30 August 2012

"Are you telling me that this sucker is nuclear?"

I haven't got Grand Theft Auto 4 for the PC, but seeing this post on a rather special Back to the Future-style DeLorean mod makes me wonder what I've been missing. All it needs is some Libyan terrorists with a VW bus and an RPG and it would be perfect. Someone needs to go the extra mile and mod an entire 1955 city to hoon around in next.


See also:
ScreenplayBack to the Future
SoundtrackLindsey Buckingham - Time Bomb Town
ComedyFailed Movie Pitches - Back to the Future

26 August 2012

I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful

The talented Warren Zevon performs 'Mohammed's Radio' for the Old Grey Whistle Test with the producer of his second album, Jackson Browne. The self-titled 1976 Warren Zevon album was his last before Werewolves of London fame, which flowed from 1978's classic Excitable Boy album. But even before he hit the charts he was always well-connected - the album version of this track featured Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks on harmonies, and other collaborators who popped up on the 1976 album include Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, Don Henley and Glenn Frey from the Eagles, and Bonnie Raitt (who at the time had yet to achieve commercial success but already had five albums under her belt).

Allmusic reviewer Mark Deming praised this album's 'blood, bile, and mean-spirited irony' and asserted that while it 'may not have been the songwriter's debut, but it was the album that confirmed he was a major talent, and it remains a black-hearted pop delight'. Sounds like a fitting description for the wry, knowing performer too, who was sadly claimed by cancer in 2003.

25 August 2012

Petone winter carnival fireworks

A fireworks display launched from the end of the pier as the finale for the Petone Winter Carnival, 25 August 2012. Bit of a blustery night out on the foreshore, and there were a few spots of rain near the end, but it was an impressive show nonetheless.

See also:
Guy Fawkes 2011

22 August 2012

World Press Photo 2012

On Sunday I checked out the World Press Photo 2012 exhibition through the Wellington Photo Meetup, and as always there was an interesting range of images. There was a strong showing for the traditional favourites of the WPP oeuvre, with ample helpings of war, chaos and general man's inhumanity to man.  But there were also plenty of other less harrowing photos that caught my eye. Here's five in particular, with links to the images on the WPP website.

Damir Sagolj - Pyongyang
This is a simple photo, but a powerful one, and it shows a great deal about the priorities of the grim Communist regime. In this urban scene from the capital Pyongyang, a residential suburb is asleep. Amidst the tower blocks, a giant portrait of the Great Leader sports the only electric light - the rest of the scene, every room in every tower, and every street, is plunged into darkness by power rationing or cuts. Which begs the question - are the Great Leader's portraits lit by bulbs on a separate grid from the remainder of the populace, or are the portraits supplied by their own dedicated generators?

Paolo Woods - Radio Haiti
This lovely portrait of radio advice counsellor Sister Melianise Gabreus mimics Renaissance portraiture and the view into the broadcast booth is a traditional frame within a frame. Sure, the imagery of the beatific nun is highly traditional, but it works so well here because Sister Melianise is so engaging.

Pietro Paolini - Bolivianas (4/12)
Who could fail to admire this rotund gent lady (oops!) nestling on a soft roomful of coca leaves?  Hallucinogens are apparently both intoxicating and so, so comfy.

Carsten Peter - Infinite Cave (11/12)
An archetypal National Geographic masterclass of the enormous Hang Son Doong cave network in Vietnam, which was discovered by a British spelunking team in 2009. Where's my old copy of the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide when I need it? (Check out Peter's galleries on his website too - splendid stuff)

Adam Pretty - World Aquatics Championships (1/11)
This is just a beautifully composed image, consisting of two pairs of divers plus two more solo divers, practicing at the World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai, in July 2011. Man Ray would be proud.

The World Press Photo 2012 exhibition runs at the Academy Galleries on Queens Wharf until Wednesday 29 August.  

See also:
World Press Photo 2011

18 August 2012

I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords

I've just finished reading Adam Roberts' 2009 book Yellow Blue Tibia, which is handily subtitled 'Konstantin Skvorecky's memoir of the alien invasion of 1986'. The edition I read sported a suitably Soviet-esque cover design with mock Cyrillic text to drive home the point that this is a tale set in the USSR, and the date of 1986 should signal to most readers that the Chernobyl disaster plays a major supporting role. 

