Friday, May 29, 2009

Auld Acquaintance

One of the perks to getting a degree from Cambridge is supposed to be the chance to spot future famous people before they get famous. (At least, I assumed that was one of them.) It's worked kind of patchily for me - I think I got Ed Stourton to help out wit a rag week auction, and I have vague memories of a gratuitous stage nude scene from Stephen Fry. But these last few months - first, I discover that someone I knew from the Economics course was working as an adviser for Bear Stearns - and then there's Julie Kirkbride, who I noticed around the place occasionally...

Oh well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Star Trek (the 2009 movie)

London, 25th May 2009, part 2.

I was never a huge Trek fan, I think. I watched it with the enthusiasm of a young-adolescent proto-geek when it first came up on British television around 1970, to be sure, and then I caught an episode or two when it came round again about 1980 and realised just how clunky it was. I didn't bother very much with The Next Generation, and if I liked Deep Space 9 - which I did - it was partly for having the courage to deconstruct and challenge so much about the Trek that went before. Likewise, I'm not any kind of J.J. Abrams fanboy - I never picked up on Alias, and I was comfortable enough giving up on Lost when it switched from terrestrial to paid satellite channels in the UK, suspecting it of being all flash and no substance.

Which is really just a way of explaining why I took a while to get around to catching this movie, and only really did so in the end to round off a day up in London. With no great commitment to the thing, I could enjoy it well enough as a contemporary Hollywood skiffy action movie, with chase scenes and space battles and ice monsters and stuff exploding. It also got bonus points for finding a cast who, in some cases, inhabited the personas of the original crew unnervingly brilliantly (while giving Uhura a serious job to do, so not all of the Galaxy Quest flashbacks were too painful). I could respect the time travel-based reboot as the smartest solution yet seen for a perennial old-media-property problem. (It raises questions about inconsistent depictions of the nature of time and history in Trek, but who cares? It also solves a basic inconsistency in Kirk's character, in Hollywood-conventional terms; why should the non-rebellious child of a successful career Star Fleet officer turn into a smug jerk with minimal respect for higher authority, albeit also an intuitive tactical wizard, like Kirk? The new Kirk now has Childhood Trauma to explain his jerkiness.) But oh my, the problems that occur to anyone when they stop to think about this movie for a minute afterwards.

Most or all of these have already been hashed out elsewhere on the Web (see, e.g., Twenty Sided), so I won't add to the geekery by listing everything I happened to think of in detail. Some of them may be covered when some kind of director's cut DVD appears (What's with the hole in the middle of Idaho? How long is the journey from Earth to Vulcan supposed to take?), some probably won't (the whole Planet Plotdevice sequence, with its perfect view of Vulcan and Scotty's long-range transporter and all), some are just so deeply embedded in the Trek pseudo-mythos that no one is going to touch them (How good is interstellar communication, and why doesn't Star Fleet issue direct orders to the Enterprise in moments of interstellar high catastrophe and why doesn't the Enterprise warn Earth about what's coming?), and some will only matter to people who know that pseudo-mythos well (How come any Federation citizens at this date know what Romulans look like?). But, well, really.

I've seen it complained that the original Trek was at least sometimes a drama about ideas, whereas this movie is all explosions and no thought, and I might sympathise with that - except that the ideas in the original series were generally pretty simplistic and clumsily handled, so it didn't hurt me to see them lost in favour of a lot better special effects. I guess I worry a bit more about movies in which people see dozens of their personal friends and billions of other people slaughtered in front of them, and get over it quite so quickly, but in the end, action movies are what they are; the Cosy Catastrophes of the video game generation. (And talking of video game style, what the hell is up with Romulan starship design? Naval architecture inspired by the Mines of Moria, complete with no hand rails?) If this thing generates sequels, I may well go see them, if only to discover what if anything Saint Simon Pegg of the Geeks eventually works out to do with Scotty. But it'd be nice if Abrams eventually decided to do something for people who think after the titles stop rolling. Not that I want the sterile puzzles and fake depth of Lost in Trek, of course, although that might be an interesting train wreck.

