22 December 2015

Neutral monsters of the third class, neither benign or malignant

Patrick O'Brian imagines a conversation between an elderly Chinese sage and his six-year-old grandson (described with typical flair as 'a child destined, it may be added, for a public death by boiling just forty years on'), as they behold the European crew of the Royal Navy's far-wandering ship HMS Centurion, travelling with palanquins along the banks of the Pearl River in Canton in 1742:


'There is a foreign devil marching by the nearest palanquin, grandpapa'

'A barbarian, my child. The educated man does not say "foreign devil"'

'A barbarian, grandpapa. Pray, grandpapa, tell me about the barbarians?'

'They are engendered by the apes of the farther western deserted regions, and by certain unclean spirits of those parts, my child : they are covered with hair, but they are capable of a rude speech for their simple communications among themselves : and they have, from the very supernatural side of their ancestry, a curious ability to travel in very large sea-going machines, which waft them up and down. They first had the happiness of finding the Celestial Empire in the reign of Sun Chi, when it was reported that they were capable of domestication and responsive to kindness ; and it was ordered that they should be regarded as neutral monsters of the third class, neither benign or malignant, to be officially preserved as curiosities and allowed suitable nourishment, but to be shunned by unauthorised persons'.

'What is suitable nourishment for a monster of the third class, if you please, grandpapa?'

'A small brick of a very hard farinaceous substance will sustain one for a week,' replied the sage. 'They are not costly to maintain : but neither are they pleasant, having the hairiness of the one parent joined to the intractability of the other, together with the unbelievable lack of polish of both, doubled'.

- Patrick O'Brian, The Golden Ocean, London, 1956, p.228.

See also:
Books: The thing about Patrick O'Brian, 8 October 2015
Books: A little light blasphemy, 18 October 2014
Books: Crafted with all the skill of the shipwright's art, 21 January 2013

20 December 2015

The Force is strong with this one

JJ Abrams' first installment of the next Star Wars trilogy is hugely, deeply derivative. It intentionally mimics the original film to such an extent that scenes can often prove quite predictable to seasoned Star Wars fans. It's as if an identikit portrait of a successful Star Wars sequel was stitched together out of the components most actuarily likely to result in a blockbuster.

And thank goodness for that, because The Force Awakens is every bit as exciting and engrossing as its greatest fans had hoped. In it, Abrams has managed to pull off a truly impressive feat - satisfying old and new devotees, producing a story that is instantly recognisable as a carbon(ite) copy of the original trilogy, but one that is simply so much fun to watch that all concerns of repetition are banished. In lesser hands this could have been tedious, but Abrams knows the right elements and how to arrange them expertly.

Key to reinvigorating the franchise (ugh) is the casting. The new, young castmembers are uniformly excellent and potential major stars in the waiting, with Daisy Ridley in particular standing out for her steely determination and old-fashioned pluck as the scavenger Rey from the quite-like-Tatooine-actually desert world of Jakku. With the stars of the original trilogy aging gracefully, it was definitely time to both give them their moment in the spotlight and then move on to the boisterous energy of new-found heroes like Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver.

The remarkable skill of the filmmaker shows in the sense of momentum onscreen, which never flags despite a 135-minute running time. There's so much plot that it feels as if two whole films have elapsed by the time you reach the end, but it never commits the ultimate sin of being boring at any point. And it's such a relief to see a major sci-fi epic that understands the importance of providing strong female lead roles and a truly multicultural cast.

Half a star knocked off for the familiar storyline and for the unforgivably naff villain name ('Supreme Leader Snoke'?!) but realistically no-one should quibble with entertainment this powerful. See it in the best cinema you can, and then see it again, because you'll definitely want to!

See also:
Movies: Love & Mercy, 21 July 2015
Movies: Oil City Confidential, 4 July 2015
Movies: The Ground We Won, 8 May 2015

15 December 2015

Elite Dangerous v1.5 ship size comparison

Youtube user Mat Recardo has updated his short video comparison of all the vessels in Elite Dangerous to include the new ships included in update 1.5, like the Asp Scout, the Keelback and the Imperial Cutter. An excellent way to get a perspective on the various ships, plus a spot of the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange for an added garnish.

13 December 2015


Last night at St Peter's hall in Paekakariki the Eastern European / gypsy-style orchestra The Balkanistas played up a storm for a loyal Kapiti crowd, treating the audience to a range of songs from the former Yugoslavia, Greek and Roma traditions. It was great, high-tempo party music; I particularly liked how even the ballads sneakily turned into roaring knees-ups. Will definitely be keeping an eye out for their gigs in future. The short video below is from mid-song, and clearly shows where the Ting Tings got their inspiration for Shut Up & Let Me Go

See also:
Music: Lawrence Arabia, 24 October 2015
Music: Dobbyn & Orpheus, 25 July 2015

07 December 2015

Benjamin Franklin's plans to colonise New Zealand

'On 13 July 1771 the Endeavour was back in England [from Cook's first expedition to New Zealand], and within six weeks a plan for planting a colony in New Zealand was hatched by American Benjamin Franklin and Scots-born Alexander Dalrymple. Franklin had been in England since 1764, returning 11 years later to the United States, where he helped draft the Declaration of Independence; Dalrymple was a hydrographer who had been passed over in favour of Cook for command of the Endeavour. No doubt thanks to information that came back with that expedition, these aspiring colonisers could advise that New Zealand was inhabited by 'a brave and generous race', but one that was without corn, fowls and 'all quadrupeds, except dogs'. As outlined in their 'Plan for Benefiting Distant Unprovided Countries', Franklin and Dalrymple proposed to take such benefits of modern civilisation to those remote regions, and bring back plants that might be usefully cultivated at home.

Perhaps to compensate for his earlier disappointment, Dalrymple intended to command the three-year expedition, which would involve 60 men and require an outlay of some £15,000 to be raised by subscription. Out of duty to share Britain's bounty, the plan suggested that 'Providence ... seem[ed] to call on us to do something ourselves for the common interest of humanity'. But funds were not forthcoming, so the scheme did not go ahead'.

- Richard Wolfe, A Society of Gentlemen: the Untold Story of the First New Zealand Company, Auckland, 2007, p.14-5.

See also:
History: Wellington anniversary day 1850, 22 January 2015
HistoryA cure for scurvy, 16 June 2013
HistoryShipping in Wellington 1850-70, 12 June 2009

06 December 2015

Thorndon Fair 2015

Today's annual Thorndon Fair wasn't favoured with bright sunshine, but the rain stayed away and permitted an impressive crowd of visitors to throng along Tinakori Rd and Hill St, sifting amongst the traders' wares and and sampling the food stalls on the bridge. It's hard not to run into at least one fellow Wellingtonian when wandering through, and I was no exception. I didn't expect to spend much, but came away with more than usual - a booklet from the Thorndon Historical Society, some lime-infused olive oil and a tasty souvlaki for lunch.  

02 December 2015

Rush hour - Port of Wellington

Interislander ferry Kaitaki returns to its Port Nicholson berth, in between day-visitor cruise liners Golden Princess (left) and P&O's Pacific Pearl (right). 

28 November 2015

Writing to the New Plymouth colony

From a biography of early Taranaki settler Tom King, a discussion of the challenges and delays involved in communicating with the far-flung outpost in the 1840s:

'Maintaining connections across such distances was never easy, but New Plymouth was a particularly problematic destination. Financial difficulties forced the Plymouth Company to merge with the New Zealand Company, with practical implications. Few ships sailed directly to the new settlement (letters and goods were sent via Auckland or Wellington), and there were long gaps between sailings. Scanning the lists for a ship bound for the colony became a family pastime. Friends and family would alert Susannah [King, Tom's mother, in London] that a ship was at last heading south; a final letter would be hastily penned; and the bundle containing all the letters written in the interim would be speedily dispatched. But ships could take up to six months to reach the colony, so the treasured and eagerly read news was always old. The potato crop that Susannah hoped and prayed had been successful had long been eaten either by insects or the settlers by the time Tom read her words. And even when the ship arrived safely at Auckland or Wellington, delivery was by no means assured. Commenting on the 600 unclaimed letters reputedly stuck in Auckland, Susannah wrote 'it seems strange they cannot be conveyed to you'. For someone living in 19th century London, with its well-developed infrastructure and mail service, the situation in New Zealand was indeed difficult to comprehend. Susannah found it particularly frustrating. Having heard nothing from her son, she wrote:

'I hope you got all my letters / the first I know you did / the next I sent in Septr / 41 the next Sir Henry sent the middle of Novr I put a note in it / the next Mr Truby sent 26th March / we shall be so happy to hear from you / we have sent three Oxford newspapers'.

