30 March 2011

New Zealand at the 2011 Cricket World Cup

Following New Zealand's exit from the World Cup at the semi-final stage at the hands of Sri Lanka, here's a run-down on the performances of all the players who took to the field during the tournament in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It's a mixed bag, as befits a team that played eight matches, won five and lost three. Certainly Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill and Tim Southee have plenty to be proud of, and it was pleasing to see Jacob Oram making up for his dodgy batting with some quality performances with the ball. The clear New Zealand highlights for this World Cup will be Ross Taylor's super century in Pallekele that demolished the Pakistan bowling attack, and the tremendous bowling and fielding effort that brought about the South African collapse in Dhaka, thereby earning New Zealand a semi-final rematch with Sri Lanka. That was to be the end of the New Zealand campaign, but it was further than many New Zealand fans expected was possible.

Taylor batting against Pakistan © Reuters 
Ross Taylor
(8 matches, 324 runs at 64.8, hs 131*)

A strong batting performance for New Zealand's next ODI captain. Ross Taylor had only one failure in his World Cup, when he was dismissed for 7 against Australia in Nagpur. His stand-out innings was the match-winning 131 not out against Pakistan in Pallekele, in which he peppered the crowd with eight fours and seven sixes. Against the weaker Canadian bowling attack in Mumbai he plundered 74 off only 44 balls. He also captained the side in the two matches Daniel Vettori missed.

Tim Southee 
(8 matches; 18 wkts, av 17.3, 4.31 rpo)

The New Zealand bowling success story of the World Cup, 22-year-old Tim Southee has apparently responded well to intensive physical training in Christchurch and the advice offered by the new bowling coach, the legendary South African champion Allan Donald. His 18 wickets place him second on the tournament leaderboard after the first semi-final, and the scalps have come at an excellent average without the by-product of an expensive run rate. His best performance in an innings was only three wickets, but tellingly he managed this feat no less than five times, against Kenya, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and in both matches against Sri Lanka. So far in 2011 Southee has 25 wickets at an average of 21.1, which is scorching form in anyone's book. After several years of hot-and-cold inconsistency, New Zealand cricket fans would love Southee to keep doing whatever it is he's doing!

Martin Guptill
(8 matches, 262 runs at 43.7, hs 86*) 

A solid achievement in the opening slot for Martin Guptill, who earned a man of the match award for his 86 not out against Zimbabwe in Ahmedabad, which helped to deliver a 10 wicket win. He also contributed a valuable 57 in the win over Pakistan. Two failures against Australia (10) and South Africa (1) dented his figures, and he will be disappointed to have missed out on a second ODI century in the Zimbabwe match.

Brendon McCullum
(8 matches, 256 runs at 42.7, hs 101; 8 catches, 1 stumping)

McCullum's figures are good overall, but are skewed by his 76 not out against Zimbabwe and 101 against Canada. Against test-playing bowling attacks he only managed 53 runs at a pitiful average of 10.6, showing that he needs to brush up his technique if he's to maintain his reputation as a fearsome ODI opener.

Scott Styris 
(8 matches, 142 runs at 23.7, hs 57; 4 wkts, av 31.8, 4.43 rpo)

With his considerable experience and reputation for being New Zealand's best player of spin bowling, much was expected of Scott Styris in his last World Cup campaign. Until his final turn at bat he had failed to make a mark, with a duck against Australia, 6 against Sri Lanka, and a string of other scores that failed to amount to a major contribution. However, his gritty 57 off 77 in the semi-final against Sri Lanka in Colombo was vital and showed some of the steel of his best performances. Although he was only used as a part-timer (an average of three and a half overs per game) his bowling was somewhat better, with his two wickets finishing off the Pakistan innings in Pallekele and sealing victory.  

Nathan McCullum 
(8 matches, 100 runs at 16.7, hs 52; 8 wkts, av 30.1, 4.82 rpo)

In opening the bowling against South Africa with Vettori, Nathan McCullum added his name to the history books by being part of only the fourth occasion in which two spinners opened the bowling attack in an ODI. His best bowling performance came in that match, where his figures were 10-1-24-3, including the prize wicket of opener Hashim Amla, caught at first slip off the keeper's boot. A lower-order impact player with the bat, Nathan McCullum scored a much-needed 52 off 76 against Australia, top scoring in New Zealand's struggle to reach 206. He failed to make a major impression in his other turns at bat, but could generally be relied on to add a few at a run a ball.

Jesse Ryder
(7 matches, 184 runs at 36.8, hs 83; 1 wkt, av 81.0, 5.71 rpo)

Ryder only had five opportunities to bat in this World Cup, and his best innings by far was the patient 83 off 121 balls against South Africa in Dhaka, which was instrumental in building a defensible total. Too many of his other innings failed to build on promising starts, and doubtless he will be disappointed in his return from this tournament. He took the final wicket in Canada's innings at Mumbai, but was expensive in the other matches in which he bowled.

Daniel Vettori 
(6 matches, 53 runs at 26.5, hs 44; 3 wkts, av 51.7, 3.60 rpo)

The captain didn't have the greatest World Cup. Despite high expectations of success in the subcontinent, and the prospect of this being his last ODI series as captain, and possibly his last ODIs full stop, Vettori didn't manage to penetrate the defences of his opponents. It looks like they were content to play him out, given that he only gave up 3.60 runs an over, but a haul of only three wickets from six matches must have been highly disappointing for such a talented spinner. As for the batting, his high score of 44 came in the lower order fight-back against Australia, and helped salvage some sort of total. But in this World Cup Vettori batted so low in the order that he had little opportunity to show his class as a batsman who can find gaps in the field to rotate the strike and also conjure up sneaky boundaries. The strategy to send Nathan McCullum in before him should be reconsidered if he is to continue playing ODIs.

