I'm a freelance writer and occasional journalist, publicist, and editor.
Among other things, I’ve written about science and technology, many film festivals and film makers, old comics, education and subculture.
This has been for people like Sight & Sound, Physics World, SoFilm, Little White Lies, The Optical Society, Critic’s Notebook, Tripwire, Marquis, The Film Talk, and long ago Comics International.
I was an editor at IOP Publishing for its last glorious years in the commercial magazine business, and still contribute to the photonics industry website that arose from the ashes.
Most new written pieces get a mention on my web site, and there are a couple in the Freelance Journalist Directory too.
I’m a member of the Association of British Science Writers, and also of Shooting People. There’s a Flavors landing page for me here.
A while ago I wrote the press and publicity materials for ALM Talkies’ award-winning independent film Dirty Step Upstage and its recording artist Girl In The Red Dress.
Specialities: Authoring lively and compelling copy for readers across a range of audiences and interests.
2009 - Present
Writer/Editor / Self-employed
Freelance writer, journalist, editor, copywriter. Available for commissions.
2012 - Present
Contributing Editor / Optics.org
Founded in 1996, optics.org was the first web portal providing news and comment to the photonics, optics and lasers community worldwide.
2008 - Present
Associate Editor / Critic's Notebook
Critic's Notebook is a web site formed by graduate students at NYU Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies department and the British Film Institute. We cover arts, entertainment and culture around the globe.
Publicist/Lead Editor / ALM Talkies, LTD
ALM Talkies is a boutique production company, specializing in unique web content, innovative film-making, and distinctive music. I wrote and edited the press kit for the company's live-action film Dirty Step Upstage, and helped coordinate the film's promotional campaign during its festival run.
Industry Editor, Optics.org and Optics & Laser Europe magazine / Institute of Physics
Writer and editor for print magazine and web site, supplying news stories, analysis pieces and comment. Authored series of regional focus articles after tours of Tel Aviv, Berlin, Cork and Brussels.
Technical Writer / Sandvik Coromant
Reporter for corporate magazine and customer brochures, including creation of series of articles on manufacturing industry in China after tour of the country. Technical author for new product marketing manuals, newsletters, and corporate communication material.
Technologist / Sandvik
Technologist in new product development, including input into marketing communications material, technical literature and case histories.
Gymnasts and rock climbers both use chalk, for similar reasons but at some distinctly different altitudes. In the November issue of Chemistry World magazine I wrote a short column about how magnesium carbonate and a pioneering climber tie the two activities together, and about the ethical issue arising from the human traces left behind. There’s also a version of the same article online. This…
Whether or not Judge Dredd kicking Colonel Sanders in the face and
stabbing the Michelin Man with a scalpel was really the best part of 2000 AD’s
slightly-banned Cursed Earth story line in 1978, it was certainly the
one that stuck firmly in the memory. Which is more than you can say for
that marsupial bucket of pathos named Tweak, erased completely from
my recollection until we came face to face again in the new edition
that’s just come out from Rebellion, which I reviewed for Tripwire. Viewed from nearly four decades
down the tracks, the urge of its writers to redline the comic’s general
rate of rotation and see what might fly off is a more audacious move
than all the business with Burger King, although I can see why it didn’t
appear that way at the time.
Pat Mills didn’t write the bits
where Dredd runs into half the brands on sale in Fine Fare, but then
that’s not really his kind of satire. The more Swiftian class conflicts
and workers’ purgatories of Ro-Busters are closer to his calling, and Rebellion has also republished more of that strip from the same era to prove the point.
Anderson has nothing left to prove by now, so Alan Grant’s long-term
plan to treat the character as an authentic tragic hero requires the
piling on of all appropriate agonies as part of the deal. Another
shovelful for the now middle-aged psychic arrives in the latest
Judge Anderson Psi Files collection, although not before she’s also dragged into the latest symbolic discussion of Mega-City One’s masculine mystique between King Kong and a giant phallus. Characters lucky
enough to have her longevity can pull off that kind of switchback maneuver from comedy to tragedy - and so can Alan Grant - but it helps that Anderson is still a vivid, lively creation. She’s 2000 AD’s sweet spot of pragmatism, spirituality and firepower, with cosmic balance on her mind and Cosmic Trigger on her bookshelf.
Some recent technology news stories I had a hand in:
The United States wants to double the pace of research into tackling cancer, and do in the next five years what was shaping up to take ten. Optical imaging will need to play its part, but then so will just about everything everywhere.
This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival produced a couple of items by me likely to surface presently in Sight & Sound magazine, and more immediate reactions to:
Flag Without A Country in which Bahman Ghobadi follows the redoubtable Kurdish singer Helly Luv all the way to the front lines against ISIS, probably followed by the smart money on the outcome. The Virgin Psychics which shapes up to be Carry On Horny Godzilla before missing that golden opportunity. Little Men another chapter of Ira Sachs’s analysis of urban New York which is probably going to add up to a future syllabus on the topic at some later date. The Commune which decides to say strangely little about a historical moment, although the miles of beige fabric on show say plenty.
Human nature was fraying under pressure in the UK by the end of the festival; but all four of these had something to say on the topic in one way or another, proving that art never stops mattering.