Susannah's words indicate the networks that operated even in the sending of a letter. She could either send a letter on her own account, or send one via Sir Henry, who undoubtedly paid the bill. Friends, even acquaintances, were pulled into service, not just in paying for the letter, but in the actual conveyance of the document. When one of her lodgers told Susannah of an acquaintance who was about to emigrate, she quickly gave the young man 'whose father is a Cheese Monger near the Bricklayers' Arms' a letter to deliver to Tom. Was the young man as quick to deliver as he was to accept?'

- Margot Fry, Tom's Letters. The Private World of Tom King, Victorian Gentleman, Wellington, 2001, p.26-7. 

Tom King came to Taranaki on the settler ship William Bryan, the first settler ship to arrive in New Plymouth. It also carried both my sets of ancestors: on my mother's side, Edward Tucker and family, and on my father's side, Richard Chilman. King was a good friend of Richard Chilman, and later married his sister Mary Chilman. King was also a member of the first New Zealand Parliament held in Auckland in 1853, and much of the book is devoted to his correspondence from that session to Mary back in New Plymouth. One of Tom and Mary's children was Frederic Truby King (1858-1938), who later attained considerable fame for his pioneering work in health reform and for founding the Plunket Society.

See also:
History: The Tuckers of Clive, 19 October 2015
HistoryThe arrival of an English mail, 26 January 2015
History: Old New Plymouth, 9 February 2014

22 November 2015

21 November 2015

"I'll make love to you in my minivan"

From the Late Late Show, here's Bryan Cranston with regulars James Corden & Reggie Watts singing about what happens when a boyband still wants to make sweet lurve to you, but also has a mortgage and a retirement plan to worry about.

15 November 2015

The world has become terrified of silence

It made me think about how often I’m made to listen to the music choices of other people: on public transport, in restaurants and lifts, in shops, when I’m on hold, even when giving birth. It’s as if the world has become terrified of silence.

I was in a Little Chef once, on the A40, with my family. We all felt relaxed and happy and calm but couldn’t figure out why. Then the penny dropped: there was no music playing and the lights were dimmed. We congratulated the staff on their “classy joint”; they looked confused, and apologised for the power cut.

Music is used to manipulate us, all the time. It’s used by youths, on buses, who make us listen to their tunes to prove they have higher status; it’s used by supermarket chains and department stores to accompany their ludicrously absurd and exploitative Christmas advertising campaigns; it’s used by the X Factor, who exaggerate contestants’ backstories to influence public votes; it’s used by men from the past, who think a bit of Chris de Burgh will “get us in the mood”.

Where will this abuse of music to control our emotional responses end? Perhaps the emergency services should have musical accompaniments instead of their high-pitched, ear-busting sirens? Maybe politicians, when they are interviewed, should be accompanied by a backing track, to help us decide who to trust?

- Bridget Christie, Guardian, 14 November 2015

14 November 2015

Towering Inferno

'Did you know that co-stars Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were so concerned that neither should have top billing over the other that they got their agents to count the exact number of lines attributed to the fire chief and architect respectively and then got the writers to juggle the script until the amount of dialogue was perfectly balanced? After which, they got the promotions people to agree to a credit system whereby one star's name would appear left but lower, the other right but higher, on both the movie titles and poster ads, thereby preventing the possibility that either actor could be seen as 'second billed''.

- Mark Kermode, It's Only a Movie, London, 2010, p.104-5.

13 November 2015

Les cheveux dans le vent!

Friday night music - Brigitte Bardot's ode to Harley Davidsons, from 1967: "I'm going more than 100 and I feel fire and blood - what do I care for dying, the hair in the wind!"

29 October 2015

Patton Oswalt: Republican candidates as D&D characters

This is possibly the most niche blog post ever, but for people who are interested in the Republican party presidential nomination race AND who are Dungeons & Dragons fans, here's comedian and actor Patton Oswalt's Twitter summary of the 10 candidates as D&D characters, from tonight's GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado:

Donald Trump = level 21 demi-lich, Lamarkin's Rod of Disease, Cloak of Revulsion

Mike Huckabee = gelatinous cube

Marco Rubio = paladin, 18 charisma, all other stats 9, cursed broadsword

Ben Carson = necromancer, 19 intelligence, 4 wisdom

Jeb Bush = NPC with 8s in all attributes and leather armor

Rand Paul = halfling thief

Carly Fiorina = level 5 Drow elf with a + 1 Ring of Vampiric regeneration

Chris Christie = shambling mound

John Kasich = level 4 fighter with standard plate armor and a standard long sword, 10 strength

Ted Cruz = dwarf cleric with 3 Charisma

24 October 2015

Lawrence Arabia

Lawrence Arabia (singer-songwriter James Milne) performing last night at St Peter's Village Hall, Paekakariki, on his solo tour.

19 October 2015

The Tuckers of Clive

'Edward Tucker brought his family to Clive around 1856 and opened a fellmongery business. Their son, Richard, b.1854 married Maria (nee Harris) and they settled in a street that later would be called Tucker Lane. In 1894 Richard established a small scouring works on eight acres of land on St George's Rd, Havelock North and in 1903 with his brother, Frederick, purchased Sydney King's scouring plant at Whakatu. In 1910 the family moved to a 10-room house in Whakatu. In 1913 the nearby meat works purchased the land around the Tucker scouring works to use as a cook-house so the Tuckers moved the entire scouring plant three-quarters of a mile downstream to the main road between Napier and Hastings, used a traction engine to haul the heavy equipment. The business became the largest scouring plant in Hawke's Bay.

Richard Tucker died in 1922 aged 67 and eventually the business passed to his son William, and grandsons, Bill, Jack and Lindsay. There was no further expansion when they sold to Elders IXL Ltd in the late 1980s. Family ownership followed again with cousins Neil and Stewart Tucker's involvement, then Godfrey Hirst Ltd became owners and today it is Hawke's Bay Woolscourers, part of Cavalier corporation'.

- Gary Baines, Clive, Clive Charitable Historic Trust, 2013, p.66.

Edward Tucker was the eldest child of Edward and Jane Tucker, who emigrated from Devon to New Plymouth on the William Bryan, arriving in 1841. At some point the Tuckers, all or in part, moved from New Plymouth to Auckland, because Edward Tucker Sr.'s death is recorded there in 1855, aged 65. The following year or thereabouts, if the account above is accurate, Edward and Jane's eldest moved with his family to Clive in Hawke's Bay, to commence his fellmongery business that would later become a substantial feature of the regional economy.

See also:
History: Eric Claude Tucker 1890-1917, 23 March 2009
History: The last sight of old Plymouth, 6 April 2009
History: The Tuckers of Calstock, 31 August 2010

13 October 2015

A load of meaningless drivel

From Yes, Minister series 2 episode 7 ('A Question of Loyalty') in 1981, civil service mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby appears before a select committee and explores the carefully nuanced distinction between the administrative policy and policy administration.

08 October 2015

The thing about Patrick O'Brian

The thing about English novelist Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000), author of the awe-inspiring 20-novel series Aubrey-Maturin novels of the Napoleonic Wars, is that he has a remarkable way with a sentence. His command of commas is, without a doubt, peerless, and in spinning his early-19th-century naval stories with such erudition, wit and, it is undoubtedly fair to say, literary flair and verisimilitude, he deploys these commas and his many other gifts to spin an extended odyssey that is essential reading for those interested in the era.

