28 May 2012

A story of the South Seas

I do enjoy going to Filmsoc on Monday nights. Sure, the Paramount is Wellington's least impressive city cinema, with a tiny screen, the seats up the back are mostly uncomfortable and quite wobbly, and the irritating lack of allocated seating means you have to queue half an hour before screening time to get a good seat.

But the film selection is generally top-notch, and you wouldn't otherwise get the chance to see many of these films on the big screen. Over the past two weeks, for example, we enjoyed Rainer Werner Fassbinder's impressive Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), the 1972 West German film that foreshadowed many of the mind-bendy questions about reality that The Matrix so successfully commercialised in the 1990s.

And tonight's offering was F.W. Murnau's sort-of-silent classic Tahitian tale from 1931, Tabu. It was a real treat to see the beautiful French Polynesian islands and soak up the simple yet affecting tale of star-cross'd lovers imperilled by sacred tradition.

Not only was Tabu a fascinating social document of island life at the time, albeit a fictionalised one, it also must surely have played a major role in popularising the use of the word taboo in the 20th century. Certainly, Sigmund Freud wrote about the concept of taboo in 1913 and the initial credit is due to Cook's first voyage to the Pacific, but you can't beat the moving pictures for spreading a word around. Particularly if the moving pictures contain pre-Code sultry dancing maidens with no tops on and handsome muscle-adorned Polynesian warriors similarly sans upper vestments. And might the fact that that peculiar American institution, the Tiki bar, first opened in 1933, two years after Tabu, be less than a coincidence?

Tabu is thoroughly enjoyable, but even for the time it's a slightly odd production. The Jazz Singer may have heralded the age of the talkies and musicals in 1927, but while Tabu's soundtrack benefited from excellent Polynesian choir singing (accompanied by an American-style jazz band) and pounding drumming, the film features neither audible dialogue or any dialogue intertitles. For the most part this is no impediment because the narrative is perfectly obvious, but on several occasions Murnau has to resort to clunky devices such as long correspondence-reading or diary-writing shots to explain developments.

It's also worth noting that to keep costs down Murnau and his two colleagues, Robert Flaherty, who made the ground-breaking Nanook of the North, and Floyd Crosby, who went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Tabu, were the only Western members of the film crew: they trained Bora Bora locals to fulfil all the other production roles during the island shoot.

I also mention the soundtrack for Tabu because this evening was another example of how ill-suited I am to cinema-going. A cinema should ideally be populated with quiet, attentive audiences who absorb the film, eat quietly and swiftly if they absolutely must, don't talk or fidget like a child, and generally just STFU and generally behave like a grown-up. A cinema holding Filmsoc members should ideally be doubly grown-up. I admit that I'm probably over-sensitive to disturbances when film-watching. But this evening it came in stereo.

First there was the young chap to my left, who munched and rustled his way through the first 20 minutes of the film eating a smelly Subway. To be clear: if you're going to eat something in a cinema, do it quietly and make sure it's not stinky. It's hardly rocket science.

And then there was the older chap to my right. In the second half of the film when the music is quieter, I noticed - and you'll probably think I'm being weird - that he was breathing REALLY LOUDLY. Like, it was hard to concentrate on the film - that's how loudly he was puffing away. Sure, now you've got me pegged for a prejudiced asthmaphobe.

The mighty whistling that emerged from this gentleman's proboscis brought back long-dormant memories. This will sound crazy, I know, but I think I've sat next to that guy before. Seven years ago. The lingering memory of this man's nose has haunted me since the last bloody decade. It was during the 2006 Film Festival here in Wellington, when I saw Terrence Malick's interesting The New Worldabout some of the earliest contacts between settlers and Native Americans on the eastern seaboard of what would become the United States. And all through that film I was distracted by the constant whistling of the loudest nose-breather you could ever possibly encounter.

Once per decade is still too much. So I have two options. One is to move seats if I find myself near him again. But this was the best seat in the cinema, so that's not an ideal option. The other, which might garner me a reputation as a prize eccentric - more so than posting this piece, even - is to bring earplugs to the cinema, just like a rock gig. Bright orange ones that everyone can see.

Come to think of it, Filmsoc tends to attract the weirdos anyway. Perhaps no-one will notice. So next time you're at the Paramount on a Monday night, don't be offended if I don't reply when you say hello - just blow your nose. It will be our little secret.