The announcement of the festival’s prize winners confirmed that I didn’t see a single one of them, but also meant that EIFF missed the chance to pin its International laurel onto Zach Clark’s Little Sister, the most self-assured film in the programme by some distance. I’m on record somewhere about two of hisearlier films, which both seemed to twitch with a jittery ground-level static built up just from the act of their own creation - and also admiredrather than loved White Reindeer, a test of how some Sirk-ian melodrama might work in an age where we all know what goes on in the suburbs and have seen all the films.
Little Sister moulds the essences of both styles around a seemingly calmer story, but one that is still spiky enough to support both empathy for its familial pains and a perspective on the world they’re emerging from - which happens to be the world of George W Bush and the Iraq disaster. It involves a terrific show of muted resilience from Addison Timlin - time to state out loud that Mr. Clark is among the finest directors of low-key female durability currently in business - playing a character working towards a life governed by faith, whose faith is daringly neither mocked nor leached away by the film. In fact it’s confirmed, through her confrontation with the physical effects on someone she loves of the equally religious world of improvised explosive devices shaping up over the horizon. Not for nothing does the physical reality of those wounds borrow something from the visuals of excessively flamboyant European horror films - not to mention from Kevin Bacon’s post-latex period in Hollow Man - in a film of calm compassion, if not outright contemplation, and Italianate style more generally. But then not for nothing does Barbara Crampton, once of director Stuart Gordon’s parish, appear in the film as a long-suffering Reverend Mother, beautifully photographed by Daryl Pittman as if she was limned by faith itself.
All this sits inside an initially familiar Clark-ish wrapper of North Carolina houses and porches and yards. Characters like Molly Plunk’s affable eco-terrorist - a label to conjure with in the circumstances - and the pair of happily content lesbians encountered at a Halloween party don’t exactly echo individuals in the previous films so much as align in sympathy, for reasons emerging from the casting as much as anything else; as if the universe was resonating along familiar lines.
Maybe it is. The director’s other films have also waded into thorny tangles of love and fraught understanding and done so with gusto; but Little Sister has a bigger heart in its chest and a bigger sky over its head than they did. It’s a film about faith without necessarily being a film of faith, and astute about human nature as well as American nightmares. It’s a reminder of what indie energy looks like on a wide screen when it works on classical lines with subtlety and grace in a modern context, right down to the fact that it’ll presumably meet its ultimate audience on a much smaller screen altogether. And a reminder that art either engages with how people tick or it doesn’t, and the distinction about which category is which is not hard to make.
Rebellion’s commitment to reprinting the entirety of Judge Dredd in thick chronological slabs means the odd historical barb pops into view long after John Wagner planted it. For Tripwire I looked at Complete Case Files 27, which could do with a few more barbs than the allotted mid-1990s period happens to catch, and a few less stabs at contemporary trends and ass-less trousers. But it does include Dredd meeting a crisis he’s been anticipating for 18 years and which took exactly that long to arrive. All reminders of the strip’s real-time progression feel more like a bracing encounter with the flinty willpower of Wagner and the other creators themselves than anything related to the Mega-City calendar.
Bad Company: First Casualties is Peter Milligan and Rufus Dayglo’s anti-war tirade against wasted life, wasted youth and wasted time, and so won’t stop feeling contemporary until the world comes to its senses, and probably not even then.
X-Men: Apocalypse does indeed include a big sci-fi buffoon making a cheesy speech about tearing down the world and building a better one - but he makes it while a Holocaust survivor flattens Auschwitz, wiping off the map one source of the franchise’s unease since day one and a locus of Bryan Singer’s interests since. It’s another of Singer’s imaginary reset buttons, troubled and impossible, in a film that also returns to 9/11 eschatology, when in the midst of the climactic mayhem Apocalypse builds a new pyramid, and its striated sides at the base echo the World Trade Centre. None of this turns Apocalypse into anything beyond average art, but is nonetheless not nothing; and not much like the outright placebos of the Avengers franchise either, whose character motivations struggle to stay consistent within their own frameworks never mind the bracing chill of the outside world. The superhero genre has become critic-proof in more ways than one, but there must be some way to talk about these things without throwing the forecast out with the forecaster.
On the Sight & Sound website: Hollywood tempts directors down unlikely tracks all the time, but sooner or later there will have to be due accounting for the route of Bryan Singer, who went from indie nova to superhero-franchise bellwether before that deeply furrowed road was even laid. And along the way made one fully astute modern superhero film along with another that’s easily the most deliberately - radically - neo-classical. Singer is out of step with almost every creative urge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and hardly less oppositional to the current methods of Warner Bros - gravitational forces which didn’t in the end do the last X-Men film very much good - but the longer the MCU spends with characters interested in self-amusement rather than self-knowledge, the longer X2 will reign unopposed, serenely untouchable.
And for the June print issue of Sight & Sound magazine I watched The Trust, which when I
saw it was the new Nicolas Cage film and by now is probably the actor’s film before last. The concept of Jerry Lewis playing Nicolas
Cage’s father is not to be trifled with, but The Trust manages to find a
Guido Crepax, from volume one of the Fantagraphics set.
Years of reading about the influence of Crepax on Frank Miller clarified by seeing the top panel. Years of familiarity with versions of Dracula blown to smithereens by coming face to face with the bottom one.
Laser cinema projection grabs the headlines, but smaller-scale boardroom and classroom projectors will be a bigger market by far. The technology for both is getting better all the time.
Monitoring brain activity is going to be an entire industry in ten years time, if what happened in genomics is anything to go by. But investigating the working brains of live animals going about their business has been a hurdle - until now.