It was a great treat to discover O'Brian's novels in the mid-1990s, and an even greater stroke of luck when I learned that they were actually two decades old and in the intervening years a mass of work of the highest quality had followed. Indeed, the only thing that stopped me from plowing straight through all 20 novels was the fear that I would never again be able to read them all for the first time. So at some point I desisted, at about the 12th or 13th title.

In the intervening years Peter Weir's Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany-starring Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) was issued, captured the O'Brian world admirably, and was nominated for 10 Oscars. (I really must re-watch it soon) And only recently I recommenced reading the series from the very beginning, with Master & Commander from 1969. Currently I'm speeding through the second book, Post Captain, and it's this, the first glimpse of England in the series, that allows O'Brian to prove he's more than just a supremely talented writer of naval militaria. Because unlike his hero Jack Aubrey, who is famously 'a lion at sea and an ass ashore', O'Brian is equally at ease in the withdrawing rooms and post-chaises of Austen's England as he is on a quarterdeck of a well-gunned Mediterranean naval brig. Here's a prime example, as he introduces a family that would come to dominate Aubrey's (married) life - the Williams ladies. Is there a finer end to a paragraph than that coolly fiscal conclusion to the penultimate paragraph? Anything so evocative of the age?


'Mapes Court was an entirely feminine household - not a man in it, apart from the butler and the groom. Mrs Williams was a woman, in the natural course of things; but she was a woman so emphatically, so totally a woman, that she was almost devoid of any private character. A vulgar woman, too, although her family, which was of some importance in the neighbourhood, had been settled there since Dutch William's time.

It was difficult to see any connection, any family likeness, between her and her daughters and her niece, who made up the rest of the family. Indeed, it was not much of a house for family likeness: the dim portraits might have been bought at various auctions, and although the three daughters had been brought up together, with the same people around them, in the same atmosphere of genteel money-worship, position-worship and suffused indignation - an indignation that did not require any object for its existence; a housemaid wearing silver buckles on a Sunday would bring on a full week's flow - they were as different in their minds as they were in their looks.

Sophia, the eldest, was a tall girl with wide-set grey eyes, a broad, smooth forehead, and a wonderful sweetness of expression - soft fair hair, inclining to gold : an exquisite skin. She was a reserved creature, living much in an inward dream whose nature she did not communicate to anyone. Perhaps it was her mother's unprincipled rectitude that had given her this early disgust for adult life; but whether or no, she seemed very young for her twenty-seven years. There was nothing in the least degree affected or kittenish about this : rather a kind of ethereal quality - the quality of a sacrificial object. Iphigeneia before the letter. Her looks were very much admired; she was always elegant, and when she was in looks she was quite lovely. She spoke little, in company or out, but she was capable of a sudden dart of sharpness, of a remark that showed much more intelligence and reflection than would have been expected from her rudimentary education and her quiet provincial life. These remarks had a much greater force, coming from an amiable, pliant, and as it were sleepy reserve, and before now they had startled men who did not know her well - men who had been prating away happily with the conscious superiority of their sex. They dimly grasped and underlying strength, and they connected it with her occasional expression of secret amusement, the relish of something that she did not choose to share.

Cecilia was more nearly her mother's daughter : a little goose with a round face and china-blue eyes, devoted to ornament and to crimping her yellow hair, shallow and foolish almost to simplicity, but happy, full of cheerful noise, and not yet at all ill-natured. She dearly loved the company of men, men of any size or shape. Her younger sister Frances did not : she was indifferent to their admiration - a long-legged nymph, still given to whistling and shying stones at the squirrels in the walnut-tree. Here was all the pitilessness of youth intact; and she was perfectly entrancing, as a spectacle. She had her cousin Diana's black hair and great dark blue misty pools of eyes, but she was as unlike her sisters as though they belonged to another sex. All they had in common was youthful grace and a good deal of gaiety, splendid health, and ten thousand pounds apiece.

With these attractions it was strange that none of them should have married, particularly as the marriage-bed was never far from Mrs Williams' mind. But the paucity of men, of eligible bachelors, in the neighbourhood, the disrupting effect of ten years of war, and Sophia's reluctance (she had had several offers) explained a great deal; the rest could be accounted for by Mrs Williams' avidity for a good marriage settlement, and by an unwillingness on the part of the local gentlemen to have her as a mother-in-law'.

- Patrick O'Brian, Post Captain, 1972 (1993 edn.), p.21-3.

07 October 2015

And after shipwreck driven upon this shore

A remnant of maritime trade, the laid-up fishing vessel Southern Prospector has been dormant and rusting at Glasgow Wharf in Wellington since 2010. In April 2011 it was struck by the Bluebridge ferry Santa Regina in an accident that was later the subject of a jury trial for the captain of the latter vessel, who was said to have sailed with passengers despite having received a 3.5m gash in his hull from the accident. (The captain disputed the severity of the damage and the judge acquitted him of the charges). Now the Southern Prospector sits dormant; an entry on this blog suggests she was originally launched in Imbari, Japan, in 1967, and named the Wakamiya Maru. Later that same year it was renamed the Harukaze Maru. Immediately before it became the Southern Prospector it was known as the Tensho Maru No.11. The company that owned the vessel appears to have been struck off the register of companies.

30 September 2015

The benefits of persistent librarianship

From inside the rear cover of a 1951 non-fiction book in the Wellington library collection, an old issue slip records the persistent efforts of the city librarian in September and October 1961 to recover the overdue book from someone's son, perhaps young Master Pascoe.  Weekly reminders climaxed in the dramatic 'Father took message', which seems to have done the trick. Thanks, 1961 Librarian - without you, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy this book 54 years later. And thanks too to the modern Wellington City Library, for not turfing out older (but still lovely) books like this one, in a climate where so many libraries are divesting themselves of wonderful older tomes.

28 September 2015

Great are the marvels of living photography

Following the Lumiere brothers' first public paid screenings of moving pictures in Paris in December 1895, on the other side of the world New Zealand newspapers were quickly alerted via wire services and began reporting on the new medium. But at first the nature of the projections was unclear, with no mention being made of the motion aspect. It would take a few months before the dramatic impact of moving pictures became obvious to readers on the far side of the world, but by April the secret of how the contrivance worked was being reported. By June 1896 the contents of film evenings were being reported in detail, which surely whetted the appetite for moving pictures in little New Zealand. Before the year was out, New Zealand witnessed its first film screening, on 13 October 1896 in Auckland, thereby commencing more than a century of film-going in the South Pacific. (All texts are obtained from Papers Past; links added).
The brothers Lumiere, of Paris, have invented an adaptation of Edison's kinetoscope that is likely to prove of great value. By it the images are projected on a screen, so as to be visible to a large number of spectators. The apparatus may be used for taking photographs and for printing transparencies from the negatives.
- Oamaru Mail, 6 January 1896

Colored Photographs From Nature. The possibility of photographing colors directly from nature seems to be at last proved. The theory of the process belong to M. Lipmann and its practical application to M. Louis Lumiere of Lyons. By means of his special preparations, the secret of which has not transpired, M. Lumiere is enabled after an exposure of about half an hour to obtain a faultless photographic reproduction of colors. Among the things thus chromatically photographed were boxes of matches, Japanese screens, stuffs, nosegays— nay, even landscapes from nature, looking for all the world like very clever studies in water colors, the dull gray of the houses, the brown of the soil, the various shades of green of the grass, fruit and foliage, the deep blue of the sky and the light, laughing blue that peeps surreptitiously through rifts in the fleecy clouds - all colors, hues and tints were there.
- Bay of Plenty Times, 13 January 1896

The kinematograph has been invented by M. Lumiere, of Paris, which is a great improvement on the kinteoscope. The principal feature is a mechanism by which the film is at rest during two thirds of the time of passage of each image; in the remaining third it is seized and carried forward to the next image by a set of teeth attached to a frame whose motion is governed by a cam worked by a revolving handle. There is also an arrangment [sic.] for projecting the image upon a screen so as to be visible to many persons at once. The same apparatus serves as a camera for taking the photographs and for printing transparencies from the negative film.
Daily Telegraph, 18 April 1896