25 May 2012

Feudal backstabbing in all its nepotistic glory

I've become rather unreasonably excited at the prospect of playing a new strategy game set in medieval Europe, Crusader Kings 2. Coming as it does from the games studio that unleashed the well-nigh unplayable Europa Universalis on the world, I should be wary. But by most accounts, CK2 seems to have been put together well, capturing the most enjoyable bits of grand strategy games like Civilisation and adding double helpings of Machiavellian plotting, rank nepotism and a heady mix of back-scratching and back-stabbing. 

It also benefits from a hugely detailed real-world setting, and the dynastic scope means that gameplay is more about securing noble succession and maintaining the bloodline than endless warfare. In fact, the combat element of CK2 seems almost quaint in this day and age, harking back to the rudimentary graphics of Civ2 perhaps. But that's hardly a problem given the depth of potential storytelling and the centuries-long scope of the campaign, which runs from the eve of the Norman conquest in 1066 to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

PC Gamer reckoned it was addictive stuff, saying 'I can see myself enjoying the company of CK2 and its incomparable cast of bed-hopping, sibling-slaughtering, rodent-mutiliating characters, for months – maybe years – to come'. And it can't hurt sales that Game of Thrones is the most popular TV programme in the world at the moment - it will surely inspire many gamers to take a spin as the Duke of Apulia or the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich IV or the multitude of English lords we've read about since we were kids.

I'd attach one of the numerous helpful "let's play" guides posted on Youtube, but while the insights into the technical details of CK2 are useful, the wanton mangling of the pronunciation of nearly all the titles and names would cause me too much grief. Perhaps it's safer just to stick with this basic lesson in statecraft that all new rulers would do well to consider - sometimes it's easier just to ask nicely.

See also:
CK2 Seven Deadly Sins (Amusing game promo videos): Wroth (above), Greed, Lust, Envy, Pride, Sloth, and they left out Gluttony, so here's Mr Creosote.

20 May 2012

Hold the front page!

In the past week there's been two prime examples of New Zealand regional news stories, one of which has boosted into international prominence. Both have that trivial, lightweight feel that is ideal for filling smaller newspapers, and both benefit from the in-built gossip value that Americans label 'water-cooler issues' - topics that spread through workplaces rapidly because everyone can form an instant opinion on the matter, even if they don't know all the details.

Photo: Cameron Burnell / Taranaki Daily News
The first and most prominent of these resulted from the Taranaki Daily News' coverage of a bridal show in New Plymouth last Saturday night. Photographer Cameron Burnell snapped a candid backstage shot of one of the competitors in the Bride of the Year event, Katrina Hayman, necking a quick sip of Tui beer before the pageant, while dressed to the nines in a bridal gown. The photo was clearly hastily-taken - the left-hand side of the image is even obscured by what looks like a rogue bridal veil. It works so well as an image because it plays with the supposed purity and demure character of the wedding gowns mixed with the rough and ready demeanour of a Taranaki bride - one who is happy to get dressed up but isn't too pretentious to shun a quick beer en route to the ceremony, or in this case, to the stage in a wedding pageant.

The Daily News published a couple of dozen photos of the event on its website, but led with the Hayman shot on the front page of its paper edition. That's because the beer-bottle shot is far and away the most interesting photo taken that night, and it is clearly a conversation-starter. But the photo caused a bit of a storm in Taranaki. The event organisers adopted a stickler's approach, arguing that this sort of free publicity wasn't the right sort of free publicity, with Taranaki Bride of the Year co-convener Lynn Gilbert-Smith writing to the newspaper to express her hope the editor would apologise to all involved, 'as I am sure many would have preferred to have seen a photo on the front page of the winning bride of the year, rather than a free commercial for Tui'. She later explained, 'That was a tacky photograph to display our event. I am really gutted with the newspaper. I just think that the newspaper think they have really won with something here. It's gone global, it's gone across New Zealand ... but it was disrespectful and I don't operate like that.'

She's right, it did go global - the Daily Mail lapped it up, as did MSNBC and plenty of other news sites, for their 'And Finally' silly news sections.

Some members of the Taranaki public expressed the not unreasonable view that it was less than ideal that the beer photo was printed instead of an image of the actual winner of the competition, Dayna Newton. That's a fair point, but sadly winning a bridal contest isn't front page news, even in New Plymouth. Other comments targeted the looks of the competitors, which only goes to show how quickly people forget that if you haven't got anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything. (Although, if I can make a brief diversion into a hypocritical cul-de-sac, what's up with all those tattoos, Taranaki? Particularly the bride with the admonition to 'Live life like there's no tomorrow' scrawled across her entire upper back in large, flowing script with ornamental curlicues, like a fleshy silent movie title card).

