of the latter two films, and would not have been an easy film to shoot, either; anything involving vintage aircraft flying in multiple countries (the African shots were filmed in South Africa) is bound to drive up production costs, and the services of its main cast members - Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor - aren’t exactly inexpensive.   

Swank’s performance in the title role is perfectly agreeable.  Emphasising her slightly angular features, she inhabits the body of this determined and rather gauche woman from Kansas who just wants to fly despite all the obstacles placed in her way.  However, in the quest for a box-office cash injection Earhart’s romantic foil, her publisher and husband George Putnam, is played by Richard Gere, who is a full 25 years older than Swank (although Putnam was admittedly 10 years older than Earhart).  Gere’s facial features have seemingly been stunned into botox rigor mortis for many years, rendering his performances unconvincing.  Ewan McGregor also appears as aviation industry innovator and Earhart-romancing Gene Vidal, presumably in an attempt to jazz up the cast listing.  His performance is passable, but he is given little to work with. 

(Incidentally, Gene Vidal’s son Gore is given a couple of scenes with Earhart and it took me a few minutes longer than I’d like to admit to work out that this was included in the script because he later became a renowned author.  I’m a bit slow on the uptake sometimes).  

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The broad scope of critical reception has not been particularly kind to Amelia, which is a pity considering the potential for great story-telling in Earhart’s real-life exploits.  Variety’s Justin Chang argues:

…the character's passion hasn't been sufficiently dramatized (this Amelia likes to fly planes because the script says so), and every effort to transform Swank -- the close-cropped blonde hair, the '30s costumes designed by Kasia Walicka Maimone, the actress' wobbly Kansas accent -- ends up feeling like one fussy affectation on top of another.

Similarly, Nair, who has made fine films that stayed close to her Indian roots, seems completely beholden to biopic formulas here. Slathered in banal voiceover narration and Gabriel Yared's hyperactive score, the pic gets a lot of mileage out of Stuart Dryburgh's f/x-enhanced aerial lensing (largely captured over South Africa). But the footage is postcard-pretty without being psychologically revealing; Imax documentaries and theme-park attractions offer comparable pleasures at a fraction of the length. Intermittent black-and-white newsreel footage of Earhart adds some interest but also feels like a nervous bid for authenticity.

He’s certainly right about the newsreel footage: the headlines are awkward and feel anachronistic.  The New Yorker’s David Denby also pointed out that ‘the accumulated personal and social detail in the middle of the movie lacks any great interest, and Nair’s direction is rhythmless and placid’. 

Director Mira Nair had previously created the lively, exuberant confection of Monsoon Wedding (2001) and had gone on to be entrusted with the Reese Witherspoon-starring screen adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004).  Just as in Vanity Fair, Amelia presented Nair with the opportunity to portray a strong female lead of iconic proportions, but real instead of fictitious.  The responsibility of bringing such an important character to the screen must have been daunting.

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There can have been relatively little clamour for an Earhart biopic given the innate conservatism of the Hollywood system.  The last big-budget attempt to tap into the golden age of flight was Leonardo diCaprio’s venture into Howard Hughes’ tortured psyche in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which benefitted from a striking performance by Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, but despite winning five Oscars (four for production and one for Blanchett) it ultimately failed to achieve blockbuster status.      

Amelia is a serviceable telling of the Earhart tale, but serviceable is insufficient when $40 million has been stumped up for its production.  There are plenty of problems visible onscreen.  Chief among these is the film’s failure to convey a consistent sense of excitement and drama at the world-changing exploits of Earhart from the time of her June 1928 flight across the Atlantic (the first trans-Atlantic flight by a woman – albeit as a passenger) until her disappearance in July 1937.  Despite the dangers of aviation at the time and the numerous brushes with death experienced by Earhart, Amelia never sets the pulse jumping. 

There are also a few moments that seem to indicate a poorly thought-out film.  Early on, when Earhart meets Vidal for the first time, there’s a noticeably ungainly exchange on a staircase involving repeated back-and-forth headshots cobbled together in the editing suite.  The young aspiring pilot Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikoswka) is injected into a couple of scenes with little purpose other than to illustrate Putnam’s dedication to Earhart by surreptitiously (and unbeknownst to Earhart) ensuring that Smith is unable to compete.  But the scenes are so sketchy that there is little scope for the young actress. 

A later scene with Earhart and Vidal sees Earhart almost dreamily admiring the shapely legs of a couple of dames in a cocktail bar.  Vidal enthuses that it’s grand to be with a gal who feels comfortable sharing such thoughts, but the film-maker’s unsubtle hint of lesbian tendencies is not sufficiently undercut with the more mundane explanation that Earhart in real life was deeply embarrassed about her gangly legs.  (Along with the practical requirements of cockpit mobility, this explains all those trousers she wore).  Sure, Vidal mentions her self-doubt, but modern audiences may well leap to what it presumably the wrong conclusion.  Or at least a conclusion that cannot be substantiated; Judith Thurman of the New Yorker sets out what we know of her image and portrayal:

As far as one knows, Earhart’s secret erotic life was heterosexual. Gender, however, is a bell curve, and on that curve she is an epicene, at least in the grammatical sense of the word: that of a noun that has one form to denote either sex (“doctor” or “friend,” as opposed to “heroine” or “aviatrix”). Unlike the cross-dressing sexual rebels of the Belle Époque, whose intention was to be outrageous, Earhart—whose intention was to stay aloft both as a pilot and as a celebrity—projected a confusing mixture of traits with such an aura of virtue and assurance that she disarmed received ideas about femininity, even those of conservatives.