Great are the marvels of photography. Not only can still life be reproduced, but action and movement. A remarkable exhibition in proof of this given in the Marlborough Hall, London, of the Polytechnic, recently, by M.M.A. and L. Lumiere. M. M. Lumiere are the inventors of a contrivance which they call the "Cinematographe," by which scenes of life and movement can be thrown life size upon a sheet in a darkened room in much the same way as at a magic lantern exhibition.  
How it is done is, of course, the secret of the inventors, concerning which nothing was vouchsafed to the visitors at the exhibition, beyond the fact that the photographs which gave the changing details of a scene are taken on a continuous band at the rate of 900 per minute. By means of the electric light they are thrown, in dimensions which are an actual reproduction of the scene itself, upon a large screen, and at exactly the same rate of movement as in the scene depicted. Thus, if in a street a man was walking at the rate of three miles an hour, and a horse was trotting at the rate of six, the picture on the scene would be a reproduction of both rates of progress, and the observer would see the horse overtaking the man and passing out of view before the latter had reached the centre of the canvas.  
The pictures shown were remarkable for their fidelity to life. The first, for example, showed a crowd of people rushing down a wide street— not a momentary and fixed impression of such a scene, for similar pictures are shown in almost every photographer's window— but an actual reproduction of continuous movement. Carriages, carts, and other vehicles go by with their wheels revolving. The horses trot, toss their heads, start at a cut from the whip; the people who rushed down the street each move their legs at different paces; the very bicycles jolt their riders over the uneven surface of the road. Every movement of a crowded street scene was depicted in the order and confusion of its occurrence, when and during the time in which the photograph had been taken. Another picture showed a great throng of men and women passing down the gangway of a steamer and making their way from a pier; another, the arrival of a train at a railway station - the people opening the doors as the train drew up, and leaping out on the platform with all the variety of movement and quickness of action that hourly pass unnoticed at every terminus. Another picture showed a blacksmith hammering away at a piece of iron on an anvil - not merely in an attitude of hammering, but raining blow upon blow and twisting the pliers which held the red-hot metal. Then there came the photograph of a card party; and though one could not see all the cards it was quite easy to follow part of the game if only from the changing expression on the faces of the players. Perhaps the most amusing picture was a reproduction of a domestic scene - father, mother, and infant child at breakfast. The father fed the child from a cup and spoon, while the mother poured out the coffee, cut the loaf, and now and again turned and talked to the child. The movements of each of the three, and particularly those of the child as he ate his pap, and showed his impatience in not being fed as fast as he thought he ought to be, naturally created much laughter. The most effective picture, perhaps, was a bathing scene - the waves rolling in in quick succession, and each breaking into surf and foam upon the sand. Over the wave was a long diving board, along which the divers ran, leaped into the water one by one, were washed in by the rollers, re-ascended the plank, and repeated the dive.  
Certainly M.M. Lumiere fully proved that it is now possible to reproduce scenes and events with perfect accuracy of detail, change, and movement. -Home paper.
- Mataura Ensign, 11 June 1896

24 September 2015

Mail coaches - London departure points

'The mail coaches in their early years departed from the General Post Office in Lombard Street every week-night between 8 and 8.20pm. It was a great sight; and even more spectacular after the new GPO was opened in 1829 in St Martin's le Grand.

During the day the vehicles were greased, cleaned, and polished in the coachyard at Millbank, Westminster. Then, about five o'clock, two horses drew them slowly along the cobbled streets to various inns near the GPO. The Swan with Two Necks, in Lad Lane, a thoroughfare near Gresham Street which, like the inn, has since disappeared, was one of the most important. From its yard departed the mail coaches for Exeter, Bath and Devonport; Salisbury and Exeter; Exeter, Devonport, and Falmouth; Nottingham and Halifax; Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Holyhead (for Ireland); Peterborough, Lincoln, and Hull; Lichfield, Warrington, and Liverpool; Ipswich and Norwich; Bristol and Pembroke; Manchester, Carlisle, and Port Patrick; Southhampton and Poole; Cirencester and Stroud; Cambridge, King's Lynn, and Wells-next-the-Sea; and Dover.

From the Golden Cross at the Charing Cross end of the Strand mail coaches left for Gloucester and Carmarthen; Dover; Nottingham and Halifax; Hastings; Cirencester and Stroud. From the Bell and Crown, Holborn, the coaches took on passengers for Salisbury and Exeter; Boston and Louth; Cambridge, King's Lynn, and Wells-next-the-Sea. At the Spread Eagle, Gracechurch Street, the routes covered were Exeter, Devonport, and Falmouth; and Peterborough, Lincoln, and Hull. At Blossom's Inn, Lawrence Lane, stood the Brighton coach. At the Bull and Mouth, St Martin's Lane, Wetherby, Carlisle, and Glasgow; Nottingham, Sheffield, and Leeds; Worcester and Ludlow; Exeter, Falmouth, and Penzance; Edinburgh and Thurso. From the Saracen's Head, Snow Hill, the coach for Boston and Louth. From the White Horse, Fetter Lane, Portsmouth; and Ipswich and Yarmouth. From the Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill, Newmarket and Norwich; and from the Bolt-in-Tun, Fleet Street, Portsmouth and Hastings.

In the yards of these inns the four horses to take the coach on its first stage were harnessed, while the luggage was stowed on board and passengers settled down for their long journey through the night. The scenes must have been as bustling and exciting as anything at a modern railway terminus, and the onlooker at the Swan with Two Necks must have marvelled at the fact that within this single yard travellers could step aboard a vehicle which would take them to the four corners of the country - to Ipswich or Falmouth, Holyhead or Leeds. Eight coaches all due to leave simultaneously to take up their position in a single file outside the GPO was a sight that Londoners loved to see, and was a matter of wide-eyed wonder to the rural traveller on his first visit to the Metropolis'.

- F. George Kay, Royal Mail. The Story of the Posts in England from the Time of Edward IVth to the Present Day, London, 1951, p51-2.

22 September 2015

David Bowie is...

I arrived fairly late at the revelation that David Bowie is amongst the most intriguing, captivating and inventive performing artists ever. The first glimpse of what would become an enduring fandom was the LP accompanying his performance in the Jim Henson fantasy film Labyrinth from 1986. The film still stands up as a prime example of intelligent and imaginative youthful fare, but it was the soundtrack that opened my ears to Bowie's voice and style. The five Bowie-penned songs on the Labyrinth soundtrack stand as some of the strongest work Bowie did in the 80s, ranging from the playful Magic Dance, the sweeping As The World Falls Down, and the rambunctious Underground.

From there it was a short step to the precious CD copy of 1971's Hunky Dory album owned by my school friend Tony, which invited me into a whole earlier Bowie incarnation I had been unaware of - the pre-popstar, hippie folky phase on the cusp of what would become Ziggymania, with Bowie enthralled by New York cutting edge music and art (Queen Bitch's Lou Reed-influenced observation, Andy Warhol as a whimsical tribute to the artist himself) and reaching out to those who would become his peers (Song For Bob Dylan). I'd defy anyone to listen to Side 1 of Hunky Dory and not become an instant Bowie fan: Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, Eight Line Poem, Life On Mars?, Kooks, Quicksand. It certainly worked for me.

Which is why it was exciting when the Victoria & Albert Museum staged a major exhibition called David Bowie Is to examine Bowie in the broader contexts of both the multiple artforms he excels in, and the context of being just generally fucking awe-inspiring; Pete Paphides notes that in the exhibition 'you just gawp at the sheer ferocity with which his talent burnt at its height'. And it was even more exciting when the exhibition roamed far from London to international venues, including finally to the Australian Centre for the Moving Imagine (ACMI) in Melbourne's Federation Square.

The exhibition succeeds because it's more than a simple chronology of the rise and zenith of stardom, mellowing out into a study of iconic status as the elder statesdame of art-rock. Because attempting to fathom Bowie and his motivations has always been a complicated task, what with all the left-field musical decisions, radical reinventions, schizophrenic stage personae modifications, not to mention the odd spot of heavy-duty substance abuse. (There's not many V&A exhibition that feature the artist's own oft-used 1970s cocaine spoon).