No shortage of bigger pictures behind the spending of $250 million on a Batman v Superman film, before even considering the film-makers who ended up getting the job. I waded into the deep end for Sight & Sound’s website; but in this neck of the woods it’s practically fractal. The deep masochism of dragging kids’ stuff onto some kind of adult plane of pains and delivering it via mass market entertainments is endlessly revealing as a cultural process, but flawed at source. My first response to giving Wonder Woman a zippy electric guitar theme was that it might have accompanied a cartoon version of the character; my second was to remember that the actual Justice League cartoons and her own animated movie had enough poise to give her an orchestrally styled theme instead. And round and round.
Critics are supposed to be the ones stood on the walls when these experiments roll up, but we’ve appointed ourselves the gatekeepers instead. “Unoriginal” is very likely to be a legitimate complaint about a film called Batman Versus Superman, although if it’s the sum total of the analysis then the critical operation has become diluted to the point of failure. Bryan Singer made an original Superman film a decade ago and everyone lost their minds; even George Lucas got a less raw deal than that.
The April issue of Sight & Sound magazine includes me on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a film with reasons for existing that are obvious to an accountant and an intended audience which is anyone’s guess; a pre-fab corporate artifact, pretty much obsolescent upon delivery. Lena Headey appears for ten minutes and grinds the film deliciously under her boot heel, but that was always on the cards.
Drug-resistant bacteria are such a problem that even the scientists working on the issue call it an arms race that we are not winning. So if a project in Colorado is right and tiny particles of semiconductor material can drop the bugs in their tracks, it could be real progress. And when the bugs adapt, as they will, the remedy can be tweaked to keep up. For optics.org I asked the team just how effective the treatment might be, and what else it might reveal about the complex stuff going on inside cells.
If you’re in San Francisco, the in-house magazine at the Photonics West conference contains some stories by me, including a look at where the US moonshot into neuroscience known as the BRAIN Initiative has got to these days, and why the insides of the average DVD player could help to knock a few zeroes off the cost of a clinical tomography system and put it into your phone.
The composer in the picture has cancer and will be dead in twenty weeks. At this point, he is going loudly.
Basil Poledouris had withdrawn from active film scoring well before his last public appearance at Úbeda in Spain during July 2006, conducting selected bits of the score to Conan The Barbarian much as a stadium rock outfit returns to their most famous crowd-pleasing bombast. By that point all of the composer’s closest film comrades had fallen from favour. Paul Verhoeven’s six-year silence after Hollow Man was not quite over yet, John Milius had stopped directing long ago, and we will come to Steven Seagal shortly. And by then mainstream film music was squarely in Hans Zimmer’s orbit, tempted away from its own roots in European classical flair and Poledouris’ beloved American folk music by the easy aggro of percussive rhythmic fragments and pulsing electronics and fight music that just churns noisily. All these things are connected.
Poledouris drew as much inspiration from folk music as the classical canon, but still scored the deeply polyester sci-fi of Cherry 2000 with a synth-heavy soundtrack and name-checked Giorgio Moroder (and Mozart, and Morricone). He was in perfect sync with those Paul Verhoeven films where the Dutchman’s characters are buffeted by actual tangible fate (just as Jerry Goldsmith fitted the ones that were psycho-dramas), but still kept returning to the Western genre to think about simple human dignity under duress. Whoever paired him with John Waters must have pulled his name out of a hat, but Waters says Serial Mom is his favourite of his own films, sensing how Poledouris subverted the music of a Hollywood melodrama by just an inch; a Golden Age score with some mildew in the timbers.
Versatility like that comes from instinct as well as skill. Poledouris’ instincts were for what Leonard Bernstein, quoting Keats in a famous monumental piece of rhetorical television, called the poetry of earth. Every Poledouris score feels as modern as a rave next to John Williams, but shares innate deep affection for tonal harmonies and rich instrumental textures, even if Poledouris’ world view was rather more mournful. Melancholy seeps into his heroic music, and his superheroes are uncomfortable creatures - RoboCop got an epic march of thwarted destiny when Poledouris returned to the franchise long after Verhoeven had moved on. On top of the general loss to film scoring when Poledouris died, a decent chance for an affecting DC Comics film left with him.
And then there are les films de Steven Seagal, two of which Poledouris punts into the stratosphere. No room here to discuss On Deadly Ground, Seagal’s sole directorial credit, in which he takes down an oil corporation, makes Alaska safe for the goshawk, and is somehow allowed to lecture the legislature about ecology rather than being tried for multiple homicide and tipped into the Bering Sea. No room, because Under Siege 2: Dark Territory takes up all the available oxygen.
Under Siege 2 is one of those nutty spasms of crazy that the American system used to throw out in the 1990s, just before it completed remodeling along the lines of an Apple Store: part exploitation bruiser, part baroque masculinity meltdown, part anti-US satire, and cast by a madman. It has Eric Bogosian as a homicidal maniac slaughtering hundreds (picture Dustin Hoffman playing Lex Luthor), while Jonathan Banks drives a locomotive like he’s never seen one before in his life and Brenda Bakke wears a trench coat over nothing. (Brenda Bakke is another immense loss to current movies, far too sensible to waste her time playing those complex female villains we will never get.) But above and beyond all these, there is Everett McGill as the finest hulking sidekick ever. He is the king of hulking sidekicks, the president of the union. Crazy and cunning and impervious, he’s a droll troll calmly managing his boss’s twitchy freak-outs and using a teenage Katherine Heigl’s pepper spray as a breath freshener when he hasn’t got his gun up in her mandible.
