30 December 2013

My top 10 films of 2013

I’ve seen 46 movies at the cinema in 2013, mostly thanks to plenty of Monday night outings to the Film Society screenings at the Paramount in Wellington’s Courtenay Place. If you include the clutch of Royal Shakespeare Company filmed plays and the National Theatre productions, usually seen at the Lighthouse in Wigan Street, that tops out at about 50 cinema outings. I still miss my weekly outings to the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square, but Wellington’s cinemas do a fairly decent job of bringing interesting stories to the screen. The film festival helps a lot too, and for me it is always the highlight of the New Zealand winter. While I don’t go overboard and see dozens of films, the festival does provide a great opportunity to see a whole lot of interesting material that I mightn't otherwise find.

I’ll leave out the usual ‘bottom five’ list of cinematic howlers because I really haven’t seen anything particularly bad this year; the Filmsoc and RSC/NT films I’ve been seeing have occupied most of my filmgoing time, which means I haven’t caught as many mainstream movies as I might have in other years. Well, The Master and The Wolf of Wall Street tried my patience, and I had to leave the screening of the silent German classic The Joyless Street because the accompanying music was getting on my nerves. Clearly I must have a problem with the definite article in film titles.

Instead, let’s focus solely on the positive stuff. There’s definitely plenty of good material in the list below, but first, let’s examine my top 10 list of this year’s films, in reverse order of preference:

10. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (dir. Declan Lowney, UK)

Probably one for Coogan fans only, but for those of us who long ago succumbed to the chat-based glory of (North) Norfolk's finest digital audio broadcaster, this is a ruddy good Partridgean cinematic treat. Quick listener survey: what's your favourite monger: fear, rumour or iron? Iron, clearly.

9. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, US)

This is no late-period Woody Allen trifle, nor is it a frothy piece of whimsy. Blanchett's performance as the pill-popping crack-up socialite Jasmine who is forced to stay in San Francisco with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is the centrepiece of an intriguing character study with surprising depth, as she finds her privileged world crumbling around her thanks to her philandering high-flyer husband (Alec Baldwin). Perhaps some of the characterisation in the supporting cast is a little stereotyped here, but that can be forgiven when Blanchett's performance is this good. There might be an Oscar nomination in this for her, particularly as she channels the same silver-age screen legend material that she essayed so well in The Aviator.

8. No (dir. Pablo Larrain, Chile)
You needn't have the background for the Chilean plebiscite of 1988 down pat for No to be a compelling watch. The deliberate styling of the film as a contemporary fly-on-the-wall, full of bad videotape footage and lens flare takes a little while to get used to, but it also helps to place the referendum advertisements in context and avoids diminishing their impact in comparison with slick modern clips. The ad-man's decision to stay positive, stay optimistic and offer a vision of hope garlanded with the commercial world's aspirational imagery was the ideal foil to the dictator's shameless jingoism and out-of-touch bluster, because the main battle wasn't really between Yes and No - it was between Yes and Afraid To Vote. No contains some marvellous scenes, particularly the recreation of a rally dispersed by riot police and the referendum night street revelry, and the series of ad pitches Bernal's character makes in his day job, and it's the latter aspect that adds an appealing consideration to the film. Despite the No campaign's stirring victory (um, you did know that, right?) you can't help but wonder if the ad man thinks he's emerged victorious or is just back where he began.

7. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, US)

Indie goddess Greta Gerwig may have the sort of bearing that leads otherwise sensible men to long to brush a stray lock of hair away from her perfect, perfect eyebrows, but aside from that she also boasts a usually impeccable taste in scripts. This one she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach (who wrote the Fantastic Mr Fox screenplay, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou), and it manages to portray a convincing slice of Brooklyn twenty-something apartment-hopping life without peppering in a slew of irritating hipsterisms. These slightly callow but oh-so-worldly city folk move through the itinerant life of would-be dancer Frances (Gerwig), particularly her wry best friend, Sophie. Frances Ha is loosely about the enduring nature of female friendship, the quest for meaning when you haven't found your calling in life, and the transience of youthful relationships. (It's no coincidence that one of the two well-known songs licensed for the film is Bowie's 'Modern Love'). Perhaps this sounds dire to you, but in these capable hands Frances Ha is a charming and surprisingly engrossing comic character study with unexpected emotional heft. Stumbling from career setbacks to middle-class poverty to embarrassing 'grown-up' dinner party rambling, any-port-in-a-storm dead-end jobs, catastrophically ill-advised credit card splurges, and finally telling your friend's boyfriend what you REALLY think about him, Frances Ha packs a lot in, and the viewer genuinely feels invested in the lead character's struggles with the trappings of adulthood. Perhaps my favourite line is when a self-possessed young fellow texts a newly-single Frances with 'Ahoy, sexy!' and Frances enquires of her girlfriend: 'What, now I'm nautically sensual?' Throughout, Baumbach's glowing black and white cinematography shines.
6. Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan)

