Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Genius Within (2009)

      The Genius Within (2009) A bio of Gould that pays homage to his music, but focuses on his love life. He fell in love with Cornelia Foss, and she with him, so she moved her children to Toronto, and for a while it seemed they might marry. But Gould became increasingly dependent on his anti-depressant meds, and eventually she returned to her husband. Gould died of a series of strokes in 1982 at the age of 50. His death hit the children especially hard.
     An above average documentary, with reminiscences by Cornelia, the children, Lorne Tulk (the sound engineer on Gould’s recordings), and other friends and acquaintances. The biographer speaks a few times, and confesses that there’s a mystery he was not able to penetrate. This remark is echoed by other people. In the end, what remains is Gould’s music, and  the impression of a life that was perhaps less fulfilling emotionally than it might have been.
     Does the genius of Gould’s interpretations of Bach match the cost of his and others’ emotional pain? Perhaps. Everybody must balance the costs and gains of his life. Gould came to accept the cost, enjoying his time at the family cottage, and in playful impersonations of imaginary figures, recorded in photographs. Hearing his second recordings of the Goldberg Variations, I imagined scenes from a movie, of figures in a cityscape at night, together but alone, wandering in and out of lights and shadows, while some unknown hunters close in on them with dispassionate intensity, preparing for the kill. ***

Monday, January 26, 2015

Julie & Julia (2009)

      Julie & Julia (2009) [D:Nora Ephron. Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci]
     A mostly pleasant account of how Julie Powell cooks and blogs her way through Julia Child’s book over one year, alternating with Child’s career as cook and author.
     In 2002, Julie Powell decided to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blog about it over 365 days. Her story is alternates with Julia Child’s, beginning with a posting to Paris with her foreign service husband Paul, attending a Cordon Blue cooking school, and so on. Powell later wrote a book about her year of cooking, Child wrote an autobiography, these form the basis for the screenplay.
     The food was gorgeous, I wanted to eat it. The story unfolds slowly, the cross-cutting between Powell’s and Child’s lives works. We need to know something about the history of the 1950s to fully understand Child’s story; the movie makes me want to read her book. Powell’s story has an oddly 60's feel to it, even though it’s set in early 2000s New York.
     Adams as Julie Powell is appealing, even though her marriage to Eric (Chris Messina) is a little too good to be true. Tucci as Paul Child is cool, calm, and collected, and very supportive of Julia, not surprising considering the fabulous food she cooks for him. Meryl Streep as Julia Child is irritating. She’s not acting, she’s impersonating, and the result is a caricature. At one point, Julie and Eric watch a Saturday Night Live parody of Julia’s cooking show, and there’s really not much difference between that Julia and Streep’s version.
     There’s no question that Julia was one of the people who moved food from being a more or less inoffensive fuel to a central pleasure of life. She was a larger than life figure, but the nuances of her character and her relationships with friends and family are barely hinted at here. We need a well-done biopic of this amazing woman. I liked Powell’s decision to straighten herself out by assigning herself a year-long task, but I don’t feel any desire to know more about her. I would like to enjoy some of Julia’s dishes. **½

Murder on the Orient Express (2001, TV)

     Murder on the Orient Express (2001, TV) A modernised version, with cell-phones even, and the current touristy Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which in fact no longer runs to Istanbul. The Poirot here is laid back and almost sleepy, he lacks that rage to know that is Poirot’s essence, and even more he lacks the ruthless conviction that murderers must be brought to justice. The result is a moderately pleasant way to pass a couple of hours. The movie doesn’t demand much of the viewer. Poirot’s sleepiness is matched by the almost soporific pace of the narrative, the sloppy placing of the red herrings, the almost complete lack of urgency, the perfunctory cross-cutting between scenes that are supposed to reveal important clues or misdirections. A couple of the usual mistakes in depicting railways don’t help: one stock scene of a passing train shows an American locomotive. *

Saturday, January 24, 2015

And Then There Were None (1945)