How to score this dingbat jamboree? Poledouris kicks-off by quoting Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man - a joke that Seagal may or may not have got - and then builds an entire score of non-stop movement and agitation, a stew of action-music fragments and ticking electronics. People cutting trailers for Mel Gibson films recognised a perfect fit when they heard one and used it liberally, and it now sounds like a distant ancestor of the angsty streams of consciousness that mostly pass for action scores in the Zimmer era; but this ancestor knew tricks his kids have forgotten. He knew how to be soulful, even when complimenting the world’s most psychotic cook on his latest successful gouging.
Soul is a more dubious requirement in film composition than it used to be, but it’s still there in Poledouris’ last big-screen credit, a soggy slice of Sino-American modern-dress wuxia called The Touch from 2002. Apparently initiated by Michelle Yeoh at the peak of her post-Crouching Tiger influence, the film disappeared into Miramax’s distribution maze never to be seen again. Stuck between cartoon and travelogue, it has a nonsense plot about a family of circus acrobats guarding some ancient mystical whatsit against an overacting Richard Roxburgh, his hair as blond as Dirk Bogarde’s in Modesty Blaise. Yeoh herself is a suitably hands-on hero - the film comes between Angelina Jolie’s two Tomb Raiders, revealingly enough - but she’s saddled not only with a prehensile magic scarf whose powers change with the wind, but also acquires Ben Chaplin as a Western ex-boyfriend. The film has to make him look useful, when it’s clear that Yeoh could take care of business all day long. Even the horses are bored.
The Poledouris score is low-wattage, an authentic late-career work, but a sweet concoction; maybe no surprise that a composer innately inclined towards folk music might smoothly blend ethnic Chinese elements into a small Western orchestra without any apparent friction. It leans a bit heavily on the kind of accessible Orientalism that Tan Dun has mastered for export and made into a template, but it puts Chinese wooden percussion over synthesizers and choir, and for all its sweeping romanticism, it’s never trite. The film grasps for some philosophical discussion of Buddhist lore vs Western pragmatism, but Poledouris seems to be the only one who spots when it’s happening. And the film closes with a song in Mandarin, sounding halfway between a lullaby and a prayer. As last words go, there are worse.
Almost last. Just before his death, a TV movie called The Legend of Butch and Sundance with Poledouris music abruptly washed up after three years on Viacom’s shelf. The Western was always a good fit - his scores forLonesome Dove and Quigley Down Under, both for Simon Wincer, add up to an essay on the toll of the frontier and the role of women, even if one of them takes place in Australia - and he left his final musical mark on the wide-open plains (of Calgary, technically). It’s a Butch and Sundance origin story, all youthful exuberance and self-made mythology and anti-Pinkerton larks; but the music is going somewhere else, talking of maturity and unstoppable clocks and the passing of days. Enjoy your legend, cowboys, says the composer, since all this will pass, and the poetry of earth is ceasing never.
I watched Spectre for Critic’s Notebook, and came out wearing that expression. I also said some things about it out loud in a podcast for the Bristol Film Critic’s Circle. The Bonds haven’t felt very British since ever, but the contrast between their faltering story mechanics and the stuff recently going on in places like Mission: Impossible is starting to feel like that time 1980s British TV cop shows discovered 1980s American TV cop shows and had a nervous breakdown.
And I’m also in the December print issue of Sight & Sound magazine reviewing Between Two Worlds, a British romantic drama that takes such a spectacularly dim view of New Labour that it seems to want to splice Hollyoaks with Play For Today, something previously unattempted for good reason.
I wrote about some parts of this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival for Sight & Sound. The international programme fared a bit better than the domestic one, responding to current affairs with some nuance and anger rather than just bemusement. It also contained the Grand Prix winner, since the festival’s top award went to Jennifer Reeder for the second year running - which generated some bemusement on its own. My empathy for anyone running a film festival these days is on record; but I still say the temptation to orientate around your own delegates and deprecate the public is a misstep.
For Sight & SoundI wrote about the Bristol Radical Film Festival, which is screening a bunch of alternative and radical films from 1975 opposite some examples of current activist cinema, and discussing what’s changed in the meantime for filmmakers and for the left. Opinions, unsurprisingly, differ.
I’m in the October issue of Sight & Sound magazine, pondering the revolutionary credentials of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation just as it and its affection for the BMW ConnectedDrive system recede over the horizon.
Appreciation for the merits of seawater changes during a drought, but the signs of Sam Fuller-esque qualities lurking in Christopher McQuarrie’s businesslike staging and solid frames are a welcome gift. Anyone naming his femme fatale Ilsa Faust has already demonstrated a grasp of certain realities that the Impossibles have never been inclined to worry about; fun on a strictly movie level quite different to the TV finesse of JJ Abrams. Applause is muted mainly by the fact that the best thing about the character is actually the name. Rebecca Fergusson is fine and the European talent pool always brings something fresh, but she isn’t given enough of the fatale to do the business. For all the kicking of various ass, the character’s agency blows away in the breeze; her eventual move at a power-play is faced down by the broiling macho intensity of Simon McBurney sat on a bench.
McQuarrie’s particular type of anti-Bond Anglophilia is still percolating though. The film’s funniest bit by a mile is the sight of a villain explaining his plan via recorded message, and coming within a hair’s breadth of inviting the British Prime Minister to Press One to get his tumescence back.