Like his triumphant and exuberant 2011 tale I Wish, this Koreeda film is another foray into family life in Japan, and again it is a perfectly cast, winning formula. The director is particularly adept at selecting child actors, and in Like Father, Like Son the stand-out is the precious little six-year-old imp Keita, who tips the scales of charming cuteness in a wholly natural and winning performance. The film's adults and other children are expertly portrayed too, as the story of a wealthy urban family and a down-at-heel working class family from the suburbs whose baby sons were switched at birth unfolds. Careerist Ryota dismays his wife Midori when he opts to swap the boys to ensure they grow up with their own blood kin, but welcoming a boy raised by strangers into their chic apartment is not as straightforward as Ryota had hoped; and despite Ryota's snobbish disdain, the shambolic shopkeepers are actually brilliant parents who provide Keita with a loving, carefree home. Only when Ryota begins to question his own understanding of father-son relations does he begin to reconsider what family and fatherhood really mean. Like Father, Like Son is one of those rare family dramas that engrosses viewers throughout; I for one didn't want it to end.

5. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley, Canada)

This family history of Canadian actress Sarah Polley digging into the secrets and lies of her larger-than-life mother, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11, has its own share of surprises but is no bitter tale of recrimination. It is both a personal journey of discovery, seeking to fill in the gaps in her knowledge, but also an experiment in zeroing in on what might be closest to the truth without her mother being able to offer her side of the tale. Diane Polley's story is expertly told through the recollections of her family and friends, but the film also wrestles with the notion: who really owns this story? Who owns the truth in the complicated, messy world of families, and how can you piece things together when your entire perspective is challenged? Throughout, Polley displays a deft but firm hand, allowing her siblings, father and associates to give their side of things but also pressing harder when tough questions need to be asked. This is no sob-story or hatchet job - the mystery of Diane Polley is celebrated and no-one seems to begrudge her failings at all. Rather, everyone still feels her loss keenly. Perhaps in some small way this frank and funny film will bring them closer together, and give viewers a refreshingly honest appraisal of what it is to grow up in that strange and chaotic thing, a modern family.

4. 20 Feet From Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville, US)

This year's compelling music doco, 20 Feet From Stardom offers a glimpse into the world of the overlooked but vital heartbeats of the rock world, the backing vocalists. These unheralded performers - many of whom you will never have heard of - have graced the greatest records of the past 50 years and made them what they are. As Stevie Wonder points out in the film, try listening to Ray Charles' What'd I Say without the backing vocals and it'd sound ludicrous. As with the best documentaries, 20 Feet covers its ground adroitly but also casts a spotlight on a few memorable personalities, including pop pioneer Darlene Love, killer glam queen Claudia Lennear, the supernaturally talented Lisa Fischer and the young striver Judith Hill, whose career was derailed by the death of mentor Michael Jackson in 2009. It's sad and a little worrying that the art of backing singing is endangered by the wanton rush to autotuned anodyne anonymity where the ability to sing is relegated far down the list of priorities for pop stardom. If only half the people who bought the overcooked Rodriguez soundtrack bought the 20 Feet soundtrack too, then the balance would be tipped slightly back in favour of the artists who never stopped singing their hearts out. (See also: Merry Clayton, Southern change gonna come at last)

3. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg, US)

A restrained Spielberg offers a thoroughly worthy tale lifted from America's history books and targeted directly at the Academy. This is sterling material, with excellent actors, stirring speechifying and the ultimate in just causes: the abolition of slavery. The complete package is expertly realised, particularly in Day-Lewis' eerily apt performance. As usual though, the self-importance of the story and its historical significance leads to an overlong running time (albeit not hugely excessive). Despite the pivotal importance of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in reshaping American society, Lincoln is not quite a modern classic. Like Hugo, this film is a pet project with real and lasting quality, but it is unlikely to be remembered with particular distinction even in five years time. That's not to say you shouldn't see it - you should, if you're intrigued by the man and the process by which he ended the Civil War and cemented the emancipation of southern slaves, this is a quality offering.

2. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, US)

A top-flight thriller with an impressive visual impact, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity boasts a solid and likeable performance from leading lady Sandra Bullock and a twinkling, ebullient George Clooney. The story is straightforward and the dialogue relatively uncomplex, but the implacable dangers of low Earth orbit hold the viewer's attention for the full running time. Clooney is of course ridiculously charming, but it's Bullock as the novice spacer Dr Stone who is the real star. Stone is in constant mortal danger but Gravity is no Perils of Pauline pantomime - she's resourceful and tough and only occasionally maudlin. Throughout the film there are many memorable moments of striking onscreen imagery, and it's clear that despite some creative interpretation of the science, this is a sumptuous example of modern sci-fi film-making at its best. See it on the best screen you can, with 3D if possible - anything less will sell the film short.