The voice of reason in the 'controversy' emanates from Hayman herself, who pointed out quite sensibly: 'that is just the type of person I am. I don't like to portray myself as someone I am not. A lot of females drink beer and it's just I felt more comfortable having a beer than having a wine'. You can't really argue with that.

The other provincial story that attracted attention this week was the petty case of a tip-off photo sent to the Timaru Herald, which showed Murray Cleverley, the chairman of the South Canterbury District Health Board, drinking a can of beer through a beer bong at a party. The newspaper published the story under the punchy headline 'Health boss snapped drinking from beer bong', and TVNZ's website republished it too

But this is hardly a scandal. Not only was the photograph taken at a private party, it was also from more than six months ago, in October 2011. Presumably the photograph sender was irked that DHB had quite sensibly adopted an alcohol harm reduction strategy in March, advocating measures including substantially increasing the excise tax on alcohol, increasing the alcohol purchase age back to 20, and reducing the marketing and advertising of alcohol. Cleverley told the newspaper:

This is the part of the job that I struggle with. When I signed up (to the health board), I didn't think I was signing away my private life. I've never been one to say I don't have a drink, but I think I am a normal person with a good life balance. It's a sad world when someone sees fit to do this. At the end of the day, of course we have some problems regarding alcohol in the community, and of course I don't tolerate excessive alcohol consumption.

That's a fair point. It's not as if the chairman's actions were illegal or even hypocritical. The fact that Cleverley enjoyed a beer and was photographed doing so is hardly relevant to SCDHB's campaign against the harmful effects of alcohol on society and the health system. The harm minimisation strategy does not revolve around board chairmen living lives of monkish purity. And it's not as if impressionable youths pay the slightest bit of attention to the actions of DHB chairmen or indeed anything that goes on in local newspapers. Hopefully the mean-spirited individual who dobbed Cleverley in will find the additional publicity for the DHB's alcohol initiative just as irksome as the lack of reaction from the chairman's employers and from the Timaru Herald's readers. The newspaper, stringing the story out another day, polled its readers and found that 85 percent of them thought it didn't comprise the chairman in his role. Hopefully that sensible response will put this silly story to rest.

19 May 2012

The single most successful German ruler

Grand Duchess Catherine, 1745
(via WikiCommons)
One real oddity was the continuing attractiveness of the little German states as sources of marriage partners. For much of the time really big partners were more trouble than they were worth (most famously perhaps Louis XVI's marriage to Maria Theresa's daughter Maria Antonia). In a pre-industrial era when quite tiny states could potentially be more than rich enough to bring in jewels and some nice hunting territory, there was much to be gained for one of the major rulers in tracking down some broad-minded, micro-state-bred creature who could proceed to fill a Schloss fairly reliably with children without causing diplomatic damage.

The Hanoverians, once they had become rulers of Britain, were brilliant at this and indeed have, with only two exceptions, followed an unvarying rule of provoking squeaks of baffled delight from princesses and their imperious mothers in tiny states up to the present day. In order, from George I onwards they have married a duchess of the Braunschweig-Celle family, a margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach, a princess of Saxe-Gotha, a duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a duchess of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (the unfortunate Caroline, beating fruitlessly on the doors of Westminster Abbey to be allowed in to attend her estranged husband's coronation), a princess of Saxe-Meiningen, a prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and a princess of Teck. This unvarying German choice partly came from the important role the British royal family had in German life, a link that only frayed with the First World War, but also from the peculiarly narrow requirement that the bride had to be Protestant as well as upper class, thereby cutting out great swathes of potentially less frosty and more enjoyable Mediterranean partners. The kaleidoscope of small German states however always meant that there was plenty of choice, that is until the kaleidoscope was put away in 1918 with the German revolution and all the princesses vanished into dodgy coastal hotels around Europe. This was part of the backdrop to Edward VII's disastrous decision to marry a Maryland divorcee and his younger brother's cleverer choice of the steely youngest daughter of a Scottish aristocrat. The current queen took us back to the good old days by marrying another member of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg family, much to everyone's relief.

I go on about this, partly because it is funny and curious (both the facts and the names), but also because these little territories had potentially very considerable power and prestige and the most bashful beginnings could end in glory. In a sort of asteroid belt of low-grade German princesses and narrow, petty, moustachioed princes, there was enough room for something really surprising to happen. Most absolutely alarming in this respect was pretty little Sophie Augusta Frederica of the laughable territory of Anhalt-Zerbst, a place so small it could hardly breathe. Her father was a Prussian field marshal and as a helpless pawn in plans to boost Prussian-Russian relations in the 1740s Sophie was shunted off to Russia where, after several ups and downs, she married the Grand Duke Peter, learned Russian, became Russian Orthodox, had Peter killed and wound up as Catherine the Great, devastating the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Poles and carving out immense new territories from Latvia to the Crimea. Indeed, a case could be made for her being the single most successful German ruler of all time, albeit not one ruling Germany.