Jacob Oram 
(6 matches, 59 runs at 19.7, hs 25; 12 wkts, av 18.4, 4.43 rpo)

Oram ripped through Kenya with the ball, taking three wickets in 17 balls in Chennai, and he also dined out against Canada in Mumbai with another three. But his man of the match performance against South Africa (9-1-39-4) won plaudits for the canniness of his bowling. He was also hard to get away in the semi-final, giving up only 29 runs from his eight overs. As for his batting, TV commentators never fail to trot out the line about Jacob Oram being a dangerous hitter, but realistically his batting best is long past him. His last bout of good form with the bat in ODIs was in 2008, and in the last two years his only batting successes have come against Bangladesh. If you discount innings against that nation, leaving only higher-ranked opponents, over that period Oram has returned only 172 runs at 17.2. He's now sent into bat at 8, in the hope that he'll contribute quick runs at the end of the innings, but during this World Cup his main contribution has been with the ball.

James Franklin 
(6 matches, 52 runs at 17.3, hs 31*; 0 wkts for 79 runs, 5.64 rpo)

A World Cup to forget for James Franklin, despite plenty of chances. In his six matches he was only asked to bowl a mere 14 overs, and these yielded plenty of runs and no wickets. Perhaps his captain looked at his career stats: in 19 matches in Asia, Franklin has only five wickets at an average of 88. Franklin has been in and out of the New Zealand side for ten years, and more recently has been talked up as a possible replacement for Jacob Oram as a geniune allrounder, sent in to bat at number 6 in his most recent test match. His only innings of note in this World Cup was a brutal 31 not out off only 8 balls (two fours, three sixes) against Canada in Mumbai.

Hamish Bennett 
(4 matches; 6 wkts, av 22.0, 5.46 rpo)

A Canterbury 24-year-old who has only been playing internationals for five months, Hamish Bennett suffered an injury and had to return to New Zealand, to be replaced by Daryl Tuffey. In his four matches he impressed with his pace and wicket-taking ability, monstering the Kenyans (5-0-16-4) and snaring both Australian openers despite being hammered for 63 off only seven overs. It is to be hoped that Bennett can continue his good form and recover in time for the next New Zealand tour.

Kane Williamson 
(4 matches, 99 runs at 49.5, hs 38*)

A highly promising 20-year-old who has just been signed to John Bracewell's Gloucestershire team for the English county season, Williamson came to the World Cup with only 11 matches under his belt. His four innings comprised three moderate scores that came at a quick clip, including two not outs that helped his average.

Kyle Mills 
(3 matches; 6 wkts, av 12.3, 3.58 rpo)

Previously the top-ranked ODI bowler in the world, Kyle Mills has been a consistent wicket-taking ODI bowler for New Zealand since 2001. He took six wickets for next-to-nothing in this World Cup, but four of those were against Canadian and Zimbabwean minnows. In the match against Pakistan he was a bit expensive, going for 43 off eight overs, but took the important top-order wickets of opener Ahmed Shahzad for ten and Younis Khan for a duck. Like Bennett, he was injured and replaced, with the overlooked Andy McKay jetting in to take his place for the semi-final. 

Jamie How 
(2 matches, 26 runs at 13.0, hs 22)

How was only given two chances in this tournament. Against Australia he was sent in at number 7 and managed an ungainly 22 off 47, while against Pakistan he was sent in at first drop and could only scrape together a paltry 4 off 29. At this rate he'll be back to the New Zealand A team.

Andy McKay
(1 match; 1 wkt, av 37.0, 3.76 rpo)

Out of the New Zealand team since his last appearance against India in December, McKay stepped up with a quality bowling performance in the semi-final against Sri Lanka, bowling one ball short of 10 overs for a miserly 37 runs plus the exciting wicket of danger man Kumar Sangakkara, the Sri Lankan captain. At 30 years of age perhaps McKay will adopt the Chris Martin role in the New Zealand attack, although he will need to work on his batting; perhaps an eyepatch would help.

Luke Woodcock
(1 match; 1 wkt, av 24.0, 4.50 rpo)

In a rare New Zealand ODI outing involving three spinners, Luke Woodcock offered tight bowling and wrapped up the South African innings when he had Morne Morkel caught by Jamie How at long off. It was his first international wicket and only his third ODI.

26 March 2011

We have it in our power to begin the world over again

US President Jimmy Carter's famous July 1979 address, which became known as the 'crisis of confidence speech', made the following iconoclastic statement:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter went on to outline an ambitious programme to wean the US economy off its dependence on foreign oil imports through investment in emerging technologies to supply new sources of fuel, coupled with strong restrictions on oil imports. He even set a goal of 20 percent of national energy supply to be obtained through solar power by the year 2000. These policies, announced in the last months of the Carter administration, were quickly swept aside following Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in the election on 4 November 1980.

Retired US Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, now a lecturer in US foreign policy at Boston University, discusses the shift from Carter to Reagan in Eugene Jarecki's documentary, American Idol: Reagan, which was commissioned by the BBC and HBO to mark the centenary of Ronald Reagan's birth:

Bacevich: In 1980 I voted for Ronald Reagan because I was a serving soldier and Reagan was the guy who was going to redress the ills of the United States military. I voted for him again in 1984, because he seemed to be making good on that promise. He was the most skillful politician of our time. What I would say in retrospect is that I cast my vote without having a proper appreciation of the issues of the moment.  

Reagan (clip): I think we've given the American people back their spirit, and I think we're in a position once again to heed the words of Thomas Paine: We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Bacevich: That was Reagan. That's what Reagan had on offer in the 1970s and 1980s. Which basically said that circumstance doesn't matter. The accumulation of history over the previous two centuries doesn't matter. We can choose anything we want and it will be ours. But it's nonsense. We can't start the world over again. My bottom line judgement of Jimmy Carter doesn't really depart from the conventional wisdom that I think he was a failure as a president. That said, there was a moment when he, however briefly, grasped a central truth about the American predicament.