      And Then There Were None (1945) [D: Rene Clair. Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston] This movie is based on Christie’s stage-play, not the book, which explains that I didn’t recognise all the plot points. It’s also a typical Hollywood adaptation, well done photography, ominous music signalling that it’s time to watch the screen instead of munching popcorn, and so on. I can’t tell how much the script departs from Christie’s, the rather static blocking of the characters and surprisingly clunky narrative pace feels like a holdover from the stage. The story itself is typical Christie, with red herrings well placed. The unravelling of the group of guests as they realise that the murderer must be one of them doesn’t feel quite right. However, the mix of distrust and wary trust is difficult to make plausible, and this was not intended as an Oscar contender. An OK 80-odd minutes of entertainment. **

Johnny Hart. B.C.: Great Zot, I’m Beautiful (1971)

     Johnny Hart. B.C.: Great Zot, I’m Beautiful (1971) A dinosaur gazing at its reflection in a stream does the Narcissus thing. That’s one sign that Hart is a literate and witty comic strip author. Most of the strips collected here rely on visual, verbal, and conceptual puns, one sometimes gets the point only on a double take. Other strips rely on bizarre logic: “How do go about sell underarm deodorant without getting too offensive?” asks Wiley. “Try keeping your elbows close to you sides,” answers Peter.  And that sample will have to do. You may find a copy of a B.C. collection in a yard sale, if you do, snap it up. ***

Friday, January 23, 2015

Dishonored Lady (1947)

     Dishonored Lady (1947) [D: Robert Stevenson. Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, John Loder] A soaper, as these movies came to be known. Lamarr plays a playgirl fashion magazine art-editor whose empty life leads to a nervous breakdown. A psychiatrist suggests complete withdrawal from the glitzy life in order to rediscover her true womanhood (although it’s not put as bluntly as that). She does so, takes up painting again, meets a young post-doc (O’Keefe) doing research on blood, does the illustrations for him, and of course they fall in love.
     A lecherous old flame (Loder) picks her up when she returns to New York to help out her successor, and takes her to his place. But before any further compromising behavior can occur, the lecher’s associate arrives, there’s a dispute about missing jewelry, and Loder is murdered. But Lamarr has already left. Of course she is wrongfully arrested and tried, which puts the kibosh on her romance with O’Keefe, but he figures out the truth and gets the bad guy. Lamarr, still feeling guilty over her hoydenish past, flees, but O’Keefe catches up to her at the airport, clinch, and fade-out to happily ever after.
     The plot is not quite as ludicrous as this summary might imply, both the writing and the acting make the characters plausible enough, and with the exception of the murderer, they are nice enough. What 70-odd years have done is change the both the psychological theory and the mores that explain and govern our lives. It’s in the light of those explicit and implicit assumptions about human nature that we read this as a thoroughly dated movie. But we’d better not feel too superior about it. In every age popular fiction rests on the world-view of the day, and the 2010s will no doubt seem just as ludicrous to our descendants as the 1940s seem to us.
     A workmanlike piece of film making, worth a look, especially if you like Lamarr.  **

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Simon Schama. History of Britain II: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 (2001)

     Simon Schama. History of Britain II: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 (2001) A shorter time-span, a fatter book. Schama has lots more sources to work with than for Volume I, and here and there yields to the temptation to pile on the details. This makes the arc of the plot harder to follow. Schama shows that the civil wars of the 1600s led fairly directly to the constitutional reforms that gave us a monarch subject to law, and a sovereign Parliament.
The British Parliamentary system separates the roles and powers of Head of State and the Head of Government. It took three centuries for that system to reach its present form, Schama interrupts his story at the beginning of the American Revolution, when Americans still insisted that they were British, and so were entitled to all the rights and privileges of the British in the home-country. It was this demand for political and economic equality with Britain that was refused by Westminster (with a strong support from the King, who still had an active role in government). It’s interesting to speculate on the consequences of that equality being recognised. Would we now have a Queen residing in Baltimore, perhaps?
     As in Volume 1, Schama shows that whatever the social and economic pressures on the decision makers, they did have decisions to make, and those decisions did determine the next round of problems to solve. I think he could have contrasted the paths taken more strongly with the alternatives and analysed why they weren’t taken. We do, after all, make choices according to the values we take for granted. It’s those values, and even more the assumptions about human (and non-human) nature that guide the evaluation of choices, and it’s in that sense that “historical currents” determine history. But the results always include the unpredictable. Understanding where decisions went wrong comes slowly, sometimes two or three generations later, by which time a new set of unconscious assumptions guide the new decision makers.
     In short, we can’t win. But we can muddle through, as Schama’s tale shows. The Cromwellian revolution, the Stuart Restoration, the installation of  the houses of Orange and Hanover, were reactions to immediate problems seen in the light (or rather, shadows) cast by the past, made more complex and contingent by the personal desires and feuds of the actors. They were not actions taken as part of a long-range program of liberalisation, although that was, in the end, their main effect. The Whigs’ reading of British history as steady progress towards personal and economic freedom was right after all, albeit as often despite the actors' explicit wishes as because of them.
     A good read. ***