- Simon Winder, Germania, London, 2010, p.243-5.   

07 May 2012

Lunar perigee

Taken at 5.26pm on Sunday 6 May, just after moonrise over the Rimutakas, looking east from near the summit of Mt Victoria.

05 May 2012

The patron saint of strangers pissing in your front garden

David O'Doherty Is Looking Up
12 Cambridge Tce
4 May 2012

This year's comedy festival, or the Wellington portion of it at least, lacks a wide smattering of the usual stars from the British comedy circuit. But the vagrant raconteur / busker / craic pusher David O'Doherty made yet another pilgrimage to the capital, for which he is to be saluted. I first saw him here in 2006, and then again at the Greenwich Comedy Festival in September 2010, and his brand of elliptical not-quite-shaggy-dog stories interspersed with pop-culture references and daft songs on his trademark Casio portable keyboard remains as entertaining as ever.

The title of the show references a recent break-up, and some of the material flirts with the stasis of self-pity (earning heartfelt 'aww' noises from ladies in the audience) and jealousy at new partners of old girlfriends. But despite this occasionally bleak backdrop, the performance sees O'Doherty at his wry, absurdist best. He flits between all or perhaps none of the following: his 72-year-old dad's pretend ignorance of the paraphernalia of electronic transactions; his life-long fear of mice, the tyranny it has wreaked over his psyche, and the guerrilla warfare he waged against a particular mouse called Ringo last Boxing Day; the joys of harassing 'the only Protestant in the street' only to be told by your mum that you're actually a Protestant too; and, hilariously, his skewering of the misery endured by watchers of prime-time TV in New Zealand, who have to put up with sneering put-downs of amateur singers, dancing with fake celebs and 'four blokes sitting in a room with no ties on talking about sport but not actually playing any clips of sport - that's not television, that's radio'. I also particularly enjoyed his definition of St Patrick as 'the patron saint of strangers pissing in your front garden'.

O'Doherty, the gifted co-author of seminal reference tomes on both pandas and sharks, and quite possibly the wayward son of Beverly Hills 90210 star Shannen Doherty and indie junkie nob-end Pete Doherty, plays one more Wellington show tonight, and then proceeds to Auckland for a similar run. See him if you can before he flees back to the welcoming balm of the rainy Irish summer; or, failing that, fly to Ireland and attempt to run into him, preferably whilst he's wearing the prized pair of shorts that he bought in Wellington ($69 for two pairs, and he gave the second pair back because realistically an Irishman will never ever need more than one pair of shorts).

See also:

David O'Doherty - NZ Comedy Festival 2008

03 May 2012

Computer jousting and other IT issues

Excerpts from a revised IT priority list, which you are requested to consult before contacting your IT department:

Level 5 (Even lower priority)
In response to a dare, the user has put the computer on a skateboard and pushed it down a hallway. The elevator opened and the computer accidentally rolled into it. The user does not know what floor the computer got off on and it is preventing the user from continuing to work.

Level 6 (Much lower priority)
The user was competing in computer jousting, an activity in which two users are pushed toward one another in office chairs and throw computers at each other. The user was hit in the head by an opponent’s computer and was “unchaired.” However, the user has no computer problem to report.

Level 7 (Very low priority)
The user needs a computer problem to be resolved, and it is preventing the user from continuing to work. However, the user is in the habit of setting up ambushes in which members of the I.T. department are attacked by the user for no reason.

Level 8 (Very, very low priority)
The user has covered the computer with bumper stickers that say, “No Fat Chicks.” However, the user has now reversed his or her position on fat chicks and wants the computer replaced.

Level 9 (Extremely low priority)
The user is convinced that his or her computer has a peanut allergy.

Level 10 (Very extremely low priority)
The user has somehow come into the possession of a cursed Aztec coin that caused the user to switch spirits with the computer, but it is not preventing the user from continuing to work.

Level 11 (Dangerously low priority)
The user is requesting a keyboard with a steering wheel on it.

Level 12 (Very dangerously low priority)
The user needs a computer problem to be resolved, and it is preventing the user from continuing to work. However, the user is weird about accepting favors.

Level 13 (Not a priority)
The user thinks it’s funny to whip his or her surge protector up at the lights and just wants someone from the I.T. department to come watch.

- Seth Fried, New Yorker, 2 May 2012