My fourpennyworth (a blog, of sorts)

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Wednesday 22 November 2006

Unnecessary postscript

I’ve just started up a cinema-only journal on a conventional blogging site (http://filmjournal.net/estienne). This is my third attempt to do this, and since I have actually managed to complete two entries, must be regarded as the most successful. Most of my ‘work’ on it has been concerned with making lists of links to film sites and other film blogs – including this one, or at any rate the cinema entries in this one. As I checked the link and looked through the entries again (once more regretting that slip in the dating of The Asphalt Jungle on 26.3.06), I read the one on 16.4.06 about being part of a focus group and going to see L’Armée des ombres, in which I fail to recall the favourite director of one of the participants less than 24 hours after the event. It suddenly came to me, all these months later: Alain Resnais. I seem to recall the participant in question went a bundle on Last Year in Marienbad, which, let’s face it, you’d have to if Resnais was your favourite director. (Or was it Hiroshima mon amour? Oh well.) Funny to think of these grand old masters of the 1960s still being around – like Bergman and Antonioni.

Resnais has never done much for me, I’m afraid, despite still having as his muse and partner the wonderful Sabine Azéma. I haven’t seen Hiroshima since college (though I did catch a very odd film that was based on it, H Story, at the London Film Festival one year), and Marienbad left me even colder than it was meant to. (I’m quite keen to use a reference to it in one of my writings, though: an episode called ‘Last Tango in Marienbad’, which would tell the history of a couple’s sexual relationship, or lack of one, in reverse. I think it’s a rather good conflation of titles: can’t think why it hasn’t been used before.)

(Category: Cinema)

2.44 pm

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Wednesday 22 November 2006

Just how friendly can bacteria be?

Yesterday, after a delay of something like five months, my Bokashi kitchen composter arrived, out of the blue. I’d ordered it, along with a water butt, back in the summer when I had a bit of spare money. The butt arrived fairly swiftly, by mail order standards – though I still haven’t got round to attaching it to the drainpipe. (In the end, I probably won’t bother, as it’s a little too large for the passageway where it needs to go – poor planning on my part, though as I recall I only bought it because there was some impressive reduction on it, courtesy of my County – or was it City? – Council). But there was no sign of the composter. Then last month I received a catalogue from the mail order company, including a £5 gift voucher* and an apologetic letter – I was clearly not the only person this had been sent to, so I wondered whether the original company had got into financial trouble (like so many eco-friendly companies before it**) and had only recently been rescued. Anyway, I rang about the missing portion of my order, then over the next few weeks began to forget about it, so that when the postman arrived with this huge parcel I had no idea what it might be.

So, Bokashi. The kit consists of two basic items: a plastic container on legs, with a tap at the bottom, with a removable slotted shelf with a very close-fitting (and thus ‘airtight’) lid; and a substance that resembles something a health-nut might sprinkle on their cereal, made of bran, molasses and the mystery ingredient ‘EM’ (for ‘Effective Micro-organisms’). It appears that the bran is the ‘Bokashi’ part of the kit: the plastic container, after all, is merely a sort of modified keg. The idea is to put your organic kitchen waste – including such otherwise impossible to compost items as meat – into the container and sprinkle a handful of the bran on top. In two weeks the waste becomes a pleasant-smelling ‘pickle’ that can be added directly to a compost heap or worked straight into the garden; in addition, the liquid you draw off it using the tap at the bottom apparently has any number of uses, including keeping drains clean. Just like those other ‘friendly bacteria’ found in particular kinds of yoghurt, the ‘effective micro-organisms’ used in this system were developed in Japan. (Not sure how this is relevant, but thought I’d mention it.)

As I’ve only had the kit for a day, it’s impossible to know how well, or indeed whether, it works. If it does, it’s a very useful development. My main feeling is that, as usual, consumers are having to overpay for a ‘green’ product: after all, the plastic container on its own costs around £35 (as you tend to need to buy a pair, there’s usually a discount – say, £60 for the two), and cannot be said to be a very specialised object. (To go back to my earlier ‘keg’ comparison, I wonder whether you could put together a similar product, at a much-reduced price, by using home-brewing equipment – after all, fermentation is used in both processes.) In fact, I can already see a number of ways in which the container could and should be specialised – particularly if it is to become a standard item in British kitchens. (I’ve added a description to my ‘Repository of Mad Ideas’ at madideas.html#bokashi.)

In turn, the Bokashi activated bran itself is perhaps rather pricey too: 600g costs £4. (I’ve checked at my local healthfood shop, another area of commerce whose products are ‘never knowingly underpriced’, and bran – organic, mind you – costs less than 75p per 500g.) There’s an alternative in the form of the ‘EM Activator System’ (sold at the enterprising if cutesy ‘Wiggly Wigglers’ site: http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/shop/foundproduct.lasso?product_id=530&-session=shopper:3EFD800E1b64e1DF7BryFFDBAF4D), which purports to allow you to make your own EM liquid – the site compares the process to using a yoghurt-maker – which can then be mixed with shop-bought bran and molasses to create home-made Bokashi. I couldn’t find any recipes for doing this on British sites, typically enough, but here’s one from across the water: http://www.naturemporium.com/english/bokashi.asp. (Another US site that gives a huge amount of information on all aspects of ‘EM’ is: http://www.eminfo.info/bokashiantiox1.html.) I suspect ‘DIY Bokashi’ would only be attractive to real hardcore eco-types, but one can imagine certain garden centres and green-leaning shops (and that’s another idea for my ‘Repository’ ) making it up themselves and selling it at a more legitimate price.


* Of course, the postage is also £5, so it comes out even.

** One of the things the Americans seem to do so much better than us is to translate their interests and enthusiasms into businesses. I’ve no idea why this should be the case (let’s be honest, I’ve no idea whether this is the case): perhaps they read more business guidance books, or work together better, or maybe the US is just a better place to set up a small business. It certainly seems true that the UK’s ‘green consumer’ sector attracts more than its fair share of well-meaning bumblers. (And I should know – I’ve almost been one myself a couple of times.)

(Category: Greenery)

1.57 pm

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Tuesday 31 October 2006

Life spun

Tina Aumont, an actress with a fascinating filmography in the late 1960s and 1970s, reportedly died on Saturday (28 Oct). As the daughter of French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont and the Mexican actress Maria Montez, she was born into the film business – in Hollywood, no less – and having started films in her teens she was still relatively young (60) at her death.

I was – I am – a big fan of hers, though as the reasons for my interest are largely to do with her appearance, I feel a little bad about bringing them up at this moment. Suffice to say that she is a very memorable presence, though one of her most interesting features – a low, smoky voice – is rarely heard in her films, as she usually worked in Italy where she was often dubbed. Even in the English-language horror film Lifespan – recently revived on DVD with its once-controversial bondage scene restored – she was dubbed by her cousin (of all people), as her own voice was thought too knowingly crackly for the part she played. Another irony as far as I’m concerned is that I’ve seen her two most well-known films – Fellini’s Casanova and Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty – and can’t remember her in either of them. Or in her first film, Modesty Blaise, come to that.

The film of hers that most intrigues me puts her right at the centre – unlike the three mentioned above, in which her role, though sometimes significant, is never very large. This is another film by Tinto Brass, L’Urlo, which I have seen in a low-grade version on VHS with an often inaudible soundtrack (and I am given to understand that its music is particularly fine). This is a remarkable piece of work, filmed largely in England, full of deliberately impenetrable political allegory, excellent counter-cultural sentiments, mordant and/or grotesque satire and, this being Brass, lots of sex and nudity. Aumont, dubbed by Wertmuller favourite Mariangela Melato, is fully in tune with the spirit of the thing and has a rather nice chemistry with her leading man, Gigi Proietti (a highly-regarded clown in Italy but hardly known here). As with its companion piece Nerosubianco, it’s only available on videos and DVDs of dubious provenance and in rather truncated versions, though given the nature of L’Urlo it’s impossible to know how much of the choppy editing is deliberate and how much has the censor’s fingerprints on it.

L’Urlo was made towards the end of the 60s, and Aumont’s films for the next half-dozen or so years were very eclectic indeed: along with the Fellini, she’s in a late Rossellini film (the woman caught in adultery in his Messiah) and one by Francesco Rosi (Cadaveri eccellenti, where she plays a prostitute – a pattern emerging?); interspersed with these respectable works are gialli like Torso, sex comedies like Il Trafficone, the cult Euro-pudding that is Lifespan and out-and-out sexploitation fare like Nuda Principessa (starring black male-to-female transexual Ajita Wilson). There’s even an experimental art film in the form of Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (with Nico and Jean Seberg). She also co-stars in a pair of vehicles for that stupendous Italian sex symbol Laura Antonelli (another favourite), Malizia and Divina Creatura. Quite apart from my personal interest in her, I’ve often wondered whether her very wide-ranging if relatively concentrated career might be a way into examining the oddity of 70s Italian cinema – where heavyweights like Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni and Pasolini are still working (even if three would be dead by the end of the decade) and had been joined by talents like Bertolucci, Rosi, Olmi and Bellocchio, but all we seem to remember are the gialli and/or horror films by Bava and Argento, and the sex comedies.

Looking on imdb (what do you mean you couldn’t tell?), I note that later in her career she had a part in Catherine Breillat’s police thriller-cum-twisted romance Sale comme un ange, but it was cut. Very intriguing…

(Category: Cinema)

2.00 am

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Tuesday 29 August 2006

That cissy year

I’m seeing a good deal of publicity for Stephen Frears’ new film The Queen. Most of the US commentators are fascinated by the fact that, having played Elizabeth I in an Channel 4/HBO mini-series last year (for which she won an Emmy only yesterday), Helen Mirren now gets to play the Virgin Queen’s namesake and cousin several times removed, Elizabeth II. It certainly sounded like intriguing casting – as, indeed, with the first Elizabeth, who usually seems to be played by a skinny redhead rather than a buxom blonde – and I was slightly concerned that, having missed the Queen in her youthful and good-looking prime, I would at last contrive to find her attractive, via an actress whose propensity for getting her kit off* has endeared her to me for almost 30 years. (I can’t remember which film of hers I saw first – Age of Consent or Savage Messiah.)

Of course, in this country the main focus for this film has been its subject matter, which is the week following the death of Diana (… ‘Princess of Wales’, as the newsreaders used to intone) in August 1997. (It hadn’t occurred to me that the anniversary, albeit only the ninth, was almost upon us.) There seems to be nothing the papers like more than rehashing the various aspects of the ‘Diana story’ – one of them (Mail, Express, I forget which) had her on the cover only this weekend – and this film will give them the excuse to go overboard (oh, hang on, no, that’s Robert Maxwell).

For me, that week told me rather more about my fellow countrymen than I cared to know – and, if I’d thought that electing Mrs Thatcher thrice was as bad as the British could get, I had another thing coming. The country seemed to go into hysterics: the media coverage was (almost literally) endless, and, as far as one could tell, both fed and was fed upon by the people’s mood. On that Tuesday’s Newsnight – Diana having been dead for less than 48 hours – the psychologist Oliver James suggested that we were having a collective breakdown, and the presenter (whichever woman it was that night) looked at him with utter amazement. (James is a gloomy bugger at the best of times – and not exactly without a political axe to grind – but I think he was absolutely right on that occasion.) With one exception all my friends seemed to be incommunicado, so I had no one to share my growing exasperation with, or let me know the latest tasteless joke about the car accident.** The exception, ironically enough, was the one furthest away (on the other side of the world, in fact), but he was at least on the internet – comparatively rare in those days – and I sent him an e-mail in which I declared that ‘we’ve become a nation of cissies’. (He often quotes this line back to me, with evident approval.) People started saying (as they still do, now and then) that they were more moved when she died than when close relatives and friends did; later on in the week, there were stories of shopkeepers being menaced by bullies (no doubt with tears in their eyes) for having the temerity to consider opening up on the day of her funeral. Dismal, dismal, dismal…

It looks very much, I’m sorry to say, as if this film takes the whole ‘Queen of Hearts’/‘People’s Princess’ view of Diana as a given. Oh well.


* Aside from her undoubted talent – which still, as with Elizabeth, has the capacity to surprise – Mirren has always impressed by being down-to-earth and candid, though a slight frostiness seems recently to have entered her voice when she is asked about all those nude scenes of hers. Apparently she’s only done it in about seven films – and, God knows, I think I can name them all…

** A fortnight later I met up with a group of friends and learned some of these gags. Pretty bad, most of them – there was one about the difference between the London and Paris Ritzes (in London you get after-dinner mints, and in Paris you get… minced after dinner) – but I have to say I saw it as a good sign.