The jaded, broken hero Skvorecky is decrepit from a life of vodka abuse, and his career as a science fiction writer has dwindled to nothing. However, he still recalls the dacha in which he and a coterie of other young writers were corralled by Stalin himself, back in 1946, to conjure up some great alien menace to replace the Americans as public enemy number one once the Soviets had inevitably crushed them into defeat. Skvorecky and his writer colleagues came up with the seemingly ludicrous notion of 'radiation aliens' - non-corporeal, super-intelligent, immensely harmful to humans, and bent on our destruction. But now 40 years later in 1986, more and more people intersect with Skvorecky's life and try to convince him that the radiation aliens he dreamt up are real, and that the USSR and the world are beset by a perilous alien conspiracy.

It's difficult to quote from the book out of context, and doing so might inadvertently reveal plot spoilers. Suffice it to say, Yellow Blue Tibia is a cleverly-constructed, witty view of the last decade of Communist rule, replete with villainous KGB operatives, mysterious disappearings and reappearings, implacable goons, and a hilarious set-piece devoted to the Soviet art of queuing. It also boasts a strong supporting cast, in particular the entertainingly frustrating Ivan Saltykov, who inadvertently gets many of the best jokes. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that the book's title is not explained until page 289 of a 324-page novel.

In his afterword Roberts sets out his premise (no spoilers):

The kernel of this novel is an attempt to suggest a way of reconciling the two seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions of people, often directly; and that, on the other, that they clearly don't exist. I have sought to suggest one possible explanation for this odd paradox of contemporary culture.   
Roberts also mentions the well-known incident at Petrozavodsk on 20 September 1977 in which thousands of eyewitnesses claimed to see 'an extraordinary, massive, luminescent UFO phenomenon', which sounds like something that should've featured in 'Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World'. Skeptics Yulii Platov and Boris Sokolov discuss the details in this 2000 article on state UFO research in the USSR:

The description of this event, based on accounts of eyewitnesses, appeared in the newspaper Izvestiya on September 23, 1977, under the headline “Unidentified natural phenomenon: The inhabitants of Petrozavodsk were witnesses to an extraordinary natural phenomenon.” According to the article, on September 20, about 4:00 a.m., there suddenly appeared in the night sky a huge “star” radiating pulsating beams of light to the ground. This object slowly moved toward Petrozavodsk, lingered over the town like a “huge jellyfish,” and illuminated the area with tendrils of radial beams, described as being similar to a downpour of rain.

After a few minutes, the luminescent “shower” stopped. The “jellyfish” wrapped into a bright half-disk and began heading toward Onega lake, in an overcast sky. There, a round depression of bright red color in the middle and white on each side formed in the clouds. This phenomenon, according to testimony from the eyewitnesses, lasted for ten to twelve minutes.

Yuri Gromov, the director of Petrozavodsk hydrometeorologic observatory, told a correspondent of the Soviet news agency TASS that the workers at the hydrometeorologic station in Kareliya observed no such anomalies. Nevertheless, eyewitnesses to this colorful phenomenon were numerous. They included workers of a first-aid unit, on-duty employees of the militia, seamen and the longshoremen at Petrozavodsk’s port, military, local airport staff, and even an amateur astronomer.

This sighting was eventually attributed to the launch of the Kosmos 955 satellite from the cosmodrome in Plesetsk, USSR.

Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, which I loved as a kid, the UFO episode below opens with the notorious Kaikoura footage from December 1978. The subsequent RNZAF investigation into the lights contains a useful analysis that shows how seriously the Air Force took the UFO allegations, and also notes that Prime Minister Robert Muldoon 'took a close personal interest in what went on (he spoke with DCAS [the Deputy Chief of Air Staff] twice, and specially asked he be informed of Defence's conclusions to the study it was undertaking'. The Air Force summary concluded the lights were probably either Venus rising or lights from the nearby squid fishing fleet, and since we've yet to be invaded by plane-stalking flying saucers, they were probably close to the mark.

The declassified file also contains a pleasing array of correspondence from local New Zealand UFO nutters, in which the mental instability of the authors are best judged by their innovative handwriting styles and helpful illustrations of alien waveforms, circuitry and alphabets (like this one) or tangential intelligence about angels (like this one) that have revealed themselves to the informative and perceptive authors.