1. Antarctica: A Year on Ice (dir. Anthony Powell, NZ)

New Zealander Anthony Powell has been tending radio gear in Antarctica for over 10 years, working in some of the most isolated places on Earth, and in his spare time he shoots beautiful, epic time-lapse photography. This film stitches together the stunning imagery into a world-class nature documentary, with the welcome addition of a dry New Zealand sense of humour ('When you're out on the ice it pays to remember which bottle is for your water and which one is for your pee') and a strong focus on the psychology of that rare breed who winters on the ice. The sun is absent for four long months and no ships or planes visit - this is what it must be like to live in a moon base. The inhabitants of the neighbouring McMurdo and Scott Bases tell their stories of both the gripping, unforgettable beauty of the Antarctic and the many challenges it poses: enduring solitude, brutal hurricane-strength storms, missing key family events such as the death of a parent, and ceaseless fantasising about feeling rain on your face, clenching grass beneath your toes, and gorging on ripe, fresh vegetables. In the darkest weeks, everyone goes slightly mad, and many seem afflicted with curious memory lapses brought on by the isolation. All through the documentary, Powell's labour of love is his photography, captured on conventional D-SLRs with home-made dolly mechanisms, which evokes the grandeur and ferocity of the empty continent. Most stunning are the night-time sequences of auroras flickering as the constellations wheel overhead, and a single 9-second shot of an ice field surging into the air, which took a full five months to shoot. One can only hope that as many people as possible around the world get to enjoy Powell's remarkable endeavour.


To close, here’s the full list of what I caught at the cinema in 2013. Naturally I’m looking forward to another year of intriguing cinematic offerings in 2014.

  • The Imposter
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Master
  • Lincoln
  • Argo
  • No
  • La Jettee (1962)
  • A Sense of History (2002)
  • Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • Hyde Park on Hudson
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Pierrot le Fou (1965)
  • Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)
  • 35 Rhum
  • Better Off Dead
  • Village at the End of the World
  • Antarctica: A Year on Ice
  • Stories We Tell
  • Oh Boy
  • Frances Ha
  • The Bling Ring
  • Lines of Wellington
  • The Human Scale
  • 2 Autumns 3 Winters
  • Fallout
  • 20 Feet From Stardom
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Like Father, Like Son
  • Museum Hours
  • Design For Living (1933)
  • The Piano in a Factory
  • Deep End (1970)
  • Blue Jasmine
  • The World's End
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
  • Gravity
  • Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
  • Trouble in Paradise (1932)
  • Mr Pip
  • Videodrome (1983)
  • Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
  • Viva Maria! (1965)
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
See also:
Blog: My top films of 2012, 2011, 2010
Blog: Mark Kermode's 10 worst films of 2013 (Great, contains Kick-Ass 2!)
Blog: Jess' top films of 2013, 2012

29 December 2013

Mr Iturbi will see you now

I recently watched the 1945 MGM musical Anchors Aweigh for the first time. In it, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are two decorated Navy sailors with a four-day pass in Los Angeles. Intent on wooing the local dames, they encounter the beautiful Suzie (Kathryn Grayson), who is bringing up her peppy young nephew Donald (Dean Stockwell, in his first big role), who is just crazy about joining the Navy despite being only nine years old. As is usual with such films, there is much silliness and bursting into song.

Aside from its top cast, the film is probably best known for its fantasy sequence in which Kelly dances with the animated Jerry Mouse (of Tom & Jerry fame) - quite a technical feat for the time (clip). It must have been a nightmare to keep the perspectives and sightlines accurate, because it's a proper hyperactive Kelly song-and-dance number including plenty of tricky movement between the foreground and background. In the DVD extras a short clip of animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera reveals that the cartoon dance partner was originally intended to be Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney flat-out refused to allow his character to appear in an MGM picture, so Jerry and his MGM bosses got the job instead.

Much of Anchors Aweigh revolves around the quest for the lovely operatic soprano Grayson to obtain an audition with the MGM bandleader and pianist Jose Iturbi. Iturbi (1895-1980) plays himself in the film, as he did in several other MGM productions, and the film is lavish in its treatment of the Catalonian star, peppering the script with numerous mentions of his skill and influence, and engineering a piano number for Iturbi to play and the bell-bottomed Sinatra to skip through. Such is Iturbi's busy schedule in Anchors Aweigh, Sinatra and Kelly spend much of the film struggling to keep up with him, forever just missing the busy pianist as he scuttles from one appointment to the next in his sidecar-equipped motorcycle.

In one grand location shoot the boys tumble out of the hills surrounding the Hollywood Bowl as Iturbi practices Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, composed in 1847. (The film's producer Joe Pasternak was originally Hungarian, which may have something to do with the choice of material). The camera cranes back from Iturbi at his grand piano to reveal he is accompanied by an impressive orchestra of no less than eighteen other grands, one of which may have been played by his sister and frequent collaborator, Amparo Iturbi. It's a brilliant example of classical music in popular cinema, with deft camerawork to bring out the dexterous performance, including a skilful tracking shot above the heads and keyboards of the young orchestra, resolving to an overhead shot of the puissant Iturbi himself, a closeup of his powerful hands at the keyboard, and flipping to an innovative reverse-angle shot of the same hands from underneath a (separate, edited-in) transparent keyboard.