And Bowie isn't just a master of the musical scene - he's also a performance artist with major film roles on his CV (including but not limited to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, the aforementioned Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners, The Last Temptation of Christ, Basquiat, Zoolander, The Prestige...) He's a trained mime. He writes. He's fascinated by experimental fashion and was an early adopter of that new-fangled internet thing. The exhibition rightly focuses strongly on the music, but also gives a flavour of all these other aspects of Bowie's career. And it makes a startlingly accurate claim at the outset:

'His influence on contemporary culture is arguably greater than any other musician of his generation'

There are of course many audio and video gems from the back catalogue as you explore David Bowie Is, and a few proposed answers to the implicit question in the exhibition title:
  • David Bowie is... all around us
  • David Bowie is... a face in the crowd
  • David Bowie is... crossing the border
  • David Bowie is... floating in a most peculiar way
  • David Bowie is... never at a loss for words or poses
  • David Bowie is... quite aware of what he's going through  

Acknowledging the seismic cultural impact of that famous otherworldly appearance as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops singing the single Starman on 6 July 1972 ("If we can sparkle he may land tonight!"), the exhibition rightly places it at centre stage. So many musicians and performers have cited that one appearance as the spurs to their own careers! But there are also plenty of other treasures to discover, some of which can be tracked down on Youtube:

ACMI curator Emma McRae on the 1979 Saturday Night Live performance costume, with solo artist Klaus Nomi visible as the backing singer dressed in black.

'The Mask' mime, recorded in February 1969 when Bowie was 22.

The 1984 Julien Temple short film Jazzin' for Blue Jean, which includes some deft comic acting from Bowie that would later be put to good use in his cameo in Ricky Gervais' Extras sitcom.

Finally, it's also nice to note that the exhibition cites Bowie's November 1983 Western Springs concert on the Serious Moonlight tour with around 80,000 attendees as the largest gig in per capita terms - although I'd take that with a grain of salt because you can never believe a promoter!

David Bowie Is runs at ACMI in Melbourne until 1 November 2015.

See also:
Music: Cracked Actor, 5 March 2015
MusicXmas music for people who don't like Xmas music, 23 December 2014
MusicHow Bowie came up with Aladdin Sane, 5 January 2014
MusicInsanity laughs under pressure, 9 June 2013
Music: 'Never born, so I'll never get old', 8 January 2013
Music: Sukita / Bowie exhibition, 16 September 2012

20 September 2015

The last time Paul saw John

Paul McCartney, on the last times he saw John Lennon:

'Good question. When he went with May Pang. I saw him and May at their apartment, which was quite nice actually. He'd mellowed out quite a bit. He was being himself more. Then I saw him - among the last times - when he was out in LA doing Nilsson's album [Pussy Cats] and they were all crazy. I'd been sent by Yoko to be a go-between and to give John a message from her. Which was, "If you go back to New York and court her again, she might accept you." So he did that. Birth of Sean, I saw him. I think that's after Pussy Cats. I think the last time would have been in New York - because he didn't come out of New York - at his apartment, the Dakota. I always think of Rosemary's Baby. It was round about the time that we got the offer to appear on Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels came on television holding up a cheque for $2000, or something. He really had gone to the NBC people and said, "I want this group." They said, "You can pay them scale." I was in John's apartment'.

- Michael Bonner interviews Paul McCartney, Uncut, October 2015 edition, p.41  

[The cheque was actually for $3000 - with Michaels suggesting that the Beatles 'divide it up any way you want. If you want to give less to Ringo, that's up to you'.]

See also:
MusicA very Beatles Xmas, 18 December 2013
Music: Jarvis Cocker on the Beatles, 13 October 2012
Music: Nowhere Boy / Backbeat, 10 February 2010

10 September 2015

De Quincey's phobia of public conveyances

While I'm a firm believer in the benefits of a comprehensive public transport system, English essayist Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, took a rather different view:

In 1853 James Payn visited De Quincey at his home a few miles out of Edinburgh:

'As I took my leave, after a most enjoyable interview, to meet the coach, I asked him whether he ever came by it into Edinburgh.

'What!' he answered, in a tone of extreme surprise; 'by coach? Certainly not.'

I was not aware of his peculiarities; but the succession of commonplace people and their pointless observations were in fact intolerable to him. They did not bore him in the ordinary sense, but seemed, as it were, to outrage his mind. To me, whom the study of human nature in any form had become even then attractive, this was unintelligible, and I suppose I showed it in my face, for he proceeded to explain matters. 'Some years ago,' he said, 'I was standing on the pier at Tarbet, on Loch Lomond, waiting for the steamer. A stout old lady joined me; I felt that she would presently address me; and she did. Pointing to the smoke of the steamer, which was making itself seen above the next headland, "There she comes," she said; "La, sir! if you and I had seen that fifty years ago, how wonderful we should have thought it!" Now the same thing,' added my host, with a shiver, 'might happen to me any
day, and that is why I always avoid a public conveyance.'

John Gross (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, Oxford, 2012, p.100.

06 September 2015

What, no Two Lane Blacktop?

At a police breathalyser check in Silverstream last night I was pleased to see the rozzer in question threw a curveball into the usual 'State your name; state your address' spiel. Instead it was 'State your name; state your favourite film'. A great question for a film buff. But potentially a bit slow for the cars behind you:

'Well on some days it's David Mamet's sprightly screwball comedy State & Main, and on others it's the beautiful black and white artistry of Wim Wenders' German classic Wings of Desire / Der Himmel über Berlin, or maybe even the legendary Howard Hawks newspaper romantic satire His Girl Friday from 1940, featuring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as sparring ex-married journalists. But that's a lot of old films; what about Richard Linklater's awe-inspiring Boyhood from last year - a magnificent life-affirming achievement that took 12 years to make? Or seeing as this is a police-themed conversation, what about a spot of Hot Fuzz? Oh, there's 20 cars waiting? Sorry...'

04 September 2015

Donald Trump & the Hobgoblins of Consistency

Mr Trump is not in thrall to the hobgoblins of consistency. On abortion, he has said both “I’m very pro-choice” and “I’m pro-life”. On guns, he has said “Look, there’s nothing I like better than nobody has them” and “[I] fully support and back up the Second Amendment” (which guarantees the right to bear arms). He used to say he wanted a single-payer health service. Now he is much vaguer, promising only to replace Obamacare with “something terrific”. In 2000 he sought the presidential nomination of the Reform Party. A decade ago he said “I probably identify more as Democrat.” Now he is a Republican.

In an interview this week (see article) The Economist asked Mr Trump why Republican voters seem willing to give him a pass on so many issues they normally hold dear. He took this to be a question about religion, since he is not much of a churchgoer and struggles to cite a single verse from Scripture. “I’m strongly into the Bible, I’m strongly into God and religion,” he declared. But within a few seconds he appeared to grow bored with the topic and switched to talking about how he has “a net worth of much more than $10 billion” and “some of the greatest assets in the world”, including the Trump Tower, the Trump Turnberry golf resort, and so on.

- ‘Trump’s America’, The Economist, 5 September 2015 edition

See also:
America: Decent exposure in Montana, 16 April 2015
America: Neither confirm nor deny, 3 February 2015
America: How to fix America's broken democracy, 29 December 2014

01 September 2015

Flagged for deletion

So the final shortlist of four flags has been selected by the Flag Consideration Panel and released for public scrutiny. Unsurprisingly given the stated wishes of the Prime Minister for a silver fern on black, the panel has loyally picked three fern designs, along with one solitary curling koru. Two are slight variations on each other, with either red or black in the top left corner. They represent a useful opportunity for the Government to divert attention towards a trivial matter, or rather away from its own record. Also unsurprisingly, none of the flags represents a compelling alternative to the existing flag.

Chiefly this is due to the lack of skills on the panel. Tellingly, no-one with actual expertise in designing flags was appointed. Only one of the 12 members, Malcolm Mulholland, is listed as being a 'flag historian', presumably for fear of muddying the process by contributing a perspective of someone who knew what they were talking about. Instead a panel of amateurs have tinkered around on the taxpayers' tab and decided on a selection of graphic designs that bear little resemblance to a flag of lasting merit. Even if you don't like the presence of the Union Flag in the canton of the current New Zealand ensign, the four selected alternatives are a poor excuse for a tech drawing class rather than a unifying symbol of nationhood.