(Category: Cinema)

9.03 am

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Saturday 5 August 2006

Togaland

A show on BBC4 about TV depictions of Rome tonight – called something grim like Togas on TV. Not brilliant, but better than it could have been. The jewel in the programme’s crown was I Claudius, naturally (though there was a fair bit of time on a favourite teatime series from the late 70s, The Eagle of the Ninth); its whipping boys included Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Sir Kenneth Clark and the 1983 series The Cleopatras. Wheeler was before my time and Clark – whose Civilisation (note that -is-) is enjoying a new lease of life, thanks to nostalgia and DVDs – can look after himself. The Cleopatras, which might be thought of as a prequel to I Claudius (ending as it does with the Battle of Actium, a discussion of which opens the earlier programme), is another matter, of course. The relatively (and you know what I mean by that) distinguished TV critic Chris Dunkley, one of the programme’s talking heads, said it was generally regarded as the very worst historical drama series of the time (if not ever), conveniently – and very much in the tradition of these shows – forgetting that it would have to contend with the almighty critical derision heaped on its predecessor The Borgias. I’ve always had a sort of regard for The Cleopatras, and disliked the generally low opinion in which it’s been held, though I ought to say that I’m not sure exactly how much I got to see of it in the end, as this was 1983 and I was gallivanting around all over the place during my year off between school and university. I remember I wanted very much to like it, as its lead – playing both the famous Cleopatra (number VII?), whose conversations with her tutor bookended each episode, and one of her like-named ancestors – was an actress I had my eye on, Michelle Newell. (She’s the handicapped daughter in the banned TV version of Brimstone and Treacle.) Anyway, the chilly reception accorded to the show did seem to coincide with her disappearance from TV: I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen and heard her since then, which seems a bit of a pity. Like most of the lukewarm commentators, I wasn’t sure what to make of The Cleopatras, and then, maybe halfway through, I caught a ‘farewell’ scene, which evidently had been written and was being played as a sort of parody of similar scenes. Applying this tongue-in-cheek element retrospectively to episodes I’d already seen, I saw the programme in a quite different, and much improved, light. The writer, Philip Mackie, was very well-established, and it did seem possible that he was trying to do something rather unusual (the only other self-referential show I recall from that period was the second series of Gangsters some five years before). It remains in the critical doldrums, of course, and it’s not likely to be rescued, so I don’t suppose I’ll ever get the chance to see it again.

Despite my youth (12) I was allowed to watch I Claudius when it was first shown on the BBC, and it remains perhaps my favourite drama series (though I’m beginning to feel it goes off a bit after the death of Livia). Its success was fairly instantaneous, and the BBC seems to have tried to replicate this success with a number of series which shared many of its features: historical settings featuring dynastic struggles, distinguished casts, strong, slightly off-kilter writing, plenty of sex and violence… Mesmerised by Claudius, I watched them avidly as they came off the BBC production line. First was The Devil’s Crown (1978), about Henry II and his sons, spanning some 60 years to the death of King John in 1216: there was something rather coarse and ill-structured about this, and it lacked sympathetic characters, despite its excellent cast (eg Jane Lapotaire going through a Livia-like ageing process as Eleanor of Aquitaine), but I was a big fan. I Claudius had had no exterior shots (even the forum was a set), and this went one better in having obviously artificial scenery (at least I think it was supposed to be obvious). Next was The Borgias (1981), which was, I suspect, rather expensive to make, had a good character actor (Oliver Cotton) not really convincing as the lead (Cesare Borgia), and the veteran Italian actor Adolfo Celi completely unintelligible as Pope Alexander ‘Desixt’. By the time of The Cleopatras, I wonder whether people – creatives, viewers, critics – had rather given up on the form, which allowed Philip Mackie to play some games with it. But perhaps this theory gives it too much credit (and it’s no good asking Mackie, who died in the mid-80s).

The BBC4 programme had a nice nostalgic surprise up its sleeve (not, I suspect, that it knew it): a glimpse of the historical advisor on I Claudius, Robert Erskine, gravelly-voiced and scruffy-looking, whose pithy disquisitions on various aspects of classical life and culture were a highlight of many Saturday evenings.

(Category: Television)

11.55 pm

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Thursday 6 July 2006

Comic timing

Caught a good deal of Robert Newman’s ‘enhanced’ stand-up show about oil on More4 last night. Pretty good balance of comedy and hard (not to say depressing) news: with a bit of work, one could imagine an indigenous version of those greenish, faintly gimmicky, anti-capitalist documentaries the US are currently producing in droves. It seemed much more effective than comparable shows by Mark Thomas and Mark Steel, partly because Newman is, as ever, a bit of a charmer, and partly because he gets the tone more or less right: he has a good line in self-deprecation, and is able to use the fact that he is middle-class and over-educated to suggest a sort of complicity both with his audience and with the ‘enemy’.

His website – http://www.robnewman.com – looks pretty good, too (though the fondness for Victorian-style typography is slightly baffling). There’s a link to an unexpected site called http://www.seat61.com, which suggests alternatives to air travel, including the means to get across the Atlantic by ship (an option if the musical That Pig, Morin ever gets off the ground, which it is more likely to do than I am). Lengthy (a fortnight each way) and expensive, though. I keep wondering why airships aren’t regarded as a useful alternative to planes. Naturally, they can’t go nearly as fast: I seem to remember seeing a reference to a top speed of around 125 mph, more or less equivalent to a 24-hour journey across the Atlantic. But you’d think someone would have twigged by now that aeroplane travel is simply unsustainable at its present rate and be looking for alternatives, given our increasing propensity to take our pleasures away from home. There’s a slightly eccentric-looking website (http://www.frank.germano.com/airship.htm) that suggests a cruising speed for one of its futuristic prototypes – the ‘Bio-Technical Airship’ – of 274 mph. The blurb splendidly, if foolhardily, refers to ‘an airship like those only imagined more than a century ago by adventure writers like H G Wells and Jules Verne’.

Cripes – my environmental (emphasis on the ‘mental’?) entries, of which this is officially the first, look likely to be as absurdly discursive as the film ones. No wonder even I think I’m a bit bonkers…

(Category: Greenery)

7.38 pm

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Tuesday 4 July 2006

Mobile meanings

An item from the Guardian’s ‘Culture Vulture’ site appeared in my rss feed reader Vienna some minutes ago:

Quiet riot: Charlotte Higgins discovers, to her horror, that there are new ways to annoy people with a mobile phone at performances.

For some reason I immediately assumed that the piece would describe other members of the audience rising up and abusing mobile phone owners. Of course, when I got to the web page I discovered that the phone owners are doing the abusing, as usual…

So what was that, I wonder? Poor subbing, or just wishful thinking on my part?

(Category: Words)

9.08 am

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Sunday 2 July 2006

Duras on Bresson

Wonderfully apt comment on Robert Bresson from Marguerite Duras:*

‘I feel as though he’s working in some secret medium to which he alone has the key.’

That’s certainly how I feel about his films. There are others whose work seems exhilaratingly unconcerned with what is going on, or has gone on, elsewhere in cinema – I’ve always liked the fact, for instance, that my old favourite Buñuel doesn’t particularly engage with his fellow directors, and might never have watched anyone else’s films after 1945 – but Bresson is in a different league. I suppose it’s possible, too, that even he doesn’t have the key to his own work: what I’ve seen of his comments on films and film-making come across as oddly simplistic (not simple like the films themselves) and contradictory.


* It’s included on the Artificial Eye/MK2 DVD of Bresson’s film L’Argent.

(Category: Cinema)

1.36 pm

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Wednesday 28 June 2006

Cambridge flim-flam

The 2006 Cambridge Film Festival brochure arrived this morning. Bigger than ever, apparently – the festival and brochure both. I’ve not really been a big festival fan since it reopened in the 3-screen Picturehouse some years ago. In the old days, when it was centred around the tiny Arts Cinema in Market Passage (and rather charmingly used college auditoria for some of the showings), there seemed to be an abiding sense of the thing coming apart at the seams, but that was to be expected, given the location and the way the cinema was run. Now there’s much less excuse for getting it wrong – which they still do, though, and on a regular basis. (Amateurish enthusiasm replaced by professional indifference, in other words.) I suppose I’m just cheesed off that the very strong Francophile tendency of previous festivals is now nowhere to be seen.

So what do we have this year? Some big-hitters from Cannes/Berlin this year to steal a march on the Edinburgh Film Festival: Volver, Three Times, A Scanner Darkly, Heading South. Some interesting-sounding stuff left over from last year: The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Gypo (apparently the UK’s first official Dogme film), Happy Endings (which I watched on cable last night, as it happens), Keane. There’s an undeserving recipient of the annual retrospective in Luc Besson* – and I say that as a fan of both Léon and Nikita. (He hasn’t really made that many films, for a start – and in any case they’re only showing five of them: there’s no The Last Battle or The Fifth Element, for instance.) There’s also a mini-retrospective of Michel Gondry to go along with his new film The Science of Sleep. He’s hardly got started with his film career, though the videos are probably worth rewatching.

The revivals are a mixed bunch: old Sky Cinema/TCM favourites Oklahoma!, A Portrait of Jennie and The Asphalt Jungle (NB any of the directors of these films – Zinnemann, Dieterle, Huston – would have made a very interesting subject of a retrospective); the excessively classic Taxi Driver, presumably for the simple reason that there’s a new print; Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, whose unusual combination of rock footage and counter-cultural provocation means that it’s already shown much more often than it deserves; and finally, a genuinely interesting-sounding silent co-production between Germany and India from 1927, A Throw of Dice. The short film season, an old Cambridge specialty which to its credit the Picturehouse seems to support fully, will no doubt give us the occasional ‘Wow!’ in amidst the more usual ‘Huh!’ and ‘Eh?’.

There are a couple of informal themes dotted throughout the brochure: ‘UK focus’ and ‘new German cinema’. Most of the films in the former strand look truly terrifying (although not because they’re part of the British horror revival, unfortunately). As for the latter, it’s apparently been a vintage year for German films, with four in particular – Requiem, Der Freie Wille, Sehnsucht and Das Leben der Anderen – getting great reviews and prizes. Not one of these is coming to Cambridge, however: instead, the biggest of the German films here will be Atomised/Elementary Particles, based on the scandalous Michel Houellebecq novel of a few years back, which was generally rated a disappointment at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. (The CFF has given it a provisional certificate of 15, which is disappointing in itself: I seem to recall the book being really rather dirty…)

Talking of dirty, there’s a little season within the festival called ‘A brief history of Erotic Cinema’. There’s that deadening sense of ‘the usual suspects’ about some of the choices, and blank mystification about others (Partie de campagne, anyone?). I wonder whether it’s just an excuse to have the UK premiere of the starrily-directed portmanteau film Eros (Soderbergh, Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai – cripes!). However, one tasty-sounding morsel, accompanying the inevitable (if hardly unwelcome) showing of Belle de Jour, is a ‘lost’ episode from Borowczyk’s Contes immorales, Une Collection particulière: wonder what that’s like. (Borowczyk’s La Bête, another far-from-surprising choice – come to think of it, as he died this year (and quite early on, too), isn’t WB yet another excellent candidate for the retrospective treatment? – is being shown with the magnificent Tex Avery cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood…)

I’m looking forward, of course, to The Notorious Bettie Page – indeed, I seem to have been waiting for this since before it was filmed – and am very interested in seeing Three Times: its director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has one of the most exalted reputations of any arthouse film-maker still living, and I was certainly very impressed by the one film of his I’ve seen, Millennium Mambo (which is, they say, a rather minor work). However, his stuff doesn’t tend to get distributed here (I had to get the DVD of Mambo from France), so this might be the only chance I get to see it. I shall also try to catch Little Fish (ho ho), an Australian film with a great cast (Blanchett, Weaving, Neill) and a gloomy subject (drugs, crime).


* As I delve further into the brochure, it begins to look as if the festival’s ‘official’ retrospective is of Bruce Weber – the, er, photographer…

(Category: Cinema)

8.18 pm

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Tuesday 13 June 2006

External subtitling

A couple of entries ago I wrote about ‘Money into Light into Money’ – some ideas for making money out of my film interests. This is a sort of update (and as such is filed under ‘Business’ like that one, even if ‘Cinema’ or perhaps ‘Computer’ would have been more suitable).

Research into the idea of watching DVDs with separately-sourced subtitles was hampered at first by my Mac’s not having a built-in DVD player. But then I got a cheap second-hand external DVD drive (Plextor – not much to look at, but perfectly serviceable, even if the Firewire connection isn’t perhaps as solid as an internal one would be), ran the various patches needed to force a reluctant Apple system to use a non-Apple player, and – yesterday – got a film running on NicePlayer. This freeware application has the apparently unique ability among players to run two (or more?) films simultaneously: one of the films can be from the inserted DVD, while the other can be a QuickTime Text Track. The text track’s dimensions need to be specified (after some experimenting I think I’ll be settling on a width of 800 and a height of 120, with a type size of 20) and the box needs to be pulled around to get the ideal shape (the 800 x 120 ratio seems to combine the minimum height of the box with the width of my screen) and moved to the bottom of the screen. The film from the DVD tends to be much easier to play with – automatically expanding into the right shape, and so forth. The film has various preliminaries – copyright warnings then possible trailers before the main menu – which the text track lacks, and of course once you click on the ‘FILM’ button, it starts right away. The key is to pause the film just after it starts, take the timer back to ‘00:00:00’, and then use NicePlayer’s command ‘Play All Simultaneously’ to start both film and subtitle track at the same time. If you need to stop at any point there is a command ‘Stop All Simultaneously’, which is conveniently accessible via a keyboard shortcut. As AppleScript has a strong presence within NicePlayer, it is presumably feasible to create a script to synchronise the two screens automatically, and possibly at a given point of time within the film’s running. (I notice that the application came with an AppleScript that lets you go to a specific point on the ‘upper’ screen.) Altogether a very encouraging beginning.