Anchors Aweigh won an Oscar for Best Original Music Score, and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Kelly), Best Cinematography (Colour), and Best Song, for the Sinatra number I Fall In Love Too Easily, by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. The sailor-themed film partnership of Sinatra and Kelly was later revisited in 1949 in the more famous On The Town.   

See also:
Trailer: Anchors Aweigh
Music: Iturbi plays Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu (1941)
Blog: High Society, 26 November 2012

21 December 2013

Pretty stewardess, handsome pilot

An early lesson in gender stereotyping from the otherwise charming Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, first published in 1963. The book was Scarry's first as both author and illustrator, and has sold at least seven million copies. An enterprising social historian has documented how the book has been updated since this original edition, removing some of the sexism and things like references to Native American Indians. So, sexism yes, but on the other hand, bunnies!

Scarry died in Gstaad in 1994.

20 December 2013

One pod got a bit carried away with their Xmas decorations

Does it have to be one or the other?

Required 60m of wrapping paper (click to enlarge) 

That chimney will come in handy this winter

18 December 2013

A very Beatles Xmas

I'm one of the least festive sorts around, but I still have a soft spot for the Beatles' Christmas recordings. Here's the fourth Beatles Christmas outing, taped on 25 November 1966 for distribution to their fan club via flexidiscs, as with all the other Christmas recordings. The session was sandwiched within the hugely creative period in which the Beatles recorded Strawberry Fields Forever at Abbey Road. In the same month as this recording John Lennon first met Yoko Ono (on 9 November, at the Indica Gallery).

Warning: contains yodelling and general Goons-ish nonsense - 'Matches. Candles. Matches. Candles'.

See also:
Blog: Paul McCartney on John's Aunt Mimi, 5 December 2013
Blog: Ringo Starr 1992 interview, 20 September 2013
Photography: Who Shot Rock 'n Roll?, 1 January 2013

16 December 2013

Notes on the asset sales referendum results

The preliminary results of the asset sales referendum, asking the question "Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand", show an interesting range of results across the country.

  • The overall turnout of 43.9 percent seems reasonable compared with other New Zealand citizen initiated referendums outside of those held on election day: the firefighters' referendum in 1995 had a turnout of 27 percent, and the smacking referendum in 2009 had a turnout of 56 percent.
  • If electorate turnout rates are grouped into ranges of 10 percent each, the results are as follows:

% Turnout
No. of electorates
  • The five electorates with the lowest turnout are all Labour or Maori Party electorates - in order, they are: Tamaki Makaurau (28.9%), Hauraki-Waikato (29.3%), Mangere (29.4%), Manurewa (29.5%) and Manukau East (29.7%). Actually, the 10 electorates with the lowest referendum turnout are all represented by Labour, Maori Party or Mana MPs. 
  • The nine electorates with turnout rates over 50 percent are comprised of seven electorates with National MPs (Wairarapa, Northland, Napier, Nelson, Waitaki, Coromandel and Otaki) plus two Labour electorates (West-Coast Tasman and Dunedin South). 
  • The electorate with the highest turnout was Otaki (54.0%), held by National, closely followed by Dunedin South, held by Labour.
  • The mean turnout rate for electorates with a National MP (45.67%) was actually higher than for those with a Labour MP (41.28%).
  • The national preliminary result was 32.5 percent 'Yes' (in favour of the asset sales) and 67.2 percent 'No' (opposed to the sales).
  • Considering the 'Yes' vote (in favour of the asset sales programme) by electorates:
% Yes
No. of electorates
  • The seven electorates with under 10 percent ‘Yes’ votes were all Maori electorates (three Labour, three Maori Party and one Mana). 
  • The two electorates with ‘Yes’ votes over 50 percent were Epsom (54.6%) and Tamaki (53.2%), held by ACT and National respectively. (The 'No' vote obviously mirrors the above results, for example with 28 electorates returning 'No' rates of between 60 and 69 percent, because there are only two valid responses, Yes and No).
  • Five electorates with National MPs had a 'No' vote (against the sales) of greater than 70 percent: Waitakere (74.2%), Invercargill (73.6%), Whanganui (71.8%), Nelson (71.3%) and Christchurch Central (70.3%). Three of those five electorates are held by Ministers (Paula Bennett, Chester Borrows, and Nick Smith). 
  • Two electorates with Labour MPs had 'Yes' votes (in favour of the sales) above 30 percent: Wellington Central (31.7%) and Mt Roskill (30.2%), held by Grant Robertson and Phil Goff respectively.
See also:
Blog: MPs departing Parliament, 7 November 2013
Blog: The No vote's disingenuous referendum campaign (UK AV referendum), 6 May 2011

15 December 2013

Thorndon to Kilbirnie walk

Yesterday I took my pale, unsunned legs for a road walk through Wellington, to take advantage of the super weekend sunshine. From my place in Thorndon I ambled through the city to the library, and then onwards around Oriental Bay and Evans Bay past the marina to Kilbirnie. I didn't time the full 9.5km walk, but the stroll from the library to Kilbirnie took 80 minutes including a few pauses for photography. I can also recommend to visitors to Wellington that the no.14 bus is a fine way to get a scenic view of the city, because it travels from Kilbirnie through Hataitai and Roseneath, with views across Evans Bay and Oriental Bay.  You might even feel inclined to hopping off the bus in Oriental Bay and availing yourself of a gelato. (Included below is a short video of the view from the bus - mainly included for northern hemisphere ex-Wellingtonians, to remind them of what they're missing).