Points East

London, 25th May 2009, part 1.

Another day off, another couple of exhibitions...

Morning was Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy. A lot of the prior publicity and posters for this had implied that it was much heavier on the action and mythic adventure than a lot of Japanese prints of the period - less of the elegant views of Mount Fuji, more of the gurning swordsmen battling giant carp - with a strong hint of the manga from a century later about it. And, to be sure, there was a fair bit of that; but there were also some lovely landscapes and a certain amount of rather strange humour. (Octopuses acting like popular entertainers of the period, anyone? Not to mention the phallus-shaped cartoon characters.) Still, Kuniyoshi came across as more cheerfully admitting to being part of the louche Floating World than Hokusai or Hiroshige. Or maybe that was just the way these images were presented. A lot of beauty, though, with a lot of oriental strangeness in it.

Incidentally, gamers might like to note that several of the pictures featured not only (gurning) samurai with swords, but also female figures with naginata. The samurai-class woman with that sort of combat training was evidently part of the imagery back then. I also loved the way that a lot of Kuniyoshi's historical images had to supposedly depict quite early events, because anything less than a few hundred years old was considered too politically sensitive in 19th century Japan - so he just depicted scenes that his audience might guess were really scenes from slightly later dates.

After lunch, it was on to the British Museum, to catch Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran before it ended. This was cunningly located in the upper levels of the old Reading Room space (with the windows blanked out to keep the light levels down), thereby borrowing a great domed space from a different culture to good effect for an exhibition about part of the Islamic world. The show itself was full of lush and gorgeous Persian art, while still conveying something about the history of the reign of Shah 'Abbas I (1587–1629). This, of course, had all too much of period despotism about it, being full of brothers murdering each other and the Shah killing the advisor who'd helped him depose his own father a couple of years earlier. The Elizabethan English adventurer who ended up at as a leading figure 'Abbas's court - and whose portrait crops up early in the exhibition - must have been very willing to live dangerously. Although doing comparably well back home could have been pretty risky, I guess.

The excuse to tie together the politics with the artworks was the idea that 'Abbas was consciously creating a whole new style for his reign - not just showing off dazzling wealth, but making a conscious break with the past. I'll take the experts' word for this, although it would have taken a far vaster exhibition with much more earlier stuff to show the novelty of these things. Incidentally, amidst the (rather faded) silk carpets and gorgeous miniature paintings, there were also whole cabinets of Chinese porcelain (often from a century or so before 'Abbas's reign), showing which off evidently counted as refined conspicuous consumption back then. Although 'Abbas apparently donated a lot of it to a Shiah shrine (which had to build a whole new building around the display niches for his gifts), possibly mostly to make way for all his new bling.

Two sumptuous exhibitions, two reminders of the richness of different artistic traditions. Mind you, lots of reminders of how much the associated cultures went in for sticking sharp things in other people (or themselves - one of them was samurai-era Japan, after all), too, but these days we can sit back and admire the great pictures.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Of The Season

"We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality."
- Macaulay

"A 'sound' banker, alas! is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him."
- Keynes

Friday, May 15, 2009

Expand, Contract (5)

For those who are keeping score; I've just signed contracts for and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Clerics and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Summoners. And I've recently had sight of the (very promising) first-pass PDF of Transhuman Space: Personnel Files 2.

Oh, and I gather that Ars Magica: Tales of Mythic Europe, which has a bit by me, is now in distribution.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Concerning Explication

Living within easy reach of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I try to keep track of the various temporary exhibitions and special displays that often run there - and recently, we realised that we'd not caught the latest batch, so we dropped in on Sunday. They had four such things running; aside from a case with coins from Commodore Matthew Perry's personal collection (noted Victorian public figure had quirkish hobby, shock) and a room full of Chinese jade pieces from the neolithic to the modern era (some of them very nice indeed, but the display didn't seem to have much of a theme beyond demonstrating that jade has been important in Chinese art for a very long time), there were two that told me lots more stuff I didn't know, in somewhat excruciating detail.