The first urge after leaving The Wrecking Crew is to go and look up who exactly that was glimpsed playing Carol Kaye in Love and Mercy the other day, a film whose view of the freewheeling Pet Sounds sessions aligns with this one’s pretty closely. The second urge is to wonder with a heavy heart whether this recent crowd-funded branch of the documentary tree might be hanging by a thread already, damaged by modest resources and the very thin fuel of nostalgia. A bundle of interviews and footage dating from 1996 filmed by Tommy Tedesco’s son makes it a vivid time capsule, and the path between then and now for the man with a wish to give his dad some decent recognition and a million miles of footage in his garage isn’t hard to guess at; however as a guiding principle it limits the vision and it limits the tone. Churlish to argue with the latter, even if the parade of talking heads who won’t shut up for a second is already a wearying template. But the lack of the former in these Kickstarted pop-culture docs is their Achilles heel every time, an impediment that limits them to fetishising things that aren’t in a position to be fetishised in the first place. Having already moaned about both the 2000AD and the Richard Stanley documentaries, other candidates for similarly faint success are starting to stack up on approach like planes at Heathrow.
Theoretically The Wrecking Crew has more than the one thing to talk about, which helps. The best serious moment is Nancy Sinatra’s astute comment about the prospect of These Boots Are Made For Walking being sung by a man; the best surprise is the need to drastically recalibrate one’s opinion of Glen Campbell. But none of these help as much as what happens when no one’s talking, since this music needs no help from anyone. Even when the sounds roll up in contractually obligated snippets—another thing a prosaic template has to deal with rather than ignore, as the more successful Troubadours proved—your grumpiness is washed away by that thing happening in your chest when the music kicks in, a thing probably beyond the reach of documentary investigation. Archive footage of the 1996 model Cher reminiscing about the 1971 model Cher correctly reminds you that the world belongs to the young at any given moment, even if they have no clue what’s going on; something which the older Hal Blaine admits without obvious rancour. The film’s strongest documentary turn is to put the haunted grooves of The Mamas & The Papas in such close proximity to The Crystals, and suggest the amount of history accumulated in the space between them. But by then the film has cranked up the intro to River Deep - Mountain High, and while gripping the seat for the thousandth time to avoid rising into the air you look at those black and white photos of young Phil Spector and know that there are mysteries in heaven and earth which no one art form can penetrate, although you can dig pretty deep with three pianos and a cracking rhythm section.
No one believes me when I say that my sympathies are with any film festival compelled to show the only fare that’s on offer to it, and for all the strengths of UK production you could hardly be confident in claiming that there was a surplus of high-quality material. On the other hand, a festival allowing its programme to wither through neglect would have some questions to answer - although who exactly is inclined to ask them? The obligation should fall on critics, but at seemingly every film festival in the land these days you can overhear a theory that things are fine as long as the industry programme goes down well.
The competition field for the Micheal Powell Award was allowed to grow by nearly 50 percent this year, although the cash prize seems to have been removed. It’s tough to argue that the field shouldn’t have been adjusted in the other direction, especially when last year’s winner was such a clear and pointed statement that it felt like a tough-love version of those notes left by Chief Secretaries to the Treasury on the way out.
This time around 45 Years was a more authentic winner, since Andrew Haigh’s film is at the start of its long-term cultural impact; but not nearly enough of EIFF’s other British films have a similar glittering reputation ahead of them. Four or five have just had their entire cultural moment, between the time the director stood up to say thanks for coming and the time they sat down again. When that happens the losers every time are the paying audience, no matter what delegates say.
(Pictured: Tu Dors Nicole, a droll piece of whimsy operating in a fairly normal register for Quebec, and which compared to some of the festival’s British films looked like a moon shot. Our loss.)
July’s Sight & Sound includes me on Four Corners, the South African police-procedural coming-of-age gangland hybrid which might act as a decent calling card for director Ian Gabriel if he opts to make one or another of those in North America at some point.
More gangsters in Timbuktu, this time with the power of faith behind them. Suggesting that the world isn’t a more informed place for Abderrahmane Sissako having made the film would be an insult to the many living and dead to whom the film pays honest respect; but that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to some pointed interrogation. The inherently non-judgmental approach avoids the escape hatch of mocking its fundamentalist busybodies, and I’m all for art that leaves you room to decide exactly where the people it’s depicting fall on the stupidity scale without drawing you a diagram. But when the stupidity in question arises from organised belief systems rather than personal failures, it opens up the questions always to be asked of art situated somewhere vaguely on the left, the ones which occupied Amos Vogel for a few decades before he did accessible film criticism a favour by writing them down: Are you in the business of solving or just exploring? Atmosphere or answers?
By that measure Sissako opts to whisper truth to power, well aware that the sound of rocks cracking open the skulls of innocents will shout for him. There might even be a hint of mild connivance, or at least of convention, in the faces of the lonely jihadist with his eye on another man’s wife and the hard-line judge busy explaining why marriage doesn’t need the consent of the woman or indeed her presence; they both have the flinty look of big-screen villainy in the eyes, if you squint a bit. But maybe you shouldn’t be squinting; maybe you should be looking that other man’s wife straight in the eye, where her fortitude and awful resignation are fused together in plain sight. Sissako’s plan becomes clear when you spot the ways that communication is so ineffective: dialect issues ensure that the accused and the accusers can’t comprehend each other half the time, and the mobile phone coverage is terrible. The chewier tactic is the way that those marriage issues are explained in explicitly religious terms, making sharia law the subject of deadpan explication, while the main plot of a man’s trial and death sentence is debated without scripture entering the discussion much at all. Sissako’s view of human nature is robust enough to leave the goon squad’s actions to speak for themselves; he might have considered asking how they got that way.