Oriental Bay pohutukawa
Oriental Bay boatsheds
Oriental Bay
Point Jerningham fishing
Santa Regina heading out to Picton
Secluded Balaena Bay
Evans Bay
Evans Bay boatyards

See also:
Blog: Highbury to south coast walk, 17 February 2013
Blog: Pukerua to Plimmerton, 27 September 2012
Blog: River walk to Richmond, 31 December 2010

12 December 2013

Behind the barricades

Following discussions this week remembering the huge divisions and conflict brought about by the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981, here's a reminder of what parts of New Zealand looked like at the time, as protesters clashed with police riot squads to fight the malign influence of apartheid in South Africa. I guess this picture, posted by Flickr user Travelling Light, was taken somewhere near the Kingsland train station, which is the closest station to Eden Park. It might have either been taken on 5 September 1981, the date of the tour match against Auckland, or the following week on 12 September, the date of the final match of the tour in which protesters Marx Jones and Grant Cole famously harassed the players with flour bombs from a light aircraft. I remember sitting on a hill in Cornwall Park with my mother and watching the plane circle over Eden Park in the distance.

sandringham nz 1981

See also:
Photo: Another Sandringham shot by Travelling Light 
Film: Patu! by Merata Mita (1983)
Music: The Newmatics - Riot Squad (1981)

11 December 2013

She took off 'er 'at and she 'ad lovely 'air

I'm always a sucker for obscure one-hit wonders and a bit of 80s pop synth, so when they're combined in the form of ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman's 1981 hit Je Suis Un Rock Star, it's a sure-fire win. You might quibble about whether Wyman qualifies as a one-hit wonder, with several top 40 solo singles to his name. But the wonderfully literal video, in which Wyman slouches around with the minimum possible effort, points at things currently being sung about in the lyrics, and fails to look particularly interested in proceedings, is enjoyable if only as a glimpse into the pampered lifestyle of a middle-aged former rock star. Plus, and this is the most important thing, the song may be trivial, but it's also effortlessly catchy, from its South London dropped aitches to its bouncy refrain and almost-can't-be-bothered singalong chorus.  The single reached number 14 in the UK pop charts in July 1981, but naturally did even better in New Zealand, reaching a highest chart position of number 6 in November of the same year, spending 12 weeks in the charts.

At the risk of being even more trivial, about the only thing many people know about Wyman is that in 1989 when he was aged 47 he notoriously married 18-year-old Mandy Smith. (In the wake of the Yewtree investigations in Britain, this is particularly tricky territory. Wyman put his side of the story to the Telegraph in March). I mainly mention this so I can quote his Wikipedia page, which has the immortal line: 'In 1993, while Wyman was still married to Smith, Stephen, his son from his first marriage, became engaged to Smith's mother'. Christmas must've been a bit awkward that year.

See also:
Music: Nik Kershaw - Wouldn't It Be Good, 26 October 2013
Music: Elvis Costello - Tramp the Dirt Down, 14 April 2013

09 December 2013

A guardian of the faith who can also do door work

Bob Mills: Pope Francis, the Holy Father, he's revealed in an interview - he went out and met some parishioners and sat and talked to them, because he's very outgoing. He goes out at night and gives alms to the poor - he's like a sort of Catholic Gladstone, without the bag and the prostitutes. He revealed in the interview that one of the jobs that he had was as a bouncer in a nightclub. And I do like Pope Francis, but I do worry that they're trying to trend him up, because there's nothing worse than the Holy Father in a dress and all the gear trying to be down with the kids: 'Oh yeah, I was bad, man, I was wicked as a bouncer.  Y'know you see me with the censer? Basically I'm happier with three snooker balls in a sock'.  Yeah, so when he was a young man he'd been a nightclub bouncer in Buenos Aires, and I would think that was a pretty tough gig.

Greg Proops: It was a place called St Peter's and people would come up to the door and he'd go 'Your name ain't in the book, beat it!'

Sandi Toksvig: I quite like the idea of having really strict rules at the nightclub, so to get in you have to pass through the eye of a needle.