The existing flag works as a design because it is grounded in centuries of design tradition. It has the virtue of simplicity, and a legacy of continuous use for over a century. Certainly it sports the Union Flag, which I have no problem with, but I acknowledge others do. The British origins of New Zealand statehood may not be warmly embraced by modern New Zealanders, but that doesn't erase the actual history of the foundation of the nation, which was a partnership between the British crown and Maori. Our language, government, laws, economy, sport, and many of our cultural traditions stem from British origins, whether this is popularly understood or not in an increasingly multicultural country with a short attention span.

The new designs are striking for their lack of understanding of the basic principles of flag design, and in part this is because the designers have all opted for approaches that aren't from the world of flags, but rather from the world of corporate logo design. This selection of logos would be ideal banners on corporate letterhead for a Buy NZ Made brand or alongside a tourism slogan, but do not have the impact, heritage or gravitas of a lasting flag design. (They certainly bear all the hallmarks of, say, a grotty collection of clipart. Or perhaps, as Finlay MacDonald has pointed out, they might suffice on a beach towel).  

A successful design must include meaningful symbology, and for some the All Blacks are the most important part of the New Zealand identity. However, it should not be controversial to point out that a national flag is not the same thing as a sporting banner, and that many people's definition of New Zealand is far broader than just its sports teams. Conventionally, the use of black in significant portions of a flag is also frowned upon due to its low visibility at night, and piratical connotations. (Although that didn't stop the Belgians).

Perhaps the saving grace of these lacklustre designs is that it makes the retention of the existing flag more likely. It may not be perfect but it has far more merit than any of these half-arsed MS Paint botch jobs. We need to start again from scratch to avoid a shoddy mess just around the corner. One way we could do this is to ask an actual expert. One of the oft-cited success stories of modern flag design is the South African unity flag; this was designed by one man, an expert in flag design named Fred Brownell, who was the state herald of South Africa in 1994. Someone should ask him what he makes of these designs; and consider the benefits of taking the radical step of asking someone who actually has a clue about producing a flag that doesn't end up making us a laughing-stock.

27 August 2015

"O Lord! I cannot keep my tackle in, G-d d--n it!"

Governess Nelly Weeton describes a footrace held as part of a regatta on Lake Windermere in the north of England in August 1810, as quoted in Jane Austen's England. In the race an item of wardrobe proved rather troublesome for one competitor:

'The second Regatta was expected to have been more splendid still, in consequence of which, [Weeton's employer] Mr Pedder invited a number of friends. We were sadly disappointed; it was one of the most blackguard things ever conducted. After a rowing match or two, which began the entertainment, there followed a footrace by four men. Two of them ran without shirts; one had breeches on, the other only drawers, very thin calico, without gallaces [braces]. Expecting they would burst or come off, the ladies durst not view the race, and turned away from the sight. And well it was they did'

Nelly had no qualms in watching and gave an eyewitness description:

'During the race, and with the exertion of running, the drawers did actually burst, and the man cried out as he run - "Oh Lord! O Lord! I cannot keep my tackle in, G-d d--n it! I cannot keep my tackle in."' The ladies were disgusted and left, she reported, and 'there were many of fashion and rank; amongst other, Lady Diana Fleming, and her daughter Lady Fleming, and the Bishop of Llandaff's daughters; several carriages, barouches, curricles; but all trooped off. Wrestling and leaping occupied the remainder of the day, were were told'

- Roy & Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen's England, London, 2013, p.218.

See also:
HistoryJane Austen's history of England, 6 March 2014
History: Doing his suit at the coffee-house, 11 October 2014
History: The dangerous fruits of a discontented mind, 5 April 2014

24 August 2015

The joys of youth hostelling

'An English backpacker in her mid-20s returned to the dormitory at 2am and started having a loud and drunk Skype phone call, he said. Wellington's Lodge in the City where an assault allegedly took place in one of the dorm rooms. Another backpacker in the room objected to the loud call but the English woman allegedly "started smashing her" and tried to hit others in the room, Aroara said. The English woman's boyfriend was also in the room but was too drunk to get out of bed to intervene.'

[Aren't subeditors meant to think up catchy titles for articles like this?  Like 'Dorm form spawns storm' or something?]

23 August 2015

A family farewell

A family gathering at Purewa Cemetery in Auckland on Wednesday 19 August 2015 to farewell grandmother Gwen Tucker.

17 August 2015

Gwen steps out

Remembering this stylish young lady about town, Gwendoline Violet Tucker (nee Phillips), born 30 August 1921, who died at the St Andrew’s Rest Home hospital in Auckland on Saturday morning, aged 93. An Onehunga resident for almost the entirety of her life, Gwen raised three children and doted on five grandchildren and plenty of great-grandchildren that crossed her path at the sky-blue ex-State family home in Smith Crescent. 

 Following her marriage to Claude at St James’ church in Mangere Bridge in 1943, the couple lived happily together for 70 years, receiving congratulatory messages for their platinum anniversary in 2013 from the Queen, the Governor General and the Prime Minister. She will be missed by her assorted clan, and can rest easy in the knowledge that none of them will ever leave the house without remembering to take their handkerchief.

Xmas Day 2008, Hamillton

14 August 2015

Film festival roundup 2015

’71 (dir. Yann Demange, UK, 2014)
Troubles drama :: The Roxy Cinema 99 mins :: ★★★★

Rather than an expansive narrative of a British squaddie's tour of duty in Northern Ireland during the grim years of the Troubles, '71 instead focuses on one increasingly traumatic night for Private Hook, a green private from Derbyshire who is beset by an increasingly vicious and unpredictable series of calamities. This is no gung-ho war flick, with a hero spraying baddies with hot lead, left right and centre - for one thing, there are no goodies and baddies in '71's Belfast, only a bleak spiral of guerrilla warfare, violent retribution, official corruption and bitter betrayals. French-born director Yann Demange knows how to ratchet up the tension and throw compelling gut-punches to keep the audience off-balance, and in its lead actor Jack O'Connell the film boasts a gripping performance as the increasingly brutalised and isolated soldier struggles to survive the night with seemingly everyone in Belfast wanting him dead. This is no propaganda film for the British Army in Northern Ireland, or for one side or another of the Catholic-Protestant divide - while there are moments of humanity across the religious chasm, the general futility of the situation dominates and the kill-or-be-killed ethos rules the day. Unsurprisingly, '71 was filmed in the English Midlands rather than on location in Belfast.

The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, Canada, 2015, feat. Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling)General surrealism :: Paramount Bergman 130 mins :: ★★★½

An inventive expedition into the nightmare imagination of Canadian outsider Guy Maddin, The Forbidden Room stitches together an increasingly bonkers series of 1920s B-movie-style episodes into a sprawling, nonsensical and deeply silly homage to the days of hyperbolic intertitles, flickering filmstock and planet-shaking over-acting. At times it's wonderfully silly, such as the orthopaedic surgeon obsessed by bones who is kidnapped and seduced by Women Skeletons (sorry, 'WOMEN SKELETONS!!') and forced to wear a poisoned leotard that induces him to sign a fraudulent insurance document, or the cranky volcano god (sorry, 'Valcano God!!' [sic.]) that demands tapioca tribute and punishes notorious squid thieves with aerial scoria bombardment. You have to be in the right mood of whimsy to appreciate the chaos, and I'm afraid the woozy, constantly mutating and flickering shots coupled with the over-saturated, high-contrast lighting treatment gave me a massive headache.