Another interesting aspect to this is the ease with which the text track can be changed. The film I watched yesterday to try the thing out was the French thriller Qui a tué Bambi?, the first feature by Gilles Marchand, which was recognised by much of the French press for its clever atmospherics and very elegant mise-en-scène, and dismissed by the British press for not being enough like the thrillers they were used to… (‘Oh the state of British film criticism’, etc, etc.) The subtitle track – derived from an srt file which presumably started life as a non-English subtitle extracted from a version of the film on DVD – had a number of translation and orthographical errors, but of course since the file is text-only, I was able to open it in my favoured text editor BBEdit, make specific or global changes as necessary, and reopen the amended file in NicePlayer again. It would be great to be able to stop the film, change the titles and start again within an application – one imagines that the same application could be used for writing subtitles from scratch – but I’ve not found a way of doing that yet: the program I mentioned in the previous entry on this, InqScribe, proved impossible to get to work, and I’ve not been able to find an alternative.

(Category: Business)

11.19 pm

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Monday 12 June 2006

Squids in

First time in ages that my trip to the cinema didn’t end up with me sitting in the living-room-sized ‘Screen 3’ of the Arts Picturehouse: no doubt that was because the film was in English for a change. The film in question was a New York indie called The Squid and the Whale, directed by Noah Baumbach. I gather from the latest Sight and Sound I bought on the way to the cinema that it has actually been the most profitable art house offering in the UK for some months: however, my interest in it came from US reviews of it last year, where it regularly appeared in the top ten of the critics polled in Film Comment.

The film concerns a long-married couple who have decided to split up. Their two sons initially take sides, the elder with the father and the younger with the mother. However, this apparent symmetry, although advertised in the very first words we hear (when they pick sides for a tennis match), is perhaps a red herring for the real theme of the film, which is the gradual discovery by the elder son that his much-admired father is a complete prick… (They have a lot of fun with bad language in the film – the younger son in particular comes out with some choice remarks whenever he is losing a game – so I thought I’d go along with it.) The parents are both well-educated: the father is an English professor with a couple of well-regarded novels under his belt but nothing on the horizon, while the mother has just finished her first book, which has been accepted for publication.

The boys react to the separation in very different ways. The elder tries not to let the changed circumstances affect him, continuing his school life much as before, but his idolisation of his father, as well as his father’s revelation that the mother had affairs, leads the boy to take against her and to listen more, if anything, to the advice his father gives him (which is generally bad). He is also a repeat plagiarist, making no distinction between parrotting his father’s opinions (eg recommending books that he evidently hasn’t read) and passing a Pink Floyd song off as his own. The younger son, mistrusting his father but not wholly sympathetic to his mother, takes up drinking and masturbation with gusto, and eventually both boys’ failings become so obvious that even their distracted parents have to start paying attention.

The film’s great strengths are its dialogue and its acting. Although the characters’ positions are quickly established and follow fairly predictable paths, the writing is sharp, detailed and often very funny, allowing for subtleties and variety which the accomplished cast make the most of. The parents are played by those reliable troupers Jeff Daniels (finally, perhaps, putting to rest the good-guy image he once had) and Laura Linney (who works wonders with what in retrospect seems a much smaller role). The elder brother, in some ways the lead character, is played very well by Jesse Eisenberg, who’s been good in everything I’ve seen him in (eg Roger Dodger, of course, but also that so-so werewolf film Cursed); the younger one, someone to look out for in the future, is called Owen Kline, and I wonder whether he’s an offspring of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (he seems to have the latter’s nose and general colouring). There’s even quite a good supporting role for William Baldwin (as a good-natured, gone-to-seed tennis pro), and although I’ve perhaps seen too many films where Anna Paquin plays a barely-legal sexpot with a crooked smile, this wasn’t such a bad example. I was reminded of two films about marital break-ups I saw on DVD last year: The Door in the Floor and We Don’t Live Here Anymore. I’m not really sure why this seemed a better film than either of those. As I recall, both were more elegantly filmed (Door in the Floor in particular). Perhaps this was less schematic, more free-form, more responsive to what one might call the ‘here and now’ (despite being set in 1986 for some reason).

I think it has its flaws as well. There’s no real sense of progression, meaning that the end (where we finally get to see ‘the squid and the whale’) feels slightly arbitrary; and engaging as it is while you’re watching it, it doesn’t feel particularly resonant afterwards.

Interestingly – and perhaps accurately for the time it’s set in – one repeated element that shows the father’s bad faith is his fondness for European cinema, especially the New Wave: both À bout de souffle and The Wild Child are referenced, while a poster of The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache’s marvellous, three and three-quarter hour film La Maman et la putain, a personal favourite of mine) is prominently displayed and commented on. The father, fully committed to what the Coen Brothers would call ‘the life of the mind’, even muscles in on a film date his son is going on with his pleasant, newish girlfriend, making them choose Blue Velvet over Short Circuit: we get to see choice moments from the former, when Laura Dern registers her astoundingly wide-mouthed horror at Isabella Rossellini’s battered nudity.

(Category: Cinema)

1.30 am

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Friday 9 June 2006

Belgian realism

The cultural commentator Jonathan Meades, when he was still plump and jolly, once pointed out in an entertaining TV programme that the Belgians were evidently even madder than the English, and was able to adduce all sort of examples for their peculiarity – the most memorable of which was their fondness for the sport of vertical archery. His best gag was to claim that Belgium’s most famous modern painter Magritte, far from being a surrealist, was in fact a social realist, ho ho ho. But if Magritte really were a social realist, I wonder what that would make the Dardenne brothers…

I watched the Dardennes’ film Le Fils last week with a growing sense of amazement at its gripping intensity and formal simplicity (a hand-held camera following the film’s protagonist at close range for long periods at a time), convinced by the end that I had seen a truly outstanding piece of cinema (albeit on DVD). So I determined to watch an earlier film of theirs, one that (unlike Le Fils) won them the Golden Palm at Cannes: Rosetta. In fact, this was a ‘re-watch’, as I’d rented it before and paid not very close attention to it.

While knocking most films I had seen recently into a cocked hat, Rosetta didn’t seem quite as accomplished as Le Fils: there were diminishing returns from Rosetta’s very physical way of reacting to bad news after the first few minutes (where the camera follows every move of her determined resistance at being manhandled out of her place of work by a couple of security guards), and, the extraordinary vitality of the main actress* notwithstanding, Rosetta’s motivation is very emphatically signalled, to the extent that, at one point, she lies in bed coaching herself to repeat that she now has a job, a friend and a normal life. (This motivation needs to be made as clear as possible, because it will lead her to do a very bad thing later on in the film.) The lead character in Le Fils, on the other hand, has motivations that not even he can get to the bottom of. The ‘action’ scenes in Le Fils (the boy falling off a ladder, the ex-wife falling into a faint, the final chase sequence) also seemed to be more astutely handled. The brothers have a new film out at the moment, L’Enfant: it’ll be interesting to see whether this over-the-shoulder shooting technique can work wonders a third time (there’s an earlier film, La Promesse, but I haven’t seen it yet), and what more they can find to bring to it…


* This is Émilie Dequenne, whom I am tempted to call the ‘Belgian Billie Piper’ for their physical similarities, though that comparison does her no favours at all. Rosetta was apparently her first acting part, but she has since then moved into professional acting in French films with admirable smoothness and swiftness. (Is this a French thing? One can think of plenty of examples of women doing this – above all Sandrine Bonnaire, whose work now seems rather tamely conventional after those ferocious early performances in À nos amours and Sans toit ni loi, but also those Bresson girls: Marika Green, Anne Wiazemsky, Dominique Sanda, etc, etc…)

(Category: Cinema)

3.40 pm

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Wednesday 7 June 2006

Music on a pedestal

Bought a pair of speaker stands last week from eBay – of such cheapness that even I, the beneficiary, feel a bit bad about it – and am amazed by the difference they seem to make. (That ‘seem’ is there to indicate a possible placebo effect.) Last year I put together a relatively low-cost hifi set-up, trying to stick to British products as far as possible: the venerable but first-rate Creek 4040 amplifier, which my most audiophile friend first recommended to me almost twenty years ago; a pair of KEF speakers (the Coda range); and a Goldring turntable. I also got myself a very good, if relatively dear, CD player/recorder (Marantz), allowing myself to spend the money because it can be used to produce sample CDs of songs from our musicals for prospective producers, etc (that’s what I’m telling the taxman, at any rate). The CD player cost more than everything else put together, but it was always strikingly impressive, even when I had less responsive speakers. Now I have these nice KEF ones on stands, I can barely believe my ears. Then again, my main point of comparison is with a portable CD player with speakers you plug into the headphone socket…

Highlights of my new listening experience include the last movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony conducted by Carlos Kleiber (I’m afraid to listen to it again in case I don’t get the same buzz) and various Scarlatti sonatas played by Pierre Hantai. I don’t really own enough pop music to find out how well that comes out, though jazz standards such as Artie Shaw’s band playing ‘Frenesi’, Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘But Not for Me’ or Tony Bennett whispering Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Lover’ clean up pretty well. (I wonder about listening to Goldfrapp’s ‘Strict Machine’, but am afraid my head, or heart, might explode…)*


* I’m just listening to it now. My heart and head remain unburst, but there are some interesting sensations going up and down my spine, and not all of them are vibrations from the floor.

(Category: Music)

5.48 pm

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Wednesday 7 June 2006

Type A Personality

Years ago I used to take an immense interest in type. I bought book after book on types and type designers, did a diploma in typography in the mid-90s, and whenever I had a bit of money would pick up hard-to-find digital fonts, finally getting an amazing bargain in the form of a Bitstream CD for a couple of hundred pounds: this supplied me with thousands of fonts (ie hundreds of typefaces), including many versions of useful old standards (Bembo, Plantin, Janson, Gill, Frutiger, plus half a dozen Garamonds) which if necessary I could amend (eg creating small capitals or non-lining numerals) with Fontographer. I even considered writing a ‘popular science’ book on type – along the lines of the bestselling Longitude and Cod – called Character.* Then I got a real publishing job and, of course, had to put all that interest to one side: it turned out that, if anything, too much knowledge was a dangerous thing. Now I’m freelance again, I can indulge this interest. And it does seem to be a good time to be interested.

The world of forums and blogs seems to have united type enthusiasts around the world in a much more direct way than it has designers or cinephiles, perhaps because of the constrained nature of the subject. I’ve been able to jump from link to link, admiring the work of immensely productive and shockingly accomplished designers like Jean-François Porchez (http://www.typofonderie.com/) and Jeremy Tankard (http://www.typography.net/), reading round-ups of the year’s ‘Best Designs’ at Typographica (http://www.typographi.com/) – which, unlike almost every other list produced these days, do seem to reflect genuine quality rather than amnesia and faddishness – and, through the Typophile forums (http://typophile.com/forums), discovering the depth and breadth of enthusiasm for the subject. One practical instance of this has been the search for a decent digital Baskerville, which exists in a couple of rather peculiar established forms (one poorly digitised, with unpleasantly over-heavy capitals, from the classic Monotype hot metal version, plus the – to say the least – idiosyncratic ITC New Baskerville) and very large numbers of newer versions. At work we use Berthold Baskerville, whose advantages (eg smoothness) are also its disadvantages (eg impersonality). If I had gone along with ordinary designers, I probably would have plumped for Emigré’s Mrs Eaves, but the accolades from those who use it for display purposes are matched by those whose interests are more practical and text-based, who berate it for its odd letterspacing and occasionally not-very-Baskervillian letterforms and instead recommend John Baskerville (by the Storm Type Foundry). It would be nice to see a book set in this type – the specimen pdfs, though undoubtedly informative and elegantly designed, can’t really tell you the whole story – but this seems to be the one other digital Baskervilles have to beat.

Even now I’m putting together a ‘wish list’ of types I’d like to own – there’s one new text face called Maiola (http://www.type-together.com/font_maiola_home.php) which, making use of the slightly divergent tradition of letter formation in Eastern Europe, seems particularly satisfying (and coincidentally was designed by an alumnus/a of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading, where I did my diploma), but there are plenty of others – though I wonder when I am ever going to get the money to buy them or the opportunity to use them. I have a couple of friends – amongst the smartest people I know, too – who don’t understand why you need to bother with anything except Times. (Oh, and Gill Sans of course.)


* Actually, since the genre has never gone away – and has more recently received a (somewhat tenuous) fillip through the success of ‘fact anthologies’ like Schott’s Almanac(k) and ‘Do it better!’ books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves – I might have another go. (It’ll have to take its place in a very long queue of ‘to-dos’, though.)