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gordon Snell & Aislin. Yes! Even More Canadians (2000)

     Gordon Snell & Aislin. Yes! Even More Canadians (2000) Snell writes the verse, Aislin does the portraits, the result is a mildly amusing collection.  I nibbled at it over a couple of days, recommended for anyone who wants a painless intro the list of the good, great and scoundrels of our history. But this is a “gift book”, the kind of confection put together for Christmas and birthdays. What do you give to the one  who, you know well enough to give gift, but not well enough? This is book is safe, it’s educational, patriotic, amusing, and doesn’t give offense to anyone. It’s nicely made, too. **

Monday, January 19, 2015

Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004)

      Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004) [D: Oliver Hirschbiegel. Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara]
      A docudrama recreating the last days of Hitler in the bunker under the Reichskanzlei in Berlin, focussing on and based on the memoirs of Traudl Jung, his last secretary, but also using all available documentary evidence to present life within the bunker and in Berlin. The movie has the ring of truth.
      What is clear enough is that people act within the roles and structures they inhabit. The staff follow and obey Hitler partly from habit, partly from personal loyalty, partly because of ideological conviction, and even from a kind of fascinated pity. The reaction to the impending doom varies with to these motivations. As one might expect, there is no shortage of rats leaving a sinking ship, of people realising that there is no post-war role for them, and of people continuing to live in the fantasies of war and conquest.
      None was more in the grip of fantasy than Hitler, who according to the record rarely showed awareness of what was actually happening, or gave signs that he understood his responsibility for the catastrophe. It is in this denial of reality, of clinging to his crazy vision, that Hitler is paradoxically most human, and that is how Ganz plays him. This has caused criticism of Hitler being presented as too human, as weak and fragile and deserving of pity. I think this criticism is misplaced, or rather, that it comes from an unwillingness to accede that a Hitler is well within the range of human possibilities, but to see him as some kind demonic aberration. But he was merely a man who tried to make his fantasies real, and in failing to do so he caused the death of 50,000,000 people.
      Hitler was not merely fundamentally too stupid to achieve his ambitions, he was unable to accept his own incompetence. Many people believe Hitler had a monstrous ego, but I think he suffered from a pathetically weak one. He needed the fantasies of supreme power and competence in order to survive. His rage at what he saw as personal betrayals was at bottom fear that others saw that he essentially was a nothing. His skill consisted in convincing other people that he indeed could wield supreme power, and that conviction reflected back to him was what sustained him.
      When objective evidence showed up his incompetence, Hitler scrabbled all the more desperately to maintain his fantasy. For too long he succeeded, and the puzzle is why. I think that a large part was his followers’ distrust of each other. They weren’t so much afraid of what Hitler could or would do if they asserted independence, but of what their colleagues might do, if only to eliminate rivals for power. And all of them were afraid of the lower cadres, the ordinary soldiers who were in the habit of following orders. Some could see no way out, and stumbled towards the end, doing their work as best they could. Put that stew of feelings, fears, beliefs, attitudes and habits together, and we can see how the power structure in the bunker lasted until Hitler put as bullet through his head. That’s what the movie shows, and in showing this, it reminds us that character and personality always make a difference .
     This is a depressing movie in many ways, but I think it’s essential viewing. Well done in all respects. ****