Whatever the accuracy of its depiction of Earhart’s sexual orientation, Amelia seems likely to be remembered as a vanity project or an ultimately failed attempt to produce an Oscar-worthy biographical drama.  Unfortunately it had considerably less commercial success than The Aviator, only taking US$14 million in America.  Even if international revenue, rental and DVD sales boost this total, it has to be regarded as a major commercial setback for its backers.  

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This is a pity, of course, because Amelia Earhart’s legacy still endures, both as one of the pre-eminent pioneer aviators of the inter-war years, and as a bona fide celebrity.  Her public appearances and commercial endorsements helped to sell her books and raise funds for further flying exploits during the Great Depression’s economic hardship.  Here’s case in point from 1932, just after her groundbreaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland in a bright red Lockheed Vega 5b monoplane.  The clip is a brief, stilted interview for English audiences, yet it provides a glimpse of the real Amelia for posterity.

Further reading

Disappearance: What happened to Amelia Earhart?

USCGC Itasca: The US Coast Guard cutter on station when Earhart disappeared in 1937

Correspondence: Amelia’s unsent ‘popping off’ letter to her mother (written in case her trans-Atlantic flight ended in her death, 20 May 1928)

Earhart archives: Putnam Collection at Purdue University

17 December 2009

Treasures of Mercia

It had been eight months since I’d visited the British Museum, and the skies of London produced an impressive treat as I walked from the Tottenham Court Road tube – a heavy sprinkling of snow.  The temperature was hovering around zero but I had plenty of thermals on to protect me from the elements.  There was time to snap a couple of photos before I entered:

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Once inside, I found the display I’d wanted to track down ever since I read about it in September.  In that month, metal detector enthusiast Terry Herbert was searching a farm field somewhere in Staffordshire and discovered what archaeologists are calling ‘one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of our time’:

The Staffordshire hoard contains about 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver, making it far bigger than the Sutton Hoo discovery in 1939 when 1.5kg of Anglo-Saxon gold was found near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, said: "This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.

"(It is) absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells."

More than 40,000 visited an exhibition of items from the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham, and now the artefacts are in the care of the British Museum while they are individually valued and a permanent home for them is discussed.  As the hoard has been afforded the legal status of Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996, Herbert and the landowner will each get a half share of the final sale price; the initial valuation has been set at £3.285 million

Two small cases display a small sample of the hoard, but the few items on display are remarkable for their beauty.  (There’s a link to the image galleries of the collection at the bottom of this article).  The high-status craftwork represents the pinnacle of portable wealth in the pre-English kingdom of Mercia

Current estimates for the date at which the hoard was buried range from the seventh century to the early eighth century.  These were troubles times: a patchwork of fractious kingdoms ruled England, slowly succumbing to Christian conversion.  In the seventh century Mercia suffered years of chaos stemming from the death of its King, Penda, in the Battle of Winwaed (655), Glastonbury Abbey was re-founded in the south (688) and the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library) started in Northumbria (c. 698).

At some point in these years the hoard was deposited in a field and forgotten about for 13 centuries.  It appears to be a warlord’s trove, because many of the pieces are military in nature: highly decorated sword hilts and pommels abound, and ornately engraved helmet cheek-pieces tantalise the imagination. 

But there are a few non-military items in the collection.  A thin strip of gold bears a biblical inscription from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers: ‘Surge domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ (‘Rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face’).  And the largest of two or possibly three gold crosses, perhaps for a church altar or procession, still retains its beauty despite some rough handling when it was buried.  In order to fit it in the hole dug for the hoard, the thin gold arms of the cross were crudely bent over, causing the glass fittings to dislodge (see photos below). 

Was the hoard buried in haste, to avoid its (re-) capture by enemy forces?  We might never be certain.  But once the British Museum has completed its painstaking cataloguing of the more than 1500 items that were discovered by Mr Herbert, and once a final home for the items has been decided upon, the Staffordshire Hoard will take up its place as one of the most important historical discoveries of the past several centuries.

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Further reading

Staffordshire Hoard: images, catalogue and summary

Timeline: Wikipedia, 7th century in England

The Venerable Bede: History of England Book III (633-65), Book IV (664-98)

Sutton Hoo: Discoveries (5 pages)

11 December 2009

An opening question

BJ Watling (Mark Taylor, Waikato Times)The New Zealand versus Pakistan test series is about to move into its final chapter as the teams descend on Napier with the tally tied at one win apiece.  It has been a series of wobbly and uncertain batting, which has made for an intriguing battle between two well-matched teams. 

As is usual for a New Zealand test series, there have been some personnel changes along the way to keep things interesting.  After the stirring first test victory in Dunedin, New Zealand lost the services of the much-injured fast bowler Shane Bond, and now as the third test looms the failures of the New Zealand top six has brought about the dropping of the middle-order batsman Peter Fulton.

Fulton’s dropping is no great surprise – he was in the team for this series due to the absence of the hard-hitting Jesse Ryder, and in his four innings in the series Fulton managed two starts and two ducks, with scores of only 29, 0, 0 and 13.  In ten tests and 16 innings over three and a bit years he has only managed one test half-century, a score of 75 against the West Indies in Wellington back in 2006.  At nearly 31, he is no longer a young prospect in a team that often rewards youth and enthusiasm over experience. 

To replace Fulton the New Zealand batting line-up is being re-shuffled once more, with captain Daniel Vettori moving up to number six, presumably acting with the in form Ross Taylor at number four as bookends to Daniel Flynn, moved from three to five.  Martin Guptill moves from opening with Tim McIntosh to first drop, and McIntosh gets a new debutant opening partner: the South African-born BJ Watling.  Selected off the back of two strong innings in the domestic Plunket Shield four-day competition (90 against Wellington and 136 against Auckland), the 24 year-old Northern Districts batsman, who moved to New Zealand when he was ten, has been given a golden opportunity to achieve in a crucial match. 