(Category: Arty)

4.23 pm

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Wednesday 7 June 2006

Some name-calling

(I’ve just heard from an old friend that she is expecting, which gives me all the excuse I need to sign off this long-gestated but highly spurious orphan of an entry…)

I am, of course, as far as ever from fathering a child; and my old dreams of joshing domesticity are long-gone, most of the women I had in mind having settled down with (and, as I like to think, settled for) a complaisant hubby and begun (and in some cases already finished) producing offspring. Actually, even though, as a man, I have a decade or so’s advantage on women in terms of my biological clock, the evidence seems to be that sperm does start to go off after your fiftieth year – the fact that Queen Victoria managed to pass haemophilia onto most of the crowned heads of Europe is often blamed on the advanced age of her father when she was conceived – so I really ought to start casting about for suitable helpmeets. In the meantime, I keep the project in mind by focusing on potential names for my potential children…

In my family we have the following naming tradition (dating back all of a generation): three forenames, of which the first should be new to the family, with the other two representing each side of it. In my case, I am ‘Stephen’ after the church my parents married in, ‘James’ after my maternal grandfather and ‘Michael’ after my father – which means that, on the standard administrative forms that have fields for only two forenames, I am regularly called on to deny my father, ho ho…

Although the singular dearth of females in my immediate family cuts down the options for variety in the second/third name, it seems to me that unusual first names for girls are much easier to justify than for boys. One I’ve long cherished for a daughter – Adela, the name of King Stephen’s mother (mother, daughter, what’s the diff?) – is sufficiently close to the more popular ‘Adele’ to avoid the raising of eyebrows, even if the original plan was to combine it with two more of my favourite female names, Laura and Frances, and refer to the unfortunate child by the initials: ALF. (I’m not sure where to put the stress when pronouncing ‘Adela’: first or second syllables?) I’ve become a fan, too, of Kay, mostly through the wavvishing Kay Fwancis in the film Trouble in Paradise, but also because it sounds like its own initial. Foreign names work pretty well, too, although one I like very much, Celine (after the villainous writer of the same name – or, strictly speaking, after his mother) has been ruined for me by Ms Dion, while its anglicised counterpart, Selina, suffered the same fate at the hands of the now-forgotten Ms Scott… (The similar-sounding Sabine/Sabina is still an option, perhaps, embodied as it is for me by two delightful actresses: the glorious French star Sabine Azéma and an English pin-up from my youth, the very lovely Sabina Franklyn – Jane (aka ‘the pretty one’) in Fay Weldon’s late-70s/early-80s version of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. There’s also the ‘Sabine Women’ aspect, of course: perhaps not ideal.)

Foreign names don’t do the same for boys, unless of course their mother is herself foreign (now there’s something to think about). My work on printing history made me wonder about the names of typographical pioneers: unfortunately, Aldus/Aldo/Aldous (ugh! Huxley!), after Aldus Manutius (strictly speaking Teobaldo Manuzio, if I remember right), doesn’t really do it for me. I quite like Emery – after the British printer Emery Walker, often-unsung collaborator of both William Morris and Cobden-Sanderson, and also after the great screenwriter Imre/Emmerich/Emeric Pressburger – but I can see a boy called that being bullied within an inch of his life. I also wonder about Lewis – named for that unholy trinity of Luis Buñuel, Wyndham Lewis and Robert Louis Stevenson – but I’m not sure about the whole surname-forename crossover thing. Mention of Stevenson reminds me that I’ve also wondered about Robert, as it also refers two more of my heroes, the printer Robert Estienne and the poet Robert Herrick, but it’s a bit boring. (Let’s hope the missus has an interesting surname, that’s all I can say.)

I’ve toyed with calling a son Alfred Arthur (another ‘Alf’), but 1) that gives him a hell of a lot to live up to, and 2) since I would want to stick to our family’s triple-forename structure, what name could stand up next to those two?* Oh, Alexander, I suppose (not terribly English, though), which reminds me: a (Suffolk?) corruption of that name that I saw on a gravestone in Orford struck me as rather good – Sarnder. (The same churchyard also had an interesting variation on Alan: Allin, another good ‘A’ name.) No doubt people would wonder why I didn’t just go for the more obvious version, instead of being so pretentious…

If all this seems irresponsible – and perhaps even a form of abuse – consider some real-life examples. One friend, finding himself a father-to-be rather earlier in his young marriage than he was expecting, wanted to use a palindromic name: Hannah if a daughter, Otto if a son. (A good example of the less painful nature of choosing girls’ names… Fortunately, it was a she.) Other friends of mine toyed with the idea of calling their daughter-to-be Io, so that when people asked how it was spelled, they could just say: ‘IO’. (I wonder if there was a computing gag in there, too: the man in question, an accomplished programmer, is quite capable of that.)

* There is of course that great and forgotten Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan (imagine it – you could call your son ‘Stan’!), but that’s almost certainly an arrestable offence.

(Category: Words)

11.52 am

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Tuesday 23 May 2006

The Judster

I’ve been paying more than usual attention to the news and reviews coming out of Cannes this year. Two films that have caught my eye are Bug and La Tourneuse des pages. My interest has been piqued, naturally enough, by the films’ leading ladies: Ashley Judd and Catherine Frot respectively. The latter is easily one of my favourite French actresses (in the top two* of a very long list indeed) and since being ‘discovered’ at a fairly advanced age in Un Air de famille ten years ago has steadily risen in prominence and prestige. I don’t know whether her profile in France compares with that of Isabelle Huppert (whose sister she played a few years ago in Les Sœurs fâchées, another interesting-sounding film that didn’t manage to cross the Channel): she’s nothing like as well-known over here, but then British knowledge of French actors tends, alphabetically speaking, to start with Deneuve and end with Depardieu…

As for Ashley J, I decided when I saw Ruby in Paradise all those years ago that she could do no wrong, but she seems to have put that to the test more than once in recent years. Her early, rather low-profile career was marked by many strong, subtle performances: Ruby herself, of course (a great debut), but others in Normal Life, Norma Jean and Marilyn and The Passion of Darkly Noon, as well as two smaller roles in Smoke and Heat, where she was appropriately incendiary. She’s pretty good in Kiss the Girls, but the relative success of that film, then Double Jeopardy, led to a series of starring roles in more conventional fare, which meant – modern Hollywood being what it is – a conveyor-belt of horrible films. (I wasn’t even that taken with her appearance in Frida, despite the film’s obvious appeal to me – the artist biopic, the rest of the attractive female cast (Hayek, Maestro, Golino, Burrows) salvaged from Mike Figgis’ Hotel.) The gimmicky but unexpectedly effective Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely seemed to me to offer her a suitable platform for her talents (singing apparently not being one of them, despite the family name), and now there’s Bug, which sounds like a return to the old days. (As far as the French reviewers are concerned, it’s also something of a return to form for its director, the once-unstoppable William Friedkin.) The piece is adapted from a successful stage play, which always gives me pause: not for the more obvious anti-theatrical concerns (eg long speeches, enclosed locations) – which in fact I tend to think film does pretty well – but because the sort of resolutions which are acceptable on stage often come across as rather puny on film. Anyway, this one sounds pretty wild, with lashings of hysteria, paranoia and sex. It’s even been described as having her first nude scene, which presumably shows how little the reviewer knows of her early, ‘better’ career: in both Normal Life and Norma Jean… she displays a great deal of flesh, in the latter even being called upon to duplicate Marilyn Monroe’s famous calendar poses.


* My other favourite being Karin Viard. I’d watch anything CF and KV are in – and every so often, as with La Nouvelle Eve, I get the chance to see both of them in the same film. I’ve recently seen Viard as the middle sister in that missed opportunity of a film, L’Enfer. Strange how, out of a film culture positively oozing with loveliness, I choose two actresses who could never be described as raving beauties, though each is not without a certain je ne sais quoi

(Category: Cinema)

12.38 pm

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Monday 15 May 2006

Clique of one

Sometimes I feel very alone…

Take this afternoon, when the following Guardian headline popped into my rss reader: ‘In brief: Chris Rock to direct Rohmer remake’ (http://film.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1775331,00.html). My first thought was Christ! and my second, Who’d appreciate this horrible-sounding news? To which the answer was ‘No one I know…’ They’d have to know who Chris Rock is and what an Eric Rohmer film is like. Most of them don’t know either of those things, and those who know about one won’t know about the other.

Actually, since Chris Rock is considerably more than a smart mouth and has been gaining critical plaudits for his TV show Everyone Hates Chris, and Rohmer’s stories are often reducible to rom-com outlines, it’s perhaps not such bad news as it first sounds. (The film in question is Chloé in the Afternoon, the last of Rohmer’s ‘Six Moral Tales’, which is certainly more conducive to a US make-over than the conversations about Pascal in My Night with Maud or the slightly questionable goings-on with teenage girls in Claire’s Knee.)

(Category: Cinema)

1.19 pm

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Monday 8 May 2006

Money into light into money

For much of the fag-end of last year, keen to kick-start my failing finances, I cast around for ways of making money from my over-riding interest in films. In recent days I’ve found myself re-thinking two of the ‘better’ ideas (relatively speaking). Curiously, neither of the new versions of the two ideas seem particularly profitable – in the short run, at any rate.

The first idea, and one that I pursued with some tenacity (for me) well into the new year, was a portable subtitler. I’d had the idea many years ago, sitting watching a foreign film with poor (or maybe non-existent) subtitles, and originally I thought of it only for cinemas, so that the same, unsubtitled print of a film could be shown in different countries; later on I wondered whether the same could be done for unsubtitled DVDs. Last year, the idea took what seemed a great leap forward when I worked out how to use the so-called ‘text track’ of QuickTime (a distinct film, in other words), and when I started discussing it with other people it was soon pointed out that separate subtitles could, of course, also be useful for the hard of hearing and for people learning languages. However, I thought of the subtitler as a separate piece of kit, sitting under or on top of the TV, and it turned out that the monitor I had in mind would make it absurdly expensive. So it looked as if I had to give up on that.

Now, however, as I’ve been thinking of putting together a UK site for those specifically interested in French films (having found nothing that already does the job), I’ve wondered whether I could incorporate the subtitling idea: after all, a computer screen should have no trouble with showing two films simultaneously. By coincidence, as I hunted around on the internet for a player that might be able to do the job, I found a very new, free Mac application called ‘NicePlayer’ (http://niceplayer.indyjt.com) which can play two movies (which in this case would be a DVD and a separate subtitle track) simultaneously: it’s not yet properly set up for displaying subtitles properly, but the makers apparently have this at the top of their ‘to do’ list.

As usual, problems remain – in this case, the most pressing is how to get hold of the subtitles. I’ve found a couple of subtitling sites that were evidently put together for that rather suspicious-sounding video format DivX, eg http://www.divxsubtitles.net/. There seems to be a handful of English subtitle tracks for French films available. As far as I can make out, these subtitle tracks are created by converting a set of subtitles that come with the DVD (using, say, SubRip if you are on PC, or D-Vision (http://www.objectifmac.com/) on the Mac) to a file (eg in srt format) and then translating the text in the file into the required language. (I wonder what the legal position is with this?). The other, rather tiresome option – ie the one I shall probably end up going for in most cases – is to transcribe direct from a DVD. There is apparently a program called Inqscribe (http://www.inquirium.net/products/inqscribe/) that makes it easier to do this – though how much easier is a moot point. I suppose my thinking is that if this service starts looking like a good idea, then I could re-examine the feasibility of a subtitling hardware… (This is, I think, what the Americans call ‘taking baby steps’.)

The second idea is, again, to do with foreign-language DVDs, but in this case ones with English subtitles. The French themselves produce some 600 original-language DVDs with English subtitles (not very many, really, but that’s the French, I suppose), and there are similar pockets of subtitled DVDs in most other European countries. For those with a multi-region DVD player, there are even greater pickings: the large number of foreign-language DVDs produced in the States and Canada and others from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, for instance, plus the almost-invariably English-subtitled DVDs from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan (markets which also have a curiously arbitrary selection of European titles, often unavailable elsewhere). When I realised just how many titles there were, I wondered whether I could create a business importing them into the UK. Two problems, however: one, the demand for foreign-language DVDs is apparently very small, and even an obsessive like me finds it painful to fork out 15 quid or so for a film that, by the nature of things, I know very little about; two, it’s illegal to import DVDs from different regions for business purposes (which is why, for instance, you can only buy one Region 1 DVD at a time from the UK branch of Amazon), and as for the Region 2 DVDs (from Europe and Japan), they would all have to be given certificates by the BBFC, which is insanely expensive.

More and more I see the internet as a series of different, and fairly specialist, ‘clubs’, and I wondered if a solution here would be a proper internet ‘foreign film’ club, where each member ‘buys’ a DVD from abroad with part of their subscription (thus bypassing the problem of importing it commercially) and then ‘lends’* it to other members (thus allowing people to see lots of different films without having to shell out for them). Of course, if a member really likes a film, then they can buy a new copy for themselves through the club. This is rather sneaky, but when the law is an ass, then I think one is entitled to be a sneak… As with the subtitler idea, this is really a prelude to a more comprehensive service one could offer members: if successful, one can imagine offering films directly through the internet, special cinema screenings, etc, etc…

There I go again, thinking big. (My problem in a nutshell.) Why can’t I be content every so often just to see the smaller picture?


* Lends, swaps – something along those lines…

(Category: Business)

9.55 am

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Thursday 4 May 2006

Beauty made plain

After many years of thinking I’d already seen it – on the strength of recalling a couple of dry remarks from Ralph Richardson, and Montgomery Clift banging on the door at the end – tonight (Weds) I sat down and watched the film The Heiress properly. It turned out I hadn’t seen it after all.