Carter (clip, 15 July 1979) It's clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages. Deeper even than inflation or recession.

Bacevich: The problems we face are not 'out there'. The problems we face are 'in here'. We have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom where our definition of freedom is simply false. We have convinced ourselves that through the piling up of material goods and indulging the appetites of a consumer society, that by going down that road we will best be able to find life, liberty and happiness. Carter argued that our dependence on oil was central to this, and that it would lead us down the path toward interventionism and conflict. What Ronald Reagan said is, 'You don't have to sacrifice. You don't have to make do. You don't have to get by with less. There's plenty of oil. There's an infinite supply. Trust me'.  

The documentary is a skilful analysis of Reagan's place in American political culture, and how he turned himself from a fading B-movie actor into the consummate political communicator and the leader of the nation he so revered.

Virtually everyone agrees that his life both before and during his political career was characterised by a remarkable bounty of good fortune. Reagan, it seems, was just born lucky.

His proponents laud his brilliant ability to communicate with the American people and to revitalise a nation that seemed to be losing its way in the 1970s, and how he restored America's military reputation and laid the groundwork for both the victory over communism and the end of the Cold War.

His critics point out that his economic revolution burdened the US economy with massive structural deficits and resulted in a huge transfer of wealth to a highly privileged elite, that he lied to the American people over the shambolic and illegal Iran-Contra scandal, and that his great power brinksmanship ran a real risk of plunging the world into nuclear catastrophe.

Amongst the most insightful of the commentators interviewed is the president's son, Ron Reagan, who bears a strong physical resemblance to his father, and who spoke eloquently and seemingly without any innate need to gloss over some of his father's failings to give a strong picture of the man behind the image, and the convictions that drove him.

In a sense both the boosters and the critics were right. As modern America often seeks to invoke a mythologised, almost semi-divine image of Reagan as the great saviour of the national identity, Jarecki's film shows us the true complexity of the story behind one of the 20th century's most intriguing political figures.

See also:
Reagan, presumably in his role as president of the Screen Actors' Guild, introducing the shy and retiring Jayne Mansfield at an awards ceremony:

24 March 2011

Spring released?

Springtime in Wimbledon

Casting one's eyes above the sea of BMWs, Audis, Porsches and vintage Mercedes coupes parked along Kenilworth Ave, SW19, here's a definite sign that winter is departing London. The clocks are going forward on Sunday morning, the BBC predicts daily highs of 16 degrees through to the end of the week, and a general air of environmental optimism is percolating through the suburbs. Hmm, must dig out those short-sleeved weekend shirts from the bottom of the drawer and run them through the wash... There was even a flyer thrust through the letterbox advertising a street party for the royal wedding at the end of April. And here's me thinking that sort of thing only happened in Eastenders. 

And Jolie Holland would like to sing you a song about it. Spring, that is, not Eastenders.

22 March 2011

Gondry at the Pompidou

Paris' imposing Centre Pompidou, which rises above the surrounding buildings like a post-industrial sci-fi behemoth with its spaghetti-like maze of heavy piping and metal walkways, is currently hosting an intriguing interactive film installation by the acclaimed French director Michel Gondry. By the time it completes its nearly six-week run this Sunday, the installation, L'Usine de Films Amateurs (The Amateur Film Plant) will have helped hundreds if not thousands of Parisians to live out their film-making fantasies, deploying their creativity in cooperative and free film workshops in a variety of settings and genres.

Gondry, famous for directing both music videos and films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dave Chapelle's Block Party, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind and (ahem) The Green Hornet, wanted to give back a little of the film-making elan that he absorbed growing up in Paris, and to encourage people to try film-making for themselves:  

I always had a kind of guilt by making a creative profession. I often say: "This man might be a better filmmaker than me if he could access this type of art." Creativity is too little shared. And then when I lived in the 13th arrondissement in Paris, there were these smaller theaters, which have disappeared. I have long been the secret project to recycle one of these rooms by installing a community space where everyone could come and shoot what he wanted and then project it. This utopia of an autonomous system, I had the opportunity to achieve it in a fictional dialogue with Be Kind Rewind. I then wanted to go to reality. The protocol that people follow is designed to foster creativity and the system ensures that each participant takes the floor. It is a kind of "visual socialism" if you will pardon the expression. The system prevents the egos take over and guarantee equality of participants.  [Via Google Translate]

In practice what this means is that Gondry has set up an interactive video workshop with a variety of commonplace set types, including a forest (with two-dimensional trees and bushes around a campfire), a suburban kitchen, an old video rental shop, a squatter's campsite and a fly-bill strewn inner city street. Punters are encouraged to come along and join a cooperative film-making team under the stewardship of young film students, who set up the groups, learn what they want to film and then help them to make it work.

I saw the early stages of one workshop, with about a dozen participants voting on a huge list of movie genres to determine the most popular setting. Once the genre is settled the team moves on to a story-boarding exercise, with the most prominent entry on the board I noticed being the tried and tested 'Zombie attaque!' Then after a visit to the costume department the cast and crew move to one of the sets to shoot their movie. One being filmed during the visit was some form of kitchen sink drama, or perhaps it was a kitchen sink drama with clandestine zombies. At any rate, it was set in a kitchen. It was a charming scene too - two young women and two girls aged about eight were all dressed up as suburban housewives around the kitchen table. The little girls were giggling madly, and in their headscarves they looked like hobbit versions of Ena Sharples. Later on, in a different part of the installation, there was a burst of noise and two of the housewives rushed past, howling in fear or rage as they erupted from the set they were filming on. Exit stage right!

