Archive for the Science Category

The First Sunday of Lent Intertitle

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , on February 22, 2015 by dcairns

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FINDING HIS VOICE is an informative 1929 toon from Max Fleischer, designed to show film exhibitors how Western Electric’s sound-on-film system worked. I guess you would have to shepherd the exhibitors into a room to show them this, since if they weren’t already converts to sound they’d have no way to watch this in theor own theatres.

“Talkie” and “Mutie,” two characters created from roles of celluloid, debate the sound process — since Mutie can’t talk, his speeches are represented the old-school way, as titles. He also wears a gag and uses sign language, although I would be surprised if his rapid hand movements yield to decoding.

Then a professorial type gives a rather complicated lecture, delivered in hilariously hesitant style — a bit of rare naturalism for a Fleischer toon. Untrained, stilted delivery — the ghost in the machine.

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The film offers a rare glimpse, in graphic form, of the much-discussed sound-proof booth in which early sound cameras were imprisoned, and an even more unusual look at the mixing room, where sound from various microphones positioned around the set could be combined, live, into one balanced track (which, in 1929, would probably be the only mix the film received).


I’m giving up the Oscars for Lent!

Posh Spice

Posted in Dance, FILM, Interactive, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Science, Television, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by dcairns

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On Friday night I had a conundrum — Jane Gardner, possibly my favourite silent accompanist, was doing a live score for STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, starring Buster Keaton and Edinburgh man Ernest Torrence (pictured) at a lecture hall by the Botanical Gardens. Meanwhile, my friend and collaborator Alex Livingstone had written Dune: The Musical, which was playing for one night only at the exact same time. Ultimately, my decision was based on repeatability — I hopefully will get another chance at the Keaton-Gardner collaboration (though I still haven’t caught her rendition of THE GENERAL). Dune seemed like it might be a one-off opportunity — but, given it’s literally roaring success, now it might come back in the Edinburgh Fringe…

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The event, hosted at a church hall not far from where Fiona and I live (OK, that was another factor — the trip to the botanics is always a hassle and the weather was freezing), started late, and started with support acts — the horror! But they were good — we learned that Jonnie Common has “folded space all the way from Stirling to be here tonight,” and Prehistoric Friends played a very nice set, but of course they were not Dune: The Musical — although it was then fun spotting them turn up IN Dune: The Musical.

This, I had heard, was to be a proper panto, a peculiarly British Christmastime phenomenon,  in which pop songs are repurposed with their lyrics changed to fit some story which traditionally has nothing to do with Christmas, men dress as women and vice versa, and audience participation is violently encouraged. If you’re not British but you’ve seen THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW with an audience you may have some notion, only the panto is nominally for kids. ROCKY HORROR isn’t and neither was this — I counted one kid. Then I counted him again to make sure. Yep, definitely one kid.

Also, in pantos, not only can the audience talk to the cast, the cast all have the power to address the audience, which is a bit like all those internal monologues everybody has in DUNE the movie to explain the tangled plot, if you think about it. (I think those little VOs are entirely responsible for the otherwise unfounded perception that DUNE is a bad movie. They make it bad. Paul’s mother, who has been fearing for his life, walks into a room and finds him alive. She looks relieved. “My son… lives!” she thinks at us. Awful.)

Another thing about pantos is that they usually feature a combination of proper actors doing improper acting, and people who aren’t actors at all — clapped-out pop stars, reality TV nobodies, and sports “personalities”. So it may be that the casting of Sting in the Lynch film was the inspiration for this whole event. Impressively, Sting was the only actor from the movie to reprise his role at St Paul’s Church, Pilrig…

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Curiously, David Lynch touched base with the panto right before making his DUNE (the musical is mainly based on the film, with a little of the book and maybe a little of the abortive Jodorowski dream, but nothing from the Sci-Fi Channel show, which is a shame because I’ve actually met the director and both stars of that, all very nice) — THE ELEPHANT MAN ends with one. But that’s more like a proper Christmas Play than a trashy panto. It’s also mainly the work of editor Anne V. Coates, since Lynch actually shot an entire mini-play (which I’d love to see — maybe something like his later RABBITS shorts?) and then knew that wasn’t right and got her to turn it into a miraculous montage. As she said, in a voice a bit like the Queen, “It can be quite hard to get inside David’s head. And then, once you’re there, it’s quite a strange place.”