See also:
I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords (Joan Collins, 1977, and Kent Brockman, 1994)

16 August 2012

On the economics of the Edinburgh Fringe

This past week, people in Edinburgh paid £31 to see the television comedian Michael McIntyre's warm-up shows of work-in-progress for his forthcoming stadium tour. Personally I never do warm-up shows for my own standup. My grandfather was of the opinion that you couldn't polish a turd. He did, however, believe very strongly in lacquering them, and lost many friends after insisting they sat through a piece-by-piece display of his entire collection.

Critics complain that £31 is too much for Michael McIntyre's try-out show, competing, by virtue of its appearance in Edinburgh this month, with free fringe performances by unknown talents. But Michael McIntyre's £31 warm-ups were not part of the Edinburgh fringe and so he was not obliged to observe its ethics. The high prices do mean, however, that McIntyre could afford to pay significantly more than the £200 he recently offered a Yorkshire security guard if he'd beat up an inflatable sex doll wearing a mask of my face.

My tickets in Edinburgh are £15, but I do not think it is wrong for Michael McIntyre to charge twice that, or for his colleague the television comedian Frankie Boyle to charge £29 in the same venue. Television comedians guarantee a good night out to cash-rich fun-seekers, and so are priced accordingly. My tragedy is that, irrespective of any merits I may or may not have, I am valued only by people unlikely to pay higher ticket prices.

- Stewart Lee, Observer, 5 August 2012.

See also: Stewart Lee on emigrants - 'Is there any cultural stimulation - any kind of good documentaries or theatre or anything like that?'  Emigrant: "No, there's nothing like that here, Stew. It's like having your brain cut out and having it flung into a swamp"

14 August 2012

Film Festival 2012 roundup

The Film Festival is always the highlight of the winter, and this year was no exception. It's been a modest year for me - ten films in total, but there's a few additional titles I missed that will hopefully return to general release. It kicked off with Wes Anderson's new outing, took in a clutch of vintage classics, a traditional French farce, a couple of documentaries and a good old-fashioned costume drama.

Moonrise Kingdom (US, 2012, dir. Wes Anderson, trailer)

Seasoned with just the right levels of quirk, Wes Anderson's new film is finally broadening his appeal beyond his devoted band of adherents, having taken $42m at the US box-office to date. Perhaps it's the likeable young lead actors - ultimate scout Sam and the scowling, bookish Suzy - or the array of sight gags and hard-bitten lines delivered by the children a la Rian Johnson's Brick. All the Anderson traits are still evident - a cast of actorly pals (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), brilliantly composed shots, oodles of tracking, judicious use of slow-mo, hand-written correspondence, and a pronounced fondness for binoculars and record players. Cynics will say Moonrise Kingdom is another example of a film designed solely for hipsters and film society tragics. They'll be missing out on a solid and enjoyable film that builds on an already impressive body of work. And can I just say: isn't American Empirical simply the best name for a film production company?

Mantrap (US, 1926, dir. Victor Fleming, complete film)

Charming and silly, this knockabout silent comedy sports the dynamic and effervescent Clara Bow, who would soon be known as the first 'It Girl' after her 1927 film smash It. Basically an excuse for Bow to pull out all the stops and deliver some world-class onscreen flirting, Mantrap features a devoted backwoods hubbie (Ernest Torrence, stepping outside his usual villainous roles), an honourable but soon infatuated big-city lawyer, and plenty of Bow hair primping, neckline adjusting and she-means-business skirt-straightening. (Much of which was echoed by Berenice Bejo in last year's smash, The Artist). The beauty of Mantrap - it's the name of the town, silly,  naturally it's nothing to do with Bow - to modern viewers is that Bow's character isn't the villain of the piece, she's the original manic pixie dream girl - the audience wants her to get away with her outrageous minx routine.

Le Prénom / What's In A Name (France, 2012, dirs. Alexandre de La Patellière & Matthieu Delaporte, French trailer)

This deftly-handled film version of a hugely successful French stage play zips along with an assured cast boasting chemistry and timing. In the course of an evening dinner party old friends find out more than they expected about each other when they start an wide-ranging argument about one of their number's choice for their imminent baby's name. More and more emotional baggage emerges and it all gets built into a colossal barney. This is no Secrets & Lies though - it's all strictly played for wry laughs, and there are many, along with a few surprises. Try not to read too much about it, because some reviewers will be bound to give away the best bits!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (US, 1953, dir. Howard Hawks, trailer)

Dorothy (Jane Russell) to Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe): 'You know I think you're the only girl in the world who can stand on a stage with a spotlight in her eye and still see a diamond inside a man's pocket'. 