Mad Max: Fury Road got this way by design, and since Brendan McCarthy is involved, those designs are bullet-proof. When the tulip mania over its progressive feminist politics has broken, we can discuss the oddity of sticking the P-word onto anything still hypnotically in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence which saturates popular culture like a sharp odour from the drains. In the meantime the film is the very model of a modern fun-times big-bombs exploitation quickie, in that it cost $150 million and rumbles on for two hours.
Clouds of Sils Maria might be Olivier Assayas’ least progressive film in a while, a mild backwards step not really countered by the sight of Nora von Waldstätten in a wig borrowed from Gabrielle Drake on UFO. But even here he’s enough of a feminist to give George Miller a migraine.
A trio of recent science articles that I had a hand in:
Fans of 3D television yearn for the day they can throw the glasses away; which won’t be happening soon. No solution for presenting you with a 3D picture without some form of filter in front of the eye is very satisfactory, but one way might be for each individual pixel of the screen to act as a tiny projector, and beam appropriate light directly into your pupil. A team in China thinks it’s on the right lines - with a 19 cm screen and some big blocky graphics for now, but it’s early days.
And: photoacoustics is a clever notion, briefly warming up cell components in living tissues with a laser and detecting the tiny pressure wave that spreads out as they expand and contract - effectively a sound wave. It’s good at spotting early stage cancers on the surface of tissues; and not so good at digging down deeper. Adding a second laser to the apparatus brings non-linear optics into the picture, at which point things start to look much clearer.
I watched Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie for the May 2015 issue of Sight & Sound magazine. Blomkamp’s a genuine social commentator with a surprisingly equivocal view of macho posturing - it never occurred to me before how his geographical location alone might land him halfway between George Miller and José Padilha. But the film’s thoughts on matters of consciousness and corporeality are barely worth the margin that Blomkamp presumably used to jot them down at some point during film school.
And also The Face of an Angel for Critic’s Notebook. If Michael Winterbottom was going be properly feted by his home crowd, it would have happened by now; and this film won’t change things. Still, better two hours with the bottom half of his résumé than ten minutes of some British detective inspector bathed in radioactive cerulean light by a director swooning at the thought of being mistaken for Michael Mann.
John Wick has made a lot of people swoon already, although in the circle of life it’s tough not to recall things said about Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning in some quarters by folks apparently slipping into delirium. The sugar-rush kinetic abandon that stuntman-directors conjure up is rediscovered at regular intervals as an alternative to deathly dull shaky-cam cross-cutting and rightly so; but as a foundation for drama it’s the wrong stuff every time. A couple of John Wick’s quirks are reminders of Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead; but that film was self-aware enough to know that it could discuss masculinity and fealty and decay through verbal crossfire and still be morbid as all hell, while John Wick has to really let its Thanatos hang out and deposit brains over the soft furnishings. It’s a busman’s holiday for jaded action movie devotees; a PlayStation vacation. It’s the hit man and cur.
New answers and sure enough new mysteries in the study of genome architecture, after a project in Barcelona examined exactly how DNA is arranged in the fibrous molecular chains it forms while about its information-management business. Getting a good look is only feasible with super-resolution microscopy, and even then you need to get creative with the data analysis; but the DNA arrangement seems to relate directly to how well a cell might perform as a pluripotent stem cell. Good news for any structural biologists feeling sidelined by general genome hoopla. The announcement from ICFO last month; and my conversation with them about it for Optics.org.
For Critic’s Notebook I watched Stephen Daldry’s Trash, which nestles comfortably enough between superficial romanticism and YA earnestness to lose most of its bite. But complaining that Richard Curtis is not Victor Hugo seems an odd bone to pick.
Rubbish is also involved in White God, a film whose subtleties may be lost in translation; or absent. Perhaps the set of swarthy numskulls who queue up to abuse, mistreat and condemn lovable old Hagen are variegated in ways that work as local Hungarian satire but don’t travel well. If not, the film’s thrust at generic bias and disdain flames out in mid-air somewhere around the point where the director takes a knock on the head and decides to take aim at John Carpenter. Straight-faced cuts to menacing silhouettes of mutts advancing slowly on the next hapless pedigree chum do something of a disservice to the subtler stuff about Zsófia Psotta’s alienated youth and troubled relationship with her father, and the allegorical potential of mongrels being a source of tax revenue. But subtlety is out for the duration long before Psotta inexplicably packs her trumpet when leaving for a confrontation with the rampaging results of her country’s social evils, just in case she runs into someone who might fancy a tune.