- The News Quiz, BBC Radio 4, 6 December 2013

See also:
Comedy: Susan Calman's wedding list, 2 March 2013
Comedy: Francesca Martinez on disability, 20 February 2013
ComedyJeremy Hardy on education, 28 April 2011
Comedy: David Mitchell's metal penis, 21 October 2010

08 December 2013

"And somebody will f---ing freeze it and call it art"

How about Miley Cyrus? Are you a fan?
I think there's a trend, unfortunately, in the game, at the minute, of girls desperately trying to be provocative or desperately trying to – in inverted commas – "start the debate" about some old shit or other. Because, really, they're not very good. Do you know what I mean? We have it in England regularly, and you have it in the States. I feel bad for 'em. It's like, "Write a good song. Don't make a provocative video – write a good fucking song. That'll serve you better, I think." She was on TV recently, Miley Ray Cyrus, and it was just like, "What the fuck is all this about?" I don't know. It's a shame, because it puts all the other female artists back about fucking five years. Now, Adele and Emili Sande – that music, to me, is like music for fucking grannies, but at least it's got some kind of credibility.

It's just embarrassing. Be good. Don't be outrageous. Anybody can be outrageous! I could go to the Rolling Stone office and fucking shit on top of a boiled egg, right? And people would go, "Wow, fucking hell, that's outrageous!" But is it any good? No, because, essentially, it's just a shit on top of a boiled egg. That's all it is. If I was to go to your office and play you a song that I'd just written that was amazing, that would be better, wouldn't it?

I think that would be the preferable option there, yeah.
Right. So, you know, I feel bad for the girls. The sisters are not doing it for themselves.

What do you think about Lady Gaga?
Lady Gaga for me is all about that first album, because my daughter and my wife loved it. I've never heard of her since. What does that say? That speaks volumes, to me. She's another one. In fact, she's probably doing a shit on top of a boiled egg right now. And somebody will fucking freeze it and call it art.

- Noel Gallagher interviewed by Simon Vozick-Levinson, 'Noel Gallagher's Epic Year-End Gripe Session', Rolling Stone, 5 December 2013

07 December 2013

National Automobile Museum of Tasmania

During my day at leisure exploring Launceston I took in the two sites of the highly recommended Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, a walk through the Royal Park, and a visit to the Cataract Gorge to walk the trails and photograph the peacocks. I also enjoyed watching the Japanese macaques caper and preen in their enclosure in the City Park. But the highlight of the city for me was the slightly curiously named National Automobile Museum of Tasmania (86 Cimitiere St). It's not a big museum, and there's a slightly comical attempt to make it look bigger inside by installing a mirror wall at the back, but what's on display is excellent, both in terms of vintage motoring and the pinnacle of 20th century supercars. It also boasts in its front-of-counter staff the youngest Brylcreem boy I've ever seen - indeed, I didn't know that was still a thing these days. The first two photos below are from the selection of French motoring that was the first exhibition seen on entry, which boasts two gorgeous Gallic sportscars.

1936 Delage D6-70s, once confiscated by the SS in occupied Paris
1973 Dinalpin A110
1972 E49 Valiant Charger
1969 Chevrolet Corvette
1949 MG TC
1972 Ferrari 246 GT
1959 Austin Healey 3000 Mk I
1964 Jaguar 3.8 E-Type Roadster
1939 BSA Silver Star, buried in a back yard during WW2 to avoid confiscation

See also:
Transport: MOTAT 2, 3 April 2013
Transport: VW - the People's Car, 18 February 2013
Transport: Omaka Classic Car Collection, 29 January 2012

05 December 2013

"There was a twinkle and a kind of mischief about her"

Paul McCartney gives an in-depth interview to Mojo Magazine in its November 2013 issue, to promote his New album and rake over some of the many facets of his musical career. One of the first things he discusses with interviewer Pat Gilbert in a 'secluded retreat' in the Hamptons on Long Island is the ongoing issue of story-tellers reinventing his life and the lives of the other Beatles based on 'legend and hearsay' despite not being witnesses to the real events, including the free-wheeling 2009 Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy and how the original script treated John's Aunt Mimi:

I mean, when Sam Taylor-Wood made the film Nowhere Boy [about John's early life]. I know her, she's a good friend of [daughters] Stella's and Mary's. I love what she does, but she came round to my house with the script of Nowhere Boy and was talking to me about it. I'm saying, "OK, cool, tell me about it." John cruel, wicked... and I was, "Woah, woah, wait a minute! That's not what I saw! No, you weren't there Sam, the guy who wrote this wasn't there, so this is based on legend and hearsay and some facts about John's Aunt Mimi". But I was there and I'd walk up from my house, the couple of miles to John's house, go in there and knock on the window: "Hey, Mimi", and there was a twinkle and a kind of mischief about her. "John! Your little friend's here!" And she'd go, "Ooooh, look at you," we'd have this thing going but because she was an elder. I couldn't take the piss but I'd go, "Hey, what are you talking about? Little friend! I'm as tall as him!" So I always thought she was quite cool and as I said to Sam, "Oh no, no, no, wait a minute, you're going to really miss who she was". Maybe in the story she's got to be the strict one who has to bring John up, but what I saw of her she was a very nice woman who John loved, no doubt about it, but like any parent, any guardian would get pissed at. 
But the point I'm making is I said, "No Sam, you're really going to miss it," and she said, "That's much better," so Mimi's character in the film is much better. She was a fun character.  
In the film again John and his mates jump on the top of a bus and he never did that. Sam said, "Ah yes but it's a great scene," so I have to go, "You know what Sam? Let's get an agreement. It's a film. This is not a life, it's a film. This is not the reality, it's a film of the reality". 
- Paul McCartney, 'Don't Look Back in Anger', Mojo, November 2013 

