Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2012 (page 2 of 2)

A Long Weekend of Films

Even the bumbling Jacques Clouseau would have had scant difficulty identifying overarching the theme to the long weekend: film. Not merely film, in fact, but rather film experiences.

It kicked off on Friday with a screening of La Haine put on by The Other Cinema, the group behind Secret Cinema (about which naturally I can tell you nothing). La Haine (“Hatred”) is a gritty 1995 French film about three young friends struggling in an impoverished housing project in the outskirts of Paris. About a decade ago, Asian Dub Foundation wrote their own soundtrack to the film and on Friday they performed it as a live accompaniment to the screening. Their diverse, multicultural sound was a perfect match with an unsettling score that represented the seething resentment between the protagonists and the police as it rose and withdrew but rarely fell silent. Ravi rightly commented that returning to the original film will be difficult, as it will undoubtedly lack a certain intensity. The themed screening was held out in East London with BMX bikers and break dances showing off their skills. Also shown, on what became a somewhat political evening with various spoken word performances, were the trailer and music video for Plan B’s “ill Manors” project. Whilst not a fan in the past, this I can certainly get behind.

On Sunday afternoon Nick and I switched gears to blockbuster mode for The Avengers. When Marvel announced its intentions five years ago it sounded impressively ambitious but logistically unrealistic. When last year’s precursor films were announced it became achievable but still seemed destined for mediocrity in attempting to wrangle so many big characters and names into a single film. When the film was given to Joss Whedon to write and direct, I suddenly realised the benefit of Marvel Studios producing films themselves: they actually understand their own properties and the players in their own industry. The result is simply spectacular. Whedon’s fingerprints are all over the dialogue which allows for both character development as the Avengers gradually pull together as a team, as well as hilarious conflict and one-liners. I was surprised by people’s concern over Mark Ruffalo’s casting, calling him “untested” as the character, because Ruffalo always seemed perfect for the role (as well as being a hugely talented actor). Someone else described The Avengers as “the best Hulk movie ever made” and it’s certainly fair to say he steals most scenes in which he appears. The only minor downside is that, given Whedon’s talent for writing strong female characters, the male-dominated cast was already fixed. That he managed to make good use of even Black Widow despite her lack of superpowers is testament to his skill.

It is hard to say much more without veering into spoiler territory but, even without its record-breaking box office takings, The Avengers has certainly set a new benchmark for superhero movies in the vein of my previous two favourites Spider-man 2 and Iron Man (there is limited use in comparison to The Dark Knight which is a very different kind of film). As for Whedon, the telephone is sure to be ringing a lot more, as Hollywood hopefully will finally realise what we’ve been telling them all along. Meanwhile, with The Amazing Spider-man and The Dark Knight Rises also out this summer, it will be interesting to see who ends up at the top of the comicbook pile.

Finally on Sunday night Chandara and I went super old school with a silent film night courtesy of Ciné Illuminé.  The film was 1929 classic Piccadilly, about a young Chinese girl given the chance to take centre stage at a London club, leading to an early noir-esque story of betrayal, forbidden love and murder. But the real treat is the atmosphere around the screening with a glamorous but intimate setting, themed cocktails, food-toting usherettes and most notably Luke Meredith’s live piano accompaniment to the film. Seeing (and hearing) the interaction as a musician reacts to what occurs on screen makes a startling difference. Ciné Illuminé looks here to stay with screenings announced for the first Sunday of each month for the foreseeable future.

The Breakfast Conspiracy II

I have long been sceptical of the importance of breakfast and one of my more infamous early posts, long before the current incarnation of the site, was that setting out The Breakfast Conspiracy.  While intended solely as a humorous jab at those who (a) knocked my eating habits; or (b) subscribed to conspiracy theories, there has always been something unsettling about the way people mindlessly repeat the “most important meal” mantra with no explanation, yet a fervour bordering on the religious. I mean it practically screams conspiracy. The truth, I knew, was out there.