Lambert & Stamp (dir. James D. Cooper, USA, 2014)
Music doco - The Who's 'management' :: Embassy Deluxe 117 mins :: ★★★½

An invaluable addition to the Who stable of lore, Lambert & Stamp views the rise of one of the greatest rock bands through the impact and guidance of its gonzo management, the indefatigable duo of upper class Kit Lambert and East End ace face Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence), who both took a sideways career change from the film business into managing what became one of the biggest bands of the 60s and 70s. Neither was particularly suited or skilled in the complex and newly-developing art of managing a band, but both offered an important blend of skills to the band of misfits. Lambert, suave, Oxford-educated and gay, helped to shape Pete Townshend into a world-class songwriter and studio arranger, while Stamp brought his incredible energy and persuasive powers to secure the band's notoriety and eventual superstar status. It's only a pity that three of the cadre - fabulous bassist John Entwistle, lunatic drummer Keith Moon, and the increasingly drug-addled Lambert himself - are no longer around to contribute to the story. Predictably, then, it is the voluble Townshend and Stamp that rack up most of the screen time, although Roger Daltrey and other key figures pop up to endorse the sentiment that without Lambert and Stamp, the High Numbers may never have changed their name to The Who and broken through the London mod scene to the big time.

Jauja (dir. Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2014, feat. Viggo Mortensen, Vilibjork Mallin Agger)Drama - Viggo's gaucho tale :: Embassy Deluxe 108 mins :: ★★★½

A beautifully-shot South American western, Jauja depicts the wilderness trek of a Danish ex-cavalry officer (the multi-lingual Mortensen) through the rugged Patagonian wastes, in search of his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger) who elopes with an Argentinian trooper and is later kidnapped by a rogue army officer who has fallen in with mysterious native riders. Mortensen is as solid as ever, but it is the epic Patagonian scenery that is the undisputed star, replete with lunar landscapes, lush pampas and jagged coasts dotted with rearing walruses. It's shot in a stylised 4:3 ratio with rounded edges like an old stereogram picture, which lends a vintage air to proceedings, and director Lisandro Alonso is fond of lingering at the entrance or exit of a scene for an additional 30 seconds of silence to drink in the landscape. This may or may not become irksome to viewers, but of more concern is the ending, in which Jauja (a phrase referring to a mythical never-reached land of paradise) literally becomes a shaggy dog tale. Aside from that frustrating lack of a traditional conclusion, this is a good example of how colonial-era stories can be brought to cinemas on presumably small budgets.

From Scotland with Love (dir. Virginia Heath, feat. music by King Creosote)Found footage of Scottish memories :: Paramount 75 mins + director Q&A :: ★★★★

A fine slice of Caledonian social history from New Zealand-born and Scottish resident director Virginia Heath, who worked with Fife singer-songwriter King Creosote (Kenny Anderson) to knit together a vivid palate of 20th century life and customs in Scotland. This is no shortbread-tin twee glimpse, but rather a summary of ordinary working life and pastimes sourced as much from private home movie collections as from official sources. Anderson's fine, exuberant songs and instrumentals augment the imagery perfectly without becoming obtrusive or delving into cliche or oversentimentality. In a way it's sad to ponder how little of this life and culture still exists today, but that could be said of any post-industrial society. But this film offers a snapshot of a nation working, playing, falling in love, going to war, and stinging its toes in the bracing surf at Largs, and Scotland is all the better for its presence.

Best of Enemies (dir. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, USA, 2015)Doco - Gore Vidal & William F. Buckley Jr.'s telly rivalry :: Penthouse Cinema 88 mins :: ★★★★

A fine counterpart to Frost/Nixon, a dramatisation of events surrounding the bitter end of the Nixon legacy, this documentary illustrates the genesis of the yawning partisan divide that emerged in the lead-up to the start of the Nixon presidency in 1968. America was bitterly divided along lines of race, wealth, class, sex and war, and a struggling ABC network needed a low-budget gimmick to fuel its ratings battle as the Republican and Democratic national conventions rolled into Miami Beach and Chicago. They settled on a firecracker combo of arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr and scandalous novelist Gore Vidal, a pair of establishment elite intellectuals united only in their self-regard and their unceasing loathing of the other. In 10 debates they framed political discourse for years to come and fuelled a personal animosity that would last for the remainder of their lives. The documentary is that best of old-fashioned ideas - a collection of talking heads who know their subjects. Perhaps Vidal can be said to have 'won' the debates by goading Buckley into his infamous and then shocking slur 'Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered', but that's really not the point. In these fascinating debates between two highly educated, diametrically opposed thinkers can be found the seeds of the disconnection at the heart of modern American politics.

The 50 Year Argument (dir. Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi, USA, 2015)Doco - the New York Review of Books :: Paramount 97 mins :: ★★★½

An enlightening survey of a half-century of lucid dissent and disputation, The 50 Year Argument examines the history, influence and present state of the New York Review of Books. As an outlet for challenging and questioning authority it offers cultural value far beyond its remit - indeed, it's a Review first and foremost before it's a Review of Books. As the film shows, throughout its history the Review has questioned the accepted myths of society and news reporting and often found them wanting. The question remains: will this institution endure once its founders are no longer at the helm? Because it would be a sad loss to the world of intellectual thought if it does not.

The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, USA, 2015, feat. Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Becky Ann Baker, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack)
Dramatisation of a famous interview with David Foster Wallace :: Paramount 106 mins + short :: ★★★½

With the air of a stage play transferred to the big screen, The End of the Tour is talky fare, with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) bonding for a magazine article over the last few days of Wallace's book promos. Lipsky is trying to decode the literary wit behind the mammoth novel, while Wallace is wary of misrepresentation, and guarded with his confidences. Is a real friendship of like minds developing, or is Lipsky just in it for a journalistic scoop? And are writers special, or is their talent fuelled by their very ordinariness? This narrative of a three-day meeting of minds is a good opportunity to see two strong actors deliver believable and undemonstrative performances. It also features the small treat of seeing Segel act a brief scene with Becky Ann Baker, with whom he worked 15 years before on the much-treasured Freaks & Geeks TV series.

Kiss Me Kate 3D (dir. George Sidney, USA, 1953, feat. Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller)
Technicolor widescreen 3D garishness :: Embassy Theatre 110 mins :: ★★★★

Of course Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson are the stars of this garish 1953 3D Technicolor musical production of The Taming of the Shrew. But for me the stand-out performer was the relentlessly over-the-top Ann Miller as a non-Superman-related Lois Lane / Bianca. A good-time gal always on the make and not afraid to fling a little unsubtle flirtation if it helps her career or her collection of finery, Miller blasts into the opening suave uptown apartment scene like a force of nature, unleashing her famed machine-gun tap skills and springing from tabletops, all the better to give a fine angle on her killer gams. What a dame! And (dis-) honourable mention must go to musical mobsters Lippy and Slug, sent to menace the players into repaying a bogus gambling IOU for "two Gs" and ending up on stage as thespians themselves, decked out in eye-watering pantaloons and serenading Keel with their own signature tune, the zesty wisecracking "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". The hoodlums even get their own reprise and exit stage right after Keel has left the scene!

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro)
Pynchon on the big screen :: Embassy Theatre 149 mins :: ★★★★½

By rights a two-and-a-half hour film with an often baffling plot and a lead actor whose dialogue is frequently incomprehensible should be an experience of cinematic torture. Why then did I find Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice such a thrilling watch? All the way through this puzzling, hilarious, fascinating film I felt like Tim Robbins in The Player was chanting, "It's The Big Lebowski meets Chinatown!", and Inherent Vice has every bit as much charm and intrigue as those two memorable and influential classics.

Joaquin Phoenix's hippie stoner PI could easily have crashed and burned on screen, but he inhabits the role with just the right balance of wry humour and chemical befuddlement to inspire a thousand undergraduate cult viewings. The early-70s setting was perfectly pitched, and I was reminded of the most dialled-down subtlety of Quentin Tarantino's under-rated Jackie Brown, in that the decade isn't used as a throwback gimmick to freight the goings-on with kitsch nostalgia, but rather as a valuable backdrop to an off-kilter, counter-culture take on the hoary old crime investigation flick.

Unsurprisingly, Anderson has assembled a great supporting cast around Phoenix, and Katherine Waterston in particular gives a stand-out performance, particularly in one mesmerising monologue delivered to Phoenix's serially recumbent detective Sportello. Critics might argue the film is uneven, lurching from comedy to drama to thriller across its running time, but for me Inherent Vice had all the hallmarks of a modern classic that will be rewatched for years to come, perhaps for a variety of reasons, but certainly for all the right ones.