See also:
MusicJohn Lennon - Watching the Wheels (1980)
Books: The John Lennon Letters review, 13 October 2012
Music: Paul McCartney in Hyde Park, 4 July 2010

04 December 2013

Port Arthur

Penitentiary (1857) - originally constructed as a flour mill
One of the highlights of my week in Tasmania was of course the day I spent at the world heritage site at the tip of the Tasman peninsula, the Port Arthur convict settlement. This far-flung prison camp was designed to house the most recidivist and violent criminals sent to the Australian colonies, and from its foundation as a penal station in 1830 until it was finally closed in 1877 Port Arthur was both a watchword for the harshest forms of imprisonment available at the time, and a notorious threat held over the heads of convicts elsewhere - toe the line or else you'll get sent to the worst corner of Van Diemen's Land. 

In Matthew Kneale's award-winning and highly recommended novel of 19th century Tasmania, English Passengers, the rather dastardly character Jack Harp finds himself sent as one of the first convicts to the newly-established Port Arthur penal station. After much back-breaking labour to set up the camp and hack miles of timber from the forest to supply the colony and the ship-building trade, he describes the growing settlement:

Port Arthur was getting older too. Convicts by the hundred there were now, with more buggers coming all the while, and from just a few huts by the shore it was grown into quite a Manchester, with work sheds turning out every kind of article, from boots to lamp-posts. There was a dock where ships were made, and strong guarded, too, while away to northwards was a little coal mine with cells underground, that was said to be such a delight that even the Macquarie Harbour boys tried to keep away. If for some reason a fellow tired of all this joy and decided to take a little walk alone into the bush, there was a fine new semaphore on the hill behind the commander's house, so that in just a few moments all Van Diemen's Land might know of his strolling. If our fellow was caught - and he generally would be - and was left weary from his adventures, or had caught a bullet in his gut, there was a little railway to carry him back, with carriages pulled not by steam engines but convicts, these being more plentiful. Why, if his excursion proved too exciting for his nerves we even had an island of the dead for the poor bleeder, where he could be buried in a good Port Arthur coffin, that he might have worked on himself. 
- Matthew Kneale, English Passengers, 2000, p.185-6. 
To the modern visitor, Port Arthur is an intriguing and strangely beautiful settlement at the far edge of the world. But reminders of the grim past of Van Diemen's Land are never far from sight. Naturally, the impressive stone edifices of the settlement, including the towering four-storey penitentiary building and the remains of the church atop the hill, were all built with convict slave labour. Life for the convicts at Port Arthur was brutal and there was only a distant hope of deliverance back into mainstream society. Perhaps a ticket of leave would be granted eventually, but the lengthy sentences of those who ended up imprisoned on the Tasman Peninsula - often for multiple offences and recidivism - meant that many had little hope of rejoining colonial life outside the penal station. Indeed, some chose the easy way out - attempted murder of a guard or fellow convict could result in a one-way trip to the swift release of the hangman's noose.

Escape from Port Arthur was well-nigh impossible.  The geography of the Tasman Peninsula meant that all escapees travelling by land would have to pass the Eaglehawk Neck, the narrow isthmus where the infamous 'dog line' of half-staved hounds awaited. The sea surrounding the peninsula was icy cold and treacherous; indeed, one of the few escape attempts to succeed (at least temporarily) was when some convicts stole one of the whaleboats being constructed in the boatyard and then pretended to be part of the search party sent to recapture themselves. (They were eventually caught on the Australian mainland when they were unluckily recognised by a former Port Arthur guard). The famous convict and bushranger Martin Cash did manage to escape Port Arthur in 1842 by swimming the Neck, but he was captured in Hobart in 1843.

Braving the Tasmanian rain, I explored the penal station on foot using the official audio guide, which is a good source for period quotes and background. I also took in the 20-minute boat ride in the harbour that's included as part of your entry ticket. It's a useful way to get your bearings, and get a closer look at two nearby islands. The smaller, the Isle of the Dead, is unsurprisingly the Port Arthur graveyard. The larger, Point Puer, was the site of the Point Puer Boys' Prison from 1834 to 1849, which was the first purpose-built juvenile reformatory in the British Empire. Life on the Point was grim, with the school situated on an exposed and narrow island that bore the brunt of the wild weather, and the intention to keep the boys separated from the 'evil influences' of the Port Arthur convicts was never practical.