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“A beginning is a very delicate time,” says Princess Irulan in both the David Lynch and Christmas panto versions, and so it was with real joy that we greeted the sight of Bartholomew J. Owl in the Virginia Madsen role, poking his head through the curtains and into a spotlight to do the floating head narration from the start of the film. In a Northern English accent. A genius touch that told us all that this was going to be every bit as good as the concept.

Then the curtain opened and Princess Irulan shuffled off, never to be seen again (although Owl would return), and we met Liam Chapman as the Emperor, and the Guild Navigator, made out of cardboard and played by two people (more Lynchian tactics? No — two people AT THE SAME TIME, the show’s answer to a pantomime horse).

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And then a recurring gag, which, for me, never got old — during the long, clunky scene changes, a hand at the front would hold up a sign saying TIME PASSES. I think this would have been a useful device for Lynch to have used in his film.

Then — this may be out of sequence, but I think we met Baron Harkonnen (Rose McConnachie in flaking tinfoil codpiece). Played with floor-shaking gusto and a lot of angry, angry laughing — one of the show’s highlights. Obviously, in the tradition of both pantos (Peter Pan) and Lynch, it would have been good if he/she were flying about on visible wires, but you can’t have everything. But, in terms of enthusiastic playing, you had more than everything, and you also had the return of Mr. Owl as the Baron’s son, Sting, wearing the identical tinfoil crotch-eagle he sported so memorably in the film.

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(Sting has said — for real — that he was quite prepared to go nude and was horrified when presented with the metallic penis bird, but that after huge discussions he finally agreed to glue the thing to his privates only if he could play the role like somebody who would take a shower while wearing a bird of prey on his old fellow. “So from that point on, I was as camp as knickers.” Sadly, Sting can’t really act so nobody realised that’s what he was trying to do.)

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Oh, and Michael Craig (not the one from MODESTY BLAISE) appeared as the cleaner who gets his heart unplugged by the Baron. I’d forgotten that character was a cleaner — he does push a broom, doesn’t he, or a space squeegee or something. Mentally, I had him down as some kind of stray boy band member, a death-twink for the Baron to get his rocks off on, killing. In the musical it’s a bit more PG-certificate, the Baron just likes unplugging hearts to let off steam. The Baron’s theme song was to the tune of Mr. Boombastic.

Anyway, by now we’d been laughing so hard and so constantly that Fiona was complaining of new wrinkles developing on her face, and we were grateful for the intermission-long scene changes, which provided some relief, although they were pretty funny too.

(I sussed early as a kid that the best time to see a panto was opening night, as things had a better chance of going wrong. You hoped, at best, for a scenery jam which would lead to dialogue being helplessly improvised in front of the stuck backdrop, or else a new scene being played in entirely the wrong setting. Dune: The Musical, being a one-nighter and ambitious to boot [I never saw a panto with so many monsters and planets] was obviously tempting fate, “It went a bit wrong — I don’t know if you noticed,” said the author afterwards. We noticed, and loved it.)