If Watling rises to the challenge perhaps it will help to settle the notoriously difficult problem New Zealand test teams have faced when trying to select opening batsmen since Mark Richardson (average 44.8) retired in 2004.  Cricinfo reported that the selectors were keen for him to repay their faith in his ability:

The selector Mark Greatbatch said Watling showed outstanding potential as a developing batsman.

"He's a quality young player with good technique," Greatbatch said. "With the series at one-all we need to regroup and we believe Watling can add strength at the top.

"There was a lot of discussion about the batting line-up, but this was not a time for wholesale change. We are aiming to give guys the opportunity to succeed."

Watling’s selection after two good innings has irked more experienced domestic players, with former test opener Craig Cumming (11 tests from 2005 to 2008, 441 runs at 25.9) complaining to the media that batting form in the domestic competition is not being rewarded.  He told the Otago Daily Times that the selectors must think that at age 34, he’s over the hill:

Cumming said he received a courtesy call from Greatbatch prior to the team's being named and was told he was passed over for Watling.

"They went with BJ Watling because they see him as more of a player for the future, which means that I'm obviously not," Cumming said.

"I asked them three weeks ago if my age comes into consideration when they have a selection meeting and was told, `No.' Now it appears it does, because they don't see me as a player for the future."

However, Cumming did not feel it was an employment issue or that he was being discriminated against because of his age.

"It is no different from how teams have been selected in the past. Saying you are not a player for the future is just a new reason not to be selected.

Cumming has some justification.  Naturally, he’d have a better case if he was the same age as Watling, with a long career ahead of him.  But test batsmen are perfectly capable of maintaining international standards into their late 30s.  And when examining domestic form and experience, Watling is merely a promising beginner by comparison with Cumming.  Furthermore, several other young batsmen have equally strong claims to strong domestic form in the opening role. 

Comparing Cumming to Watling, it’s clear that the selectors are rewarding youth over experience, with Cumming’s record clearly the stronger of the two:

 

Watling

Cumming

Age 24 34
Matches 40 121
Innings 73 216
Runs 2155 7154
High score 153 187
Average 30.35 36.13
100/50 5/9 16/33

 

Across the Plunket Shield, which is admittedly only four rounds old at this point in the cricket season, Watling is not a leading contender for best batsman in the competition.  His highly commendable three innings have totalled 242 runs at an average of 80.7, but this only places him as the fourth highest run-scorer in first-class opening slot so far this season.  Here’s the top six domestic openers as of today – the ones who have scored more than 200 runs so far this season:

Player (team) Runs Average
JM Brodie (W) 390 55.7
RA Jones (A) 363 51.9
CD Cumming (O) 285 71.3
BJ Watling (ND) 242 80.7
P Ingram (CD) 226 37.7
J How (CD) 215 35.8

 

Of those six, only Wellington’s Josh Brodie and Central Districts’ Peter Ingram have yet to play for New Zealand.  Auckland’s Richard Jones was given a few chances in 2003, batting for New Zealand in one test and five ODIs; the aforementioned Cumming has 11 tests and 13 ODIs to his name; and CD’s captain Jamie How batted for New Zealand as recently as March 2009, and has a total of 55 international appearances to his credit.

Given that the New Zealand selectors are looking to secure an opener with a long career ahead of him, it’s understandable that batsmen like Cumming (aged 34) and Richard Jones (36) are not welcomed back into the fold, despite their strong current domestic form.  But if youth and good form are to be rewarded with selection, Wellington’s Josh Brodie has a strong case too.  The 22-year-old is only in his second season of first-class cricket, but in that time he has accumulated 758 runs in 20 innings at an average of 37.9.  Brodie’s average in this season is even higher and his form has been consistent, with only two failures in seven innings to date (66, 2, 103, 69, 4, 76, 70).  

Perhaps the key difference between Watling and Brodie is that Watling has had more chances to impress the national selectors, and on more than one stage.  While Brodie has only played for Wellington and an Emerging Players selection against England in February 2009, Watling has played age-grade cricket for New Zealand in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2004, where he scored 268 runs at 44.7, and has also played two T20 internationals against Pakistan in Dubai a month ago.  He is obviously a man in the selectors’ eye, and perhaps they have identified something in him that mere numbers cannot define.  

[Image credit: BJ Watling photographed by Mark Taylor, Waikato Times]

05 December 2009

From the gardens of kings and merchant princes

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Sculpture: The Rape of Prosperino by Vincenzo de Rossi, c.1565.

It took me a while, but I’m back in London.  After a year mostly occupied with bureaucratic wrangling with the benighted UKBA, I’ve now been back in the capital for nearly two weeks.  A work permit is lodged firmly in my ageing passport, and now I’m searching for a place to live and a job to keep me busy. 

In the meantime, while those endeavours do occupy the majority of my time, I’ve also been able to delve back into some of the fondly-remembered habits of London life.  Perhaps my diet will suffer somewhat from the reintroduction of the evil but very tasty Greggs’ cheese and onion pasties and the woefully anti-nutritious but highly addictive raspberry-iced doughnuts from Tesco, which bear a strong but no doubt not legally actionable similarity to the one in the logo for The Simpsons Movie.  And while there’s been a spot of bother for book chain-stores, with Borders and their subsidiary Books Etc closing down recently, I was glad to see that music retailers HMV and Fopp are still going strong.