Recently, tumbling down one of those impossible-to-avoid Internet research rabbit-holes, I discovered some revealing information.  Our story begins with Edward Bernays, whom those in advertising will know as “the father of public relations” and a pioneer in propaganda. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and combined his uncle’s psychoanalytical ideas with the crowd psychology theories of Le Bon and Trotter.

Bernays’s belief was that the public democratic judgement was unreliable and had to be “guided from above”. Of course, this “guidance” was primarily in the interest of the corporations that hired him, like the American Tobacco Company. He viewed the public as a “herd that needed to be led” and, more worryingly, described his opinion-moulding techniques as the “engineering of consent”.

What does any of this have to do with breakfast, you may be wondering? Well, one of Bernays’s less prominent clients was the Beech-Nuttagum Packing Company, which was experiencing serious financial losses due to its relatively new food product, bacon, not selling particularly well to an American public used to eating very little in the morning.

And so Bernays, using the psychological techniques he had acquired, approached a medical doctor and asked a few innocuous, leading questions along the following lines:

  1. Does the human body expend energy in the night during sleep?
  2. Does the human body need energy during the day to complete day-to-day tasks, labour, etc.?
  3. Would it make sense to eat a hearty breakfast as opposed to a light breakfast in order to provide the body with energy?

Having secured one positive response, he circulated it around 5,000 doctors, of whom 4,500 were willing to support the opinion. This was then fed to the newspapers as health advice: 4,500 doctors agree a hearty breakfast provides the energy needed to sustain activity. Of course, bacon and eggs* were subtly suggested as a part of that meal, and his client’s financial woes were history. Meanwhile, this spurious but highly profitable medical advice morphed into the maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Indeed, it is now so widely repeated that the corporations with a vested interest in our breakfasting barely need to “remind” us themselves.

*Do not misinterpret this as a knock against bacon and eggs: they are fantastic foods for brunch. Or as a hangover cure. But then it is medicine.

Three Blind Mice

Humans and our ancestors have been using tools for some two and a half million years.  Over that time I think we have earned the right to be picky not just about their utility, but just how they sit in our hands.  Certainly, I have always been abnormally selective in the cutlery I feel comfortable using (at home anyway, I can generally suppress it when outside): it must be slender, smoothly curved with a balanced weight distribution.  The reason, it eventually dawned on me, is that subconsciously I see cutlery as an extension of my fingers, giving rise to certain preconceptions about how it should feel and respond.  It also explains my affinity for chopsticks which are essentially a direct extension of two fingers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I am similarly specific about my mice, being tools many of us spend hours each day using both at work and home. I recently described purchasing a new mouse as like acquiring a new limb, an idea which seemed to resonate with several people. A good mouse is a perfect example of how, when form follows functional ergonomics, a thing of beauty is created. I currently use three mice, with different choices behind each one.

The bedroom: my desktop is primarily a gaming machine and unsurprisingly sports a gaming mouse, a Razer DeathAdder. Razer understands that while there are technological requirements consistent across all gaming mice (high resolution sensor, fast response time), an individual’s mouse grip affects ergonomic considerations, as they distinguish between the most common palm grip, the claw grip and the fingertip grip. My gaming style is a claw grip which I find lends itself to swifter reactions. The result is that I wanted a mouse with an arched body for support and lipped edges to it buttons to avoid my fingers sliding off the sides (essentially concave buttons rather than a mouse’s typical convex surface). Unlike my other mice, this one is still wired to avoid the risk of running out of charge mid-game.

The Office: Conversely, at work I adopt a palm grip for comfort over long periods. When replacing my work mouse recently, I briefly considered one of the new wave of multitouch mice with the neat swiping gestures they bring. However it became clear that far too many ergonomic compromises have been made in all the touch mice on the market. Instead a large “handshake” mouse would maximise comfort and the Logitech MX Performance is the easy choice.  Its perfectly constructed sweeping body both feels and looks fantastic, while its freely spinning scroll wheel is a life-saver when dealing with long documents – a single flick of the wheel sends pages flying past. Despite its size, the mouse is surprisingly lightweight, requiring minimal effort to use for long stretches. Sold as rechargeable, opening it up reveals it actually runs off an AA battery, shipping with an eneloop (Sanyo’s new rechargeable range with a greatly reduced self-discharge rate, with which I have replaced all my AA batteries).

