Thursday, August 28, 2014

Meissen Museum, Schloss Weyer, Upper Austria

Meissen Museum in Schloss Weyer
     We visited this on 27th August, after a hike along the Vorchdorfer Lokalbahn (Gmunden to Vorchdorf) and locations of the first railway in the Hapsburg Empire, a horse drawn railway from Budweis to Gmunden. Not that this anything to do with the Meissen Museum, but it helps to set the ambience. That, and the rain, which came down in torrents while we walked to Schloss Weyer.
     The Meissen Museum was certainly impressive. Apparently around 1700 August The Strong, King of Poland (among other things), kept a Johann Boettger locked up when Johann pretended he could make gold. Eventually, under the supervision of another chemist, Boettger figured out how to make hard paste porcelain, which turned out to be “white gold”, ie, very expensive, and a source of much cash. The famous Meissen porcelain works were founded on this trickster’s discoveries. The technology of porcelain is fascinating. As with  any ceramic, consistency of glazing, colouring, and strength is paramount, and over the centuries Meissen has solved these puzzles and mastered the processes. They have over 10,000 recipes or formulas for glazes and colours. These used to be called trade secrets; now they are intellectual property.
     Artistically, Meissen, like all ceramics factories or traditions I’ve ever seen, is a mix of inspired skill, artistic feeling, and a kind of showing off of craft that I find amusing at best. There’s no question that the figures take enormous skill and craft to produce, not only in the sculpting, but even more so in the firing and glazing. Fire is a fickle tool. I wonder how many of the complicated pieces blew to bits in the kiln before a successful firing resulted. Certainly the technical difficulties of firing large complex figure groups guaranteed there would not be very many of them.
     The best pieces were and are the utilitarian ones. Sets of dishes decorated and made for royalty and other aristocracy were often overdone, but there is persistent strain of elegant and simple decoration that is in my opinion the main reason Meissen crockery is still sought after. Many of the pure white, undecorated designs show a purity of line and shape that raises them to the level of art. Such a versatile medium as fired clay enables the artists to imagine any shape whatsoever, without having to worry whether, for example, the grain of the material will co-operate. This freedom is both a blessing and curse. The designers at Meissen have solved the problem of excessive freedom more often than most.
    I found the museum interesting, and well worth a visit. ***

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

      The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) [D: John Madden. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith et al] A sweet feel-good movie about some elderly Brits looking for a cheap place to live out their years and perhaps fulfill a few dreams or fantasies. They land in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, run by an enthusiastic but somewhat gormless lad whose mother wants him to sell the dump and marry a respectable girl. And so on. The stories intersect nicely, and everyone get more or less what they wish for and maybe even deserve. The theme is self-validation: what makes life worth living, if you can’t live with yourself? A heavy question, but dealt with lightly.
     A good script, it helps you over the humps of implausibility. Well acted by experienced pros, if you like Britcoms and British drama and movies, you’ve seen them all before. They know what they’re doing, and so does the director, who uses their strengths to woo us into that blissful state of believing the preposterous plot and recognising the wisdom in the many one-liners.
     The photography, music, and editing support the story, and don’t intrude on it. It’s based on a novel, which I suspect is summer beach reading. That’s what this movie is, too, a summer evening entertainment, pleasant, innocuous, and like all such apparently slight fluff containing depths that you don’t see until scenes pop into your present at odd moments. Well done professional entertainment. ***

Apocalypse: World War One (2013)

     Apocalypse: World War One (2013) A sderies of one hour documentaries made by cobbling together contemporary movie footage to illustrate the story of the Great War. The footage has been digitally enhanced as much as possible, including adding colour and sound. The result is a pretty good account of the war as it unfolded, with emphasis on the mistakes that guaranteed both horrifically stupid slaughter and a continuation of the conflicts in another Great War a generation later, as well as the many local and not so local horrors that still bedevil international politics in our own time. A good introduction to the history of the 20th and 21st centuries, in other words. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it in a middle- or high-school history class.
     The story overall is depressing: 8 million civilians and 4 million soldiers died, as best as can be estimated. Worse, it’s clear that the war began and was continued because a bunch of mostly old men thought they could realise their dreams of empire. Or more accurately, so that they could validate the illusions of their own importance. When people justified their actions by referring to their country's “legitimate” interests, or its “rightful” place among the nations, they were really talking about their egos. Schoolyard politics is all it really was: boys play these games and grow out of them, but the emperors and others of their class did not.
     Worst of these was Kaiser Wilhelm II, a classic example of the Paranoid Ineffectual Male, who believes that everyone is out to diss him, and compensates by trying blow them all up. The glory and honour that these wimps were pursuing was at bottom their fear that others in their circle of idjits would not “respect” them, ie, acknowledge that they were superior. Which of course they weren’t, and they knew it, so they tried to prove their superiority by going to war. The same insane value set underlies calling murderous Alexander of Macedonia “the Great”.
     It’s significant that these people were either incapable of doing real productive work, or unwilling to do it. So they had no real purpose in life. If you neither make stuff that other people want, nor provide services that other people need, you are useless. That whole class of bully boys were useless. Unfortunately, too many of the rest of us buy into their insanity and agree to go kill each other to prop up those fragile egos. We also have fragile egos, a terrible need to validate our self image by seeing it reflected back to us in the fear and loathing of those whom we would oppress. It’s also significant that these people need to have fancy uniforms and “decorations” to prove that they are important. Anyone who needs that kind of crap needs psychiatric help.
     A good series, useful as a reminder of what humans are capable of when they surrender to a delusion. **½