Another major drawcard of London life is the fantastic range of museums and galleries on offer, and naturally I’ve touched on that subject before.  One opportunity that came to my attention this week was the reopening of the medieval and Renaissance galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington: a ‘£31.7m suite of 10 new galleries occupying an entire wing’ with ‘more than 1,800 ravishing objects’, according to the Guardian.  Perhaps too many literal interpretations of Monty Python and the Holy Grail have convinced the world that the Middle Ages were uniformly drowned in waist-deep mud, so the V&A was keen to rebrand the period as a time that boasted lavish ornamentation and luxurious artworks, albeit only for the wealthy and privileged minority.       

In keeping with an expensive project that took seven years to complete, the end results achieve the same sort of quality as can be seen in the groundbreaking Great Court redevelopment of the British Museum.  And the treasures on display are, predictably, rather stunning - a fitting contribution to commemorate the artistic endeavours of a misremembered age.

 

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L & R: Sculpture gallery

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L: “Mine’s a lager!” - The Angel Gabriel from the Annunciation, c.1415-50; R: The Brixen Altarpiece, Rupert Potsch & Philipp Diemer, c.1500-10

 

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Notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, c.1490-3

 

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L: Bust of Giovanni Chellini by Antonio Rossellino, 1456; R: Two Angels by Tilman Riemenschneider, c.1505

 

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L: ‘The Burghley Nef’ salt cellar (silver-gilded nautilus shell), c.1527-8; R: Bust of Niccolo Sirigatti, 1576

 

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L: Virgin & child, by Carlo Crivelli, c.1480; R: 19th century cast of a Renaissance sculpture, in front of the facade of Sir Paul Pindar’s London house, c.1600

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Further reading:

V&A - New medieval and Renaissance galleries

26 November 2009

Santa Monica

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So I was back on the road again, jetting over the Pacific with a three day stopover in Los Angeles breaking the journey to England.  Los Angeles was the place I visited at the start of my very first overseas trip when my mother and I journeyed to the US in 1990, but since that time I’d not returned, aside from a few brief hours in a Culver City mall in 1999.  Los Angeles always seemed like hard work, with huge distances and scant public transport.  But with a bit of internet research I was confident I could get about the city and keep myself entertained for a few days, which would have the beneficial effect of breaking up the long and often spirit-sapping journey from Auckland to London.

Feeling surprisingly human after managing to get a few hours sleep on the flight from Auckland, I lugged my three bags onto the free minibus that toured the seemingly endless parking lots adjacent to LAX before dropping me at the transit centre – which is a fancy name for a bus stand.  There I picked up the Big Blue Bus to Santa Monica for the princely sum of 75 cents.  (It was fortunate that I had some quarters from my last visit to the US, because American buses are picky about taking exact change).  Forty-five minutes later at 4th and Broadway, Santa Monica, I recognised my stop and cleared out of the bus, allowing the other passengers some respite from my bulky possessions.

I’d chosen Santa Monica for my base because of its accessibility from LAX and the presence of a YHA.  Santa Monica is also a tourist destination in its own right, with its lovely beach and historic pier attracting many visitors.  It had also been in the news as the recent announcement that Santa Monica pier would be considered as the termination point of the famous Route 66 generated some controversy amongst purists.

The hostel is in a great location just a block from the pier and near the 3rd Street Promenade pedestrian mall in which the locals stroll and window-shop.  The Lonely Planet had referred to the hostel as ‘institutional’, but generally I’ve found that to be a plus rather than a minus because it contrasts with the sort of hostel I try to avoid, which is the ones described as ‘funky’ (or, even worse, ‘laid-back’).  The institutional description was accurate in that the hostel was well organised, smartly furnished, and scrubbed to within an inch of its life by an army of small Latino ladies.  Of particular interest to me was the large metal locker assigned to each guest, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about the bag with my laptop in it going wandering while I was out exploring.         

By the time I’d settled in at the hostel there was only time to explore the near neighbourhood.  It wasn’t far to the beginning of the far-reaching Wilshire Boulevard, which brought back memories of endless episodes of Chips watched as a child – every gap-filling stock footage always seemed to feature the radio-distorted voice of a female police controller going on about traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.  I strolled out on the pier, which was built in 1909 and has long been a focal point of the area.  The glowing sunset and its warm light proved to be an attraction in its own right.   

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As luck would have it, my main objective was to visit the Getty Center and the hostel had organised one of its weekly expeditions on my first full day in Los Angeles.  I waited in the lobby at 11am the next morning with my $5 expecting a minibus trip, but it turned out to be a volunteer who was going to guide the dozen or so hostellers to the Getty by public bus.  Given the complexities involved and the need to transfer midway, it probably made sense. 

The Center was built using a massive bequest of oil tycoon J Paul Getty(1892-1976), who was one of the richest men in the world.  It sits atop a jutting spur west of the UCLA campus and the wealthy homes of Bel Air.  Access to the museum is by an automated tram, which snakes its way up the ridge to the futuristically designed art precincts above.  The Getty’s collections are a mix of classical European artforms and some splendid photographic exhibits.  The highlight for me was the intriguing photos of Irving Penn, whose mid-20th century portraits of tradespeople in New York, London and Paris providing a rich insight into the economic and social history of the time. 

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Above: Getty stairs; Getty entrance foyer; detail of Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s portrait of Princess Leonilla of Seyn-Wittgenstein-Seyn (1843); detail of Fernand Khnopff’s portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885); idealised female head sculpture by Augustin Pajou (1769-70)

In the hostel dorm I met two young Australian guys who had just flown in to explore America for the first time.  Later, I ran into them again and asked how they’d spent their first day in Los Angeles.  Their reply: “We’ve been drinking for five straight hours, and then we had dinner at Hooters”.  Nice to see young people taking an interest in local culture.