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ladies of the Chorus (1948)

     Ladies of the Chorus (1948) [D: Phil Karlson. Adele Jergens, Marilyn Monroe, Rand Brooks] A mother (Jergens) and daughter (Monroe) are both members of a chorus line. A wealthy young man sees the daughter, falls in love, and offers marriage. The mother objects on grounds of class, but a weekend at the young man’s home, where his mother reveals herself as a thoroughgoing democrat and romantic, clears up all obstacles, and everything comes up roses, as they say. The acting is competent, the movie-making also, this is the kind of double-bill filler that Hollywood churned out by the thousands, or so it seems. Later, the movie-makers would apply the same techniques for making content for TV from sitcoms to dramas. A pleasant hour of entertainment, a cut or two above the average for this genre. **½

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004)

     Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004) [D: Simon Cellan Jones. Rupert Everett, Ian Hart] Written by Allan Cubitt, “based on” a story by Doyle, this is a good entry in the Holmes adaptations. The Doyle connection is the use of twins, but other than that, the story is original, and like many extensions of the Doyle canon, goes its own way. The test of its success is not faithfulness to the originals but plausibility of characters and setting. I think this aspect was well done.
     After the series with Simon Brett, it was difficult to create a plausible variation on Holmes. This one is softer and moodier, with hints of unfulfilled desires and deeper neuroses than Doyle’s character. The story itself, set in Edwardian England, uses new psychological insights to construct both Holmes’s character and the crime, which is serial killing. As a crime puzzle, the plot is so-so, relying on finger-printing and the insights of Watson’s fiancĂ©e, an American psychiatrist. Lestrade (played by Neil Dudgeon) is an up-to-date copper, his only failing is his bafflement when faced by perverse motivations for crime. Watson is more assertive and skilled as Holmes’s sidekick and assistant, and Holmes’s addiction both slows him down and puts him in a dream state that enables access to his subconscious insights. He’s not the cold, clear logic engine that Doyle’s admirers profess to see, and makes an almost lethal mistake.
     The online reviews are generally either positive or negative. Look on IMDb if you want to see the range of opinions.
     Overall, I liked this movie. It lacks the nervous energy of the Simon Brett versions, and the pace and complexity of the Cumberbatch ones. But it’s worth a look by anyone who likes Holmes. I give it **½.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Stephen W. Hawking. The Theory of Everything (2002)