I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very well-tooled piece of Hollywood machinery, with the music (Copland) and production and costume design working effectively in the background. The director, William Wyler, seems to have been rather overlooked in recent times – I seem to recall a critic a few years ago making light of Charlton Heston’s opinion that he was a better director than Anthony Mann (Heston made Ben Hur with Wyler and El Cid with Mann). Mann, of course, has been very much ‘rehabilitated’ (if he needed it), courtesy of those interesting westerns he made with James Stewart in the 1950s; but Wyler’s work over about 25 years (up to Ben Hur, basically) contains a large number of really first-rate films, from Jezebel to Detective Story. (My own favourite would be The Best Years of Our Lives, I think.)

The acting’s very striking. Olivia de Havilland, whose Hermia in the Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream made me think her easily the most beautiful product of Hollywood’s golden age – to the extent that the premise of that otherwise excellent film The Strawberry Blonde, that James Cagney has to settle for her rather than Rita Hayworth, never made sense to me – turned in a performance as amazing as people say, well worthy of the Oscar it won her. Apart from anything else, this gorgeous woman (all of 32 or 33 when the film was made) really did seem rather unappetising. The role – as a plain, not very forthcoming young woman, unknowingly undermined throughout her life by a father who insists on comparing her unfavourably with his dead wife – is a quite deliberate tour de force, with a great big crisis and subsequent transformation about two-thirds of the way through: de Havilland steps up and gives a physically and vocally detailed and modulated performance, though of course anyone looking for modern-day verisimilitude will be disappointed. Likewise with the fascinatingly subtle work from Richardson as her father. Richardson was regarded as one of the ‘Big Three’* classical knights, along with Olivier and Gielgud, when I was a teenager in the 70s, and his stock seems to have fallen somewhat in comparison with theirs: even then, he was regarded as a sort of ‘sublime’, uncanny actor, and I suppose there’s sometimes a sense of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about that kind of reputation. But in The Heiress, he’s very solid and exact (and very British – no attempt to Americanise his accent, despite having the still brassy-sounding Miriam Hopkins as one of his sisters). Despite the disadvantages his character labours under, he manages to inject a certain amount of humanity. Clift, too, is excellent, though the performance seems to be more naturalistic (and has often been criticised as rather bland in comparison with the others’ powerhouse work).

I was keen to see this film because of Martin Scorsese, who praised it extravagantly when making The Age of Innocence: I suspected that here, as so often, Scorsese’s hugely admirable enthusiasm for old films undermined his own work, and on the basis of tonight’s viewing I’d have to say my suspicions were correct. (Scorsese increasingly seems to me a figure whose fondness for cinema is more interesting than his own films; I think much the same of the distinguished French director Bertrand Tavernier.) There’s little in The Age of Innocence to compare with the sheer chill of de Havilland’s realisation that Clift is not coming for her, or when she finally stands up to her ailing father (‘So you have found your tongue at last…’), or of course the end, when she leaves Clift standing, banging on the door.

But I come round to the acting thing again. I remember reading an offhand opinion – no doubt on one of those film forums I’m so fond of – that old films basically have ‘bad acting’ in them. (I sort of see the point, actually.) We’re constantly told nowadays that Marlon Brando, and those working in the same tradition (de Niro, Pacino, etc), are the great film actors, but I wonder whether this is just a sort of fashion (albeit a long-running one), rather like dismissing great Bach and Handel performances from the past because they precede the ‘authentic’ movement. In Brando’s obituaries a couple of years ago much was made of the fact that he shared his home town – Omaha, Nebraska – with two other great film actors: Henry Fonda and the aforementioned Mr Clift. It seems almost arbitrary to suggest that he is a ‘better’ actor than either of those, but nonetheless most of the obits did so. Film acting is really a very odd business: wonderful performances are elicited from amateurs and children, in a way that would be more or less unthinkable on stage; a director like Bresson could achieve marvels from his deliberately unexpressive actors (or, as he liked to think of them, models), including a donkey. And films can contain wildly differing styles of acting: the quartet of lead performances in The Heiress (de Havilland, Richardson, Clift and Hopkins) is, indeed, a case in point, although the example I’ve always liked most is the trio in Some Like It Hot: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, each giving a masterclass in a quite different acting technique.


* This trinity always seems a little unfair to the ‘fourth man’, Michael Redgrave, whose Parkinson’s made him more or less invisible in the 70s. Now there’s a classical theatre actor with a truly impressive film CV…

(Category: Cinema)

12.45 am

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Tuesday 25 April 2006

Reader’s Block

One of the many writing projects I have in mind is a none-too-serious novel about an actor who becomes a spy (working title: Codename Autolycus), and as preparation for this I have begun reading genre fiction. A recent visit to the library (actually, not so recent after all – I think I had to renew the book when I was last there) saw me pick, somewhat at random, a book by Lawrence Block. I think I was actually trying to find a nice bit of tough-guy American crime writing by someone like George Pelecanos, to sustain me after the end of the TV show The Wire, but in fact Mr Block, who must have been praised on the back of one of the other books I picked up (since I had never heard of him before), turned out to be a pretty fair model for the sort of book I want to end up writing. The narrator runs a second-hand bookshop in New York and in his spare time – though in fact it’s not clear which way round his life really works – he robs people: indeed, the titles of the series this book belongs to always start with the words ‘The Burglar’. (This one was The Burglar on the Prowl.)

I must say I’m beginning to see the appeal, especially after all those lifeless ‘modern masterpieces’ I’ve tried (and failed) to read over the years. Oddly enough, it has something in common with many of them, but its tone, its sense of its own ridiculousness, wins you over. This one messed about with coincidence an awful lot: the narrator (and by extension the author) apologised for there being so many of them, whereas you can imagine a more pretentious book being just as packed with coincidences, but justifying them by some reference to destiny or what-have-you. (In other words: this is the way the book has to be.) In fact, Block’s book used the sheer number of unexpected intersections to its advantage: fulfilling its role as a detective story, it shuffled up the random and the salient connections to blind the reader as to who did what to whom and when. (Well, more or less.)

I was sufficiently pleased with The Burglar on the Prowl to go back to a truly vast and epic book that my brother Charles lent me two months ago: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by a writer called Michael Chabon. (The name had meant nothing to me, even though another novel of his, Wonder Boys, had been made into a film I’d seen and enjoyed.) This actually suffers from many of the flaws I have been known to detest in other long, super-ambitious pieces of fiction – I have a particular distaste for a kind of sympathetic sob I seem to hear in these books’ third-person narrators – but the ‘Block effect’ seems to have lasted well into the middle of this one, and I’m pretty much enjoying it. There have even been a couple of examples of over-written prose (the whole thing is over-written, really – did I miss the memo about the relaxation of the adjective rule, for instance?)* which I have secretly enjoyed, because they remind me so much of the sort of thing I like to do: the main character, Joe Kavalier, is described as being ‘obscurely furious’ with his boss at one point, a phrase whose actual meaning seems to me to be drowned out by its chiming euphoniousness; while early on, my eye was caught by the expression ‘infinite columns of minuscule type’, whose rhyme and dactylic rhythm are perhaps not enough to justify that absurdly hyperbolical (and insufficiently humorous) ‘infinite’. Still, it’s jam-packed with good things, so I think I shall continue with it (I’ve got another 300-plus pages to read) – though the recent and evidently more-than-cameo appearance of a female character has, for some reason, filled me with a certain foreboding…


* Hypocritical, me? This is a journal: I’m supposed to write whatever I damn well please!

(Category: Writing)

11.55 pm

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Monday 17 April 2006

On of

Amongst the numerous imported Americanisms that assault my forty-one-year-old nervous system on a regular basis, I think I would have to cite the peculiar use (and non-use) of of as one of my least favourite. The expression ‘outside of’, for instance, seems completely unnecessary, when ‘outside’, surely, does the same job. (Consider ‘outside of the immediate family’ and ‘outside the immediate family’ – do they mean different things?)

Perhaps people who do this could take the ‘of’ out and restore the balance by putting it back into phrases like ‘the seventeenth April’. The other nasty and increasingly prevalent chronological example that involves a missing ‘of’ is ‘at age 41’ instead of ‘at the age of 41’: just plain unpleasant…

(This isn’t to say that I hate all American expressions – I quite like the idea of using ‘than’ with ‘different’ (‘apples are different than oranges’), which if nothing else bypasses that annoying British argument about whether ‘to’ or ’from’ is correct. However, I have to admit that I remain being plainly baffled by the use of ‘in back of’ instead of ‘behind’. Apart from anything else, it would never work to say ‘You’ve got a really nice in back of…’)

(Category: Words)

3.07 pm

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Thursday 13 April 2006

Time code

A regrettably lengthy portion of yesterday taken up with yet more attempts to sort out this rss time format problem: it turns out that ‘BST’ is not, after all, a legitimate time zone, and you have to use a formula (+-hhmm) to define those zones that are neither standard American ones nor GMT. (One gets the impression from the literature that even ‘GMT’ is allowed only grudgingly, the more acceptable formulation being ‘UT’, ie ‘Universal Time’.)

When I discovered that there were three or four problems (including the use of BST) which were preventing my rss feed from being validated, I tried to sort them out: for what it’s worth (which is very little), the feed is now valid – though I suspect that FileMaker’s various features (the ‘calculation’ field, for instance, which allows you to create unique references and unusual formats from your existing data) constitute a great excuse to avoid discovering how to do the same thing in xslt.

And all this time, of course, there has been actual remunerative work I could and should have been doing. Still, I suppose when you’re as lazy and unmotivated as I am, it comes as a pleasant surprise that there is something that you are prepared to work at…

(Category: Computing)

9.48 am

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Wednesday 12 April 2006

Really simple…

All being well, there’s a little ‘rss’ symbol near the top of this page, linking to a version of this journal in the rss ‘dialect’ of xml. I think it works, but you never know…

(I suppose I ought to point out that the xslt file took me almost no time at all to write, – it was a simple xml-to-xml conversion, after all – while getting the date into the very US-centric format required by the rss ‘pubDate’ element was incredibly difficult. FileMaker has all sorts of possibilities for customising dates and times, but it wasn’t appropriate to use them. The GMT/BST issue – the rss date format ends with the time zone – seemed horrendously complicated, and proved so, until I discovered that it was possible, after all, to use BST, despite its parochial origins. Even so, I can’t think my way round the rules for producing the correct date-range for BST - something about the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October, isn’t it? – so I’ve had to do a bodge and use April to October.)*


*Actually, rather than doing sensible like going to bed, I’ve managed to work this out – to within an hour or so, at any rate. Weak hurrahs all round.

(Category: Computing)

2.16 am

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Thursday 6 April 2006

Cambridge Talkie

Good gig last night – getting paid for waffling on about ‘the films in my life’. It was part of some Film Council research to get more money for films (principally digital projectors, by the sound of it) from the Lottery Fund. There were eight of us, five men (all Brits) and three women (all foreign – is there a point to be made about this?). I remember which directors all but one of them named as their favourite: Hitchcock, Lean, Resnais, Wong Kar-Wai, Kubrick, Tarkovsky (tied with Kubrick, again), plus my own choice (Bunuel) – but ironically, the one I’ve forgotten, or just didn’t overhear, was from a woman who at the last minute name-checked two of my very favourite films: My Night with Maud (on my ‘respectable’ list) and Scaramouche (on my ‘unrespectable’ list). So obviously her choice of director might well have been to my taste. Can’t imagine who it could have been. She was very stern about cinema not being escapism, so you’d imagine one of the unsmiling gods of the European humanist tradition: Bresson, say, or Dreyer. But I think I would have remembered if it had been either of those. (Good, if unexpected, to see Resnais there. A pity, as always, to see Kubrick creep onto the list – one and a half times, in this case… Still, better him, I dare say, than some of the people it could have been.)

They asked about turning points in our viewing of films. Of the endless number of films that seem to have had a great effect on me, I chose three from my late tweens and teens: the original King Kong, A Matter of Life and Death and Abel Gance’s Napoleon. A number of connections: the first film that three of us men remembered seeing was a Connery Bond one (Diamonds are Forever, in my case, back in 1971). The idea of watching films being somehow ‘immoral’ cropped up occasionally: for one woman, it was going down to watch films in the living room in the dead of night; for two of the men, it was getting in to see films without paying or watching X-rated ones under 18. (For me, characteristically, a principal impetus for watching foreign films as a teenager was the greater-than-average chance of seeing a naked woman. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned this, but I didn’t see the harm. Of course, if I’d pointed out that this was still a major issue in my choice of film-viewing, that would have been a different matter.)