Staying in an American youth hostel also exposed me to a little of the commercial music being listened to by ‘the kids’, particularly at breakfast time in the cafeteria.  What surprised me about the tracks on high-rotate was the prevalence of autotuned vocals in many of the songs.  I hope this is only a passing trend, because it really overshadows good performances and encourages listeners to think that the performers aren’t capable of singing for themselves.  Plus it makes pop music sound like it’s all performed by Stephen Hawking, which aside from the initial novelty value can only be good in very small doses unless you’re somewhat more of a masochist than me.

The next day I took a freeway bus into downtown LA to explore.  It’s not the most inviting city centre, but there are a few sights to take in, particularly a selection of the city’s older buildings.  I was particularly keen to see the now disused Angels Flight funicular railway near Bunker Hill because it was mentioned in Michael Penn’s excellent song ‘Strange Season’ from his 1992 album Free-For-All, which also featured the Angels Flight on its cover.  I also paid a quick visit to the viewing platform atop the splendid edifice of the City Hall (1928) to see the city from on high. 

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Union Stn 20.11.09There was just time to admire the lofty spaciousness of the elegant Union Station before I took the Red Line subway westwards to explore the centre of Hollywood Boulevard.  Only $1.25 too – a bargain when compared to similar journeys in London.

Stitched Panorama As it happens, I was glad to have visited Hollywood but it turned out to not be my sort of place.  The exit to the subway station at Hollywood & Highland was swarming with tour vendors, lookalikes and hucksters, and despite the fact that the area has been tarted up, it all felt rather desperate, verging on seedy.  Sure, the lookalikes were amusing for a moment, particularly the pairing of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ with ‘Michael Jackson’ because the Jacko lookalike was distinguished by looking nothing like the actual Michael Jackson.  Still, you pays your money, you takes your chances.  I lingered a short while to have a look at the architectural excesses of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, spotted a power trio of Hollywood legends on the Walk of Fame (see below), and sauntered down Hollywood Boulevard to learn that the area is dominated by a slightly sleazy collection of wig shops and costumiers.  Still, you have to be impressed by the straight-ahead oddness of a place that sports a shop called Hollywood Ninja Inc. (6511 Hollywood Blvd) – its shop frontage touts the heady delights of ‘mace, water pictures [?], stun guns, handcuffs’. 

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Above: Hollywood Walk of Fame – Ray Harryhausen, Harold Lloyd and Jane Russell

I returned to Downtown on the Red Line and took the bus back to Santa Monica, where I boarded yet another bus to take me along the coast to nearby Venice Beach, home of a thriving LA counterculture.  If you want a tattoo, Venice is definitely the place to come.  Or if you want to buy beads.  As it was nearly dusk the majority of the usual crowds of odd types were relatively thin and the Venice Boardwalk was dominated by early evening roller-bladers, cyclists and walkers, but it was pleasant to spend an hour or so watching the gravity-defying antics at the skatebowl and soaking up the golden sunshine while it lasted.

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On my last night in Santa Monica I strolled out to the end of the pier to await the early sunset, enjoying the warm evening air and snapping away merrily with my camera trying to capture the exact moment.  There was also plenty of time after my meal of tasty shwarma (at Alexandria Cafe, 109 Broadway) to wander the 3rd Street Promenade, which was clogged with excited patrons queuing for the midnight screenings of the new Twilight movie.  Plenty of buskers had turned out to entertain them, including a guy with three skateboarding dogs, but the best was a female singer whose Suzanne Vega-styled vocals were so impressive that they even surpassed the cacophonous accompaniment of her hippie mate on bongos.  (Just say no to bongos, kids).  

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The next day I lugged my stuff out to the airport again and headed off to London.  It was an enjoyable few days in Los Angeles, and I was glad to have experienced the easy-going lifestyle in Santa Monica first hand.  I’d certainly base myself there again if I was passing through LA, and the call of the Getty and a few other galleries that I didn’t have time to visit, like the Hammer and the LACMA, may well encourage another visit soon.  I was particularly impressed with the good-naturedness of the locals – you would often observe strangers talking to each other amiably on the bus, and ready smiles seemed uniform amongst many Angelinos.  Perhaps they know they’re onto a good thing in Santa Monica by the sea.

More photos: Facebook

15 November 2009

Steam & sail


Steam & sail
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
The Royal New Zealand Navy's Protector-class inshore patrol vessel (IPV) HMNZS Taupo returns to Devonport naval base in Auckland as the America's Cup yacht NZL40 takes out a dozen passengers for a harbour cruise. The Taupo first entered service at Whangarei in May 2009. Photo taken from North Head, 6 November 2009.

14 November 2009

How terrestrial TV sells movie lovers short

I’ve written on this blog about the need for a revitalised public service television model in New Zealand to foster our distinct cultural identity and to broaden the horizons of our media culture.  As it stands, free-to-air (terrestrial) television provides a relatively narrow view of the world, and as terrestrial channels are still the ones viewed by most New Zealand households, our collective perspective of the world is arguably narrower as a result. 

Glancing through the TV listings in the Listener recently, I was reminded of a particular weakness of the commercial television model when it broadcasts movies.  The movie screenings offered by terrestrial broadcasters in New Zealand are meagre and often low quality, which is a concern when the cinematic artform has so much potential to entertain when quality is considered of equal importance to quantity.

You may argue that discussing terrestrial movie broadcasts on TV without reference to the many other means of viewing movies fails to consider the entire situation.  Certainly, viewers have a wide range of options aside from viewing movies in cinemas: renting DVDs either in person or by postal service, by pay-per-view through cable channels, or on dedicated movie channels like Sky Movies or Rialto.  And when viewers have a choice the movie-watching experience is naturally far more customised to their personal tastes.

