26 November 2009

Santa Monica


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.   



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. 

SONY DSCStitched Panorama


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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. 




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’. 


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.


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).  


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).  


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. 



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

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