The Duke of Burgundy is higher and more incisive trash altogether. I don’t recall laughing much during Berberian Sound Studio,
beyond a bemused hurumph at the sight of Toby Jones going round the
twist surrounded by stern brunettes of a certain type; so Duke Of
Burgundy clarifies first and foremost the existence of Peter
Strickland’s funny bone. In fact the humour is roughly five times more
blatant than expected and ten times more deadpan, including the sight of a
character inaudibly describing something disreputable with gestures that
could at any moment become the bras d’honneur. The press notes find
Strickland making an oblique reference to The Two Ronnies, which probably
clarifies much. A Brakhage-ian moth-based hallucination is signaled by a
glacial zoom into Sise Babett Knudsen’s hosiered groin - wander into any such territory and discover that David Lynch mapped it
before anyone else even thought to take a look - but what the film does
most audaciously is turn into a near-perfect film of observed human
relationships on terra firma. The one between Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna encompasses a
growing radius of quotidian frustrations, waspish comments, revealing
body language and misunderstandings that are without exception wincingly
accurate, even when delivered by a trussed submissive from within a
locked trunk. How sweet an authorial touch that the
notional dom gets stricken with a bad back and develops a preference for
comfy pajamas. Duke of Burgundy deals with a lesbian
relationship based around kink on a planet where that may be the only
game in town, depicting in the process many concrete truths about human beings on other paths entirely.
First of no doubt many opportunities to appear in print alongside the UN Secretary-General.
IYOL 2015 events run all year, worldwide. The SPIE-commissioned book picking out 50 of the most significant applied photonics breakthroughs, written by me among others, is part of the rolling roadshow.
Two other recent science articles:
An endoscope that can take decent images of cancerous tumors exploits the kind of diffuse optics that hasn’t been used much for deep-tissue imaging. And then it shoots a laser at nano-sized balloons of drugs for good measure.
Paint-on liquid bandages are commonplace enough to be sold in pharmacies, but this one maps the oxygen consumption in the skin underneath, spotting the signs of cell death almost as soon as it begins.
Lost somewhere in the archives, me on Dan Brereton’s Nocturnals and Witching Hour:
Dan Brereton’s painted art is a treat for the eyes, but it’s the tone he creates that sticks in the mind. I came late to Nocturnals under the mistaken impression that it was a conventional horror comic, but Brereton had actually crafted something wonderful by gifting his supernatural creations with Jack Kirby’s prodigious presence, HP Lovecraft’s rogues gallery and Sergio Leone’s hats.
From the even more far-off days of Comics International’s review column, me on the collected Black Planet:
Oni Press does the world a favour by reprinting Dan Brereton’s bewitching painted fantasia. Part Mafiosi soap opera, part witty adult fairy tale, part grisly Lovecraft horror. All brilliance.
At Critic’s Notebook: Thoughts on Winter Sleep, an epic of human fallibility; Leviathan, an accusatory finger jabbed in the chest of people who may not be bothered in the slightest; and Stations of the Cross, which looks for hope in the eyes of children and finds that the universe has run out.
For David Cairns’ annual blogathon: A post on this site about Henry Gibson’s trajectory, via Nashville and Wonder Woman to the comedy slammer.
Meanwhile: Ken Russell and Alain Resnais - a double act to conjure with.
Revisiting Altered States on 35mm allows the best possible scrutiny of William Hurt, Blair Brown and Charles Haid in search of some previously missed signs of the effort involved in keeping a straight face; but evidence comes there none. Hill Street Blues has been on my mind lately, and Charles Haid should be in everything; he should have been the William Forsythe of his moment, if not for the unlucky fact that the actual William Forsythe was having his moment at the same time. Altered States doesn’t even pretend to be bothered about making sense, and if any of it had threatened to do so you suspect Russell would have set fire to the pages with a match while the producer was reading them. But as with all of Ken Russell’s output, the destiny in which he wound up making home movies in his own garage is already expressed right there on screen, both inevitable and a travesty of justice.
Je t’aime, je t’aime is a more rigorous oddity, and getting on its wavelength is easier once you swallow that it’s just as much a cinematic parlour trick as a deep analysis of human relationships - a combo that might ensure it’s a weaker meditation on the ineffable than Last Year at Marienbad. But at least it’s still a meditation. The repetitious dissolution and congealing of Claude Rich’s difficult love life gains an added spark on a scratchy 35mm print, which could break at any moment and cast him and us into the void. When the print steadies, Rich is an odd, willowy, translucent figure, zigzagging down a sand dune as if he might be auditioning for Richard Lester. Like all cinematic experiments worth doing, some of the echoes rippling out are unintended: Olga Georges-Picot makes an alluring cipher of a lover, the ghost in this particular machine, three decades before she opted to bring her own time travels to an end.
I used to like fresh air, When it was there. And water. I enjoyed it, ‘Till we destroyed it. Each day the land’s diminished. I think I’m finished.
A little Laugh-In goes a long way; but out of the maelstrom, Henry Gibson endures - an absurdist comedian lamenting social collapse in a chunky necklace, and beating Russell Brand to the punch by a few decades.
Mathematics insists that the man in the picture is in his early thirties, but like all deep thinkers worth the effort, Gibson seems an old soul already - weathered and wary. The road from spoken-word comedy on vinyl to a late-sixties Laugh-In slot on the National Babbling Company had already included three lines to Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, a routine with a raccoon in The Beverly Hillbillies, and appropriating an old piece of motivational doggerel called Keep A-Goin’ on The Dick Van Dyke Show - which all seem consistent enough in age and outlook to make you idly ponder if they might be the same character, a Great Society idealist blown hopelessly off course by too much exposure to Goldie Hawn.
But even The Poet was intimidating, in his way. Henry Gibson’s comedy was the serious kind, nuggets of rock lobbed over a wall with the man himself still around the corner. One look at Robin Williams and you had a fair idea what was in his soul; the more you looked at Henry Gibson, the more he stared straight back.