But ultimately the largest source of entertainment and (for want of a better phrase) mainstream visual culture in New Zealand is terrestrial TV.  The material broadcast on free-to-air channels both sets and reflects the tastes of TV audiences, or to be precise, it attempts to do so in the hope of maximising viewership and achieving the highest possible audience ratings and advertising value. 

At this risk of sounding hopelessly curmudgeonly, it’s not that long ago that New Zealand terrestrial TV viewers were treated to a much wider range of movies onscreen than they are today.  The end of public service TV broadcasting in New Zealand coincided with a homogenisation of movie broadcasting as TV programmers narrowed their range of purchases to those likely to achieve the highest ratings.  Certainly, one could argue that screening mainstream movies achieves the greater good for the greater number.  But ultimately the innate conservatism of most movies on TV fails to capture the range of culture and entertainment on offer in the highly varied world of cinema.  

In order to get a better overview of the movies being broadcast, I took a two-week sample of the movie output of the five main terrestrial TV channels (TV1, TV2, TV3, C4, Prime and Maori TV) from 24 October to 6 November.  While I had hoped to provide a critical breakdown of the movies screened, my preferred choice of ratings – the Metacritic engine – lacked sufficient coverage of the more obscure titles.  The same problem presented itself for the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.  So I had to fall back on the 10-point voting scale on IMDB, which is less about critical review and more about the personal preferences of the website’s readers, but given the large sample sizes that are often involved it’s often a reasonable guide of quality.

Here’s a summary of each channel’s movie broadcasting in the period I examined:      

TV1 broadcast only five movies.  Three of these were British telemovies (including Ballet Shoes, Harry Potter star Emma Watson’s first post-wizardly role).  The other two were both appealing choices: the New Zealand movie No. 2 and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  None of the three telemovies were shown in prime time: Ballet Shoes and Magnificent 7 were daytime screenings and Half Broken Things appeared after 10pm.  Aside from 1980’s The Shining, the other movies were all made in the mid-2000s (2005-07).  Kubrick’s thriller gained a high 8.5 out of 10 from IMDB’s readers, while the other movies all gained moderately positive reviews.  Average movie rating: 7.08    

TV2 screened the largest number of movies (21), although 10 of those were late-night screenings after 10pm, and several were in the ‘wee small hours’ timeslots only suitable for insomniacs or timeshift viewers.  Several horror films appeared in keeping with the long-standing Sunday Horrors slot.  No New Zealand movies were featured.  A noticeable chronological pattern emerges in TV2’s movie choices: only one 20th century movie appears (the weak Deadly Game from 1998), while 19 of the remaining 20 movies were made from 2000 to 2005.  Only 2008’s Impact mini-series represents the post-2005 period.  TV2’s movies are rated the lowest in quality by IMDB, ranging from the high point of Finding Nemo (8.2 rating) to a bevy of five late-night stinkers with ratings under 5.0 (Darkness Falls, Deadly Game, Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon, Swimfan, The Gospel).  Overall, TV2 seems to have a bargain basement approach to movies.  Average movie rating: 5.87

TV3 showed eight movies, half of which were shown in prime time.  Of the four movies shown after 10pm, two were telemovies.  Like TV1, all but one of its movies (Speed from 1994) were from this decade.  TV3 featured several more recent movies than its rival TV2 with Evan Almighty and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry both 2007 releases.  (Neither were particularly appealing).  Two of TV3’s movies achieved high IMDB ratings – Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (8.5) and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (7.7), but there were no real clunkers.  Average movie rating: 6.87  

C4 played only four movies; all were in prime time.  The channel’s small budget and its fondness for the pop culture in the ascendant when its staff were in their formative years probably explains the age of the material shown: three from the 1990s and one from 2001.  In terms of ratings, C4’s offerings were more forgettable than lame (Down Periscope, How High, I Know What You Did Last Summer); the overall average was bumped up by the screening of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992 (7.3 rating).  Average movie rating: 5.90 

Maori TV played only three movies, all in prime time and all from the mid-2000s, including one New Zealand feature, Hidden.  Maori TV aims for an SBS-style selection of art movies, often choosing those dealing with issues of ethnic identity.  Aside from Hidden, it also broadcast Gypo and The Home Song Stories.  Maori TV’s average rating is dragged down by an unusually low IMDB rating for Hidden (4.6) which is really rather low for IMDB.  Average movie rating: 6.23

Prime screened no movies in the fortnight I examined.

Options for NZ programmers

One of the beauties of the explosion of TV broadcasting in the modern age was the ability of motion pictures to reach a much larger audience than during their original cinematic releases.  Broadcasting movies on TV was a no-brainer – produced at no cost to the TV networks, movies fill lengthy timeslots and can act as major drawcards for viewers, with successful movies anchoring an entire evening’s scheduling and providing the opportunity for multiple revenue-raising advertising breaks. 

So it is surprising that the movies offered by New Zealand’s FTA broadcasters are selected in such a conservative fashion, with little variety on the larger channels.  The channels were all reluctant to delve too deeply into works from previous decades, which begs the question, what if the 2000s have been a weak decade for movies?  And are TV viewers so reluctant to view material from previous decades?  A selection of classic films from any post-war decade (black & white films aside, sadly) could surely draw a sizeable TV audience if they were judiciously chosen, particularly if they were screened in the lower-stakes environment of weekend daytime programming.  The screening rights would be cheaper than more recent movies too. 