The Living Room: While my HTPC is primarily controlled with the same universal remote as the television to which it is connected, it runs Windows 7 and is capable of other functions that necessitate using a mouse from the sofa.  The Logitech MX Air is ideal as, in addition to functioning as a normal mouse when on a flat surface, it is gyroscopic so can also be picked up and used in the air.  Rather than waving it around in an exhausting manner, it is best used by simply angling it in the appropriate direction with a small movement of the wrist. Given that it is held more like a remote than a typical mouse, its weight distribution is crucial, sitting comfortably in a rounded ball that fits the palm of your hand with just the slender buttons at the front.

Dunbar’s Reminder

A few days ago I came across a fluff piece in which a freelance writer attempted to disprove Dunbar’s number using his facebook friends. Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships one can maintain, and lies somewhere between 100 and 230.

I have no problem with Dunbar’s number: it always sounded about right to me, though I suspected that approaching the maximum limit might devalue the quality of the much of smaller number of close friendships. A quick trawl through my 500-odd facebook “friends” narrows the current active friendships to a little under 150. Add in a few friends and family not on facebook and I fall pretty squarely in Dunbar’s expected range.

What the exercise highlighted is not some shocking revelation about how I don’t actually maintain all those facebook friendships, nor how I have this vast graveyard of ostensibly dead friendships — that list remains a valuable index of contacts through which it is much easier to get in touch with someone should it later be useful (and the ability to hide updates from individuals means regular “culls” are no longer entirely necessary). The real lesson for me was that there were a handful of people hidden in that list with whom I really did want to get in touch but, without having seen their names, the thought might never have occurred. Perhaps, rather than an act of social vanity, it is an exercise I ought to conduct more frequently in order to prevent some people falling through the cracks. After all, Dunbar might have set an upper limit, but he offers no guarantee that those social relationships will be the right ones. So I wonder: if you have more than 230 facebook friends, who might be hiding in yours?

Meanwhile, if I’m running at roughly capacity, that also means anyone who wants to join my friendship group (for reasons I cannot begin to fathom) will probably need to kill off an existing member. Friends, consider this a heads up. Don’t blame me, blame the evolutionary limitations of my neocortex.

Catherine

Today, with all it’s outmoded discussion of leap year proposals (cue an articulate rant from a friend of mine*), seems like a good day to mention Catherine. When I mention videogames on this site, I generally prefer to highlight the games that push the medium forward (okay, or sometimes hark back two decades). Catherine is certainly unique and a purely descriptive explanation — it is a story-driven tower-climbing action puzzle game — is largely useless. Really it is an exploration of fidelity. This is a bizarre game of parts that build up to a greater whole because of how each layer informs the others, moreso because, against a backdrop of games that rarely handle romantic or sexual relationships with any semblence of finesse, Catherine actually manages to be rather thought-provoking.

Protagonist Vincent is a pretty ineffectual chap in a long term relationship with a girl named Katherine, who is beginning to press him about their future and settling down. Vincent is seemingly content enough whiling away his life in a local bar that he would rather maintain the status quo than make any serious decisions about commitment. In the week we spend with Vincent, a chance encounter with a vivacious young blonde (conveniently named Catharine) leads to infidelity, leaving him wracked by powerful guilt-ridden nightmares.

Much of essential plot is conveyed through high-quality anime cut-scenes that instantly reveal the game’s Japanese heritage. Meanwhile the gameplay is split between narrative segments in a bar, where Vincent can converse with his friends, the other patrons and — by text message — with the two girls now in his life, and tower-climbing segments in Vincent’s nightmares.