     Stephen W. Hawking. The Theory of Everything (2002) Originally published as The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works in 1996. The title is a sly joke: Hawking is not offering a grand unified theory, but an  account of “The Origin and Fate of the Universe”.
     There have been a few advances or improvements in that account since he wrote it. There’s now definite evidence of the Higgs boson, which will add to the detail of the first few femtoseconds of the Universe’s existence. Some progress has been made in deducing the state of the universe while it was still a dense opaque soup of elementary particles and energy quanta, before it became transparent. The notion of a singularity at the inception of time as we know it is being modified: it may be sensible to talk of a time before our universe’s expansion from almost nothing, but any information from that time is inaccessible. But these are details: the grand picture is the same now as it has been for a couple of decades: our universe (or our bit of it) began in an unimaginably dense region which expanded very rapidly in a few seconds, and has been expanding much more slowly ever since. It will likely continue to expand “forever”,  which makes one think about what that term may mean.
      Hawking writes concisely, his disability forces him to choose his words carefully. He has a lovely sly sense of humour, noticing sideways and loopy connections between what he’s saying about abstract models and the actual life we live. It feels good to think that he’s managed to remain cheerful despite the ravages of ALS.
     Cosmology is an iffy science. It’s essentially speculative. Models are proposed, they are massaged until they produce some prediction, and the experimentalists and observers look for matches. Matches winnow the number of candidates, and may suggest new ones. Since sometime around the 1970s, cosmologists have included quantum physics (QP) in their models, Hawking chief among them. (He’s very careful to give credit where it’s due, and to admit his errors and oversights). Including QP raises some questions.
     There is a temptation to interpret models as pictures of reality, to use them as justifications of claims about what reality is. But QP is notorious for prompting incompatible or metaphysically absurd interpretations. Is our universe one among hugely many in a multiverse? Is the number of universes increasing because random bubbles in space-time appear and expand, or do human choices have something to do with it? There is no way, absent more complete models, to arbitrate between the answers. But I doubt that more complete models will do away with such interpretations. The reason is the way physicists talk about reality.
      What many physicists say about what QP tells us about “reality” suggests to me that they forget that they are talking about models. A scientific theory is a model of reality, it’s not reality. The experimenter tries to simplify the interaction as much as possible, on the assumption is that simplification will reveal some essential properties of the observed object. And that is certainly the case. But there is an additional assumption: that an object is some kind of stable combination of its properties. I think this is a misleading assumption. All we can know of any object is our interactions with it. The uncertainties intrinsic to QP are uncertainties about what we are able to know about those interactions. To put it bluntly: Observations are interactions. An object is the history of our interactions with it.
     For example, I don’t think it makes sense to say that photons are somehow both waves and particles, some weird combination of what we see on the surface of a pond and what we see on the surface of a billiard table. It does make sense to say that their behavior is like that of a wave or that of a particle, depending on how we interact with them. They may even exhibit both behaviours in some situations.  Someone has even invented the term “wavicle”, kinda cute. It’s that dual behaviour which persuades some people that photons are somehow both wave and particle.
     But it doesn’t persuade me. I’d rather say that we can’t imagine an object that is both wave and particle, the best we can do is use wave and particle mathematics to describe and predict the behaviour of photons. Just what a photon is in and of itself is a meaningless question.  “Wavicle” is a gap-filling belief.
     The same can be said of our theories of the universe. Mathematics is a wonderfully precise language for describing and predicting our interactions with the world. But to think that these descriptions are anything more than that is I think a  delusion.
     Read Hawking’s book. It’s a bit outdated, but it’s an easy read for anyone who’s kept up with cosmology, and a not too difficult introduction for the newcomer. It lacks diagrams, a minor fault. ***½

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Louis L’Amour. Dutchman’s Flat (1986)

     Louis L’Amour. Dutchman’s Flat (1986) L’Amour published this collection of short stories to counter want he saw as an unwarranted infringement on his rights as an author. Apparently, another collection of his short stories had been published by their copyright holder. This annoyed L’Amour, who was jealous of his reputation. So he added a few stories to the list and published this collection with Foreword and Author’s Notes. Most of the stories are nice bite-sized pieces, well crafted with tight plots, and just enough setting and characterisation to draw you in for the 10 or 15 minutes it takes to read them.  There’s also a novella, which I skipped.
     L’Amour often ends his stories with the hero settling down with a good woman on good land. He tends to idealise the women, but presents them as tough, self-confident, and independent. It’s pretty clear that the women choose the men, not the other way round. Whether this is L’Amour’s experience or some instinctive inclusion of the courtly love tropes in his stories is a moot point.  But his heroes are definitely knights errant in western dress.
L’Amour is a conscious story-teller. Although he romanticises the West, he wants the reader to know that his tales are based on fact. Still, they are essentially quest romances with a more realistic setting than most. A good read. ** to ***.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Anon. Chivalry, The Path of Love (1994)

     Anon. Chivalry, The Path of Love (1994) This is one of those little gift books that are assembled, not written, a scrapbook of lore that one gives to people when one doesn’t know what else to give them. It contains a number of nicely chosen and well-printed illustrations and a potted history of the Code of Chivalry and Courtly Love. It alludes to the darker side of gender relations in the Middle Ages, and gives a quick once-over of the evolution of what was essentially a convention of fiction and poetry into a code of manners and eventually an ideal that people still admire and which underpins our present-day notions of secular virtues. It does hint at the more complex meanings coded into courtly love poetry, and so may well trigger an urge to research this rather curious feature of our civilisation. The only author credit is for the introduction, by Jeremy Catto, Fellow of Oriel College. It’s better made than most such gift books, both as a physical object and as a source of information. **½