The legendary Russell and Monroe hit vamp overdrive in the scene-stealing stakes in this classic from 1953, which features the iconic imagery of the opening Two Little Girls From Little Rock and the show-stopping Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. Monroe is effortlessly comedic in her gold-digger role, but for sheer ridiculous camp spectacle Jane Russell's lesser-known solo number Anyone Here For Love, with Dorothy demanding amour from the entire US men's Olympic team, can't be beat for its over-the-top vim and sass. And the fact that the film is based on a 1920s stage comedy kind of makes sense when you think of it; consider Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a spiritual cousin of a Wodehouse farce.

Les Adieux à la Reine / Farewell, My Queen (France, 2012, dir. Benoît Jacquot, English subtitled trailer)

Farewell My Queen's glimpses into the final days of court life at Versailles in 1789 are expertly rendered, capturing a highly believable atmosphere of faded decadence, imperial hauteur and an increasingly desperate sense of rising panic as the regime totters towards oblivion and the new bloodthirsty Republic. Servant Sidonie (Lea Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds, Mysteries of Lisbon and Midnight in Paris) is Marie Antoinette's devoted reader, who finds the entire world of Versailles crumbling around her. Diane Kruger fills the role of the capricious, obsessive Queen with aplomb, and Virginie Ledoyen is her favourite de Polignac, loathed by the masses and loved by the Queen with an equal fervour. Filmed on location in Versailles itself, this is a well-crafted glimpse into what life might have been like - fleas, rats and all - in the dying days of the French monarchy.

Side By Side (US, 2012, dir. Christopher Kenneally, trailer)

This interesting doco about the aesthetic and technical considerations of the shift from film to digital movie-making involves Keanu Reeves (yes, really) talking to a who's who of Hollywood names. Reeves does a surprisingly good job of asking pertinent questions and trying to get closer to why shooting on film has such strong devotees, even as digital film-making grows ever larger. A niche topic, certainly, but for those interested in the history and the future of cinema, this is quality stuff. Particularly the bit where a director says the advent of immediate digital playback on-set revealed that most actors were less interested in their performances and more concerned about how their hair looked.

Luftskibet 'Norge's flugt over polhavet / The Flight of the Airship 'Norge' over the North Pole (Norway, 1926)

It was a treat to see The Flight of the Airship Norge over the Arctic Ocean, the 1926 silent documentary of Roald Amundsen's daring expedition here at the New Zealand film festival. Not only because it was accompanied by an entertaining score played by a talented pianist, or because a local Norwegian-speaker kindly interpreted the intertitles. And not just because it's an important historical record of a now little-known adventure and a glimpse into the far Arctic and a time in which the airship seemed destined for great things. Mainly it's because this fascinating piece of history is literally the only print of this film in existence. Naturally, there must be digital copies, but I love the idea that through painstaking work Norwegian film archivists have pieced together this previously lost work, and now they're good enough to lend the national treasure out to film festivals on the far side of the world. As a documentary it lacks a certain punch, because the journey over the pole takes up comparatively little of the running time - mainly it consists of shots of the preparations and the celebrations afterwards. But in those moments when the dirigible silently wafts in to land like an untethered cloud, to the tune of tinkling piano keys, it certainly is a special experience.  (For more details and clips, see my longer post here).

The Angels' Share (UK, 2012, dir. Ken Loach, trailer)

Ken Loach's The Angels' Share is an engaging tale of Glaswegian no-hopers who delve into the rarified world of fine whisky when they discover a lucrative auction is about to take place in a highland distillery. The urban updating of the classic Whisky Galore is notable for the natural rapport of its raffish cast - whose Glaswegian accents are mostly but not always comprehensible to foreign ears - and the rough charms of its ready wit. Young Paul Brannigan is particularly good as the gang's leader, Robbie - it was his first acting role but he delivers a highly professional performance. The Observer's Philip French described this as one of Loach's sprightliest films, and while it's hardly ground-breaking material, the warmth certainly shows onscreen.