There are a few clips posted of the finished product. Monoglots like me will struggle to pick up the nuances of the timeless performances on offer... well, actually, it's just a bunch of French kids dicking about and having fun, and it's not at all difficult to work out what's going on. You don't need to speak the language to see what a great experiment and outlet for creativity this installation is. And it's undoubtedly a great gift from an artist to the city he grew up in.  I therefore present, for your viewing pleasure, Helène vs. les Garçons II - le Return. Keep an eye out for the mysterious femme fatale Helène and her sparkly jacket. Tres bien ensemble!

19 March 2011

The only winning move is not to play

Back in 1983, when I was in my last year of primary school in Auckland, my mother took me to the cinema to see the new Matthew Broderick drama-thriller, WarGames. It was an exciting film for a ten-year-old, and at the time I came away with a lasting impression of having enjoyed it. I went on to read the novelisation, which I still have somewhere in one of my many boxes in storage. I've never been much of a movie renter though, so when WarGames popped up again on this week's TV listings it had been over a quarter of a century since I'd seen it, and I jumped at the chance to take a second look at one of the 1980s' most influential and successful teen adventure movies.

Part of the attraction for most of WarGames' target audience was the pairing of rising stars Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy as the youthful protagonists thrown into a Cold War doomsday scenario due to the twisted digital logic of an all-powerful defence computer. Both are ideal 1980s teen stars in this film (although to be strictly accurate, neither were teenagers at the time - they were 21 and 20 years old). Broderick is clean-cut and handsome (the script calls for him to bare his snowy-white chest, to keep the girls' attention) and resourceful, while Sheedy is zesty (Look!  She rides a moped!), has a great girl-next-door smile and frankly legendary eyebrows.

It was both Broderick and Sheedy's second film, and the successful reception of their performances and the film as a whole helped to cement their status in even more popular roles in the coming years.  Broderick's next film saw him play Gaston the thief in the under-rated Ladyhawke, and his career-defining role as Ferris Bueller came the year after that. And within two years of WarGames, Sheedy was at the peak of her career, having appeared in the archetypal '80s classics, The Breakfast Club and St Elmo's Fire. Director John Badham, who had helmed Saturday Night Fever (!) and went on to direct the Sheedy-starring Short Circuit, played an important role too by injecting a playful edge to proceedings, ensuring that a potentially grim and serious subject matter could be handled without depressing the audience.

Most of this was probably over my head at the time. I was mainly interested in WarGames' science and computing angle. A lot has been said about the influence of the recently remade Tron both on popular culture and on public impressions of what computing was capable of. (This despite the fact that few of the impressive effects in the original Tron were actually computer-generated - all that blue glow was hand-tinted the old-fashioned way). But I would argue that WarGames, for its real-world setting, its use of then little-known innovations in computer espionage and subterfuge, and its compelling theme of the dangers of an utterly implacable computer brain that endangers human life through its ruthless machine code logic, is more influential than Tron. Indeed, perhaps WarGames even approaches the same league as 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of its contribution to the public image of artificial intelligence, although this might seem a bit of a stretch given that WarGames isn't a classic like 2001.

WarGames was a major financial success for MGM. Its $12 million budget was easily eclipsed by US box office returns of $79.5 million and US video rentals of $38.5 million. The film also achieved mainstream recognition, garnering three Oscar nominations including a coveted and perhaps a little surprising Best Screenplay nomination. (Writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes lost out to Horton Foote's largely forgotten Tender Mercies, but then so did the writers of The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, and Silkwood.  Way to go Academy! Parkes at least had the consolation of going on to become a major film  producer - Men In Black, Gladiator, and Minority Report are among his 44 production credits).

The central premise: that the clean-cut everyboy David Lightman's petty hacking in search of a hot new computer game sets off a chain of events nearly leading to global thermonuclear war, which Lightman then averts heroically. Sure, it's corny, and perhaps it's a little hard to identify with a 1980s teenager who has his own en suite bathroom, but with a ten-year-old's powerful suspension of disbelief the mechanics of the film were undeniably exciting. It's also a clever script, which shows off Lasker and Parkes' ability to adopt little-known cutting edge computer innovations and bring them to mainstream attention. Computer hacking and the even less known skill of phone 'phreaking' were central plot devices, and the impact of portraying these as hobbies of the seemingly clean-cut middle class kid Lightman must have been significant in helping to popularise computing amongst young viewers.    

The script also makes artful fun from the prevailing Cold War ethos of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which caused a generation of '80s children numerous sleepless nights. Particularly on the nights before birthdays and Christmas, if you were anything like me. The nervy tension of the nuclear deterrence stand-off between the US and the USSR was backed up by thousands of nuclear warheads, and the potential yields of these devices was clearly capable of destroying all life on Earth, or at the very least knocking what remained of humanity back into a grim new Stone Age. Playing on these fears by introducing the reclusive character of Dr Stephen Falken, the scientist who created the super computer that holds America's nuclear arsenal to ransom, the writers offer up the delightful prospect of a character in a successful mainstream movie offering up scenes like this:

Falken: Extinction is part of the natural order.
David: Bullshit! If we're extinguished there's nothing natural about that - it's just stupid!
Falken: Oh it's alright, I've planned ahead. We're just three miles from a primary target. A millisecond of brilliant light and we're vaporised. Much more fortunate than the millions who will wander sightless through the smouldering aftermath. We'll be spared the horror of survival.

The movie had been in the works for several years before it was made and apparently John Lennon was interested in playing the role of Falken at the very early stages of production. (Incidentally, John Wood, who played Falken, joined Broderick in Ladyhawke, as the villainous Bishop of Aquila).