With a small portion of the loot obtained from this chatter, I went straight afterwards to my first cinema film in what seems ages* – Melville’s L’Armée des Ombres. This was a long, rather drab-looking film about the French Resistance, which made its undeniable impression through its specificity. Curiously untidy – a rather full-blown musical score, occasionally obvious studio sets and no less than three, randomly-occurring narrators – and expansive at odd times. The hero, for instance, spends a few days in London, and at one point finds himself caught outside during an air-raid. Though he has already been established as rock-hard and impassive (as only a character played by the granite-like Lino Ventura can be), he is unnerved by the bombs, and ducks inside a house, where a group of service men and women are dancing. The bombs continue to fall, and the group continues to dance: Ventura just watches them, especially the women, before leaving again without a word. Some very good set-pieces, including a marvellous twist that I didn’t recall from the last time I saw it (I think I may have been napping then, as I only really remembered the last five minutes). I seem to recall that Melville had been in the Resistance, so that would have been one reason for doing the film. The other – what made him a hero to directors like Godard, and is the reason for his current high critical status (as a ‘genre’ man) – is that he was greatly enamoured, and deliberately imitative, of American thrillers (‘Melville’ was, after all, a pseudonym), and the laconic, stoical characters of this film are clearly cousins to the protagonists of those tough-guy American films of the 40s and 50s.


* It can’t be that long: they’re still showing the black and white adverts with the couple in the car getting lost (the man, bizarrely enough, is someone I’ve met through work: Paul Higgins, who runs Theatre 503, formerly the Latchmere), and the German car ad with the boy with the grown-up face (he reminds me of ‘Old Father Time’, or whatever the eldest child is called in Jude the Obscure) and the unnecessarily well-orchestrated background music.

(Category: Cinema)

4.38 pm

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Tuesday 28 March 2006

More on Morin

What’s odd about the songs to this musical of ours – called, since you ask, That Pig, Morin! (the exclamation mark purely for the US market) – is that, for all their complex rhyming and word play, the lyrics were rather naïvely written. For almost all of them the music came first, and the words I wrote were informed not only by the melody, but by the harmonies underneath, the speed at which Jamie happened to play it on the recording, and for all I know the acoustics of the particular Norwegian barn he recorded it in.

So when I heard the songs, newly recorded from Sunday’s workshop and/or Saturday’s dress rehearsal and accompanied by the composer himself, it came as a shock to find the accompaniments shorn of the melodic line (because, after all, the singer has that), or missing those extra notes in the left hand I paid so much attention to when I was constructing the lyrics. I’ve always been desperate to hear the songs accompanied by a small band, partly because I don’t really like the piano very much, but mostly, I suspect, because I’m hoping that’ll restore some of the body I remember from the original recordings…

Idly wondering about the style of instrumentation, I put on a bit of Fauré (Masques et Bergamasques) and immediately thought that would work (the country and period are more or less right, too), as would something like Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite. Of course, that’s a whole orchestra, whereas we’re likely to be stuck with a guitar, double bass and piccolo…

(Category: Music)

2.22 am

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Tuesday 28 March 2006

Meanwhile, in downtown Akron…

On Sunday night – or, by BST standards, yesterday morning – an old musical I wrote over fifteen years ago with my friend Jamie (http://www.jamiehitel.com/index.htm) was disinterred by a group of enthusiastic citizens of Akron, OH, and given a small-scale performance in the church where Jamie is music director. During the afternoon and evening I’ve had a series of congratulatory e-mails forwarded by Jamie or his wife Sarah saying how wonderful it was. Those Americans - you gotta love ’em…

Now, no doubt, we’ll see whether this piece has legs. It’s taken a great deal of work by lots of different people to get it to this preliminary stage: it’ll need considerably more to go any further. Is it up to it? As the lyricist and writer of the book I know better than most its various deficiencies: until recently I was also in the unusual – practically unique – position of knowing its virtues too. I don’t think I ever heard a good word about it from anyone here in the UK when I showed it round. I can’t say I believe this new development is exactly a vindication of the piece, or indeed a Yah Boo Sucks to the people who saw nothing in it; on the other hand, it’s certainly true to say that musicals, more than any other theatrical form, need their audience to give them a certain benefit of the doubt, and that this script’s audience tended to show that nasty (to say nothing of self-destructive) British combination of cynicism and lack of imagination by simply refusing to do so.

In the end I suspect that its harshest critic was always me, and I never fought for it. Jamie was just as bad, though perhaps for different reasons.

Anyway, it’s now ‘out there’. There’s a website (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/estienne/personal/morin/morinhome.html – one of mine, I’m afraid). Watch this space, as they say.

(Category: Writing)

1.49 am

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Sunday 26 March 2006

Narrowly marginal

Just been informed by my news-ticker ‘Auntie’ that the film-maker Richard Fleischer has died – or, as they put it: ‘Conan director Fleischer dies, 89’.

Conan, eh? That tells you all you need to know about cinema’s current debasement, I suspect, or at any rate its galloping amnesia. Among Fleischer’s other films are The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis – surely a better bet as his most famous film – The Boston Strangler, again with Curtis (on amazing form), which took the then-modish technique of screen-splitting (cf the original Thomas Crown Affair) and tried to use it in a serious manner, and 1952’s The Narrow Margin (remade, with Gene Hackman but without the article or much of the quality, some forty years later). This last film – Fleischer’s, I mean, not the remake – is a highly efficient B-movie thriller with a pretty impressive reputation. I often think of high-minded film-makers who dream of directing an unpretentious but well-constructed piece (but are usually incapable of doing so) as having a ‘Narrow Margin moment’. It’s not dreamy and existential like the film noir thrillers that came before or rather grandiose like the high-profile crime films – Touch of Evil, say, or The Asphalt Jungle – that came after. It’s just a really good film… I wonder if they’ll show it as a tribute? Unlikely, given the sheer number of possibilities (see below). (As it happens, the remake was on ITV last night.)

I’ve just checked the ‘Auntie’ reference. Interestingly, the films of his which the BBC put in their lead paragraph are: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (again with Douglas), Fantastic Voyage (how could I forget that? – Raquel Welch covered in goo in her white wetsuit, Donald Pleasance’s head being eaten by a white corpuscle) and Tora! Tora! Tora!. Other highlights covered lower down include Soylent Green (hooray!) and the original ‘melonfarmer’ film, Mr Majestyk.

(It turns out that the ‘Conan’ reference isn’t to the original Conan the Barbarian, but to its sequel, Conan the Destroyer, What a way to be remembered…)

(Category: Cinema)

8.06 pm

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Friday 24 March 2006

Curious fact no 425

Having ‘applied’ for a interesting-sounding job (albeit in Reading) via an agency on Wednesday, yesterday I got the details, revealing the name of the employer. Dang me if within the hour the same name didn’t come up in Auntie (my BBC ‘news ticker’) – the Chief Executive had to resign in the fall-out from Tony’s ‘cash for ermine’ mini-scandal. Another job I quasi-applied for last month was with a company who turned out to be involved in that experimental drug fiasco of last week. Both of the posts demanded intimate knowledge of Microsoft Office applications – a knowledge which (the ubiquitous/iniquitous Word apart) I pride myself on not having. But it appeals to my Mac-based sympathies to think that there is a correlation between corporate misconduct/incompetence and use of Microsoft products. (I wonder if you can say the same about companies using agencies?)

(Category: Politics)

12.47 pm

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Thursday 23 March 2006

How long is this piece of string?

A bit of a re-run of Sunday: had quite a bit of potentially remunerative work to do this (Weds) evening, but instead got bogged down with another AppleScript problem. (For some reason I seem incapable of letting it alone until I’ve sorted it out.)

Once again, I was working with the XML/XSLT Tools scripting additions, this time to choose the files to work with and be able to output them with a name and to a place of my choice. With the script I wrote to convert this into html, I merely pointed the commands in the direction of specific files, so this was a rather more complicated manoeuvre. Not that much more complicated, however; and it was dispiriting to discover how difficult I seemed to find it.

Previously I’d used a script addition (strictly speaking a faceless background application) called TextCommands to alter a file’s text directly, and this had meant commands like ‘open for access’ and ‘read’, which turned out to be useless for XML and XSLT Tools. (In a sense, I suppose, I should have realised that although the process radically changes text, it doesn’t actually change the source files at all.) The key, as I discovered (thanks to a demo version of the program Script Debugger – useful, but perhaps not worth the $199 it would cost to buy, at least to me), was to tell the script to look at the path to the chosen file as a piece of text: as a ‘string’, in other words. If I’d thought logically about it, I might have realised earlier that this was precisely what I had done when I put in the specified path in my previous script.

Anyway, I suppose that getting this right at last almost counts as proper progress where AppleScript and I are concerned, though no doubt I’ll soon come across another example where I need to do something else entirely to get it to work. I also took forever to work out how to save the resulting file – much less forgivable, as I’ve done that many times before.

The main trouble with all the different scripting languages I’m trying to learn – xhtml, xml, xsl, AppleScript, and now php (I’ve had to put TeX/LaTeX, God help me, on hold) – is that I can’t seem to memorise any of it: even when I start an xml document, I usually end up having to copy the first line from an earlier file. It’s my age, I suppose – though it’s also true that there’ve always been odd areas that I’ve found significantly harder to remember than all those names and dates that have come so easily to me: the parts of an army come to mind (ironically enough, since they never do). (I wonder if that word significantly is itself significant?)

(Category: Computing)

3.19 am

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Tuesday 21 March 2006

D H Loins

BBC4 is in the middle of a threesome of much-hyped new TV plays. The (inevitably?) dispiriting Fantabulosa, about the unhappy life and longed-for death – and, very occasionally, the spritely/spiteful humour – of Kenneth Williams, was last Monday; next Monday will be an updated sci-fi classic I should have heard of, called A for Andromeda, with a rather interesting-looking cast (and Jane Asher*); tonight (Monday) it was the turn of The Chatterley Affair, which gave us the main contours of the 1963 obsenity trial as well as the more usual kind of ‘affair’ based very (self-)consciously on the posh totty/bit of rough coupling of the book. As a longtime fan of the actress playing the aforementioned pt, Louise Delamere** (whose starring appearances on the nurse series No Angels have had me staring at the TV with my mouth open), the prospect of her playing a 60s version of Connie Chatterley in a play written by the famously libidinous Andrew Davies was too good to pass up. (Davies may be better known for sexing up some of his classic adaptations, but anyone who saw that odd original play of his with David Troughton in the mid-90s – which imdb identifies as A Few Short Journeys of the Heart – will know just how interested in sex he really is: positively Potterish…)

I suppose I was bound to be disappointed, though less by the sex (very conventionally handled in visual terms, though with plenty of Lawrentian f- and c-bombs in the post-coital conversations) than the drama as a whole. The show was the standard modern handsomely-mounted effort with no real centre. There was a surely anachronistic reference to ‘getting to first/second/third base’ with a girl – isn’t that level of Americanism much more recent? – plus a slightly mystifying buggery scene. (Did Davies suddenly lose his nerve while writing it, or did the director tone it down? As it stood, there didn’t seem to be much point to it.) The trial, which these days seems rather quaint, was even more of a foregone conclusion than one might have expected, Davies giving all the pro-prosecution sentiments to a pair of hissable male jurors. I wonder whether it might have benefited from a more imaginative treatment (perhaps connecting the outcome of the trial with the peculiar sexualised/prudish dichotomies that now – still? – surround us), but ‘it was what it was’, I suppose. In the old days a playwright might have allowed himself to follow through with an interesting idea, even at the risk of repeating him/herself or getting a bit soapboxy, and perhaps to give a couple of characters some good and long (if not necessarily realistic) speeches: nowadays, it’s all snippets – ideas and speeches both. (Thus speaks the old nostalgist.)


* Cheap and disingenuous, of course: not only is the great JA always welcome (she was in Deep End, for crying out loud!), she has a good pedigree with sci-fi via that interesting Nigel Kneale series The Stone Tape.

** In an earlier entry I talked, apparently without embarrassment, about a ‘pantheon’ of favourite actresses. Oh, she’s in there all right.

*** Actually, as you might have noticed, there’s no three-asterisk reference. But I’m beginning to wonder if someone who already overuses dashes and parentheses and is now branching out into multiple footnotes might consider reworking their style a little bit…

(Category: Television)

2.02 am

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Monday 20 March 2006

Ravel’s train-ride

Recently I read somewhere that Ravel conceived the first movement of his piano concerto (the two-hand/funny one, as opposed to the one-hand/solemn one) in 1928, on a train journey from Oxford to London, having just picked up his honorary doctorate. Thinking of it as ‘train music’ – to go alongside Pacific 231 or Coronation Scot, or the Villa-Lobos toccata with the impossible name from Bachianas Brasileiras 2 – makes me like the piece even more, if that’s possible…

(Category: Music)

2.02 pm

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Sunday 19 March 2006

Sorry about that, BBEdit…

Wasted most of the day taking the references to BBEdit out of the Applescript application that converts these FileMaker entries to html. Much faster now, and it’s all done in the background – but it didn’t half take a long time to do…

There are a couple of teething problems – bits of text are sometimes repeated at the end of files – so I’ve got a bit more to work on.

The next stage is to re-create only those files which have been changed: I haven’t the first idea how to do that. (Actually, since one solution to those curious extra bits of text is to delete the old html files first, perhaps I needn’t bother.)

(Category: Computing)

10.47 pm

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Sunday 19 March 2006

Playing games

I spent yesterday afternoon sitting round a table and playing a couple of mad games with friends and acquaintances. The maker of one of the games – and a familiar name from earlier Saturday afternooons – is Cheapass Games, an enterprising (and necessarily American?) company whose interests tend towards the offhand, macabre and black-humoured: their most famous game is called ‘Kill Dr Lucky’… They keep their prices down, thus justifying their name, by supplying only the cards (and, if necessary, the boards) and expecting the players to come up with the more generic items needed for such games: dice, counters, money. As always happens when I happen across something new that I rather like, I am possessed by a spirit of emulation (read: imitation), and am currently trying to think up similar games of my own.