The conversations you have in the bar — often including questions of morality and faithfulness — affect the story outcome, while some patrons are reflected in the “sheep” characters Vincent meets in his nightmares. These nightmare levels form the heart of the gameplay, scaling a tower of boxes by moving them around to create traversable paths and avoiding traps, while the bottom continually falls away beneath Vincent’s feet. It’s a simple concept but with surprising complexity and challenge at speed. The really interesting thing is that this very mechanic underscores the heart of the game’s narrative: the paralysis of indecision isn’t an option — to live, you have to keep moving forwards, and sure you might get hurt or make a mistake that sets you back, but you have to commit one way or another.

* I suspect that, beyond tradition, waiting for the man to propose was considered partly a way to test his commitment rather than simply “waiting until he was ready”. By extension the modern proposer perhaps ought to be the more commitment-phobic of the couple, irrespective of gender. Just a suggestion.

Another Fine Adventure

Happy commercialised love day, readers! Should you be acceding to social pressure and purchasing a token of affection for your significant other, I certainly hope it is one of these stunning heart-shaped cakes. By comparison anything else can only be considered failure.

Speaking of spending money on things you love, since its inception the crowd-sourced funding site Kickstarter has scaled up from small arts projects to a feature-length independent sci-fi film I helped fund called 95ers: Echoes, which has now released a trailer.

Last week the exponential growth continued when game developing legend Tim Schafer launched a Kickstarter project to fund a small, old-school point-and-click adventure game. Having co-designed the early classics of the genre, Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, this swiftly captured fans’ imaginations and (more importantly) wallets, hitting the $400,000 target in around eight hours. A day later $1 million had been pledged. With 28 days to go, it looks on track at least to break $2 million.

While some hail this as a paradigm shift for the gaming industry, it really isn’t much more than it was for the music industry where veterans have used alternative internet funding in what artists like Amanda Palmer see as a return to the older patronage system. Pay-what-you-like sales, for example, allow major returns for those with established careers over which they have built up a fanbase, all typically within the label/studio system. It is certainly not available to everyone. But for accomplished auteurs, crowd-sourced funding represents a way to maintain creative control and integrity once you have garnered sufficient trust from fans.

Quintupling the funding goal brings its own risks. No longer is this a tiny $400K pet project; we’re already looking at a game with a budget two thirds the size of Schafer’s Grim Fandango, the best adventure game ever made (this is not opinion: it was a beautifully stylised hilarious noir romp through the Mexican Land of the Dead by way of Casablanca — even conceptually how can one top that?). The stakes have been raised by a not insubstantial measure. But they have my money, I’m invested and I really want them to succeed.

Films for 2012

A whole load of films and a whole load of trailers, so just a few words on each. Any major omissions? I’m sure you’ll let me know. Bear in mind I’ve ignored anything due out this year but with no footage yet released.

The Artist — A modern silent film? No one does that. Except the French, obviously. And the Weinsteins prove their worth once more by agreeing to fund it.

Shame — A study in sex addiction, it’s Fassbender as the lead that heightens my interest, with Carey Mulligan as his sister, arriving to disrupt his life. The slow, weighty trailer suggests this will appeal only to a niche audience.

Coriolanus — Ralph Fiennes takes the directorial reins for the first time, setting Shakespearean dialogue against a gritty modern fascist backdrop.

J Edgar — While Clint Eastwood’s undoubtedly proficient directorial efforts have largely failed to connect with me (Mystic River aside), seeing him direct DiCaprio is enough to whet my appetite.

The Descendants — While Clooney’s The Ides of March was great, it is his performance here, struggling to reconnect with his daughters in the middle of a family crisis, that has generated more Oscar buzz.

A Dangerous Method — Exploring the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, again it is Fassbender’s presence that piques my interest.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — The strange tale of a boy searching New York for the lock that matches a key left behind by his father who died in the 9/11 attack makes a little more sense knowing the novel was penned by the same author as Everything Is Illuminated.