WarGames toys with the very real threat offered by the split second decision making of nuclear warfare: when missiles are flying and due to impact in a matter of minutes, human decision-making could hardly be anything other than highly compromised, particularly when made with inaccurate information. It's an entirely plausible premise that Falken's computer, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) is given control over the US nuclear arsenal when human launch trials were shown to have major flaws - after all, who wouldn't hesitate at the prospect of accidentally killing tens of millions of people?

These are all fairly high-level concepts for a mainstream movie. Certainly, WarGames is a fantasy and should not be treated as any sort of masterpiece. But it was successful at the box office, featured likeable performances from its lead actors, had a distinctive and appealing visual style - particularly in the NORAD control room scenes, with its distinctive high-tech ray-traced graphics, and ultimately delivered an effective yarn in an appealingly professional package.

And for proof of the impact WarGames made on popular culture, one should look no further than two points made in this Wired feature from July 2008, which celebrates the film's 25th anniversary. The impressive set built to replicate the NORAD control room impressed the actual NORAD staffers, who realised that their actual facilities paled in comparison to the movie portrayal:

William Lord, Commander, Air Force Cyberspace Command: It was a great movie! A few years later, I was an executive officer with the Air Force Space Command stationed at Norad near Cheyenne Mountain. And I'm wondering, "Gee, where can we get such cool-looking displays?" It was a good forcing function. It required us to all of a sudden say, "If it really can look like this, why doesn't it?"

And aesthetics aside, the film also attracted immediate attention at the highest levels of the American government, which is no great surprise given President Reagan's show-business background:

When the WOPR spoke the movie's penultimate line ("A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"), audiences, unnerved by years of US-Soviet nuclear brinkmanship, spontaneously applauded. And Ronald Reagan did not find the WOPR crazy or silly when he saw the movie at a special Camp David screening during its opening weekend. 
Lasker: I arranged that screening. Reagan was a family friend. My parents were in the movie business, and I grew up in Brentwood. We had Saturday night parties, and much the same people came. The Reagans — you could set your watch by them. At 7 o'clock, there they would be — ding-dong! 
Days after the screening, wrote Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, Reagan held a closed-door briefing with some moderate members of Congress, wherein he sidetracked discussion of the MX ballistic missile program by bringing up WarGames. Had any of them seen the film? he asked, then launched into an animated account of the plot. "Don't tell the ending," cautioned one of the lawmakers.

There you have it - not only did WarGames do well at the box-office and influence popular culture, it also had an immediate impact on the political leaders in charge of the US nuclear deterrent!

Finally, for those still hankering for another glimpse of those eerie MIRV traces bearing down on Las Vegas, Vladivostok and Cincinnati, the 2006 budget PC game DEFCON is definitely worth investigating. It replicates the visual style of the NORAD control screens perfectly, throws in tense gameplay and a perversely satisfying thrill in chucking nuclear missiles around. Plus it offers the salutary reminder that in a nuclear war in which one's own cities are reduced to Fallout-style rubble, victory is a highly elusive concept.

DEFCON screenshot

18 March 2011

Le Bourget Air & Space Museum

The Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace (French Museum of Air and Space) at Le Bourget in north-eastern Paris was one of the focuses of my recent trip to the City of Lights. I was keen to take the opportunity to visit another major aviation museum, and was intrigued by the possibility of examining a French collection, given France's pioneering role in early aviation history.

Le Bourget was Paris' airfield from the immediate postwar days of 1919 until the completion of Orly in 1932. During this period it became famous as the location of American aviator Charles Lindbergh's victorious touchdown on 21 May 1927, when a crowd of over 100,000 thronged the airfield to celebrate the first solo non-stop flight from the Americas to Europe. Lindbergh became an instant global celebrity and was hoisted aloft the shoulders of the jubilant crowd until he was eventually 'rescued' - after 33 hours without sleep he must have been utterly exhausted. (The heaving masses can be seen from 0:50 in this silent newsreel footage; it must've been one hell of a night).

Le Bourget declined in importance in the following decades as newer airports like Paris-Charles de Gaulle took larger amounts of traffic, and since the departure of the last scheduled flight in 1980 the airport has only served business jets. Now the main reason for visiting is the air museum, which also hosts the biannual Paris Air Show.

Getting to the museum on public transport requires a couple of journeys. The website suggests a variety of routes, and the one I chose involved travelling on the Metro 7 line to the terminus at La Courneuve, then taking bus 152 (exit the station using Exit 4, from memory) for about 10 minutes until I reached the museum's bus-stop. Le Bourget is outside the inner-city Zones 1-2, so I bought a Carte Mobilis Zones 1-3.  

Le Bourget is one of the oldest aviation museums, and so features a fair amount of old-fashioned lino and a few elderly papier-mache dioramas. The main exhibition hall is also designed in an unusual way - the long, thin display area has aircraft exhibits both at ground level and hung from the ceiling, and a series of aerial walkways enable closer viewing of the elevated machines.  This is an interesting idea, but it also spoils some of the sight-lines through the hall due to the many pillars and stairways required to reach the gantries.