A broadening of the age range of movies screened could permit a wider sampling of movies that are both popular and high quality.  Niche interests could be catered for too.  How else would viewers know that westerns, musicals and war epics existed?  All have disappeared from New Zealand TV screens in recent years. 

A broader scope would also have the extra benefit of introducing new generations of viewers to film classics that they might otherwise never encounter.  After all, once you’ve seen Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey you can never go back.

07 November 2009

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Until late last year I regularly uploaded videos taken with my Sony H-1 to Youtube, to enhance the photographic record of my various travels or of life in London.  However, in December I bought a new D-SLR, and while it’s a super camera, it lacks a video function.  This hasn’t been a problem, but when I started tinkering with Movie Maker on my laptop recently it meant that I had to turn to material shot on my older camera when I was compiling videos. 

The videos I shot on the H-1 tend to be relatively short, because I preferred to retain as much memory card space as possible for still photography, and shooting videos also has a habit of depleting the camera’s batteries much more quickly than conventional photography.  This meant that in compiling my clips, most of the material is still photography, interspersed with a few video clips.  Of course, if you’ve seen my Youtube channel before, you’ve likely watched some or all of the videos before.

The process of using Vista’s Movie Maker was simple – it’s an intuitive timeline-driven interface.  It’s easy to import material to build clips, move the pieces around, and see how the clip will flow.  There are separate timelines for text captions (note to MS: it’d be nice if the formatting options were improved) and the audio soundtrack.

The latter option was particularly entertaining.  It was great fun sorting through my MP3 collection to find tracks that fitted the visual material, both in terms of length and style.  And in case you were wondering, I immediately ruled out ‘New York, New York’ as a cliché too far. 

So, without further ado, here’s my first three attempts at clip editing using Movie Maker, with links to the blog articles I wrote on each trip.  Each clip is about five minutes long.  Sure, they’re not remarkably professional, but I think they’ve turned out fairly well, and if anything makes the process of sitting through my travel photos less tedious then I’m all for it.

Syria – Oct/Nov 2008

A week exploring busy cities, Crusader castles, ancient souks, hill-top citadels, and the fantastic desert ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra

[Syria blog part 1, part 2; music: Gene Krupa & Buddy Rich – Gene’s Blues]

New York – Sept 2007

Everyone’s first visit to New York City is special, and mine was no exception.  There’s so much to cram in and the days go so quickly!  I’d go back in a second.

[New York blog; music: XTC – River of Orchids]

 

Iceland – July 2007

Call me soft, but I went in the summertime.  Iceland can’t be beat for history and scenery, not to mention a dose of the midnight sun.

[Iceland blog; music: Icelandic artist Magga Stina – In / Naturally, from 1998’s An Album on One Little Indian]

05 November 2009

Popes and anti-popes

Exact dates are uncertain in early church records, but tradition holds that the first Pope, St Peter, reigned from 41 until his death in Nero’s Rome in 67.  The papacy grew in importance after the co-option of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan in 313, which allowed them to exercise their religion freely. 

In times of weakness the papacy became something of a hot potato, particularly in the 9th and 10th centuries.  Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate looted Rome in 846 and the church at the time seemed to be awash with corruption.  Following the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire in 962 the papacy was under Germanic domination and frequently changed hands.   

With the rise of the size and scope of the church, the role of Pope became hotly contested.  The first anti-pope – a Pope declared in opposition to the canonically elected Pope – appeared in 251, when Novatianus emerged as a rival to Pope Cornelius (251-53) and the three following Popes.  Thereafter every century until the 13th featured at least one anti-pope, with the 11th and 12th centuries being particularly fractious (seven and 10 anti-popes, respectively).  After a brief respite in the relatively stable 13th century, three anti-popes were declared in each of the 14th and 15th century.  The last anti-pope was Felix V of Savoy, who resigned his claim to the papacy in 1449.

The chart below illustrates the distribution of Popes and anti-popes from the beginnings of the Christian church to the present.  (Notes: the 1st  century consists of 59 years from 41 to 100 AD; some individuals were counted in more than one century if their term of office overlaps centuries; in the 11th century Benedict IX was Pope on three separate occasions, one of which was regarded as an anti-papacy – he is counted for each.  He is the only Pope to have sold the papacy).  

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The rise of modern medicine from the 17th century onwards assisted in lengthening the reigns of Popes, in part contributing to the 19th century being the most stable period in the church’s history in terms of its leadership.  The entire century only featured six Popes, in part due to the 31-year reign of Pius IX from 1846 to 1878, which is the longest papal term of office in history.   

The chart below sets out the average term of office of canonically elected Popes in each century.  It illustrates the longevity of the 19th century Popes (average term 16.5 years) and the chaotic environment of the 10th century (average term 4.3 years), in which 23 Popes and 3 anti-popes jostled for the church’s top job. 

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References:

Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Chronology of the World, London, 1991.

Mark Hillary Hansen (ed.), Kings, Rulers and Statesmen, New York, 2nd edn., 2005. 

26 October 2009

Eastern Beach


Eastern Beach
Originally uploaded by eT le snap
A lone seagull surveys the sand at Auckland's Eastern Beach, near Howick, 17 October 2009. This was my first visit since my 6th form geography field trip here in 1989 to study coastal geomorphology in the nearby crumbling cliffs. It's a pity Auckland is so huge and unwieldy, but in a way it's pleasant to rediscover long-forgotten corners of it that you've not visited for many years. The only thing I remember about the field trip is that my schoolmates were bemused that my ancient camera produced square pictures (not a Polaroid, though). Nowadays the Esplanade seems to be a popular spot for boyracers to exercise their blowoff valves as they trawl up and down showing off. Perhaps they should stop to admire the view now and then.