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Then – or maybe it was previously — we finally met the shows hero, principal boy Paul Atreides (Hannah Shepherd), a proper grinning, thigh-slapping naif, and her dad, Duke Leto (Neil Pennycook) and Jonnie Common again as the traitorous Dr Yueh. I had spoken to Alex previously about my enthusiasm for this concept — “Nothing spells Christmas like ornithopters and mentats!” “We have cut the ornothopters and mentats, In fact we have cut most of it.” So there was no Freddie Jones or Brad Dourif equivalent, but their unique acting styles seemed to have gotten into most of the cast via osmosis, so there was a lot of good eccentric playing going on. The swingeing cuts to the text also showed clearly how much further Lynch could have gone to get his narrative down to a manageable length (we love Linda Hunt, but her character makes no difference to anything). Alex also cut Yueh’s entire motivation and made a great joke out of it, and added a song, Poison Tooth, to the tune of Stay by Shakespear’s Sister, which totally works. And a running gag about Mint Imperials which had seemed purely formal, turns out to have Major Plot Significance.

Oh, but there’s also the fight using shields, which in the movie looks like this —

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Very impressive visual effects AND sound effects, I thought at the time. But the theatrical extravaganza goes one better —

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And then there’s a really sweet performance by Clarissa Cheong as Lady Jessica, and a zesty one by the sandworm.

Then Alex himself appeared as Stilgar, in a bravura performance based entirely around Everett McGill’s cough in the film. With earphones up his nose. The scenario here improved on the book, where Paul’s new name, Muad’Dib, based on a lunar shadow, means “the little mouse,” which is obviously a crap name for a principal boy. So here it means “the cock and balls.” The dialogue around this part went quite strange, with forgotten lines and missed cues and hastily inserted prompts, giving it  a surreal, circular quality that was distinctly pleasing.

Then it was time to “Worm Up” to the tune of Word Up, and everything was rounded off in a more than satisfactory manner with a singalong rendition of Arrakis, to the tune of Africa by Toto, which of course has a strong thematic connection to the Lynch film, for which the band failed to produce a workable score.

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“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred Fremen or more could ever do/I bless the rains down in Arrakis/Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” This slight alteration carefully preserves, you will note, the semi-literate garbage quality of the original lyrics.

The only slight disappointment of the evening was provided by fate. At various points during the support acts, small pieces of curled paper, like those pigs’ tails you made out of paper strips at nursery school, would be dislodged from the rafters by the sonic blasts of synth-pop. I strongly suspected that these were residue from some  aeons-gone shindig, rather than perhaps foretastes of a special effects deluge that would climax the evening’s production. But I was kind of hoping that one of them might drop down, unscheduled yet with awesome aptness, during the final number, symbolising the Arrakis climate change and Paul’s ascendancy to the role of kwisatz haderach, although Alicia Witt’s role had been entirely cut from this production so there would have been no one to point that out.

However, at the critical moment, no paper fell. I think the only sensible way to tackle this omission is to keep performing Dune: The Musical, at venues up and down the country or around the world, until a bit of paper falls from the ceiling at the right moment. The crowd would go WILD.

Admittedly, we did go fairly wild anyway.

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The author and his wife.

Nearly all the other pictures here are stolen from Paula Cucurullo, with her kind consent, because my pictures were crap. I got the sandworm though.

Impossible But Necessary

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by dcairns

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“That’s impossible!” “But necessary.” — a very exciting exchange in Christopher & Jonathan Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR.

It reminded me of seeing SON OF PALEFACE as a kid — did I mention this before — a decisive moment in my young life — Bob Hope has to support a jalopy with a missing wheel, holding it up with a lasso rope round the axle WHILE STANDING IN IT as they drive through the prairie. As Roy Rogers rides off to retrieve the rogue wheel, Hope calls after him — “Hurry up, this is impossible!”

I swear, prairie-like vistas opened up for me, universes of possibility. If you can make a joke out of the impossibility of the story your telling, surely you can do anything?

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There aren’t jokes of that kind in INTERSTELLAR — in fact, one of the discredited tropes the film insists on using is a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny. Comedy relief characters in general are a discredited trope since nearly everybody is funny sometimes and nobody is always funny — having a wisecracking droid is just inviting me to question why the Nolan gestalt didn’t program some humour into the human characters, even though that wouldn’t quite be fair because if you have Matthew McConaughey you’re going to get a little wit sneaking in somewhere.