The two subjects I have in mind are Adultery and Succession. The first is easily the more interesting, though getting it to work as a game, even in the most basic theoretical terms, is proving troublesome. Should each player represent both a ‘cheat’ character and a ‘cheated-on’ character? (That limits the minimum number of players, I would have thought.) What is the setting for the game – an overheated village, perhaps, where everyone turns out to be sleeping with everyone else? Is the purpose of the game to commit adultery with lots of different people (say over a period of days), or to cover up a liaison that has already taken place? It would be nice to inject a shock gay affair into the mix, but how? Are there detectives involved? Etc, etc.

‘Succession’, on the other hand, lends itself so easily to the format that it might be difficult to avoid resembling other games. For instance, I have thought from the beginning that the game would end when the winning player, armed (perhaps literally) with the requisite means of keeping power, made it to the palace balcony – the setting would be the capital of a small country whose leader had just died, leaving a power vacuum. It just so happened that the new game we played yesterday, Zombies!!! (from ‘Twilight Creations’, though very like a Cheapass game in structure and tone), ends when the first player gets to the helicopter, having dispatched all the unlovely undead from the helipad… I suppose both endings can ultimately trace their lineage back to Snakes & Ladders, so I shouldn’t feel so bad about the similarities.

The pleasures for both games will be in the details, though I suspect with some of the Cheapass games that the amusement of some of the character/weapon/surprise cards masks deficiencies in the game itself. For ‘Succession’ I envisage three ways of taking power – coup d’état, democratic election and hereditary succession. There is, of course, no moral highground here – any election will be won by corruption (bribes, graft) rather than good policies, while the heredity angle will doubtless be based on forgeries. It’s perhaps a little too complicated for its own good at the moment, but it certainly allows plenty of opportunities to be funny…

And as I have filed this entry under ‘Business’, I ought to stop skirting around the issue and ask myself whether there is actually any money to be made out of this. If you get the game to work and it’s a success, what sort of return are you like to get out of it? Is this likely to end up as another of my ‘interesting but profitless’ ideas?

Another notion I picked up yesterday was about the ultimate ‘cheapass’ game accessory – the pack of cards. Why not come up with a pack that had photos of actual spades, clubs, hearts (ugh) and diamonds, to say nothing of kings, queens and jacks, on them? (Perhaps ‘knaves’ would be better than ‘jacks in this case.) It’s funny, of course, that we never play card games anymore – I did play poker with some villains before Christmas, but that was more an act of worship before the great god Sinatra than anything else. When I think of the great cardgames I used to play – gin rummy, cribbage, the wild and wonderful bezique, that very peculiar Norwegian game mattis – I wonder why we don’t bother any more. The rules are certainly no less peculiar than the Cheapass ones. (Funny I should care, really: I’m not sure I even like playing card games, as I so often get bad hands and then manage to make them worse…)

(Category: Business)

3.49 pm

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Friday 17 March 2006

A bit of refinement

Here’s an amusing extra: I’ve changed the script so that it produces a main page with all the entries on, then eight more pages with the entries separated out by category. These pages are accessible via the coloured blocks at the top left and right of the page…

(Category: Computing)

7.23 pm

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Friday 17 March 2006

I bind unto myself today

Today – 17 March – has had a familiar ring to it for some time now, and I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember what. Somebody’s birthday? A deadline of some kind?

The answer came a few hours ago, as I went into town. Emerging from the Pickerel were a bunch of nitwits with big leprechaun hats on, drinking Guinness out of plastic glasses. Of course – St Patrick’s Day.

Despite being a bit Irish myself (the Dublin ‘Ascendancy’, don’t you know?), I’ve rather gone off them in recent years. Such is the peculiarly high opinion in which the Irish appear to be held that I begin to miss that far-off time when we could insult them with impunity (well, apart from the bomb threats, that is – ah, the good old days of terrorism…). I dare say it’s better this way, but I do get sick of hearing their voices on the radio and TV.

Seeing those fools in the street made me think of one of my favourite bits from The Godfather, when the consigliere Tom Hagen goes to see the film director who will subsequently wake up with his horse’s head in his bed. The director shouts at him to leave, calling him a ‘wop’. ‘Actually,’ says Hagen, ‘I’m German-Irish.’ ‘Then get out of here, you kraut mick!’ says the director without turning a hair. (Or something like that.) I wondered about the derivation of ‘mick’ for the Irish: the obvious explanation is that it’s to do with the name ‘Michael’, as ‘paddy’ derives from ‘Patrick’. But Patrick is the Irish patron saint, so the connection is obvious, whereas there’s nothing specifically Irish about Michael. I wondered whether it came from ‘Mc’, which one tends to think of as Scottish, but is also a common feature in Irish surnames: eg McMorris in Henry V. I don’t think I’ll investigate further as I’m not particularly interested, but, hey, it passed the time.

(Category: Words)

7.11 pm

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Friday 17 March 2006

How beastly!

Picked up a copy of Sight and Sound yesterday – not without a certain reluctance perhaps, as it feels less and less authoritative* (and coincidentally refuses even to answer my letters whenever I apply for a job there) – only to discover that an old favourite of mine, Walerian Borowczyk, had died. The exigencies of magazine publishing suggest that this happened at least a couple of weeks ago: I’ve just googled ‘Borowczyk’ and ‘obituary’ and at the top of the list was the one in the Guardian on 23 Feb – http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1715657,00.html. (I do wish there was a way of getting this sort of information automatically sent to you by e-mail: a kind of ‘obituary watch’…)

Borowczyk really is a classic cinéaste maudit – arguably the best example there is. The standard line is that he was a ground-breaking, critically-acclaimed animator in the 1960s whose early live-action films Goto and Blanche were praised for their strangeness and painterly qualities, before he went spectacularly off the rails, spending the rest of his career making erotica, from Immoral Tales in the early 70s to his last film, Love Rites, in the late 80s, the nadir being number five in the celebrated Emmanuelle franchise. Naturally, since films in which the main, er, thrust is sexual constitute a genre just like the western or film noir or musical, there has been a spirited rearguard action (blimey, doesn’t it suddenly seem impossible to avoid double entendres when sex, er, comes into it?) defending Borowczyk’s later films, praising his undiminished talent for composition and dream-like atmosphere. (A good test-case here is the really very poor, unbelievably incoherent Emmanuelle 5, which nonetheless contains a harem sequence that is vintage Borowczyk.)

For professional critics who see something in his work, the conventional defence – as with the Guardian obit – is to call him a ‘surrealist’. If ‘surrealist’ is regarded as a straightforward synonym of ‘dream-like’ (= oneiric), then this would perhaps be justifiable, but since it isn’t, it isn’t. Much more than, say, Jean Rollin – who initially appears to be covering similar sex/horror ground, discovering unexpected pleasures in some unpromising source material – Borowczyk is his own man, who presumably used the ‘erotica’ label in order to get funding but whose ideas of what is erotic coincide surprisingly rarely with conventional thinking on the subject. (I was first introduced to Borowczyk, or at any rate the idea of him, more than twenty years ago via a discussion of his most controversial film, The Beast, which could then only be shown in the jism-pits of Soho: what I most remember from the conversation is the image of the raincoat brigade, faced with the series of extraordinary images in that film, not really knowing what to do with themselves.) I suspect that if he were considered more of an experimenter with producing certain cinematic effects – if people could get over the fact that those effects are centred around sex (which I realise is a big ‘ask’) – then discussions of his work might be more profitable…


*Given my still-inchoate ideas about the true pleasures of the cinema – the offhand, the incidental, the unexpected appearance of ‘real life’ in the midst of artifice – you might expect me to applaud this diminishing authority. But when I consider that S&S seems to be losing it by playing catch-up with cheersheets for the Hollywood juggernaut such as Premiere, I’d rather not.

(Category: Cinema)

12.18 pm

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Thursday 16 March 2006

Another day, another diary

It seemed like a good idea to start a parallel blog, detailing what I need to do on my idea for an xml-based playscript application, rather than put it in here. So when that’s up and running, it’ll be at: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/estienne/personal/playerking.htm.

(I thought ‘Player King’ would be quite a good name for it.)

(Category: Computing)

6.32 pm

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Wednesday 15 March 2006

Another vessel for the Sacre

Caught Riot at the Rite (horrible title) on Saturday night. Various (not necessarily good) reasons for watching this: one, it made me nostalgic for the good old highbrow days of BBC2; two, I’m a big fan of The Rite of Spring, in all its guises; three, I have a terrible weakness for cultural (especially musical) biopics*, courtesy of numerous artistic nudes in those 70s Omnibus shows and an excess of Ken Russell films at an impressionable age. An added bonus was the brief but piquant presence of one of my current pantheon of favourite actresses, Emma Pierson, who is devilishly pretty, with an unmistakable, indescribable voice – is it giggly? is it sexy? – and may possibly be quite good at her job (I’m too blinded by lust to make that sort of call).

The show itself was lush, schematic and lazy, with plenty of the sort of duff clairvoyant comments that historical dramas rarely avoid, and centred around a series of empty relationships: Diaghilev with Nijinsky, Nijinsky with Stravinsky, Stravinsky with Diaghilev. (It didn’t help that the three actors playing these parts didn’t look right – Diaghilev too hangdog, Stravinsky not pointy enough – though to be fair, I don’t really know what Nijinsky looked like: when I think of him, I see a cross between Rudolf Nureyev and the racehorse of the same name.) The Rite/riot itself was done pretty well, and conscientiously, giving us the whole of Stravinsky’s score and much of Nijinsky’s choreography. (The rioters, ie the audience, were a mixed bag, with some funny stunt-casting in there.)

Ironically, given this generosity towards the music, the thing that most troubled me was an apparent lack of confidence in its quality. Both Diaghilev and Monteux (the conductor) were shown cordially detesting the music, but recognising its ‘scandalous’ potential. (An evident companion piece to this film made a few years back, Eroica – about the first performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, with Ian Hart as LvB and featuring a cameo from the great Frank Finlay as the great Franz Joseph Haydn – was much more alive to the significance of its featured work.) The only justification for this attitude, perhaps, would be Stravinsky’s own: a chilly, calculating man – a rationalist in ritualist’s clothing – much given to denying music’s potential for affecting people, he seems to have become a little equivocal about the power of the Rite, in effect shrugging his shoulders and coming up with the celebrated line: ‘I was the vessel through which Le Sacre passed’.

As an habitué of these sorts of shows, I am not short of ideas of my own, and have often thought that the real drama of the Rite’s reception might be shown in a slightly earlier performance, when Stravinsky was joined at the piano by Debussy (apparently sight-reading the score for the first time – being able to read a score ‘like a book’ being one of his talents) for the four-hand version. Debussy was then arguably the most important composer in the world, and it is interesting to think of him having to play the piece that effectively ushered in his successor. (Besides, Debussy has always struck me as one of the most compelling personalities in classical music history, with a fairly scandalous private life: given how beautiful so much of his music is – and how cinematic! – it’s seems odd that no one has considered producing a biopic.)


* Perhaps the guiltiest of my innumerable guilty cinematic pleasures is the truly terrible film A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand.

(Category: Television)

4.39 pm

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Monday 13 March 2006

Curse of the coprophage

Now here’s an expression I don’t get: shit-eating grin. What does it mean, and where does it come from?

I tend to assume that the grin in question is a wide, cocky, rather insincere object – best exemplified, perhaps, by Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy (and, come to think of it, in The Right Stuff, InnerSpace, etc, etc). But then again, it might be something else altogether. In any case, why should it be associated with that particular diet? A colleague has theorised that the grin is so plastered-on, so impervious to the outside world, that even were its owner to chomp his (and I suspect it always is ‘his’) way through several toilet bowls’ worth, it would stay fixed on his face. It’s an ingenious hypothesis, but if anything it’s a little too ingenious: it feels as if there’s a stage missing.

Wouldn’t you expect a someone ‘eating shit’ to be displaying humility? (Cf eating crow or humble pie – now there’s a menu…) If so, how did it get to be associated with arrogance? Is Bob Monkhouse somehow involved? Etc, etc.

(Category: Words)

6.38 pm

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Sunday 12 March 2006

More on BedZED

A couple of extra links for BedZED (the correct orthography, apparently), mentioned in the previous entry.

Incidentally, the prices are as unpleasant as you would expect them to be. When the thing opened back in 2001, a one-bedroom flat was about £100,000. I saw a ‘studio flat’ (presumably much the same thing) on the market recently for £250,000.

Oh, and I thought I’d just add an elaboration to the last entry’s point about this subject being ‘political’. I don’t think there’s any question that the environment is a political issue. If it wasn’t, we might have sorted it out by now. (Cheap point, but possibly valid.)