Check ignition and may God’s love be with you

41RGpprOPrL._SS500_ Like many young sci-fi fans in the 80s, I lapped up the 1983 film version of The Right Stuff, enjoying its heady mix of gung-ho heroism and fearless space exploration.  The cinematic version of Tom Wolfe’s account of the daring Mercury astronauts chimed nicely with my abiding fascination with space travel.  Not only was I a regular player of a now doubtless highly collectable Gemini space-capsule board game (lost, sadly), but I distinctly recall a primary school teacher’s report card indicating that I would achieve stronger results in my studies if I spent less time thinking about ‘space’.    

With this in mind, I rediscovered that sense of excitement at the thought of space travel when I settled down to watch a DVD copy of the Discovery Channel’s documentary mini-series, When We Left Earth.  The six-part series examines the history of the NASA space programme from its earliest Mercury days, spurred on by JFK’s famous lunar ambition, through the Gemini and Apollo programmes, the Space Shuttle, Hubble, and the International Space Station of today.

The programme makers had superb interview subjects – basically every NASA astronaut of note including the famously reclusive Neil Armstrong appears to provide first-hand accounts of famous events as America learned how to fly in space and send men to the Moon in double-quick time.  So we hear Apollo 16 mission commander John Young relate that it’s easy for him to remember what he was doing the moment he heard that the Space Shuttle programme had been approved by Congress: he was walking on the Moon.  He celebrated the news with this famous leap:

John Young Apollo 16

(via NASA Images)

The documentary also features extraordinary film footage from NASA’s own comprehensive archives.  Usually only glimpsed in snippets during TV news bulletins, the wealth of imagery brings home the stark beauty of the darkness of space and the pristine glory of a borderless Earth viewed from orbit.  Extended sequences of lunar landing footage highlight the grand, bleak vistas of the Moon’s surface and the undisguised glee of the 12 men who were privileged to walk on its surface. 

When We Left Earth is definitively NASA’s story rather than a broader review of space exploration.  The publicity-garnering exploits of the Soviet space programme consistently pipped NASA at the post in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and these startling Soviet successes were a huge impetus to their American rivals, but the Soviets receive little coverage in the documentary.  The USSR stole a march on the Americans with shoestring-budget projects and a flexible approach to risk management, and were able to tout a string of propaganda victories that would surely merit their own lavish documentary series:

  • the launch of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik, 1957)
  • the launch of the first animal in space (the dog Laika, 1957)
  • the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961)
  • the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963)
  • the first spacewalk outside a space capsule (Alexei Leonov, 1965)

Sending humans into space atop burning rockets full of highly explosive fuel is an intrinsically dangerous endeavour, and the documentary examines the painstaking efforts of NASA ground support crews to ensure that the astronauts returned to Earth safely.  The buzz-saw haircut of NASA’s stalwart mission controller Gene Kranz gets a lot of screen-time, with his no-nonsense pronouncements on the dramatic events of the Apollo 11 landing and the Apollo 13 near-disaster providing fascinating insights.  But it is the footage of two momentous Space Shuttle missions that ultimately imbues these programmes with a powerful and poignant sense of history unfolding in front of the viewer.

As most people will know, the Space Shuttle programme suffered two catastrophic losses: the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003.  We have all seen the startling footage of the Challenger breaking up in its ascent phase, with its booster rockets flailing off on random ellipses as the main fuel tank explodes and the shuttle itself is consumed in the blast.  The power of these images to shock is still every bit as potent as in 1986, but the documentary offers a broader picture.  School teacher Christa McAuliffe was aboard Challenger and was to conduct a high-profile class lesson from orbit; the documentary interviews McAuliffe’s ‘alternate’, Barbara Morgan, the astronaut who would have taken McAuliffe’s place on Challenger’s crew if she had been unable to fly for medical or personal reasons.  The sense of loss is enhanced by the mercifully brief snippets of film footage from Cape Canaveral on launch day, where we glimpse Morgan, distraught and clearly mortified at the loss of her friend and colleague.  And to bring the calamity even closer to home, a mere second of contemporary TV footage is all that’s needed to show the dumbstruck grief of McAuliffe’s elderly parents, who were also in the crowd and witnessed the explosion.

The ineluctable sadness of the later Columbia disaster was not only that it was avoidable, but that the loss of the Challenger had not inspired a sufficient culture of vigilance in NASA.  During its launch a hole had been punched in the Shuttle’s crucial under-wing heatshield, which led to the craft burning up on re-entry over the United States en route to its landing in Florida.  All on board were lost.  Columbia had spent a week in orbit working with the International Space Station, but NASA did not curtail its busy programme of space operations to check the underside of the Shuttle for damage before re-entry.  If a check had been made the damage would surely have been noticed and the re-entry aborted. 

The sheer quality of the NASA footage of the Columbia mission before the disastrous re-entry is a testament to the joy the astronauts experienced in their work, but also a sad indictment of the flaws of NASA’s safety policies.  Certainly, NASA’s job is one of the hardest imaginable – balancing the insatiable desire of scientists to learn more about the universe and the questing goal of astronauts to experience the adventure of space flight, with the massive risks of venturing into the inhospitable environs of space using almost absurdly complex vehicles that have, in the words of the old astronaut joke, ‘been built by the lowest bidder’. 

As NASA approaches uncertain times, with the Space Shuttle nearing obsolescence without any suitable replacement planned, When We Left Earth offers a valuable inside account of the US space programme, which at its peak was one of the defining aspects of late 20th century scientific endeavour.  But the programme cannot tell us whether NASA will continue its work in space in its present form as the 21st century progresses, because that is by no means a certainty.