The Muppets — This isn’t for the kids, it’s for the big kids who grew up with The Muppets. Rewatching old episodes of The Muppets Tonight while ill reminded me that this stuff could still air just fine today. And it’s had one of the most fun advertising campaigns in recent memory.

In The Land of Blood & Honey — Reviews have been decidedly mixed for Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, a love story set against the brutal background of the Bosnian War.

Mirror, Mirror — Tarsem Singh tackling my favourite classic fairytale (Snow White, obviously) promises to be a visual treat, but the trailer sparks pretty serious fears this “comedy” adaptation could be a farcical mess.

The Hunger Games — I understand these young adult novels are a pretty big deal in the USA, a grim future in which a post-apocalyptic government requires each district to submit two teenage children for a fight to the death in the wild. A neutered, teen-friendly Battle Royale, then?

The Avengers — While I don’t think the films leading up to this insanely ambitious superhero-filled Marvel event lived up to the first Iron Man, I remain excited (and amazed) that Joss Whedon has been handed the reins.

Men in Black III — From a single line, Josh Brolin seems to have Tommy Lee Jones’ mannerism down, but the real time-traveling marvel is that he and Will Smith don’t seem to have aged at all.

The Dictator — This scripted Sacha Baron Cohen outing has him playing a fictional Middle Eastern dictator ensuring “democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”

Prometheus — Ridley Scott’s no-longer-really-a-prequel-to-Alien captivates as soon as those letters start to appear on screen. For those who wish to deconstruct the trailer, Movie Line freeze-frames so you don’t have to.

The Amazing Spider-Man — Yes, everyone’s favourite web-slinger is being rebooted already, but with Andrew Garfield taking centre stage I’m more than willing to give Spidey another go. Even after the abomination of Spider-Man 3.

The Dark Knight Rises — Nolan. Batman. Do I really need to sell this? To anyone?

Premium Rush — This action thriller about a bike messenger has me interested largely because of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s brilliant eye for scripts.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — It looks more of the same from Peter Jackson, even if virtually everyone agrees the source material is weaker. I remain disappointed that Guillermo del Toro isn’t helming the project, as it would be great to see an alternate view of Middle Earth a decade later, but this is the next best option. Martin Freeman is, of course, the perfect choice for Bilbo.

Nominal Holiday

I can never quite decide whether taking the three days off between Christmas and New Year really counts as a holiday. The resulting ten-day break is most welcome, naturally, but those who “work” in between (in office jobs, at any rate) impart wondrous tales of blessedly empty offices and extravagant two-hour lunches. On balance it is the futile attempt at catching up on a year’s worth of missed sleep that convinces me to take the time off.

It is a fair sign I have been working slightly too hard that, immediately upon stopping, I fell ill. An uncommon enough occurrence itself, this was some (chaotic) evil stomach bug that took about three days to kick, conveniently running right through Christmas. Between this and last year, I am considering blacklisting the holiday entirely. It is on notice.

Strangely what kept me going was a Skyrim fan’s efforts in porting all the short books contained within the game to ebook format. Loaded onto my tablet, I lay in bed reading the history, mythology and cautionary fables of an entirely fictional world to keep my mind occupied. The personal tale woven by the anonymously penned The Real Barenziah was a particular favourite, standing in sharp contrast to the official line in the Imperial approved Biography of Barenziah. And that is the perfect illustration of what makes the these games so special: that incredible level of detail in which the world is crafted. In each new Elder Scrolls game Bethesda will reproduce the books from previous entries while adding a host of new titles, now totalling some 13,500 pages of text that many (most?) players will never actually read.

Once recovered, I spent a pleasant few days catching up with friends in London and finally delving properly into Skyrim in the way I had expected a month ago (i.e. almost continuously). I saw in the New Year a few roads away at Adam’s new house, with a quick jaunt to Waterloo to watch the fantastic South Bank fireworks. There then followed the traditional struggle to return my sleeping habits to the socially accepted norm before returning to work. With moderate success.

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