The early flight collection is perhaps the most historically significant of the museum's catalogue. The aircraft on display from the first, faltering years of flying after the Wright Brothers' ground-breaking December 1903 debut are undoubtedly impressive. There's a flimsy dragonfly-like Wright Flyer from 1909 sitting on the upturned ski landing gear that early pilots used to land on poorly-prepared landing fields. An Antoinette VII flyer from the same year looks as if its wooden fuselage is taken from a rowing boat, which is perhaps accurate because it was designed to cross the English Channel.  Louis Bleriot, who made the famous first channel crossing on the day of the Antoinette VII's first flight, 25 July 1909, is represented by a Bleriot XI - not the one that made the flight though; that's displayed at another Paris museum.
Astra-Wright type BB (1909)
Antoinette VII (1909)

Aircraft from World War I form another impressive part of the collection. A Voisin LAS with a pusher propeller (i.e. located at the rear of the fuselage instead of the front) reminds visitors of the first aircraft to achieve an aerial combat victory. The earlier Voisin L model was primarily a reconnaissance flyer, with a spare seat for a forward observer, but on 5 October 1914 a Voisin attacked and destroyed a rival German aircraft with its machine-gun, thereby changing the nature of aerial warfare in a single stroke. Stephen Budiansky, in his 2004 book Air Power, wrote:

[At the outset of the war] the popular aviation press expressed surprise that there had been so little aerial fighting. Army commanders expressed amazement that there had been any, and probably with more justification. Neither tactics nor equipment had anticipated air-to-air fighting. The general view was that trying to hit one airplane in flight with a bullet fired from another airplane in flight was an almost absurd proposition [...]

That most of the improvised air-to-air fighting in the first months of the war was done with carbines rather than machine-guns only made it more miraculous to actually score a hit. The French captured a German order issued on October 2 [1914] that instructed pilots to avoid wasting time with aerial fighting at all; while it was true that French pilots sometimes "amused themselves" by taking potshots at German planes, the order noted, "there was nothing to worry about". Three days later, nonetheless, a French pilot, Joseph Frantz, and his mechanic-observer by the name of [Louis] Quenault, shot down a German two-seater from their machine-gun-equipped Voisin pusher.

Voisin LAS (1915)

WWI fighters

The rapid development of aerial combat is clearly shown in the wide range of fighter aircraft on display, including a SPAD VII, a de Havilland DH9, a Breuguet BR.XIV A2 bomber, and a brawling fighter masterpiece, a Sopwith 1 A2. There's also the rare treat of being able to inspect the interior of a military zeppelin gondola.

Sopwith 1 A2 (1917)

German zeppelin gondola interior

With the WWII aircraft selection being by necessity rather sparse (although there's a nice Spitfire in there), the next highlights are the selection of post-war jet prototypes and fighters that served in the French air force. The Dan Dare-like stylings of the 1947 Leduc 010 ramjet prototype showed that France was still capable of innovative aircraft designs, and the large floor space enables the museum to arrange plenty of examples of the gleaming silver fighters that patrolled the skies of the Cold War age.

Leduc 010 ramjet prototype (1947)

In the exterior hangars there's also a pair of elegant Concordes, looking impossibly fast even when they're standing still. There's one production-line model that served with Air France from 1978 to 2003 (F-BTSD) and an early pre-production prototype that was the first Concorde built (F-WTSS), which made its maiden flight on 2 March 1969 and joined the museum's collection in 1973.

Air France Concorde F-BTSD

Prototype Concorde F-WTSS

The museum has a strong collection relating to the history of space exploration. France has a long history in space, having formed its own national space agency in 1961, launched its first satellite, Asterix (yes, really!) in 1965, and developed a programme of satellite launches from its French Guiana base since 1969. The museum covers French exploits in space, but it has Cold War propaganda budgets to thank for the majority of its exhibits, because the space exploration programme of the former Soviet Union is strongly represented by full-scale models gifted to the museum.  Highlights for me were replicas of Soviet space probes like Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 manned orbiter module from 1961, and the Venera 7 descent capsule that penetrated the acidic Venusian atmosphere and transmitted data back to Earth for a short time in 1970.

Vostok 1 replica

Venera 7 replica

Finally, outside on the tarmac is arrayed a selection of larger aircraft, including a few airliners like the museum's 747 and a Aerospatiale Caravel, once the mainstay of French jet travel.  And towering above them all are the 1:1 scale replicas of the doyennes of the French and ESA space programmes, the Ariane 1 and 5 heavy lift rockets, designed to launch satellite payloads into Earth orbit.

01 March 2011

Watching the 2011 Oscars

James Franco & Anne Hathaway © Oscars.org

This year's Oscars ceremony has been a different experience for me. Typically, I'm interested in the Oscar predictions in the lead-up to the actual event, the announcement of the winners, which offers a certain intrigue as my meagre predictions are tested against the sometimes cynical and usually spin-doctored world of Academy voting, and the show itself, which sometimes offers a real sense of 'event television' and solid entertainment by the cream of the showbiz crop. But for a variety of reasons, chiefly among them my exaggerated sense of parsimony and an almost pathological urge to avoid spending money on frivolous pursuits, I have seldom have access to a pay-TV channel on which to watch the ceremony. In fact, one of my few memories of the Oscars broadcast in recent years was watching a lachrymose Halle Berry receive her Best Actress award in 2002, but that was mainly memorable because my friends and I were watching it on a dodgy telly in a freezing cold guest-house in Afrodisias, Turkey, and at one point in the evening we were distracted from the spectacle by the tin chimney of the guest-house fireplace detaching itself and filling the room with choking smoke.

This year is rather different. Not only am I fortunate enough to have access to Sky (for the next few months at least), but I also have an HD recorder so I could time-shift the broadcast from the post-midnight hours to the better part of the morning. All I had to do was avoid the news and probably Facebook too until after watching the recording, which is no mean feat if you're a compulsive info-junky like me. But I managed it!

So here are a few random thoughts on this year's Oscar ceremony. It's not a detailed run-down of who won and why, because frankly I haven't seen all too many of this year's Oscar crop. I know I'll see the ones I've missed eventually, and here's hoping it's sooner rather than later. But I can't pronounce with any wisdom on the relative merits of the contenders; if you want some of that you should check out Matthew's excellent best picture nominees summary. Think of this as a rather tardy live-blog, taken from notes jotted down during the broadcast. Let us begin...