The first was entitled "Kachofugetsu: The Natural World in Japanese Prints", and consisted of a collection of, yes, Japanese prints, mostly (but not all) showing themes from nature. Japanese print-making being the art it is, this was a pleasure to visit, and I was shown a few details that I'd never noticed before and found interesting, such as the use of print blocks carved to so as to add physical texture to the image. I was also told a lot of other stuff about things like metaphors and symbolism in the images and all the quotes from Chinese poetry. This is all doubtless necessary information for scholars of the subject, and a really amazingly smart exhibition design might have conveyed some of it in ways that would make it interesting to the general viewer - but I just felt that I was drowning in detail.

The second, two rooms away, was about "Changing Faces: Antony Van Dyck as an Etcher"; it turned out that Van Dyck didn't do very much etching, but yes, when he turned his hand that way, wow but the boy could etch. Mostly he did portraits, mostly of his fellow artists (and the artistic community in the Netherlands at that time was, one can be reminded, packed with significant names); many of these prints wound up in books of, basically, collected picturesof famous folks, a few years after he did them. Often, the creators of said books added background and clothing that Van Dyck himself hadn't included; he and they also added and corrected countless details at various points, as the exhibition labels were happy to explain. I may have come away knowing a little bit more about the craft and history of etching, but mostly, once again, I just felt overwhelmed. It's good to have one's ignorance challenged from time to time, but I couldn't really call these exhibitions overly friendly to the ignorant newcomer.

Still digesting these thoughts, I turned the TV on in the evening to catch part one of The Incredible Human Journey, which rapidly started causing the usual problems I get with TV science programmes these days - a lot of teeth grinding and a strong wish that they'd spend a little less time repeating the trivia and showing the presenter driving a car, and a lot more explaining some details. Dr Alice Roberts was shown trekking laboriously across east Africa and talking to (sometimes worryingly gun-toting) locals, accompanied only by an invisible camera crew, until she finally found the remote site where a past expedition apparently found the oldest known remains of modern humans - but what distinguishes a "modern human" from the various other human ancestors she talked about? What brought that past expedition to that so-terribly-remote location? Damnit, this is a science programme - could we have just a little bit of science? Later, Dr Roberts spent the night on her own out in the bush, protected from the prevalent leopards and hyaenas only by an ad hoc thorn scrub barrier, supposedly in order to empathise with the ancestral humans who'd have experienced the same thing - but we didn't really learn anything about what's known or believed about Stone Age life, with even the nature of the barrier that kept her alive skated over, and while we may have learned something about Dr Roberts's willingness to take risks in order to get five minutes of good film, these scenes with dangerous-sounding wildlife or dangerous-looking locals just drove me to cynical thoughts about BBC management risks assessments and insurance cover, and who aside from the camera crews may have been just off-shot or not far away.

To be fair, things got a bit better later in the programme, and I think I learned something about early humans' possible routes out of Africa across the Red Sea and up the southern coast of Arabia. I'll tune in again next week to see what else I can extract from the series. But the first half of the programme surely felt like a horrible warning about what you get if you wish for less detailed, more friendly explication.

At which point, I draw no conclusions, other than that I should give more credit to the creators of really good exhibitions and documentaries. There's a balancing act involved, and getting it right is harder than it looks.

A Camp: Colonia

In which is considered the question: Is Nina Persson selling out?