(Category: Politics)

5.26 pm

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Sunday 12 March 2006

Glass houses

Last Wednesday I had a (doubtless soon-to-be-unsuccessful) job interview in a forsaken part of south London (SW16, practically Croydon) called Norbury. What for? Well, the post – as employers like to call them – is in my range of abilities/experience (editing, typesetting, ‘project management’, etc), and had a number of more or less engaging features (working for a charity, some kind of pension plan) that I increasingly look for in a job. But what really caught my eye was the location: specifically, the relative proximity to a place called BedZed.

BedZed is short for ‘Beddington Zero Energy Development’, and is a series of flats in a housing project that claims to use no more energy than it produces (hence the ‘zero energy’ part of its name). I don’t know whether it is as great as it sounds – it’s certainly nothing too special to look at, as far as I can see – but it’s always interested me, and I seem to look at the website (http://www.bedzed.org.uk/index.htm) at least a couple of times a month. After the interview last Wednesday, I took advantage of being in the neighbourhood to have a look. This being south London, even places quite close together require you to go back up the particular train line you are on to a junction – Clapham, Balham, or in this case, Streatham – and go back down on a different line. I recalled from the BedZed map that the nearest station was Hackbridge, so down (or rather up and down) I went. Hackbridge, or at least that part of it close to the station, is even more dismal than Norbury – if I’d not been to Harlow the week before (another interview), I would have said it was the most grisly place I’d been this year – and there were no signs at the station or in the village to suggest that you were anywhere near one of the most innovative housing projects in Europe. So, inevitably, with the map a sort of blur in my memory, I went in the wrong direction, then I went in the right direction, lost heart, went in the wrong direction again… Then it started to rain, I had a hole in my shoe, and I decided to get back on the train, returning to Victoria at the height of the commuter rush (when it was so busy that they temporarily had to close down the turnstiles). A complete waste of time, in other words.

So why have I put this entry under ‘politics’? I suppose I was expecting the BedZed development to be a bigger feature of the area – the ‘housing of the future’, as they like to see themselves. But, as I say, there were no signs to it at Hackbridge, and earlier, when I mentioned BedZed at the interview (admitting, in that foot-in-mouth way of mine, that this was a main reason for my applying), they hadn’t heard of it. There’s endless talk these days about the coming energy crisis and trying to save the environment and so on: recycling and compost heaps and ‘micro-generation’ (wind turbines and photovoltaic cells on the roof). But a project like this remains generally unknown, and the fact that builders and developers are routinely able to ignore the Government’s (presumably low-key) environmental safeguards for new houses – often because the surveyors involved don’t know enough about the subject themselves – rarely makes even the inside pages of the more serious papers. If ZedBed really is the thing its supporters say it is, then it should be ‘standard’, not ‘outstanding’.* And that’s politics, isn’t it?


* This habit of bigging something up by labelling the inferior things around it as ‘ordinary’ is a very common habit. (I must say – to use a rather tasteless example – that when I saw Schindler’s List, I didn’t think: ‘How wonderful this Oscar Schindler was.’ I thought: ‘What an ordinary, decent human being Schindler was. And what a bunch of spineless toe-rags those other German industrialists were.’) I wonder whether it has a name.

(Category: Politics)

12.55 am

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Saturday 11 March 2006

Contents and discontents

After somehow getting this blog’s category colours to do what I wanted, yesterday I banged away at the idea I‘d had a few months ago to put a linked list of the entry dates at the top of the page – a table of contents, in effect. I nabbed a piece of someone else’s xsl file from the internet (from a forum question about an unsuccessful attempt at ‘TOC’ creation, ironically enough) and put it to use, and bizarrely this solution – using the ‘for-each select’ element – actually worked, as did the ‘generate-id’ facility I’d already been playing with. It all made me feel very clever, for a couple of hours…

However, the irony is not lost on me that one, writing about all this trouble to manipulate content has been at the expense of the content (on films, politics, music and the rest) that I started this blog to write about, and two, my recent ‘triumphs’ with xslt are much like teaching a parrot to quote Aristotle: I still barely understand the principles, and have no idea why ‘for-each select’ turned out to give me a table of contents when, say, ‘template match’ or ‘apply-templates’ resulted in unchanged or empty documents.

Anyway, I’m hoping that by some unconscious mental process I eventually get to understand how this really works, so I can start using it properly. I’ve had some minor success with converting an xml-based playscript (originally in InDesign, and generated by converting the ID styles into xml tags) into both html and TeX (the latter much easier than I was led to expect), and have scratched the surface of an xml-to-InDesign conversion, which I hope to extend to an xml-to-xml-to-InDesign conversion: this should allow me to develop my idea of an xml-based playwriting program a little further. (Given that the extent of my programming experience is writing absurdly straightforward AppleScripts, what I plan to do when and if I sort out the not-inconsiderable challenges of planning an xml ‘dialect’ for writing plays is anyone’s guess.)

(Category: Computing)

5.02 pm

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Friday 10 March 2006

And again

… And that the Words category is another turquoise (to link it in some way to the ‘Writing’ category).

(Category: Words)

11.48 am

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Friday 10 March 2006

Something else

I suppose I ought to have added that the Business category is grey…

(Category: Business)

11.46 am

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Friday 10 March 2006

Extra categories; and success…

Yesterday I decided I needed a category called Business, so that I could witter on at length about the crazy ways I think up of making money (most of these are already on my website, in http://homepage.ntlworld.com/estienne/personal/madideas.html); but then I deleted that entry (enough already). However, having added the Business category, I realised that there was another which should have been at the top of my list when I first started this ‘fourpennyworth’ nonsense: Words.

(What suddenly made me think of this now? Why, the earth-shattering observation on seeing an ad for the cleaner CILLIT BANG that the name sounds like a Turkish porn star… Hopefully I can come up with something better in the future.)

One thing that did come out of this was a different way of putting in the category colours in the xsl document. Previously I’d used the wordy but fairly straightforward ‘xsl:choose’ element, with a series of ‘xsl:whens’ to specify all but the last category and an ‘xsl:otherwise’ to finish off. The text in each different choice was the same except for the colour, and navigating my way through all those angled brackets looking for what I needed was becoming tiresome. So I added a colour field to the database I write these entries in – automatically specified depending on entry’s category, and a great deal easier to update – and then simplified the xsl document to drop the relevant colour value (a hex number) into the four separate places it is used. The first attempt was hopeless – tags within tags, double quotes within double quotes – but looking on the web (googling ‘xslt’, ‘inside html’, etc) I found a plausible solution by using ‘xsl:attribute’. And that seems to work so far.

I’m also going to try to automate links (there’s my first URL above), but I’ll have to do that in the grep-based script I run in BBEdit once the xslt is done: Filemaker doesn’t let me do anything too snazzy within the fields…

(Category: Computing)

11.32 am

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Tuesday 7 March 2006

Smooth operators

I’ve been both bothered and intrigued recently by the increasingly popular new genre depicting the plight of young women enticed from Eastern Europe to the west with promises of good, well-paid jobs, only to find when they get there that they have been sold into prostitution, with no way out. Most British cop shows on TV have had at least one programme using this situation as a background (it was also one of the strands in the second series of HBO’s fantastic The Wire). One high-profile, well-received two-part programme on Channel 4 last year, Abi Morgan’s Sex Traffic, as the name suggests, approached the subject head on, as did the ten-part Belgian series Matrioshki (shown here on FX), about Russian girls forced to work in a Belgian lapdancing club. It’s also turning up in films, eg Amos Gitai’s Promised Land, and I understand that it’s about to get, or has already got, its own US TV miniseries starring Mira Sorvino, which no doubt means that it has officially arrived.

I say I’m bothered by this because trafficking is a real and very unpleasant global phenomenon – late last year Amnesty International even asked me to increase my subscription on the basis of its prevalence – and at the same time dramas that attempt to depict it find it difficult to avoid a certain hypocritical prurience. Black-heart that I am, it occurred to me early on that, after all, the situation – young women, confined, at the mercy of their sadistic captors – is precisely that of one of the most popular genres of exploitation cinema: women in prison (so well-known that it’s often shown abbreviated to ‘WiP’.) Of course, it’s possible to make a high-minded piece about sex traffic – Abi Morgan’s piece, armed as it was with a first-rate actress as the main victim, was pretty exemplary in this respect* – but this approach, it seems to me, misses the elephant in this particular room: the punters whose demand the loathsome pimps and their unfortunate captives are supplying. What intrigued me, therefore, was whether the customers’ part in the transaction could in some way be demonstrated by taking advantage of the inevitable ‘Women in Prison’ overtones – a kind of hypocrite lecteur! approach – or whether this would merely compound the hypocrisy…

Two possible approaches occurred to me. One, probably a stage play, would have two separate narratives, one about a woman who is being trafficked for sex, the other about the ordinary Englishman who will by the end of the play have become her client, and be narrated by none other than the Marquis de Sade, with an arch, self-congratulatory tone. (Sade’s view of human nature is – I would almost say triumphantly – borne out by the world of trafficking, and his Justine could easily be adapted as a story about a woman in this situation, much as Roger Vadim did for the WW2-set film La Vice et la Vertu.) The other approach would be a film (presumably) about the making of a film, in which a young actress is given a plum role as a trafficked woman and does a great deal of serious research on the subject, only to discover that the producers and director are only interested in making a piece of exploitative trash. One advantage of this is that the scenes of ‘real’ trafficking in the film, which the viewer should be misdirected to regard as part of the actress’ researches, can at the end be revealed to be the exploitation film, so that all those ‘non-gratuitous’ scenes of sex and nudity become, in retrospect, what they always actually were: no more than titillation.

I suspect that merely thinking about this makes me a very bad man…

* Unlike, I must say, Matrioshki, which, with its highly attractive cast cavorting in states of undress from the credits onwards, fell into every trap in the book

(Category: Writing)

12.36 pm

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Tuesday 7 March 2006

See the Sea

This weekend I sold my first video – indeed, my first item – on eBay. It wasn’t something I wanted to keep, but I knew it had sellable potential, so I put a relatively high starting price on it. In the end it made three times that, despite having had no takers a few hours before the sale was due to finish. (The film, incidentally, was Radio On, whose director, Christopher Petit, seems more interesting for his influences than for his actual films. He made a quasi-commercial film in the mid-80s, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – that’s right, from the P D James novel – with Pippa Guard at her most fetching: it’s a bit of a mess, frankly, though there is quite an interesting sequence when Pippa is stuck in a well and takes forever to climb out.)

Anyway, flushed with the success of selling this, I put together a number of other likely videos and the odd (very odd) DVD. Of course, regarding my video collection as something of a resource, I’ve not watched them all, and in any case I had to check that they were in good enough nick to be sold. So tonight I watched The Naked Vampire by Jean Rollin, the lesbian romantic drama Everything Relative and Regarde la Mer by François Ozon. As I watched, I ran through a possible description for eBay in my head. This might have been the reason why all three impressed me so much: indeed, in the case of the Ozon I don’t think I’m going to sell after all.

They all seemed very good of their type: the Rollin was typically him, with copious nudity, lots of scenes that didn’t seem to have any point, deft use of locations (in this case both urban and rustic) and a rather somnambulistic acting style, but it also had a wild, avant-garde soundtrack and a care about decor and colour co-ordination that often seems absent from his other work. (Most of the costumes were frankly insane.) Everything Relative, well-known among the cognoscenti for its sequence of intercut sex scenes towards the end – lesbian films often seem to make the viewer wait for the inevitable fumbles – turned out to be generally well written and well acted, with a number of serious points to make. It would often have a group conversation scene where another film – even one with a fairly hefty indie reputation (Sideways springs to mind) – would use some kind of montage. As for Regarde la Mer, it used to have a reputation as Ozon’s best a few films back – at 50 minutes, it’s almost long enough to be considered a full-length film – and even now, after the successive disappointments of Eight Women, Swimming Pool and 5 x 2, as well as the petering-out of the very promising Sous le Sable, I wonder if he has made a better. It’s very well (and precisely) filmed, very well acted – the creepy hiker, Marina de Van, is part of Ozon’s rep, and has gone on to make films of her own, but the English actress Sasha Hails, who is marvellous, seems to have vanished – and with an extraordinary control of tone. On the audio commentary, if my French doesn’t deceive me, Ozon says that he made the film in 15 days. Perhaps he needs some restrictions to do his best work (and it’s true that the other shorts on the DVD, clearly made for very little money, show an inventiveness and truthfulness that you don’t find in his longer films).

(Category: Cinema)

2.26 am

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Sunday 5 March 2006

A new tack

I’ve decided to stop putting my old, excessively introspective journal on display, and replace it with this ‘fourpennyworth’ idea instead: a reaction to what I see in the papers, general thoughts about subjects that interest me, that sort of thing. (If I want to write about how cash-strapped I am or go into excruciating detail about my dreams, I’ll do it elsewhere.)

The categories as they stand are: Writing (turquoise), Music (purple), Politics (blue – Freudian slip, or what?), Cinema (crimson), Television (red) and Computing (orange). This first entry I have made ‘Computing’, although ‘Writing’ may be just as suitable (if not more so).

The categories and colours may change as I find the former inadequate or the latter inappropriate. (I’m already surprised I don’t have a separate category for ‘Actresses’, but perhaps that’s for the best.) The colour thing will of course make the site rather garish, but it’s useful in practising my xsl…

And that’ll do for now.

(Category: Computing)

1.39 pm

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