The hosts: The selection of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as this year's hosts is clearly an attempt to reconnect the Oscars with younger audiences. Perhaps if the Academy was extra-keen to fulfil this objective they might think about addressing the average age of Academy members, which is about 57. (Check out Nick Hornby's thoughts at the end of that linked article: he's got some interesting ideas about how Academy members watch nominated films, which affects the voting). In any case, despite a certain lack of showbiz gravitas, I was pleased with the choice. Hathaway has displayed a decent sense of humour in previous appearances, and Franco has acting chops and has often been charming, particularly since his breakthrough performance as Daniel Desario in the classic TV series Freaks & Geeks. As the Oscar ceremony begun Hathaway seemed in her element, but Franco seemed a little nervous and wooden. Their opening gambit, feeding hit-and-miss lines to Hathaway's mother and Franco's grandmother in the audience, was passable but felt a little mediocre. But I suppose Franco's grandma has already proven she has a good sense of humour.      

Getting Busy: Speaking of Freaks & Geeks, the most exciting part of the early stages of the ceremony, for me at least, was trying to work out who was sitting next to Blue Valentine's Michelle Williams (who was rocking a classic outfit and a modish Carey Mulligan / Emma Watson bob). Surely it couldn't be actress Busy Philipps, who played the hilarious and menacing Kim Kelly in F&G? A later shot of Williams confirmed it was Philipps after all. Now all I have to do is figure out why she was in such a prominent seat. I guess it's because she's been a core cast member of Courtenay Cox's TV series Cougar Town, which, needless to say, I haven't seen.

Cocoon: The Revenge: I know Kirk Douglas is Hollywood royalty, and in a way it's nice to see the Academy organisers offer him a prime opportunity to appear in the spotlight one last time to present the Best Supporting Actress award. But let's face facts: Douglas is 94 now, which is a ripe old age. There was a fuss when the organisers of the 2010 football World Cup were accused of bullying Nelson Mandela to attend match ceremonies, and he was 91 at the time. People of such advanced years are remarkably fragile, and Douglas' performance, while charming for its eccentricity and for his calculated circumlocution in eventually presenting the award to the eventual winner, Melissa Leo, was probably too much like a calculated Last Chance Saloon for my liking. Douglas was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor three times in his prime: in 1950 for Champion, 1953 for The Bad and The Beautiful, and 1957 for Lust for Life. He had to wait until 1996 to receive an Oscar statuette of his own, an honorary award for his years of service to the acting world. So the Academy has already recognised Douglas' achievements most handsomely, by giving him an honorary Oscar. Wheeling him out at age 94 was a step too far. And Melissa Leo, I don't care if you swear but give the man back his walking stick, you muppet!

Lost in translation: I don't have a great deal to add to Aaron Sorkin's deserved win for his screenplay for The Social Network, but I would like to note the charming soundbite offered by co-presenter Josh Brolin, who opined in his introduction that screenwriters 'made a stink'. Or, to be precise, what he actually meant to say was that screenwriters made us think. Perhaps Brolin could take a leaf from Colin Firth and secure his own personal Lionel Logue voice coaching. The only other point I'd make is that the broadcast organisers should really be ashamed of trying to play off Sorkin as he made his admittedly long acceptance speech. To his credit, he proceeded calmly and refused to be bullied off the stage despite the music rising in volume as the directors panicked at the sight of the second-hand's inexorable progress.

Best bib and tucker: Before the ceremony it was rumoured that Franco and Hathaway would perform a Grease number, but the clip didn't make the final broadcast. (Perhaps because Franco, bless him, really can't hold a tune.  Hathaway in those trews though: woo...). In the event only Hathaway sang, appearing in a fetching tuxedo to belt out an odd Oscar-referential little solo number in which she laments perennial show-stopper Hugh Jackman's supposed refusal to perform a duet. This was passable entertainment, if a little in-crowd, but it was bookended by the highlight of Franco's evening, when he emerged wearing a Marilyn Monroe-style pink evening gown, as a counterpoint to Hathaway's cross-dressing tuxedo. This was one of the few genuinely hilarious moments of the evening, capped when Franco quipped, 'the weird part is I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen'.

And the award for most pointless waste of time goes to: The Academy executive and his ABC network offsider who took up precious air time to announce to a reluctant world audience that the Academy and the TV network had just renewed their contractual vows for the Oscar broadcast until the year 2020. To which the world responded: 'Who gives a shit? Hurry up, I want to work out if Christian Bale's beard has developed into its own sentient life form'.

We can be heroes: I was delighted that the Best Original Score award went to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their work on The Social Network. Not because I've been a big fan of Reznor's music either solo or with Nine Inch Nails, or his spoken-word poetry readings, but more because he exemplifies a self-made industry outsider who represents many things that the cosy entertainment world rejects. It also opens up the world of film scoring to 21st century methods, according to Reznor:

Well, I think, you know, I've befriended Hans Zimmer in this process of battling him at award shows, all these things had come up. And he said in a lot of ways, "I hope that your score does win because it's a vote for it opens the field up a bit, the textures what one can expect in film." And I personally would like to do a very traditional score with an orchestra, but I also see where, I think that the there's a general sense of conservatism in scores these days, and I think it can branch out into stuff and has a little richer palette and whiter palette with sound. And I was very impressed we actually won this with a very non-traditional sounding score ... I think it may encourage a number of artists who hadn't thought in terms of rigid film scoring, that there's a possibility out there to work in film and make something interesting, a bit different.
Moving right along...

Matthew McConaughey is extremely orange.  That is all.