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ian Stewart. Nature’s Numbers (1995)

     Ian Stewart. Nature’s Numbers (1995) A guide into the uses of mathematics, and a glance at how mathematics has changed as our understanding of the world around us has changed. Stewart doesn’t like the divide between applied and pure math, he points out that each prods the other into ever new insights. His exemplar is the calculus, a mathematics invented in order to deal with rates of change of rates of change, prompted by Newton’s insights into how things move. Newton’s model of motion was a new way of thinking about it. To formalise that he needed more math than was available to him, so he invented it. Leibniz invented it, too, using a different notation. Newton’s notation has won out, barely, because it’s somewhat easier to use.
     We now can’t get along without the calculus, which informs all our technology. I learned how to integrate and differentiate years ago, and can’t do it any more, But the way of thinking it taught me is with me still. That’s the enduring legacy of learning math that you won’t use: it changes the way you think, more precisely, it increases the ways you can think about the world. Since then, more new math has been developed.
     The book is also an attempt to change the average person’s notion that math is calculation, but that it’s about patterns. The kinds of patterns that math can deal with now may be called patterns of patterns. We can’t calculate the weather accurately beyond a few days, but we can say a good deal about what kind of patterns to expect. These patterns are the climate (Stewart doesn’t say this, I’m building on his insights). It’s the changing patterns of the weather that’s meant by “climate change”. And although we experience only weather, we also have an uneasy sense that the patterns of weather are changing. The climate models put numbers to these changes, telling us that while we may not have more rain, for example, the rain will fall less frequently and in smaller areas, so we will see more flooding. Thinking in terms of patterns of patterns is a way of dealing with many more variables than we can handle by thinking merely about patterns.
     A good book, but it lacks pictures. Stewart is a poet, he thinks in images, but many people (most?) need actual pictures to understand metaphors. Like some other popular science books, this requires some background. You have to be able to think mathematically, not merely arithmetically, in order to fully get Stewart’s theses. Nevertheless, I recommend it. **½

Saturday, August 09, 2014

John Cunningham. The Tin Star (Collier’s, December 4, 1947)

     John Cunningham. The Tin Star (Collier’s, December 4, 1947) The short story adapted for High Noon. As often happens, the movie retains very little of the original. In this case only three pieces remain:  the basic situation, Jordan, a released murderer returning to revenge himself on Doane, the marshal who arrested him; the marshal’s fatalistic acceptance of the coming fight; and Jordan’s arrival on the train. The rest is different. Toby, the deputy, wants Doane to leave. Doane is a widower, and his first encounter with Jordan occurs at the cemetery. Toby kills Jordan’s brother before the final fight, and kills Jordan while Doane is dying. Doane does not look for a posse. There’s no back story beyond the fact that Doane arrested Jordan, and Jordan wasn’t hanged. Doane tells Toby that being a law man is a thankless job, a plot and  character point that’s given to the retired marshal in High Noon. But the theme remains: a man cannot run away from a fight, and must risk his life in order to destroy evil. That’s the essence of chivalric romance.
     The story itself is little more than a sketch, focussing almost entirely on Doane, his arthritis, his age, his fatalism, written in the usual pulp style. It’s quite effective, a good example of the quick-bite type of short story that magazines published before TV began to provide this type of light-weight entertainment. That Zinneman and his writers were able to extract its essence, add plausible variations and additions, and create a classic Western, demonstrates that Hollywood craft could rise to the level of art. The story is available online. I think it’s worth reading. **½

Friday, August 01, 2014

High Noon (1952)

     High Noon (1952) [D:Fred Zinneman. Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, et al] This was the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched this movie, it gets better every time. The story is well known: Marshall Will Kane turns in his badge on his wedding day, but Frank Miller, whom he arrested for murder some years ago, has been pardoned, and is arriving on the noon train to get even with him. Kane takes back his badge, tries to assemble a posse, fails, and takes on Miller and his henchmen alone. His wife Amy opposes the violence, but returns instead of abandoning Kane, and kills one of the thugs. In the last scene, Will and Amy ride off on their buggy, with no farewell or other talk with the townspeople who have refused to help them. A stereotypical plot, but done so well that it feels fresh.
     Photography, pacing, acting, sound, are all excellent. Zinneman had a clear vision of what he wanted. Matching screen time to story time may seem like a trick, but it works: Kane has about an hour and a half to do his job. The set-up scenes are run under the titles, a method that was much imitated, but rarely so well done. The movie is near-perfect example of the genre. ****