Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The OUP Book Sale...


Every year OUP (Oxford University Press) has an online book sale. In the past this has been the source of some really good reading at excellent prices. Their annual e-mail came out today announcing this years sell-offs. There's some good bargains across the whole range of their catalogue this year - I've just grabbed three historical works, although they seem to be catering for all manner of tastes. Worth a look if you are a book lover: click here. (And no, I'm not on commission, and this blog isn't 'monetised'!).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Album Cover 2 - The Blog!

Credit to Kecske Bak for so delightfully contorting the "Album Cover Game"!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Album Cover Game

Here's how the "Album Cover Game" works.
1 - Go to wikipedia and hit random. The first random wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.
2 - Go to quotationspage.com and hit random. The last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.
3 - Go to flickr and click on “explore the last seven days”. Third picture no matter what ...will be your album cover.
4 - Use photoshop or similar (picnik.com is a free online photo editor) to put it all together.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Film Notes: Pierrepoint

Pierrepoint is the moody and brooding biopic of Britain's most high-profile and prolific hangman. The film simply - but with great effect - tells the story of how Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) joined this unusual family trade, and became the very best. Ultimately though it tells the story of the effect that this dark-art had on him.

Spall is spellbinding in the role of the taciturn Yorkshire publican, who prided himself on the speed, and efficiency of his executions. A botched hanging either decapitates the condemned if the drop is too long, or leaves them being strangled if too short. Pierrepoint didn't botch them, but killed them with an accuracy that was remarkable and record-breaking speed which he claimed caused no pain and little distress. Spall, exposes this complex character through a thousand nuances of non-verbal communication for every line of script, and reveals a man who curiously fights for the painless dignified exit of all his victims. These included several notorious murderers, as well as enormous numbers of Nazis convicted of war-crimes and crimes against humanity. Apparently Montgomery personally summoned Pierrepoint to Germany to show the world that British executions were the most 'humane'.

When Pierrepoint dropped enormous numbers of the staff who ran Belsen from his gallows, he was perhaps at the height of his powers. Hailed a public hero and for the first time well paid, he was the dispatcher who was cleaning up Europe. The film charts the unravelling of this cosy-consensus, as several factors coincide to undermine Pierrepoint's detached self-confidence. Public opinion began to change and the hero became a villain; the realisation that he killed 'for money' began to play on his conscience, while the sheer volume of executions following the war-crimes tribunals disturbed him. His wife (brilliantly portrayed by Juliet Stevenson) refuses to share the executioner's psychological burden, won't talk about the deed - but diligently counts the receipts and checks the payments. Finally though, the improbable but apparently true, story of Pierrepoint's execution of an old acquaintance broke down his psychological detachment, forcing him to deny that in reality he could ever really 'leave himself outside' the execution chamber. Finally, in his autobiography in the 1970s, Pierrepoint expressed strong doubts about the validity of capital punishment.

This film is carried along by Spall's absolutely stunning performance, ably assisted by Stevenson, and a good supporting cast. The narrative itself does not contain a thrilling plot - but focuses instead on the character development of the main protagonist which is what makes Spall's acting so important. All this is set against a backdrop of grim prisons, peeling paint and meticulous recreations of Britain at War and during the austerity period, which add enormously to the atmosphere. Clever use of camera angles so that some scenes are viewed with detachment as 'clinical', while other scenes are seen at eye-level from the view of the characters - brings home the personal and human drama of the events. The 'state' views execution from 'above' - total detachment. However we are also required to look through the noose at Pierrepoint - the condemned's view; and at the condemned from his angle, back through the same noose. The delicately mournful soundtrack is the final element in making up this terrific film.

This is deeply thought-provoking, moving and gripping stuff and the film raises countless questions which 'hang 'em, flog 'em' element of the tabloid press must answer. So many films are let down by one rogue element which fails to maintain the standard of the rest of the film; a weak plot line, a bit of over-acting, some naff dialogue, or bad directing. This film is consistently very, very good in all departments, raises and discusses serious issues in a sensible manner and provides a perfect foundation for Spall and Stevenson's quite brilliant performances.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Tay in Perth



In summertime, when the Tay meanders its way down its riverbed, leaving wide stony slopes on each side - it is almost impossible to imagine it ever expanding to fill its banks. With heavy rain helping warm air to melt two months worth of snow from the hills, with the ground saturated and tributaries bulging - The Tay becomes an impressive sight - and sound - as it powers through Perth. Standing on the railway bridge, over the raging brown torrent, it feels as if the structure beneath your feet could be swept aside by the current at any moment. Knowing that this bridge has successfully survived this annual barrage for over a century is a comforting thought, as the river hurls itself, along with all manner of assorted debris, against the piers.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Expansion Fracture

As with glass - so with ice...

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Contraction Fracture

Note - when the dishwasher is on a 'hot' wash programme; don't take any glass object out and immediately fill it with cold water....

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Film Notes: A Serious Man

The Coen brothers have achieved the unusual status of defining their films, even when they are packed with Hollywood A-listers. O Brother, Where Art Thou..? is never referred to as a 'George-Clooney movie' it is unquestionably a 'Coen-brothers film'.

A Serious Man is the Coen's latest beautifully crafted assault on the vagaries and absurdities of life. Larry Gopnik is an ordinary man, who is at the centre of a web of calamities (a oft-repeated Coen theme). Whereas in other Coen movies where a single error of judgement unleashes a torrent of unforseen circumstances, Gopnik's woes are (apparently) caused by a curse brought on them by an ancestor. These disaster's many of which are darkly and ironically humorous, wash over Gopnik in waves of severity, only made worse by interludes of futile optimism.