Well, not really. Anyone whose early work (with the Cardigans) mixed references to Emmerdale Farm with Black Sabbath covers is more or less permanently immunised against any accusation so naffly '70s. But a first couple of listens to A Camp's second album do rather suggest that it's short on the sinister-surreal edge of their first, cover art notwithstanding. A Camp used a lot of conventional-sounding instrumentation and arrangements, to be sure, but placed them behind Persson's dark or chilling or moving singing. This one just doesn't seem to have anything to match the bass-synth thunder of "Such a Bad Comedown", or as hook-laden as "The Bluest Eyes in Texas" - let alone as chilling as the Cardigan's similarly recent "And Then You Kissed Me", as smart as their "You're the Storm", or as potent as "I Need Some Fine Wine, and You, You Need to Be Nicer". And the loose theme of colonialism doesn't really seem to hold it together.

Still, it does have "Stronger Than Jesus" (Don't you know that love is stronger than Jesus?/Don't you know love can kill anyone?/Bring it on, wars and diseases...) and the mutant-'60s-girl-group style of "Here Are Many Wild Animals". I guess that Persson's self-possessed-masochist stance might begin to wear after a few more albums, but I'm still along for the ride.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


It's not actually officially released in the UK until next week, but the Vue up in Cambridge was showing previews - in 3D, even - so that was our bank holiday fun.

"It" being, of course, the stop-motion animated movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's children's book of a few years back. A rich and colorful little number it is too, a brilliant cinematic-experience fantasy, all gangling limbs and well-judged subtleties of expression. Still, it's a stylised animation - an abstraction and a flamboyant sketch of Gaiman's story, which started more from realism. As a result, some of the characters and plot details become caricatures of their written versions, and some subtleties become reified (notably in the form of Wybie, the completely new character who serves as the cinematic manifestation of some of Coraline's thoughts and problems - a sounding-board and occasional device to assist the changed plot). At times, this broad-brush approach loses some of the book's subtleties; for example, where in the book Coraline's father's cooking merely sounds a bit under-trained and worthy, and Coraline seems to suffer from a child's annoying pickiness about her food, the film father produces goopy animated messes that would put anyone off. And where in the book Coraline's mother seems mostly busy and distracted, her movie version is downright irritable and snappish.

But please, don't think of me as one of those fannish monomaniacs who insists that every movie diversion from a printed source is some kind of sacrilege. (A foolish consistency truly is the hobgoblin of little minds.) On its own terms, as a 3D cartoon, it's a fine thing, well worth the price of admission - a modern-day treatment of the fairytale motifs of "stolen by the fair folk" and "be careful what you wish for". The use of 3D is superb, by the way, complete with semi-transparent surfaces and such; this is clearly already a pretty mature technology. It also interacts well with the model-based animation, which is embellished with more CGI-based techniques in a couple of appropriate places - first in the scene with the ghosts, and secondly where the Other Mother's house begins to disintegrate (very appropriately) like a virtual reality landscape. This makes one or two other moments, where things are animated in physical form, look a little crude; when dirty water comes out of the shower, it descends in the form of plasticine strands. In a Wallace and Gromit claymation epic, this would be charmingly consistent; here, it just looks unexpectedly crude

But like I said, to heck with the hobgoblins of little minds. Good movie.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Wimpole Hall

I guess that the problem for us with Wimpole Hall is that it's just a bit too conveniently close to home, so we keep leaving the idea of visiting the place aside...

No, that's just making excuses. The truth is, we hadn't got there for far too many years because we just hadn't got round to it. Oh well, at least this meant that the place had the charm of near-total unfamiliarity when we took advantage of the nice weather yesterday.

And yeah, it's worth a visit. The rare breeds farm is interesting, even if all the pigs had been taken away from public view for their own protection (sassinfrassin health scares), the gardens are lovely, and the house is quite the period piece. To judge by the potted histories on display, it had a tendency to soak up various owners' fortunes until they had to sell it to some other sucker, but quite a lot of the money seems to have been well spent. And you don't get to see many barns which were designed by Sir John Soane... You also get to see below as well as above stairs, and some oddities like the giant plunge bath (with marble surround made to look like wood). I can't say that the art on the walls amounted to much for me, but it did include one Tissot that I do like a lot.

So, yeah, crackin' day out Grommit...