So, no world-changing jokes, but plenty of impossibility, which is par for the course in this kind of thing, and there’s arguably nothing sillier than GRAVITY’s inescapable cloud of debris a planet wide, which I forgave fairly readily. This movie didn’t wow me like GRAVITY but it has lots of impressive spectacle, ideas, actors, plot twists…

The impossibility bothers me a bit — intimations of mortality — when we make films about saving the Earth, we seem compelled to make them absurdly unrealistic. I loved WALL-E, but the human race returns from space at the first appearance of a little sprout, which grows in an upturned refrigerator in defiance of all photosynthesis and sense, and somehow the arrival of thousands of fat people is supposed to make things BETTER? I guess that’s covered by a line in INTERSTELLAR about not telling little kids that the world is ending, but I would be more cheered by hopeful fables that have some element of plausibility. The Bokononist subtext of all these reassuring fantasies seems to be that we’re all fucked.

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We didn’t see INTERSTELLAR in IMAX, alas — exchanging the free tickets we got after an interrupted screening of THE BABADOOK, I got us seats near the front because close = big, but Fiona then made me move back a few rows (early screening, lots of spare seats). After DARK KNIGHT RISES I was looking forward to seeing Michael Caine blubbering on a screen the size of a football pitch — when that bottom lip starts to wobble, you really need Sensurround for the full magnitude — but we settled for booming sound — Nolan follows the Kubrick-Cuaron model, no FX in space, but Hans Zimmer booms away to fill most of the silences.It’s one of those scores where you can hear the temp track filtering through, but quite effective.

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Some have suggested that the movie shows that Nolan is not, as has been argued, a cold director — I think it shows that he still has some way to go if he wants to be either Kubrick on the one hand or Spielberg on the other. Teenager Mackenzie Foy deserves a miniature Oscar for providing the film’s emotional core, which has to be passed on, relay-fashion, to a succession of other actors as her character grows up — a trick the movie manages surprisingly well with megawatt starpower casting and flashbacks and… other sequences which prevent us from losing sight of Foy altogether. Weirdly, though, the ending, which should be gigantically moving, is fobbed off onto another character altogether, and then NOT DELIVERED. The big emotional scenes don’t happen. I think the Nolans see this as British restraint, but it feels it’s more a discomfort with demonstrations of emotion — which is odd, since we get some more blubbering from Caine. There are plenty of emotional scenes, but insufficient PAY-OFF to a fantastically powerful and protracted drama about a father separated from his children.

Speaking of explaining things — the movie has a really intriguing start, foregrounding the best actors (though it’s nice when Hathaway and then Damon turn up later — Nolan may have actually noticed that AH was the best thing in his third BATMAN — a breath of lightness amid th suffocating clouds of noxious testosterone and doominess), but once we get to space stuff, the authors have apparently given up on any desire to have exposition emerge dramatically and plausibly. There isn’t too much “as you know” dialogue where one character patiently outlines information already familiar to the other, who inexplicably doesn’t say SHUT UP YOU BORING FOOL — but there is a hell of a lot of “As you should know” dialogue, with astronaut McConaughey, for instance, inquiring what will happen if an airlock malfunctions — I think that would have been covered in basic training. Justifiably reticent to infodump the science around a boardroom table, the writers parcel it out in digestible bundles in order to let you grasp vital facts just as they become relevant to the unfolding events, but it’s hard not to notice that our hero must be a remarkably incurious man to have traveled in space for two years to reach a wormhole without knowing what a wormhole is, and that’s only one of the least egregious examples.

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But I wouldn’t want to put you off seeing it — it has a giant talking Kit-Kat biscuit, some lovely space visuals and sound, and a bit where MM reaches out to push a button, and we see, reflected in his space helmet visor, his gloved hand apparently reach forth and touch his nose. It’s a lovely, silly moment that seems to happen by accident — Nolan in no way intended this to be funny — a glimpse of goofy natural chaos in an otherwise predetermined game.

 

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