The Coen's set their woeful tale in a Jewish suburban community in 1960s America - in fact almost in their own childhoods. Not only that, but many critics have sought to parallel Gopnik with the character of Job in the Hebrew Bible. In the Biblical epic Job's world crumbles around him, while three friends offer him useless pious-sounding advice. Job seeks to understand the events in his life from within his own experience - whereas the reader is allowed to know the secret kept from him - that the calamities he faces are all part of some heavenly negotiation which have little to do with his shortcomings. The narrative concludes when Job encounters God speaking in a storm. Larry Gopnik has no knowledge of the ancient curse that blights his life, he too receives useless advice from a string of Rabbi's, that do nothing to help him understand his plight, still less alter it. Strangely, the film ends with a brewing storm thundering towards the camera. However - whereas the Biblical writer takes the story to a conclusion in which Job is given new perspective but no answers, the Coens have a long track record of loving endings even more frustratingly open than even this!

Some critics have hailed this as the Coen's finest work. Others have called it weak, dull and pointless. Part of that is undoubtedly the extent to which the reviewer gets the cultural context in which the story is set. As it consists of the 60s (I wasn't there - not even in the sense of having forgotten it), America (I've only visited) and Jewish (I'm not that either); there were a lot of references and even words that I didn't recognise. Like all the Coen's work, it is the kind of film which can be infuriating to watch, but which in its many dimensions you find yourself repeatedly mulling over the following day.

The frustrations are many. It's billed as a comedy, (albeit a dark one) but while there are a plenty of smirks, outright laughs are few, and many of them delivered by the Sy Abelman character. The slow-pace of the film is another Coen-trait that works well when delivering tension - such as in Fargo; but when the subject is the futility of life, parts of the film are just too slow. Then there is the ending - with which the Coen's will divide audiences as much as they did with the dangling ending of their morality-tale-meets-blood-fest, No Country for Old Men. But then there are the serious questions the film so profoundly raises about fate, about justice, irony, suffering, meaning and the presence or absence of God.

What most critics don't mention is that while the apocalyptic ending of the film might either be a pre-cursor to a Job-like theophany or simply (and more likely) the next catastrophe to befall the Gopniks; the message of the film owes more to another part of the Hebrew Bible's wisdom canon: Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes the ways of God are as unknowable and mysterious as life is meaningless - in other words the Gopniks. In Ecclesiastes, this mystery and futility carries a coda - of following God and keeping his laws. This film ends with the old Rabbi telling Gopnik's son, “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies, then what? … Be a good boy."

This is certainly a flawed film, but is a typical Coen thought-provoker a cut above the cliche's of the standard Hollywood fare.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Film Notes: Passchendaele

Paul Gross' film Passchendaele is a World War One epic, which brings home the mass horror of trench warfare by telling the story of one family's involvement in the rain-sodden battle of Ypres.

Many of the events depicted in this film are reconstructions of known historical events. The main character is based on Gross' grandfather, and the battle details and the enormous bravery and suffering of the Canadian Expeditionary Force is also factual. Gross uses this historical framework as a springboard for an imaginative plot full of romance, tragedy, soldier-bravery and officer-cowardice.

The battle-scenes are shocking, terrifying, and reflect the mental pictures of the organised hell of trench-warfare described by the famed First World War poets. History books note the endless torrential rain that turned the Passchendaele battlefield into a ghastly quagmire, a horror which the film-makers reconstruct with great care and powerful effect. Some of the battle-scenes come across as a deliberate attempt to do for the memory of WW1 what Saving Private Ryan did for the Second World War. It does so quite movingly and effectively. The most dramatic moment in the movie involves a soldier blown by a shell onto a cross where he hangs, apparently crucified. In a scene dripping with Christian imagery, Gross' character Dunne carries the victim back to safety, while he is still on his cross. Dunne, staggers under the weight of the cross as he seeks to bring the victim to safety.

This film should have been brilliant - but despite its many great elements, as a whole it somehow doesn't come together to fulfil its undoubtedly enormous potential. Part of the problem is that the balance of the film is odd. The war is sidelined as a postscript while the very-slow love story (that brought that mass-tragedy of the war to life through individual narrative) dominates the film. Then there is the comedy villain, a British recruiting-officer-coward-cad who is so over the top that he would have been at home in a Victorian melodrama or a Panto. Then the ludicrous love-scene. Then the improbable elements in a historical film. Then the back-story of minor-characters takes up too much time and ends up not giving perspective to the battle, but ends up making the Great War a sideline in a film in which it should have loomed as large as it did in the 2nd decade of the Twentieth Century.

This film could have been so, so good. But despite its many, many great points, it ends up leaving the viewer feeling a little frustrated by the film-maker - rather than simply moved by the power of the story and the history, which should have been the case. Oddly one of the most moving parts of the film were the final credits! It does sound like a strange observation, but when the credits roll, it presents some of the stark facts of what the Canadian troops suffered in a battle where a quarter of their 20,000 members perished. The final word details the paltry amount of land which this sacrifice prized from the hands of the Germans, who subsequently regained it only a few months later. For all its faults this film ends on a tragically stunning note.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sedimentary Geology!

Layers of sedimentary lasagne, laid down over millions of years and folded
by immense geological forces.... (er, or something)