Rams (dir. Grimur Hakonarson, Iceland, 2015)
Two estranged brothers, butting heads :: Paramount 93 mins + short :: ★★★★

An Icelandic drama that could have coasted on the stark beauty of the bleak and brutal landscape of its far northern valley, Hrutar (Rams) offers a surprisingly effective mix of bluff humour, unexpected allegiances and a pair of compellingly direct performances from its two massively-bearded leading actors. Two sheep-farming brothers who run neighbouring farms but have stubbornly refused to speak to each other for 40 years are thrown into turmoil when their prize-winning flocks are infected with scrapie and the authorities descend to instigate a complete cull to preserve the rest of the nation's sheep. One brother, the menacing, wrothful Kiddi, turns to drink and bluster, while the thoughtful, calculating Gummi decides on an altogether more inventive solution. Dotted with stand-out scenes of farm humour, a scene-stealing farm dog who acts as a messenger between the brothers, and a surprising conclusion that illustrates the raw power of the Icelandic winter, Hrutar richly deserved its recognition at Cannes, where it was awarded Un Certain Regard. Jury president Isabella Rosselini said it won "for dealing masterfully through the tragicomic, the undeniable link that unites human nature and animal nature", and that sounds just about right to me.

The Wrecking Crew (dir. Danny Tedesco, USA, 2008)
Legendary sessioners for hire :: Light House Petone 101 mins :: ★★★½

A valuable exploration of the engine-room of the US west coast pop powerhouse of the 1960s and early 70s, The Wrecking Crew details the superhuman workload of a hand-picked bunch of expert session musicians that played on most of the hit records of the day. The Monkees make an appearance, because it was the 'revelation' that they didn't play the instruments on their own recordings that was splashed across the news, but in reality hardly anyone played on their own tracks - back then, if it was recorded in LA, the Wrecking Crew probably played on it. The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, the Mamas & the Papas, Sonny & Cher, the early Byrds recordings, anything by Phil Spector: all the Wrecking Crew. The film collects a few of the surviving players to reminisce and does a good job of shining the light on each, and it is the (sole?) female player, Carol Kaye, whose perspective is particularly appealing, largely for her chutzpah and fine recall of details of recording sessions nearly half a century old. The film leans rather heavily on former ace Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco because the director is his son, but the effects of a stroke in 1992 mean Tommy's story-telling isn't quite up to the screen time his son devotes to him. Fortunately, an old 1980 VHS recording of Tedesco telling fine yarns and demonstrating his superb Latin guitar stylings helps to shift the balance back in his favour. For enthusiasts, consult the 2013 doco Muscle Shoals, for a contemporaneous look at the famed Alabama studio players.

Very Semi-Serious (dir. Leah Wolchok, USA, 2015)
New Yorker cartoons and their awesomeness :: Penthouse Cinema 83 mins :: ★★★½

A niche interest perhaps, but for fans of New Yorker cartoons and cartooning in general, Very Semi-Serious offers an appealing insight into the venerable institution and the processes that sustain it in the 21st century. Perhaps this vestige of the 1920s is a dying art, but for devotees it is one of the highlights of every edition of the magazine. Perhaps the time lavished on the cartoon editor, himself a veteran cartoonist, is the price the viewer pays for insider access to this world, but for me it's worth it just to peer inside the head of the gag-merchants and the weirdos who populate the pages, all competing for their snippet of attention. (And if it's a choice between one and the other, I'm definitely in the camp of Team Weirdo!)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller, USA, 2015, feat. Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig)
Coming of age black comedy :: Embassy Theatre 102 mins :: ★★★★

Young English actor Bel Powley lights up this compelling and brave Bechdel Test-acing coming of age tale set in mid-1970s San Francisco, which is a welcome female-focused take on the traditional teenage male sexual journey. Testing all the boundaries by starting an affair with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), teenager Minnie flirts with adulthood but naturally encounters plenty of challenges as she discovers what she wants from sex, love, family and life. It's noticeable that despite the boyfriend acknowledging the problems of the ongoing relationship, those concerns revolve around the dishonesty to Minnie's mother (the wonderful Kristen Wiig) rather than, say, the moral and ethical quandary of having sexual relations with someone under the age of consent! Which is particularly alarming if you've read Nabokov's Lolita recently. But this is no victim tale: rather it offers hope, because whatever mistakes and trials Minnie falls into, the film makes it clear that despite her youth, she is well and truly in charge of her own life, and these experiments will only inform the adulthood that is just around the corner.

A Poem Is a Naked Person (dir. Les Blank, USA, 1974/2015)
Music doco - Dr John :: Embassy Deluxe 90 mins :: ★★

Director Les Blank must have been really unimpressed with Leon Russell to have made such a turgid, uninspiring documentary about such an interesting, talented performer. Captured at his peak in 1972-74, the documentary is sprinkled with fine stage performances that are the saving grace of the film. But by far the largest portion of the running time is occupied by footage designed to make Russell look like an incoherent, uninspiring hippie blatherer. It is probably a deeply unfair portrayal, and while the film does offer a sporadically diverting glimpse of the South in the early '70s, the aimless, rambling excursions away from Russell's fine music are ultimately frustrating and tedious. I can see why Russell prevented the film from being issued at the time, and even now as it comes to audiences it is a decidedly niche offering for Russell completists only. I for one was bored rigid.

Queen and Country (dir. John Boorman, UK, 2014)
Drama - National Service in 50s England :: Embassy Theatre 115 mins :: ★★

A quite comprehensively hackneyed take on early-1950s National Service featuring an out-of-his-depth lead actor (Callum Turner), weirdly misplaced accents (Caleb Landry Jones), and the most stolid of plots (for reference, see every episode of It Ain't Half Hot Mum), Queen & Country also contains huge chunks of singularly risible dialogue, as if the Mitchell & Webb 'Lazy Script Writers' sketch characters have rocked up to the task of writing a 1950s period piece and prepared by watching a Hi-De-Hi omnibus. Like National Service itself, this film is best avoided.

Lonesome (dir. Paul Fejos, USA, 1928)
Live Cinema with Lawrence Arabia and Carnivorous Plant Society
Live accompaniment to a forgotten silent film classic :: Paramount 69 mins :: ★★★½

This 1928 (mostly) silent comedy features a charming young couple (Barbara Kent & Glenn Tryon) who meet at the Coney Island funfair and fall in love amidst the chaotic sideshow hijinks. Paul Fejos' film itself was particularly sweet, but the highlight for me was the live score written and performed at the Paramount cinema in Courtenay Place by Lawrence Arabia (James Milne) and his five piece band. I say 'mostly' silent because just like in Singin' In The Rain and The Artist, talkies had suddenly became all the rage when the film was produced and the studio added three short dialogue scenes to the hitherto silent production after the film had wrapped. They don't add a great deal to proceedings, but it is intriguing to hear the actors' voices. Speaking of which, it's wonderful to see that the lovely lead actress Barbara Kent, who got into the movie business after winning a Miss Hollywood beauty contest in 1925, lived an impressively long life, surviving to the age of 103 in 2011.

Our Little Sister (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda), Japan, 2015)
Umimachi Diary
Japanese family drama of three sisters reunited :: Embassy Theatre 128 mins :: ★★★★★

Hirokazu Kore-eda's wonderful family drama is a typically gentle and compelling glimpse of three adult sisters who invite their newly-met 15-year-old half-sister to live with them. As with the other Hirokazu films I've seen, it feels like a privilege getting to know the utterly beguiling and believable characters portrayed on screen. He has perfected the delicate balance of film-making with complex but appealing characters that draw audiences in, wanting to know more about their lives and aspirations. Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood last year, this is a film I didn't want to end, and with three well-nigh perfect films in a row (see also I Wish, Like Father Like Son), Hirokazu's work is amongst the most impressive being made today. And with a cast of four main female actors and plenty of female associates, Our Little Sister certainly passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2014, 12 August 2014
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2013, 12 August 2013
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2012, 14 August 2012
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2011, 31 July 2011
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2009, 4 August 2009