Good old Randy: It was great to see the legendary Randy Newman belt out his Best Original Song nominee, We Belong Together from Toy Story 3. Not a classic, by any means - for one of those, see his Whistle Test performance of Political Science in 1972 - but still a pleasant result when he took the award home. And he displayed a deft sense of humour in accepting his award too: 'I just have to thank these people. I don’t want to, I want to be "good television" so badly, as you can see. I've been on this show any number of times and I’ve slowed it down almost every time'.

Just a thought: Um, where are the non-white people?  Any sign so far?  

(This would be corrected later during the Lena Horne tribute, which featured Halle Berry and Jennifer Hudson, but it was still an eerily white Oscars this year).  

Gimme a head of hair: A charming vignette as the chaotically-barneted young winner of the Best Live Action Short Film award, Luke Matheny, bounds to the stage and his first words to the watching world are '...I shoulda got a haircut'.

A stab at comedy: Next there's a musical interlude in which key scenes from 2010 blockbusters are given the Autotune treatment to supposedly humorous effect. Ron and Hermione from the Potter film, the Toy Story 3 gang, and the pouty pretty ones from Twilight all warble artificially. I suppose it's a reasonable attempt at being current, but this is somewhat offset by the fact that Autotune is criminally vile and it's killed off popular music. So, there's pros and cons.

Baffling: Sure, it's great that a film like Inside Job, which explains the 2008 collapse of the global financial system, can be recognised in this global forum. And it's great that one of the documentary makers can start his acceptance speech by pointing out to crowd of Hollywood royalty that 'Not a single financial executive has gone to jail and that's wrong', and - here's the kick - get a round of applause for it. But my beef is that the award was presented to Inside Job's creators by none other than Oprah Winfrey. Seriously? Her TV influence in America is unquestioned, but in cinema? A small acting career that peaked with her first film, The Color Purple, plenty of TV production credits, and a role in championing the misery p0rn that was Precious qualifies Oprah to present an award at a gathering celebrating the best of film-making? Perhaps someone can explain that decision to me, because I'm a little baffled.    
Ghosts of hosts past: Just to remind viewers what an Oscar host used to look like, and thereby to rather undercut the mana of the 2011 hosts, the host of eight former Oscar ceremonies, Billy Crystal, emerges for a quick and quite charming chat. He is so at ease with the audience and in his element that it's a wonder the organisers didn't stop to ask themselves whether letting Crystal appear isn't a case of shooting themselves in the foot. Audiences might ask the perfectly reasonable question, if he's this good why isn't he still hosting it? But you know that'll never work. Perhaps they'll take the suggestion of one of the UK Sky Movies commenters: in 2012, they should try Robert Downey Jr. But you know that for every Downey Jr. up for consideration there's bound to be six board members rooting for the Oscars to be hosted next year by Mr Schu from Glee.   

Y'all come back now, y'hear? Gwyneth Paltrow tried to do a Reese Witherspoon by goin' country and singin' in Country Strong. The Oscar-nominated song, Coming Home, that she performed lost out to Randy Newman, but the two main distinguishing aspects of her performance were that her microphone was seemingly possessed by angels or imbued with radioactive fluoride, it was so gleaming white; and that with the ongoing years she looks more and more like Ulrika Jonsson. But Gwyneth, a little tip: if you want to really go country, there's only one way - the Jenna Maroney way.   

The departed: Nooo Celine Dion nooo!!! Oh, damn, it's for the stiffs reel... er, the In Memoriam segment... so to complain too vigorously would seem churlish. And actually she reins in her usual vocal frenetics admirably for a relatively restrained performance. The brief clips are, as usual, a poignant reminder of all those faces we've lost in the past year. Whose heart could fail to skip a beat at a slow close-up of the luminous Susannah York in her prime? But I did have to wonder at the inclusion of a publicist amongst the list of the dearly departed talent. This is Hollywood, after all.     

Natalie Portman: What a good memory for names you have. Dozens and dozens of them. A much-deserved award and all, but her acceptance speech was a little like a school roll call.

Colin Firth: Good for you, you deserved it too. But next time, we will be expecting the little dance you promised.  

Giving away the ending: I don't have a problem with The King's Speech winning Best Picture, although it does rather make a mockery of the abolition of the UK Film Council, which was a major backer. But didn't the organisers consider that using Colin Firth's keynote speech from that film as the dominant audio over the top of the clips of all ten Best Picture nominees was a little bit presumptuous? Sure, everyone knew that The King's Speech was going to win, and the clip was doubtless compiled before the result was known (at least, I hope it was) but it must have detracted from the moment for the other nine nominees as the moment of suspense approached its end. A very peculiar decision indeed.

The big finale: After the final award, there's a curious spectacle of a passel of elementary school students from Staten Island taking to the stage in 80s-era retro neon garb to chirp their way pluckily through Somewhere Over The Rainbow, like an episode of Sesame Street performed in the grand throne room at Versailles. I know this is an age of austerity and it was probably meant to be a nod towards frugality and inclusiveness in these tough times, and I know US audiences melt at this kind of schmaltz, but the performance was, through no fault of the children, a trifle odd. As the UK Sky Movies hosts opined, tongue firmly in cheek, 'It was a lovely Village of the Damned-esque finale', 'like Britain's Got Talent or something'. (Nine commas in three sentences.  I really should cut down)

Never mind. It was an enjoyable few hours of entertainment, and reminded me that I should make more of an effort to watch the Oscars in future. Who knows, maybe the 2011 crop of films will fall far short of the high standard of those in 2010 and there'll be the entertaining spectacle of a heavily padded top 10 list for Best Picture. Maybe James Franco will be asked to return to the hosting job as long as he loosens up a little and takes a few shots of hard liquor beforehand. And an idle notion: we haven't had a streaker to liven things up in a while either. Perhaps Harvey Weinstein knows a guy who know this other guy...