Bert Stern: Original Madman (US, 2011, dir. Shannah Laumeister, trailer)

Photographer Bert Stern took some of the most iconic photo portraits of the 20th century, including Marilyn Monroe's famous 'last sitting', and this is his story. The fact that it's told by his four-decades-younger muse and partner Shannah Laumeister means that it's told without much overt criticism, which is fine when you consider how superb his work was at his creative peak. But while his fascination with beautiful women made him a famous photographer, it also reveals that perhaps he wasn't (isn't?) a very nice person. The direction is too starry-eyed to delve much into his very real flaws though, and too much time is spent reflecting on his present-day octogenarian condition or some frankly creepy glamour shots of the director, when all the audience wants is to see more of those glorious images from his heyday.

Existence (NZ, 2012, dir. Juliet Bergh)

It's hard making a next-to-no-budget indie film, and particularly so in New Zealand. So it's important to celebrate the positives that emerge from the Wellington sci-fi drama Existence. The film is professionally produced and shot, the idea of shooting in the wild western hilltops amidst the wind turbines was a good one, and local star Lauren Horsley (Eagle vs Shark) is a drawcard for New Zealand film fans. But despite the hard effort put into it (the crew spoke at the premier of two years' work) Existence is not a particularly successful production. The dystopian premise is initially appealing but isn't fleshed out, certain key actions taken by Horsley's character Freya occur for seemingly no reason, and the invented pidgin language that the film's adversaries speak is only interesting for a few minutes, but after that it becomes a nuisance. While I understand that budgetary constraints must have dictated what could be achieved visually, but I also found the conclusion of the film frustratingly limited. Don't get me wrong - this film isn't a stinker, and it will be valuable experience for those involved, but it does comes up short in a several important areas.     

See also:

10 August 2012

Pontius Pilate's Bodyguard

Formed by Charles I [in 1633] to fight for France in the Thirty Years' War, the Royal Scots are the oldest regiment in the Regular Army. During a good-natured argument over seniority with the French Picardie regiment in the seventeenth century, the Scots claimed to be descended from the Roman unit that guarded Jesus' tomb. Not to be bettered, the French replied that had they been on guard duty instead, Jesus' body would not have gone missing. Thus [the Scots] gained the nickname 'Pontius Pilate's Bodyguard'.

- Nicholas Hobbes, Essential Militaria, London, 2003, p.146.

[Note that since this text was published the Royal Scots have been merged into the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which occurred in 2006 on the 373rd anniversary of its formation. The oldest regiment in continuous service in the Regular Army is now the Coldstream Guards, which was formed as George Monck's Regiment in 1650]

09 August 2012

Tina Fey on Photoshop

One day, there it is! Right between Jessica Simpson and those people from The Bachelor who murdered each other—it’s your face! It is your face, right? You can barely recognize yourself with the amount of digital correction. They’ve taken out your knuckles and given you baby hands. The muscular calves that you’re generally very proud of are slimmed to the bone. And what’s with the eyes? They always get it wrong under the eyes. In an effort to remove dark circles they take out any depth, and your face looks like it was drawn on a paper plate. You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pox scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?

We have now entered the debate over America’s most serious and pressing issue: Photoshop.

A lot of women are outraged by the use of Photoshop in magazine photos. I say a lot of women because I have yet to meet one man who could give a fat turd about the topic. Not even a gay man.

I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society… unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.

Do I think Photoshop is being used excessively? Yes. I saw Madonna’s Louis Vuitton ad and honestly, at first glance, I thought it was Gwen Stefani’s baby.

Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do. I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop. Only your great-aunt forwards you an image of Sarah Palin holding a rifle and wearing an American-flag bikini and thinks it’s real. Only your uncle Vic sends a photo of Barack Obama wearing a hammer and sickle T-shirt and has to have it explained to him that somebody faked that with the computer.

People have learned how to spot it. Just like how everyone learned to spot fake boobs—look for the upper-arm meat. If there’s no upper-arm meat, the breasts are fake. Unlike breast implants, which can mess up your health, digital retouching is relatively harmless. As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy asshole. Unfortunately, most people don’t do it well. I find, the fancier the fashion magazine is, the worse the Photoshop. It’s as if they are already so disgusted that a human has to be in the clothes, they can’t stop erasing human features.

“Why can’t we accept the human form as it is?” screams no one. I don’t know why, but we never have. That’s why people wore corsets and neck stretchers and powdered wigs.

If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings. No one’s ears are that sparkly! They shouldn’t have to be! You’ll have to get mad about oil paintings—those people didn’t really look like that! I for one am furious that people are allowed to turn sideways in photographs! Why can’t we accept a woman’s full width?! I won’t rest until people are only allowed to be photographed facing front under a fluorescent light.