Ruins of the hospital (1842)
The worst side of Port Arthur was the Separate Prison, influenced by voguish theories insisting that jails should punish (and if possible, reform) the prisoners' minds instead of their bodies. Opened in 1849, the Separate Prison incarcerated inmates in tiny solitary confinement cells, and absolutely no communication was permitted between any prisoners. Whenever they were allowed out of their cells - one hour per day only - prisoners were forced to wear anonymising full-face masks and were referred to by prisoner number rather than their name. In the frequent church services in the chapel, each man was forced to stand in a tiny separate wooden cubicle that restricted their view so they could only see the pulpit. I visited such a chapel in Lincoln Castle prison in 2008 and was struck by the cruelty of the whole scheme, but also of the finicky malice in the tiny details: in the Lincoln chapel each narrow wooden cubicle had a small bench for the prisoner, but it was angled 45 degrees downwards so they couldn't rest by sitting properly. It's no surprise that many of the men sent to Separate Prisons ended up going mad thanks to the pitiless regime they were incarcerated under.
Separate Prison cell (1849)
Separate Prison chapel
Despite the persistent Vandemonian rain, I relished the opportunity to explore Port Arthur, which is a hugely evocative slice of Australian history, and to hear some of the stories of those incarcerated therein. Each visitor to Port Arthur is given a marked playing card, and a particular convict's story is revealed as you explore the museum at the entrance. Mine was a 33-year-old groom from Cheshire, transported for horse theft and send to Port Arthur for further stealing once in Australia. After a failed escape attempt from a timber gang he was given 75 lashes. Vowing revenge, he tried to stove a guard's head in with an axe in a sneak attack. Soon after he was tried in Hobart and executed. Hardly a happy ending.

Aside from the heritage aspects, another thing I admired about Port Arthur was the sensitive way it commemorates the calamitous mass murder that occurred there in April 1996, when a rogue gunman killed 35 and wounded others. The gunman's name is mentioned nowhere at Port Arthur, and a peaceful memorial pool reflects the ruined walls of the former tea kiosk that burned down in the rampage. The one small saving grace that arose from the crime was that thanks to the gun reforms that were implemented in Australia in response to the massacre, there have been no similar mass shootings in Australia since that day in April 1996, and indeed former Australian Prime Minister John Howard cites this as one of his proudest achievements in office.

Finally, here's a brief two-part video taken during a gap in the drizzle:

See also:
Blog: Hobart, 27 November 2013
Blog: Rottnest Island wildlife, 21 November 2012
Book: For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke, 1874 

02 December 2013

"Give us the money!"

Tonight I rewatched the 2010 telemovie When Harvey Met Bob, a dramatisation of the mad scramble to stage the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia on 13 July 1985, and to televise those concerts to an estimated global audience of 1.5 billion in order to raise millions for famine relief in Ethiopia. It's not perfect - Domhnall Gleeson's Bob Geldof is convincingly exasperated, exhausted and manipulative to pull the concert off but watching him do it is sometimes wearying due to the understandable focus on relentless righteous indignation at the indifference of the world to the starving in Africa. Gleeson - the son of Irish actor Brendan Gleeson - holds forth in hectoring soliloquies on poverty that are of course delivered in a pitch perfect Geldof accent, but occasionally the script feels like it's moving from one Geldof direct quote set-piece to another. For some peculiar reason Band Aid and Live Aid co-organiser Midge Ure is never mentioned in the teleplay. But no matter, because ultimately this is a compelling story of individual achievement against enormous odds.

Integral to the success of the Live Aid concert was the tireless work and unrivalled showbiz connections of promoter Harvey Goldsmith, played with aplomb by veteran actor Ian Hart. The relationship between Goldsmith and Geldof is the core of the film, with Goldsmith unconvinced at the outset that Geldof's numerous promises will ever amount to anything, and fearful because his own reputation is at stake. Slowly Goldsmith is won over by Geldof's truculent energy, and they combine to produce one of the greatest live concert spectacles ever staged. If the film is remotely accurate - and it starts with a disclaimer that some of the events depicted were exaggerated for dramatic effect - it's a remarkable testament to both men (and those who worked with them) that the Live Aid gigs were organised in such a short period of time and were so outlandishly successful.

As I've mentioned before here, I can't for the life of me remember why I didn't watch Live Aid when it was broadcast. Perhaps because our TV was in the living room and it would have meant commandeering it from my grandparents, which was unthinkable. I've seen a few clips through the years, like the Bowie set and Nik Kershaw's backstage interview. You've probably seen Live Aid, but not When Harvey Met Bob - so while the link lasts, here's a version someone has uploaded.

[When Harvey Met Bob Part 2 Part 3]

See also:
TV: Bob Geldof studio appeal, Live Aid, 1985
Music: Boomtown Rats - I Don't Like Mondays, Live Aid, 1985
Music: Queen - Live Aid set, 1985

01 December 2013

Thorndon Fair

Today's annual Thorndon Fair was held on a blazingly sunny capital day, thereby ensuring an impressive turnout of shoppers and browsers. As usual, there was a good range of stalls and eateries; not sure how much business the Solatube stand got though. The fair is to benefit Thorndon School.

Tinakori Rd looking uphill

Tinakori Rd looking downhill

Whatever you do, don't mess with the Italians.

See also:
Blog: Houghton Bay, 23 November 2013
Blog: Wright's Hill Fortress, 29 October 2013
Blog: Tinakori sunrise, 6 October 2013