Robert Altman, astute as ever, exploited this in The Long Goodbye and then enshrined it in Nashville, the film which Gibson acolytes should if possible approach in reverse.
Bone up first on the actor’s late-period elder-statesman cameos for directors with a sense of history. Work through the appearances in Joe Dante’s output - the one in Gremlins 2 doesn’t even need words, just a set of crestfallen expressions from a worker drone chewed up by capitalism, a master class in face-falling. Press Pause during The Blues Brothers to appreciate just how disconcertingly absurd the head Illinois Nazi really is - boy that Great Society stuff really went south. Warm up for the main event with his episode of Wonder Woman, a key text in live-action superheroics thanks to Gibson’s delirious 5'4" megalomaniac in purple jumpsuit and jackboots, a would-be conqueror branching out into sports management. (Gibson holds a flower for a while; the man’s characters connect like a Wold Newton family tree.) The actor affords his material the greatest respect by tearing it to shreds, the William Shatner method taken to its logical end point. In a better world, Gibson would now be voicing Ultron exactly like this.
Only then are you prepared - or rather unprepared - for Haven Hamilton, the king of Nashville and of Nashville. If you recognise the voice, the face that enters the frame in the opening minutes singing earnestly about America’s manifest destiny is even more of a shock. Nashville is all about visual characterisations - the first glimpse of Shelley Duvall remains a sight like few others, slender enough to slot between the grains of silver nitrate - but even by those standards, Haven Hamilton looks formidable; a visionary in a Nudie suit and an unwise hairpiece. The cast famously co-wrote their own songs, giving Gibson the opportunity to revisit Keep A-Goin’ (“A special old favourite”), now repurposed into a blithely conservative anthem of self-reliance. (“Tell the world you’ll be OK/And don’t forget to pray.”)
But Haven Hamilton is not blithe. He is a walking computer, judging the odds minute by minute; a king-maker, keeper of the flame. Look at this guy: steel and chromium.
Big Stan is not made of steel and chromium. Big Stan is a 2007 Rob Schneider comedy. One must walk on eggshells here, partly in case anyone uncovers that my only qualification to comment was awarded by the BFI during a moment of inattention, but also since Rob Schneider is not the Great Satan. His comedies are out of favour because they are rude, crude, and scatological. Well so was Aristophanes. Sex comedies have a hard row to hoe in any era terrified of both sex and comedy; they deal by definition with narrow perspectives on topics where society is hopefully developing the broadest most egalitarian view possible. But for anyone who suspects that mankind sorting itself out in the bedroom would go a long way towards helping sort itself out in the boardroom, the panicky expulsion of all the dirt from popular comedy in favour of Judd Apatow’s wistful missionary-position milquetoasts tells us some uncomfortable truths. Mr Schneider puts the rabble back into Rabelais.
Big Stan plays homosexual panic for laughs, which may be all you care to know. Schneider himself plays a serial embezzler, sent to the big house for accumulated infractions, driven hysterical by the prospect of what might happen to him in the showers. There are any number of reasons why this is a limiting concept - most of its implications were already taken to the cleaners by Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango & Cash - which might be why the film tacks instead into an anti-corporate parable, in which the crooked warden envisages redevelopment of the prison site into a more lucrative mall. Tolerance, peace, love and understanding among the warring ethnic conclaves of prison-population America turns out not to be the solution, except when it is. The liveliest aspect of the film is the casting, which since Schneider directed it is presumably down to him. We’re not here to discuss David Carradine’s late career path, but Big Stan is a high water mark for his own blend of sour mash self-parody: he is The Master, a martial arts sensei dispensing aphorisms and torture from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, leering lasciviously at a slightly embarrassed Jennifer Morrison. (The Master is impotent, if you’re marking your Male Anxiety scorecard.)
Big Stan is Henry Gibson’s last cinema film. By now aged into prime mentor material, he plays Stan’s cellmate and confident, the ex-alcoholic wife-murdering Shorts. If not quite a walk-on, it’s certainly a stroll-on; Gibson in jovial grandpa mode, first seen cross-legged on an upper bunk from a low angle, either Yoda or the Cheshire Cat. His fourth line is a masturbation joke, and thus the die is set. His longest speech is the required backstory of regret and loss - mentors need their burdens - and if by some miracle it had been able to support the weight of Gibson’s sarcastic barbs from a bar stool in Magnolia about vaguely parallel matters, well what a moment that would have been. Instead Shorts mostly lurks in the back of scenes, the traditional position of the esteemed character actor - behind and to the left. He’s a constant and largely irrelevant presence, one face among many; but the eyes are still clear, filled with conscience.
Artists rarely get to choose their last artwork, and Gibson’s final lines were not uttered in Big Stan but back on television, playing a judge on Boston Legal. A map of the actors parachuted in as judges on US legal shows would be glorious - the trunk of this mighty tree is Jeffrey Tambor’s bonkers Al Wachtel in Hill Street Blues - but in Henry Gibson’s case, history seems to be aligning behind him. Boston Legal’s high-flying liberal threnodies delivered from the bench ring all sorts of bells with the meandering fretful anxieties of The Poet delivered from behind a flower; the same wish that things were different, combined with recognition that they are not. Weathered and wary. Being a fine comic means first having a serious character, and Henry Gibson’s endures. Ain’t no law says you must die. Wipe them tears from off your eye. Give old life another try. Keep a-goin’.