It should absolutely be mandatory for magazines to credit the person who performed the Photoshop work, just like they do the makeup artist and the stylist… in very tiny white print on white paper.

Some people say it’s a feminist issue. I agree, because the best Photoshop job I ever got was for a feminist magazine called Bust in 2004.

It was a low-budget shoot in the back of their downtown office. There was no free coffee bar or wind machine, just a bunch of intelligent women with a sense of humor.

I looked at the two paltry lights they had set up and turned to the editors. “We’re all feminists here, but you’re gonna use Photoshop, right?” “Oh, yeah,” they replied instantly. Feminists do the best Photoshop because they leave the meat on your bones. They don’t change your size or your skin color.

They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.

Photoshop itself is not evil. Just like Italian salad dressing is not inherently evil, until you rub it all over a desperate young actress and stick her on the cover of Maxim, pretending to pull her panties down. (That “thumbs in the panties” move is the worst. Really? It’s not enough that they got greased up and in their panties for you, Maxim?)

Give it up. Retouching is here to stay. Technology doesn’t move backward. No society has ever de-industrialized. Which is why we’ll never turn back from Photoshop—and why the economic collapse of China is going to be the death of us all. Never mind that. Let’s keep being up in arms about this Photoshop business!

I don’t see a future in which we’re all anorexic and suicidal. I do see a future in which we all retouch the bejeezus out of our own pictures at home. Family Christmas cards will just be eyes and nostrils in a snowman border.

At least with Photoshop you don’t really have to alter your body. It’s better than all these disgusting injectibles and implants. Isn’t it better to have a computer do it to your picture than to have a doctor do it to your face?

I have thus far refused to get any Botox or plastic surgery. (Although I do wear a clear elastic chin strap that I hook around my ears and pin under my day wig.) I can’t be expected to lead the charge on everything. Let me have my Photoshop.

For today is about dreams!

- Tina Fey, Bossypants, New York, 2011

08 August 2012

"You've written a disgusting script, you should be proud of that"

Re-imagining Robert Zemeckis's studio pitch session for Back to the Future, Above Average Productions mines all your worst suspicions about the studio process for comedic effect. Clearly this misguided and morally questionable film could have been way better if they dropped the silly time travel gimmick and just focused on Marty and Jennifer's camping trip.   

04 August 2012


Everywhere it was the same undifferentiated images, without margins or titles, without explanation, raw, incomprehensible, noisy and bright, ugly, sad, aggressive and jovial, syncopated, all equivalent, it was stereotypical American series, it was music videos, it was songs in English, it was game shows, it was documentaries, it was film scenes removed from their context, excerpted, it was excerpts, it was a snatch of song, it was lively, the audience clapping along in time, it was politicians sitting around a table, it was a roundtable, it was the circus, it was acrobatics, it was a game show, it was joy, unbelieving stunned laughter, hugs and tears, it was a new car being won live and in colour, lips trembling with emotion, it was documentaries, it was World War II, it was a funeral march, it was columns of German prisoners trudging along a roadside, it was the liberation of the death camps, it was piles of bones on the ground, it was in all languages and on more than thirty-two channels, it was in German, it was mostly in German, everywhere it was violence and gunshots, it was bodies lying in the street, it was news, it was floods, it was football, it was game shows, it was a host with his papers before him, it was a spinning wheel that everyone in the studio was watching with heads raised, nine, it was nine, it was applause, it was commercials, it was variety shows, it was debates, it was animals, it was a man rowing in the studio, an athlete rowing and the hosts looking on with anxious expressions, sitting at a round table, a chronometer superimposed over the picture, it was images of war, the sound and framing oddly uneven, as if filmed on the fly, the picture shaking, the cameraman must have been running too, it was people running down a street and someone shooting at them, it was a woman falling, it was a woman who had been hit, a woman of about fifty lying on the sidewalk, her slightly shabby grey coat gaping half open, her stocking torn, she'd been wounded in the thigh and she was crying out, simply crying out, screaming simple cries of horror because her thigh had been ripped open, it was the cries of that woman in pain, she was calling for help, it wasn't fiction, two or three men came back and lifted her onto the curb, the shots were still coming, it was archival footage, it was news, it was commercials, it was new cars gently snaking along idyllic roads in the light of the setting sun, it was a rock concert, it was series, it was classical music, it was a special news bulletin, it was ski-jumping, the crouching skier pushing off down the ramp, serenely letting himself glide onto the jump and leaving the world behind, motionless in midair, he was flying, he was flying, it was magnificent, that frozen body bending forward, motionless and immutable in midair. It was over. It was over: I turned off the television and lay still on the couch.

- Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Television, Paris, 1997 (English trans. 2004)  

02 August 2012

Baron Cattington of Kelburn

'So are you going to pat me or not?' (Kelburn, 29 July 2012)

This sardonic-looking fellow is something of a local identity in Kelburn, who can regularly be found presiding in the sunniest spot at the junction of two concrete steps in a wide, sweeping bend in Plunket Street. The road curves from the slightly genteel shops in Kelburn to the head of the long, tortuous road from Aro Valley, and overlooks the dank, moist cranny that is the sunless twilight realm of Norway Street.

The Baron - I'm not sure of his human name - is usually out at all hours watching the world pass by, and is a keen recipient of the attention of his loyal subjects. It's not uncommon to see him in his spot atop the stairs at dawn to catch the stream of potential patters heading to town or the university, and then to see him in the same location later that evening, or perhaps perched atop the long wooden railing beside the footpath, which is an even better location for maximum patting potential because it's conveniently located at arm height for passers-by.

I don't know which local human household he deigns to frequent, but I think he lives on the more salubrious northern side, which is elevated and therefore warmer, rather than the lower, southern side of the street, which slopes sharply down into the bleak, Stygian cleft of student jumpers that never completely dry and recycling bins brim-full of cut-price and unwashed beer bottles.

01 August 2012

To the North Pole by zeppelin

At the weekend I saw a rare silent film in the New Zealand Film Festival, Luftskibit Norge’s flugt over Polhavet (The Flight of the Airship 'Norge' over the North Pole), which depicts the pioneering May 1926 aerial expedition of the famous Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, over the North Pole icecap and south to Alaska. The expedition is expertly and artfully depicted by the documentary film crews that accompanied it, and the footage of the Italian airship that was purchased and renamed for Norway is often hauntingly beautiful. 

The film is particularly special because the 35mm print screening in the film festival is the only one in existence. The film was lost for many years and only recently reconstructed, and while there will no doubt now be multiple electronic copies for posterity, there is actually only one film version, and Norway has kindly lent it to New Zealand for these special screenings. Because it's a silent film with Norwegian captions, the screening was augmented with piano accompaniment and a local Norwegian-speaker translated the intertitles for the audience.

This clip illustrates some of the documentary's content, although it should be pointed out that the print we saw in Wellington was fully restored and therefore of a much higher standard than these grainy images. There was also rather less Pink Floyd involved.

The expedition departed from the icy and remote isle of Svalbard (also known as Spitsbergen) in the Arctic Circle. The tiny Ny-Alesund station housed the crews and was the home for an enormous airship hangar constructed from scratch, with all the required material shipped in. In the film the hangar is a mammoth edifice reminiscent of the Jawas' desert-crawling behemoths from Star Wars, surrounded by snow and requiring dozens of rope-tugging navvies to push and pull the Norge in and out. Unfortunately following a search on Google Earth and Google Maps there seems to be no trace of that structure now, but one smaller piece of the expedition does remain - the airship docking tower near the bay:

Airship tower, Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, 2005 (via WikiCommons)

The Norge's trip over the pole itself occupies relatively little of the film's running length, and the jaunty atmosphere depicted in the airship gondola disguises the fact that the expedition was hugely dangerous. If the airship's engines or gas envelope had failed en route then all the men aboard would likely have perished. As it happens, following the brief ceremony in which the airship dropped the flags of Norway, Italy and the United States (in that order) onto the featureless ice of the North Pole, the riskiest part of the journey was the long slog to the north coast of Alaska over 2000km away. The Norge was meant to touch down in Point Barrow, Alaska, on the north coast, but a rising storm pushed the airship far off course. It was finally able to reach the tiny Bering Strait settlement of Teller, Alaska, some 750km further southwest. There the crew were able to radio for assistance and disassemble the Norge for shipping back to Europe.

The Norge may have got a little lost en route, but it also became the first aircraft to fly over the Pole from Europe to the Americas.

See also:
Nanook of the North (1922 documentary)
Airship R101 (1929-30)